Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What C.K. Williams thinks about you

From the December issue of The Writer’s Chronicle
Christian Teresi interviewing C.K. Williams

This struck me as an interesting exchange, for what it’s assuming about what’s going on in the arts these days.

Teresi: The poet Dana Levin, in the March/April 2006 issue of the American Poetry Review, contended that “many of the books published by younger since the late ’90s [offer] much to delight the eye and tease the palate,” but ultimately, “such books promise sensational tastes that in the end amount to light confections.” Levin goes on to say what she can and often does “admire about such poems—lingual beauty—doesn’t linger long after turning the page.” She blames the problem on a number of things, chief among them being the desire of “poets of her generation” to get away from confessionalism and the “cultural preoccupation” with modernism and the avant-garde. Levin then discusses how young poets have lost a sense of what Pound really meant when he said, “Make it new,” because, among other reasons, “the label ‘experimental’ can also offer young poets a forgiving brand for weaker work.” I was wondering what you thought of Levin’s assertion? How do you perceive the current efforts of younger poets?

[Before Williams answers, I’d like to add a couple things. In quoting Levin, Teresi is both making a very large claim about all young writers (which is an unwieldy concept) while at the same time distancing himself from it. It’s an interesting idea, but as I chase it, it falls apart. Who are these young poets? Who are they really? Name them. Are you one of them? Am I? If I try to name them, I find myself disagreeing with the specific assertion. Or, on the other hand, I find myself agreeing with it in the way that I would agree with it applied to any other generation as well. It could just as well be a blanket description of the vast majority of what’s ever been published. But, that said, here’s where Williams takes it.]

Williams: There are certainly a number of younger poets I admire, poets trying to find new directions for themselves, new sounds, new ways of assembling experience, often in wonderfully jagged ways. If I have noticed a tendency in some of the work by younger poets I don’t find as satisfying, it’s that often they seem to rely on a kind of existential irony, a mistrust of the possibility of creating meaning in the world, and a consequent resort to a wry juxtaposition of apparently irreconcilable elements of experience. It ends up embodying a world that seems to have a variant of surrealism as its epistemological first principle. Part of this surely has to do with the fact that so much of our world seems to be at risk these days, from our environment to our economic stability, and that kind of forced insouciance very well may be an appropriate response, but I do have trouble taking to heart the poems that come out of it. But who can really say? I’ve become very conscious lately of the fact that what I think and value is almost irrevocably determined by my own historical experience. You can’t stay open to everything, any single mind can only contain so much, and it may well be that I’m just not competent to judge objectively what people thirty or forty years younger than I am are doing.

***

What an interesting exchange. First, I’m interested in how correct might be the assumptions regarding the period style of “younger poets.” What is the percentage of poetry being produced that might be described in this way? This, for me at least, is a real question. I certainly know who they’re talking about, I think. They’re thinking about anyone associated with Wave books, right? Anyone who gets called elliptical or post-Avant? I guess? And if so, I think they’re shooting a little wildly. But even if they’re not, even if it’s just a matter of generation and taste as Williams says, I doubt that this is anywhere near 50% of the poetry published every years. I mean, there are plenty of poets who don’t write like that, and their names come just as readily.

So are they talking about you? Are they talking about me? And if so, what do you think about this assessment of your/my/our historical stance:

“. . . they seem to rely on a kind of existential irony, a mistrust of the possibility of creating meaning in the world, and a consequent resort to a wry juxtaposition of apparently irreconcilable elements of experience. It ends up embodying a world that seems to have a variant of surrealism as its epistemological first principle. Part of this surely has to do with the fact that so much of our world seems to be at risk these days, from our environment to our economic stability, and that kind of forced insouciance very well may be an appropriate response, but I do have trouble taking to heart the poems that come out of it.”

The part I have the most difficulty with is this idea of the “forced insouciance” these poets are said to rely upon. That’s not a word combination I would have thought of. Is it an accurate assessment of a tendency in American poetry? I’m sure it could be leveled at a few poets . . . but then similar things could be said about poets writing in the style of C.K. Williams, right? That elegiac lifting of the self into a kind of forced insouciance . . . ?

I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s such an interesting finger being pointed at a whole slew of poets. I feel like painting a flower on it.

10 Comments:

At 11/18/2008 10:56 AM, Blogger Leslie said...

I love his line, "embodying a world that seems to have a variant of surrealism as its epistemological first principle."

