Friday, August 28, 2009

A Brief History of the Individual

1938: "In this domain the individual will remain, individualism will remain, without any theoretical and ideological bulwarks. A man will continue to gain or lose his own soul." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, p. 52)

1944: "How do you react to our slogan 'Total Everybody Always'? Have you at last understood that your miserable failure as an individual is proof that you pursue a lost cause?" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 100)

1947: "Though tragedy was in the process of becoming unreal and meaningless it seemed one was still permitted to remember the days when an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué. He lit a cigarette." (Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, p. 5)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flarf and Fascism

"There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers, and that system is fascism." (Ernest Hemingway)

"How to write: go to your nation and strive." (Barrett Watten, used by Kasey Mohammad as an epigraph for Deer Head Nation)

If the "badness" of Flarf is of any literary importance, this is why.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Poems and Novels

A novel orients you in your culture; a poem extricates you from it. A novel helps you cope. A poem gets you out.

(Nabokov would balk: literature just makes you tingle. It's easy to find your way around a cell. You don't try to leave.)

Billy Joel

Sean Cole's "Poem for Billy Joel" (Court Green 6, page 91) is quite effective.

I did happen to start the fire actually ...
...all the nimrods in your music keep breaking up with each other.
"New Radiant Storm King" on whose albums all connubiality
remains in tact. You could learn a thing or two from them ...

I say this to disarm the dedomiciling bomb of your baleful lyric, Mr. Joel.
I beg you: tear down this Italian restaurant.

The effect admittedly depends on a generalization about Billy Joel's work (a sort of typecasting) and some specific knowledge of particular songs. So it's probably limited in that sense, and arguably inexorably "American". Still, it accomplishes a neat little extrication of real emotion from the grip popular culture.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


I just finished reading Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version. I think he's a wonderful novelist and there is something about his books that is, to me, essentially novelistic. One reason for this has something to do with what Norman Mailer writes in A Fire on the Moon: "everybody, literate and illiterate alike, had in the privacy of their unconscious worked out a vast social novel by which they could make sense of society" (p. 147). Richler's novels are very clearly expressions of a "conception of society".

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Is it just me, or does this interview make a better case for the rationality of the libertarian fringe than the mainstream consensus? And does not the independent journalist seem much more reasonable, forthright, and well-informed than his mainstream colleague?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Freeland Burkha

The Conservative Party of Denmark has proposed an all-out ban of the Burkha and the Niqab in Denmark. I'm getting this from the morning papers, so I'm probably getting all wound up for nothing, but as I understand it the proposal is to make it illegal for women to cover their faces as part of their observance of hijab.

There are so many issues. I just wanted to note, again, the difference between seeing hijab as a symbol and seeing it as a style. Symbolism denotes; style displays. Symbols are references, they mean something—some thing. Your style, by contrast, is your way of revealing and covering yourself—your self. The burkha does, of course, have a symbolic effect (it does refer) but it is very obviously also a style.

States that impose a high standard of modesty on its citizenry—i.e., states that require its citizens to cover themselves in public—are one thing. Here in Denmark, such states are exotic, ancient, faraway places. It is quite another to imagine a state that forces the women of a tiny minority to un-cover themselves. To violate their own modesty. William Burroughs, I'm told, said that Freeland was based on his experiences in Denmark. I can believe it.

Monday, August 17, 2009


"The truth is a way, not a place," or, "The truth is not a place. It is a way."

That just tripped off my tongue today. It can't be original (certainly not in its basic idea) but Google comes up empty. Does anyone have a source?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Harold Bloom's Gospel of Gloom

Chapter 2 of A Map of Misreading ends with a very interesting discussion about "contemporary" (1975) American literature. I'm not sure I can do it justice but it goes something like this. American literature is in a bad way and the novel is in worse shape than poetry. Because of its belatedness, even its most "conspicuous literary energies" are reduced to producing parodies. And here's the interesting twist: some produce these parodies voluntarily, others involuntarily. I guess we could say that some do it with irony, others in earnest.

This allows him to lay out the field as follows. In poetry, Lowell does voluntary parody and Ginsberg does involuntary parody. In prose, Pynchon is a voluntary parodist (through something he calls "Kabbalistic inversion") and Mailer is an involuntary one (deploying "a mock-vitalistic lie-against-time"). His judgement about the relative "health" of poetry over prose stems from his assessment of the alternatives to these parodists. In prose, we have Saul Bellow. But in poetry, says Bloom, we have Ashbery and Ammons.

But even these poets, he says, may not survive because the past is much, much stronger than the present. Before closing the chapter, he admits that this must also seem like a "Gospel of Gloom" but it is nonetheless a necessary truth we must face when teaching literature. I think I have another approach. But that's for another post.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Certainty

"I know only one thing for sure, the whole liberal-progressive constituency is going nowhere." (Ralph Nader)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sometimes Clouds Just Disappear

"One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here." (Tony Tost, IB, p. 46)

"If it is any consolation, we admire the early work of John Ashbery./If it is any consolation, you won't feel a thing." (Ben Lerner, LF, p. 59)

The question on the table is whether the desire for solidity is more moral than the desire for (or acceptance of) brokenness, fluidity, fragmentation. The extra credit question is what bearing this has on the work of John Ashbery. I think it is safe to say that contemporary American poetry is situated willy-nilly in the anxiety of this question. Indeed, it may mark the "crisis" that the lyric faces today. I don't really know, but by putting it in these terms, it becomes possible to deal with question as part of my attempt to understand Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading.

