Friday, December 19, 2008

Avant Lyric, a few observations toward an essay, part one

Anyone who has read the anthology of Canadian poetry I edited a few years back, or has read this blog must know how much I love lyric poetry. They might also know that I love avant gard poetry, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, sound poetry, visual and concrete poetry, formal and even new formalist poetry. In short, this blog loves poetry. Not one version of poetry, not my version, or my mentor's version--if I had such a thing--no, I love poetry, or poetries. Multiple.

So what's the problem with avant lyric then? Why am I giving these particular poets such a hard time? If my perspective is all open and inclusive what's the big deal? A good question. It is perhaps not the poetry itself (though upon a closer reading there are some issues there), but the way we talk about it; the way we publish or don't publish, what we include in categories--categories in fact are bothersome, categories that make modes of writing exclusive, that brand one person as accessible and others not.

Why for instance, is someone like Michael Dickman, published three times in the New Yorker this year, accessible, and someone like Katie Degentesh or K Silem Mohammad, not? My problem is with the equations that keep some poets out of publishing circles and some poets in.

There is likely a more rhizomatic way of thinking about, and discussing poetry. There are connective aspects to the craft...and there are huge blocks about what the general public can or can not understand. And there is of course the Steinian obvervation that original is ugly and then others make it beautiful and accessible. Or others water down innovation. Or others "tone" it down.

There is, to my mind, a great deal being made of tone these days. People are offended by flarf, they hammer away at conceptual poetry with words such as "nonsense," "about nothing," "dead ends," and all matter of insults. They conflate conceptual poetry with conceit, with artiface. They link lyric poetry with painting and avant garde with conceptual art far too easily, far too simplistically to my mind. For evidence of this see comment streams everywhere....

And meanwhile there are certain poets and poetry that tend to rise above these little entanglements. Poetry that takes a little of this, or that, and goes off on its own to become somehow accessible. I'm interested in what this is. What makes this happen. I'm curious about this question of proportion. About the Michael Dickmans, and here in Canada publications such as Jeramy Dodds' Crabwise to the Hounds, for example, a highly enjoyable, well crafted book. That is, a wonderful stream of energetic images, questions, fragmented and yet thematically linked statements, bits of artifact and archival materials that document, gesture toward essay, toward catalogue, and not so much collage as work up a kind of temporary psychological, or intellectual dust-storm, a kinetic event that seems for a moment solid.

What is it about this avant lyric poetry that makes it so much more palatable than other contemporary modes? Take Kate Hall, whom I also blogged about earlier. You can find her "Little Essay on Genetics" and "The Shipping Container" online. Here are two poems that tend to "sound" more like prose poems than they look. Very quickly you get the voice, a quirky, inquiring perspective, you also get a sense of the kinds of tropes that appear frequently--even in the small sampling that I found after reading Suspended. As we see here at the end of "The Shipping Container:"
It’s true, the container
has great aesthetic value but I was really hoping
for a free watch with a rechargeable battery or
at least a better kind of nothingness.
Read as a prose line I'm quite content with such a line, but, but, but, what makes this poetry? And what makes this more coherent somehow than the flarf texts?

The text made me question (and re-question) my desire for a kind of polish that I don't ultimately believe in so much anymore. At least not in theory. The rough edges, the emphasis on the thinkingness of the text rather than its polish, those aspects speak to my current interests. I'm not sure I want a poem to tell me how to feel or what to think. I'm quite tired of poems that tuck everything in neatly in the end. Poems that don't recognize the world they are being carved out of. And in terms of the poem on the page, I found the actual layout, the presence of the poem on the page, to be both compelling and slightly irritating--a retrofitting of a kind of poetry that exists elsewhere in rangier forms. And gangly references to more conventional aspects of poetry. Why line breaks if one isn't going to do something with them?

