Wednesday, April 25, 2007

MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

I am in charge of an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at Brunel University, West London.

This MA is an English Studies MA focusing on contemporary, English-language cultures and their literatures.

Brunel University is a London-based campus with excellent modern facilities ideal for international and home students alike.

(Picture Shows acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith with Brunel faculty members Celia Brayfield and Fay Weldon. Smith, winner of the Orange Prize for fiction, was speaking at Brunel in December 2006.)

The MA programme is part of a suite of ten MAs in the School of Arts.

The school specialises in the interchange between critical analysis, creative work and technology, and you will be joining a vibrant community of academics and students all working at the cutting edge of contemporary creativity and culture.

The school is also home to an array of writers, musicians, and performers of international reputation.

Each year we recruit significant numbers of international students.

Applications are welcome at any point in the year, the course commences in October.

MA or Postgraduate Degree in...

Contemporary Literature and Culture, Eigentijdse Literatuur en Cultuur, Littérature et culture contemporaines, Zeitgenössische Literatur und Kultur, Σύγχρονοι λογοτεχνία και πολιτισμός, Literatura e cultura contemporary, Современные словесность и культура, Literatura y cultura contemporáneas, Letteratura e coltura contemporanee, Współczesny Literatura i Uprawiać, Contemporan Literatură şi Cultură, Съвременен Литература и Култура, Istodobnik Književnost i Kultura, Současník Literatura a Kultura, Nutids- Litteratur og Kultur, Aikalainen Kaunokirjallisuus ja Kulttuurinen, Samtímamaður Bókmenntir og Menning, Contemporáneo Literatura y Cultura, Moderne Litteraturen og Kulturen, Suvremen književnost pa Kultura, sovrstnik slovstvo ter kultura, Samtida Litteratur och Kultur, aynı zamana ait edebiyat ve kültür.

John Ashbery, Daffy Duck in Hollywood and Postmodern Poetry

Today I posted the last parts of both my analysis of Daffy Duck in Hollywood and my chapter on postmodern poetry.

These were part of a submission package for a book-length study of postmodern poetry for students but for various reasons the publisher and I could not see eye to eye, I think they felt me too daffy and I not even daffy enough, events occurred and I decided that although we need a proper introduction to postmodern poetry I was not the person to write it.

I am now working on a different project on postmodern poetry as exemplary of what I call the poetics of incommensurability.

Am left with this material which I think is good but perhaps not publishable in a journal so for now it finds a home here.

John Ashbery, Daffy Duck in Hollywood (10) Last Part

Note: this was to be the second chapter of a book on postmodern poetry of which the sections "Postmodern Poetry" formed the introduction.

Immanent Moments of Numinous Duck Geist

Cohen’s description of the ambiguity of Ashbery’s critique and simultaneous consumption of mass cultural products is not only the most accurate analysis of this poem, it is a profound insight into the relationship of postmodern poetry to postmodern culture. Yet, for every moment of ‘low’ cultural revelation, the poem has at least equivalent numbers of ‘high’ art insights, and I don’t mean references to opera or plays by Maeterlinck. The poem, as much as it is about culture, is also about being. The very act of stating that Daffy is in Hollywood suggests he also has a life elsewhere, which is both impossible and true at the same time. Daffy reproduced on screen, as he must be due to the material demands of celluloid film, is not limited to Hollywood.[i] Daffy has a private life in that he lives in our own imaginative interactions with him and while we may say this is a radically attenuated subjectivity, the poem suggests that Daffy’s being, his duck geist, is no different from our own:

I have
Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
Which is like thinking in another language. Everything
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the souls, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours.[ii]

This delicate, profound, insight into human intersubjectivity starts out in the voice of Daffy who lives only through projection, consumption, recollection and, of course, re-runs. However, it becomes obvious that we too live like ducks in this regard. If we exist then we must exist for others to know about it otherwise what is the point? In addition, all we have learnt from Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva about subjectivity shows that being is elsewhere, in the perception of others and in the language we rely on to communicate with others. If Daffy only lives in occasional moments and even then lives in a language foreign to him, so too do we, Ashbery is arguing.

A further point can be made, and this is where the equivalence of the poem’s two areas of investigation is nothing less than staggering. Just as Hollywood reduces differentiation into a single mass of entertaining, happy-go-nutty japery, so the traditional differentiations of being are, themselves, false demarcations. Can one differentiate between your true self and the Daffy or fake self? Is the fake self any less real than the internal and integral sense of self you have within you? Is the life you live within the confines of your body any more your life because it is located there, than the life you are leading in the minds of others unbeknownst to you? Ashbery sees that the fabulous self and the true self, valorised here by being compared to diamonds on velvet, in the end are just different parts of the self and that it is only an issue of timing, and indeed spacing, that convinces us that we exist, like these diamonds, in lustrous singularity. In fact, like Daffy, we are endlessly reproducible at the whim of an all-pervading, god-like system or production and reproduction.

Altieri’s definition of postmodern poetry as “immanentist” works extremely well here as a description of how “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” can observe the means by which consumer culture reduces hierarchical differentiations of aesthetic and cultural value through the storm of its mixed discourse, while itself being constructed of just such a piebald mix. In addition, it helps us get to grips with Koethe’s almost uncanny feeling that Ashbery is a single and identifiable personality who has no subjective fixity. How can Ashbery speak of postmodern cartoon subjectivity in such an authoritative and penetrating manner, and yet at the same time so identify with the fabulous and fake being that he takes on the persona of Daffy himself? What postmodern poetry does is have its cake, eat it, and pass comment on the process with its mouth still full of crumbs. It uses linguistic and subjective discourses against such discourses. How so?
Altieri explains that:

The characteristic postmodern poem does not proceed by abstract meditation but seeks to create a specific attitude or model for imaginatively perceiving relationships in a given situation, which—as attitude, not as symbol or statement—defines and give value to a more general perspective on experience…poetic creation is conceived more as the discovery and the disclosure of numinous relationships within nature than as the creation of containing and structuring forms…the immanentist poets stresses the ways an imagination attentive to common and casual experience can transform the mind and provide satisfying resting places in an otherwise endless dialectical pursuit by the mind of its own essences and of transcendental realities”.[iii]

This is rather dense argumentation but it can be shown that “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” fulfils all these criteria and so can be seen as a typical, but not archetypal, postmodern poem. First of all the poem is not an abstract mediation on consumerism and subjectivity but the creation of an attitude, let’s call it daffiness, from which this situation can be perceived. Who better than a cartoon character to comment on ontological fakeness, and where better than Hollywood to base oneself? The result of the poem is not a truth, a lasting foundational statement that can be tested against evidence and similar attitudes held within a culture, but a temporary location from which more general statements can be attempted. These general statements are not permanent or universally true, they come about only because of the specific attitude presented in the work, but nor are they postmodern free-play because the attitude is specific and rooted in experience of a sort.

The temporary, but significant, attitude to the ever-changing nature of experience has its mystical side for it is an immanentist philosophy capable of finding divinity and numinosity. However, God is to be found, not to be competed with. The poet is not a maker, a creator of lasting works of beauty, but a finder, a flaneur in the endlessly projected arcades of this hyper-real life. They can do this because they have no interest in God and creation, rather the immanentist is interested in her/himself. They seek localised moments of limited fixity, in this instance poems, where the poet can take a break from truth claims but also where they can experience the dissolution and transformation of a monumental and single sense of self, what we call a Cartesian sense of being, in the face of total and transformational multiplicity.[iv]
Taking our lead from Altieri we can now state that postmodern poetry is a temporary attitude, we will call this the poem, strategically placed to allow for observations of relationships, we will call this the theme, which allow the poet to experience the world rather than impose structures upon the world, the result of which is a removal of the subject from limiting, and ultimately irresolvable, positions such as essence and universal truths. This removal is great, not only because after four thousand or more years of chasing after these essences and truths and getting no nearer we are tired, but also because, in the end, life and the world are great. Thus the subject gets daffy and loves it.

