Speaking of videos, here she is for all to see: LRSN's neo-benshi "Paris of Troy"!
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Friday, February 23, 2007
Can anyone tell me what "torque" is? I have an idea. But I've heard the word "torque" used in reference, usually in a sort of hushed, terrified tone, such as "Beware the 'torque' of a poem by so and so" (fill in poet). Is it referring to a poem one can easily lose control of?It's funny--this just came up in my poetry writing class this last week when we were reading Ron Silliman's "The New Sentence" and he mentions torque (I did a little search on Ron's blog: he loves that word).
Answers.com defines torque as
1. The moment of a force; the measure of a force's tendency to produce torsion and rotation about an axis, equal to the vector product of the radius vector from the axis of rotation to the point of application of the force and the force vector.I'm not sure what definition 1 could have to do with poetry (or with anything, really, since I can't remember what a vector is, if I ever learned in the first place, which I highly doubt), though there's something I like about the genitive construction of "moment of a force" (probably because it makes me realize that there's a sense of moment that's nearly opaque to me). That leaves definition 2, which seems plain enough. I can think of at least two ways this could be applied to poetry:
2. A turning or twisting force.
1. In a formal sense, as a way of talking about the shifts of direction and attention performed by line breaks, stanzaic configurations, and other aspects of spatial arrangement on the page. Verse itself evokes this sense of torsion, being derived from the Latin versus or "turning," referring for example to the furrows made by a plough as it turns back and forth across a field.Obviously these two senses can be combined, and the first is in many ways a precondition for the second, at least to the extent that it provides a conceptual model on a material plane. Without the first sense, the second ends up not meaning much more than "unpredictability" or "eccentricity." One could posit the first sense as cause and the second as effect.
2. In a more figurative sense, as a way of talking about a poem's ability to dodge readerly expectations, to swerve or twist away from a strict construal or single valence. It could be a measure of the degree to which the poem broaches perversity, where the per- prefix signifies an intensity or completeness of the "versity" or quality of turning: the point at which turning results in loops and twists.
I think of Creeley's "I Know a Man" as a prime example of how enjambment can facilitate torque:
As I sd to myWith the exception of the lines ending "car" and "going," each linebreak is in direct tension with the continuance of the syntactic flow. The effect is comparable to that thing that sometimes happens in movie theaters where the filmstrip gets out of alignment and you see a little bit of the top of the picture at the bottom or vice versa, except with the film the split is vertical and here it's horizontal. It creates the impossible sensation that one is going both quickly and slowly at the same time, or that two versions of the same event are unfolding at different speeds but are nevertheless somehow in sync with each other on some rhythmic level. (I'm reminded of the way someone once explained to me that a reggae beat works, but I probably shouldn't go there because I would be way out of my depth and it's quite possibly completely irrelevant.) If the grammatical contents of the poem are the axis, the elements that are in torsion around it are the two distinct formal phenomena of a) the reader's syntactic expectations, and b) the actual enjambed disruptions of those expectations.
friend, because I am
always talking,--John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
Ron, if you're reading this, does that sound similar to some of what you have in mind when you invoke torque? What about other people?
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
[Note: the first draft of this post started with "Popular Culture criticism" instead of "Criticism of art and literature," and now I'm thinking that this specificity might have been crucial, so keep this in mind as you read the more general set of statements that follows.]
Criticism of art and literature tends to take one of two broadly conceived approaches, more or less to the exclusion of the other. One we might call the aesthetic approach: the vocabulary of this approach invokes concepts such as mastery, craft, skill, greatness, the "classic." The other we might call the ideological approach: its concerns are less with qualitative markers than with gauges of topical significance, both intended and latent. The aesthetic approach attains, in its extreme form, to a teleological point where definitive criteria for absolute hierarchical evaluation emerge, whereas the ideological approach seems almost to erase its object as it passes over it, scraping away what it treats as deceptive surfaces in order to reveal a bedrock of material reference or pre-reference.
