(This is my second blog post about this. I deleted the first one, which was certainly impassioned, but a little over the top.)
Coldfront magazine published an article of mine a few days ago, about the New Gnostics group of poets, here. Ed Foster, an old acquaintance from Hoboken Russian-American poetry conference days (late 90s), edits Talisman magazine and recently ran a special section featuring the writings of the NGs.
I guess there are strengths and weaknesses in shaping an essay which foregrounds a history of rivalry between (mostly male) poetry collectives or schools. This is what I do, framing the spiel on a contrast between the NG's and the Language Poets. As it happens, I am currently reading a lot of psychoanalytic writings about the Bible & other literature. History in general seems to be made up in large part of violent struggles based on (mostly male) Oedipal & pre-Oedipal fantasies - mythical stories - about objects of desire (Mom, women, slaves...), and domination of rivals for same. Very primitive, very adolescent, very subconscious...
So I can see why poets - especially female poets - might sigh with boredom & despair... deja vu all over again...
It's got me thinking, vaguely, though, about the region of poetry & the imagination... the middle region, the realm that Wallace Stevens liked to call "sense"... which art & poetry inhabit. Where the intellect & the reason are fused with feelings, emotions... the "affective" responses to experience. Poetry limns this region & helps us grasp where we are... the sense of words in poetry is multivalent.
Moreover, this brings in the whole question of the relation between the human imagination - the "vision thing" (as the 1st Pres. Bush so demotically put it) - and our knowledge of reality, our worldview. There is no denying that poetry down the ages has been a platform for synthesizing and ordering a culture's "sense" of the world it inhabits. And because this is true, it seems that there will inevitably be clashes of worldviews, battles over the orientations of basic belief. Believe it or not, the stakes are high in this regard. They are high, even if we wish they weren't - because part of us wants poetry to be a day of rest, a playful Sabbath-day, from ideology and fact. We want the poet to express an idiosyncratic liberation from all fixed ideas and cultural shibboleths. We want the poem to be free (& fun).
As my article sketches out, there are these incidents of forking paths : disagreements over how poets employ language, how they ring variations on past poetry. I think, speaking as generally & basically as I can, that the story of the "contretemps" between Barrett Watten and Robert Duncan, and between Ed Foster & Charles Bernstein - this "event" - may have been motivated primarily by two different attitudes toward the "language of poetry".
(An aside : it would be interesting to reconsider the role of Louis Zukofsky in this regard. He was apparently the occasion of the original disagreement between Watten & Duncan : & his work can be seem as greatly overlapping & over-shadowing both "schools".)
Simply put : for the Language Poets, the "word" is a Saussurian system of binary signals. Words are bundles of potential meaning-signals. if we "turn off" the meaning-function, we detach ourselves from hegemonic, oppressive ideologies & political structures; we create a new anarchic space of purely textual freedom.
For the New Gnostics, on the other hand, words retain their more traditional aura or ambience. They can never be merely counters or linguistic codes, because words themselves are dwelling-places of affective memory and cultural-historical meaning. In other words, there is the assumption of some over-arching, if implicit, meaning-architecture - which is not to be "switched off", but rather "turned on", intensified.
The encounter between Watten & Duncan seems emblematic in many ways. I see it as a sort of a clash of two worlds : Duncan's mythic-archaic-shamanistic-magic-Romantic realm of the traditional Imagination, as opposed to Watten's modern, post-modern, disenchanted, ironic, intellectual Rationality.
My current readings in psychology and psycho-history underline for me how King Oedipus still reigns over the world of human imagination. We live out myths without knowing it, sleepwalking down familiar paths marked out by the natural rhythm of pre-conscious fears & desires. Art still has to discover its own lanterns, its own ways through this human labyrinth, toward some kind of liberation. Both the Langpos & the New Gnosts were, & are yet, engaged in such searching & making.