Karla Kelsey on The New [Daily] Thing
This was the email Karla Kelsey sent from The Constant Critic a week or so ago, that I’ve just now found time to read:
“This week I essay into the poetry of the everyday, taking Brian Henry's Wings Without Birds along for the ride. I've come to think that the everyday has become the poetry realm du jour and that not all speakers have been equally invited to this party.”
I was immediately intrigued.
She starts off by contrasting Henry’s new book from his previous two. She writes:
In contrast, the speaker of Wings Without Birds does not feel fictive in the least and readers will likely think themselves ridiculously indoctrinated into New Critical workshop etiquette if they call the entity voicing the poems “the speaker” rather than “the poet himself” speaking as the poet himself. The book, dedicated to Henry’s family, moodily circles around domesticity and domicile, directly addressing family members as in: “Daughter who tells me the hills are a moon” (“In the Neighborhood of Horses”). In these poems Henry names, by proper name, his wife “Tara, sleep-nursing” (“Wings Without Birds”) and dispenses with pretense, bringing to the surface the fact that the writer of these poems is writing poems. Henry directly addresses the reader at times, and also directly addresses other poets such as Tomaž Šalamun, a poet who Henry, Šalamun’s translator, obviously knows. We may, of course, remember that all written I’s are precisely that, written, and therefore naturally papery-versions of ourselves with all the fictive qualities this entails. But this book overtly challenges the eye-diverting decorum we develop when we talk “speaker” instead of “poet,” inviting us to read this poetry as work that puts the stuff of nonfiction at stake.
She then goes on to talk about his three books, which leads her to some larger observations of what she sees going on in contemporary American poetry. She writes:
Our culture’s continued and ever-entrenched fascination with everyday life hardly asks for remark, for status updates and tweets create an everyday that constantly comments upon itself. As such, writing has become integral to the digestive practice of everyday life. As pre-factory farming cows once stood in their fields grazing on grass to digest, re-digest, and digest yet again only to shit out fertilizer for more grazing, more digesting, many of us suffer the everyday kindly only insofar as it provides fodder for texting, tweeting, facebooking. Which in turn informs our cooking, eating, walking, talking, reading writing (etcetera) habits, fingers twitching for keyboard and keys. Given this obsession with articulating the everyday, it is no surprise that the best-selling genre is non-fiction, and documentary modes of entertainment have superseded the overtly fictional.
As such, it should not be a surprise that much of what is attended to in contemporary poetry responds to this interest in the everyday. The everyday and its attendant mixture of detritus and significance hovers behind the following much-remarked upon modes of contemporary poetry. First, we have the following project-oriented manifestations:
•Conceptual Writing (from such forefathers as Duchamp and Warhol we arrive at, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Weather, Fidget, Day, etc))
•Flarf (we would be hard pressed to find a source more daily than the internet)
•Documentary poetics (many of which push at our assumptions of whose everyday we intend when we employ the term: see projects such as C.D. Wright’s One Big Self and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary)
In addition, we find trends accentuating the everyday in a manner that corresponds more immediately to the lyric tradition such as:
•The poetry of motherhood (see the anthologies Not For Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing, edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff and The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman along with recent books by such writers as Rachel Zucker, Julie Carr, Eleni Sikelianos, and Laynie Browne.)
•Poetry written from the lineage of the Objectivists, of Williams and of Creeley, as opposed to the lineage of Stevens.
In recent essays published in the Boston Review Stephen Burt promotes both of these last two trends, employing in “Smothered to Smithereens” the work of Rachel Zucker to exemplify the poetry of motherhood. In “The New Thing” Burt promotes the work of contemporary writers such as Rae Armantrout, Graham Foust, Devin Johnston, and Jon Woodward to exemplify a trend in contemporary poetry that pursues compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams’s “demand,” as the critic Douglas Mao put it, “both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself.” They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.
Such writing attends to the things of the everyday, accentuating fidelity to the texture of life as it is lived, as opposed to the imagined life. The supreme importance of fidelity to life “actually” lived, rather than imagined, is exemplified by Armantrout’s statement that she uses material from her dreams, but would not feel comfortable making up dreams. As such, poets of the New Thing zero in on the landscape of contemporary objects as they are experienced, as opposed to the interior landscape of the self.
