A Social and Political Turn 


In the initial period of postmodernity, a time of near-wipeouts for anti-systemic movements, Fredric Jameson wrote of the waning of strong affect. This postmodern period itself has a history. Today, in the historical storm system of financial bubbles, there is a social turn taking place among a set of postmodern American poets. “They must engage in social practice,” writes Cathy Park Hong. 

A poetics of the recent postmodern social turn develops today alongside the left opposition movement in the US that began in 2009-2010 with student occupations and anti-police murder uprisings before further expanding during Occupy: a movement that has seen a renewal of radical feminism and yet another outward expansion in recent years in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

If the 1980s and early 1990s were typified by employer offensives, labor defeats, and breakneck expansions of global investment flows, recent decades from the mid-1990s to the present have seen some poetry and poetics renew strong left political affects. To adapt a recent comment of Hal Foster’s in Bad New Days, Verso 2015, we are going from the dizzying textuality of earlier postmodernism to an aesthetic politics of the historical real as the persistent crisis-condition of financialization works its way into several diverse forms of advanced North American poetics. This poetic-political development refuses a dominant US political culture caught between what Tariq Ali calls “the extreme center” and an asymmetrical politicization going ever further out to the far right: witness the casual nightmare of Clinton versus Trump. 

Anne Boyer, Juliana Spahr, Rodrigo Toscano, Mark Nowak, Andrew Joron, Joshua Clover, Jasper Bernes, Brian Ang, Jeanine Webb, among others, are developing poetry/poetics today in concert with new signs of mass politics (as with the plaza occupation movements in 2011 or BLM more recently). They are aligned with, even ready to contribute to struggle (whether conceived in anti-capitalist or anti-racist terms). This is a formally open poetics (from post-Situationist and neo-Surrealist lyric, in other words poetry influenced by activist poetic traditions, to post-Language writing and digital platform work all in the mix) that retains a practical connection with the politics of building a resistance movement. No matter what it takes. We’ll be up all night. It may be the case that this new development in North American poetics will be a support of the incipient anti-capitalist culture in our region of the world.


Two Recent Books


Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders (Ahsahta 2016) is an open, intergeneric work, grounded in the organizing “market” prosopopeia of the neo-liberal era: the grammatical casual utterance that assumes that the personified, agential market is “nervous” or “upset” but “delighted” by post-crisis, Obama-era monetary policy. Overtly political and economic, The Market Wonders seems to typify today’s political poetic tendency. (The book is also of a piece with recent essayistic poetry and prose essays, mostly written by women, a crucial nexus for recasting the personal and the political: for instance, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Anne Boyer, Bhanu Kapil.) Briante even concludes with some pointed reference to Marx. “Mother is a Marxist, exposing as false and pernicious the mystification of capitalist instantiations of value, promiscuous relations of value and their violence.” 

This kind of internet sampling of language, with tones of Milton and Marx’s theory of value, is one aspect of the mural-like depiction of a poet-mother-teacher’s life. Something is happening as the verse takes from the language of the market its many-sided commanding and hailing compulsions. But instead of proving a heavy slog, the poem or “project” is light-footed, featuring a variety of materials, from a tonally enigmatic introduction (with reference to Ashbery and Hejinian) to passages of love poetry and erudite journals of moving from Dallas to Tucson. The Dow Jones Industrial Average’s daily movement serves as a frame for Schuyler-type hymns to life in the era of Quantitative Easing—the Dow surges from 9,500 at the close of 2009 to the hallucinatory heights of the near-present. Beneath titles like “The Dow Closes Up 10464” a more intimate sort of poetry, frank and unburdened by rhetorical mechanics, takes shape, but myriad allusions, including to Stein in WWII occupied France, give off a feeling of the placelessness of any place, best captured in “Meditation,” which begins: 


In the PartyStore/PierOne/Target/Kohl’s parking lot, 

          find a desert willow among the shopping carts 

walk around it sunwise repeating:

