On demand : Menand on de Man

Louis Menand's New Yorker essay on the notorious 20th-cent. lit. scholar Paul de Man is, like most of Menand's articles, something I read before anything else (except the cartoons).  But I found it both fascinating and disappointing.  He seems to blame the vociferous critics of the Yale School and post-structural theory (deconstruction, et al.) - like Allan Bloom, of Closing of the American Mind fame - for the decline of academic humanities & literature studies.  As if "theory" gave the whole thing a bad name.  Well, it did, to some extent.  But Menand portrays the theories of Derrida, de Man, & their cohort as a sort of "deconstruction lite".  Here's one of Menand's characterizing paragraphs :

"Deconstruction is difficult to explain in a manner consistent with deconstruction. That’s what accounts for the notorious wordplay and circularity in Derrida’s prose. (Derrida’s essay in “Deconstruction and Criticism,” for example, has a hundred-page footnote.) We could say that deconstruction is an attempt to go through the looking glass, to get beyond or behind language, but a deconstructionist would have to begin by explaining that the concepts “beyond” and “behind” are themselves effects of language. Deconstruction is all about interrogating apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water."

In this design, deconstruction is just a subtle and critical new way to approach literature, a "good read" in its own right.  Derrida & friends are seen as deep readers and defenders of literature & the humanities.  By the same token, Menand separates de Man's scholarly work from de Man "de man" (a criminal scoundrel, by all evidence).  But this doesn't bother me so much as does his simplistic characterization of post-structuralism/deconstruction.

Derrida doesn't strike me as the open-minded reader portrayed here.  Deconstruction depends on a systematic and neo-Nietzschean dismantling of rationality itself (branded as "logocentrism").  Derrida is an anti-Plato : his supposed "free play" of signifiers depends on a very rigid ruling-out of logic itself.  Verbal circularity and the de-humanization of "language" is a necessary boundary rule within which his games take place.

What is behind Menand's affinity for this trend?  Perhaps it has something to do with his own devotion to the American philosophy of Pragmatism (following William James and John Dewey). There is an element of relativism inherent in Pragmatism.  Nothing is really "true" except in the context of its praxis, its application.  Context in this sense trumps universality.  But it seems to me that without universality, truth itself loses its meaning.  This is not to say that either truth or universality are ever simple givens - not requiring critical context, analysis, interpretation and judgement.  But if there is no universality, there is no means of judgement or measurement whatsoever.  Maybe post-structuralism and Pragmatism are joined at the hip (or by the hip, or for the theoretically hip).


"Poetry : What's Next?" (postscript)

A few afterthoughts about the panel discussion on "Poetry : What's Next?", convened last week up in Cambridge, at the Grolier Bookshop.

Listening to Archambeau's & Burt's predictions (both the serious & the not-so), I was bemused to realize that, with respect to a number of their specific forecasts about future styles & concerns, I had already been there.  In fact I'd been doing those specific things in poetry for a couple decades.

Archambeau : 1) densely-patterned rhyming; 2) obscure, allusive, cryptic idioms; 3) extended serial/narrative poems...
Burt : 1) documentary/factual poems focused on local history in out-of-the-way places; 2) baroque, playfully pleasing, extravagantly stylized poems; slangy, idiomatic (quasi-slam) styles; 3) sober, restrained "thing" poems...

All these approaches are descriptive of what I've been doing since the 1990s.  "It's hard to predict the past," noted Archambeau.  Especially if "the past" is not being read, not taken seriously.

All these works of mine are easily available, in book form or for free.   In RI is a local-factual-documentary poem, full of obscure New England historical objects & events.  It was translated into Italian by Anny Ballardini & is available in a bilingual edition.  Forth of July (consisting of Stubborn Grew, The Grassblade Light, and July) is a vast, baroque, playful, epic explosion of rhyme, assonance, off-rhyme, near-rhyme, reverse-rhyme, inside-out rhyme... along with layers of Joycean networks of oblique, allusive references.  Lanthanum is a long serial poem which morphs into a dream-vision.

But the very last thing I want to do is turn this post into another pathetic example of special pleading.  I find the contemporary matrix or juncture of the poetry business, on the one hand, with the history of literature (or literary tradition), on the other, to be more strange and disorienting as the days go by.  All three of the speakers at the Grolier tried to address this jarring dissonance.  But the reality is more strange than any of us can comprehend.

When you set yourself to write long epic poems, or you fall in love with the high wild classics of the past... or when you notice the discontinuity between what is influential, what is paradigmatic, what is necessary, what lasts in literature - over the long span of time & times - and the obliterating/scattering power of time itself - the clash of cultures, the decay of material things, the overwhelming power of time & change ...  well, if you meditate on these things, if you live with them as you write... then the pathos and absurdity, the parochial narcissism, of your average would-be poet (me, for example) becomes glaringly obvious.

