Reginald Shepherd - One State of the Art
And since I’m finding things this morning, I found this version of an essay, as published in Pleiades, that was reworked and expanded for his Poets on Poetry collection, Orpheus in the Bronx.
One State of the Art
by Reginald Shepherd
Pleiades Vol. 27 No. 1, 2007
What I value most in poetry is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words which are the poem's body and its soul. I find this passionate intensity in the verbal argosies of Hart Crane's "Voyages," in the sly obliquity and exuberant surprise of Dickinson's "I would not paint a picture," or in the chilly intimacies of Stevens's "The Snow Man." It was the passion that I found there, including very prominently the passion in, for, and even of language, which first drew me to poetry, which made poetry essential to me, and which made me want to become a poet myself.
Dominated by the twin poles of earnestly mundane anecdote and blank-eyed, knee-jerk irony, much contemporary American poetry is embarrassed by passion, by large gestures, and by major aspirations, as if they were immodest at best, dishonest at worst. As Jorie Graham has said in an interview with critic Thomas Gardner, "we have been handed down by much of the generation after the modernists – by their strictly secular sense of reality (domestic, confessional), as well as by their unquestioned relationship to the act of representation – an almost untenably narrow notion of what [poetry] is capable of." This inheritance still dominates the poetic mainstream, despite the many and diverse openings of the field since then. American poetry still tends to dismiss or ignore those possibilities which cannot be neatly packaged and contained. Among poets who reject the mainstream mode that Graham describes, including those who see themselves as experimental or even "oppositional," too many retreat into easy, evasive sarcasm and tidy, self-congratulatory ironies. (Joshua Corey calls this "phrases meeting cute").
When I began writing poetry in the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties, I felt very alone in my aims and ambitions; much of the Modernist poetry which inspired me to become a poet was either dismissed or actively rejected by the prevailing aesthetic of transparency and unrectified feeling, what Charles Altieri has called the scenic mode. In the early and mid nineteen eighties, I was inspired and encouraged by the work of such poets as Kathleen Fraser, Jorie Graham, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, and Donald Revell (as well as by the work of my undergraduate teachers Ben Belitt and Alvin Feinman, two of the only true inheritors of Hart Crane), poets who took up some of the lapsed projects of Modernism, who were unafraid to confront the larger questions of word and world and their intricate interrelationships with which Modernism grappled. Even in their critiques of Modernism, these poets still recognize the possibilities Modernism offered the contemporary poet. Such possibilities are often foreclosed or simply ignored by both the poetic mainstream and the self-appointed experimental opposition, which in their different ways both tend to shrug off the heritage of the lyric, its passions, its hungers, and its glories.
Michael Palmer has said in an interview that though he is sympathetic to and even inspired by much of the work of Language poetry, he himself could never be a Language poet because of his commitment to the lyric. A commitment to the lyric means, for one thing, that the self (and its much-mystified, much-maligned literary hypostasis, poetic voice), however problematized and decentered, is not discarded; it also means that beauty is not cast aside as obsolete or dishonest. Such a commitment rejects a purely negative or critical role for poetry, for art in general (what Joshua Corey has described as the corrosive postmodern "No," these days too often reduced to an even more corrosive postmodern "Whatever"), in favor of one that, while incorporating critique and interrogation, emphasizes poetry's creative potential, the capacity not only to critique the actually existing world, but to propose alternative possibilities, the other-than of utopia. Too often it is forgotten that the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno's relentless negativity, his refusal of things as they are, was in the service of a great hope, the possibility, however often deferred, of a just society, a world to which one could freely assent.
Now that Language poetry, a term which has become so broad as to be almost meaningless except as an all-purpose pejorative or honorific (depending on one's position), has become institutionalized, turning into an academicism of its own (many of its original practitioners and propagandists now teach at various universities, after years of having condemned the academy as irredeemably reactionary and oppressive at worst, compromised at best), the opposition of experimental poetry and mainstream poetry has become more ritualized than ever. Both worlds, of the mainstream and the avant-garde, are remarkably insular, willfully ignoring anything outside of their closed-in worlds, or acknowledging it only to disdain it, as in experimental poets' pat dismissals of the imaginary and imaginarily monolithic "School of Quietude," which they define more in terms of social and institutional affiliations (and proclaimed or assumed authorial intent) than by attention to the actual work. (Indeed, sometimes work from the two "camps" is distinguishable only by the author's name and publisher: the reception of the text is completely subsumed by context.) As Oren Izenberg has written, "the poet's felt need to find a tradition has hardened into the demand to pick a side; and style is taken as a sort of a declaration of allegiance.... As a general rule, critical and poetic partisans, bent on consolidating, celebrating, claiming or extending one tradition, take note of the other (if they take note of it) just long enough to deride – and such derision is a reflexive reaction rather than an analytic one."
