To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature. -- from Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (p. 7)
WHO HIRED BILL MOYERS TO DESTROY AMERICAN POETRY?
Big talk; Small Minds; Short Poems:
This essay begins with the seemingly innocent and the maliciously rhetorical question: Who hired Bill Moyers to destroy American poetry? The truth is Moyers didn’t destroy poetry so much as gather a debased product that even his pedestrian sensibilities could get a sentiment around. The reality is poets, who have owned and operated the assembly line of the "self" for the last fifty years, have destroyed what little authority poetry had established with the moderns. Moyers is simply a high profile, read media, example of the audience today’s poets deserve.
Moyers’ collection of poetry and interviews entitled, simperingly enough, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets is actually devoid of poetry. In reality it is full of well-meaning ego surges from "perfectly" nice people who unfortunately write poetry. As far as the communication of truth goes: in my personal experience, I have never met individuals as sanitized as the personae that narrate these poems.
The Moyers poets are "enlightened" without, in the context of that process, understanding what that encompasses. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic Of Enlightenment lay it out this way:
Every spiritual resistance [Enlightenment principles encounter] serves merely to increase [their] strength. Which means that enlightenment still recognizes itself even in myths. Whatever myths the resistance may appeal to, by virtue of the very fact that they become arguments in the process of opposition, they acknowledge the position of dissolvent rationality for which they reproach the Enlightenment. Enlightenment is totalitarian. (p. 6)
Although the Moyers poets see themselves in an adversarial position vis à vis "dissolvent rationality" (e.g. militarism, technology, the consumer culture, racism, sexism, et al), they are, in fact, unwitting dupes of the very economic, cultural and political environment they wish to confront, criticize and/or illuminate. One result of the success of Enlightenment science and technology has been the flourishing of any western taxonomy that yields to the conformal processes of mathematization and quantification. This is not to say that poetry should attempt to emulate these formal constraints. It couldn’t if it wanted to. Having no opportunity to participate in the hegemony of reductive systems, poetry quite naturally is in an adversarial position. Even the Moyers poets perceive this as demonstrated by their anti-intellectual cant. However the Moyers poets are so little versed in what they are criticizing that their critiques appear childish. Further, they contradict their own sentiments by borrowing, unwittingly, from the underlying hermeneutics of quantifiable systems to support their inevitably empty images, precipitate metaphors and soporific circumstances.
Processes of quantification have produced what F.A. Hayek calls "scientistic" disciplines. Among these "humanist" taxonomies are economics, psychology and sociology. When poetry has perceived ideological and thematic advantage, it has borrowed heavily from the latter two paradigms. Without studying the gulf established between the actual and its conformal expression that has fueled the success of the social sciences, poets, through their soft science affinities, have introduced into their language a shorthand for quantification which has obliterated the distinction between the actual and its numerical value. The Moyers poets (and by extension most others) in various ways, by sympathetic borrowing from the "scientistic" disciplines, have created an ineffectual and sloppy version of Enlightenment values of formality and quantification. In this poetic morass, only the sappy survive. Major responsibilities of poetry as an expression of the aformal are ignored. For example, in this atmosphere of ignorance, where will poetic discourse be if the imposition of quantifiable systems upon the actual turns out to be the fundamental trope responsible for ecological devastation?
Because the scientific-technological paradigm seems to have seized control of matters of the intellect, the Moyers poets are all too willing to cede all manner of this discourse to elements of the dominant culture. The Moyers poets take a decidedly anti-intellectual stance. Donald Hall attacks "the rational;" Lucille Clifton sputters at the notion of "intellect" and then contradicts herself. Robert Bly, Gary Snyder and Coleman Barks make a chant of anti-intellectuality in their New Age, Jungian myth-based chatter. Moyers' whole book is stuffed with poets abandoning intellectuality to the formalizing, iterative universals of science and technology. Even when the Moyers poets talk about an ambivalence toward the intellect or a qualified acceptance thereof, one is left asking: "Where is the ‘intellectual’ voice in the poetry?" As Adorno and Horkheimer demonstrate, the current definition of "intellectuality" (for example "the intellect" rendered coeval with numbers and quantification) that the Moyers poets so uncritically reference and/or reject, is a creation of the Enlightenment itself and does not have to be accepted at face value by anyone engaged in imaginative work. But the Moyers poets, paralyzed by their naïve "anti-intellectuality," are so monumentally ignorant of the historical conditions of Enlightenment thought, they regard their trivial "life-affirming" "feelings" or the improbable archetypes of Joseph Campbell as a viable alternative to today’s scientific and economic juggernauts.
