Firing Behind Song
Poetry as Critique
Where are we in the flow of things poetic and historical? Why should we be con- cerned with such a question? In what follows I hope to sketch out a quasi-critical period of poetry coming into being.
A definitional departure: it’s poetry, in Mallarme’s phrase, “if there remains within it some secret pursuit of music without the reserves of Discourse.” In the manner of a contradiction, modernist poetry nonetheless wound up being philosophically legible in its systematic, antagonistic negation of tradition and capitalist modernity, mobilizing vestiges of that tradition’s linguistic architecture for one last siege on the positive fact.
As modernist, the poet finds his or her quintessence as the epicenter of an earthquake. From either Poe or Baudelaire onward (or backdated from Hugo, Gautier, Nerval, Shelley, Wordsworth) one has a sense of a poet as a political figure, often a city dweller (see also Whitman). Much consequential poetry found itself bound up in the trans- formation of social relations into urban, industrial atomization. Elsewhere, poets such as Ruben Dario—whose coinage “modernismo” is still part of our currency—experienced a peripheral colonial relation to the modernity of French poetry, the modernity of the distant metropole.
The great poets and poems of the late 19th century, indissolubly linked to the ongoing “historical catastrophe” (Theodor Adorno’s phrase) of that world in revolutionary transformation, had a vision made possible by rapaciously “dynamic” new industries and energy sources as well as the still open horizon of a proletariat breakthrough. As Perry Anderson has emphasized, the aesthetics of modernism are unbound on all sides of this transforming world, this lived experience of the disappearance of an older “mode of production” (feudalism’s peasant agriculture and ancien regime).
Here think of Baudelaire’s famous desire for a sort of poetic style as supple in its emergent correspondences of figure and symbol as the city itself, an arrangement of novel and transient forms of sociability. A bit later Mallarmé’s “juxtapositions” of two images and their concomitant evocation of some third shudder of “restricted” thunder often present a combinatoire of modernity’s gothic background and its kitschy, produced ephemera. These were Mallarmé’s new words, the discordant diremption of the transition to modernity. Seen from this angle, postmodernism is the society after the transition, Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle (“a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”). This was the stage of capitalist development where “social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy” (Debord), while the rate of employment growth began its decline (owing to extensive mechanization) coincident with deindustrialization (stemming from boom and bust competitive pressure) in parts of the advanced sectors of what was then the global economy.
In addition to the French poets, Irish (Yeats), American, Spanish (Lorca), and Italian (Marinetti) poets associated with the modernist turn all had some profound relationship to the upheavals of their day as the mode of production found itself in a period of growth and contraction, war and deprivation, before settling into the more established technological society of the postwar boom. In this new world—that which Ernst Mandel called Late Capitalism (“late” as in “most recent period of”)—poetry still has a central place, it would seem, or at least it regards itself as central. Both Charles Olson and Federico de Onis could be said to have coined postmodernism as a concept indicating an extension of the highly experimental, projective dimensions of modernism, its “going live present,” in Olson’s phrase.
The “going live present” has been with us in some form since the 50s, but finds a new set of field dynamics in the 70s, as the neoliberal world order begins to take shape. Ihab Hassan described this period of art in old issues of Boundary 2, and it is the period with which Fredric Jameson’s classic articulation of postmodernism is centrally concerned. During this neoliberal period, the left politicization of disjunction begins its? steady? if ?ironic “Progress” (to borrow the title of Barrett Watten’s book-length tribute to the 1980s). It is useful to recall that Jameson famously examines the formal contours of Bob Perelman’s “China” in the opening section of Postmodernism. This poem is acknowledged for getting at our distracted and disconnected subjective experience under a regime of late capitalism as much for its ability to map the historical significance of China’s post-revolutionary emergence on the world stage as a 3rd great power. And indeed the “progress” of China in this period is one index of the arc of neoliberalism as a global project. But despite the central presence of this poem in the book’s incipient exposition, Jameson will note that the status accorded to the poet in the modernist moment is now reserved for the image and the creators of images, this being after all the society of spectacle. This is to say that postmodernism means that poetry is even more relativized with respect to cultural production. The poet-critics of our day find themselves on a juddered margin.
This postmodern period is also significant for two interconnected emergences that date to the political “liberations” of the 1960s: that of women poets and that of minority poets—for instance, Asian-American and Chicano-Latino poets (with variations, including Chino-Latino poets like myself). These poets find themselves working alongside the heroic tradition of African-American writing during the full arc of the 20th century. This is symptomatic of the deeper demographic shift in our society as a whole. I think it’s fair to say that these “minor” poets (in the Deleuzean sense) represent some of the most progressive developments, when it comes to aesthetic breakthroughs bringing new content to experimental poetry.
