The reaction against modernism in postmodern critical theory and poetry (critical of the ancient "springs" of poetry) attempts to avoid, out of peudeur, the raw emotional affect in sublime poetry. Postmodernism is pleased to be perverse—"ironic" is the covering word—but its security lies in remaining merely level-headed. It stands clear of shocks of recognition and throes of lyricism. Kitsch—though granted it now means whatever you say it means and not, as before, "the metamorphosis of shit"1—is in its new aggressive-playful phase an abandonment of beauty from the other (the non-sublime) side, a revel in the knick-knack paddy-whack of the detritus of popular and commercial culture. It at least has occasional vitality of a shallow, sometimes brilliant, kind. More insidious is the middle ground of talk poetry, which, kudzu-like, has quietly (it doesn't have dynamics) crept up and out and all over. (It isn't new, of course. The American Academy's Poem-a-Day website frequently offers samples from past periods.) It has even less of the difference of art than kitsch does (a difference that used to be called elevation, a term the fearless Badiou continues to use). As Carl Schlachte writes with ambivalent irrony, "the century / Talks the singing away. I’m glad we don’t / Need it anymore: the song tumesces . . . is undigestible.”  Vanilla, downsized, talk-poetry rules in today's poetry magazines and collections. See any issue of The American Poetry Review. See Agni 78, where a typical poem begins “Thanksgiving, and someone etched the word bitch / Into my grandmother’s car, she says at the table,” or “I’ve never been the marrying sort, never / Been in the sort of state voted most likely / To secede from bachelorhood.” Somebody likes this sort of anesthetized, banal, external poetry. It can be read like the newspaper, with one finger crooked in a coffee cup's elbow. It lacks the imaginative, cognitive, and artistic intensity to surprise you more the more closely you read it, and so cannot give off the frightening, unmistakable hum of what really needed to be written as poetry, that is to say, in part, from out of the wild of emotional intelligence combined with a formal intelligence at work in the surprisingly infinite field of language. The dull opposite of macro-conceptualizations meshed with micro-writing, and usually offering some uplift or a dose of sorrow (take only as prescribed), it doesn't think to raise the stakes and plumb the depths. See also The New Yorker. Oh, don’t bother to look for such poetry at all; its platter of cheese and crackers is already being borne toward you.

 

The sublime in one or another guise, from jagged-ugly to exquisitely nihilative, is still imperative to those for whom the last and present century are, in contemplation, laceration. The sublime, that is to say, not of the divine Keats— “The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children. The  mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things,” etc.—but inferable from, or a modulation of (it could not be anything closer than that), the reality of  the camps as marked by Martha Gellhorn's portrait of a Dachau survivor: “he was found under a pile of dead. Now he stood on the bones that were his legs and talked and suddenly he wept. ‘Everyone is dead,’ he said, and the face that was not a face twisted with pain or sorrow or horror. ‘No one is left. Everyone is dead. I cannot help myself. Here I am and I am finished and cannot help myself. Everyone is dead.’” For the sorrowing and the horrified and, not less, the disgusted and angry, even if at many removes from what Gellhorn described, the beautiful cannot get back into the game. 

 

Three rules of thumb for me, then, in judging contemporary poetry: if it’s kitsch it's a diversion; if it's talk it's not innerved; and if it's beautiful it isn’t real—this last a rewind of Sartre’s statement that “the real is never beautiful.” "Real" as in raw. As in a “real relation with death.” Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Dickinson, Yeats, Artaud, Vallejo, Mandelstam, Michaux, Césaire, Celan, Plath, and Jorie Graham are among the poets who evoke it. They are poets who, to echo Cathy Park Hong’s expression, blowtorch the beige from the eyes. They write to make writing real—or such is the effort. Beautifully so? Well, okay, but it’s not your tried and true poetic beauty. It’s robust beauty (exemplary in Whitman’s case) or, more often, dread beauty. Another name for which is the sublime. 