Altieri sees this as just as aporetic and logically exasperating as the non-immanentist, modernist quest for the imposition of lasting forms on the transient nature of modern, everyday experience. Ashbery too, although probably the very immanentist poet Altieri had in mind, has his reservations. As the poem draws to a close Ashbery makes a notably immanentist statement:

All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny
Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the
Missing link in this invisible picnic…Therefor bivouac we
On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by
Veiled scruples, worn conundrums.[v]

There are no lasting truths in other words, so let’s set up camp and camp it up in the midst of life’s ongoing process, the highway, and leave behind those structures which previously hindered our passage. It sounds like a lot of fun but Ashbery is under no illusion that this can be the end of the story. If one strand of postmodernism is definable as incredulity towards metanarratives then postmodern poetry is one step ahead or behind this suggestion in its appreciation that with loss of belief comes, also, a realisation of the importance of belief and a certain longing for belief, even if we cannot actually believe in it.

Daffy concedes as much at the poem’s end in one of numerous, poignant statements by Ashbery in his work on the need for belief at the very moment when it is least credible:

No one really knows
Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts
Were vouchsafed—once—but to be ambling on’s
The tradition more that the safekeeping of it. Thus mulch for
Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,
Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants—what maps, what
Model cities, how much waste space. Life, our
Life anyway, is between.[vi]

One is tempted to say, after this, behold the brilliance of postmodern poetry. It puts forward the most eloquent and sophisticated descriptions of the postmodern condition that exist in the language. At the same time, due to the alien nature of poetic language, and its self-referential foregrounding of this, it is able to both embody postmodernism and establish a place, what Altieri calls an attitude, from which postmodern culture can be critically analysed and perhaps, even, over time, slowly changed. As Ashbery suggests in the poem, postmodernism is just an overnight stop on the highway of things, and the distractions of its hyper-real cultural artefacts are not so much the end of culture as an interval between two films in a double feature. Somewhere the mystical projectionist is struggling with the fresh reel, modernism is over and the next film is not quite ready to be watched, meanwhile, and perhaps for an eternity or perhaps only for a few seconds more, we have postmodernism. Ashbery’s final point is perhaps the most encouraging. It may be true that postmodernism is only a temporary attitude towards life, language, history, culture, capitalism, subjectivity and the western traditions of philosophical Enlightenment, it may only be in-between, but life too is somewhat like that. Perhaps this is the final answer as to why modern poetry is like that, and postmodern poetry is like this. Postmodern poetry is like this because life, postmodern or otherwise, is like this too, it’s just that we only just realised it. It would seem we have a lot of catching up to do, but don’t worry, the poets are on hand to help.

[i] It is worth registering here Baudrillard’s profound insight on postmodern subjectivity where the idea of the subject in the mirror is replaced by subjectivity performed via the screen. The mirror of course aids self-reflection and is a closed, narcissistic system. The screen however requires projection or the self, suggests reception as well, possibly by large numbers, and, in terms of the computer screen, also emphasises the dissemination of subjectivity amongst an infinite number of networks. The postmodern subject, in other words, is a subject without interiority, privacy, or cohesion. Rather, the subject is a false projection, an augmentation, a performance, and an open-ended multiplicity.
[ii] Ashbery, Three Books 31.
[iii] Charles Altieri. Enlarging the Temple 16-17.
[iv] Herd associates this moment of localised fixity with the image of the pavilion in the poem “think in that language: its / Grammer, though tortured, offers pavilions / At each new parting of the ways” Ashbery, Three Books 31. Herd glosses this passage as follows: “A pavilion is a temporary structure assembled and disassembled quickly enough to serve the needs of a particular, fleeting occasion. This, Daffy argues, is what is required if the culture is to be delivered from Tophet, and of course the poem is just such a structure…” Herd 172.
[v] Ashbery, Three Books 33.
[vi] Ibid.

Postmodern Poetry (6) Last Part

Note: this was originally the opening chapter of a book for students on postmodern poetry, the sections below were the last two parts of this intro. referring to what would have followed if I had written the book.

Note that my work on Daffy Duck in Hollywood was to be the first chapter of the book.

Note sure if any of the below is of use but you never know.

So Sue Me or Mistakes I know I am Making

What I will attempt in the following chapters is, I hope, a challenging and theoretically informed introductory overview of postmodern poetry written in English over the past fifty years. Historicist and cultural materialist views of literature as a product of material conditions, while an influence on this study and some of the poets in question, will only be touched upon. I will not progress chronologically, in terms of nationality or groups, but will try to look at central characteristics of postmodern poetry as a whole. While I will deal with the central theorists of postmodernism in the next chapter, the big five of Baudrillard, Habermas, Jameson, Lyotard and Rorty, my analysis will not be restricted to their work. Apart from the fact that it has been over-analysed, at times to the point of parody, if they refer to the arts at all they clearly do not care about innovative poetry. Instead, I want to provide a theorisation of postmodern poetry that avoids generalisation and the endless repetition of the same five, or so, basic ideas: hyperreality and the crisis in representation, legitimation of Enlightenment values, late capitalism, incredulity towards metanarratives and the development of consensus amongst various speech communities. These ideas are important, but postmodern poetry does not always engage with them preferring other elements of postmodern theory by the big five: Jameson’s materialism or Lyotard’s idea of the differend. In addition, postmodern poetry is smart; it is brainy stuff, with numerous poets coming upon the core ideas of postmodernity before any of the major studies were published and often dealing with these ideas with a finesse and subtlety missing from much critical theory. Therefore, when I do bring theoretical concepts into play it will be to address them as much through issues raised by the poets themselves as by cultural theorists and philosophers.

As regards the poets I have selected and the texts I have used, I have tried to keep my definition of postmodernism coherent and detailed without making it too exclusive of voices that err on the side of modernism or on the side of traditionalism. Thus, I have classed all Language poets as postmodern, I have allowed late or neo modern writers like Prynne the status of postmodern because their modernism could only occur within our current postmodern age, and I have included some writers, most notably Muldoon and Carson, who some in the field of innovative poetics regard with contempt. I have been lenient in other words but not lax. All those poets who dabble with postmodern techniques to spice up their prosody are excluded, not due to a Stalinist purity but because they are a result of postmodern poetry, not active participants in the process. Similarly, those poets writing sceptical open field poetry since 1950, the Beats, Black Mountain poets and so on, are not part of this study as they do not match the basic criteria of my definition.[i]

Which brings me to the poets I have chosen to include. In all I will present detailed readings of about twenty poets, American, British, Irish, and Australian. This will exclude some good poets simply because of the richness of postmodern poetry but I will make up for this with general chapters on prosody, new media and gender, which will draw their examples from a wider pool of poets outside of these twenty. I have tried to choose poets I feel are exemplary and important in terms of defining the field but I will not necessarily be reading their most exemplary and important works and I do not hold these up as the most important postmodern poets either. Do not expect a canon of poems by the twenty best poets, although inevitably this is what will occur in some minor way. Instead, I am presenting exemplary features of postmodern poetry and using a limited number of poets, two to three per chapter, to investigate that feature while providing the reader with an introduction to the work of poets they may not know well or at all. Lots of things will go wrong for many people because of this, but in the end I believe this will be the most coherent, comprehensive and challenging overview of postmodern poetry that exists at the present.