II. Two Examples
The oppositional and ultra-postmodern sublime of Charles Bernstein’s poetry assembles itself (almost) out of the fragments of a fully built and then, from the 1970s on, a suddenly neoliberal consumer capitalism. (Insert defeat of the 60s and the class project of the Reagan “revolution.”) In Bernstein’s work you won’t find much of what is dully called “meaning.” The seeming artlessness and amateur provocations give “the absence of every bouquet” new meaning. It’s tough poetry pitched at the unprecedented and fragile difficulty of our condition, and it reminds this reader of
Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: “those manifestly incomprehensible works that emphasize their enigmaticalness are potentially the most comprehensible.” Instead of inviting tendrils of beauty, Bernstein’s poetry, as assembled for most of All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, is one example after another of the flare up of “gasoline’s thrills.” Here is poetry without any comfort, because after all we live among hordes ofpossessing zombies vaguely “aware” of planetary emergency, somnambulating through the imperative to privatize public services. In such a landscape, Bernstein’s poetics appear as a vestigial weft of utopia (“Deserted all sudden a all”), illusionless andpoliticized everywhere in the design. Scrambling Aristotle with the best of the mad-at-the-world vanguard, Bernstein’s poetry manages significance without closure (as in “Solidarity is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold”). End-stopped portent has been ruled out of court, except possibly in the case of the deeply moving title poem, which is the book’s envoi:
Not if you gave me your pinky ring
Not if you gave me your curls
Not for all the fire in hell
Not for all the blue in the sky
Not for an empire of my own
The volume discordantly concludes with Pound that “what thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.”
A through-constructed style pervades this petit grand survey of Bernstein’s volumes—the immanent coherence of disruption and dissonance crosscut with the determinate negations of a willed, “new left” satire in complete sentences—while at other times all the letters from the billboards and office parks and high rises and html code fall and scatter earthward: “icxqyj2f108ytscxags62jc.” (In a poem like “Lift Off” the Joycean thunder-word is colder, disenchanted—somehow the whole thing’s gone wrong.) What was dissonance in the earlier poetry is by now a kind of consonance; and with all its weird “badness” and saccharine irony, Bernstein, more so than many of his fellow travelers, prefigured all things post-Flarfy. Cleaving to the innermost negative condition of paratactic figuration is no small formal hobbling device. I would suggest that a poem like “Islet/Irritations” nominally “frees” words into a proletarian condition of individuation and atomization (“to proper to behindless weigh in a rotating, / rectilinear our plated, embosserie des petits cochons”), a condition that quickly extends to the letter (as in the paralogically comprehended neologisms present in titles like “The Klupzy Girl” and “Dysraphism”).
There’s something of the unmastered trauma of modernism’s great negative with respect to tradition that inheres in the Stan Brakhage-like montage of breaks and crosscurrents, always turning in on itself—in order to disclose itself—and then differing: from a business pamphlet’s antilyrical facticity to “What are you fighting for?” and back again. Methexis predicated on mimetic pulsations flickers in and then slam dances around while at the jamboree. Bernstein is a poet of the violent contrast of passages; one finds many micro-poems. Or the whole thing threatens to come tumbling down, along with all the other debt-burdened and non-existent underpinnings. But in this same way Bernstein works in the horizon of our being, to use the Heideggerian contraption; our condition is a historical thing—late capitalism, our third nature, one in which peasant society is not coming back without a planetary catastrophe (one we may get sooner than we imagine). All along, Bernstein’s grasped our geopolitical situation in becoming.
If poetry today is a global archipelago of urban communities, Chinese poet Bei Dao is out of its “North Island.” His decades of lines alternate between floating along and fighting each other, all rendering China’s modernity of revolution and socialism in a technique of muted exile and intensity: “a great cathedral rises from the waves.” Here is a poet situated right beside the immense transformations of China since the Cultural Revolution. As Bei Dao notes in a brief introduction to The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems, the Cultural Revolution had a profound impact on his life: “This experience of hard labor, living at the bottom of society, eventually helped me a great deal. It broadened my understanding of life in a way that was tangible and material, something that books could hardly be capable of achieving.” This is a life that would find the poet cast out, wandering, and in “A State of War,” the title of a poem from the remarkable collection, Forms of Distance: “I lie behind song / firing into the cheery flocks of birds.” Our shifting, protean war world is one where “sunlight’s hitting the sea with saturation bombing.” Bei Dao’s great early poems emerged right out of the decaying days of the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four’s days didn’t seem numbered in the wake of Chou Enlai’s death, so Deng Xiaoping’s arrest was seen by protestors in 1976 as threatening the possibility of some alternative or opposition to the Gang’s tutelage. This sets some of the complicated situation of the poems into motion (“Notes from the City of the Sun” laconically concludes: “Living / A net”). In a poem like “The Answer”—with its famous, fulgurant line (which in English gets Dickinsonian treatment from Bonnie S. McDougall), “I—do—not—believe!”—one finds the brief appearance of the illusion- less “truth” that a post-secular art makes manifest: disenchantment interlarded with emancipated expression: “See how the gilded sky is covered / With the drifting twisted shadows of the dead.”