I am particularly disturbed by the self-righteous complacency of what Ron Slate calls the avant-gardeners, so smugly convinced that the grass on their side of the fence is not only greener but more virtuous. Their willful blindness to work by anyone who isn't a member of their club is especially problematic in light of their project's justification by its spirit of exploration and openness to the unknown. When it comes to the work of anyone they label a member of the "School of Quietude," all is already known, and there is never any doubt as to who is a member of this so-called school. If you're not one of us, you're one of them, and it is you who (by definition) are guilty of complacency and self-satisfaction. Such unnuanced either/or thinking is the opposite of openness and exploration, though it could be termed "oppositional" in a pejorative sense.
What gets lost in all this territorialization and fence-building is poetry, and more specifically, actual poems, as readerly experiences and aesthetic artifacts. It's hard to see how one can care about poems when one has always already read any poem (or rather, any poet) one comes across, which too many on both sides of the divide seem to have done. As Ann Lauterbach acutely observes:
The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to 'fit' her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. 'New York School' or 'Language Poetry' are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities.
The possibility that different poets and different kinds of poetry may be doing different but equally worthwhile sorts of things (one that is taken for granted in the world of contemporary visual art) is also rarely considered, or is dismissed as mere liberal pluralism and cooptation.
The opposition of mainstream and avant-garde poetry has become almost as ritualized as the opposition of poetry and criticism, in which poets demonize criticism as the death of literature and the imagination and critics condescend to poets at best and utterly ignore them at worst. This is part of what the brilliant poet and critic Susan Stewart has called the "general climate of anti-intellectualism and refusal of speculation by many American poets" (and that very much includes many experimentalist poets, who too often neglect the intellectual underpinnings of their practice). In this context, the prose of poet-critics such as Stewart and Allen Grossman has also been important in proposing the largest possibilities for poetry in its specificity as poetry.
Many more recent poets, following and extending the paths pointed out by the poets mentioned above, along with others whose work I encountered later, such as Michael Anania, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Alice Fulton, Allen Grossman, Susan Mitchell, Bin Ramke, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Susan Stewart, and Cole Swensen, have unembarrassedly embraced the rhetorical and verbal splendors shunned by both camps. (The mainstream rejects such resources because they are not "genuine" or "authentic"; experimental poets reject them because of their ideological baggage as part of an oppressive bourgeois culture, what I have heard referred to in all seriousness as the "hegemonic capitalist institution of literature.") In her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990, Jorie Graham has commented on "a renewed fascination with very high diction, surfaces that call attention to themselves" in recent poetry, while Marjorie Perloff has similarly noted an "enormous care for the materiality of words," as well as "a new interest in Beauty, the aesthetic, the pleasure of the text." While availing themselves of all the resources of the lyric tradition, such poets remain alert to the seductions of such splendors: they neither stop their ears to the sirens nor are lured onto the rocks by them. They sing, and see, and say, and refuse the temptation or the demand that they choose one or the other.
American poetry has been dominated by the opposition of sincerity and artifice, what might be called, to borrow a phrase from the French structuralist anthropologist Claude Leéi-Strauss, the raw and the cooked. Susan Stewart has called this binary a conflict between subjective and objective forms of poetic practice. In a perfect example of what T.S. Eliot lamented as the modern dissociation of sensibility, and forgetting the much-maligned New Critic Cleanth Brooks' assertion that the union of the intellectual with the emotional is a symptom of imaginative power, emotional engagement is pitted against intellectual distance, the consolations of pathos are pitted against the fetishization of technique, reified subject matter is pitted against equally reified formal exploration. What Barthes called the pleasure of the text is too often rejected by so-called experimental poets as a mystification, while mainstream poets frequently neglect it in the interest of allowing (or requiring) the reader to look through their words to their intentions. In both cases, pleasure and truth are pitted against one another in assumed antagonism; Charles Altieri has called this opposition the struggle between lyricism and lucidity.
Much of the work of the self-identified avant-garde feels like aimless doodling – there is little sense of urgency or necessity. Nothing is at stake, except the demonstration of how clever and "oppositional" the poet is, or how familiar he or she is with watered down versions of not quite au courant theory. (As Susan Stewart notes, "art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to be mere allegory [or illustration]; and... theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to [be] apologetics.") Rote gestures of rebellion are rehearsed, fueled more by a smugly self-righteous sense of superiority than by a will to change either the self or the world. The reader gets a mild frisson of harmless subversion and the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is a member of an exclusive club, disdaining the unenlightened hoi-polloi who are still taken in by things. But who or what, anymore, is being rebelled against or subverted? The work's minor dislocations and fragmentations have come to be expected and even demanded by its core audience. What is the effect of striking such pseudo-political postures in a vacuum of the like-minded? Given the inflated claims it makes for itself, as opposed to the affected (and disingenuous) modesty of the mainstream, the avant-garde's failures and blindnesses are particularly glaring.