Coming Next on Postmodern Poetry…
But enough about me. This book is divided into three parts to give a sense of structure and to aid usage. The introduction and first two chapters constitute a general introduction to postmodern poetry suitable for those encountering this material for the first time, but also for those who have read an amount of postmodern poetry and wish to have a clearer overview of the movement. Chapter one provides a cultural history of postmodern poetry’s development, an outline of the different groups of poets, and a consideration of how postmodern poetry relates to the kind of postmodern theory most of us are now familiar with. Chapter two then reads an archetypal postmodern poem to indicate to the reader what exactly the stakes are in reading and analysing such poetry, and what to expect from the poets under consideration.
Part two is more advanced and is made up of three chapters dealing in detail with the materiality of the postmodern poem or what used to be called form. Chapter three presents a detailed introduction to postmodern prosodic practices, chapter four describes the mechanistic compositional strategies of Kenneth Koch and Ron Silliman designed to undermine belief in the poet as a gifted, expressive unified subject, and chapter five looks at the issue of the materiality of the signifier, central to the Language poetry of Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. At the end of section two you should have a detailed, even generative, understanding of the semiotics of postmodern poetry which will allow you to read such poetry with ease and even pleasure.
Having dealt with the basic materiality of the postmodern poem, its reliance on language’s mechanisms, and the politicised issue of materiality, part three of this study looks at the role of postmodern poetry in the world at large; what used to be called theme but which I might just term its contemporaneity. Chapter six analyses two central theoretical categories, process and the sociological concept of the everyday, and how they have inform the poetry of Tom Raworth, Frank O’Hara and Allen Fisher. Having considered poetry as a process rather than a product, chapter seven goes one step further than that and looks at poetry off the page. By using recent work on hypertext and performance I will consider those writers, artists and performers all creating artefacts that might be called poetry, but which do not exist in any of the traditional mediums central to print culture.

Chapter eight deals with words and things by reading the work of James Schuyler and John Kinsella and how they manage to write a poetry of nature and things amidst the postmodern crisis of representation. Having dealt with objects, chapter nine, in looking at the poetry of Lyn Hejinian and John Ashbery, returns to the issue of the postmodern subject. Postmodernism has been dominated by a total reappraisal of the ways in which we tell stories and chapter ten attempts to relocate that debate away from prose through a consideration of the narrative poetry of Paul Muldoon and Susan Howe. The ideological implications of postmodernism as the end of history are then further investigated in chapter eleven. Here I look at how contemporary poets such as Bridgett Riley, Ciaran Carson and Barrett Watten openly pursue issues of postmodern politics and ethics. Staying with this theme chapter twelve then considers the issue of gender and marginalisation in avant-gardism and the solutions contemporary, postmodern women poets have found to this perennial problem.

The book will end with two chapters addressing the possibility that postmodernism either never happened, or if it did is now definitely over. In Chapter thirteen I consider the suggestion that many postmodern poets are merely carrying on the work of modernism through readings of the work of Barbara Guest and J.H. Prynne, both of whom work critically within a modernist tradition. After this I will address the charge by critics such as Altieri and Terry Eagleton that, whatever it was, postmodernism is, thank goodness, now at an end. Looking at the work of John Ash and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, I instead argue that postmodernism has only just begun. Having achieved a re-evaluation of poetry, language, and subjectivity, it is now turning to the big themes of life and loss, usually the confines of a humanist, Enlightenment tradition. I argue, by way of a conclusion, that postmodern poetry is perfectly capable of addressing the big issues of contemporary existence and will remain a powerful cultural force well into this new millennium.
But before we get to that here is the news. Postmodern poetry exists, it is fascinating and challenging, and it is a central part of contemporary postmodern culture. Postmodern poets are at the height of their powers on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond! Here is their story.

[i] Two interesting mainstream anthologies come to mind here. The first is Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley eds. The New Poetry (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1993). The emphasis here is on a younger generation of contemporary poets not included in other mainstream anthologies (ibid 27). A number of the British-based poets included here form the basis of Gregson’s study of postmodernism and British Poetry but whether any of them, apart from John Ash, Ciaran Carson and Maggie Hannan, could be called postmodern is highly debatable. Yet, some of the features of postmodern poetry are apparent in the work of, say, Simon Armitage or Carol Ann Duffy. Having said this, the anthology pretends than the British poetry revival and linguistically innovative poetry in the British Isles simply does not exist. Paul Hoover’s Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry is much superior but has almost gone too far in the other direction. The book perhaps could better be called really interesting and innovative poetry in America since the war. Postmodern poetry is well represented here but not all challenging poetry written since the war belongs to the postmodernists and in suggesting Black Mountain poets, the Beats and so on are postmodern reduces the astonishing variety of poetic innovators writing in the U.S. over the past fifty years. Postmodernism is good, but it is not that good. There should be room for other voices as well.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Kenneth Koch, When the Sun Tries to Go On

Kenneth Koch: When the Sun Tries to go On
(Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969)

Close Readings and annotations the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)

As far as I am aware I am the only critic who has done any significant work on this remarkable poem, if you know otherwise....


· essentially the whole poem is an exercise in attempting to render the totality of existence or at least of existence of an American in Europe and American in the fifties. The ideology of inclusiveness, of doing reality rather than summarising it is essentially the essence of the avant-garde position but is also riven with aporias because it lack the duality that one gets say in Schuyler and Ashbery, that while is apt in a post-war culture to cease trying to summarise and instead to merely taxonomise or even to compete, one cannot forget that the actuality of the event of the poem is always re-marked by the iterable structures of language and especially because the real is always mediated through language. Thus whilst there is some residual music in the poem the majority is merely words put on the page in a stream of consumerist postmodern discourse consciousness. The effect is simultaneously exhilarating and rather banal, but not in the intended way of Ashbery’s studied world-weariness but merely in the way that after awhile another person’s excitement over something simply does become uninteresting.
· like the aporia at the heart of O’Hara’s action writing and Personism, the trope of trying to go on must be undermined by the hermeneutic logic of decollation and its re-iterative forces of cataphoric re-inscription of anaphora. The sheer length and irrelevancy of the poem does its best however to undermine this but in doing so robs itself of the paragrammatic thus remaining a surface avant-garde trope rather than a part of the larger process. Process or praxis is not ongoing as in this sense here, it doe not just keep going as in fact this is the trope of capital, rather it does return through the trope of revolution. Effectively the avant-garde is an ineffective topography without the returning trop of revolution, of things going back over themselves, for this is the truly critical position. Thus such poetry is avant-garde without being revolutionary and thus is symptomatic of what Burger dislikes about the neo-avant-garde

· p.5-6: written at the time of O'Hara and Ashbery’s long poems (“Easter,” and “Europe”) Koch’s technique was to simply keep going, the opening sections (5-6) then suggest a degree of cohesion that a much shorter poem could sustain, introducing a number of cohesive devices (apostrophes, sonic involution, repetition, citation, taxonomy) which are loosely sustained throughout, thus here in the opening lines the “shout” is a reflection of numerous ejaculations in the piece, the collecting refers to the literal collection of words that much of the poem consists of, the coat-hangers is a central motif of clothing, laundry and lint etc., the rebus or puzzle returns later but may also refer to previous poetic techniques that he is lampooning at the time, the conch is a shell which leads to ocean/beach motifs, we also have the repetition of “oo” an occasional simple language-poet aspects such as sniff/snuff.
· this is fairly standard in the poem and even an overestimation of its cohesive elements

· p.8: “Parallel excursion. O black black black black black” this suggests the rejection of the duality of language journeys, the parallel excursions of the double levels of infinite code, in favour of this surface serialism or repetition without duality or development. This multiple repetition of the same word again occurs throughout and is a counterpoint to the more subtle and interesting forms of taxonomy he sues such as works of literature, especially the Romantics and especially “Endymion”, and place names.