“The Answer” trembles with the tremendous throwing-off of tradition as well as the contradictory energy of the greatest Chinese modernist, Lu Xun. Its symbolism is a hoary mix of exploration (“The Cape Hope has been discovered, / Why do a thousand sails contest the Dead Sea?) and “geo-engineering”:
If the sea is destined to breach the dikes
Let all the brackish water pour into my heart;
If the land is destined to rise
Let humanity choose a peak for existence again.
As with Brecht’s great poem An Die Nachgeborenen, all this transpires under “the watchful eyes of future generations.” The above poem has little to do with a late 80s democratic movement it was thought to be the poetic distillation of, especially if this movement denotes US-style voting plus shopping. (The poem’s association with the events of Tiananmen is warranted, as long as one bares Xudong Zhang’s proviso in mind: “Democracy, by the way, had never figured prominently in the pre-1989 intellectual lexicon, contrary to the popular impression as a result of Western TV images.”) If Bei Dao’s poetry “abjures overt political rhetoric” (in Michael Palmer’s phrase), then its determinate negations of turbulent historical and personal circumstance reveal an oppositional poetic culture running underground, its runnels and rivulets now concealed, now revealed.
From 2010’s perspective, Bei Dao’s career of exile has a Brecht-like conclusion: back in Beijing (“Black Map”: “I’ve come home—the way back / longer than the wrong road / long as a life”; and, later, “Beijing, let me toast / your lamplights / let my white hair lead / the way through the black map”), and teaching in Hong Kong. But the recent poems in the volume are “worlded” with experience. His career has been a long, almost impossible “Transitional Period,” the title of a recent poem: “from the deep sea someone comes / bringing the sunrise code.” The poet is here with an unflinching historical balance sheet. He has remembered to make a world against the forgetting, as in the concluding stanza of “Ramallah,” where Bei Dao figures the West Bank city in a churning, vortical present:
seeds sown along the high noon
death blossoms outside my window
resisting, the tree takes on a hurricane’s
violent original shape
Such are the depths of poetry composed with “a few time-shaken words.”
III. Directed Distraction
And the clock seems to begin running out on the ordered chaos of neoliberal capitalism, though its ideological victory has been so sweeping that as the “market” falters, with the deadlocks of forestalled collapse and stagnation rearing up again, even more profoundly than in the 1970s, nothing new appears to replace this financialized world, let alone some idea of a transition to socialism.
Here’s my injunction to the present: poetize the world dialectically in terms not merely of what is, but in terms of what this world’s becoming. (This is the changing same of “the new thing.”) Gopal Balakrishnan: “We have yet to figure out what an historical narrative would look like without the forward march of capital.” If the defeat of the left (or the end of the 60s) organized the horizon of possibility for a post-avant aesthetic these past several decades, it was a knowing smile (or grimace) that presided over the disjunctive practices, resigned to exilic wanderings in the word, with an occasional glance at the robots and glitter of the whole big bad economy thing. Now given this emerging condition of post- or declining global capitalism, how does poetry respond? Anticapitalism hasn’t returned in a mass way so that one could commit poetry to it. But many possible oppositional poetics are emerging (some candidates: an insurgent anticapitalist poetry à la the 95 Cent Skool; Conceptual Writing; Gurlesque; a multi- cultural and urban poetry ramifying now alongside the heroic African-American poetry; and several individual styles among the young as well, including Cathy Park Hong’s slangy near-futurism, Shane Book’s Flagelliforms, Ben Lerner’s gauchiste-Stevensian quality, Sandra Simonds’ imaginative overdrive, etc.), and I want to ask, like Raymond Williams, which of these poetics are “alternative” or genuinely oppositional. Do these poets find a different way to write and live and wish to be left alone with it; or do they find a different way to live and write and wish “to change society in accordance with the discovery” (Williams). The latter point may vaguely specify impossibility or utopia. So be it. (Check Joshua Clover’s “The Gilded Age” in this issue, its “passion for the real”: “There are not two kinds of poetry there is only one: Jacobin and unyielding.”)
