Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Craft Issues / Poets on the Line / Gabriel Gudding

There's nothing like a fish on the line. 

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“'At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don't go there very often, they don't have the tools to go through the wall, because it's the end of notes. It's the other side, where there's only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn't translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can't go back. I don't know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

All this, however is a meandering introduction to Gabriel Gudding’s essay from the same collection. What is there to say about this thing? Well, it’s certainly hyperbolic, that’s a given. In fact, the hyperbole is so wild, it borders on parody or satire. And it’s absolutely aggressive, with the kind of manifesto tone that is certain to elicit a reaction. An aesthetic and a political reaction. Whatever it is, it's the most "out there" essay in the collection. As always, points for that.

Because of this, it’s also a good way to get the craft vs ? conversation going. Is he anti-art or just anti craft issues? Can someone agree with this essay and then make art, or is this a “goodbye to all that” move? How much cognitive dissonance is healthy, and how much is too much?

One person's "Cut it out" is another's "Follow the Line."

I’m sure there are more questions than that, but here, for the record, is his essay as it appeared on Poetry Daily a couple weeks ago:


The Line as Fetish and Fascist Reliquary
Gabriel Gudding

The line is not a feature of poetry.

The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique, an imaginary feature upon which to render pronouncements and leverage arbitrary distinctions for the purposes of acquiring or wielding social and disciplinary power.

The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life in an advanced, industrial world. This history of the line, then, is, in its latest iteration, in great part a holdover from the history of the right-wing modernist fetish of form, which marked the removal of poetry fully from the office of humility.

So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement. In another sense, the line is a verbal machine, or a machinic talisman, that marks a fetish of music and voice and wax over content, context, flesh, ethical inspiration and political struggle—often, on the one hand, in the name of archetypal, transcendental, universal, colonial, ostensibly transcultural values, and, on the other, in the name of provisional resistance and socio-aesthetic struggle against late-capitalist hegemonies, authoritarianism, and consumerism.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as "official art" and its false rival "avant-garde art" whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture and delimit the range of experiences we call "human" as a broader push continually to establish, disenchant, and rationalize advanced, industrial society. It's a trumped up vomitnothing about which and around which belief and conviction and argument are purposefully constructed in spasms of pseudo-activity—the purpose of which is to mobilize collective narcissistic excitement in a genre characterized by ethical inaction.

So, yeah. Our world is in peril. We don't have time for the line, except against a backdrop of those cosmologies positing (a) an eternal realm, (b) an impending apocalypse followed by redemption for true believers, (c) a viable suburbia. Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

This necessary renunciation will inevitably extend to poetry's other most favored myths: that song destroys illusion; that dysraphic poetry also destroys illusion and, unlike song, also destroys capitalist hegemony; that messing with syntax is somehow in itself politically radical; that formalism is really exhaustively open to content; that close reading isn't textual fetishism; that craft isn't technical fetishism; that imagination is somehow by itself salutary; that poetry is precious speech uttered by special beings or by necessarily radical people.

In short, the line is an ideological device masquerading as an aesthetic element. Which would in itself not be a bad thing, except for the fact that the current effect of what gets called "art" in our world, or what gets called "poetry" in our life, is in fact to limit the number and categories of experience in which, by which, and through which one can become what one is and work toward justice and develop a truly loving heart. If we are to stop the professional suppression of joy that we call literature, and if we are to cease manufacturing false needs through poetry, if in short we are to stop treating poetry as both a kind of country music and a hipster cagefight, we'll need at some point to wake up and stop ritualizing literature, stop valorizing its sacred heresies, and stop attributing inherent value to technique (both belletristic technique and dysraphic technique—as they are two sides of the same coin). Breaking the habit of obeisance to the religion of literature would especially mean renouncing poetry's fetishes, sublanguages, arguments, battles—especially its purportedly liberational ones—in favor of poetry's fundamental ethical argument, pragmatic kosmophilia, and not confusing that renunciation as further invitation to bicker. Why climb pebbles?

And let's maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.
The line is the place where all your hang-ups can go.


At 10/05/2011 9:55 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I just can't figure out what one does, if they take this essay seriously, after they finish reading it. He seems to be spitting on everyone without offering an alternative.

