joe brennan also asks:
Why is Parcelli So Angry?
Bob Perelman's question
"The Trouble with Mediocrity"
just plain bill
Carlo Parcelli's rant against Bill Moyers and his coterie of poets of pedestrian sensibilities in the current on-line edition of FlashP°int is both perceptive and embarrassing; a number of the poets he mentions, Adrienne Rich in particular, are poets whose work I admired when I was in college. Recalling what his favorite professor, Rudd Fleming, once said of W.C. Williams, Parcelli notes that Moyers' coterie is actually devoid of poetry. In reality it is full of well-meaning ego surges from "perfectly nice" people who "unfortunately write poetry." While honesty requires me to agree that he's essentially correct, one wonders what Parcelli expects from an ex-political hack turned sentimental mirror which reflects the heavy laden sensibility of a pseudo-conscience crisis in search of an equally phony redemption? To hold Moyers up to the light of the likes of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno is equivalent to the old saw about using a sledgehammer to knock off an ant. Parcelli ruthlessly points out the ironic position of these poets in relation to the oppressive and repressive currents in society they ostensibly oppose, characterizing them as unwitting dupes of the very economic, cultural and political environment they wish to criticize. But what other function could Moyers be playing? This is an establishment lackey with establishment credentials whose very function is to periodically exorcise the board rooms of the same cutthroats who fund his PBS-approved formats, thereby providing a double check on Moyers so that he doesn't go too far -- the mantra that the Official Media chants to itself to ensure that they don't actually embarrass the system that signs their paychecks. And it's certainly valid for Parcelli to hold artists accountable for the company they keep, and in particular for what they're willing to suffer to be in that company.
Perhaps what so angers Parcelli, to address Bob Perelman's lingering question, is the near absolute blackout of the "intellectual" voice in poetry. He despairs, as I do, of the phony barriers erected between aesthetic and intellectual experience, as if intellectual experience has no claim to aesthetic value. The level of nescience that characterizes the current scene, which is frequently hidden amid a selective and shallow erudition, amounts to no more that a self-induced castration adopted in lieu of the daunting task of actually immersing oneself in a difficult and frequently frustrating field until one masters it and brings it to bear in one's work. This prejudice against learned material in favor of the inspired impulses that arise willy-nilly from the intuitive matrix of the poets is little more than a weak veil that hides an appalling superficiality, what Parcelli calls a willful ignorance. The truth of the matter is that intuition is enhanced whenever the parameters in which it operates are expanded; what else can Pound mean in his dialectic on the vortex? This doesn't require that everyone be an intellectual, or that only intellectual impulses be valid in constructing poetry. Art isn't reducible to a single dimension and those who advocate it in any fashion are either incapable or unwilling to explore viewpoints other than trivial "life-affirming" "feelings" or the improbable archetypes of Joseph Campbell; there are undoubtedly those who maintain that this mediocre experience is entitled to be represented, whether Parcelli likes it or not. Perhaps we might label this particular strain the Hruska school, after the Senator of the same name who advocated just such a rationale during Supreme Court confirmations. I'm sure Parcelli would be less inclined to bother himself with the fits and starts of so-called contemporary poetry if there were venues in which to publish and discuss poetry and poetic concepts other than those that result from the vagaries of one's personal interactions or lack thereof. Perhaps if creative writing departments were something other than conveyor belts and actually encouraged novice poets to energetically engage the body of poetical work that precedes them, sophisticated artists like Parcelli wouldn't waste the time or the effort in belaboring the obviously contrived work of poets exemplified by Robert Hass, a former recipient of the good government seal of approval. And indeed, if I were Hass I wouldn't want Parcelli to turn his withering gaze in my direction and dismiss my work as a desperate and flabby concoction. Perhaps Parcelli is angry because Bob Perelman isn't.
So why is it that alternative subjects and styles are not encouraged, past lip service anyway, in nearly all creative writing programs? Incidentally, this includes the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction, whom Parcelli also addresses in his broadside; this faction's hostility to everything other than so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is well documented. Why is it that serious investigations of works such as the Cantos and "The Wasteland" are banished to upper level graduate courses, while stones and other objects are passed among the neophytes as poetical stimuli? Why are Dante or Milton taught as historical monuments and not as viable forms of poetry? Who ever went bad translating Homer or Virgil? When one looks around one gets the impression that the legatees of the poetic canon are embarrassed by it -- less for what it says than for the inconvenience of its existence. Perhaps the questions that arise from the dead are too embarrassing. The privileged place of the new is irrational when it's advanced for novelty and without concern for its content; when Pound advocates that poets make it new he doesn't mean for them to do so ignorantly. Why is so much of radical experimentation so mindless? Worse, why is there so little thoughtful criticism circulated between the groups of poets who actually do the writing? Isn't it cowardly to hide behind vague aesthetic principles when confronted by powerful alternatives? Are we really advancing the cause of art when we ignore the vast tradition of our tribe, and in fact treat it with malevolent contempt? Doesn't this headless rush into the new at any cost necessarily encourage this bias against history? How can we know what we are, when we can't see who we were? If poets assume their rightful size -- smaller than one thinks, but larger than one imagines -- then one won't hear oneself referred to as a solipsistic middle class fop living off the sweat and blood of every other middle class fop . . . who wants to validate his sad experience. . .