· p.11: the taxonomic flurries such as here are again typical with taxonomy as a trope becoming a surface non-development feature of the poem akin to “black black black black.” This section is interesting in is mix of nouns separated by commas, compounds, citations, non-developmental repetitions , lettrisms. It thus is interesting it its piebald nature but in an of itself lacks critique I would argue.

· p.17: here we have an even ore extreme form where each word has become so articulated with very little syntactic motivation that this, along with the use of citations, reduces language very much down to its basic marks on page status coupled with the merest residual signification, i.e. we know what the words are supposed to mean. These words however are not randomly chosen as the are rather gesturally motivated to use Silliman’s terms, that is they look and sound similar.

· p.21: here an extended postmodern taxonomic flurry is cohered by the repetition of two words, cuckoo clock and yoyo. Apart from their sonic qualities these two motifs are also significant as they are tropes of the very repetition without development that he is using here and throughout the poem.

· p.28: here in his use of compounds we have taxonomy within the body of the word, “”send- / Us-up-to-the-woodchuck-for-coat-she-enterprise- / Pin-clue-bock-hurt-Sven white elephant.”” Thus the dynamic of taxonomy is arrested by the somatic limits of the word, by the fact that this is in fact a sentence thus syntax goes against taxonomy, that it is cited and by the capitalisations at the start of each line.

· p.44: perhaps the most intense taxonomy here the use of the letter “b” is explored in a self-consciously structuralist fashion which also however develops internally with the phonetic aspects is the word ends and word middles (s and a), this is then followed by an intense and sustained non-motivated taxonomic section.

· p.75: here an alternative to p.44 is developed by using “f” as the beginning of a 7 line sequence which is interested in two ways in that it reduces rhyme down from syllable to letter then places it not at the end of the word but at the beginning.

· p.76: the excess of apostrophe fits in with the dynamic mimetic aim of the poem the render on the page everything. There is a certain irony to this in that in saying that one must invoke one suggests that language is something other than material and a basic surface signification yet really the deep structures of invocation are well beyond the brief of the piece. In an alternative fashion it suggests that the abstract of language is its massiveness tending towards totality and yet also is removes signification or representation from the work as invocation is a speech act not a process of description or development.

· p.113: curiously the last line of the poem is, like the opening, semantically rich. After a flurry of taxonomy which moves into citation as if relinquishing the responsibility of voice altogether, the “Gentle hiatus of sarabande cuckoo seam!” is rich with meaning. The gentle hiatus is of course the denial of the violence of decollation common to New York School endings, the sarabande and dance consisting of three beats which is really the origin of taxonomy for 2 words form a basic copula and lead us into the non-dynamic tropes of either metaphor or metonymy, the cuckoo of course is intertextual but is also the gestural aural marking of the poem whilst the seam is the alternative tropic ending to the poem that it isn’t a pause in the process but an outer seam of the inevitable inner chiasmus of reading.

Kenneth Koch, Thank You annotated

Kenneth Koch: Thank You and Other Poems
(New York: Grove Press, 1962)

Close Readings and annotations of poema in the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)

Kenneth Koch “On the Great Atlantic Rainway,” “Summery Weather,” “The Brassiere Factory,” & “The Bricks,” 9-12

· these opening four works all use the trop of machinery or construction in a self-conscious explanation I guess of their own composition which is strangely related to LANGUAGE poetry in that the language here is seen and used pretty much as a machine or pre-established pattern, into which the signs are poured if you like or churned out. This seems to be his thesis in the collection as a whole which lacks the subjective agency of his later work.
· “On the Great...” here the machine seems to be that of aphorism which of course comes mainly from Lautréamont, and is one that he uses generally. Aphorism or epigrammatic verse is, like the sentiment, a self-enclosed unit within a unit and a key aspect of his poetics relating to the paratactic manner of his combinations which then build up individual semantic units which bring their coherence along with them, into the formal structure of each verse.
· here a number of the aphorisms seem to be directly commenting on this: “Did you ride in Kenneth’s machine?” ““And yet he drives between the two...” “And that is the modern idea of fittedness / To, always in motion, lose nothing...” ““Formulalessness...” ““Yet always beneath the rainway unsyntactical / Beauty might leap up!”
· he uses generally rhyme plus the internal repetition either of the word itself or in a taxonomic fashion, plus narrative to produce internal cohesion but his work lacks music in the way in which the others have it
· “Summery Weather,” here we have a little machine inside the poem then. We have the sonic involution of blouse/youse, which is to a degree to do with the marking of the poem as they look similar but sound very different. The reference to the factory and the need to fill the factories is a useful clue as to the type of poems these are which are basically filling in the gaps of language’s machines, and again the trope of between-ness. Then as if to produce the goods we have a number of machines if you like: “banana” / “bandanna”, “The light on a bright night.”
· “The Brassiere Factory,” we must not forget these poems are produced in the late fifties to be published in the early sixties is even the idea of setting a poem in a bra factory has some avant-garde resonance. This is indicated by the falling of authority in the opening lines, “Is the governor falling / From a great height?” The machine element here is the phrase “Arm in arm we fled the brassiere factory,” repeated in numerous forms 4 times? And perhaps the line “For thanks to the metronome we got out alive...” being a fifth as the repetitious nature both of the arm in arm, and in repeating the phrase might then match the measure of the metronome.
· I need to come to terms with the difference between straight repetition, modified repetition, phrasal structured repetition and music.
· “The Bricks,” here the structure of combination is built up in reference to the bricks which we might call his narrative mimesis, the use of rhyme, the repetition of abandon which is another form of rhyme. It is simple but also semantically the way in which the bricks seem to lie around suggests a sense of the internal inevitability of the langue which informs every speech act.

Kenneth Koch “January Nineteenth,” 13-14; “Aus Einer Kindheit,” 17-18; “Farm’s Thoughts,” 25-28; & “Geography,” 29-31

· in each of these the cohesion comes a lot more from the taxonomic so that in “Jan 19th” we have the kind of excess of consumerist detail we get also in Schuyler so that effectively the nouns and adjectives can come from almost anywhere within a limited number of lexical pools, but they are held together with the syntactic conventions of verbs, pronouns, conjunctions and the like.
· “Aus Einer,” of interest here is the use of the name “O’Ryan,” which both returns continually unmodified as a kind of motif to bind the increasingly surreal sounding narrative, but also contains within it it would seem a double pun being really almost an apostrophe to rhyme, “Oh rhyme,” which is how the name is used.
· “Farm’s Thoughts,” has a great deal to do with the earlier poems in that a farm is a kind of industrial production process and here the limit on the vocab as well as it excess comes from the idea of the farm and what can be found there.
· p.27: here the first stanza is approaching a sestina type recombination of details already found in the poem followed by a collapse of these semantic units into phonetic marks on a page.
· “Geography,” again a kind of sestina or canzone, here the different narratives cohere by a smallest motifs of colour, setting and action, yet the final section brings the individual narratives, previously cohesive due to a metonymic proximity or juxtaposition, into a synthetic or metaphoric realm.

