Over on the website “The Account,” Rachel Greenwald Smith has an essay on what she calls “compromise aesthetics” of contemporary literature. I’m still thinking about this piece. Please let me know what you think!
1. Compromise aesthetics underlie a range of critical approaches to contemporary fiction and poetry, but their emergence has yet to be adequately historicized.
In her introduction to the Norton anthology American Hybrid (2009), Cole Swensen celebrates the tendency for contemporary works of poetry to make fertile compromises between traditional and experimental forms. She argues that this tendency, a quality she sees as integral to what she calls “hybrid poetry,” is defined by an interest in “placing less emphasis on external differences, those among poets and their relative stances” in such a way that “leaves us all in a better position to fight a much more important battle for the integrity of language in the face of commercial and political misuse” (xxvi). In scripting the “battle” in these terms—poetry, envisioned in utopian terms as a united progressive front, against the “misuse” of commerce—Swensen at once makes a powerful plea for the social advantages of aesthetic compromise and affirms poetry as an essentially politically useful (i.e., leftist) enterprise. This stance typifies a position that I will call “compromise aesthetics,” or the belief that contemporary art is at its most socially relevant when it forges compromises between strategies traditionally associated with the mainstream on the one hand and those associated with experimental departures from the mainstream on the other.
It was not so long ago that the very works that refused to compromise, those that placed clear emphasis on differences among writers’ relative aesthetic and political stances, were seen as the primary means by which any battle against the “commercial and political misuse” of language could be fought. This is how the experimental movements of the twentieth century constituted themselves against the literary norms of their period and sought to expose such norms as implicitly in support of the social, as well as the aesthetic, status quo. [i] Yet the past few decades have seen a dramatic increase in critics and writers whose interest in formally innovative work once may have made them seek out oppositional positions arguing instead that such polarizations are no longer necessary. Observing this trend, Ron Silliman has recently asked, “Why is it that so many young writers are conflict averse in a world in which conflict itself is inherent? What is the attraction to not taking a stand?”
This essay is an effort to answer that question through an assessment of recent critical appraisals of the contemporary literary climate, including the defining statements on hybrid and elliptical poetry; postlanguage lyric; and post-postmodernist fiction. My interest here is not in the accuracy of these appraisals as they pertain to particular literary works. Instead, I focus on the tendency for critics to celebrate what they see as the end of the debates that emerged in the postwar period between those interested in the destabilizing potential of various experimentalisms, and those interested in the expanded access, populism, and social immediacy associated with more accessible or mainstream forms.[ii]
A lot of people have been discussing “the avant-garde” recently, and Greenwald Smith offers some very provocative comments on this topic as well:
Proponents of compromise aesthetics do have one thing right: if we are looking for a coherent avant-garde in contemporary literary culture, we are unlikely to find it. Today’s literary production is largely characterized by the prevalence of hybrid forms that bring together a range of techniques from previously opposed aesthetic schools. But lining up the utopianism of compromise aesthetics with the utopianism of positions like Fukuyama’s shows that the belief in the triumph of compromise aesthetics is just as inattentive to the continued presence of crises and conflict in the domain of literary aesthetics as the belief in a global capitalist utopia is to the political realities of the present.
If we look closely at contemporary literary works, we can see that aesthetic challenges continue to exist in works that at first glance look like they conform to the qualities championed by compromise aesthetics. Many of these works are hybrid in form: they bring together formal strategies from a range of aesthetic inheritances. Yet this hybridity does not resolve into an easy state of compromise.
Prisoners takes as its protagonist Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a man we might describe as a blue collar conservative Christian American who values family and self-reliance and views as intrinsically unreliable the fragile, gigantic, global apparatus we all cling to, dangling precariously as we are over the void. We might also describe him as a prepper. This movie is basically a prepper nightmare.
[Full spoilers ahead, like immediately – abandon all hope from here on out] (continue reading…)
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a response to Gregory Orr’s essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, in which he argues that Wordsworth is fundamentally democratic in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads because he argues for a non-flowery, non-poetic language that Orr sees as “open” to the lower classes.