The commonplace epiphanies of personal experience which Parcelli claims shackles these poets are only so by virtue of the unexceptional nature of what tends to be sought after. To some extent this is inevitable; if we search for art in low levels of intensity, we are very likely to find it there. More profound revelations require increasingly higher levels of risk; for example, consider the difference between poets such as Robert Duncan and Robert Hass, or David Jones and Bob Perelman, or Lauro de Bosis and Gerald Stern. Are their differences merely an issue of ambition, and if so, of what nature? From my viewpoint, the only ambition of importance is in the demand that art be allowed to continue to develop its capacity to express its contact with the real. If art is trivialized or compromised, so too are the perspectives it provides and the criticism it engenders. The passivity of the Moyers' coterie is directly related to the solipsistic models by which they were indoctrinated in creative writing programs, the proliferation of said programs occurring principally to inflate the departmental body count following the precipitous drop in enrollments that resulted from the reduction of English requirements that occurred in the Sixties and Seventies. No one ever informed them that the nothing of art dwarfs the 0 of science, or that theory provides art with another obstacle to overcome, another collection of paradigms to absorb within its living expression. One either embraces art in this spirit or one writes, as Parcelli says, life-affirming crap, a kind of victim's bleat circulating within market forces that gives the lie to the assumptions on which the impulse arose. And understand that I'm not laying down some edict; far from it. Artists must be free to proceed in any manner or fashion they choose. But when institutional poets conspire with the repressive elements of a market economy to limit the circulation of styles and levels of poetry to what is essentially vulgar expression, then other artists have the right to complain -- and what better way to do so than by the contemptuous explication that Parcelli employs?
Bill Moyers is a thief who robs poetry of its authority; he's sentimental and therefore trivial, he offers no lasting insight into poetry and makes no demands for it other than to deliver the punch lines that he characterizes as life-affirming, but which in fact are the same baseless platitudes that have been fed to the multitudes by the moguls since at least the time of Thales. Parcelli observes that if any of the poets Moyers selected had intended to take advantage of the forum to express ideas of art opposed to or even different from Moyers, they failed to make those views known. He concludes that these poets simply seized the opportunity to appear on television in hopes of advancing their careers and/or their personal stature in the arts community -- enjoying what one euphemistically calls a coup, illustrating a tendency by too many artists to rationalize their participation in these paeans to the monied elite under the heading of well-deserved recognition for their years of toil in the trade. One might just as well give them a gold watch. Parcelli is justified in pointing out the dangers that commentators like Moyers pose to poetry, particularly in their attempts to reduce the aesthetic truth of poetry to an anodyne for the banal discoveries and disappointments of the bourgeoisie, thereby forcing contrary forms and expressions to the fringe, which is their aim.
Personally, I look forward to the day when solipsistic originality is just one facet of art's vision, and not its guiding light. Make it new implies a symbiotic relationship with the past, not an arbitrary break with the whole of its history, and those who claim otherwise usually have motives that can't stand the light of inquiry. It's within this historical error that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction has imprisoned itself -- a fact to which it seems oblivious -- by refusing to recognize that its denunciation of the new-Georgians of contemporary poetry was anticipated by modernism in its earlier refutation of the old Georgians, and on whom the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction ironically models itself. As Parcelli points out, the critical or hermeneutic dimension of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, though open ended, aspires to traditional norms of comprehension. Also, the adoption of self-interpreting structures has severe limitations, as I point out in my essay "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S," which thus far no one has meaningfully contested. Parcelli astutely observes that their critical dimension is used to mask the failings of the imaginative, indicating that the weakness of the imaginative work undermines the critical dimension to such a degree that as the two become more and more interchangeable, as illustrated in the works of Bob Perelman, among others, their functions become so confused that the weakness of one exacerbates the weakness of the other. Parcelli asks for no quarter and gives none. He realizes that if the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction adopts critical techniques as poetical techniques, and vice versa, then both dimensions are subject to the critical standards of each. Parcelli's comments are hard to dispute, and if Perelman, or Charles Bernstein, or Leslie Scalapino or Bruce Andrews or anyone else takes exception to anything Parcelli writes, then they have an intellectual duty to respond in whatever form they choose, so that a meaningful dialectic between advocates of competing ideas can emerge. For my part, I'm a little disappointed at the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction's reluctance to respond to honest criticism; they certainly have had a great deal to say about others, but now that sophisticated critical scrutiny is focused on them, their reticence to return fire serves to undermine the ethical character of their work. Perhaps Parcelli is so angry because he's been left waiting at the net, racquet in hand, peering through a chain link fence at the other guests standing among the laurels sipping white wine coolers, oohing and aahing at the sunset.