But line breaks are not what this chapbook is about, and it is a random event that these questions are being tagged on Hall's chapbook because they are questions that have lingered in my reading for some time. And the irritation stems perhaps from the fact that they are sufficiently accentuated to notice the dissonance of them but for no apparent reason. Why? A poet like Anne Carson is very, very attuned to how things are laid out on the page. Even Short Talks, her early Brick book of short prose pieces, are meant to have space around them and they are meant to be read as "prose poems." Her insistence on having them "not" be run on one after the other, "like a grocery list," I think she said, actually dictated the entire formatting of Open Field. And with good reason: the poems were formally and consciously presented on the page, fully justified, smaller margins, etc. Nothing haphazard.

Again, this is not necessarily a problem of Hall's text, which is, as I've said, a very compelling one. It is a question of the discussion and organization of contemporary poetry and one of several questions I bring to my reading these days. One question has to do with the use of formal elements. Where and why. What are line breaks doing circa 2008? And why is there so much poetry that is not acknowledging its place on a page? This spins out into, why do so many poems seem unaware of their place in a poetic tradition? Lryic or otherwise. Where are the elements of "poetry"? What is going on here? What makes this more "poetic," than the apparently less successful modes of poetry including flarf?

The oddness of the line breaks and the lay out on the page made me look more closely, and then the closer I looked the more the poems seemed, not quite to fall apart, but perhaps to seem flimsy as poems. Yes, we have musings, and they are quirky and hold together thematically, but as Hall says in the end of her chapbook:
...I didn't want to know
that you could add up so many things
and have them equal so few.
Which, going back to my little analogy of the dust storm, begs the question, what happens after the dust settles? You tell me--is there some base line thrum under the event? Because what you have after the dust settles is all that longtime engagement not only with the ideas, the thinking itself, but the shaping of the line and the project, the well-honed craft. Or not.

One of the things lyric poetry does to my mind, aside from a providing a kind of speaking subject or subjectivity (an entity can work, no), is to provide an anchor in the poem--an emotional and intellectual anchor. That "thing," you find yourself face to face with after the dust settles. Someone, depending on your temperament, like Anne Carson or Lisa Robertson, Karen Solie or Ken Babstock, David O'Meara, Margaret Christakos, Juliana Spahr, perhaps even a newcomer such as Jeremy Dodds, or for that matter Mohammad. A good poet will leave you, not alone, but alone with your thoughts.

Your thoughts are your solace. Not the poems easy placations...

The question remains, is this lyric mode doing anything different? Is it taking risks, or is it taking the foment of the innovative response to lyric and making it cozy once more? Surprising surrealism in the texts, yes, but benign collections of ideas that go...where? Is it terribly old fashioned of me to want poetry to be about something? To go somewhere? And who is to judge where it should go? Who is to judge what a reader finds meaning in?

Further, are these lines more coherent than the flarf poems we have read on this site in previous weeks? Take Mohammad's "I said to Poetry."
poetry has died, just as easily
as junkies who spent all their money
on dope were killed
and later,
of course, I love Courtney, and her essays
have appeared in the future
some are embellished, and some are just
a blast furnace act for all the world to behold

what a sad violent fact it is
that poetry is just a bank or something
Indeed, it is a sad fact that poetry is "just a bank" or something. And that certain poetries are ascribed to have, or to evoke feelings, and meaning, whereas others are not. I'm tempted to read Ryan Fitzpatrick's piece about Katie Degentesh's Anger Scale, and Jason Christie's piece on Fitzpatrick's Fake Math, and Jordan Davis' on Drew Gardener, side by side and ask just what is the difference between flarf and this avant-lyric mode? Is it social, rather than individual in the way that Fitzpatrick describes flarf as being or back to the lone individual in the surreal world of self-referentiality? How can we be so unsophisticated in our reading as to not note these registers in tone? Or read them. So, I guess what this unruly rant is really all about is not so much a complaint as a query about this mode and avant lyric in general, and more precisely into where do we talk about our reading of poetry? One must address the question of tone, yes. As Lisa Robertson points out, sincerity is rhetoric. But perhaps more importantly we really need to unearth and investigate these assumptions around our reading and corralling of poetry.


VanessaP said...