But as I pointed out, this rejection of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” is anti-kitsch rhetoric. Further, Wordsworth was definitely not lower class, though he both used the ballad form (a fake lower class form) for an elite audience.
But I wanted to point out another element of Orr’s essay and that’s his use of a soldier-poet as an example for how poetry should be “emotion recollected in tranquility” (rather than say poems written in the state of disaster). Orr writes that he had read a manuscript by an un-named contemporary US poet about his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and how the two poems he wrote while in Vietnam stuck out from the manuscript, not only as bad poems but as unreal poems (I can’t quite remember the exact word Orr uses). The poet-soldier needed distance to achieve a tranquility in order to really process the poetry.
Orr also gives a moving account of accidentally killing his own brother and how it took him years to process this violence.
As I’ve written before, violence is everwhere. And poetry is not difference. The artistic experience is often a violent one. But contemporary American poetry critics still seems obsessed with distancing poetry from the violence of art and the violence of the world at large. It’s the dangers/fears of “aestheticizing violence” (which according to Benjamin is what the Nazis did, more about the Nazi-art connection some other time). And yet, violence is constantly brought in as a way of understanding poetry. Orr has to bring the war into his essay in order to remove poetry from it.
The thing that interests me about bringing it in is the way he joins the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of flowery language – of poetic language, of kitsch – to violence. Kitsch is violence. The poetic is inhuman.
In Orr’s article, it’s a way to show the importance of achieving distance. I sometimes think about a post I remember reading on John Gallaher’s blog a long time ago, in which he referenced an essay by Hank Lazer about a panel on poetry in the mid 80s. The crux of the discussion between different poets (some language poets and some not) was the prevalence of feeling:
Not sure if this is a Halloween song exactly, but a great song anyway, and creepy as hell..
And here’s another great version, by Nina Simone…
Tell me your favorite things about the loose community of artists that you’re a part of, if you’re a part of one in some way, shape or form. What is most exciting about the work you see coming out of this community? Do you make work in response to any of it? What do you wish to see coming out of this community that you feel is lacking or underrepresented?
I still thank my lucky stars that Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney invited me to join Montevidayo, a poetry blog and haven for anyone who believes in insurrections instead of communities. It’s quieter now than it used to be, but the blog’s imprint on my mind continues to help me work through the inseparability of form and politics, and to think about both categories as entirely immanent to the writer’s process. What I cherish in Monte and its constellations, in particular, is a shared commitment to the otherworldly potential of art. In my version of this model, the writer gives herself over to the poem, foregoing foresight and mastery in order to allow for a fully experienced deviation. The poem, in other words, becomes a sacred space that spiritualizes alien perspectives at the same time as the writer bodies them forth. The result is an animation of ‘her’ words, a ghostly dynamic of exchange. Maybe what I’m describing is actually the backchannel of the dispossessed… a passage of energy mutating throughout multiple realities… spilt souls coursing in and out of open veins. Deprived of the right to claim property, illegible to all but the most occulted traditions and lineages, this kind of writer may have no choice but to enact a “production of difference” rather than fall back on the luxury of “imitation” (Luiz Costa Lima). Of course, an imagination with so much reach would barely make a blip under Empire. It blooms not in the Empirical but in the rim and realm of the invisible, blacked-out, and metaphysical. It is the mongrel other to 21st-century white lack, appropriation, and self-projection.
“I have an anxious and highly ambivalent relationship with food. This is informed by a thoroughly demoralizing struggle with digestive disease dating back to early childhood, and in my adult life with an evolving awareness of how political power is derived out of the universal need to eat. I don’t think it’s simplifying things too much to say that food is the terrain of struggle, of our bodies and our lives. So it is with some trepidation that I approach a topic that refracts for me in such a charged and diffuse manner, and with such interrelated complications.”
