Monday, September 24, 2012

Who Is More Wrong? (Because we all know no one is ever right.)

Because love is a battlefield, baby. And don't you forget it.

As Hank Lazer writes in his introduction (, “The 1984 ‘What Is a Poet?’ symposium took place at a time of considerable tension within the world of American poetry.”  It begs the question regarding the tension or not so much tension there might or might not be in the world of American poetry in the fall of 2012.  How tense are we?  Do you feel tense?  Are we all happy campers with each other?  Are we playing nice? 

Over the past few years I was thinking there was quite a bit of tension, mostly surrounding—people taking pot-shots at—what some were terming Third Way or Post-Avant poetry.  Does anyone term anything that way anymore?  Has the wind gone out of the sails of periodizing? 

Well, in 1984, that ominous-sounding time that we all were looking forward to, we were, as the saying goes, promised jetpacks by then, if you’ll recall.  And all we got was Ronald Reagan’s second term.  I don’t know about you, but I was feeling a little sore about the whole thing. 

So, here’s the question (it’s not my question, by the way, but it seemed to be 1984’s question): does language create the world or does language describe the world? 

In my 2012 view, they’re both wrong.  As I see it, poetry is a social act, and social acts are constructed by language.  But they get themselves all swirled up in flying bullets and getting hit by busses and such.  Those were simpler or else more complex times. 

Here’s an exchange:

Louis Simpson:  I think I’m beginning to see a basic reason we’re disagreeing here.  You approach the world as a construct which humanity has made, and therefore language is a construct, so you approach experience through language.  I would argue that for poets experience occurs as a primary thing, without language in between.  I quoted Dante yesterday to you about visions.  We have visions, we have experiences for which there is not language, and our job is to create that into a poem.  And that seems to me a radically different point of view.

Gregory Jay:  O, yeah, yeah.  We do disagree fundamentally because I don’t think that there is any such thing as uninterpreted experience and I don’t think we ever have an experience of anything that isn’t an interpretation when it arrives to our knowledge.

Louis Simpson:  I don’t believe that for one second.  If you had been in an automobile accident, or I could give you even worse examples – if you’ve ever had somebody shooting at you in a battlefield, where the heck is interpretation coming in there?

Gregory Jay:  Well, I have to decide whether the bullet’s going to hit me or not, Louis.

Louis Simpson:  But what has that got to do with interpretation?

Denise Levertov:  If a child dying of cancer is suffering excruciating pain just as if it were a grown-up person who is able to reflect upon its pain, does that mean that it is not experiencing that excruciating pain?  Bullshit!

Charles Bernstein:  Of course it doesn’t mean that.  I think, I mean nobody is saying that.  I think we’re not going to resolve what are essentially philosophical and theological or metaphysical differences, religious differences, really, among us. If you had a panel of different religious people representing different religious groups you would, who were trying to come to some consensus, you would have some of these same disagreements. I think the problem I have is not so much understanding that people have a different viewpoint than I have – believe me I've been told that many times [laughter] and I accept that. I do find it a problem that, and I certainly tend to do this too, that we tend to say "poets" think this and "poets" think that – because by doing that we tend to exclude the practices of other people in our society of divergence.

Lazer, writing in 2009, sums up the continued relevance of the 1984 symposium this way:

“The emerging critique of the burgeoning creative writing/workshop industry, the rise of critical theory and its importance to English Departments and to interpretive methodologies, and the increased attention to Language poetry and other innovative poetries contributed to the kinds of tensions reflected in the concluding panel discussion.  One might argue that the mid-1980s represented a much more polarized time in American poetry – a time when camps and schools of poetry held more sharply delineated differing assumptions and when those affiliations led to a sharp sense of turf (reflected in networks of publication, employment, prizes, and the other apparatuses of official [and unofficial] verse culture).  While today it might be more common to assume that we live in an era of happy hybridity – a sort of post-polarized poetry world, in which students are free and encouraged to try any form of writing – that claim belies the fact that there still are walls and differing assumptions about how to proceed as poets.  It would be intriguing to have another symposium – again, with the deliberate intention of having poets and critics of differing perspectives (and beliefs) present to articulate and discuss those differences (and commonalities).”

So who would be on the panel list at such a symposium if you were hosting it in 2013?  I’d be up for watching that. It would be a good use of AWP or The Poetry Foundation. 

Here’s the 1984 final panel:

Hank Lazer

Denise Levertov

Charles Altrieri

David Ignatow

Marjorie Perloff

Gerald Stern

Louis Simpson

Helen Vendler

Charles Bernstein

Gregory Jay


What’s your 2013 panel of ten?  Hmm?