An excellent start to conversation; prefatorily, rhetoric is also sincerity insofar as there is some thingness one is to be convinced of or eased into, like cold cars and warm woolen mittens. The nut of the problem appears to be that we are perhaps not as meaningless as the well-meaninged would make us out to be, nor as endlessly fascinating as the well-versed seem to believe. If we are now at a point where ethics and aesthetics are the same face in different light, then your query puts the question point-blank, and is there then some other fashion in which critique does not have to be cooly abject or pathetically ironized, nor sentiment enacted with a whippet's trembling self-regard.

Steve said...

There may be no "outside" to rhetoric (depends what you mean by "rhetoric") but there are claims whose literal sense we believe, and other claims whose literal sense we do not believe, or would not affirm.

Isn't the motor to flarf antilyrical inasmuch as flarf is satirical or sarcastic, pointed outward, towards how other people (erroneously or inevitably) see themselves and the world? Whereas lyric (avant or otherwise) comes first from how the imagined speaker (or writer or assembler, if you prefer) sees herself. Of course these categories can overlap: the successful satirist, if she is interesting enough and self-conscious about it, shows us something of herself, which is why I like The Anger Scale, and why I like Pope's "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot."

VanessaP said...

And then isn't the point of conceptualism that there is no inside that is not outside and visa versa? To all things their surfaces.

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, I think you're right about the outward versus inward, but lyric that is inward can also refract, reflect a largeness of perspective.
And your last note is really more what I would argue as a poetic quality one can identify and appreciate regardless of the aesthetic of the poem--that is lyric, language, avant lyric, etc. In other words the consciousness of the poem/poet, not a perceived sincerity.

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, surface. And yes, "we are now at a point where ethics and aesthetics are the same face in different light" gets at it.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Lots to think about here.

The corralling of poetry. I like how you put that. So apt. The sorting, the holding pens, the gates, the dust. All the bellowing.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Lemon H.,

The Dickman poem you link to seems very traditional. An encapsulated moment, well defined images, aand very carefully done. Read it once, get it all in that reading, and while prelasurable enough to read again, no real additional challenge or fun in reading it again and again? I don't remember the poems of his that have been published in The New Yorker (and that I don't remember them probably says it all, in a way).

There are poems that serve it right up (can be more or less fully and totally grokked the first or second time read), and poems that aren't. The New Yorker mostly publishes the former.

ken jacobs said...

i know this is late but i am interested in what you mean by "apparently less successful modes of poetry" ... this question does not regard flarf but how you are measuring 'success' within this post or in general. recognition of a 'tradition' & appropriate, informed response or distribution or something else .. it seems to me there a distinct talking amongst themselves going on in many different 'innovative' communities .. is or can that be enough?

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, the Dickman poem does seem traditional, and easily consumed.
A good question. How does one measure the success of a poem? Or one's life as a poet? No one wants to admit that they have a certain path, or audience in mind, but most of us do. That might be one way to measure. Many people think appearing in Poetry Magazine is a sign of success. Even people who should know better than to allow such a small aperture to define anything.

Meanwhile there are many poets that don't get discussed, or discussed enough--as diverse in range and aesthetics as here in Canada for instance, Don Coles or David O'Meara, Nourbese M. Philip or Margaret Christakos.

ken jacobs said...


i really like what you got to say here .. really .. just found this blog via 'think again' m. wallace links to you ..

what i am interested in is that you have defined lots of criteria above .. and there are flarfists who are very successful at these things .. k. mohammad & rod smith come to mind & bill louma cuz of the peace server work but they are never going to be read or heard outside of a small community ... i would never measure their work as 'less successful' because of that since amongst those who measure with the type of criteria you mention, a small community, their 'poems' are measured as such. this borders on sounding like r.silliman talking about the early days of langpo but i am willing to risk the comparison. (old worn out arguments, i suppose)

i will read on .. very glad to have been introduced to your blog.

Paul Vermeersch said...

lh, you ask, "Is it terribly old fashioned of me to want poetry to be about something?"

I believe the answer is "No."

