Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ereignis: contributions to flarf

Gary has now posted the introduction to How to Proceed in the Arts and, as promised, it is all about inappropriateness. I don't want to say "the art of the inappropriate" because, if I understand the gist of it, inappropriateness is a category he introduces to understand all art. There is something essentially aesthetic about the boundary between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, something I want to blow altogether out of proportion in this post.

Martin Heidegger's famous "other book" (in addition to Being and Time his ouevre consists mainly of lectures and essays) was called Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis). It has been translated as Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) though some argue that From the Event would have been sufficient. I am inclined to agree: in most cases the individual words in Heidegger's German should be translated into colloquial English (and certainly an ordinary German word like Ereignis should not be rendered as an English neologism). The profundity of Heidegger's work does not lie in the meaning of the individual words he uses but in his arrangement of them (as with all writing, the depth of philosophy is an illusion arranged on the surface of the page). In any case, Ereignis is also sometimes translated as "event" and sometimes as "the event of appropriation", to wit: en-own-ing, i.e., making something your own, appropriating it (er-eig-nis, I think, is how it goes). I've been playing with a passage from Heidegger's "The Turning" here at the Pangrammaticon for reasons that are, therefore, now becoming clear to me.

There is, it seems to me, an altogether crucial aesthetic moment implicit in the appropriation of an experience as one's own. Art makes an event of it, of course. And flarf, it seems to me, makes exactly as much out of it as it (or anyone) can bear.

Art cannot be content to be "appropriate for the occasion" (making paintings that match sofas, for example) and I think Gary is onto something in drawing attention to the inappropriate. But I also think Gertrude Stein was right to caution against being "inaccrochable", which amounts to being radically inappropriate (appropriate to no occasion). Being repulsive is not (necessarily) an artistic stance. I think this is what Gary means with the quotation marks he sometimes puts around "inappropriate".

For a long time now, I've been convinced that poetry works with (and upon) our institutions much like philosophy works with (and upon) our intuitions. (Kant's whole critical project can be understood as an investigation of intuition.) Intuition is the immediate givenness of things to our knowledge of them, whereas institution is our immediate takenness with people through our power over them. (That's a rough pangrammatical homology.) That is, intuition is the moment of immediately "seeing as" (e.g., "That's a rabbit") whereas institution is the moment of immediately "doing as" (e.g., "I am attending a funeral"). Institution and intuition are what I call "the media of immediacy"; they condition the "first impression" that an action or perception makes on us as meaningful experience. Making us aware of these media is the task of philosophy and poetry (and, no doubt, all the other arts, albeit in less easily pigeonholed ways).

On this background, I want to venture the hypothesis, which I will develop later (when I've read Gary's book and Petroleum Hat and the rest of Deer Head Nation), that flarf is really the appropriation of the inappropriate, i.e., what Gary calls a "toggling" back and forth between institutionally defined appropriateness and inappropriateness. Art plays with the difference between them, making notions like decency and debauchery absolutely central to its production. Again, I think the genius of flarf is that it only just barely makes the inappropriate, the debauched and the indecent "fit" for public display. It produces just exactly poems. They are not the events, but the incidents, of appropriation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

An Epigraph in Search of an Essay

There are times when I like to think I still have my card in the intellectual's guild, but I seem to be joining company with that horde of the mediocre and the mad who listen to popular songs and act upon coincidence.

Norman Mailer
An American Dream

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Vivacious and Successful on My Own Terms

... if somewhat intellectually driven.

(This I will take as a compliment.)

Also, as collaborative aphorists, Brian and David have made a real contribution:

Information does not want to be free.
It wants to be brief.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Flarf and the Flail of Jehova, part I

Lenin was a very moderate person ... Apart from the social aspect he was of interest, technically, to serious writers. He never wrote a senctence that has any interest in itself, but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.

Ezra Pound

The experiences are not "recollected," and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is "tranquil" only in that it is a passive attending upon the event.