I am the avant-garde, I am the avant-garde, I am the avant-garde





  “Meditation” is followed by the sequences “The Market Is a Parasite That Looks Like a Nest” and “October 8—December 19.” The former sequence adroitly deploys “the Market” at the beginning of each poem in the sequence (“Archeologists will know me better, / the Market thought”; “The Market imagines those are shallows”; “We know nothing but this living / the Market thinks”). The language is unnerving here, as in the next sequence, with its vivid implication of police brutality in the period since the economic crisis: “three hours south / of us      people / take to the streets / to meet the rain.” Other passages left me flat. I appreciated the total project of an anti-decorative autobiography of the post-crisis period, but did wonder about that period’s depiction overall. What are we to make of the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average in the series of titles, which begins its ascent in 2009 coincident to the first austerity measures hitting the public sector? It would appear our “market society” is doing better, while the final poem, “Mother Is a Marxist,” depicts a move from one city to another, the purchase and sale of two homes. I found this all a bit agnostic toward the so-called Obama recovery, if not overtly uncritical. Further, today even casual observers know that the market metaphor rings hollow, as the whole financial edifice had to be bailed out at public expense, once again giving the lie to market magic and revealing the yawning contradictions of global overproduction. In the agony and ecstasy of broken marketswhere interest rates now sit below zero in some central banks and central bank actions have permanently disrupted historical credit creation cycles—there exists a profound separation between stratospheric stock ticker levels and ordinary life chances in the urban cores and rural corridors of the country. The very opaque separation of self in relation to the mode of production, which is ever more ineluctable and quasi-naturalized, becomes the asubjective dimension of Briante’s book, the fragmentation and difficulty of putting the whole thing together in a much more explanatory idiom or poem. 


Having been through a ceaseless period of class warfare from above, Michael Palmer’s poetry takes its backdrop from the bellicose mendacity of the official surveillance cant during the Bush and Obama years. Always close to the allusive mode of modernist collage and seriality, Palmer’s latest work is The Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions 2016), which like Thread and Company of Moths, features a long section of titled poems followed by a deftly, discordantly bracketed off final poem or sequence. Thread was notable for its innovative return to prose poetry, exhibiting demonic humor; in The Laughter of the Sphinx, by contrast, there’s a plethora of lineated, lyric two-liners (not couplets exactly), of sonnet-length at times (like his “Baudelaire Series”), at once synthesizing and unjoining or spiraling. I quote from “His Artificial Lover Sings a Wordless Song”: 


Artificial love was in flower


          amidst the revolutionary fragments.

          I wondered then, do captive Griffins roar


         in their dreams? 


Spiritus Mundi’s circus animals—in Yeatsian terms, as it were—stumble out of an immemorial cultural-mythic past. Compressed and nearly snapping through the seams—“The year of silence coming to an end” begins this remarkable poem from a book full of them—Palmer’s new work is a weave of jazz and tech and jerking stops and starts in a recitative idiom, a chorale of middle voices—before suddenly “things . . . constellate of their own accord,” as Palmer remarked in a 1994 interview. 

A poet of several periods, these are nonetheless difficult to pinpoint; Norman Finkelstein portrays his earlier work under a modernist sign of Stein, while Sun moves him squarely in the direction of Stevens (I would also say Eliot). Coming out of the middle 1960s scene in San Francisco Palmer was in his early career a quintessence of the postmodern, borrowing from everything from Wittgenstein to Huidobro and Albert Ayler. A poetic inheritor to a mature mode of modernist suspicion of lyric expression (and unable to undo it), his style today is a late one in the Adornian sense, as his poems “show more traces of history than of growth” (Adorno). Spiritual documents, his recent forms traffic in singings as much as they once did “signs”; they show a recourse to dream, caravan, and bazaar, as well as a sharp involvement with undecorative accompaniment.