You can see the difficulty in Rita Dove’s poem, "Canary," about Billie Holiday. In the poem she writes:
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
Check out the vocabulary. The first line above uses a ubiquitous, rationalist jargon. Clichés that reflect Enlightenment sensibility, such as the words and phrases "fact is," "invention," and "under siege," demonstrate an exhausted conceptual foundation entirely derivative of the scientific/empirical paradigm. The "mystery" of Dove’s Billie Holiday is not generic with Bly’s and Snyder’s evocation. But all of them share something in common. They are a reaction to the dominant paradigm and their reactions are not educated enough about the mechanisms of that dominance to provide a genuine alternative or even recognize their conformity with and subservience to it.
The poet must, at least, read and familiarize herself/himself with some of the foundational texts of the Enlightenment paradigm before she or he can provide any effective resistance. Criticizing an economic system, a set of cultural restraints or whatever, without a specific knowledge of the object of criticism, leads to specious hermeneutic epiphanies which function as aesthetic opinions. And you know what "they" say about opinions; they are like assholes -- everybody has one. This explains why there is so much poetry written and so little that deserves to be read and why some deserving poets cannot get a hearing.
The legacy of Enlightenment thought is tricky. In the same manner as its technological/scientific paradigm, its social paradigm is seen as historically progressive. Yet, its nature is to eradicate all other potentialities even as it allows reconstructed forms of the alternative past to be expressed within the jurisdiction of its own legalistic frameworks. The dispassion of a legalist approach substitutes for an ontology of evolved means.
Dove could just as easily have created an apocalyptic Billie Holiday. The canary could have rhymed with those birds which were taken into mines to help miners detect dangerous gas deposits. Thus, Holiday would have fulfilled Pound’s dictum -- artists are "the antennae of the race" -- and like José Rizal, Ruben Dario, Leonel Rugama or Placido, Holiday could have been correctly identified with those and all other poet/revolutionists. In the poem economic repression would quite naturally have been grafted to racist and sexist repression. And Holiday’s suffering, addiction and relatively early death would have been connected seamlessly to the very forces Dove ineffectually addresses in her poem -- the Enlightenment paradigm’s disenfranchisement of the female and, by extension, the human sensibility.
But even then, the poem would just be a sentimental conceit and justice would not be done to Billie Holiday. Pound twice articulated the problem early on in the Cantos. In Canto I, he breaks off his Homeric narrative to acknowledge that he was experiencing Homer through the Latin translation of Andreas Divus. "Lie quiet Divus," Pound says as he glimpses the dilemma of getting at Homer through the sixteenth century translation. And Canto II immediately refines the theme when Pound writes:
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
Both of these instances in Pound are an expression of the Kantian dilemma of the object and its relation to perception. Kant’s arguments are most elaborately drawn out in the philosopher’s Critique of Pure Reason. Pound converts Kant’s physical dilemma of perception to a textual one -- no mean feat. Only with this understanding does Pound begin, as Carroll Terrell puts it in his Guide to the Cantos, "the mythological dimension" of Sordello in relation to Odysseus, with the line "Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana." Why have poets abandoned such careful discrimination in their craft? Why are we content to be so ignorant?
Since the Moyers poets have surrendered "intellectuality" and in the process most of the world, they must rely on personal events to provide them with material for their poems. This is where some of the Moyers’ poets betray their anti-intellectuality and anti-rationalism and demonstrate what the actual dilemma is -- a shortage of raw materials even among the consumer abundance that follows from their lack of discrimination concerning subject matter. Poets like Robert Hass, Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Forché, Barks and Snyder betray "the fact" that they have some ad hoc familiarity with other writings and even modes of thinking. In the case of Snyder and Barks, the learning is quite focused and deep. In the case of Forché it is ceaselessly superficial. However, the poetry of Snyder and Barks abandons even their hard-earned notions of myth to rush back and hug the Enlightenment requirement -- "the projection onto nature of the subjective."