T. S. Eliot

Poetry and politics are profoundly related. Politics is to poetry what science is philosophy; a place to begin. But a poem is not to be judged on its politics; on the contrary, it is to be judged on its ability to extricate itself from the policies that impinge upon it. (Similarly, you don't judge philosophers on their scientific knowledge but on their ability to compose themselves in specific ignorance thereof.) This is the idea that I want to explore in this post.

Take the simple case of wanting to write a poem on the occasion of meeting an intriguing woman. The troubadour, for example, was for a time faced with the problem of "finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was a like a certain set of things, and the troubadour's virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy." (Pound, LE, p. 102) Well, the girl was obviously also caught up in a number of other "courtly" intrigues, i.e., she and the poet were what we today might call "politically situated subjects". ("The 'trobar clus', grew out of living conditions, and ... played a very real part in love intrigue and in the intrigue preceding warfare." LE, p. 94) But to be situated politically and there to write a poem is not to engage in a political act. Not if the poet is good.

The poet is not trying to remind the woman of her political responsibilities. In most cases, he is trying to make her forget them, set them on one side, promptly to imbibe the "obvious remedy". That is, it is the task of the poem to negate or neutralize the politically charged content of the situation, releasing its aesthetic moment, its pleasures. The poet must "understand women", their political situation, and play on this understanding to manipulate the situation, bringing the emotion to presence, writing it down on the page.

In so doing, as Eliot tells it, the poet brings an enormous amount of impersonal experience to bear on personal matters. And the effect is to release us from the subjectivity that our political apparatuses (our "royal courts") produce. A good poem overcomes the difference between "man" and "woman", transcends, say, the politics of gender.

Consider Pound's idea that Lenin invented a new medium for writing: "a sort of expression halfway between writing and action." We can gloss this in all sorts of ways. Most importantly, there was obviously a sense in which only Lenin (who acted by pronouncing) could produce such writing. The point, however, is that this power, according Pound, showed in his writing. Lenin proceeded from the emotion, through the writing, to the action.

The poet works in the same medium but in the opposite direction. Starting within a field of ongoing political activity, (Heidegger's translators render Betrieb sometimes as "ongoing activity", sometimes as "hustle", thus) the hustle and bustle of the city (polis), the poet must pass through the writing to the emotion. This is what is noted down, committed to the page.

Bureaucracy (what Pound called "the flail of Jehova") is automated politics; it is the material reality of policy, not its social ideal. It is the system of machination (modernized court intrigue) that willy-nilly "goes on" in culture. It is the working (wirklich, real) aspect of the political context. Pound advised us to accept it, but to keep it within its bounds. To contain it.

Today, the Internet (the manifold of policy documents, technical manuals, war blogs, chat rooms, pornography, ...) renders perspicuous the political context of modern love. Google allows us to collect (not recollect) its experience, not to attend upon it passively, but to play technical jargon off hard core porn like second rate diplomats, opening a space for sensible, sensitive, sensual people once again to find "the one obvious remedy". This is flarf's potential to bring comfort. I wonder what Gary thinks.

(Coming soon: part II on Dewey, Burke and pragmatism.)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Attitude and Procedure

This very faculty for amalgamation is a part of their genius and it is, in a way, a sort of modesty, a sort of unselfishness. They have not wished for property.

Ezra Pound

Now, of my early work, a critic has said:
"It was open, so I let myself in."

Ben Lerner

Looking back over my archives, I see that flarf has been with me from the beginning. In my first installment of "The Annotated Pilot", for example, written almost exactly a year ago, I opened with the following rather confident assertion.

Flarf is not just a principle of literary composition. It is also a principle of literary criticism. And it is not so much a principle as a procedure.