This is why, in the previous post on the Grolier talks, I emphasized the impossibility of saying much with certainty on this subject.  What becomes popular, what becomes great, what becomes a classic - & how it becomes such - is a real mystery.  Partly, I guess, because how it actually happens is slightly different every time : there is no fits-all method.  All I think I can say is that what becomes important to a culture at large - and what retains lasting importance - is what is somehow necessary to that people or that culture.  The work provides some kind of guidance, light, pleasure, or nourishment over time. And it does not lose that flavor (at least not completely).  & secondly, I never forget the technology of literature, of the written word.  It has the potential to outlast the Pyramids.  In fact our literature consists of the shards & fragments of ancient cultures' hero myths, sagas, folktales, laws, proverbs... the thrilling mythical tales, the parents' words to the wise & happy endings... - all those alphabetical ruins of broken peoples (Celts, Romans, Hebrews, Greeks, Chinese...) which we inherit (like Borges, the spider in his infinite library).  These epic identity claims, these tribal testimonies, in all their sublimity and beauty, bump up against the a-historical nowness of the homogenizing global hive-mind.

The social media rough beasts of the future have yet to emerge.  We've seen nothing yet.  Meanwhile the hordes of Happy Poets & Artists flood the airwaves with their twittering selfies.  Aren't we lucky to live in America & own smartphones?  Meanwhile the established institutions for the advancement of literature have their megaphones on full blast - pre-recorded, targeted drone-wise directly at your head.  Aren't we smart?  We are the coolness of now. 

I think the ur-poem - the ursus-poem - the Artorius-poem - the epic of tomorrow - will have some lineaments outlined by Walt Whitman & James Joyce.  The "song of myself" - of any self - is an epic poem.  Bloom, the Everyman of Ulysses, is like each one of us.  Every human being lives within a wonder-world, so marvelous it cannot be expressed in words : only in broken Babel-bits.  We're waiting for that Pentecost of the Ur-story... the thing that unites all people without emulsifying away each person's fingerprint... distinctive quidditas.

Shakespeare also seemed to dwell on the uncanny technology of writing in the sense outlined here.  Think of Sonnet 65...
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


A Talk at the Grolier

The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located a block or so from Harvard Square since 1927, reminds me of the late lamented  Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan.  It's a splendid little store, full of poetry books you can't find anywhere else.  It's also a sort of miniature poetry museum.  The walls are covered with old b-&-w photos of literary eminences & locals who visited or gave readings there.  A comfortable, welcoming place - yet there's a certain air of literate acuity, articulate awareness.  Intellectual.  Most of all there's a bookish whiff of time & history - of local knowledge, memory, tradition.  Sort of a rare thing - a remnant of old weird America, in the midst of young, amnesiac weird America.

Last Friday evening I took the train up to Cambridge for a panel discussion on a fascinating, though inherently impossible theme : "Poetry : What's Next?"  I feel for the 3 writers corralled to be saddled with this incorrigible subject.  But each of them - Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, & Ben Mazer - was up to the task, in his own way.  The passionate iconoclast Thomas Graves was also there, sitting next to me (mild-mannered poète maudit) in the back row, and he has issued his own report on these talks.

Archambeau's talk is replete with self-deprecating charm & Gallic wit.   It's a sort of spoof on the whole idea of a pompous lecture on a profound topic (Archambeau in person radiates jovial good humor).  His pseudo-argument is a scaffold of bold propositions to which "I know you will object" - & then, because he knows we will object, he revises them or shifts to a new dyad of different bold propositions.  It becomes a sort of refrain.  But there seems to be a common thread to the parade of assertions.  He sets poetry within the framework of cultural history, the long view ("the past is hard to predict," he propounds at one point).  And the long view is a gradual but inexorable constriction of the role of poetry in culture at large.  We go from the poet as culture hero and universal sage (Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare)... to the poet as middle-class Sunday fireside companion (Tennyson, Longfellow)... to the poet as maker of difficult autotelic "art objects" (Modernism)... to the poet as merely a member of one among a near-infinite assortment of "special interest groups", subcultures, hobbyists... all of them equal, all of them equally marginal.

