Archive for the ‘Kent Johnson’ Tag

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.

“We must be absolutely modern”: an anecdote for Kent Johnson

Over at his Facebook page, Kent Johnson continues to probe the legacy of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in his inimitable way. His persistent concern with the movement and its wake prompted me to observe, among other things:

I think it needs be said, too, that, for my part, anyway, I don’t know a poet under, let’s say, 35 who would either recognize the terms of the dispute or even grasp the pertinence of the issue. Their concerns are either identity-political or ecopoetical (and that ‘or’ is not exclusive), and those with the conceptual apparatus would likely judge the whole discussion as formalist, all-too-formalist…

All of which brings to mind the following anecdote…

I’m fortunate to count among my friends a number of poets and scholars half my age, among them, one brought into our circle by a peer of mine, now a professor emeritus of German language and literature. One evening, this young friend, another peer of mine, and myself were carousing, as we poet-scholars are wont to do, this time at my peer’s place.

I forget now exactly how the topic came up, but I recall maybe it had something to do with American poet Charles Olson. Our young friend is a frighteningly-gifted and learned young man, a francophone Quebecer who speaks English and German like a native speaker and who, at the time, as part of his graduate work in Irish Studies, was learning Gaelic (he has since, last I heard, taken up learning Dutch, for the fun of it). Though steeped in the European literary Modernism of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Olson was new to him.

What ensued was a speed-seminar in the Poetry Wars of postwar American, anglophone poetry: Donald Allen’s landmark anthology The New American Poetry, the New Criticism oriented poetry then in power, Confessionalism and Projective Verse, etc. The impromptu seminar ended with a lively reading of Olson’s “La Préface”.

Our young friend’s reaction: “Why don’t they teach us all this in school?!”.

Grammar, linguistic and literary production, and related matters: a note for Kent Johnson

If there’s one thing that indefatigable gadfly of a poet Kent Johnson and I share it’s a stubborn, irritable tick of concern with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poetics and their “post avant” wake (so wide now few poets or critics seem aware how much they operate within its horizon…).

Recently, his most recent online persona linked an article he had written for absent, “competence, linguistics, politics & post-avant matters”. Therein, he rightly takes to task Charles Bernstein et al. for their loosey-goosey way of discussing (and thinking about) language, grammar, ideology, and society. I can’t say I’m in full agreement with Johnson on all points, but the drift of his argument is surely in the right direction.

It was with no little delight I read in a recently acquired copy of Slavoj Žižek’s 2012 Less Than Nothing the following passage, which sums up pointedly and neatly the fundamental misunderstanding of language (the identification of linguistic or literary production with that of commodities) that underwrote, at least, the early days of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E:

The basic premise of discursive materialism was to conceive language itself as a mode of production, and to apply to it Marx’s logic of commodity fetishism. So, in the same way that, for Marx, the sphere of exchange also obliterates (renders invisible) its process of production, the linguistic exchange also obliterates the textual process that engenders meaning:  in a spontaneous fetishistic misperception, we experience the meaning of a word or act as something that is a direct property of the designated thing or process; that is, we overlook the complex field of discursive practices which produces this meaning. What one should focus on here is the fundamental ambiguity of this notion of linguistic fetishism:  is the idea that, in the good old modern way, we should distinguish between “objective” properties of things and our projections of meanings onto things, or are we dealing with the more radical linguistic version of transcendental constitution, for which the very idea of “objective reality” of “things existing out there, independently of our mind” is a “fetishistic illusion” which is blind to how our symbolic activity ontologically constitutes the very reality to which it “refers” or which it designates? Neither of these two options is correct—what one should drop is their underlying shared premise, the (crude, abstract-universal) homology between discursive “production” and material production. (7)

I am skeptical Žižek’s characteristically canny observation settles the question (one that extends back to the advent of philology (the science of language) and literature-as-such), but it is surely sharp enough to cut through much of the underbrush!

“The poetry wars never ended.”

DftPWChicago Review has just posted a lively, provocative conversation with Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn about the motivations driving that equally lively web-journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.

At a time when Instapoets are lionized as The Big New Thing (because of their sales numbers) and the art is otherwise domesticated (in the MFA program and English class), I know of few more vital, critical, and necessary sites of resistance than Dispatches.