In his last contribution to this discussion (comments), Gary offers (or inspires me to construct) a distinction between flarf-as-attitude and flarf-as-procedure (if only then to dissolve it). Gary distinguishes between the "formal" ambitions of OuLiPo and the "attitude" of the Flarflist; I have no problem reconstructing this so that an attitude-driven project begins with content and lets the form emerge as you go, whereas a procedurally driven project (one that starts, say, with a set of mathematical properties that must belong to the finished poem, which is then generated by an algorithm to that end) will begin with formal constraints and see what, so to speak, flows into it as content.

That is, attitude is to content what procedure is to form (what texture is to structure), using these words in pretty orthodox senses. We can say this without having yet said anything about flarf, i.e., without deciding whether flarf is best approached in terms of its form or its content, its procedure or its attitude. Lining up the discussion a bit more neatly than it has in fact developed, let's say Gary has been pulling for content and attitude, and I've been pulling for form and procedure.

Flarf as such, i.e., the Great Flarfette Above and/or Beyond Us, is, of course, sniggering lovingly at these debates. (Some participants to the discussion have been channeling Her laughter.) I think the reason for this is that, in flarf, the attitude is the procedure and the procedure is the attitude. Or, again, that is what I hoped I discovered when I stumbled on it.

Works of flarf are openly the result of aggregating "search results" (though we may grant a broader definition of "search engine" than Google, and even go beyond our confinement to the Internet). They are made out things that were just lying around in plain view. And this is also one of the things that struck me about flarf from the beginning (of my awareness of it):

Flarf, it seems to me, has made one thing very clear about the relation of the strophe to the poem. Building a poem is not a matter of arranging strophes, i.e., of putting poetic atoms together. If that were the case the poem would owe its poesie to the accumulation of strophic matter that was originally poetic. But strophes become poetic, become strophes, only in their arrangement with other strophes. A coherence theory of poetry.

Another way of saying this is that flarf is just barely poetry, made out of something that is obviously not poetic. Mainstream poetry, by contrast, is usually made out of words ("solace", "nocturnal", "translucent") and imagery (rain, jazz, herbal tea) that are canonically poetic. When flarf succeeds, then, it is very precisely poetic; it produces something that is just exactly a poem (which may be Katie's point).

The risk of failure is of course high, as is the possibility that someone else will take one's experiments and run with them, producing "major work" out of one's own "minor" efforts (if Chronos bestows on them this favour, as Pound noted in the same paragraph that I drew my epigraph from; cf. "The Serious Artist", LE, p. 48-9). That is, flarf is itself something that looks like it's just lying around, "gratis". May as well make something useful of it.

I just got Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures in the mail. The lines quoted in the epigraph occasioned much laughter yesterday. They describe me (perhaps ridiculously) as a critic when I discovered the "secret" of "I Am Not the Pilot". It was the sensation of being let into the work, the works, the workings of the work. It opened the poem in a radical sense. That sense of openness is what I thought flarf was "as such", i.e., the complete exposure of a poetic attitude as a completely perspicuous procedure for working unpoetry into poetry. The heart of all making. Poiesis, itself.

Stealing a page from A Thousand Plateaus, we might say that there is no difference between what flarf is about and how it is made. There is no separation of attitude and procedure. My hypothesis had been that "flarf" is a quality that is common to Deer Head Nation and Invisible Bride, Petroleum Hat (just been added to the list) and The Lichtenberg Figures (the back cover has "academic theory collid[ing] with American slang, the idiom of the Old testament [with] the jargon of the Internet, and clichés..."). I now think that flarf belongs to two of them more than the others (is there, perhaps, in flashes) and what I'm looking for is our particular "modernism" (to go with that bad dada), which they would share: the glad intensity (glee) of openly displaying one's procedure as one's attitude (flarf being just one attitude-procedure among many). Poetry is (just) putting words together. Words are available everywhere, 24/7. They're all over the place.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Poetics of Inaccrochability

You mustn't write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it. It's wrong and it's silly.

Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast, Ch. 2, p. 20

In truth, I had not thought of flarf as the poetry of discomfort, but as a radical application of modern technology to the liberation of the individual from his talent, allowing "emotions which he has never experienced [to] serve his turn as well as those familiar to him." (Eliot) One of the most insidious functions of the art world is to erect a "personality", or sometimes a whole "community", around the smallest indication of real talent. When artists themselves try to carry out this function it becomes, as John Latta notes, and I think rightly (I think), a way of circling the wagons round one's flurf. It is a way of protecting society from what Irving Layton called "talented sickies" (poets).

That is, I think Gary's poetics are alarming (at first I just found them surprising) precisely because they suggest an intention to be both discomforting and perfectly harmless. It can probably most easily be seen in his suggestion that flarf was originally conceived as an attempt to be "inappropriate" in "private"(!). Now, I don't for a minute think that he will think this is a fair way of stating his intentions. But I do think flarf's mission of actually being inappropriate (or at least truly risking it) and therefore actually making discomfort manifest is undermined by articulating its poetics in the way Gary does: by disqualifying some approaches to its criticism and qualifying others, i.e., by identifying those who do and do not get it.

And, in a way, just as I finally prefer Elvis Costello to Johnny Rotten, Steve Nieve to Sid Vicious, the Attractions to the Sex Pistols, as, let us say, artists, I also think (but as yet really only suspect) that "what works" about flarf is not the discomfort of its results (or the discomfort that results from it) but the way it arranges materials that were obviously unprepared to become poetry, thereby allowing (forcing) the reader to engage with the work much more directly and rendering a good deal of traditional criticism (which always in one way or another insulates the poem with the personality of its author) irrelevant.

I think Google is an important tool to this end, but I'm sure that the Flarf Collective has discovered many more ways about it. I hope, of course, that some reverse engineering is possible even with Advanced Flarf. Ultimately, I want to suggest, it would be disappointing if any of the enjoyment of flarf depended on anything like erudite obscurity. Nothing, I had hoped, was hidden in flarf.

When Stein instructed Hemingway not to write anything inaccrochable she meant "like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either." In a sense, as I understand Gary's remarks, flarf was an attempt to break this rule. To be wrong and silly. But once we understand this intention (and Gary is explicitly asking us to), once we "get it", we can safely buy and hang it in our anthologies (which might be Kasey's point in advertising the death of flarf).

The trouble with that small segment of the public that is seriously interested in poetry is that once they believe that something is poetry it cannot but comfort them. When I discovered flarf (and I mean real, bona fide, certified, locally produced flarf now), I found it comforting. What people do with popsicles I already knew.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

What New Wave was to Punk

It looks like Gary and I are agreed on the error of using the word "flarf" to track the aesthetic I'm interested in. I'll just keep looking, I guess, and thank him for the tip about reader response poetry, though I'm doubtful I'll find what I'm looking for. (After all, for me, the light was so bright and so blinding at, specifically, the level of Google that my mind was bewildered.) Most of what I find interesting about language poetry so far brings me back to our shared inspiration in Wittgenstein's innovations.

As for the idea that "I Am Not the Pilot" is a sort of New Wave, Post-Punk, derivative of Flarf, well, I'm not sure why that would make it bad or uninteresting (beyond its possible historical inaccuracies). I don't expect Tony to agree with me about this, but if New Wave is, say, what the Jam, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and, maybe, the Police and the Cars, did with an undisciplined "Fuck You" that was "invented" by, say, the Sex Pistols or ´(depending on how you tell the story) the Ramones (which would also change your list of leading New Wave figures, no doubt), but all somehow comfortably nurtured by the basic Rock impulse and industry (no matter how much they might have wanted to deride it) to explore the potential of the electric guitar, then its lasting contribution strikes me both as richer and deeper, but I don't see why anyone should be forced to choose. Perhaps look at the strange and beautiful relations between "God Save the Queen" (Pistols) and "Tramp the Dirt Down" (Costello). Both were gleefully working on the hypothesis that you can tell the ladies in charge to fuck off. In any case, I don't see any basis for using "you're so New Wave" as an insult. Beyond the arguable sincerity of some of its participants, punk was about marketing, it was a cultural phenomenon, first and foremost, which happened to work with musical tropes. New Wave was made by people who wanted to make music more sincerely than they wanted to make a scene.