No matter how "innovative" people seem to be in finding new ways to (not) write, there will always be satisfaction to be taken in a composition that is well-written. Poetry is maybe our oldest art form. If the idea of well-crafted words was even capable of being passe, it would not have lasted through the past 10,000 years of human endeavour. We would have no poems, no books to speak of. The ability of language to inspire, frighten, entertain, sadden, inform, manipulate or otherwise move or transform an audience is fundamental to the human animal.

The world constantly changes. New ideas immerge not only in poetics, but in every field of thought. New things happen. And that, at least, provides writers with something new to write about. Poetry about poetics can be mere navel-gazing, a game for a clique of initiates to play in private, but poetry about the world out there, the one we live in, about, as you say, "something" ...well, that's not old-fashioned. There's nothing wrong with wanting something to be relevant to your lived experience. In fact, I think that's what most people want from written forms of art. They want to be invited to understand something about the world a little better, or to be introduced to something they hadn't known before. There's nothing old fashioned about that.

Interesting ideas. I look forward to seeing where you might take this line of thinking in the future.

Lemon Hound said...

You point out that some flarf is more successful, "k. mohammad & rod smith" for example, yet even they "are never going to be read or heard outside of a small community...". That's exactly the problem. To shift to the world of sports briefly, imagine sports coverage that was only one sport? Imagine commentators who only knew the rules of hockey, or baseball? Imagine a sports section that only discussed football, and with the tone that suggested of course there is only football...
It seems to me that this is what we face as poets. There are too few able to see the entire field of poetry. There is a larger picture, to use yet another cheesy analogy...there is a larger picture.

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, I agree, but as per my previous response, who is to judge what is new? What is successful? What is meaningful? If our editors are unable to assess new forms of poetry, to draw connections between what a particular poet is doing now and how that work might fit into the larger, more wonderfully complex world of poetry, then who will?

All art needs to have context, to have discussions built up around it. Not dissection: discussion.

Paul Vermeersch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Vermeersch said...

(Missing word corrected, confusing averted)

"Not dissection: discussion."

You nailed it there, LH. Unfortunately, the current prevailing winds of academic criticism tend toward dissection rather than discussion, toward an attitude that is hostile to literature, an attitude that seeks in invalidate literature or exploit it for a single discipline-specific (i.e. "teachable") attribute, rather than explore the fullness and inimitable complexity of a work. Hopefully, this will change in time, because it creates an environment for a particularly poisonous poetic ecology. As long these ever-narrower kinds of literary scholarship are encouraged, those that relegate the literature they study to the rank of secondary text behind the criticism itself, where the function of literature is reduced to little more than support material for the critical theory, then ever-narrower forms of literature will evolve in the hopes of fitting into these thin, discipline-specific niches, and along the way, proponents of these niche-poetics will loudly declare that everything that came before is now obsolte, making the kind of broad-spectrum discussion (rather than dissection) that you yearn for somewhat difficult.

Lemon Hound said...

Here's to discussion and complexity, yes, yes, yes. But it isn't only academics that engage in this behavior, reviewers, publishers, editors and poets themselves also indulge.

As one poet emailed me recently to say, "you know before publication which books will be reviewed where and who by. There are few surprises in poetry circles..."

I say more surprises please. Particularly as review space shrinks. Good surprises tho, thoughtful ones, not the nasty kind.

ken jacobs said...

as k. mohammad in a blog entry once put .. s. plath is a gateway drug ..

it is a very rare beast who gets to lisa jarnot or lisa robertson (very visible poets) or kevin davies via jackson mac low .. i am not sure it is productive to expect it ..

that said .. this perhaps doesn't address channels of dissemination .. though isn't niche part of the complexity .. aren't those who speak in narrow bands contributor's to this debate .. what make this blog & discussion possible? who can take k. goldsmith's assertions as to what is 'contemporary' as anything but absurd!? i mean obsolescence is so last century.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Niches are fine, yes, and necessary. Niches, alcoves, offshoots, branches, sidestreets, tributaries, all sorts of outgrowths. Makes for a good poetic gene pool, puts more poetry tools in the poetry toolbox.