On one level, each of these approaches is not merely indifferent to the aims of the other, but is to some extent dependent on the negation of the other's core principles. The aesthetic approach assumes a space of total or near-total neutrality for art, wherein considerations of politics or ethics are moot, if not totally irrelevant. The ideological approach assumes that art is itself always only a projection of some political ethics, and that the aesthetic ideals according to which it is presented for evaluation are in fact generally more nefarious the more they are successfully realized on their own terms.
On another level, however, it is not unusual for both paths to take interest in the same artistic objects, and for both to arrive at somewhat parallel estimations of an object's centrality (or at least exemplarity) within a given generic context. For example, the films of Alfred Hitchcock have achieved "canonicity" both for those who value Hitchcock's accomplishment as magisterial auteur and for those who regard the films as particularly readable symptoms of modern trauma. When there is such agreement on the usefulness of the object, there is also often a good deal of compatibility between analytical approaches. For example, the same critic who values Hitchcock for his craft mastery may also concede that his films contain especially rich psychological encryptions of various social tensions and contradictions. In fact, this adaptability of his films to the concerns of psychoanalysis may be considered yet one more index of the master's success as an artist. Similarly, the critic for whom Hitchcock serves primarily as a lens through which to view some psychological or political complex nonetheless often has some strong personal connection to his films, and may even feel that their ideological relevance in itself somehow conveys a sort of aesthetic value upon them (though most of these critics would probably not put it quite this way).
So I guess I'm saying that I find this blurred area of overlap more interesting than either approach by itself, but also that I'm not quite sure how to define it. Which I suppose is what makes it a blurred area of overlap, and therefore interesting.
Is it too banal to postulate an aesthetics of the ideological? (The opposite surely has run its course by now.) The most superficial manifestation of such an aesthetics would be, say, the mystified chic a new grad student associates with Marxist or poststructuralist literary theory--making sure, say, that everyone in the coffee shop can see that you're reading Of Grammatology It isn't just about intellectual posing, however; I would venture to say that most readers who engage at length and in depth with theory are responding as much to an aesthetic impulse as to whatever material context is involved. And maybe what I want to argue is that the most sophisticated critical disposition is one that acknowledges this interrelatedness of the aesthetic and the ideological, not just as an aesthetics = symptom / ideology = cause relation, or as an aesthetics = substance / ideology = pale shadow relation, but as a relation in which artistic value is always a factor of the tension between such invidious contrasts.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
The idea that real change--and its consequent repellent revolution where your best friend's suddenly the prison warden in the rigid stumbling of professional belief--is not at the heart of experiment in which lies the chance for liberation, is the kind of scam where you might find the book you are reading grabbed from your hands.
Your new friends say structure is complex but we must leave out a part of everything not to see what happens like we used to think but to just not see. Therefore you've committed a felony.
--Bernadette Mayer, from "The Obfuscated Poem," in Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics, ed. Michael Palmer (North Atlantic Books, 1983)
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
As someone who runs a reading series called Emergent Forms, I might seem to have a personal stake in answering Tony's questioning of the value of poetic stances that privilege "a hyper-generation of new forms." Actually, I think he's got some interesting points. I'm particularly interested in his suggestion that "the unquestioned exaltation of the creation and innovation of new forms--this discovery and accumulation of new forms as its own self-legitimacy--is another symptom of a modern move towards professionalization and specialization." I don't believe that this is what the Williams- and Oulipo-based traditions he mentions have really been all about, but I do think that a certain contemporary reception and recycling of those traditions, within a certain set of academic and professional contexts, in many way fits the picture Tony paints. It doesn't matter whether you learn in a creative writing workshop to write in iambic pentameter or in New Sentences; as long as either method is treated as an end in itself, and to the extent that students are taught that the mechanics of composition are more important than the experience created by the work, the results will be stultified. By extension, if one somehow picks up the idea that creating new forms is nothing more than a matter of inventing different ways of producing strings of language, it can only lead to boredom and cynicism.