Sandra and I have been talking not so much about anxiety as phobia, but they are surely related. The question can be put as follows: does the strategy that allows Amber, and not Sandra, to get on a plane without fear resemble the strategy that, not only gives Ashbery's work its distinctive voice, but also continues to favour him with a long life? Like Laura, I'm not at all sure that "the idea that Ashbery somehow has allowed the fluidity of his language to keep him afloat" is the key to understanding his work or his longevity. But Bloom does say that "Ashbery's mingled strength and weakness, indeed his deliberate pathos, is that he knowingly begins where Childe Roland ended, 'free to wander away' yet always seeing himself as living 'the history of someone who came too late' while sensing that 'the time is ripe now'" (MM, p. 205-6). He says that "Ashbery's turnings-against-the-self are wistful and inconclusive, and he rarely allows a psychic reversal any completeness" (205). Finally, he speaks of Ashbery's "heroic and perpetual self-defeat" as his "finest achievement" (206). Ashbery is certainly no paragon of solidity, but Bloom is right to suspect him of immortality. 

Let me now make the presumptuous and premature assumption that Tony Tost is struggling with Ashbery's influence in a productively anxious way. (I don't actually think Ashbery is the best candidate for a precursor, but it's probably not totally off the mark. And it seems likely that the greatest poet of Tony's generation, which Tony may yet turn out to be, will be great in some measure as he measures up to Ashbery.) In the context of our discussion about the fear of flying, the following passage from Invisible Bride is quite striking:

Some folks are unable to talk on the phone in a noisy office or airport while others can make a call from anywhere. Some folks break the phone because they are afraid it will ring. My father feared the ferry-boat that took us to our summer vacation home; when the horn blew he would throw himself on an imaginary sword. During my lifetime, I've made at least 200,000 observations. For example, often clouds just disappear. (IB, p. 35; also in Story South)

Here the anxiety of 200,000 observations, which may be weighed against the "120,000 playground injuries" on page 3, setting the nervous energy of phobic experience against the objectifying gaze of governmentality, is resolved in the fact that, sometimes, clouds simply vanish, and we may recall here, too, that on page 3, the poet, "like a cloud", is said to "serve a large population".

"I have seen the greatest minds of my generation ..." vanish into anxiety, histrionic in a naked insistence on no-self. I'm not altogether without compassion (empathy even) but I am not sure that it's the direction poetry and the polity are going. We must simply remember to be here, if that's any consolation.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Make me whole

Laura quotes Sandra Simonds:

There is something to be said for someone like, say, John Ashbery with his linguistic ease.I think of my friend Amber who says that she is not afraid to do things such as flying in a plane. She says she is not afraid to go crazy because she does not see herself as a "solid" person but rather as someone fragmented and so when something strange happens she just "goes with it." People who see themselves as solid or whole, according to Amber, breakdown when they find that they are not. I am not surprised that Ashbery has lived a long time.

My comment:

There is something morally disturbing about this though, isn't there? I mean, what counts as "something strange"? How do we distinguish this from when "something bad happens"? (Something that might make us less solid or whole.) Are there not times when we admire the "solid" person for their, say, courage, and when someone who "just goes with it" looks basically cowardly?

More formally, "not solid or whole" = "broken". So it's sort of tautological that someone who thinks himself whole "breaks down" in the discovery that he is, in fact, broken. But we'll never know what came first: finding that we are broken or the breaking itself.

My basic view is that good things make us more whole, bad things less so, and strange things are strange precisely in their ambiguity qua good/bad. "Just going with it" when things get strange has probably a 50/50 chance of breaking you down.

I don't think brokenness is a yes/no condition. We are not broken or whole, but more or less broken, more or less whole. So Amber's "people who see themselves as solid or whole" is a bit of a caricature, a straw man, and actually somewhat uncharitable. Are there really people who would be shaken by the mere possibility of their own imperfection? Well, perhaps. There are certainly people who overestimate their strength.

But there are just as certainly people who underestimate their strength and, to make matters worse, valorize their weakness as an "openness" to "strangeness" that "solid people" are unwilling or unable to face. Moral experience is a complicated matter. The important thing is that we do the best we can.

I'm reading Harold Bloom these days and am looking forward to getting to the part about Ashbery's "strong" poetry.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Lyrical Governmentality

Here's another stanza from Susan Briante's "Dear Mr. Director of the Census Bureau":

Hawks alight on a high-voltage tower by the highway. Each scrub oak below them opens like a flower. Each city block unfolds like a square on playing board.* This morning I can see the staggering boundaries of power grids and aquifers. But, Sir, what place is there of mine in any of it.

Compare this passage from Tony's Invisible Bride:

A child's body itself is a playground in which gender identities can be monitored and produced, compelling reformers (yours truly) to locate them in public, visible settings. Like a cloud, I am meant to serve a large population. A playground should be a sort of truce between the tunnels and twilights of childhood. A playground should be rippling at its outermost branches.

This theme of the "location" or "place" of identities ("me") by some authority ("sir") over a "population" that it "serves" (cf. the "census bureau" of Briante's title) is very interesting to me. As emotional notations, all poems are poems of subjective location, situated agency. Or perhaps at least all lyrical poems.

With a nod to Michel Foucault, perhaps we can call these two poems "governmental" lyrics, songs of governmentality. They articulate the difficulty of caring for the self as the member of a population, a counted & measured body politic. Tony has us imagine a world in which "child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists [have] formulated the exact number of dangerous illusions in the world". Briante approaches such precision in allegorical and skeptical terms, with mock astrology defiled by technology: "I could chart all of the satelites dangling like a mobile above my hospital nursery. Sir, they tell me nothing."

Notice the interest in boundaries (Tony's "outermost branches"). Notice the image of the opening flower (Tony will go on to invoke the "first blossom"). I think they're on to something here.

*Perhaps a typo. Should it read " a square on a playing board"?