This is a familiar story.  Archambeau gives it a twist by describing how past, seemingly passé, modes & techniques - rhyme, allusive symbolism, etc. - have become pervasive phenomena : in rap, hip-hop and spoken word verse, and in the high-symbolist, elliptically-referential methods of commercial advertising jargon.  He does this to underline the obvious difficulty in predicting the "future of poetry" - and also to suggest that the ineluctable constriction of poetry's social sphere may have reached a tipping point... or maybe a moment of dialectical reversal, a Viconian ricorso.  But that's as far as he takes the subject.  Archambeau's underlying message, perhaps, is that there exists no simple avant-garde/Darwinian system of "progress in the arts" - no foundational/revolutionary break with the past (so dear to the hearts of manifesto-writers).  As Eliot put it, "Someone said, 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are what we know."

Stephen Burt's presentation was more ambitious and serious.  Burt is a rarity in this country : a real poetry critic, and an enthusiast for the new and the little-known.  He honors the poets he discusses, by way of the sheer energy and passion he brings to "unpacking" them - tracing their lineage,  interpreting their "near-nonsense" for ordinary readers.  Burt is also something of a taxonomist.  He classifies scattered species of poets and comes up with resonant family names for the trends they represent (see his essays on "the Ellipticals", or "the New Thing").  This is also a way of foregrounding the oft-unremarked vitality of what's happening now, of the very contemporary American scene.  Burt is quite gifted and discerning in pursuit of these aims.  He can frame in a few paragraphs, for example, the philosophical viewpoints influencing the incursion of "Language Poetry" in the 70s and 80s; their effect (as models for both imitation & resistance) on the innovative poets of the 90s and the past decade; and the socio-cultural forces which impel the emergence of the very latest styles.  True to form, Burt concludes this talk with a taxonomy of four very new and distinct stylistic-technical trends among young American poets, which he reads as growing future influences - because they address, with originality and energy (as Hamlet says they should), "the form & pressure of the time" - giving to "airy nothing" a "local habitation & a name."

Ben Mazer's talk was quite different, as Thomas Graves has already pointed out.  His lecture was a species of what they used to call "poet's prose" - creative, evocative, impressionistic.  As if in light mockery of Archambeau's and Burt's enumerations and categories, Mazer proposes "eight points" which seem to dissolve into cloudy ether at the end.  Yet he issues a categorical challenge - a sort of high-Romantic toss-down of the gauntlet - to any reductive intellectualizing or sociological bracketing of the poet's exalted mission and role.   For Mazer, poetry is both spiritual vocation and craft tradition.   If you don't know and absorb the incarnate, embodied, and unitary tradition of Poetry - a mode of encompassment and renewal which only a bona fide poetic Genius can accomplish - then you have missed the essence, the quiddity, the soul of poetry - and all your pedantic critical intellectualizing about it is pettiness and vanity, is bound for the dustbin.

It is kind of refreshing and incredible to listen to Ben Mazer's resonant poet's voice proclaim such unseasonable articles of faith.  In an age of the populism of creativity - everybody is a star - such quasi-elitist views are going to meet with much scorn.  Yet there is a certain logic to Mazer's position, too.  Poetry is the in-breaking of the ecstatic and supernatural.  It is the voice of the Muse - of an inspiration which cannot be rationalized or paraphrased.  On these grounds the vatic Druid, the sage-mage-shaman, lurks just beneath the surface of the poet's incantatory charism.  There is something definitely archaic and slightly liminal about Ben Mazer's way.  Here it peeks up from beneath the shelves of ye olde Cambridge bookshoppe, like a corpse-flower, or a skunk cabbage, a lily-of-the-valley, or some other shy New England sign of spring.

My own two cents on "What's Next" - which I tried, unsuccessfully & pretty inarticulately, to formulate as a question to the panel that night - is as follows.   I think it's too soon to write off poetry as a marginal hobby or irrelevant throwback.  And I think it's a mistake to solder the Balkanization of contemporary poetic trends onto the Babel-like diversity of contemporary American culture.  This is ultimately based, I think, on a very American, yet also very parochial, attitude toward history.  America's wonderful rainbow-like infinitude of ethnic & cultural & psycho-social identifications is folded within what I believe is a more global and, and yes, universal human history.  The mother of the Muses was Mnemosyne - Memory.  The poet's vocation is to gather up the common threads of our history - what binds us to past generations - and to make sense of them.

We live in a polarized nation : the Right is possessed by a nostalgia for the certitudes of the past, combined with a fundamentalist/Puritan suspicion of the arts; the Left is suffused with an idealism and a passion for social justice as a set of abstract principles - which often unites with a petty scorn and hatred for its political "other" which exactly contradicts the very ideals so cherished.  Such is today's red/blue and very stale purple stalemate.