Kenneth Koch “The Artist,” 46-53

· part of a pair with “The Poetry Society,” these are not truly postmodern but are rather very much of the quality of modernist takes on the postmodern avant-garde world, nor are they avant-garde in any traditional sense nor in the sense of process or of putting subjectivity on trial, they are instead rational apologies for the irrational. Further, they are as Koch’s poetry mostly is, narrative poetry and also refer especially to the early experiments of Ashbery in say “The Instruction Manual,” and “The Mythological Poet,”
· the poem conveys a sense of what he later calls the “exigent poet,” that is one who puts their whole being into each work as if it were the last. Thus we have a compulsion to put his subjectivity on trial, but really it seems more of a Romantic Quest narrative aiming at further establishing the artists special subjectivity. Thus the structure of the poem moves from the simple syntax of the early projects, through the more intense composition of the middle years to a series of headlines.
· the art also changes from the early PLAY which one assumes is akin to Koch’s own views on composition, especially encouraging a communal participation and sense of art in process, through to the final project which is actually akin to Baudrillard’s map that is to produce a hyper-real pacific. Perhaps the turning point is with THE MAGICIAN OF CINCINNATI where the art is first of all hidden from view, also it is absolutely permanent, and finally in ant-community in that its aim is to destroy rather than create.
· the final sections of the poem then transform the inter-subjective visions of play into a public arena and the artist becomes reduced to a series of headlines and awards.
· the poem then comes after 1958 as perhaps a reaction to Pollock’s success and the consumerisation of AbEX.

Kenneth Koch “Fresh Air,” 54-60

· similar problems to “The Artist,” in terms of its avant-garde and postmodern status but this seems the key poem as to the sense of the New York School rejecting so call academic art in favour of the avant-garde sense of fresh air. In this way the poem is a touchstone to begin with an open statement of the New York School avant-garde credentials, in tandem with “The Artist” and their neo-avant-garde credentials. Begin the whole piece here and then describe simply how these works are not however avant-garde nor neo-avant-garde in and of themselves, then move through the other poems to begin to reconstruct a sense of what this actually could be.
· the society itself and the reference to academia etc. is all fairly self-explanatory. The end of section 1 however is a good manifesto to quote.
· section 5: this gets as close as anything in the piece to an actual attempt to overcome the “mature restraint,” of academic poetry in its almost sentimental prose and self-conscious composition of the process of composition. The interjections, ejaculations, performatives, excess of punctuation, apostrophes, allusiveness, onomatopoeia, repetition, naming, italicisation and so on push the verse towards its undoing but never truly gets there.
· the ending with the sea again in all the poetry from the poets of this period seems common. Here the sea if undermined by being scum, then green, but the nihilism and the symbolism are clear enough.

Kenneth Koch “Locks,” 66-7; “Thank You,” 69-71; “Lunch,” 72-6; “Taking a Walk with You,” 77-80

· each of these use a different taxonomic method that returns to greater effect in “Sleeping with Women” and is of course a point of similarity in all four poets. Here the taxonomic is the occasion for the paratactic as well as pushing the poem’s away from semantic towards being marked by sonic repetition and appearance.
· “Locks,” takes the extreme taxonomic position akin to “Into the Dusk Charged Air,” with locks being repeated on most lines and forming the subject of every line based utterance
· “Thank You,” rather uses the phrase as a determining refrain into which the narrative particulars can be poured and organised
· “Lunch” uses the word much more imaginatively with the same level of distribution almost as “Locks,” yet allowing play on words, connotative and associative indicators and narrative all fused together. A key phrase comes at the end “Let us give lunch to the lunch—” emphasising the circularity of the word.
· “Taking a Walk...” this is clever as the title is not the taxonomic controller but rather the occasion of the event or narrative combinatory scheme. Again like lunch it uses the taxonomic key term, “misunderstandings,” so as to also abuse it. There is also a refrain aspect relating to the “bodice.” Again towards the end we have two key phrases, “It is causation that is my greatest problem,” and “I love you but it is difficult to stop writing.” These combine the idea of causation or the metonymic, with desire and textuality.

Kenneth Koch “The Departure from Hydra,” 90-5

· very interesting and one of a number of travel poems which of course are a genre in O'Hara and have an relevance to the moving climates of Ashbery and put up a sense of contrast to the stasis of the Schuyler world. Here the poem as a basic three part structure.
1. the event: actual events which the poet interacts with there and then and comes to conclusions about in this case his walk back from the port of Hydra. In this section which is the opening section he also broaches a theme that doesn’t return until “Seasons on Earth,” that of writing down happiness
2. the surmise: here an excessively extended surmise over the past event, that is not the event of the event itself but precedes this, here the fact of Peter missing the ferry and why.
3. the speculation: this goes beyond the surmise over actualities into a realm of unusual and peculiar considerations of nationality
· p.93-95: these considerations are then revisited in a semi-synthetic manner with the speculation always leading back to Peter because it cam from Peter, and the event not referred to directly but the use of the speaking I brings us back to it.
· the end however is, unusually, what makes the poem: The actual surmise which is an aphorism or sentiment, comes in the last four lines with the poet then dismissing the previous pages of surmise and speculation as actually true. Then the poem ends when he leaves the street and goes into the internal space which however is ironic as he is actually leaving the internal space of subjective speculation.
· the tropes of voyaging, walking, journeys and return journeys, of actual and internal speculative journeys all inter-twine to make this a surprisingly redolent poem.

Kenneth Koch, The Pleasures of Peace annotated

Kenneth Koch: The Pleasures of Peace
and Other Poems
(New York: Grove Press, 1969)

Close Readings and annotations of poems September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)

Kenneth Koch “Sleeping with Women,” 11-17

· these poems really need to be seen up against the restricted stanzaic forms that Ashbery is using at the time like the sestina and the canzone for in a sense they are the base level of the duality of the avant-garde poetic process that is they are seemingly random and without form with Koch really throwing into his lines anything that occurs to him at this time which is presumably spent in Italy on the Fullbright, but at each stage the possibility of total freedom is restricted by the obsessive repetition of the refrain “sleeping with women.” This refrain does not work like rhyme as I feel one of the key aspects of rhyme is to final phonetic similarities in diverse signs so as to set up new consonances but the direct repetition of the same phrase as in the sestina and here is then something different. It does not suggest association but the base anaphora of language which is so extreme that the semantic aim of anaphora is undermined; the more the phrase is repeated the less it makes any semantic impact
· the poem is further restricted by other aspects
· use of punctuation especially the colon which suggests there is always something following on to qualify, the colon is the opposite to the semi-colon in many ways in that is metonymic suggesting something following on directly
· the use of the semantic possibilities of the phrase “sleeping with women” to infect the following phraseology
· the use of as which suggests this is a metaphoric process trying determinedly to understand what sleeping with women is like
· a reduction of motifs to Greek and Italian culture and landscape, the se, other places, the boy/man, animals and the like

Kenneth Koch “Irresistible,” 18-21

· again in many ways his taxonomic parataxis has a lot in common with Ashbery in TCO and Schulyer especially in his use of manufactured Americana but in poems like this if one begins a basic list of all the motivation signs one is left really wondering if there is any semantics at all behind them, thus here we have:
· shirts, clothes
· college
· water
· feet
· great names or proper names
· the machine becoming trains
· canoes
· initials
· the poem retains a narrative force of a character at college so that the opening line seems to be a letter addressed to his parents, “Dear miles of love,” the miles being both the distance between them and also smiles encrypted just as the machine is “(s) quinting! dial (f) aster, dial (f) aster.” This abuse of a basic lettrism is something the other poets do not really utilise and he hardly explores it any considered fashion but in a sense the erasure of letters coupled with the use of initials and capitalisations are al aspects of the basic marking of the letter within the word. For a more extreme example of the marking of language and this kind of abuse through lettrism see “Coast,” 47-48.
· the machine and the feet then would tie into this whilst the other motifs attempt to render the narrative but the whole process is continually disrupted by the excess of base signification such as, “Tree mussed gossamer Atlantic ouch toupées hearing book P.S. castiron pasteboard hearing aid in glove society fingers’” These can be read internally with the rules of taxonomy:
· the opening three words follow rational syntax,
· the Atlantic is doubly motivated by use of water and of proper names in the poem proper,
· ouch is an ejaculation which is a common form of language in his work due to its minimised semantic power,
· toupées is a complex example of a foreign word which however has become a part of English,
· hearing book is then re-cast as hearing aid whilst containing a hermeneutic gesture towards the marked phonetic aspects of his work,
· P.S. is not only the initials which again is a reduction of the sign to its minimal levels, but also a suggestion that there is always something to add
· castiron pasteboard are both compound nouns but one is not a compound substance but is elemental, whilst the other is a mish-mash
· hearing aid in glove society fingers’ is again a rational syntax but it is undermined semantically, obviously, but also by the apostrophe which suggests the genitive which the syntax however does not allow, this forces one to run on to the next line, “Alaska with a bounce.” which is part of the same sentence and even coheres with Alaska echoing Atlantic but the issue of the apostrophe is not resolved.
· the poem does not work as well as in other poets as it lacks a basic musicality which suggests a valorisation of this but remember none of the poets are automatic writers. Here the internally motivated signs do not mount any sustained semantic charge as in TCO but they doe deal directly with many of the bases of language itself and also the motivation of language into poetic units so that we have a double music such as it is in the tabular units of the poem and each line, and the linearity of the poem and each sentence, thus the poem acts as one unit within which individual line-measured units work for and against.