Will there be a Flarfy Lucre Tour in 2020? Looking forward to it. As I will be looking forward to the Complex Sleep of the Blue Turtles.

Always remember, kids: anger is an energy.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Flarf" [sic]

I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty quieting it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Some of this chatter puts me in a somewhat difficult position. The chatter is definitely gratifying, even interesting, on one level. But reading much of it, one can feel the need to fight for the right to have one's work experienced without a lot of others' verbiage encrusting it, making it literally invisible.

Gary Sullivan

Gary Sullivan has found it encumbent on him to point out that I am not qualified to opine on the nature of flarf (first here then here). Indeed, I have the sense that I have just been disqualified.

His concerns seem to divide into two overarching issues. The first has to do with "the right to have one's work experienced" in a particular way and the second has to do with the accuracy of the description offered by critics of flarf.

Over the past year, I have been trying to address some of my concerns in terms of flarf. Gary construes this as my attempt to reimagine flarf in my own terms, which is to say, he imagines that I am trying to explain what he and his friends are "doing" (his scare quotes). In fact, I have mainly been trying to understand a particular species of beauty in recent poetry, specifically, a particular lightness that pleases me; and to connect this to certain technological developments that appear to be defining my age (Google).

To call that an interest in "flarf" may have been rash. For, obviously, if flarf is poetry that can be traced back to 11th Street in Brooklyn around the turn of the century then I have not, as Gary points out, done the corresponding "leg work" ["footwork"]. Indeed, I am not familiar enough with any particular body of work, whether individual or communal, to even begin to offer a "slant" (let alone an "academic" slant) on a "movement". I think the movement or community effort that Gary is defending from misappropriation is entitled, perhaps, to its indignation at the way I've been bandying the word around and, certainly, to its condescending smile.

But, like T. S. Eliot ("The Perfect Critic"), I am

inclined to believe that the 'historical' and the 'philosophical' critics had better be called historians and philosophers quite simply. As for the rest, there are merely various degrees of intelligence.

Gary proposes to group the various degrees of intelligence that have been applied to flarf in terms of whether or not they belong to a particular list, community or group of friends: at bottom, in terms of whether or not he knows who they are. This operation is so counter to my own inclinations, both historical and philosophical, that I'm certain that his sense of "flarf" is nothing like mine (especially when applied as a kind of honorific). Finding my own tentative observations about Hannah Weiner and flarf grouped ramshackle (and, I take it, on this occasion largely unread) with a bunch of other remarks that happen to use the same word is embarrassing. Because, in a sense, Mr. Sullivan is right. Construed as talk about flarf, my efforts amount to idle "chatter".

I was really only trying to find out what it was that appealled to me about "I Am Not the Pilot". I quickly discovered that it had been Google-sculpted and found in this an explanation for its spritely lack of vanity (I'm not trying to be very precise about this just now). This also seemed to me to be what "The Flarf Files" were driving at. Flarf appeared to me to be a way of making it new by depriving the poet of some habitual vanities. And this definition seemed to apply to the material I was looking at, whatever its origin.

Now, what Gary is saying this week is that his community would prefer not to be reduced to simple formulae. What they are doing may be many other things. There may be other ways of "risking inappropriateness" (i.e., having done with poetic vanity) than to replace one's muse with Google. But to my mind, Google is an effective icon for the demystification of linguistic inspiration.

I was suprised to learn that at least one member of the community that "invented" (again, Gary's quotes) flarf would feel threatened in any way by academic criticism, especially in the nascent form of the blogosphere. I'd have liked to think that my remarks were simply beading up on flarf's feathery back (its swan costume, yes?). But I was never trying to do an anthropology of flarf or its social history. I was trying figure out what made a number of poems I was suddenly discovering so good.