But when a tributary cuts itself off from the source river, it will dry up very quickly. And once you learn to use a saw, that doesn't mean you'll never need to use a hammer again.

If poets write a poem that intends to be difficult, adversarial, inpenetrable, condescending, or abstruse, they shouldn't be surprised that few people will take the time to read it, even those who do "get" it.

ken jacobs said...

agreed .. if they are writing to a niche they shouldn't expect any response outside of that niche .. that is, well, pathological,

for those who can or are willing to keep their interests in many pots .. and can even work in many modes .. to expect more 'difficult' or abstruse poems to be integrated easily into the main paths of dissemination seems to me absurd & to silence those who wish to work in those mode is, what, oppressive.

the fact is that most of these very narrow difficult poets are not dominating the academy to assert they are seems to me ridiculous .. schools like iowa's writer's workshop last i paid attention generating wallace stephen's rehashed .. all good stuff .. but christ to assume that it is difficult, beyond the semantic, is kinda weak .. low modernism continues to dominate the academy not the traditions of early-mid twentieth century avante-garde.

what do you mean by 'source river'? can we imagine there is a single source, now, still?

i was recently at reading in d.c. by geraldine monk .. the tradition of oral performance was obviously alive & well .. this felt very ancient to me .. i can't imagine her talking about obsolescence except maybe in regards to critical behavior ..

Lemon Hound said...

"If poets write a poem that intends to be difficult, adversarial, inpenetrable, condescending, or abstruse, they shouldn't be surprised that few people will take the time to read it, even those who do "get" it."

Thank god poets write against this kind of thinking...otherwise there would be no Donne, no Hopkins, no Blake, no Whitman, no Stein, no Dennis Lee, no Paul Celan, and so on, and so on, and so on...

Many, many, many, many, many, many people take the time to read "difficult" poetry all the time. It's what makes us grow.

Okay, I'm unplugging for a little holiday cheer. Thanks, thanks, thanks for the conversation here. And here's to more of it.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Ken, I think we're talking about different academies. I'm talking mostly about po-mo literary studies depatments, not creative writing schools. And the niche poets aren't necessarily dominating that academy, but they are working more-or-less within the limited scope of what is deemed intellectually correct by that academy.

The source river is the history of literature in general, it's traditions, practices and applications since Gilgamesh.

My philosophy has always been to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible -- from the most ancient to the most brand-spanking-new -- so as to be able to write complex work, but also to write in a way that is relevant to the lived-in physical world, or, as LH has put it, to write work that is "about something." The complexity of a work can come from its thematic preoccupations as well as from its formal conceits. My favourite kind of poetry is both well-crafted and relevant in a worldly sense. I don't believe poetry has to be easy; in fact, it should often invite re-reading. But it should at least invite being read in the first place. It should be somewhat hospitable.

ken jacobs said...


have good cheer .. again i really like what i have read around on your blog .. look forward to more ..


i did understand we might be talking about different academies .. it's complex & i share your impulses, generally, i appreciate technical virtuosity & 'gentleness with the reader' a pet phrase for an unclear idea..

there are so many voices & so difficult to imagine anything but cacophony .. i try and enjoy when the neurasthenia abates .. other times i just keep my head in what i prefer

anyways, best .. have a good new year.

Paul Vermeersch said...

LH, I think we have different ideas of what makes poetry "difficult" and I should probably have used a different word there. Challenging art if a good thing while art that is hostile to an audience is another thing altogther. Ashbery, for example, can be challenging, but is also good-natured and hospitable. I should probably have said "hostile" instead of "difficult." I stand by the "adversarial, inpenetrable, condescending, or abstruse" part though. I don't find Donne, Hopkins, Blake, Whitman, Stein, Lee, or Celan to be any of those things. Well, maybe Stein is sometimes abstruse. Still, I appreciate, as always, the chance to swap ideas with you. Have a wonderful holiday season and a great new year. I hope to see you around.

And Cheers, Ken. I enjoyed the conversation. All the best to you in the new year, too.