· other poems of this ilk are “We Sailed the Indian Ocean for a Dime,” 23, where he uses a combination of money lexicons and topographies; “Dostoevski’s The Gambler,” where he uses the page/artist set; “Hearing,” where the aural is combined with a rather precious story of a young man and his trumpet; “A Poem of Forty-Eight States,” where each state relates to the life of the poet ending in his death; “The Scales,” interesting as the musical phrase here is musical as in “Hearing,” but is not a word but mere noise, DO RE MI etc., note also the mark of the capitalisation; and “Faces,” where he covers a vast array of cultural signifiers.

Kenneth Koch “Coast,” 47-8

· an extreme example of lettrism and the emphasis on the marking of poetry:
· lettrism: not really as the abuse of spelling are phonetic rather than visual
· ejaculations: Enkh!
· sonic involution: dairy, alive, airy (but not so much as in Ashbery and Hejinian
· assonance/alliteration: Fazzum garra maggle twad (at the expense of all semantics)
· phoneticised spellings of accents or other languages: “We cuzznt shay up too lade”
· lisping: internal abuse of word sound retaining meaning: Entwime this shower
· yiddishims: Himazzer beach
· excessive lettrism: Rlzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
· visual marks: italics, citations, punctuations, design features, ellipses
· other languages: dove andiamo

Kenneth Koch “The Pleasures of Peace,” 96-111

· in many ways just a re-writing of “The Artist” these kinds of poems, including “Faces,” have a real early postmodernity about them because they try to deal with totality and summation through a process of total completion thus Giorgio decides his poem will consist of everyone opinion the end not being important it being the beginning that matters. Thus these poems, including the narrative poems in the collection are all pure surface with the musical motifs themselves not being sous-texte either but obviously there for anyone to see
· some aspects of the poem resemble O’Hara’s Personism, “it’s a poetic present for you all, / All of whom I love...” and in others Ashbery’s sense of to get it all in in his later work: “I wanted people to see what these pleasures are / That they may come back to them...” which relates to the inclusiveness by the association of being and writing: “And then too there’s the pleasure of writing these... “You must write More, and More—””
· the poem argues by total inclusiveness, “Here are listed all the Pleasures of Peace that there could possibly be.” as well as a n absolute negation of the poem’s actual subject, “”So now I must devote my days to The Pleasures of Peace— / To my contemporaries I’ll leave the Horrors of War,” which resembles faces in structure as the poem seem to totally determine faces and possible usages and actual possible faces, without actually dealing with the role of the face say to being through the structures of desire. The poem then even concedes this inherent failure to be inclusive, “Oh the Pleasures of Peace are infinite and they cannot be counted—” but must by implication include their own negation, “Of the horrors of peace, / I mean of peace-fighting!”
· like all totally inclusive poem units which attempt to emulate the totality of being through the process of writing of which elegy is the archetype, their possible success, which in a sense is impossible, means their own negation, “For a while we can bid goodbye / To the frensies of this poem, The Pleasures of Peace / When there is peace we will not need anything but bread / Stars and plaster with which to begin.”
· the poem ends then in cataloguing fashion in a manner similar to Schuyler but nowhere near as considered due to Koch’s self-confessed “hysteria” and it is preceded also by a series of parataxis lines.

· the poems then attempt a very simple mixture of infinity and code and thus express the desire for the paragrammatic but the code is not in effect codified at all is it? It has no trace and no sous-texte because like O’Hara is tries to keep running away from this to retain the myth of action and of surface.

Kenneth Koch, The Art of Love Annotations

Kenneth Koch: The Art of Love
(New York: Random House, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of poems in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)

Kenneth Koch “The Art of Poetry,” 23-45

· these poems, these art of poems, are then an aspect of the thetic realm of language and thus I need to go back into the end of the Kristeva to look again at what she is trying to say about Lautréamont’s “Poems,” in respect to how this undermines the thetic aspect of poetry. Further what needs to be said then is that to a degree this collection is not a collection of poems at all but really a statement on aesthetics. Thus “The Circus,” is really an investigation of poetry’s relation to itself and yet also the world and “A Few General Instructions,” whilst a kind of manual for living, relates directly to poetry because of the close proximity of his poetry to his living.
· possibly this work has a lot in common with his teaching manuals and is another peculiar manifesto/non-manifesto but essentially is only works in this fashion as there is nothing ostensibly poetic about it except its antecedents such as Lautréamont and Byron. The aphoristic needs theorising, for it is a different kind of argumentation that resides merely on assertion which you must test immediately if you like against your own experiences and decide if such statements are true. There is no real development here, just thetic statement making. Thus follows a basic summary then of his proposed aesthetic which at least to a degree is ironic but seems in part to be serious:

· poetry that is schizophrenic matches the contemporary aesthetic of looseness and un-selfcritical, but lacks the vital values of intensity and nuance (23-4)
· that corrections to already published work is a mistake generally (24)
· that a coterie is vital (25)
· that there are two types of poets, those who allow influence to lead them into an original style which is however transitory requiring another original style after a period of years, and the exigent poet which is that of rational poetics (26-7)
· that poetry and day to day living can be practically synonymous (28)
· that poetry comes from an infinite code thus one can never run out of it (28)
· that there are two dreams of poetry, to write all the time, or to produce distillation. Both are actually subject to aporias but they may convey the two extremes of paragrammatic vs. rational poetry (29)
· his ten rules suggest then that poetry must be:
1. astonishing, pleasing and novel
2. somehow pedagogical
3. must a product of yourself
4. it should not reveal what one does not want it to
5. modernity
6. the authenticity of voice
7. the avoidance of junk, tricks
8. the aim of poetry seems to be pleasure and reverie
9. that it is competitive
10.that is leads to immortality
· speaking honestly this is a fairly mundane manifesto worthy more of a creative writing class, admittedly of a different calibre to the norm, than a worked out and new sense of where poetry should be going
· that there is a crucial link between poetry and experience leading to the paradox that one should write and experience as much as possible which seems to suggest that they are somehow different. This is a crucial aporia in his thinking that does not fully take into account that not only is writing an experience but also that it write experience (35)
· that whilst poems should seem to contain a vast amount of varied material, actually his poetry does not really deal with things like governments or the world except as content for poetry in other words as words. This ironically contravenes the previous rule suggesting that in fact all content is in fact merely code (35)
· thus the poet must occupy the paradoxical position of “experiencer and un-experiencer” of life yet at the same time poetry, which seems not to be experience, directly relates to experience. Whilst conceding that experience influences poetry he seems unable to make the conceptual leap that poetry influences experience. (36-7)
· that decollation is a crucial problem in poetry (38-9), and also (44-5)
· epic and lyric (40-42)
· the important role of the unconscious (43)
· in summation his art of poetry is only avant-garde in the sense of its novelty in relation to the predominant norms of rational poetry at the time although at this point surely it is already too late, but if on compares what he suggests New York School poetry should do or be, and then look at the dating which is at the point when all the other poets have produced their best work, one can see that this is rearguard poetry. What he lacks is the sense of duality, both within poetic language itself, and also in poetry’s relation to life or the real.