I think the poet is the dissatisfied one.  She cannot abide the brackets & distinctions of the minor trends in style : she sees them as more of a problem than an opportunity.  The great poetry of the past inherited the narrow trends & techniques : and transmuted them by an uncanny, irreducible process of alchemical synthesis (we call this "making poetry").

What's next?   I look toward a future for poetry without so many qualifying adjectives.  I look to a poetry which is passionately drawn to what we hold in common, as well as to that which is irradicably unique, personal, & unrepeatable.


Spring chords


Cosmic frame

I watched the first episode of "Cosmos", the science TV program hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson made a brief appearance in my long poem Forth of July, 10 years ago.

The initial episode laid out a fairly superficial and standard historical contrast between science and established religion.  But the focus on Giordano Bruno was interesting, and the facts of that case (& other such examples of the persecution of free thought) are pretty much beyond dispute.

What occurs to me, though, is that the program seems to project some implicit philosophical or perhaps spiritual aspects.  We watch Mr. Tyson sail through cosmic space and time, alone, in his cute spaceship, which looks like a sleek little smartphone.  & at the conclusion, the host pulls out an old datebook belonging to his mentor, Carl Sagan, & shows us Sagan's note scheduling his upcoming meeting with Tyson, a young student at the time.  Tyson expresses much love & respect for Sagan, who took a personal interest in him & helped launch his own science career.

So Cosmos, in a sense, projects the image of a somewhat "personal" cosmos.  Whether gazing from the cockpit of his private spaceship, or memorializing his old friend (& prior cosmic explorer), Tyson gives us a universe framed & shadowed by himself - he personalizes it.

& it struck me today, that this notion rhymes with several strands of the "poetics" I have projected on this blog over the years.  I have noted, for example, that Osip Mandelstam's interpretations of the Russian Acmeist poetic - which repeatedly proclaim poetry's alignment with this world, and the deep process of poetry involving something like helping Mankind feel at home on earth - I think this stance bears a kinship with Walt Whitman's epic project.  Whitman's Song of Myself is an effort to construct a believable "I" which binds together every dimension of experience - spiritual & material, minute & vast, local & universal.  There is a bond here between the American effort to "frame" Romantic idealism within a very down-to-earth idiom, and the Acmeist focus on poetry as the spiritual sanction of an earthly norm.  Mandelstam :

It's not Rome the city that lives on,
but Man's place in the universe.

These elliptical lines are not a denial of the eternity of the Eternal City, but rather a description of that eternity's underlying (humane) logic.

This attitude is also declared, I think, in the philosophy of scientist Michael Polyani (which I've written about before, here & elsewhere).  Polanyi asserted, & reiterated, the fundamental personal quality of all human knowledge.  He found a way to do this without hedging or corroding the objectivity and universality of science.  I see Polanyi's worldview as resistant to the theoretical trends (structuralism, post-structuralism) which reject the integrity of the person, which require the deconstruction of human subjectivity in order to propose their explanations of reality.

The major chords of Romantic idealism, of course, were splintered on the rocks of 19th- and especially 20th-cent. history.  The skeptical Marxism of Adorno, the materialist mysticism of Walter Benjamin, the existentialist irony of Kierkegaard & Sartre - the awareness of human limits and human capacity for evil - find more intellectual assent, seem more "realistic".  We inhabit an intellectual climate of ironic disbelief, doctrinaire politics, and disenchanted (often cynical) prose.

But poetry is a sort of spiritual animal.  It grows out of sensibility, intuition and hope.  It persists there, irrationally, despite the"thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to".  The benevolent shadow of the mystery Person - like Proust in his cork-lined room, whispering his vast, integral life - transcends the whole cosmic theater.  I think this viewpoint must stand near the center of the entire "Henry doctrine".


[to the tune of "I Pity the Poor Immigrant"]

I pity the poor prof-poet,
whose words were so contained.
Who traveled in kaleidoscopes
and worried when it rained.
Who hugged his pals, and blurbed along
until the train arrived
which carried him to Omaha
for his last conference-jive.

All poetry is super-conceptual

Today I was handling some materials for the library's digital archive, & happened upon a quote from Sol Lewitt (from this paper):

"When an artist uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means."

Instantly I felt he was talking about things that happen with me in the world of long poems.  The "form is of limited importance, it becomes the grammar for the total work".  The stanza, the mathematical structures of different parts... they are basically simple, and become a sort of second nature - allowing things to take form in unexpected directions.

I went into the stacks to skim some of Lewitt's art work (in catalogs).  They have an unassuming, graceful quality : not imposing, but creating designs which encourage exploration.  Mental constructs.  Some, in the photos, also seem a bit too much like miniature replicas of the giant glass buildings behind the park scenes & public settings.  Maybe a little cold.  You have to bring your own happiness, if you have any.  But I like what I saw.