Maybe that's the point, but all exits are blocked off and the room was just set on fire.

At 10/05/2011 10:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That's a good way of putting it.

So what now? Walk out into the open air, sure, but I could have done that without the essay, and I certainly could do that while still believing in "lines."

Is this to free us from a tyranny of some sort?

At 10/05/2011 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect young Gudding,
touched by poetry
at the mere mention of line


At 10/05/2011 4:22 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

I, personally, adore craft; it is not rare to read the term being disparaged, but I still like it---tho I think mechanics wld be even better. For me, and you seem to touch on this, there's not a clear line between careful improv and craft. I believe craft is key precisely in so far as it can allow a composer to be more attuned to possible trajectories for the poem. Too, I think craft discussion is good because, at best, it can demystify the "poetic process," take one from inscruatable intuition to more legible reasoning. (The demystify thought is a rehash of a point H Mullen has made regarding Oulipo). Too, I think craft can allow for freedom: the more forms/notions of formal potential one has, the harder it is to have writers' block. And without, for example, knowing what it's like to right via intense restrictions, how wld one know what freedom feels like? Bad binary; rather, couldn't an "uncrafted" environ become hemming rather than enlargening.

Wallace Stevens--in a bit of prose: a review of Marianne Moore?--states he wishes people wld see writing a poem as comparable to carpentry. I like this: it both makes a claim for poetry having "real," solid value, and makes clear that poetry is not the inherent realm of the lofty, the rarefied, the innaccesible.

At 10/05/2011 5:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey 24,

Yeah, I think I'm kind of wanting to have my cake and hate cakes too. The truth is we're all participating in aesthetics whenever we make art, and obviously we are when we talk about art. I just get real antsy when people talk about craft.

So, part of me wants to kind of cheer for Gudding in his elephant gun approach to craft talks, while the rest fo me, the larger part, can't follow him because he goes way too way out in his critique.

At 10/05/2011 5:19 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Re: adams24's comment, I think you need to use the analogies that excite you. I'm guessing John would rather compare his way of writing to Neil Young's guitar work than to carpentry because the rock 'n roll analogy excites him. Another poet might work himself up by imagining himself a Jackson Pollock smearing words across the page. You make me think of James Dickey. In high school he had a wood shop class right before or after an English class, so for the rest of his life he associated poetry with carpentry. I suspect the carpentry analogy appeals to a lot of poets with an Apollonian sensibility. Poets who like the idea of patiently and dutifully sawing and planing and sanding and burnishing until you have a well-wrought urn--if urns can be made of wood. More reckless types like Dean Young or Zapruder probably don't like to imagine themselves working that way. James Tate may compare himself to a jazz musician improvising. Ashbery has used musical analogies to describe his work. Koch did too. I don't think of Ashbery and Koch as carpenters in language.

At 10/05/2011 5:40 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

i never much cared for talk about craft myself. One of my first poet friends was a patient craftsman. When he talked about revision I got that watching-the-neighbors'-slides feeling, and his poems were so woodworky they put slivers in my eyes. But when I discovered Bly--Bly preferred "letting the animal live" to "craft"--I got excited. I started sprouting fangs and fur.

At 10/05/2011 5:49 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Bly was really good on this issue, yes. Reading Leaping Poetry and "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry" were wonderful experiences when I was in my 20s. They allowed me to cross into The New York School and Language Poetry from a whole different direction, which completely messed me up for whatever their political fights were about.

And, yeah, well, I DO like music analogies, even when they don't work. But for me, yeah, the semi-improvisational style of Neil Young's electric guitar playing. It's highly instructive.

At 10/05/2011 5:56 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

One more and then I'll go away. Why should I "demystify" writing and think of it as reasoning rather than intuition? I don't want to. I prefer to think of it as mysterious and intuitive. More moony than sunny. More chthonian than above ground in broad daylight. Subterranean homesick blues. That excites me.

At 10/06/2011 12:45 AM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Dear Gabriel:


Try craft’s pottage sleaze, jeez
You’ll love it, poets love it,
Try craft’s pottage sleaze.

At 10/06/2011 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole debate strikes me as strange. Doesn't craft just mean the tools you use to manifest something in the world? If you ignore craft, it seems, you are either 1) a slob, or 2) someone who has internalized your tools so that you no longer have to think about them.