More on cargo cults, food riots, autoimmune disorders, bowel resections, permaculture and the political function of food over at The Inquisitive Eater, where I confess everything I ever thought or felt about everything I ever ate and threw up.
There’s an interesting article by Gregory Orr in the latest issue of Writer’s Chronicle called “Foundational Documents and the Nature of Lyric,” which I think (of course) backs up all the arguments I’ve been deriving from reading Wordsworths’ Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a foundational anti-kitsch manifesto.
Orr begins with a relevant reading of Plato’s Republic as an anti-poetry foundational document of western culture: re-hashing Plato’s urge to banish poets from the ideal republic because or their irrational artform and his idea that if they tried to sneak back in they should be killed. To counter this foundational anti-poetic text, Orr brings in various Asian texts, finding in them an understanding and appreciation for the emotional nature of art and lyric poetry.
But what I’m interested in is his use of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.
I’ve discussed this document several times as an anti-kitsch manifesto (taking a cue from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch). Wordsworth rejects the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of the graveyard poets (derived, importantly, as a kind of translatese from Latin translations) in favor of a model of the poet as “a man speaking to men.” The flowery language is connected to sensationalism of mass media which also “blunts” the reader’s senses. It’s too much. It’s kitsch.
As I’ve argued in the past, kitsch is really at the heart of any art – any art can be turned “gaudy” if you choose to see it that way because art can always be seen as useless and gaudy, as opposed to the real stuff of work and politics.
I realize there’s a bunch of stuff going on in Wordsworth, but this is an important line of discussion issuing from his work to this day and I think Orr’s article really proves this.
For Orr, Wordsworth provides a welcome antidote to Plato’s anti-poetry stance. Most importantly for Orr:
“Wordsworth rescued Western poetry from its capture by the ruling classes. He returned it to ordinary people, understanding that anyone could and maybe should write poems or songs – that lyric poetry isn’t an elite art form, but is a human birthright. A birthright related to its essential function as a survival mode. All of us need poetry and song… Wordsworth rescued lyric from elitism by saying that the language used in poems isn’t a special, flowery language reserved for special people or a special class of people. Instead, he insisted it was “a selection of the real language spoken by men” (and women). Poetry was just us, speaking a little more intensively or rhythmically than we ordinarily speak, but not in some special language only available to social or economic elite. Wordsworth’s return to speech as the model for poetry was a crucial insight, but we in the West are still struggling to take it in and accept its full, democratic implications.”
There’s a lot to be said about Orr’s reading, and to some extent I obviously agree that Wordsworth’s document is revolutionary. But I want to focus on the way Orr sees “flowery language” as inherently elitist and undemocratic.
Flowery language (gaudy and inane phraseology) can afterall be written by anyone, and I would venture that often young poets are taught by their elders to reject flowery, “Romantic” language (I was when I was a teenager). One might say then that plain-spoken diction has become a kind of elitist Taste that we have to learn.
Before my reading at the Poetry Project, I first embodied Ave Maria with the help of my friends Eduardo Mamede and Anderson Honnorato. In São Paulo, they styled me according to Eduardo’s vision while I clutched Anderson’s Our Lady of Apparition, ready for our glamor shot.
I am not sure I could have become her in the US. It’s much easier to be a mystic in Brazil, where the embrace of spiritual impurity means you don’t have to be a believer to feel the dead around you. If even atheists there see ghosts, Evangelicals often have spirits from Afro-Brazilian cults exorcized out of them. As José Jorge de Carvalho writes, such is “the world in which rationalist, psychologizing, materialist, esoteric, Theonist, Calvinist, Lutheran and various African and indigenous positions confront each other.”
Note: Ave Maria is a chicken saint from the cult of death.
In becoming her, I throw myself into this confrontation and side with the forces of the ones who keep dying. (continue reading…)
[Joe Milazzo wrote this post in response to my last post about kitsch.]