While the intensity of our fascination with everyday life feels particular to this contemporary moment, discourse on “everyday life” is itself nothing new. Everyday life studies blossomed in France during the 60s and 70s, Henri Lefebvre’s Critique de la vie quotidienne dates from 1947, and anthologists track predecessors back to surrealists (see Michael Sheringham’s Everyday Life) and to Freud (see Ben Highmore’s The Everyday Life Reader). And, although such study has deep roots, theorists are far from over such concerns. As Sheringham notes, “the period between 1960 and 1980 is a phase of active, if often invisible, invention and the period from 1980 to 2000 (and beyond) a phase of practice, variation, and dissemination” (14). I bring this point up because I think it provides intellectual context for contemporary poetry’s fascination with the everyday and deepens the stakes of its pursuit. At their best, writers pursuing everyday life have the ability to challenge the status quo and effect change. As such, it deeply matters whether or not, as a contemporary poet, you are invited to participate in the poetics of the everyday.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the everyday vis-à-vis contemporary poetry is the tension it brings to the surface surrounding the concept of subjectivity. Notice that there has been the most hype around poetry of the everyday that eschews lyric subjectivity: Conceptual Poetry, Flarf, and Documentary Poetry are built on a rejection of such sensibility. Furthermore, on the lyric end of the spectrum not just any kind of speaker is invited to talk about his or her subjective experience (by which I mean emotionally, physically and intellectually embodied) of the everyday. Poets writing from a still-marginal position (such as that of motherhood) can pull off speakers who engage in the everyday as needing, wanting, proclaiming subjectivities. We even like it when they tell us their secrets and get pissed off.
Not so the speaker who comes from the position of power we associate with non-mothering, straight, white, middle class culture which of course includes men but also women when they aren’t mothering, or when they aren’t featuring their mothering roles. If you read Burt’s essay on the “New Thing” you will notice that he is careful to note that poets of the “New Thing,” most of whom write from this position, are interested in objects in the world—not in the subject that apprehends them. One of the traits of New Thing poets is that subjective emotion is so submerged that Burt notes that readers will likely have to re-read such poetry to pick up their affect. For example, “We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.” Indeed, the New Thing poets of the everyday are interested not in interiors but in what they can clearly see before them. Subjectivity, it seems, for these speakers, is off-limits.
So Kelsey raises some fascinating questions. Are we leaving a period where Stevens (through Ashbery, perhaps?) loomed large? And are we then entering a period where William Carols Williams (through whom? Perhaps Armantrout? Or perhaps in a different aesthetic, Kay Ryan?) will loom large?
Or (in a more controversial way of saying it [in some quarters, at least]) are we in a period where experimental writing is folding itself into the more daily aspects of what poets were largely attempting in the 1970s? (Which is: will it be shades of WCW [Spring & All] or shades of Robert Lowell [Life Studies]? In the way that Lowell also claimed William Carols Williams as a model of how to break free from New Formalism?)
Or, in another different way of saying it: If LANGUAGE poetry can be called a kind of formal writing, writing in forms [which I believe Ron Silliman does?] is conceptual writing or experimental writing or whatever you want to call it starting to move closer to the very sort of pseudo-biographical writing with which LANGUAGE writing was in direct opposition?
Now that would be funny, if we ended up there! (Even if we largely never left [but that's an ongoing argument].) (This has been the conversation of American Hybrid, right? To keep the distance of conceptual writing, but to add the nearness of daily life? Can subjectivity be far behind? Or was subjectivity well ahead? Should we blame DNA?)
Not that any of the books Kelsey talks about look anything at all like Lowell, by the way. But what I'm thinking about is, in the strand of poetry Kelsey is reading, what will come next. Is it on a trajectory? And what might this trajectory be? Away from Ashbery, perhaps, and toward Schuyler? But, as in any period in American poetry, many things are happening at the same time. And many things will continue to happen.