I see that a lot in contemporary poetry (but by no means ALL of contemporary poetry). But I am even more interested in his theory that this surrealism is a response to a world at risk—I don't exactly understand but I sort-of trust that this is right, that anxiety is transmissible and that surrealism is the vehicle of cultural transmission of a kind of unsteady fragility and risk.

 
At 11/18/2008 11:04 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or, as I might counter-term it, the world at risk, rendered realistically, tends to look like a variant of surrealism!

 
At 11/19/2008 5:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

whataya care what Williams or Wright or their gen says?

i don't get what you're gettin' so het up about all the time in response to this kind of thing——

you're suspiciously touchy and self-defensive——

if you're that paranoid now,

wait till the "O Gen" poets start looking at you——

that could be even more un-dude . . .

 
At 11/19/2008 5:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Anon,

Hah! Well, perhaps I'm too defensive. But I have good intentions, I promise.

I care a lot about how generations get described, and about how poets in general get described, because the repeated narrative becomes the story. And I wonder at why some of these narratives keep getting repeated.

Ah, the O Gen. I expect to be old and dismissive by then.

!

 
At 11/19/2008 1:36 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

“the label ‘experimental’ can also offer young poets a forgiving brand for weaker work.”

This is true, but it's true of virtually any subgenre label in poetry. Langpo, formal, elliptical, narrative, flarf, ultratalk, surrealist, confessional, political, vispo. They've all been used to excuse poor work (and conversely have been used as negatives to damn too much).

 
At 11/19/2008 2:22 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or just used damn too much...

heh

Back when, they would have said the same about Deep Image or Confessionalism, or simply "giving voice to the voiceless." That last one especially.

Word Verification: Mantries

 
At 11/19/2008 9:01 PM, Blogger C. Dale said...

Check my blog. I am waiting.

word verification: dominus

 
At 11/25/2008 7:12 AM, Anonymous Alex Grant said...

Well, you know what they say - "The only thing that never changes is the avant-garde.."

And I certainly agree that experimentalism is often the ha'porth of tar used to cover the proverbial multitude of poetic sins - with lack of any real talent usually being chief among them...

Interesting blog, btw, John..

 
At 11/25/2008 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a mistake to say Teresi is "making a very large claim about all young writers" when he seems careful to point out the comments are Levin's. From the way the quotes are presented Teresi probably found them interesting as a point of discussion more than anything else. We actually have no idea what he believes, and it’s a mistake to assume an interviewer is beholden to their questions as personal beliefs. A lot of interviews wouldn't be very interesting if that was the case.

The commentary made here about the question specifically is by and large some of the same tired comments people wrote in the negative letters to the editors of the APR about Levin's original essay, and show a lack of understanding not only about that essay but also Levin's work. Granted, that is partially Teresi's fault for trying to paraphrase a complex issue; and one can see that in the cut and paste nature of the question.

To question and wonder specifically about the young poets Levin might be referring to is pretty silly. That was hardly the point of the part of the essay Teresi is referring to, though some mistook it as such. Such questions are nothing more than pointless opinion, which is why Levin probably largely avoided it.

Regardless though, Levin does say "poets of her generation", so it seems to me it's pretty clear whom she is referring to. John, are you a poet of Levin's generation? Not that she’s referring to all of them obviously, but rather those who's "books promise sensational tastes that in the end amount to light confections". And this is only from the heavily quoted question. I know the essay explains Levin's position with a lot more depth, but that doesn’t seem like Teresi's point either. It's difficult and speculative and silly to try and understand his motives past that he thought this question would be an interesting point of discussion. I suspect there are some poets of Levin's generation who've commented earlier, and who are a little defensive about being accused of making "light confections."

 
At 11/25/2008 4:55 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Anon,

All points granted. The Levin quote has nothing to do really (in my mind) with the Levin interview, except that Teresi is quoting it, which gives Williams the opportunity to say this:

"If I have noticed a tendency in some of the work by younger poets I don’t find as satisfying, it’s that often they seem to rely on a kind of existential irony, a mistrust of the possibility of creating meaning in the world, and a consequent resort to a wry juxtaposition of apparently irreconcilable elements of experience. It ends up embodying a world that seems to have a variant of surrealism as its epistemological first principle. Part of this surely has to do with the fact that so much of our world seems to be at risk these days, from our environment to our economic stability, and that kind of forced insouciance very well may be an appropriate response, but I do have trouble taking to heart the poems that come out of it."

This fascinates me. It's a world view he's looking at in the work of some young poets in their 20s/30s/and 40s (I suppose?) . . . which seems beyond the elements of style. I'm still wondering about it.

 

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