So the Moyers poets are left with nothing but their personal experience as material for their poems. But with teaching, attending meetings and conferences, grading papers, sitting on panels and symposiums, doing readings, etc., very little material arises that has even the 20-watt glow required for one of their dim illuminations. They struggle to find enough material to write their slender volumes. Because of their attachment to the self, they are like colonizers starving amidst the abundance of a new continent. And like all colonizers, they are forced by the demands of production to exploit the wilderness instead of understanding it.
Certainly, the vague ideas of "universality" and "affirmation" that this writer has encountered at public meetings of poets would not suggest poetry as a practical alternative to anything. The Moyers poets are constantly on a desperate hunt to find material for a poem; any little epiphany at the behest of the muse. They are comically imperialist in their pursuit. Gerald Stern watches his cats real close a là Christopher Smart without the "eccentristic iconoclasm." Garrett Hongo illustrates for us the enormous gap between a volcanic eruption and his ability to evoke the experience. Marilyn Chin tells us she has been married twice and considers herself the intellectual foil of William Carlos Williams. Victor Cruz accelerates the marginalization of Puerto Rico. Sandra McPherson goes the adoption route. Bly fishes and naps. Yawn. Kunitz fishes, too, but doesn’t get sleepy because a bullhead gashes his thumb. Yawn. Stretch. Yawn.
Sometimes a Moyers poet really hits the jackpot. Someone dies. This is always good for a few lines. Adrienne Rich exhumes a friend. Kunitz does the same with his dad. So does Donald Hall. Then he goes Kunitz one better and talks about his own death, a fratricide (metaphorical, of course; this ain’t Euripides) at the hands of his new born son. David Mura mines a lynching for a few lines about himself; and Forché has a macabre luncheon date with a Salvadoran death-squad colonel. Also, in the multi-death category genocide is invoked a number of times. All these poems in the Moyers book give a whole new meaning to the phrase "the dead in service to the living." The method and ends of these poems are too small and self-serving to confront the subject of death. Give me Milton’s "Lycidas," Auden’s "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," Pound’s Canto XVI or Villon’s "Testament," where the poet provided the homicide that in part inspired the work.
Mostly the Moyers poets are content with the commonplace, everyday occurrences of their lives. Here the hunt for poetic kindling is easier. And as the material shrinks in significance, and the poetic conceits become worn and strained, the silly claims of universality become grotesquely exaggerated. Talk about a poet with nothing to say; listen to Robert Hass’s final image in his poem, "House:"
& barely, only barely,
And then he and Moyers try to extricate this image from its not inconsiderable inconsiderableness. Hass begins a response with: "Perhaps I was remembering." In short, he has no idea what he was saying. He associates softball with his youth. But boys when Hass was a kid didn’t play softball; they played baseball. Otherwise, you would have been considered a sissy. If Hass played softball, he would have shown considerable courage. And I’m sure we as readers would have been undeservedly rewarded with entire books of poetry chronicling the many threats and beatings Hass had received at the hands of the bigoted local baseball establishment of his youth. Hass’ image isn’t drawn from recollection or even life; it's a desperate and flabby concoction.
And among all this inconsequentiality, the poets defend themselves on the grounds of universality. But this is an illusion created by an appeal to undiscriminated experience. This is a consequence of flight from the intellect. But they have nowhere to run. Every time they turn on their word processors, one of the basest products of demonized intellectuality is at their fingertips, and they are helpless to address their ambivalence. "Representation is exchanged for the fungible -- universal interchangeability." Dialectic of Enlightenment (p.10)
And this is the ‘universality’ to which the Moyers poets appeal. Charles Altieri in his book, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, makes reference to the inevitable repetitiveness and homogeneity of what might be called the unquestionable universality of the mediocre when he sums up a discussion of Cleanth Brooks and Jonathan Holden with: "Hypothetical expressions of the tonal self are a fairly impotent source of poetic power." (p.80) He describes the Moyers-like poets of his critique thus:
Taken together these poems seem somewhat less than the sum of their parts -- probably because the sum becomes too easy to calculate. Their lyric emotions are usually motivated by fear or fear of loss, and the structure of relations in the poems mirrors that constricted space. Either attention is focused on the local or domestic or the poem tries to suggest, from the local, general metaphoric glimpses of total life processes. The two blend in lovely lyric moments, and the selves who control the process display highly civilized, sensitive intelligences. But the extended conceit or the well-polished offhand generalization quickly absorbed back into the lyric scene is the most the poetic thinking produces. There is little dialectic between the local and the general -- compare Yeats or Stevens -- so that the self seems passive and finally somewhat smug in its capacity to produce lyric closure. The dominant impression is of a person constructed around self-confident self-pity and yet still confined to polishing the small change. (p.73)
Speaking of "easy calculation," the Moyers poet, Claribel Alegria, even has a poem called "Summing Up," which indeed is far, far less than its parts. In the subjectivity of "the sixty-three years/ I have lived," Alegria achieves the quantificationist feat of giving equal weight to jumping over puddles, the murder of Archbishop Romero, and losing her virginity. A kind of computerized inventory of the soul!