Johannes’ recent post re: the New Criticism and its conflation of “period style” with kitsch could not help but make me think of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Specifically, how Robert Pinsky hears these songs singing precisely at the intersection of Romantic / Victorian and Modern discourses. “For Berryman the use (however ironic) of the old poetic diction [Swinburnian] is not archaizing or momentary. He establishes the context for it and then makes it into a readily available poetic language whose aim is largeness of feeling: to make up in copiousness and range what it may lack in distinction of other kinds. His subjects—disillusion, remorse, yearning, a despairing irritation with boundaries— demanded the somewhat sloppy richness of [what Modernism had declared] the forbidden tongue.” In Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman, edited by Henry Thomas (Northeastern University Press, 1988), p. 188.
As convincing as Pinsky’s analysis is, it does, however, accord little attention to another historical discourse that plays a significant role in The Dream Songs. Berryman’s poems constitute an old-fashioned revue, one featuring actors, gags, melodrama and dance, and one explicitly based upon the minstrel show. (Not the later vaudeville-ification of that distinctly American art form. I mean the real thing, where even African-America performers donned blackface. The stuff of Greil Marcus’ old weird America and Nick Tosches’ investigations in the strange case of Emmett Miller. Worth recalling here that Berryman was born in Oklahoma and lived much of his childhood there and in Florida. Is it not beyond possibility that a young Berryman had poked his head inside this particular tent?)
It would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the virulent stereotypes evoked by the presence of African-American dialect in The Dream Songs. But is a difficult subject indeed, and there remains some controversy as to whether the voice that speaks in dialect, not Mr. Bones himself but that persona who addresses Henry as Mr. Bones, is a presentation or a representation of racism. That is, is Berryman’s work necessarily expose racist tropes to public view, much in the manner of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” or does it simply reproduce racism by carelessly importing some of it more kitschy aspects for the sake of “complicating” the conventional decorousness of lyric culture? Can a white person, a person of privilege, ever claim to be presenting rather than representing under such circumstances?
It seems to me that further questions rather than additional propositions are in order here. I do hope that the following catalog, troubled and occasionally contradictory as it is, might inspire additional dialogue re: kitsch, kitsch’s performative cousin camp, allusion (candidly representational) vs. appropriation (often hypothesizing itself as presentation), historical atrocity, and the authenticity of any demotic.
Accepting that minstrelsy as highly aestheticized yet morally repugnant impersonation, what if the voice that speaks to and of Henry as Mr. Bones is the authoritative or “original” if not genuine voice of The Dream Songs? What if, contrary to what we understand of minstrelsy, Henry is ventriloquized subject, the dead / insensate dummy sitting on the minstrel’s knee, and thus the more poetic and “sophisticated” voice in the poems is the more constructed, the more perverted, the more American in its denial of its origins?
To evoke the tradition of the minstrel show is to situate Henry’s suffering in the context of absurdity, is it not? Therefore, might Berryman’s minstrel show be more Punch and Judy than Amos and Andy. That is, in the tradition of a mass entertainment meant to outrage rather than charm, that is itself a satire of kitsch sentimentality (e.g., Al Jolson), revealing in its low comedic détournements the structural violence underlying every one of our most banal relations? Is Berryman so pre-kitsch he’s post-kitsch?
Extrapolating from Pinsky’s observations, and noting how American The Dream Songs are in their borrowings from 19th Century idioms, might they be considered an ironic riposte to the song most associated with “authentic” American verse, Whitman’s subsuming Song of Myself? Is it cynical to observe that, as much or even more than Whitman, minstrelsy is the root and spring of virtually all American popular song? What if The Dream Songs argue that Whitmanesque democracy, much like Jeffersonian agrarianism and Emersonian Transcendentalism, is kitsch par excellence? (That this argument emerges from a reliance upon a historical rather than a contemporary discourse appeals as critical.)
From Dream Song 22, “Of 1826”
It is the Fourth of July.
Collect: while the dying man,
forgone by you creator, who forgives,
is gasping “Thomas Jefferson still lives”
in vain, in vain, in vain.
I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly.