Part of the problem, I believe, has to do with how we understand new, and another part has to do with how we understand forms. As has often been pointed out, Pound's (or Tching Tang's, or whoever's) injunction to "make it new" does not mean to reinvent the wheel every time you write a poem. The original image associated with this phrase was that of the (same) sun rising every morning, always new. The wording could just as easily be "make it fresh," or "make it seem as though new." It's more about what the reader is enabled to perceive than it is about the writer's use of novel formal techniques. Which brings us to forms. One way of thinking about forms is as fixed patterns or procedures, as in any of countless guidebooks to "poetic forms." This is a perfectly useful concept, and there's nothing wrong with the inventing or re-using of such forms: the sonnet, the mesostic, the exquisite corpse, the limerick, the Google-sculpture, etc. Any programmatic poetics founded solely or chiefly on the "hyper-generation" of such forms, however, must be superficial in the extreme.
Another sense of forms is that of shapes or bodies in their capacity as things-becoming-apprehended, becoming-determined. Plato's definition is somewhat relevant here: for him a form is the necessary condition for an object's existence, the "idea" without which the particular object cannot be conceived and therefore cannot come into being. But I'm thinking of something yet more tangible. I might say: I saw a form coming out of the mist. What is it that I've seen? The actual body, or a hazy complex of perceptions that precedes it? Both, of course. But we are able to consider the complex of perceptions "on its own," and when we do that we are engaging with form in the sense that I feel is most of interest to poetry. Forms in this sense are near-physicalizations of possibility, not yet quite frozen into fact, but charged with fact's imminence. Skillfully enjambed line breaks, for instance, dramatize moments of formal pre-cohesion, and in so doing, effectively cause such cohesion. But again, this example should not be taken to imply that form as I'm discussing it here is a mere matter of craft or "versification"; the same sensation of becoming-apprended can be a function of any level of the poem as a whole or in its parts, depending on the situation.
From this point of view, all worthwhile poetry is about the generation of new forms. Sir Philip Sidney wrote in his Defence of Poetry that the poet, "lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like." Here, adding new forms to nature has nothing to do with coming up with new stanza arrangements or rhyme schemes; it is about causing things to exist that didn't exist before. All other, more specific formal concerns--whether to write a villanelle or to use for one's poem only the words that appear on one page of Das Kapital--are purely instrumental strategies.
Monday, February 05, 2007
One of the most problematic features of the early twenty-first-century poetic "movement" known as flarf was the immediate and immoderate effect it produced of rendering assessments of larger contemporary practice incoherent. Very soon after the first murmurings surrounding the Collective, there arose a widespread tendency to label any and all new poetry as flarf. Drew Gardner? Flarf, for sure. Nada Gordon? Flarf. Jordan Davis? Flarf again. Rod Smith? More flarf. Ben Friedlander? Clearly and indisputably flarf. Katie Degentesh? Probably flarf. Even poets like Anne Boyer and Rodney Koeneke somehow, absurdly, became connected in the public mind with flarf. In much the same way that the ascension of the Language poets resulted in earlier poets from very different traditions, such as John Ashbery, being lumped in with them, soon the Language poets themselves were viewed as somehow a part of flarf--perhaps, indeed, its founding mothers, only gradually realizing their full potential through the final realization of flarf. Or maybe it was the New York School, or the Dadaists. At any rate, probably the single most significant factor in the ultimate (and inevitable) decline of flarf as a poetic category was the rapidity with which flarf and poetry itself became essentially synonymous, thereby eradicating the need for two different terms.
If it is at all possible to sift through the gunky crumbs of history and reconstruct what exactly happened to give flarf this unlikely power to grow beyond itself into an overarching rubric, we must begin by addressing the fundamental question of when precisely the confusion set in. That is, we must determine what work could legitimately be considered "true" flarf, and what unconnected work became preposterously tarred with its hue.