All the universals that the Moyers poets claim for themselves are simply commonplaces or made commonplaces in the subjective digestion of their non-discriminating voices. Like Gerald Stern, T.S. Eliot liked to observe cats. But unlike Stern, Eliot did not try to invest his anthropomorphic inventions with the emotional weight of his serious work. Everyone knows people who have died. But one would hope that a body of poetry would show more respect for the deceased and avoid making it another instance for subjective self-celebration.
The Moyers poets are shackled to and by the personal epiphany. In one poem alone, "On the Far Edge of Kilmer," Gerald Stern begins his lines with "I am..., I come..., I like..., I like..., I like..., I climb..., I walk..., I lean..., In my left hand..., In my right hand..., I am..., I am..., I am...," and "I am...." One marvels at the endless redundancy of the poet’s infatuation with himself. Stern has no problems with self-image. He must have mirrors on the ceiling of his study.
As Charles Altieri puts it, the Moyers poets employ "the same rhetorical cloth from which epiphanies were mass-produced." It's no wonder every scrap of their day-to-day existence ends up as a poem. It is no wonder that every solipsistic middle class fop living off the sweat and blood of every other middle class fop and all those less fortunate, wants to validate his sad existence, and participate in a community that by its anemia advances the injustices and murder that have made this sadly satiated form of poetry possible. This poetry is the adipose of hegemony. Its messages, though predictably humane, are ineffectual and therefore, as a practical matter, not considered by those for whom practical concerns are paramount. The Moyers poets are well-meaning but inarticulate, giving voice to the same consumer commonplaces that their far more influential brethren in advertising use to generate capital. And, like advertisers, they contrive "universals" out of the most indiscriminate and private experiences, when in reality they have no methodology for circumventing the true paradigm of universals, the impoundment of all experience by systems of formalization, quantification and mathematization. The Moyers poets imply that they are struggling against this, but provide no evidence that they are in any way familiar with the issues. Anyway, if they were waging a struggle, they have clearly lost. But more on that later, because this failure to learn about what it is you are criticizing cuts across the entire poetic spectrum. The Moyers poets are not unique in insisting upon a position of willful ignorance as their most potent weapon. They are simply the starkest example.
If You Lick Up and Down, It Looks Like Yes:
When reading the Moyers anthology, The Language of Life, the reader is struck by just how nice these folks seem to be. There’s no drunken, womanizing Dylan Thomas (Galway Kinnell is not interviewed, only cameoed). There are no wife-tormenting patrician anti-Semites like Eliot. There are no future slavers a là Rimbaud. There are no cloacally obsessed wags like Dante, Swift, Rabelais or Joyce. There are no fascist sympathizers and fiscal phonies like Ezra Pound. No, the Moyers bunch, in terms of society’s supposedly broad acceptance, is a damned wholesome bunch. Solid citizens. The kind of folks you be happy to have next door. They are, as Altieri notes, "passive," preferring to be victims or victim wannabees.
Moyers himself is a paragon of virtue. And if his anthology has the tone of a church social, it is a result of Moyers' choices for poets to interview and their established willingness not to rock the boat. I have had the opportunity to witness some of these poets in venues such as conferences and readings. Their audience is made up of a middle class sensibility (the term used to be bourgeois) that will brook no authentic voice. At the slightest whiff of anything different, this sensibility rallies around authoritarian forces in order to preserve its well-being. It's like the editorial policies of the New York Times or the Washington Post. The world’s population is allowed to live as long as that population is willing to make enormous sacrifices for capital. But the minute they seek a more equitable alternative, the murderers at the Times and the Post insist the instruments of oppression be brought to bear in a swift and violent fashion, lest their enormous consumption be momentarily interrupted.
