Sunday, February 20, 2005

$500 Down on Your Old Strophe

America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece
$500 down on your old strophe
Allen Ginsberg

I want try to organize some old ideas of mine and others around more recent remarks made by Gary Norris at Dagzine and Kasey Mohammad at Lime Tree. When I started this blog, I announced it as an expression of "MFA envy", namely, that there doesn't seem much interest in teaching philosophy as a form of creative writing (or any other form of writing), i.e., as an activity rather than a body of doctrine (cf. Wittgenstein T4.112). I wish there were. So my basic project here has been to try learn from poets and critics of poetry (often the same people) whatever I can to cash in Wittgenstein's suggestion that philosophy ought to be composed in the manner of poetry. As an extension of this approach, philosophy ought to be read and criticized as one reads and criticizes poetry. Of course, this is where all the disagreements begin.

My first inclination sounded like this:

That's what's so appealing about poetry: it's got a product. We philosophers ought to approach our passing remarks in a similar fashion, commodifying what is already our fetish for thinking.

But I can see now that this is itself a somewhat controversial stance in the poetry community. I imagine that especially Gary Norris and Jay Thomas would take issue with it. But Kasey's recent post gives me a kind of hope, even if it leaves me puzzled in what is no doubt exactly the way he intended. Before I get to that, I want to take issue with the following critical principle, which, I fear, threatens to do to poetry and poetics what has always irritated me about philosophy.

Simon at Rhubarb is Susan apologizes for his critical approach at precisely the point where I feel most inclined to praise it. He notes that his intention to critique individual poems has a "disadvantage" that stems from the following claim:

[M]ost poems only make sense in the larger context of a poet's work. There are some poems that can blast themselves out of context into the consciousness of the language, but even there it is nearly impossible to understand and appriciate in any deep manner without at least some familiarity with what else is happening behind the scenes. The residue of a single poem is ephemeral.

After reading this I posted the following somewhat flarfy comment on his blog:

Great idea, this blog. I think what you call a disadvangtage, however, bears thinking about. While it is true that some poems "blast themselves" out of their context, the whole genius of web poetry is that every poem is equidistant to every other poem, and, actually, to every other sentence. In my opinion, "familiarity with what else is happening behind the scenes" is always an illusion that is affected by some critics . . . in order to bolster their authority by bolstering the authority of "the author". Not necessary now. Each poem can be easily taken out of context and criticized (attention can be drawn away from the poet and onto the poetry, as T.S. Eliot advised), and "everyone knows" that the critic does not know jack about what's happening behind the scenes anyway, and that "deep appreciation" is, well, sort of icky.

Reading Kasey's post about "Why we publish?" I get the eerie sense that the consensus out there is on Simon's side, not mine. Everybody, it seems, knows that the whole point of publishing is to make a name for yourself, i.e., establish an authorial/authoritative position, from within which to accomplish poetry. What is disturbing about Kasey's analysis of the situtation is that this accomplishment seems wholly circular, i.e., the only relevant sense of "accomplishment" seems to be "publication". (I say this knowing that this is no doubt a manifestation of the "reductively deterministic model of poetic culture" that Kasey warns against taking too seriously in his post.)

My suggestion here, and one that I like to think Flarf (especially Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot") taught me, is that web-based poetry accomplishes itself without authority. I think the central error here (which also motivates the fear of market forces) is the romantic image of "poems that can blast themselves out of context into the consciousness of the language". If they had to blast themselves out, Simon would be right and the fear of markets wholly justified. But poems, at least today, are able to install themselves in the consciousness of the language. That is, they can be determinate little machines, gadgets . . . products. They can't accomplish everything, but to expect them to do something "deeper" after first submerging them in "the larger context of a poet's work" is simply to expect too much.

I say this knowing that I'm being naive about the way markets produce personalities. But I'm working at the level of critical taste that still thinks there are a lot a brilliant, depersonalized consumer products on the market, which we overlook because they are right under our fingertips.


Unknown said...

I dig this post, thomas, point about circularity is correct. going to have to consider this in conjunction with my ongoing exploration(s).

Anonymous said...

Hi there Thomas -- thanks for hooking into what was sort of a throwaway remark (note that, of course, I do review poems totally out of context, though I do give backwards-props to the journals that publish them, so perhaps I am implicated in a currency of prestige, not goods.)

Let's begin where (I think) we agree: that context is important. I'm happy to talk about Wittgenstein, but I think neither of us would be happy seeing a single proposition from the Tractatus, or a paragraph from the Investigations taken out of context and "made use of." It's not that we'd want to prohibit it, but we'd want some kind of assurance that the user of the quotation was going to illuminate the entire work, and not just festoon his prose with some phony erudition. I'm sure you've cringed at the invocation of "throwing away the ladder" more than once.

That said, I very much appriciate your analogy of poems to "gagets." Poems, unlike philosophies, can be abstracted, and it is in a sense much more OK for poems to be taken out of context than philosophies. You might say that poems are gadgets that "fit together": they do more when they're in a group.

I would definitely not want to be implicated in perpetuating some kind of authority of publication! I publish (vaguely) my own work; if I had more readers on Rhubarb, I would forgo it entirely -- but then again, I have a day job and am not seeking employment as an academic teacher of poetry (the main source of commodification, really.)

All the best,


Thomas said...

Thanks, Simon. Yes, my favourite thing about Rhubard is the way it takes poems and looks at them one at a time, out of context. The reason I jumped on your remark is that you describe this decontextualization as a "disadvantage". I actually think we disagree about the importance of context, especially if context is understood as inextricable from the site of the origin of a poem (as any tight connection between poem and poet implies). Fortunately, we seem to disagree only in principle, not in practice, and I look forward to reading your blog regularily now that I've found it (thanks Josh).