I don't know if I'm going to keep calling it "flarf". This may be the final [just another] indication that our age, like all ages, is more complex than a single movement's experiments. I imagine it's a bit like the role of "imagism" in "modernism". Any history of early twenty-first century poetry will very probably have to mention flarf. But that won't be enough. Also, in such a history, flarf will doubtless be represented by a reductive sample of works and poets. Critical work like mine will no doubt then appear partly laughable, even lamentable. Flarfy?

A Year in Blog

Today (at this hour) it is one year since I began posting to the Pangrammaticon. This is the 149th post. The first was posted at 8:53pm on November 17, 2004.

Back then, I wrote that "the most straightforward way of introducing my project is to say that I am a philosopher who suffers from MFA envy. I wish there were a writing programme for philosophers." The recent talk of workshopping till the kitten drops only confirms this early sense of my project. "Thinking is a craft skill," I also said in that first post. "Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down." And today I still "want to use this blog to investigate what those two sentences could possibly mean."

At this stage, I am willing to venture that their meaning is very closely tied to the art of editing.

I would like to thank all those who have contributed to this project over the past year. Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. You've all been teaching me how to do that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Another Tostian Item

Here's an interesting bit of trivia. In the epilogue of the Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly quotes, in Dryden's translation, all the passages of the Aeneid dealing with the peculiar destiny of Palinurus. Among these we find the following lines on page 135:

While cumber'd with my dropping cloaths, I lay,
The cruel Nation, covetous of Prey,
Stain'd with my Blood th'unhospitable Coast:
And now, by Wind and Waves, my lifeless Limbs are tost.

As far as I can make out, the whole work is built out of rhyming couplets, which means that we have here a seventeenth century precedent for rhyming the words "coast" and "tost", even though, if I'm not mistaken, what Dryden means here is "tossed" (not, say, "toast", though we might mean that today, or would have in the eighties, dude).

Anyway, I wonder what Tony might say, in his "fearless blogging voice", to this (my fearsome blogging eyebrow).

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Text Editor is the New Typewriter (Google's the Muse)

If Google is the new typewriter (that's what my guess is), we need to explore this simultaneously bright and dull instrument.

Tony Tost

We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.

Ezra Pound

The recent negotiations over the dead cat that Kasey started have me going back over an old theme. What is the function of criticism? Or what can a piece of prose offer a poem? Is there really anything there for criticism (one or several poetics) to do? Is there a contribution to be made to poetry, either by non-poets or poets pretending to be dead, by writing something other than poetry?

I don't want to survey the possible answers. What interests me is how the workshop, depending on the form we imagine it to take, poses this challenge in the most pointed way by suggesting that the poem is, in principle, always subject to revision.

Suppose we say that a critique is nothing without a list of suggested edits or queries. I.e., the critic is obligated to engage with "what is there on the page". T. S. Eliot suggested that the "perfect critic" is the one who "is criticizing poetry in order to create poetry," and Pound indeed offered Eliot as an example of "criticism in new composition": "the criticism of Seneca in Mr. Eliot's Agon is infinitely more alive, more vigorous than in his essay on Seneca." (LE, p. 75).

The workshop approach is, in a sense, an insistence on only this kind of criticism (i.e., criticism that is tantamount to a new composition). But if we take this line out to its logical conclusion then new compositions, too, should be nothing other than criticism of old ones. Old whats? Well, old "compositions", but that means nothing other than any arrangement of language, any instance of usage. So poetry, like philosophy, becomes a "critique of language" (Wittgenstein, T4.0031).

This brings me to my point, which is about Flarf as procedurally defined. The use of Google shows how the poem might be understood as "criticism in a new composition" of existing usage.

One can imagine a poetry (and this prose is trying to be a contribution to its poetics) that works in two windows: one is used to run Google searches, the other is a simple text editor (NotePad, for example). Text is cut out from the one and placed in the other and is then "workshopped" until perfect.