Three more from "thirsty poems"

can you guess what it is yet?

yes, it is better to hide your gift of love when
first you come up to, approach, the vast body

beauty is all that, and more, which you can’t encompass

...on the intrados the etchings, the
aqueduct goes on its arch proliferating but
neat, but on the intrados the marks, they
refute all laws of construction they dispute
structure claiming sovereignty for the irreducible—
all we ask is that you for us grant a body...

I am the sort of person who apologises to children this
in and of itself must commend me to the behemoth

can you guess what it is yet; slow developing like the
colour of wings if you happen to be lucky with the sun, with eyes

...the arc of the intrados can not span the
rift, the shrouded rift that gnaws on the ham
let, the bucolic alcoholic hamlet, the
extradosesque bully is also of no use—
something this big can never be loved can
never be lovely such a body such extra
vagance whilst we muddle on with our many-breach, leaking...

luvva, you built our house with the insides out


class issues

girls now aren’t girls nice the way they are in
spotted skirts, striped shorts, check their trousers?
boys, aren’t boys nice too the way they follow on in
packs, watching, haunches rising and fall?
squirrels, darling little squirrels, decimating the green of
sticky shoots, dispatching their detritus down
the mad so picturesque menacing those others with a jelly
knife off their heads on mental medicated
horrid. oh how horrid was the truncheon, that sound!
it makes! glancing off of a skull, dull, forcing prod, harassment,
in the back room, hands-on-thighs-up-skirts;
bungs, sweeteners, plants and grassers, calling
jimmy a “little pouf” and jenny a lesser who loves
“it really.” they all do apparently, those sluts

why must they be so nasty
to us
just because
we did that naughty thing
yet let that wanky loony well alone
who smelt
and swore—
looking after their own whose
baggy seat was so soiled?



lip stick sticky mouth is a fetish moon
over astrakhan beach I
rub their nipples with the fake
static shocks up the cellophane sky

pvc fish feel greasy to me now
laid out on my chest no
nowhere near my genitalia how
they beat: flob, flib, flob flab

ground glass sand dunes
wire wool gorse encroaching
slither-shattered black crystal cliffs
leather ship, silk anchor, lithe chain

from the sadist beach hut to the...
you laid your svelte pelt down
“svelte” I whispered
“svelte” responded the responders
“svelte” called out the torso sailors “svelte”
confirmed the actual crab a
single pearl quivered immaculate up
on the arid lip of your inner calm
contained within tension, your poison. “mmm,
yes,” you purred, “svelte. will you do my back?

Postmodern Poetry (5)

Singing and Dancing Our Way Through the Critics of Postmodern Poetry

Postmodernism has resulted in a radical questioning of western meta-narratological assumptions, revealing at the same time a tendency towards oppositional structures of categorical thinking which establish dubious hierarchies and close down variety and difference. And yet critics of postmodernism in all its forms still indulge in just such modes of oppositional and hierarchical thinking. Brian McHale, for example, in his classic study of postmodern fiction presents a clear differentiation between modernist prose, which he calls epistemological, and postmodern, which he decides is ontological. Modernist writers struggle with how to interpret the world around them, the postmoderns revel in the creation of new worlds. This neat, dialectical approach has been attempted in relation to postmodern literature and theory by other critics, most famously Ihab Hassan, and you can see this modernist and humanist tendency towards structured thinking in both Perloff and Altieri. Modernism is naturalised, postmodernism artificial; moderrnism makes things, postmodernism creates an awareness of the processes of this construction. Clearly critics are tempted by the implications of the term postmodern and have read post to mean counter or opposite to. However, apart from the fact that literary movements are rarely reducible to one single value, certainly one philosophical term however broad, the dialectical model is not only too reductive but it also perpetuates a modernist dialectical schema within a literature that openly rejects such schema, a point Paul Bové has made about Altieri’s work. As I have already said, a great value must be placed on the groundbreaking work of these critics but the basic difficulty of Perloff and Altieri’s relative positions is a refusal to see postmodern poetry as something singular within literary history whose difference matches the cultural difference postmodernism initiates. Postmodern poets must always be, therefore, out of step with their postmodern times, yet for those of us who have studied this poetry, we know this simply is not true.

Postmodern poetry is one of the central components of postmodern culture. It precedes all forms of postmodern culture, it is the most effective in stressing how metaphysical truth claims are constructions of language, it is the most in touch with the previous positions of modernism because modernism chose poetry through which to express itself in essence, it has always been a simultaneous absorption of and critique of postmodern culture, and even its lack of visibility has forced it to find alternative means of production and reception making it a technologically advanced, performance-based visualised art well in advance of it’s great rival narrative prose.

Perloff and Altieri’s work must, therefore, be supplemented by the critical work of others who believe that what they are writing about actually exists as fresh, contemporary movement. Multu Konuk Blasing is one a number of critics who make a case of postmodern poetic difference and specificity—note here how we avoid that very modernistic term novelty. The core assumption of modernism, according to Blasing, is the need for the suppression of the rhetoric of its forms. Postmodernism emphasises that all means of expression are essentially rhetorical constructs. They are basically lies in that rhetoric cannot be a truth claim, it can only help argue such a claim:

No truth can lead to an ethical, political, or aesthetic imperative without a rhetorical translation...Postmodern poetry highlights this moment of rhetorical intervention and, focusing on representation and the persuasive goals of figuration, breaks with Romantic and modernist organicisms alike, which have ceased to be convincing.

This is an essential development from Perloff’s point about artifice. While postmodern poetry can resemble modernism, Romanticism, indeed any –ism that takes its fancy, what differentiates the postmodern from all that came before is a revelation of the rhetorical basis of all truth claims. Thus, poetry in the postmodern age sees its essence as an understanding of the rhetorical mediation of truth and a self-conscious revelation of this not only in terms of past poetic traditions’ claims for truth, but all claims for truth. Blasing, therefore, locates postmodern poetry at the centre of postmodernism’s turn to language as the inescapable mediation of truth, experience, reality and knowledge. This is what Paul Naylor calls “contemporary investigative poetry…the way Wittgenstein investigates our uses of words as they move in and out of various language-games.”
James Logenbach agrees with Blasing that postmodernism is definitely a poetic period all its own, taking the term to mean any poetry that comes after modernism and knows that it does and shows that it knows. In this he is joined by Jerome Mazzaro who, in his book Postmodern American Poetry, reveals that the term was first used in relation to American poetry by Randell Jarrell in his 1946 review of Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle of all things! He goes on to note that:

in conceiving of language as a fall from unity, modernism seeks to restore the original state often by proposing silence or the destruction of language; postmodernism accepts the division and uses language and self-definition…as a basis of identity.

The division in question is, of course, that between the word and the world whose separation was seen as abyssal and abysmal by modernism but is taken for granted by postmodernism, which has since moved on. Placing Blasing, Logenbach, Mazzaro and Naylor together we can say that postmodernism must be aware that it is not modernism, it must occur within a specific time frame called postmodernism upon which it reflects, from the nineteen sixties to now (although the first postmodern poems were being written in the early fifties), and it is not upset that the truth of the world is not expressible through language because it can only be known through the mediation of language, which immediately renders it rhetorical and therefore untrue in an essential way.