In spite of its acceptance of a tame domestic plurality, the audience for Moyers poets is exclusively drawn from those that honor their contract with power and hegemony. Certainly, institutional support for Moyers poets is indistinguishable from that support which seeks to insure ideological dominance among traditional elites. They demand emotional if not legal contracts in all of their everyday dealings. Why should their investment, even though miniscule, be any different for poetry? Moyers poets are the expression of the social muzzle. As Moyers poet, Linda McCarriston, says, "Poetry allows one to speak with the voice of power that is not, in fact, granted to one by the culture." Poets are satisfied with this voice (actually inflection or intonation) of power, while genuine power continues to accrue elsewhere. Powerful voices attract powerful repression, not the life-style debates between NEA grant mongers and their repressed critics.
I once did an experiment to gauge the reaction of a Moyers-type audience when they feel threatened. At a well-attended reading, I read a part of a long poem of mine based on Diogenes of Sinope’s statement: "The only place to spit in a rich man’s house is in his face." Although I believe that neither David Rockefeller nor Rupert Murdoch were in the audience, the middle class component created an uproar, falling all over themselves to defend the rich. They hissed and booed, told me to "Go fuck myself," called me names their mamas would have used in the same circumstances, threw wadded paper and stormed from the room and generally dropped the bullshit liberal etiquette that characterizes that segment of the colonizing class. I had smoked out the little imperialist wannabees, denying them their masks, thanks to Diogenes the Dog. But I get almost no venues, so I rarely get to experience that level of honesty and neither does my potential audience. That kind of brutal honesty is generally reserved for the populations of the so-called developing world.
I kept waiting for one of the Moyers poets to submarine Bill. I placed my hopes in Adrienne Rich, but apparently she was saving her sucker punches for bigger game. Rich and the other poets allowed Moyers to insist their poetry was "life-affirming." As I read, I wondered what a "life denying" poem might look like. Maybe, the Inferno cantos of the Divine Comedy? Maybe, Eliot’s "The Hollow Men?" Maybe Swift’s "On Poetry: A Rhapsody?" Juvenal’s Satires? Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land? What about Rimbaud, John Berryman and Robinson Jeffers? What about Yeats’ "Second Coming?" Get It! How could any poet sit there and allow a reformed flack for Lyndon Johnson purr the phrase "life-affirming" at them over and over and not go for Moyers’ throat -- and I mean on the air a là Morton Downey Jr. What a narrow, controlling bullshit criteria for poetry! Given Moyers’ criteria, the only potential audience is people who don’t get the shit kicked out of them every day. And that’s damned few of us. Furthermore, Moyers poets, by their statements, affiliations and in their impotent writing, claim to acknowledge that people do get the shit kicked out of them every day. They "acknowledge" it, but they don’t acknowledge its fact -- its truth. What is that!? It's the same sanitized logic for murder you get from the State Department when they announce, "We regret that your country is suffering so grievously, but we will not cease making you a target of American foreign policy until you agree to do things our way." Sentiment and violence have always gone hand-in-hand. Why should the poetry from the Graduate Department of Moyers’ Hallmark University be any different?
If You Lick Side to Side, It Looks Like No:
Joe Brennan has commented on many occasions that he does not object to the solipsistic, self-inflating poetry that I have discussed above. What Brennan objects to is that it is virtually the only kind of poetry being written, published and read today. Charles Altieri finds this community so ubiquitous that he calls it the poetry "establishment," and bemoans the fact that creative workshops and writing departments around the country require this kind of product for advancement in the community. Pound called this kind of writing "an asylum for the emotions." And since our universities and publishing houses have become sanitariums, it makes it much easier to identify the inmates. Without fail, people (e.g. corporations and endowments) who fund sanitariums want a say in their operation and the right to propose and control appropriate therapies.
Recently, post-modernist critics Stanley Aronowitz and Katherine Hayles and others have come under fire from the scientific establishment abetted by a press so ignorant that they are thrilling. Even journalists, handily the most ignorant of the stooge classes, defended the economic and intellectual hegemony of the sciences from this relatively insignificant threat. But poetry, post-modern or otherwise, could not enter the fray. When some of the central assumptions of our culture were on the line, poets could not contribute to the discourse. How do you get more irrelevant than that? How could this have happened with poetry’s own bad boy/girl "intellectual" movement safely ensconced in the asylum? I am, of course, referring to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Nobody shouted alarms and waved a collection of Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman or Bob Perelman at the conference in New York, hastily convened to condemn the spread of post-modernism across our campuses. How absurd of me to even bring it up!