What if, far from being Berryman’s attempt to code himself as an outsider (as argued by Katherine Davis, among others), as among the oppressed, to frame his poetic persona as a “universal negro” (à la Mailer’s “White Negro,” but not Beat), the minstrel voice is the kitsch element that causes the Songs polyvocality to self-destruct? I.e., that the enactment of this dialect—presupposed to be “authentic” when it is in fact already mediated, both a fiction and a transcription—and, further, execution of this dialect, this camping up of the “human American man” (Dream Song 13) in all his middle-aged existential woe, his imagining of himself “as bad off as the Negro,” is the poems’ own ultimate indictment of their lyrical impulse? The poems unmasking themselves, almost flaunting their self-interpellations?
From Dream Song 50
—Mr Bones, your troubles give me vertigo,
& backache. Somehow, when I make your scene,
I cave to feel as if
de roses of dawns & pearls of dusks, made up
by some ol’ writer-man, got right forgot
& the greennesses of ours.
Springwater grow so thick it gonna clot
and the pleasing ladies cease. I figure, yup,
you is bad powers.
As aesthetics, kitsch and camp inevitably raise issues of appropriation, power and their relationship to taste: what is tasteful, what is tasteless, how each can be mapped onto axes of high and low culture, and who defines the standards operative in each case. But taste never really debates essences, only visibility. Taste begrudges the existence of certain “atrocities,” just so long as it does not have to be exposed to them. Undoubtedly, for Berryman to discuss his father’s suicide in a very public (if aestheticized) way in The Dream Songs is one of the ways in which the poems push at the boundaries of taste. To have survived his father’s suicide… I sometimes I want to believe that he-who-speaks-of-Mr. Bones—Henry’s friend and interlocutor, as Berryman describes that figure—is his dead father. In any event, the non-dialect language of The Dream Songs does labor at exposing the powerlessness exercised by certain traumatic experiences. Because there is no language for them, only a free-floating desire for form / shape, such experience becomes incredibly opportunistic. It latches on to whatever vocabulary and syntax is plentiful and convenient for its expression. Berryman’s Dream Songs are so multitudinous in their desperation both to offend our sensibilities and to win our sympathies. Simultaneously, even, so that the two become confused. But is this leveling of repugnance and “delight” a productive confusion?
There’s no question of whether, whatever they are doing with the legacy of minstrelsy, The Dream Songs somehow redeem the racism of American culture. The poems do not and cannot, and to claim as much is to promulgate the worst kind of kitsch, i.e., unselfconscious kitsch. Isn’t that racism, that historical violence so often denied via the sentimental pastoralism of the minstrel show, isn’t that a substance so toxic that it can never be handled or instrumentalized in any way? (A professor I once had summarized the totality of American history like so: “Everything slavery touched it turned to shit.”) If racist representations must thus be quarantined, however, how are we ever to confront them?
From Dream Song 199
I dangle on the rungs, an open target.
The world grows more disgusting dawn by dawn.
There is a ‘white backlash.’
When everything else fails on the auto, park it
& move away slowly. Obsolescent, on
the rungs, out of the car, ‘ashes’.
Wait. Benjamin tells us that the kitsch object is defined in part by its utility. If Berryman sacrifices poetry as it was acceptably defined at the time of The Dream Songs’ first publication, has he, even unintentionally, transformed this racism into meta-kitsch? Returned that racism to the realm of the non-gratifying, the worthy-of-intellectualization, yet without decontaminating it or disguising how grotesque and “ornery” (Dream Song 13, again) it is. I hesitate to say yes, but I hesitate to say absolutely not, either. What are we to do with the representational potential of The Dream Songs, untouchable as it often seems? And what are we to make of the fact that Berryman spends much of his time in the later, “mature”* and arguably less arresting Songs muting their American accents?
* Berryman could flirt with camp in his live performances [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBbUjDoV16o] but he’s most often playing “the drunk,” it seems, and in an attempt to disarm his audience. This joke hasn’t a punchline so much as it does a tendency (i.e., a tendentiousness), one I’ll paraphrase in the words of Dream Song 76, ‘Henry’s Confession,’ “life is a handkerchief sandwich.”