Poems here sit next to sequences, picking up improbable heat from juxtaposition; it’s a big tent bazaar with many wares to display from extant but distant lands of literary influence and conversation. Sentences flame out ever at logic’s dreamed end, a kind of anti-metaphysical infinity, indescribable and endless: 


and in the dust-clogged air

the laughter of the Sphinx


endlessly riddling, endlessly echoing

loosing the blood’s engulfing tide


But then there’s the strong countervailing force in Palmer’s verbal, imaginative density, which has resonance and force, as with “Idiot’s Song”’s odd insertion: “and poetry the enemy of the state / of things.” Palmer also has a gorgeous music derived from and revived by a bristling field of allusions concomitant with an advanced career; dedications are found in several titles, but perhaps most poignant is “To X,” with its Arkadii Dragomoshchenko: “your book has arrived / though suddenly you’ve left.” Aging itself is a themean external life is there like the practico-inert; a travelogue, unfolding in an address to a specific group or friends. Other voices revisit the poet as fortune-teller, illuminating the origins of mobile poetic style. Variety abounds. Poems for music to come appear as do multi-poem dance-performance collaborations and dual accompaniments with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Use of readymade, sometimes Creeley-esque themes (love, aging/dying, catastrophe, Thomas Campion) will startle a reader of his earlier remorseless, Steinian and Jabès-derived procedures scattered with flames of the end of the Cold War. The convention of the unconventional has returned him to conventions. 

     But subjects and subjectivity return to take leave once again, as in the gripping “Falling Down in America,” which begins humorously enough as a détournement of an advert for a LifeAlert-style system for an elderly person alone at home: “Every three seconds someone over sixty five / falls down in America.” But the humor coarsens: 


           Perhaps while gazing at the sea

           distractedly one day 

           your balance failed

           and the waves carried you away

           toward the irradiated swells 

           of Fukushima.  

           If so, never mind—

And some lines later:


           In addition, it is likely 

           that your investments recently caved


Mere phrases are here unleashed and given a ravaged, Spicerian character paradoxically sensed in the serene adspeak of the poem: “If so, please disregard this notice.” The oft-commented upon post-Auschwitz character of Palmer, his evacuated statements (“I do not know English,” in The Promises of Glass, or this volume’s “Let us / write without meaning / to”), the thematization of meaninglessness à la Hölderlin, that terrestrial terror of late historical sea and sky, is overtly measured in faintest, flintiest terza rima strata here in “After”:


           And to write a poem 

           beneath the sickle moon

           is barbaric


And later extended to: 


          And to read a poem

          To read


          while the book is burning

          and to enter the Paper House

          while the streets are burning


All this too is barbaric, but the poem in disclosive, Celan-like fashion shocks at the end, with bare minimum alterations of repetition: “and to begin / to say / farewell / to begin / and to dwell / to dwell upon / to dwell among.” Mutedly visionary (like Miles with a mute on and facing away from the audience), poetic-political space here mediates the restricted act of the page and social body of the streets. To dwell among the contradictions of poetry, history and politics, the “Paper House” of poetry and its burning streets, means to find an openness, a possibility, a potential in the “power of dissociation” (Adorno) of the subject or work, as it splits into the impasses and structures of poetic practice and history: 




           Call me digital Mike


           or Mnemonic Mike

           or Felonious Mike

           or even better

           don’t ever call


           Time is money

           says it all



Cracking the Code


Confusion reigns in the avant-garde poetry world about the significance of the internet. “Come through, it’s lit,” says the torch of technological progress’s unreason. Conceptualism’s virtual meme endorsing the internet “advance” as some new medium of social discourse and experience is soon to be eclipsed by the cutting-edge post-internet virtual meme, since the internet, this new “veme” assures us, has died. We are language managers in a digital age, paddling into a big data-wave of spam and search-engine histories. Derek Beaulieu: “The Internet is not something that challenges who we are or how we write, it is who we are and how we write.” Paul Stephens, in The Poetics of Information Overload (University of Minnesota 2015), envisions a kind of contemporary data poetry, going on to endorse Mitchell Whitelaw’s notion of a “data subjectivity.” Meanwhile the actual “data subject” is the well-monitored, take-care-of-yourself (precarious) person who can now be relentlessly advertised to. 