The grand dame of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets is the critic and scholar, Marjorie Perloff. Perloff expresses a knowledge and understanding of scientific taxonomies such as information theory, chaos theory and nuclear physics. Perloff is also not shy about attributing expansive aesthetic and philosophical implications to these and other branches of science, mimicking broadly the kinds of synthesis that brought ridicule down on Hayles and Aronowitz. Perloff relies on the music and writing of John Cage to provide a fundamental archetype for all that is post-modern; that which is illuminated by and in turn illuminates discourse in the sciences which in turn determines what is merely "scientistic."
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a John Cage fan for years. Just about the time I was attending Marjorie Perloff’s seminar on William Butler Yeats at the University of Maryland, I was in my seventh year of discovering what I called new music. I listened to Cage’s recordings and read his books. One of my professors, Dr. Rudd Fleming, unlike the repressed computer engineer, Douglas Hofstadter, was a student of both Cage and Bach. Fleming read sections of Silence in his classes. For me Cage’s books were scores. The words were notation; their articulation, music.
Further, for me Cage was part of a broader musical experience which included Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, Edgar Varese, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki and Elliott Carter, to name a few of the more prominent composers. The rap on these guys among the conservative musicians and listeners I knew was that their musical theories were often more engaging than the music itself. They considered this especially true of Cage. This was described as a problem later music had inherited from Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and so-called twelve tone or serial composition. But I was resolute that the real strength of these composers came from the aural experience itself and I still derive great pleasure from their compositions today.
Cage was singled out for special ridicule because the experience of his compositions appears so ad hoc upon first hearing, that the listener naturally desires some explanation for the piece. Cage insisted that the pieces should stand on their own as music. Cage desired to change the way people listened. People, in general, have not adopted Cage’s ideas about music, much less the pieces themselves. The aural repertoire has been expanded, but this can no more be attributed to Cage’s influence than to Varese or Stockhausen, who seemed to be more greatly mimocked in popular forms of music floated out there to create elite little clusters of conspicuous, even malignant, consumption. Compact discs have even cleaned up the surf that once announced a recording’s imminent invasion of its surrounding environment and provided a bridge to environmental sounds.
But Perloff wants to bastardize the considerable musical achievement of John Cage, rendering it a theoretical referendum on the agenda of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Perloff’s dependence upon the critical dimensions of Cage’s work seems to be the problem endemic to all L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry -- their criticism IS more interesting than the poetry (music) itself. Their attempts to blur the distinction between poetry and criticism acknowledge as much. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as well as most post-modernist poetry is dissipative -- entropic would be a borrowing that would get Gross and Levitt’s blood boiling (which reminds me of the funny story of how John von Neumann convinced Claude Shannon to make a trope of the term, entropy, in Shannon’s foundational paper on Information Theory.)
But the critical or hermeneutic dimension of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, though open ended, aspires to traditional norms of comprehension. As testament, the reader has little trouble understanding what Perloff is saying. But Perloff and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets have had to create a self-interpretative model for the poems themselves. While this has the effect of delimiting and legitimizing a school or movement, the result is that your critical dimension is de facto going to have more force than your imaginative one. In an ideology the formal doctrine always plays better than the praxis. The demise of Isms is in the praxis. (And I am making no reference to the reactionary pseudo-insights of Karl Popper’s historicism or F. A. Hayek’s "scientistic" standards of metaphorical conformity.) I’m simply saying that, in the instance of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the critical dimension is used to mask the failings of the imaginative. This cannot be said of the work of John Cage.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems are intended not to "mean" in the traditional ways we associate meaning and poetry. Yet, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry’s major architects have no difficulty in saying that they don’t mean while meaning what they don’t say. There is a priceless exchange in a back issue of Ariel Magazine between the interviewer, Marjorie Perloff, and the interviewee, none other than poet and Sun and Moon Press editor, Douglas Messerli. Perloff slips and asks Messerli what the particular poem they are discussing "means." Well, since Messerli has already stated that his poetry is intended to mean "nothing" in the usual manner of such communications, he should have taken Perloff to task for asking such a "meaningless" question. Instead Messerli attempts to "interpret" his poem in the manner of I.A. Richards. What ensues is a pointless and hilarious discussion as he and Perloff attempt to wring some meaning from the intentionally meaningless. They do manage to root around in Doug’s psyche long enough to reveal some of his "intentions" in the poem. But Doug’s "intentions" prove to be so ad hoc and pedestrian that they only heighten the comic dimensions of the exchange. The effect is not much different from Hass’ and Moyers' attempt to beat some meaning out of Hass’ soft ball image. And both have deep affinities with the lectures of Professor Irwin Corey or the Socratic dialogues of Abbott and Costello.