– Joe Milazzo
Joe Milazzo is the author of Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Productions) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books). He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing] [http://www.outofnothing.org/], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy [http://entropymag.org/], and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo/.
I’ve been working on my critical book Atrocity Kitsch so I haven’t had a chance to blog very much recently, but I thought I would add some ideas about kitsch and poetry that won’t be in the book.
In Silver Planet, Daniel Tiffany writes about that incredibly work of atrocity kitsch, Ezra Pound’s Cantos:
“The integrity of the poem’s experiment could be salvaged only by isolating (and purifying) its formalist agenda, which meant that the appeal and function of kitsch in the Cantos could not even begin to be acknowledged, debated, or tested. The emergence of so called late modernism – a mandarin, hyper-formalist variant of the original movement – suppressed any discussion of the possibility that the diction of the Cantos alternated, in fact, between the “silver”y substance of kitsch and the “hard” phrasing of modernism.” (169)
I take by “late modernism” Tiffany means basically the New Critics and associated poets. These “poet-critics” were invested in “rigor” and “objective correlative” and the scientific-ish approach to reading poetry. They wanted to remove all the ludicrous and ridiculous excess of the 1920s avant-garde as well as the soft Victorianisms of the 19th century.
And yet when we read their poems, they feel more 19th than 20th century, full of the “corpse language” of Victorian poetry that Pound had sought to rid modern poetry of. Take a poem like John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” (the very title feels a bit outdated):
The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,
For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!
The New Critics thought they were rigorous but they were in fact trafficking in kitsch. But then any art can turn to kitsch, decay into kitsch.
In the most recent issue of Writers’ Chronicle, Gregory Orr writes that Wordsworth saved English poetry from elitism by rejecting “flowery language” in favor of a democratic “men speaking to men.” One of my favorite parts of Tiffany’s book is when he reads Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads as anti-kitsch rhetoric – rejecting the ornate, aestheticized language of the graveyard poets for being too flowery, for being kitsch.
Orr still harbors the same idea as Wordsworth: that flowery language depends on money and class. When in fact these days to write ornately and flowery shows a lack of taste! Ie a lack of education. An immoderate love of language. Ransom and his southern gentlemen poet-scholar-friends imagined that their class gave them taste; but their taste decayed into kitsch in record time.
When Tony Hoagland (or anybody else really) tries to identify a “period style” for he contemporary (such as his “skittery poem of the moment”) it’s an attempt to wield anti-kitsch rhetoric; by turning the poetry one doesn’t like into a “period style,” one renders it kitsch. If it’s a period style, it will also be outdated, will become as kitsch as the new critics’ poetry – because it’s not the individual’s heroic accomplishment. It’s imitation rather than art; it’s just part of the period; it doesn’t deserve an individual’s entry in the Canon books. At its worst this means that popularity leads to kitsch (whether that popularity comes from people being smitten with your poetry or from the poetic style being enfored in MFA programs as was the case with quietism).
Marjorie Perloff and the language poets really used this formula well in attacking quietist lyrics as kitsch. And she’s really still attacking that poetry with conceptualism. Conceptualism draws some of its strength from the fact that our industrial-capitalist culture had turned ALL poetry into kitsch. So by proclaiming themselves “uncreative” or not poetry, they are benefitting from this state of affairs.
But what makes kitsch interesting is that decay is not the end of poetry; poetry is often most beautiful or interesting in a state of decay, a state of contamination. So that in Conceptualism you are now getting very impure projects, very poetic conceptualisms, like Kate Durbin’s poems about the luxury of celebrities (a very different elite class than the New Critics imagined, a very much crasser wealth than their southern gentility (and less racist?)) and Joseph Mosconi’s Fright Catalog which traffics in flowers and decorations:
Lets end with some Coleridge:
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.