I have always found the sense people make of poems "within the larger context of a poet's work" very boring. That includes Wittgenstein. I much prefer readings that detach an, as it were, assemblage of remarks or propositions and inserts them into some other apparatus (or set of gadgets that fit together).

Of course, quoting Wittgenstein out of context is another matter, since such "festooning" always implies erudition, and is very often phony. Since quoting invokes the authority of the source, however, it amounts to situating the quote within the larger corpus of work of the author, not the quoter. It's the latter operation that interests me. In fact, I think the cringing you are talking about is more like reading authors in context than out of context.

To round this out, I don't think Wittgenstein's remarks should be used primarily to illuminate Wittgenstein's "entire work", but to obtain a clear view of the language. To shed light, not on the oeuvre (and thus Wittgenstein's form of life) but on the language (and thus our form of life). You are right that gadgets work best when installed among other gadgets (better gadgets for modern living!), i.e., "they do more when they're in a group", but it is still an open question (to which I have an answer) whether the most relevant group of gadgets is the one that helped produce the poem (the poet's contexts) or the ones that help us to consume them (the reader's context).

Maybe ask yourself whether a blender is best understood in the context of the assembly line that produced it, or in the context of the other kitchen appliances we own.

Thanks for your comments. Looking forward to your reviews. (Maybe have a go at Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" one day, Cortland Review 22.)

Anonymous said...

To summarize?:

Yes, poems definitely detach themselves from their nominal site of origin, the poet -- I agree. But poems can have trouble detaching themselves from each other -- in ways that may sometimes reinforce, sometimes counter normal conventions of authorship.

Thomas said...

Well, given that there is a tendency to organize one's reading of poems around the poets who write them, the poems may be difficult to detach from each other. (I take it you mean poems are difficult to detach from other poems by the same author, in keeping with your original remark.) It is the task of the critic to fight such tendencies.

Also, bad poems sometimes gain something (which doesn't really belong to them) by the insistence on reading them in the context of a poet's life or other works, i.e., as symptoms of something "deeper". Something ineffective in the poem suddenly becomes the profoundly significant name of a moment of particular suffering in the life of the poet, etc. But I stand by the idea that all "deep appreciation" of this sort is icky. The biographer tries to accomplish something the poet could not. Or, in the case of rubbing two poems together, the interpreter tries to do something the poems don't.

Poems may resist being detached from each other but only in the sense of becoming worse poems when they are detached. Poems that need context are simply less accomplished than poems that don't. No poem is perfect.

I think you're right as to the facts about poems, and I support the acts of reading you do at Rhubarb. What I object to is the (normative) principle that compells you to apologize for what I see as the clear, unambiguous advantage of your approach. It is one thing to note that (some) poems are difficult to detach from each other, as you now say, and to say that, "the residue of a single poem is ephemeral" and that poems therefore really ought to be read in the "in the larger context of a poet's work" (the only place where they "make sense"), as you did originally.

I'm holding you to the letter of your words, I know, and that's being a bit unfair since you've already called the remark a "throwaway". But my point is becoming clearer to me as a write.

For example, I do think that editors and critics can provide a useful "curative" function by displaying poems in the context of each other. This, especially, when the force of this display is not to authorize a group of works that is already organized by authors, traditions or periods, but to bring their collective effect to bear on some interesting aspect of the reality in which we live.

Poems (I'm now repeating myself to hear how this will sound) poems do augment each other, just like kitchen appliances. My main concern with your remark was its implication that appliances are best applied among other appliances produced by the same manufacturer. This is not good advice even as a first approximation.

Poems need context, yes, (I'm backing down a bit here), but my point is that they don't need a context that the poem's origin itself specifies: and if they do, they're not good poems.

Jay said...

I'm with Gary on this one Thomas - I dig the post and the discussion which follows. (And I will never be able to completely shake the image of poems augmenting one another like kitchen appliances!)

I started to jump in at several moments, but the discussion always turned out to be one or many steps ahead of me.

One thing, though . . . it strikes me that we can just as easily err in the opposite direction . . . i.e., expecting poems to stand so completely on their own that questions of process and/or personal/historical/social context become taboo. Jackson Mac Low's poems, for example, manage to "stand on their own" given minimal requisite understanding of what went into making them, and I don't think that this fact implies any sort of contradiction -- though I feel that a part of us sometimes feels like it should imply a contradiction.

Thomas said...

Thanks, Jay. Chris at the Delay has a great post on "cameraless film", of which he says:

"It's like with poetry that's composed or assembled through a process how people reduce it to being about that process and nothing else. 'You wrote a procedural poem because you wanted to write a procedural poem -- I get it.' Flarf and Jackson Mac Low and John Cage all get this treatment. . ."

I imagine Babbitt would be a candidate for similar treatment (in fact, he seems to treat himself that way, if your synopsis is an indication). As I've been trying to show with Flarf (and I'll have a look at Mac Low to get a better handle on your idea here) sometimes knowing the process (especially discovering it as part of the act of reading) allows a poem to detach itself from the authority of the author. That "minimal requisite" may be necessary to achieve the poem's effect.

But, but, but. . .I file this under the necessary imperfection of any poem. Ideally, a piece of Flarf (and I'll insist on the high quality of "I Am Not the Pilot"'s ideoplasty) would use the procedure to rid itself (perfectly) of any authorial tone, so that nothing depends on knowing that, as Claudius says, "These words are not mine," or as Hamlet respends, "Nor mine now." They just ain't.