Perloff will go to great lengths to make a poet’s work fit anachronistically into the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet’s agenda. A case in point is her emphasis on syntax in her discussion of Objectivist poet George Oppen’s third poem in Discrete Series. The poem reads:
As Perloff points out, Harold Schimmel is certainly correct that the opening, "Thus/ Hides the," and its rhyme, "Thus/Above the," contain a sneer at a mathematical or, more syntactically, a symbolic logic or logical positivist origin. Certainly, the title of the sequence, Discrete Series, bears this out. Oppen does indeed, as Perloff states, "deconstruct" "the consumer culture that produces Frigidaires" because writing a critique "would be much too easy and uninteresting." But Oppen’s approach reveals his own impotence in the face of the seemingly incontestable logic of better nutrition and stability of the food supply afforded in part by modern refrigeration. Every "image" of the poem that follows the direct assessment, "the prudery/Of Frigidaire," continues in a bitter vein of sexual repression. "Soda jerking -- --" is onanism with " -- --" imaging the erect penis and the "some assembly required" instruction suggested by, "Thus." The isolation of the line, "Above the" is a desperate and disparate attempt to make this phrase take on something other than its apparent meaning by exploiting the word "Above." Oppen fails to make this line anything more than a weak transition. "Plane of lunch" is a shelf in the refrigerator and "of wives" alludes to the bed where "normal" intercourse used to take place. But lunch now "Removes itself" the way, during onanism, the penis is removed before ejaculation. Lunch removed from the refrigerator is sterile. Furthermore, it requires no partner. It "Removes itself" just like the onanism of "soda-jerking from/ the private act," sex, is not in reality "cracking eggs," e.g., procreating. "big-Business" pulls out before ejaculation too. Oppen is saying "real" men would procreate. They would be "Big" not "big," and "business" would be secondary to the more fundamental needs of society. Oppen even goes to the syntactical length of capitalizing the "O" in "Of" twice in order to enhance its suggestion of fecundity. But Oppen’s syntactical manipulation cannot hide the fact that the poem fails to provide a sufficient counter argument for the advocacy of refrigerated food. Oppen knows something is wrong with the picture which he is addressing, he just cannot articulate an alternative. One is reminded of Pound’s Canto XLV with its "With Usura/ With Usura hath no man a house of good stone." And further in support of Oppen’s argument, Pound writes in the same Canto:
It hath brought palsy to bed, lyeth
Credit, folks, credit. One can almost hear the newlyweds, instead of banging out little "brown shirts," lying in bed, arguing over whether they should borrow money from the credit union to buy a new Frigidaire. As someone once said, "All of our desires have become economic choices." But better food sources have led to more potential "brown shirts," not fewer. Hence, Oppen’s and, by extension, Pound’s philosophical dilemma. Oppen’s poem is as much a masturbatory act as the technology, "the dissolvent rationality," he attacks.
Pound’s Canto attempts an historical/economic explanation for the sterility of the modern condition and, though he provides no viable alternative, his poem seems equal to its subject. Oppen opts for the "discrete" disembodied rant. In the process he is forced to rely on syntax and punctuation to carry his poem. Clearly, syntax and punctuation cannot carry the weight and the poem collapses. Perloff’s attempt to project syntax and punctuation as the central force for the success of poetic expression is cynical in the extreme. Perloff attempts to exaggerate the minor success of Oppen’s syntax at the expense of diminishing his more profound and valuable failure of meaning.
Oppen was too good a poet to get caught up in nostalgia, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his long hiatus from poetry was not in response to his own impotence in the face of capital’s onslaught and his inability to counter the philosophical implications of its scientific/technological paradigm. Oppen’s syntactical rage in the poem above is not grounded at all in the hyperbolic language of advertising. Oppen was attempting to address the implications of the technology itself. This is a far more difficult and necessary task. Oppen’s philosophical failure is far more significant than Perloff’s ideological one-upmanship at the level of syntax. Oppen’s more authentic task does not point to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project. Therefore Perloff ignores it.