The pricklier rather than flattened ironies of Flarf, a poetry sculpted out of hits from Google search terms, might be one way to think about what oppositional poetry is emerging today. A quotation from Fredric Jameson’s recent book, Valences of the Dialectic, has been helpful for my thinking in this regard:
Whatever still wishes to call itself art … must now appeal to a certain violence in reestablishing what must remain merely provisional or ephemeral frames: the mode of perception must also be historically altered, borrowing from that type of attention Benjamin discovered in our consumption of architectural space and which he called distraction … to fashion a new kind of attention which we may call directed distraction, and which is closest in spirit to Freud’s association of ideas—a most rigorous process indeed, in which the old self and the older habits of consciousness are to be held in check and systematically excluded.
Our distracted, inattentive, difficult-to-map condition hasn’t gone away. What might lie ahead in a season of political turbulence and drift? (Could Obama be any worse? Are teabaggers going to get their Berlusconi? The Dems are happy to use the lunatic right to hold the left hostage to their bailout, war, and education destroying policies.) It might be that some of Flarf makes the spotlighted and mediatized differences relate, renewing a demotic immediacy for experimental poetry. If many people today distract themselves online, the Flarf poets have been the collective Rodin of such action. In some Flarf (and now “post-Flarf”), there’s a glimpse of what’s beyond an overly self-conscious lyric (paradox: it’s difficult to get to that beyond)—a glimpse of Valéry’s poet as “a cool scientist, almost an algebraist, in the service of a subtle dreamer.” And many of these poets make a work that is humorously stinging to those countless folk poets of the online language of word clouds, comments fields, and news accounts. Their distraction is a raw and strangely engaged one.
For illustration, let’s check a short passage from Kasey Mohammad’s new book, The Front, from a poem called “Like Decorations in a Wigger Cemetery,” which plays off the title of a well-known early Wallace Stevens poem:
a man named Wigger was reported today
to have gone to his death
he began to crawl in a curious way
using his powerful shoulders and arms
shoes made of flesh was sacked and remained
in ruined polygonal wabs in a fair state
on which is the royal unicorn rampant
one of few or only fixtures in a lamp
Just how alienated is social life in the recent decades? “Wiggers,” that is urban and rural whites imitating the cooler trappings of hip-hop culture, are certainly one symptom of this unprecedented alienation. And that we find ourselves at their cemetery points to the fact that maybe in this new period, beyond the supposedly unsurpassable victory of markets, we might find that a less alienated array of social relations is possible again, as the life we know becomes more of a struggle than it has been in recent decades. But this analysis of the human will may be overly optimistic. The poem is fleshing this out: the subject’s post-wigger revivification (“he began to crawl,” “using his powerful shoulders and arms”), no sooner starts than it finds itself thoroughly “sacked,” torn asunder in more “wabs” (short for wack-ass bullshit). But then there’s another shift and this is now happening in a “fair state.” Here is an emblem of a fraught and difficult subject of becoming.
I want to point to Ed Roberson here in conclusion, particularly his 2006 volume City Eclogue. A passage from “City Eclogue: Words for It,” one example of the complex of figuration found throughout the volume, attempts to stanza the city in relation to nature, no light undertaking given the built environment of American conurbations as of 2010:
City of words we’re not supposed to use
Where everyone is lying when it’s said these words
are not accurate, that this shit is not the flowering,
that shit off the truck and not the gut
bless of bird and animal dropping isn’t somehow
just as natural a distribution
as the wild bloom The trees are
delivered in ordered speech as is
dirt mouth curse and graffiti
to where the backed perches want them. Bought with
the experience that thought up city.
Here’s a city without poetry, or working against it with “ordered speech.” But focus primarily on the end of this passage. What is meant by the figure “backed perches”? We see throughout the passage a conflating of the work a truck does going around a city with supplies and materials for the urban situation and the work a bird does dropping seeds, which turn into blooms. We also see the poem as a city. But “backed perches” still echoes oddly. I think “backed” is clarified by the emphatic “Bought” which begins the next sentence. These are the financially “backed” perches of corporate birds, with the “flip after we flip” mentality of derivatives traders. They are the now less mysterious agents determining the urban arrangements. As these perches fall, and as we attempt to compost them in our evolving epoch, we need to think of new “grounds for city” (and for poetry), as the last line of this remarkable poem has it.