Here’s one, off the top of my head, just for fun. It’s not as diverse as it should be to really get things rolling. I should try again at another, but why don’t you instead?

Stephen Burt

Robert Archambeau

Vanessa Place

Johannes Göransson

Claudia Rankine

Tony Hoagland

Mary Ruefle

D.A. Powell

Ange Mlinko

Cole Swensen


At 9/24/2012 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not much variety or disparity in your list . . . David Yezzi and Rosanna Warren would add some point counterpoint to it

At 9/24/2012 8:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Excellent. That's why these things are better with input. I'm wishing someone would really host such an event.

At 9/24/2012 8:14 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Maybe I'm being pedantic, but I would say that language neither creates nor describes the world, but organizes it. I'm talking about the actual world that exists (so far as we know) here and the utilitarian use of communication.

In regards to the creative writing side, I would argue that language creates a world, but not the world.

At 9/24/2012 8:15 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

I'd like to ask Louis Simpson to come back & just say what he said before.

At 9/24/2012 8:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Exactly. And that’s the problem we have when we conflate the social and the ________. What one might profitably say about art and communication as they do what they do doesn’t fare so well in conversations of _________.

I would argue that all things in language are created by language, and things not are not. And when they are described or inscribed, they move into created things, social things. So that a car accident is a car accident is what it is until later when people tell what happened, then the car accident, which happened, becomes the language car accident which keeps happening.

Perhaps Simpson would agree, but I think more he’d say I was muddying the waters.

At 9/24/2012 9:16 AM, OpenID Mike Theune said...

"Over the past few years I was thinking there was quite a bit of tension, mostly surrounding—people taking pot-shots at—what some were terming Third Way or Post-Avant poetry. Does anyone term anything that way anymore? Has the wind gone out of the sails of periodizing?"

I don't think that the wind has gone out of the sails of periodizing, but rather out of the sails of Third Way poetics (one of many post-avants). Once it got the Norton seal of approval, its stock dropped--everyone realized that it was the final corporatization of what always was a kind of corporate poetry of the MFA industry. Not a McPoem, perhaps, but a Starbucks poem...

At 9/24/2012 9:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, I should have said “’that’ periodizing,” rather than periodizing in general. We’re always going to want to name what is going on and what has gone on. That’s natural and reasonable. The Elliptical/Third Way/Post-Avant stuff . . . well, while we’re going to have to agree to disagree on the value of individual writers (a lot of my favorite poets of the last 20 years are in that anthology), I will agree that the description of the mode and the way it was pitched (patched-together) left me a little dry. Hybrid, especially, didn’t work well as a metaphor. At least for me. But, like I said (and even say so in mixed company) a lot of excellent poetry is to be found there (as well as other places, of course).

At 9/24/2012 10:31 AM, Anonymous Michael Theune said...

"...a lot of excellent poetry is to be found there..."

Agreed, John. But I'm not certain that what's good in, say, American Hybrid is good because it's hybrid...

At 9/24/2012 10:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I couldn’t agree more, my friend. I couldn’t agree more. This is also my problem with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and all the isms of the 20th Century. All have good poets and good poetry associated with them, and it’s never good because of the affiliation (or despite it).

At 9/24/2012 11:31 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

1984 was a crazy year in poetry. That year the New York Review published Harold Bloom's crazed and cruel attack on Poe, where he said you can't love Emerson and Poe both. Bloom tried to write Poe out of the canon, calling him a third-rate hack. The "Culture Wars" were at their height, but I don't think Bloom's animosity towards Poe makes no sense in that context at all. No one came to Poe's defense, either. Not "The New Criterion." Not Louis Simpson. No one. It was almost like 1849 all over again.

Anyway, Scarriet wrote about that 1984 conference and I recall Gerald Stern got pretty mad at Bernstein at one point, re: Official Verse Culture and Bernstein's complaint of status quo poets keeping others down, and Stern kept saying, "Name names! Give me one name!" Bernstein sheepishly gave him one: T.S. Eliot.

At 9/24/2012 11:37 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Aesthetics always has a rough night when someone invites Ontology to the party. Or, as a friend of mine put it: In the 1980's, dancing and big hair solved everything.

At 9/27/2012 10:36 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

There is this one, organized by Joan Houlihan, some years back, though the topic is more like "What is a Post-Avant Poet." Some of the contributions are quite interesting, despite the unfortunate all-male lineup. I know a number of women were asked to contribute, but all declined, for whatever reason. There's some discussion on the Third Way issue herein, at different spots. Mike Theune has done some of the most important thinking on the topic, of course.

With Oren Izenberg, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Burt, H.L. Hix, Alan Golding, Joe Amato, and me.


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