Writing With a Food Processor:
Charles Bernstein performs a similar sleight of hand in a paper he delivered at the Eleventh Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature. After some standard and often half-baked observations on writing with a word processor and technology in general, Bernstein in his paper, "Blood On the Cutting Room Floor," attempts one of the most breathtaking equivocations in the history of academic prattle. Bernstein attempts to diminish the importance of the authoritarian dimensions of technology in order to blame "writing practitioners that block realization of reading values and stunt the developing writing values" for the current state of poetry. In other words, technology is potentially a culprit but, in reality, Stanley Plumly and Gerald Stern bear much more responsibility for the generally marginal condition of poetry. By implication, the project of Bernstein and his friends can create or restore (take your pick) "the multidimensionality of reading values -- to sound the sonic, measure the lexicon, and refuse the standardization and regimentation that deafens us to the living past in language and diverts us from enacting living presents -- decentered and plural -- for language." Like Lenny Bruce’s mayor says in Thank You Masked Man, "God damn, boy, you can talk your ass off, buddy!" Anyone with eyes and ears could see and hear that Bernstein’s proposals would only accelerate the marginalization of poetry and, in fact, after an initial burst of acceptance, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry has undergone the sclerosis of the academy. This is a source of frustration for Bernstein. As his movement has topped out, he is forced to debate know-nothings like Gerald Stern on what Bernstein perceives to be Stern’s turf. Further, it’s one thing for Bernstein to call Stern a poetic policeman, and quite another to find himself in the same role. The new- Georgians, as exemplified by Stern, could have suffered a more devastating and thoughtful critique than that provided by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E clique. If my eyes don’t deceive me, Bernstein, Silliman, and Perelman are all petrified in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry along with all the other post-moderns who, with few exceptions, were too tired or too busy to try to "make it cohere." This is a far cry from the Bernstein’s stated ambitions for his project.
Addressing those ambitions, Joe Brennan has pointed out, "Bernstein should realize it’s one thing to have your work rejected because it is seen as a threat to the status quo, and quite another to have it rejected because it is not interesting." Bernstein’s 61 poetic experiments that he uses for instruction at the academy teach kids who have nothing to say, different techniques for saying nothing. To paraphrase Brennan: "Instead of telling these kids to go out and learn something on their own, Bernstein is, by adhering to the traditional rules and standards of the university, exercising the same kind of control over the creative process that he accuses Stern of doing."
Except for Joe Brennan and Robert Peters, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry’s imaginative product has no discernible readership outside of its immediate circle. Bernstein clearly has a bee in his bonnet when it comes to the self-serving ego maniacal greeting card poetry that infests the institutions that he must operate in on a daily basis. But the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project’s expressed poetic alternative is too marginal and glossomorphic to supersede the soporific memoir style of Gerald Stern. Why replace one lilliputian voice with another?
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets' approach ultimately was a good short term strategy for gaining an institutional foothold in a today’s dreary poetic landscape. But like all narrow enterprises with an inflated value, there will be a price to pay further on down the road. If anything, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets have created a more homogeneous and undistinguished body of creative work than even the "Self-Ish" poets. In the future, the authority of poetry will be even further diminished by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry episode.
Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothin’ Left To Say:
Years ago when Andrei Codrescu was still living in Baltimore, I asked an acquaintance of ours to propose a new kind of poetry reading to him. I called it the Battle of the Bards. This was about 1984, and I’m sure poetry slams were in full swing somewhere, but I was not aware of them. My idea had one significant difference. Sure, I would drive a carload of Washington poets to take on a group of Baltimore versifiers. But on my team, I would also have an individual who was utterly steeped in the poetic tradition. In fact, the individual I had in mind had committed huge amounts of poetry to memory -- Homer in classical Greek, the Romantics, Auden, Yeats, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Lowell, Stevens, Joyce, Beckett, and, like the playbill says, many, many, more. The Baltimore gang was to supply a similar individual.
The rules were simple. One poet from each town would read and then one of the poet scholars would reach into his repertoire and recite or read a great poem from the past. The purpose of this was to edify the audience and mortify the poets, causing them to reflect on their production. It would also prevent the slams from degenerating into referenda on who was more flip or funny. And finally, by throwing the verbal equivalent of a bucket of cold water on the sizzling egos of young poets, it would demonstrate just how rare enduring poetry is...........Fortunately, nothing ever came of the idea.