I think the argument for confining oneself to this procedure is about as good as the argument for confining oneself to saying about a poem only what might be said in a workshop*. But I note this not to dismiss it.

After all, consider the following line of thinking. Suppose there is no longer any need for "original compositions". Suppose that we can be sure that all the writing we will ever need is already getting done, more or less automatically. Suppose only the weeder is now needed. Pound meant this as a guide for the critic and teacher of poetry but suppose that today the language is a reckless blossom of weeds, yes, all the way down to the kitten.

We need to examine our instruments, bright and dull. We may be guided by the beauty of these weapons.


*Note that, when it is finished, the poem is submitted for critique (further workshopping) and publication (only to be Googled).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Art, Craft and Voice

"Only the artist in yourselves is more truthful than the night."

e.e. cummings

I've heard rhetoricians talk of something they call "immanent orality" (yes, sometimes it's just that). The idea, which appeals to me, goes like this. All interpretation is about finding out how to read a text out loud. Nothing you can learn about a text's meaning is inconsequential for its enunciation. All footnotes to all poems are instructions for the reader reading aloud.

Laura Carter is obviously the e.e. cummings of the blogosphere. Absolutely modern and hopelessly romantic. In a word, hip.

Do not hate and fear the artist in yourselves, my fellow citizens. Honour him and love him. Love him truly--do not try to possess him. Trust him as nobly as you trust tomorrow.

That's cummings.

I think voice matters. I don't want it taken from me. I think it has something to do with being a person, which I think is a good thing. I hope that whatever I write has an indelible mark of me on it.

That's Laura. So is this:

If it is just about making objects, then forget it.

And here's cummings:

If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little--somebody who is obsessed by Making.

"What a hoot!" says Laura. "Talking of voice as a device, as a thing to be manipulated," just as cummings warns us not to "confuse an act of God with something which can be turned on and off like the hot water in a faucet."

I think cummings is probably the most charming poet that ever lived; Laura Carter is certainly the most enchanting blogger. How can you not agree with them when they insist on the irreducible perfection of the individual soul that's just trying to do its own imperfect thing? How can we not encourage them when they express their hope that their works "are neither 'good' nor 'bad', neither peacelike nor warful--that (on the contrary) they are living." Life against judgment! Voice against the absolute tyranny of the workshop!

Well, when good poets, like Laura and e.e., say these sorts of things they are simply and irresistably endearing. We want to believe with them that a poem is a just (or even partly) an honest poet being herself, desperately so, in a world of "supermechanized submorons". After all: "mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness" (i.e., a kitten costume). After all: I, too, could be myself.

Every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself.

An artist who plays that country false has committed suicide; and even a good lawyer cannot kill the dead. But a human being who's true to himself--whoever himself may be--is immortal; and all the atomic bombs of all the antiartists in spacetime will never civilize immortality.

Which is all good and true if you're writing about Ezra Pound in 1945.

Before your immortality has been secured, before your honesty comes anywhere near to being interesting (or, perhaps more precisely, before your sincerity even approaches honesty) you have to use your voice for a long time, in public and among people who don't, as a point of departure, all find you very charming ("you and I are not snobs"). You have to enter an apprenticeship, you have to find a master craftsman and a workshop (though it need not be that workshop). You have to use your voice to find it, and what you are doing, finally, is not finding (trouver) but inventing (trouvèr) it: tinkering with what you were given at birth, finding out what it can usefully accomplish. The discipline that guides this usage is grammar, and mastery of grammar is craft.

Bibliographical note: All quotations not attributed to Laura Carter (here, but no doubt not for long) are taken from Chapter 4 of e.e. cummings' i.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

It's Down to the Kitten

Thanks, Jack. My position as of this evening is that it's craft, tactics and workshop all the way down. I do not accept Kasey's "narrow" definition of craft as "a familiar set of mechanically 'workshoppable' skills such as meter, lineation, rhyme, etc.," mainly because I don't accept his constraints on the workshop.