Certainly Gary Sullivan must be included among the practitioners of flarf, as the very term was his coinage (despite Tony Tost's later, much-disputed claim to be the true originator of the neologism). Equally certainly, Lara Glenum, Tao Lin, Dale Smith, Jennifer Moxley, and Tom Orange, as members of the original cadre who first started explicitly identifying their Google-collaged productions as flarf, must be included. But what of poets like Joseph Massey, Reginald Shepherd, Linh Dinh, Brenda Hillman, and Graham Foust, who despite their presence on the early list, and occasional participation in its activities, quickly distanced themselves from flarf as a practice, sometimes publically and violently? What of later list recruits like Michael Magee, Christian Wiman, Joshua Clover, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, who all managed to extract some capital from their association with the Collective, but all eventually staged opportunistic scenes of rupture with the group (some, like Magee and Clover, penning virulent anti-flarf treatises). What about Lisa Jarnot's short-lived FLARP! interventions? What about Anselm Berrigan's clearly flarf-inspired "Ground Beef Cantos"? What about Jeff Clark's edible graphic novel I Ain't Yer Carbonated WHEEE-UP Pedophilic CAMEL Sauce?
Most of the murkiness surrounding the issue must be blamed, along with so many other critical distortions of the period in question, on Marjorie Perloff, whose well-meaning chapter on the Collective in her book New Innovative Radicalities: The Third Return to Modernism heralded flarf as the single most important poetic development of the new century, but in so doing employed so many irresponsible exaggerations and misrepresentations that it both launched a backlash based on resentment, and soured the palates of those who felt that the flarfists themselves must have put her up to it as an academic puff piece.
For better or worse, we now live in a post-flarf poetic age, one that is simultaneously aggressive in its rejection of received notions surrounding flarf, and indelibly stamped with the characteristics that at one point or another, accurately or inaccurately, became associated with flarf's stylistic and thematic features: the constant allusions to squid, asshats, mopeds, and other "goofy-sounding" verbal objects; the inclusion of derogatory cultural references (particularly, for some reason, those concerning the Irish, diabetics, gay Asian males, and "chicks" of all nationalities and orientations); and--most strikingly of all--the exclusive use of internet search engines in the compositional process. It is now almost impossible to imagine a past time when some poems were created "freehand"; the prospect of reviving such an archaic procedure seems even more ludicrous than it seemed a few decades ago to suggest writing contemporary poems in rhyme and iambics. Whether this is our great fortune or our lamentable loss must be decided by posterity.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Thinking about the poetic image (partly spurred by Stephanie), and ways of conceptualizing it that don't either reduce it to symbol (isolated icon radiating significance) or abstract it out to mere set decoration, but that consider it as an objectification (in Zukofsky's sense?) of mise en scene, as the positioning of a set of elements within a controlling frame of reference, much like many of the stills I've been posting from movies.
The image can, it is true, be meaningfully defined in the iconic sense mentioned above, or simply as an arrangement of color/form/material. This is why it's not altogether an invalid method of poetic composition to take an arbitrary grouping of images (say an apple, a tractor, a pair of panties, a potato chip, a 747) and scatter them at random through an arbitrary patch of prose (say a randomly chosen excerpt from the MLA Handbook, 5th edition) broken into verse lines. Let's try it:
Proofread and correct [an apple] your research paper
carefully before submitting it. If [a tractor] you find
a mistake in the final copy and
you are [a pair of panties] using a word processor, recall
the file, make the appropriate revisions,
and [a potato chip] reprint the corrected page or pages.
Be sure to save the changed file. Some writers
find such software as spelling [a 747] checkers
and usage checkers helpful when used
(Note that the prose passage chosen introduces some additional images, such as "research paper," "word processor," "pages," etc.)
Is this a great or even good poem? Certainly not. But I would argue that it serves as a functional model of a certain kind of poem, that it can be treated as a "fake" poem upon which the same sorts of analytical operations can be performed as a "real" poem (much like a CPR dummy). Seeing the incongruous images bracketed off here and there against the flat, relatively colorless field of the prose selection allows one to think about the way in which more carefully composed verse is rigged up. From another point of view, it demonstrates the way in which poems can fail to gel if the elements are not distributed dynamically enough, while still suggesting the possibility of such gelling. Even as it stands, the introduction of the external images allows for a minimally dynamic "narrativization": perhaps the proofreader in the poem is eating an apple and potato chips, and riding a tractor, and wearing a pair of panties while editing the paper, before taking off on a 747. On the most immediate level, however, the images simply add color and texture, interrupting the otherwise bland recital of procedure. This interruption, in fact, is their most important function: rather than being naturalized into the context of the prose sample, the images act as counterpoints, jarring the reader out of one frame of reference into another at semi-regular intervals.