Having bashed W.C.W., let me now resurrect him as the people's bulwark against the grab of immediacy that characterizes so much of today's experimental poetry: after all it's Williams who reminds us that people die every day for the lack of news to be found in poetry. This is both undeniable and historical, and it represents a formidable obstacle to any faction that wishes to abolish either history or its effects. Far from redacting history, Williams reminds us that to make it new one must bring this news forward as a visible breach in the cultural blackout. As one can plainly see, to make it new doesn't necessarily mean make it different. I use Williams in this role because he isn't a fascist, or an economic crank or an elitist; the fact that he learned the above from Pound is beside the point. It's obnoxious the imperial way that certain groups denounce methods other than their own, and in so doing they betray their false commitments to humane social unity, displaying in its place an assertion of authority that looks curiously like satrapy, and is typically displaced in the exuberance of youth or in the conservative pull of the ancients -- properly interpreted, of course. Parcelli prefers something that neither of these absurd perspectives have to offer. He prefers art that gets one out of oneself by getting one around, through, under or over the perspective previously occupied, whether aesthetic, moral, comedic or ethical, whether gain or loss. He's not nearly as concerned with who's right as he is with what's right. From where Parcelli sits, no one should feel very comfortable; the wealthy elites, the richest, most powerful of recorded time, are still not satisfied; their huge profit margins swamp the corporate fiascoes of public spending, leaving very little for the commonweal. The environment as an issue has importance only as an industry within an industry; despite what governments say, the harmful effects of industrial abuses are being identified in record numbers everywhere on the planet. Zealots attempt to incorporate harsh religious regimes within the framework of our civil constitution, and religious, racial and tribal hatreds are ubiquitous the world over. The usurpation of cultures and religions by what Parcelli designates the scientific-technological paradigm is nearly universal, leaving formidable anger over the ban against old beliefs and customs to seethe dangerously, barely contained within the greed and alienation that displaces them, occasionally flaring into unspeakable acts with unparalleled force and body counts, thanks to the technological wing of the above mentioned paradigm. Propaganda methods have become so sophisticated as to cause public mood-swings to gyrate wildly between bloodthirsty slogans and maudlin terms of endearment. Proliferating artistic movements peter out prematurely, not because artists have exhausted the artistic possibilities within the movements, but because potential value is greatest at the initial offering when prices are lowest, an aesthetic more reminiscent of Ivan Boesky than Jackson Pollock.
The net effect is an emasculated art scene where the confirmation of value is more important than the being it's art's job to reflect. Given these conditions, Perelman's question is woefully inappropriate; the question he should have asked is, why is Parcelli still sane? It must be extremely galling for academic poets like Perelman, et al, as compromised as they are by their positions in the very institutions they thematically oppose, to have to put up with the likes of Parcelli, a poet who is not constrained by either bourgeois manners or the dictates of the objectified reality of institutional employment, and who mercilessly points to their deficiencies as proof positive that, no matter what else they are, they're not leaders of any meaningful changes in art. For Parcelli, radical talk is one thing, radical action is another. To use abstraction as a method is not the same as using it as a methodological alibi, and while art itself is outside any criticism -- to the extent that it's art -- criticism of art doesn't enjoy the same status, even when it's incorporated as a poetic technique; method isn't the art it produces, as the short shrift given to works labeled copies demonstrates. In Parcelli's view, art must resist profit and the profit motive with all of its being if it is to survive as a legitimate expression of the real. What this resistance requires is artists like Parcelli, who're not only willing but anxious to tell corporations, collectors and hustlers of all sorts to piss off, and to have no intercourse of any kind with them. Their objective is to rid themselves of the effects of narcissistic and selfish impulses so as to maximize their participation in the real of their being, an experience so profound that it can only view fame in the past tense. When one attains this frame of reference, one has become a work of art oneself. As a result, one needn't worry about the limits of innate talent, which will have been transcended. Those who follow Parcelli's example can pursue methods, techniques and theory for their content, and not as material on which to impose the truncated imaginary structures of their psyche. In this vision of art, talent will indeed win out, but no one will care; far more important is the honest and earnest participation in the continual act of creation that energizes the affirmation of aesthetic effect, even when expressing the darkest side of being. It's still to be or not to be, and not be all you can be, which, as we all know, is the slogan of the other camp.
Lastly, if after reading this Bob Perelman still questions the validity of Parcelli's anger, he should contact Parcelli, who has absolutely no reluctance to defend his point of view, whether in condensed or expanded formats. I hope Perelman and others do engage Parcelli, or me for that matter, so as to rekindle the smoldering heap of poetry with the kind of insightful and considered argumentation that benefits everyone; the essence of the modern mind-set is, in the vernacular of the Langpo tribe, an extremely synchronous moment, and has much to offer other such moments in whatever mind-sets. Parcelli believes that the words of modernism, instead of echoing in the marble vaults of signified history, speak to the living through the mouths of the living, con brio.
October 21, 1997