Charlie Parker's often paraphrased, possibly apocryphal advice to young musicians: "learn everything you can about music, about the tradition, about your instrument. Then forget all that shit and just play."

The idea being that you gotta learn to earn the luxury of forgetting.

In my various creative dabblings I've encountered people who are distracted by obsession with craft, and people who are crippled by ignorance of it.

I know talented artists who, like John, are uncomfortable talking about the craft side of things, and others who are uncomfortable talking about anything else. I don't know why some kind of balance is hard to come by.


At 10/06/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

If I was to guess I'd say it's this:

1. Those who avoid the craft conversation are doing so because to talk about it keeps them from forgetting about it.

2. Those who want to talk about it are doing so because they want to make sure it remains the base.

Or something like that?

At 10/06/2011 9:54 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Something I think T. S. Eliot (now there's a fashionable critic) said: a poet's critical pronunciamentos are often a compensation for his own shortcomings. I.e., a poet who talks about craft might lack craftsmanship in his own poems. A poet who talks about coherence, logical unity, might write falling-apart poems. His connective tissue might not connect. A poet who talks a lot about traditional prosody might prove no J.V. Cunningham when you read his verse. Etc. I think that's true. It's like being the opposite of what you're trying too hard to make people think you are.

At 10/06/2011 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"2. Those who want to talk about it are doing so because they want to make sure it remains the base."

With the visual artists and musicians I know who talk only about craft, I've gotten the impression that it's really just a way of avoiding talking about the intangible stuff. Part of it may be a lack of conceptual vocabulary, or just of vocabulary ... easier to imagine in a painter than a poet.

A friend of mine said that the photographer Garry Winogrand, at a lecture, dodged all questions about art by steering the conversation back the most mundane details of gadgetry. It seemed like a comfort zone thing. All of Winogrand's most quoted lines about art are just a little too perfect, a little hard to believe.


At 10/06/2011 12:57 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Cindy Sherman isn't into gadgetry, is she? I wonder what she'd talk about if she taught. Maybe intangibles.

At 10/06/2011 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mean to suggest that this describes all photographers. It's just a character trait that pops up often enough to not seem like a quirk.


At 10/06/2011 3:15 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

" I suspect the carpentry analogy appeals to a lot of poets with an Apollonian sensibility"---

The above cld be, but I doubt it fits me: I'm more blood and guts and serum and welts; the kicker is I tend not to see anything as incommensurate. Oh, lol, except I do think equating poetry to music is usually not workful; yes, lyric can lead to lyres etc, but...

I agree with Paul finding the craft freakout puzzling; isn't craft another word for writing; ok writing cld be strictly a verb and not require conscious decision but that often gets labeled scribbles or jots.

At best craft can make for more legibility; and anyone who thinks legibility sounds tres fuddy-duddy to single out as a virtue shld think again and see the concept for its vasts. Wow how totally abstractly up-yours of me!

At 10/07/2011 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gallaher hates craft and perhaps that's why his article and these comments don't talk about it. As interesting as this discussion is, it's a discussion of what metaphors might possibly work IF an actual discussion of craft ever took place. Very telling that the elephant in the room---poetry of quantity---isn't discussed at all.

Thomas Brady (Scarriet)

At 10/07/2011 11:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi TB,

I've no idea what Poetry of Quantity is! Did you mean to say Poetry of Quality?

But that's such a thorny issue. I was thinking of Gudding's essay here, this time. Other times I think about other things. Quality. I love poems of quality. The higher the quality the better!

At 10/07/2011 11:45 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I was just about to go to my TB ward to see if there's anything good on TB.

At 10/07/2011 12:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to hear about poetry of quantity. Poetry of staggering, backbreaking quantity. More, more, more!

Maybe Silliman's 'The Alphabet' would qualify.


At 10/07/2011 12:47 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

"poetry of quantity" is metered, right? I.e., verse.

Word verification: derst

At 10/07/2011 1:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Clearly there needs to be a manifesto.

At 10/07/2011 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The manifesto must of course be written by a poet of quantity.

It would make a nice preface to a 100% inclusive, coffee table-sized anthology of maximalist long verse, in large print suitable for children or the seeing-impaired.


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