Now, all of that still leaves the whole question at the level of window dressing, albeit window dressing that provides some clues as to the character of the house's inhabitant (perhaps there are little horses and cowboy hats on the curtains). As I said, the other extreme would be if the image were so conspicuously motivated as to perform no significant function beyond signaling its relevance to the poem's dominant theme, as illustrated by the following reductive diagram:
my love my love [a rose] my love
my love [a rose] my love my love
my [a rose] love my love my love
my love my love my love [a rose]
my love my [a rose] love my love
my love my love my [a rose] love
[a rose] my love my love my love
So we can identify two common simplifications of the concept of the poetic image as 1) the extraneous, decorative addition of some more or less vivid detail to the whole, and 2) the presence of a symbol or icon that microcosmically condenses some central concern of the whole. Both of these formulations are perfectly useful, and do account for the way images are used in a good deal of verse. I'm interested, however, in a third category of poetic image, one that treats it not just as a device to be applied to the whole, but as an effect achieved by--even constituted by--the successful poem.
One characteristic of the image considered in this way would be its resistance to abstract representation by means of "dummy" poems like the ones I've presented above. I'm thinking of the image as a figure cut by the poem as a whole, the overall "shape" of the poem as a concentrated complex of aural, visual, and conceptual experiences (melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia all working together). Robert Grenier's short pieces in Sentences make good examples:
SOMEBODY DID DRIVE BACK HERE
somebody did drive back here
which puzzles me and concerns me
cuts that nowhere else
that doesn't by themselves
The third of these poems contains images in the trivial sense of picturable objects, but those objects function neither as symbolic (e.g., metaphorical) signifiers nor as particularly "decorative" bits of color: they are as flat as the connecting words around them. These poems do not "use" or "contain" images so much as they are images, images formed by language shaped into a "rested totality," as Zukofsky puts it. The attempt is to simulate the contours of a mental/perceptual experience through words, drawing on those words' referential function as well as the irrationally evocative sub-qualities of their morphemic and phonemic makeup (it is probably impossible not to do both at the same time in some proportion). The challenge facing the poet is then to translate a personal, subjective experience of language/reality into a textual message that will communicate itself, however incompletely, to another reader, by means other than simple reportage. This challenge is always doomed to at least partial failure, and hence the chimerical aspect of poetry in general. Grenier's poems take the challenge fearlessly, placing faith in the reader's empathic intuitive abilities to put themselves in the same perceptual space as the poet. The images that they form are images of the world, but of the world as "captured" in precise, local moments of individual consciousness. They are images not only of the physical world, but of the linguistic awareness that meets that world, changing with each microsecond of experience.
This is true not only of "limit case" poems like Grenier's, I would argue, but almost all successful poems, however much they might also deploy images in the first and second senses I've mentioned. Take the first stanza of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke's translation of Psalm 139:
O Lord, in me there lieth nought
But to thy search revealed lies:
For when I sit
Thou markest it;
No less thou notest when I rise;
Yea, closest closet of my thought
Hath open windows to thine eyes.
Again, there are actual physical images here: closet, windows, eyes. But these do not work in the way that we ordinarily think of poetic imagery working; they are not especially vivid or ornamental in themselves. The poetic image comprised by this stanza, and by each succeeding stanza, and by the entire poem, is one that cannot be defined simply in terms of individual "imagemes," or even discrete rhetorical figures, grammatical constructions, etc. It is the dynamic interaction of all those factors within a composite space of multiple qualia. Although I don't want to put too much emphasis on this, the stanza form, with its near-symmetrical shape, perhaps provides the closest thing to a diagrammatic demonstration of the principle in question. It's the "shape" of the whole that makes the image (once more, note that I'm speaking figuratively here, though concrete poems might be another limit-case exhibit in my argument). This is as true in the wooliest field-composition piece as in the most regularly ordered Renaissance ode--or in the most seemingly "plain" lyric by a John Clare or a Robert Creeley.
More on this as I have time to develop my thoughts.