Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tony Hoagland: Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation Pt II

[Ohio University Press has come out with a book of craft talks, taken from visitors from the Spring Literary festivals over the past ten years or so. They cover fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All proceeds go to assist graduate student scholarship opportunities. It’s well worth a look. The title is LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. Edited by Kevin Haworth and Dinty W. Moore.

The following is part II of one of the essays. I'll post the last part in just a bit. My reaction (I found it highly problematic) to the version of this essay that appeared in Gulf Coast back in 2009 can be found in the post just below part one.]

Some Background Perspective

This might be a useful moment in which to introduce a few background contexts. Plumly’s speaker, ill at ease in the world, deficient both linguistically (in naming) and epistemologically (in knowing), is emblematic of a culturewide modern condition. We have never mistrusted language more than in our postmodern era. Not only that, we have never so mistrusted the art of “knowing” itself. As the first line of a John Ashbery poem declares, “You can’t say it that way any more.” The gap between words and things, and between words and “truth,” has never been more conspicuous. Our trust in the reliability of representation has never been more fragile and paradoxical. We have a general sense of instability, of indeterminacy; and we feel the impermanence and probable imperfection of any kind of knowing.

In addition to whatever existential causes there might be for this condition, media and consumer culture have contributed heavily to erode and corrupt our faith in language. Most of the language we encounter in daily life deploys some manipulation, and conceals some motive. Our mistrust of public speech is a sensible response. And naturally, this mistrust has had an impact on poetic practice. It has destroyed an innocence we once had about the word—which has resulted, in turn, in a poetics of high style, irony, and gamesmanship.

T O   G E T   A  taste of the way in which language itself moves ever more prominently into the foreground of poetic practice, compare the contemporary poem “Guidance Counseling,” by Dean Young, to the poem by Smart and Plumly. Young’s poem, which is a litany, playfully adopts the premise of being a kind of Kama Sutra, a sex manual:

Guidance Counseling

When the woman, her shoulders on the bed,
lifts her pelvis into the standing man,
it is called Dentist Office. When the man,
after an hour hiding in the closet, couples
with she of the silk flowered dress, snug
in the bodice, it is called Representational
Democracy. When the woman licks her burnt
finger, Tiny Garden Hose. Often as we grow
old, life becomes a page obscured with
too many words, like the sea with too many
flashes. Like my screaming may obscure
my love for you. How will we ever understand
each other? When the woman sits on the ladder
and the man churns like a lizard, stiff
in melting ice cream, it is called Many Dews. . . .

“Guidance Counseling” does not suffer quite the tone of existential unease in Plumly’s poem, but here too Language, the act of naming, preoccupies of the foreground of the poem’s subject matter. Young’s poem is not obviously about alienation, or speechlessness, but tells a tale of comical disjointedness—Language is seen as a king of impediment between people. The poetic attention has been shifted from the realm of nature (perception) to the realm of language, naming. The poem could be said to be celebratory, even erotic, in its playfulness—but it emphasizes the nutty arbitrariness of the act of naming: Tiny Garden Hose, Representational Democracy, Dentist Office. If we listen closely, we can further recognize that these coinages are a parody, an echo, of commercial product brand names, such as might be used to name perfumes, sell ice cream flavors, or catalogue paint chips.

Young’s poem, like Whitman’s catalogues, enumerates the cornucopia of phenomena—it playfully suggests there is a rich universe of experience to be named, but in Young’s poem, the wonder is located in not in nature but in the stylistic dexterity of artifice.

The Disconnect Goes Farther

The disconnect between words and things can grow much more extreme, as can the emphasis on language as the preeminent subject matter of poetry. For example, consider the following 1990s poem by a New York School poet, Jordan Davis. “Woman (A.S.)” is a declarative litany, but what is being declared, or litanized? Or is it the illusion of naming that is being demolished?

The red moon is a banjo
A jinx is a flat rate
I am a drop shot
Arizona is the sunrise of a fuckoff
Tonight is the uncompiled code of an iced coffee
A dart is the jimmy of a limousine
My homeland is the dogma of brimming
Turpentine is the Paul McCartney of your letting me know
My lever is tomorrow
A starling is a skinny boy
A drifter is a paragraph
Dehydration was your joyride
Pacman is a percentage
Spelling is diamonds
The grey grass is conformist
Her hat is Alaska . . .

Davis’s poem is just one representative of a widespread radical shift in the poet’s relationship to the word; and, as important, we could say, of a radical loss of faith in the veracity of naming. “A Woman (A.S.)” seems pointedly intent on “neutralizing” some of our most deeply held assumptions about poetic language—that words are signs for “pointing,” for instance; that a poem is “about” something; that metaphor serves a function of equation; even that a poem is a message passing between two people. Nor is Davis’s poem “additive,” in any conventional way—it does not, as it progresses, acquire more meaning, deeper emotional significance, or more coherence. In this particular poem, all these conventional presumptions about a poem are discarded, and displaced by style, gamesmanship, and a lesson about postmodern language.

One response to such a poetic mode might be to call it cynical; to accuse Davis and his tribe of the deepest nihilism, terminal irony, or poetic anarchy. Yet not all the evidence supports such a reading. Davis’s poem exhibits too much pleasure and gusto to be written off as cynically hip or disillusioned. It is as if, freed from obligations of representation, sense-making, narrative, and autobiography, the fields of play are infinitely open to indefinable adventure. In our postmodern era of deeply mistrusted speech, it is a paradoxical fact that this uninhibited sense of play is a common characteristic of the New Poetry. The alienation, angst, and unease of one generation becomes the liberating poetic license of the next.