(I think there is an ideal Platonic workshop that is just, well, ideal when compared to real, bounded, sited workshops, whether on or off line, and that that's the workshop we're talking about.)

Pirooz and Allyssa are discussing the idea that "voice" is the other of craft. One way to understand this is that just as poets might have strategic interests that go beyond their tactical problems with a particular poem, and just as their poetry may be subjected to criticism that goes beyond the sort of thing you deal with in a workshop, so too do poets work on their voice as something above and beyond their craft. I don't think this distinction is advisable.

Josh championed the strategic approach to poetry in his response to Jeffery Bahr's reading of Dan Chiasson's "To Helena Concerning Dan Chiasson", which, he says, "is entirely oriented toward what makes a poem an invulnerable object or monument." Such a reading is fixated on tactics, "ignoring or obscuring other possible attitudes and valences (poem as discourse, poem as social actor, poem as social tactic or meditation on same)."

This reminded me of T. S. Eliot's introduction to the Sacred Wood and his "repeated assertion that when we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing." It seems to me that as soon as we move our "critique" of a piece of work outside the workshop we debauch the art.

So I think those poets who have been workshopping (or pimping) Mary Oliver's poem have been showing her the greatest respect possible. Those who have been excusing "The Kitten"'s defects and trying to sell it on merits that do not belong to it, but, perhaps, to the sentiments of a likable poet or an amiable public, have been cheapening the art.

Yes, poems can be appreciated for features that cannot be improved in the shop. The inticement to do so, however, is not about poetry, but another thing. It is no doubt a strategic matter.

In The Rebel somewhere, Albert Camus said that true generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present, as a part of an argument for tactical cells, not strategic organizations. I think we can say something similar here. The art of poetry lies in giving everything to the poem.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

What is Thinking?

Before bed tonight, my four year-old daughter asked, "What does one do when one thinks?"*

I gave it my best shot. Thinking, I said, is a bit like imagining. We imagined the playground at her daycare and the two of us on the swings. Then I told her to imagine an elephant under the swings while we were swinging back and forth, and she of course just obliged. "Thinking," I said, "is not being able to imagine that elephant."**

Thinking is the experience of possibility. But this does not distinguish it from feeling. Thinking is experiencing a possible perception (when faced immediately with a perception, we can think it only by experiencing the possibility of some other perception). Feeling, by contrast, is the experienced possibility of action.

Pretty standard stuff.

*She doesn't talk like that, of course. In Danish there is a "man", just like the German "man", which is the source of Heidegger's famous analysis of "the they", i.e., "das Man" (H. 113ff.). What she said would best be translated, "What do you do when you think?" as long as we are clear that she was not asking about my mental procedures in particular.

**We had a bit of fun with this notion of course. Thinking would be the act of imagining it to be very small or ethereal. That is, thinking would force us to imagine something not wholly like an elephant.


On November 17, the Pangrammaticon will be a year old. Out of curiosity, I've added a site meter. I'm not sure I'm going to keep it past the seventeenth (for the same reasons that I've put off getting one). I have no plans to make this ratings period more exciting at the Pangrammaticon than usual. But, well, stay tuned.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


The answer to the riddle is that all three paintings occasion apperception. The most poignant, painful and accurate statement of this effect I know of can be found in the "argument" of Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String.

It has been demonstrated by Sernier (and others, although without violence) that the outer gaze alters the inner thing, that by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire, that for accurate vision to occur the thing must be trained to see itself, or otherwise perish in blindness, flawed.

These paintings are part of the training. But they are not mirrors: we must realize that our perceptions of these objects (art works) are, when succesful (i.e., when not blind, flawed), not moments in which we see them and not moments in which we see ourselves, but moments in which we are the occasion for them to see themselves.

Fichte had his finger on something when he pointed out that the object just is the totality of the conditions under which it may be experienced.