Other virtual memes or “vemes,” as Linda Herrera calls them in her Revolution in the Age of Social Media (Verso 2014), now seek to pull big capital’s hook out of your nose. Some recent poetry “vemes” have been enemies of the state of things. Once upon a time The Claudius App was aggressively interfaced with conceptualists but heterodox with respect to poetry at large, even being anti-capitalist or Occupy-oriented. Emerging out of the tempests of virulent hostility came 2014’s somewhat notorious e-militia The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, with the last term being the self-declared grouplet’s moniker for Conceptual Writing. Radically overstated (OFTEN IN ALL CAPS!) and nearly redundant in postings across social media platforms, MCAG has been the flaming middle finger at the heart of a Twitter battle, a precursor to a dress rehearsal for something this writer never quite saw. The Jim Crow Ransom they saw in conceptualism was only partially there; but nonetheless MCAG convoked a live counter-data subject, riding the black box algorithms of the cross-platform. The social-media veme MCAG with its sloganizing regime of “posts” (“decolonize” is the privileged imperative) foreclosed the development of a broader searching mode of the manifesto or essay. Many things can be named or called out but what can be explored in such overtly reductive Twitter-led landscapes? 

But there is a vista beyond this. In Conceptual Writing and MCAG the internet itself largely goes unexamined as a form of infrastructure and industrial process. The harder they come, the harder they fall and never quite grasp that the “cloud” is more than its spontaneous, quasi-animated ether. The history of the development of the Internet is inseparable from the class relations of postmodernity—the infrastructure of global trade, with large firms connected to the state, like Apple and Google, ever more in control. “A new theory of value,” writes Sven Lutticken, “is needed that examines the ways in which networked capitalism transforms human labor and the creation of value.” Energy-hogging data centers are pushing climate disaster and resource extraction of the most exploitative sort for the workers and environments involved. With the qualitative change in internet use made possible by smart gadgets (the web is now a part of moment by moment daily life in a surprisingly integrated way), American poets should be thinking and working against the destructive state of things digital, rather than merely surfing its currents on any old platform. How do we reproduce an acidly corrosive regime of aesthetic or cultural resistance? 

          Jennifer Scappettone’s recent work hasn’t done this exactly, but has taken the journalistic impulse into the material conditions of the web, from mining to fiber optics, to the once-fashionable talk of digital poetics. I saw her audio-visual presentation at the SUNY Buffalo conference in April. She projected images and deadpanned a recitative that was also a poetic criticism of the academic avant-garde embrace of digital culture, while sequencing in a work of historical and collage-like suggestiveness. She surgically bypassed the poetry skirmishes of late by giving a totalizing, counter-hegemonic account of the digital within the mode of production. Like Mark Nowak’s work in Coal Mountain Elementary, Scappettone’s work, a mix of modes and genres, is a moving critical synthesis of the base and the structure. I will take my leave here with the beginning of her “Aeolian Harping,” which has passages of poetic fragment, critical analysis, and wide-ranging synthesis in its curating certain materials, from maps to bilingual terms:


Likes superceding talk, integers superceding contact, tags superceding

secrets, tête-à-têtes;

hashtags eclipsing quarrels, disputes, cognition arranged into

sentences; retweets
replacing research, trending replacing intercourse, free because
“virtual” intellectual labor replacing hired gigs; strategy
supplanting awkwardness, excess, styling expelling flesh, feeds from
up to three and a half minutes ago expelling
history; the mandate for constant agitation of high-powered

microwave transmitters and server-farms disguised to heat up
and scatter heavy petroleum fractions upon anonymous
communities via flashes of likeable hashtaggable retweetable
upworthy appearance as author and fan expelling by coercion
any breath of contemplation as neighboring Home Depots are
emptied in last-ditch efforts of ventilators large and small—
the Library of Congress cultivating cloud-farms to store, Kenny G
the pulp to print, the lot, Sisyphean lusoriness: passive
coproduction of the spectacle of information itself afloat
from any infrastructure of responsibility, organ of apprehension….


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