Another Piece of Perspective

For the last forty years, American poetry has been largely antitechnical in its orientation. A prejudice against fancy rhetoric, elaborate prosody, and erudite allusion might even be said to be part of the American character. Certainly an ethic of plainspokenness has characterized most of our poetry since the midcentury. The poetic revolution of the fifties and sixties, for the second time in the twentieth century, took American poetry from the hands of specialists—academics, professors—and “democratized” poetry into free verse plain speech. In the sixties, a hundred manifestos were written about the primacy of inspiration. The anthology Naked Poetry (1970), for instance, in its introduction, makes poetry out to be an explicitly “spiritual” enterprise, governed by personal and psychic necessity. Poetry is not engineering, asserts the editor, Stephen Berg. Academic training and formal rules are only of secondary importance. Poetry is not a profession, but a shamanic calling. Poetic shape is discovered “organically,” from inside out, not imposed by some cultural convention, like that of the villanelle and sonnet. American poetry—and our national spirit in general—is naturalistic, pragmatic, plainspoken, and often anti-intellectual. Our national pride is still “We don’t need no book-learning;” we have a kind of contempt for erudition and artifice. Thus, in the last fifty years especially, plain speech and forthrightness (not to mention joyful vulgarity and bluntness) have been the stylistic emblem of democracy in American poetry.

This bias against artifice accompanied the flourishing of the plain style in American poetics, which has delivered most of the great American poetry of the last forty or fifty years, from Allen Ginsberg to Adrienne Rich, from Sharon Olds to Philip Levine. The plain style most trusts language in its spare, forceful incarnations. Like all aesthetics, the plain style made a bargain with the poetry gods—in exchange for the powers of intimacy and clarity, it would forswear the more specialized possibilities of prosody and artifice.

The New Poetry, in contrast to the poetry of forty years ago, is extremely engaged in technique; preoccupied with formal experiment, technique, and matters of style, it celebrates its artifice. Another way of putting this is to say that it is big on gamesmanship. It is not so obsessed with “capturing” anything, or apprehending a “truth.” It is process-, not product-oriented. It is deeply interested in exploring representation as a subject in itself. In that sense, it often seems that the New Poetry’s main subject is its own meaning-making, or the nature of means; or, we could say, perspective itself.

This might be a moment to reiterate one of the epigraphs introducing this essay, a statement by critic Stephen Burt: “Epistemology and theories of language—how we know what we know, how we say it—have become as central to contemporary lyric as psychoanalysis in the late 50s, myth and politics in the late 60s.” The New Poetry is not about politics or psychology, but about how we perceive, and how language affects that perception. Thus the physics of representation often holds the foreground of poems now.

A contemporary poem which elegantly and wittily embodies the preoccupation of the New Poetry with saying and the emphasis on perspective is the second section of Robert Hass’s longer poem “My Mother’s Nipples.” It, too, is a litany, but its preoccupying subject is how things are said, not what.

The cosmopolitan’s song on this subject:

Alors! les nipples de ma mère!

The romantic’s song

What could be more fair
than les nipples de ma mère?

The utopian’s song

I will freely share
les nipples de ma mère.

The philosopher’s song

Here was always there
with les nipples de ma mère

The capitalist’s song

Fifty cents a share

The saint’s song

Lift your eyes in prayer

The misanthrope’s song

I can scarcely bear

The melancholic’s song

They were never there,
les nipples de ma mère.
They are not anywhere.

Here, in the middle of an autobiographical meditative poem about family and loss, is a litany of adroit examples of how different kinds of speakers might sing about their mothers’ nipples. In its rhythms, its wit and patterning, the poem becomes a language game, a catalogue of styles like fabric samples. It is as much, perhaps more, about manners of speech, as about experience. Or, to extend more credit to the enterprise, the poem is about how perspective and style—that of the utopian versus the capitalist, for example—shape perception.

H A S S ’ S   PASSAGE   IS  a lyric interlude in a more general meditation, but its medley of transformations is not so different from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hass’s poem might be called “Thirteen Ways of Speaking of My Mother’s Nipples.” The field of fantasia is not experience, but speech (a very specialized kind of experience). Hass’s poem “performs” the anthropological idea that language shapes perception, that cultural givens create variations in consciousness. Hass’s poem plays a speech game; and, through managements of style, it implies content. “My Mother’s Nipples” also is about how sophisticated we’ve become as readers—if a straightforward narrative is now considered obvious, and insufficiently subtle, an elliptical style-game like this one is challenging, a sport for the reader as well as the writer. Whereas before, careful readers might have explicated the psychosymbolic implications of, say, a barn owl in a poem, they now can savor the structuralist wit of diction shifts.

That the poem is “fun” makes Hass’s poem consistent with the New Poetry. That this litany occurs in the work of an older poet, a senior poet, is only an indication of the pervasiveness of our changing, transforming aesthetics. Section 2 of “My Mother’s Nipples” exhibits gamesmanship, ironic playfulness, linguistic self-consciousness, and is style-intensive—an emissary of the New Poetry.


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