Archive for May, 2022|Monthly archive page

Absolutely Modern Compositional Praxis (a title sure to make this post go viral!)

The indefatigable Kent Johnson continues his running battle with any and all complacencies, real or apparent, in (at least) the American anglophone poetry community. As is often the case, he’s been carrying on a running battle with various L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, recently with Bruce Andrews. Interested parties can visit Johnson’s FB page where these threads unwind, but I share here a latest back and forth to pin the point I want to make on:


Bruce Andrews wrote:

>No grudges about a peer [Eliot Weinberger] who I never found to be “brilliant” & who made what I considered many uninformed “categorical polemics” about a range of experimental (&, yes, intransigent) writing; it was a comment about the thread of responses you’ve mobilized here (& tend, for whatever personal reasons, to mobilize/trigger) into sweeping disavowals of a very large range of poetry that I’ve cared very deeply about — so are we talking about Peter Seaton or Hannah Weiner or Tina Darragh or P. Inman or Diane Ward or Michael Gottlieb or Alan Davies or Steve Benson or Abigail Child or Lynne Dreyer or WHO; this visceral attack/dismissal mode [not duplicated, by my reckoning, in my own published responses to poets I don’t get enthusiastic about] is what I find to be … SAD ~


I replied:

Bruce, sorry, but you’ve got it wrong. I’m on record as having a conflicted stance in regard the Language formation.

Sure, I’ve had my strong critiques (that’s part of poetry, right?). And I’ve engaged in satire, as well (that used to be part of poetry, too, no?). But I’ve never turned that into a sweeping dismissal of the tendency. To the contrary: I’ve written more than anyone, so far as I can see, about how you folks quickly capitulated on your original, stated ideals–one of the most rapid “avant-garde” recuperations ever, and one that has had far-reaching consequences in the sociology of U.S. poetry. That’s a good kind of critique, even a comradely one…

All in all, compared to some of the outright character assassination directed against me by a few of the top reps of the Language group and its junior satellites, I’ve been pretty damn reasonable.

The moderately-attentive reader will understand, I wager, that the dispute is, vaguely, critical, invoking as it does “polemics,” “disavowals,” “attack,” and “dismissal”. Johnson has, in recent days, been advocating for a poetry criticism that doesn’t shirk from being “negative”, whether witty or downright mean (interested parties can scroll back on Johnson’s FB page to see numerous examples…). Those of us in (anglophone) Canada who suffered the Reign of Terror of the Axis of Cavil at Books in Canada and the “negative reviewing” it practiced and advocated will likely sigh, roll their eyes, and thank their lucky stars those days are over. A generation later, and it’s hard to discern just what beneficial effect all the bile and venom spit those days might be said to have had on our poetry….

Johnson’s critical polemic isn’t merely aesthetic, however. Many poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, especially Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman (among others) adopted an overt, specific, political stance, which Johnson never tires of taking to task (“how you folks quickly capitulated on your original, stated ideals—one of the most rapid “avant-garde” recuperations ever”). One can, however, prise the poetic from the political, here; Johnson’s critique is aimed not so much at the poet-as-poet but the poet-as-citizen, a not unimportant distinction. Not that poetry is not inextricably social (however much the aesthetic arguably is not reducible to the ideological), but Johnson’s dogged persecution of the poets’ hypocrisy diverts attention from strictly poetic concerns, including the question of poetry’s being political.

More urgently for the practicing poet and interested reader (critic or otherwise) is the aesthetic-compositional significance and legacy of the poem or poetry in question. In the case of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (if one can even grasp the “school” as a unified totality, which Andrews calls into question supra), what’s at stake for the poetry is the success and failure (it’s always both) of its intended effect, the articulation of the linguistic medium to achieve that end, and the uncontrollable subsequent reception of the work, aesthetic and otherwise. Of even greater importance is what resources for compositional praxis does the work have for today (a day that is always new).

This question looks both backward and forward. The poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is no longer novel, (however much every reading always differs from the previous), so any estimation of its remaining compositional resources needs contrast the horizon or social matrix of its emergence from that or those in place today, however ephemeral. Moreover, any deployment of its compositional potential that puts it into play today sets the resulting text free into the future; the poem will be received in unpredictable ways. In this sense, “all poetry is experimental” (if that adjective, first used in English by Wordsworth and Whitman, can be said to still be of much use). It should be pointed out, further, the potential of any given compositional technique is never given once and for all; its pertinence and promise is always local.

The ironic (or dialectical…) consequence of this insight is that “the absolutely modern” in terms of what compositional examples might be drawn on is in harmony with Blake’s dictum that “The Authors are in Eternity,” i.e., from the point of view of the pragmatics of composition the poetic inheritance is free of the conditions that determined the moment of its composition and immediate reception. At the same time, however, no practice can anymore claim to be sanctioned by Tradition: every inherited technique, every articulation of the linguistic medium is subject to interrogation: how does it work now? Such an absolutely modern sensibility works with/in a temporality wherein “all ages are contemporaneous” but the moment of composition and the immediately foreseeable moments to follow (insofar as they are foreseeable) is grasped by its relative singularity.

Much, much more, of course, could (and probably should) be said. Moreover, the cognoscenti will detect the position I adopt here doesn’t move much past the notions of poetic development or evolution developed by the Russian Formalists a century back and even draws on Matthew Arnold’s criticism in some respects. Nevertheless, the point I want to make here is a simple one, if all too often forgotten: if you’re going to kick the poetic ball, ya gotta keep your eye on it.