On the other hand, much mainstream American poetry (and there is indeed a mainstream, broad, sluggish, and muddy) seems never to have heard of Modernism (or even, in too many cases, of Keats), retailing equally aimless examples of therapeutic self-exploration or convenient epiphanies: what has been called the "I look out the window and I am important (or sensitive)" school, which Jorie Graham has referred to as the "something hurt me a little" mode. Whatever their claims to rawness or immediacy, the emotions, like the language in which they are conveyed, are pre-cooked, processed, and individually packaged, and inevitably mild. The postures and gestures of both camps have become equally habitual and mechanical, as Eavan Boland points out when she writes that in contemporary America "the lyric has become associated with muted ambitions and a predictable symmetry." Susan Stewart's description of the prevailing situation at the beginning of the 1990s is still all too accurate with regard to much contemporary American poetry:
To write poetry at the present time is to be vividly caught between the surpluses of Romantic subjectivism and the depletions of modernist form. The rewards of a weak Romanticism in lyric – sentiment and empathy – seem both paltry and anachronistic, if not downright immoral, given their complicity with the reified and stylish forms of subjectivity that flourish in contemporary culture.... Yet those poets who continue a formulaic set of modernist conventions necessarily suffer from an equally disabling anachronism. First, there is the irony of traditionalizing the modernist project, a project which had sought a radical break with the continuity of lyric tradition. Second, approaching the modernist legacy as primarily a matter of merely formal experiments promotes an aesthetic of novelty and gimmickry – among those aspects of bourgeois commercial culture modernism took as its target in the first place.
Many highly polished poems from both ends of the contemporary spectrum (which is as much ideological as aesthetic) can be a bit empty, exercises in skill or virtuosity for its own sake: the reader feels that there is nothing at stake. (As Joshua Corey notes, vigor of form is essential to good poetry, but in some "experimental" work there is nothing but vigor of form – which is not the same as formal rigor.) Conversely, many emotionally raw poems can be too formally ragged, the art overwhelmed by its occasion. Reversing Pound's dictum that technique is the test of a poet's sincerity, many contemporary American poets seem to believe that technique is instead a sign of insincerity, that something too apparently shapely cannot be deeply felt, or that the urgencies of feeling are necessarily at odds with the imperatives of form. Even self-proclaimed avant-garde poets will often let down their formal and experimental guard when they write a poem or a section of a poem that is overtly, even insistently, About Something Important.
The best American poets (among whom in the last century I would number both Eliot and Williams, Bogan and Oppen, Berryman and Duncan) explore the myriad potentials of the word as such while still holding fast to the protean demon of content, grappling fiercely with its ballasts and its resistances; they engage in what Pound calls "sensuous thought." For them, artifice refines and intensifies passion, and passion checks and channels artifice – their poems are deeply felt and deeply formed. Their poetry matters and has matter.
The most exciting and valuable contemporary American poets (some of whom I have named above) fulfill the terms of what Allen Grossman has called the four tasks that the significant poet must be expected to perform: to point out what is significant in the world of common experience; to defeat given expectations with respect to how things are assembled (and poems themselves are very much in the category of "things"); to make clear how difficult it is to make meaning; and to make clear how interesting the world is. They are restless and searching, unafraid to be radical and ambitious in their engagements with both word and world. They don't accept easy answers (including the easy answers of negation), but they refuse to dismiss the possibility of answers. Their work is not simply (or complexly) reactive and critical; instead, while understanding that creation often implies and entails critique, they chart new territories of lyrical exploration, producing new possibilities for poetry and for our lives.
Unlike so many members of the so-called avant garde, they do not disdain communication; unlike most practitioners of the mainstream aesthetic of transparency, they realize that communication is as difficult and complex as it is urgent and necessary: they understand intellectually and viscerally the need to break through the crusts of habit and routine, of the already said that says nothing over and over. They are poets for whom the self is neither cynosure nor mystification, but rather an open question, something to be constructed (or construed). For them, experience is not prior to the poem but something we undergo with and within the poem: the poem itself is an experience.
While our best poets enact and embody emotions and ideas in their work, they also question and even erase the dichotomy between the emotional and the intellectual. Such poets have passion – their poems are not cold, though in some the fires may be banked, thus burning more intensely – yet their hearts are not on their sleeves but in their words. These poets alienate language from its alienation in everyday use (to use Adorno's phrase), bringing the word back to itself, bringing us as readers back to ourselves. They do not disdain or dismiss beauty, though they know that all true beauty has some proportion of strangeness and that, as H.D. wrote, beauty must have strength, and they will not settle for the easy and easily repeated beauties of the already-known. Finally but not last, recalling lyric's origins in the lyre, none of them forgets to bring the music.