Reducing visual art to a conceptual presentation poses some problems for the artist, which may be the opposite of those confronting a poet.  All poetry is already super-conceptual.  It's not a matter of reducing the expressive content & the physical materiality to a concept.  "The Word is Psyche," as Mandelstam wrote.  A spoken or written word is nothing but the whisper of an idea.  A word is a packaged message - & a message is a concept-in-transmission.  A hidden, perhaps infinite, conceptual realm (of meanings) hovers around and through the sound & feeling delivered in the poetic utterance.  The problem for the poet is to project that psychic realm in a concrete image (or structure of images).  The word is a spiny, feathery milkweed seed... in what soil will you plant this?  & will it actually produce a milkweed, eventually (with monarchs arriving)?  Or will it remain merely the dried-up husk of an idea...

The visual artist constructs forms in space (got that, kids?).  Poetry builds conceptual spaces out of invisible messages : speech, sound, time.

Lewitt's white geometries rest with calm elegance in the grass.  They are always now (though they may recall prior constructs, progenitors).   Poetry also strives to be now : but in the very process, calls "now" into question.  How so?

I think there exists a primal ur-concept, which underlies & grounds all the conceptual artifice, all the constructions of poetry.  But what this ur-concept actually is, is hard for me to describe...

Mandelstam's "the Word is Psyche" gets close, though.  Ezra Pound, in "The Spirit of Romance", wrote this : "The study of literature is hero-worship. It is a refinement, or, if you will, a perversion of that primitive religion."  This also seems apropos, somehow.  Our own personal reception of poetry - that "refinement" somewhere hidden in the obscure corners of our own psyche, of our sensibility - rooted maybe in our initial enthusiasm for our mother's bedside stories, or the children's hymns we sang in church, or our first adolescent encounters with particular poems - is bound up somewhere with our state of being in the world as a whole : that is, with the ways in which we relate to and respond to other people and to experience throughout our lives.  There is no escape (& no need for escape) from the "subjectivity" of this dimension : it is inherently personal (just as it is inherently a process of communication, of shared experience).

I understand Pound's "hero worship" as the reader's sense of the distinctly personal & historical origin of the poem he or she reads.  It is not ours : it is that poet's world.  & as we read, we sense how the language of the poem represents both a comprehension of, & a resistance to, that very rocky other world which the poet conveys.  So when we encounter, say, the mournful music of a poem by Leopardi, or the fiery sparks let fly by Dickinson, or the profound equilibria in Shakespeare, it's not simply the "words themselves" or "the language" which compels our devotion - it's the intuition of another person, another poet, offering us their whole world in the manner of a friendly storyteller.

So maybe the ur-concept has to do with some kind of human frame which is the preconception for every work of (verbal) art.  All poetry is conceptual, indeed.  But more than that, all poetry is super-conceptual : because there is a mysterious someone who is signalling to us behind, before, beneath the words themselves.

Poetry is the transmutation of time and history into this strange - yet heimlich, affectionate, humane - mode of presence & exchange.  You have to listen carefully for that rich music - from a shade, from a time-dimension, beyond the flat, denatured idioms of utilitarian discourse (& all its "social media").  (Yes, it might just be a shade, cast by the musical intonations of your mother's bird-voice, once upon a time, warbling that story about Frisbee, the tiny explorer, as she sits nearby on the bed, as you fall asleep...)

Mandelstam, from a late poem :

But in caressing books, in children's games,
I shall rise from the dead to say:
the sun!


Sophie plays the piano

Babble & frame


The chatter-world envelopes the speechless day.  The graph, the aggregate, the algorithmic overlay : millions, nay, billions of contending stories, sorties.  The articulated bark of the logic-trees... the directives, the spin-cycles... this being one of them (minute & indistinct, or vast & bulbous).


The Logos might be a name for the ur-narrative, the frame of frames.  What makes for form and equilibrium on the one hand... & for petrified cocoons, thoughtless verbal armatures, on the other.


Frame of frames... serious concept.  Danger of idolatry, of predatory totalism ("One ring to rule them all" etc.).


Yet if the frame - empowered to shatter/comprehend all the wind-tunnels of history - if this tale were actually benevolent...


We might want to listen to it, deep in the monsoon-shelter.


If there were such a frame, an ur-story, it might be about a very quiet, mysterious, and universal victory over death.  It might bring peace of mind, courage, joy... & it might even be true.


It might be the story we find ourselves telling, in our own way.


It might have happened, once.  There might be evidence.  But what it means... (up to us to find out).