Archive for the ‘Kent Johnson’ Tag

“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.