 

The violently ruffled feathers of poetry cannot be laid flat and made lovely again for those put on alert by history and science (science as in id-bottomed, "house of leaves" psychoanalysis; science as in astrophysics——hence reality as perceived in  The Greek Anthology: “All that exists comes from unreason"). For them, the affects are disturbed. The basic feeling of art —what Joan Mitchell called “feeling your existence”—has been set on edge in a renewal of the German Romantics’ sense of life as eating away at itself, demonic (the most abstract name for the demonic is time, which creates clots in the energy stream, the sensient ones being bundles of pain and delight), only now redoubled at the public level, as earlier for Shelley and Blake, where, given the instinct of dominance, something always eats away at something else. Not wrestling with both existential and socio-cultural ills isn't an option, even if only in the sorriest form, that of "violent cynicism" (Sanguineti). More generally, being on edge provokes operations that interrupt contemplation's unities, seeking what
Artaud calls  “a door simply ajar on reality.” (Celan: “Lean yourself / On the inconsistencies.”) In our era we posit and suspend language simultaneously (Barthes: “this feeling of a driven language is infallibly coupled with that of a suspension of language”). 

 

Certainly there are a few if very few contemporary poets whose work is honorably delicate and even (still honorably) classically calm or in other ways inoffensive, civil, exquisite. I cite as my example the socially divine Bin Ramke represented by two poems in this issue. The very best work of so reasonable a description delights me but again is extremely rare and surrounded by poetry mud-splattered with what Celan called the garish talk of rubbed-off experience. There is also, as another exception, rare lyric phenomenology, as in ‘Annah Sobelman's extraordinary poetry—though her epic poem in this issue engages with the elementally real and raw—and the equally unique work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, which, while worlds removed from violence and out of fashion in its power of enchantment (and not least for those reasons), avoids playing it safe. One could round up other kinds of polite or not impolite success. But in the main I stand by the slogan: if the poem isn’t ready to skin you alive, it isn’t doing enough. Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry: “The only danger is in not going far enough.” Ronald Johnson in ARK: “Beauty is easy. // It is the Beast that is the secret.” 

 

Alfred North Whitehead said he trusted “brutal transitions and unexpected coexistences,” a phrase useful to describe poetry that works near the horns and hooves and shit of the real. And of course there are other ways of going on, of making of language a new discovery,  a new experience. But whatever the “method” (to mention that which poets from Oulipo and Language Poetry on down to Conceptual poetry and its sisters deliberately allow to limit their poetry, as Rimbaud, who put it forward, did not), the poetry I speak of has an intelligent body (Ginsberg on Blake) and conveys “experience as a whole” (Césaire), which is not to be confused with “the wholeness [that] is a sickness of our thought” (Pessoa). Carrots . . . kevlar . . .  wavefunction . . . quantum interference . . . the theory of everything: we're not in Kansas anymore, Kansas is not in Kansas anymore, and even if it were, words would fail before what it is and what it is could not be felt enough. As for the fiend hid in poetry's cloud, the rats in its imaginary gardens, they are the raw and real revealed there by matter's precisely localized pains and anguish and heaps of human interference. The real and the raw are finally the heterogeneity that escapes symbolization, in Lacan's formulation. To write in skepticism of the concept, of a frame that simplifies the diverse, is to keep alive the adventure of language.

 

Never laid flat and made lovely again: some of us, perhaps many, have developed a need for what the Austrian painter Maria Lassnig calls “drastic art.” In the present context, that means poetry that smarts from the slaps of the real (the “how it is”), and poetry that slaps back. Poetry as “the argonaut of our pathological sensibility” (Pessoa again); poetry navigating libidinal and thanatic conflicts and their affects. It means poetry that underscores social neglect and outright cruelty. And often, if not necessarily, poetry whose syntactic strivings and dissonances register profound disquiet or rebellious anarchy. Or—but my aim is not to exhaust the varieties. All but paradoxically, drastic poetry can be fully (well, almost fully) occupied—being, as it is, a poetry of dread vitality—in contrast to the under-occupied poetry common today: “under-occupied” despite the examples of the great poets of the real listed above, and for that matter the example of the modernists in general, writers permanently important for the trenchancy and jouissance of their pagan artistic researches.

 

1Martin Pops, "The Metamorphosis of Shit," Salmagundi (Spring, 1982)

 
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