What is interesting about these definitions is the kind of poets they allow under the umbrella-term postmodern. They are not, on the whole, postmodern at all. To be postmodern you have to be writing in the period called postmodernism, reflecting on that period, and allowing the implications of the period to transform your poetic practice. Just applying one or two of these criteria to a poet is not enough. Mazzaro is particularly guilty of this. His study covers the work of Auden, Jarrell, Roethke, Ignatow, Berryman, Plath and Bishop, none of whom will be looked at in this study because a case for their postmodernity cannot easily be made. Even Blasing’s study makes room for Bishop and Merrill, but does not address any number of poets who fulfil his definition of postmodernism almost perfectly, in particular those associated with what we call Language poetry.
While Mazzarro’s definition seems so general that it can totally disregard all major postmodern poets, Jonathan Holden actually criticises it as too reductive and instead applies a Bloomian anxiety of influence model, which proves postmodern poetry is not founded on epistemological anxieties at all but is all to do with poetic convention. He suggests that modernist experimentation led to an uncertainty over what constitutes poetic form, forcing postmodern poets to seek analogical forms such as conversation, dreams, letters, songs, chants, which are non-organic and not traditionally poetic and so have not been problematised by modernism. The most extreme of these are poems, which are spoken by nobody, poems in which our sense even of the author’s presence as a central consciousness all but disappears. These are poems in the so-called ‘postmodernist’ mode…poems which are asserted as objects and whose forms depend entirely upon analogues, in that they passively recapitulate all the possible modes of discourse, literary or otherwise.

This is a useful comment to add onto our definition in that it reminds us of the primacy of what used to be called poetic form; what I will tend to refer to here as semiotic materiality. The postmodern poem, to escape from the ideology of organic form as an authentic expression of the poet’s self, has to use all sorts of materials that are not poetic, and apply them in such a way as you realise there is no organising genius orchestrating this material. This is the difference, for example, between modernist and postmodernist collage and discontinuity that might otherwise seem basically the same.

Returning once more to McHale’s definition we might consider his epistemological/ontological split in relation to poetry if only because it constitutes our western metaphysical tradition. Ian Gregson in his book Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism, for example, sees postmodern poetry as “the relentless deconstruction of the ‘real,’” although by this he means many different things and one could say he is really talking about authenticity of voice. Anyway, this sounds to me like an epistemological urge, concerned as it is with how one can come to know the world around us. Postmodern poetry is, as Mazzaro points out, eminently social showing a fascination with day-to-day reality in its own terms without recourse to what he calls modernism’s mysticism. So expect postmodern poetry to be investigative of “real” things, whatever you might of heard, including real people, historical events, television and computers.

At the same time you have James McCorkle’s much more worked through idea of postmodern poetry as a mode of speculative, ontological questing similar to Naylor’s idea of investigative poetics. This approach is based on a critique of Altieri’s model whose emphasis on postmodern poetry as an expression of subjectivity traceable back to Romanticism, is seen by McCorkle as true to a degree but too heavily tainted by issues of organicism, self-indulgence and expressiveness typical of Romantic poetics. McCorkle, therefore, retains Altieri’s ontological slant, postmodern poetry as essentially an expression of being, but moves away from the term “expression” towards “investigation”:

The most important of recent poetry concentrates on developing its capacity for speculation; the poet is a traveler whose maps are never complete and whose maps are not concluded. Poetry proposes an investigation and criticism of itself and of culture, with the hope that the process of transformation will be initiated…

The guarantee of cultural transformation comes from the emphasis on what McCorckle calls interconnection, “the process of writing and how we move through the written text. By moving into the space of writing (in contrast to the tradition of writing being a mere shadow of speech and reality), relations are reinvented and redefined.” McCorkle reads the world as a rhetorical construct much in the same way as Blasing does, only here the emphasis is on how we make a provisional self for ourselves from the process of rhetorical investigation, not how we reveal the rhetorical base of discursive truth claims. I think it is fair to say that postmodern poetry on the whole can do one or the other or both, but rarely does neither.

To sum up, the definition of postmodern poetry is under contestation as is fitting of a living and vibrant contemporary artistic practice. More general overviews of postmodern literature, such as McHale’s, or Linda Hutcheon’s influential idea of “historiographic metafiction”, do not work especially well, suggesting a nontranslatability of postmodern narratologies onto postmodern poetry. A number of definitions are basically sound until you look at the poets included under the banner of postmodern and then you begin to question them. Certainly, postmodernism is taken as a time period and I will tell the story of postmodern poetry’s development shortly, but it cannot simply be that. I would argue that much published poetry during the postmodern period which began in poetry in America in New York in the fifties and still goes on today, is not at all postmodern. The critical engagement with modernism is also a common thread, but modernists were doing that themselves over their sixty year history so it cannot stand alone. Postmodern poetry is concerned not only with interpreting this world in which we live, but also in investigating who we are, and in this way postmodern poetry is not purely restricted to critiques of modernist poetry, it must also be a response to our contemporary postmodern culture and how we live in it.

Finally, we must not forget Perloff’s belief that postmodernism is an ongoing engagement with avant-garde modernism as this concentrates our attention on the materiality of the poetry we are looking at. A general description of postmodern poetic attitudes often belies a very detailed type of innovative and rhetorically sceptical poetic entity which is simply not written by Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. Do we now need to change my original definition? No I don’t think so. Anyway, it is meant to act merely as a guide. Postmodern poetry is, as I said, typified by diversity and while it regularly comes up against the two poetic traditions of modernity, it would be wrong to think it is more interested in that than the influence of the internet or consumerism. Instead of thinking of these definitions as fixed, let’s take them as signposts for what we will expect to find in postmodern poetry: radically artificial structures, involved with deconstructing ideas of being in the world, very much concerned with the postmodern world around them, but always retaining a critical distance from postmodernism itself. They will undermine modernism, but only because we have come to take so much of it for granted and because modernism was the result of a stage of modernity now seen as over. In general, then, they won’t make a song and dance out of the end of modern history, but if they do it is because postmodern poetry loves to sing and it loves to dance.

John Ashbery, Daffy Duck in Hollywood (9)

Subjectivity and Hollywood

Ashbery’s highly developed rhetorical strategies are designed less to prove his craftsmanship than to confront the naturalised rhetorical mediation of all forms of experience. This is Perloff’s point, that postmodern prosody is a type of avant-garde insurrection in the halls of the poetic institution. The other side of the critical fence in relation to postmodern poetry concentrates less on its materiality and more on its interventions on subjectivity and everyday discursive practices. A lot of work has been done in consideration of Ashbery’s take on the postmodern problem of subjective uncertainty, both because his poetry often openly addresses this issue and because his poetry causes us to question his and our own subjectivity. John Koethe grapples with this idea in relation to the presence of the poet’s voice in the poem, so recognisable and yet so hard to pin down:

But even though Ashbery’s work embodies the presence of a particular psychological ego, it is almost unique in the degree to which it is informed by a nonpsychological conception of the self or subject: a unitary consciousness from which his voice originates, positioned outside the temporal flux of thought and experience his poetry manages to monitor and record”.[i]

Koethe concedes that Ashbery as a unified subject is very strongly felt in this and all his works, but that as a personality he is almost non-existent, noting things like the poet’s seemingly haphazard use of pronouns. Sometimes the poet speaks of himself, sometimes of herself, sometimes of us, sometimes of them, often all within the same poem and, supposedly, via a single lyrical ego. This exploded, decentered subjectivity is not only evidenced in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” it is also all about that. From the moment the duck regards his distorted reflection in the hub-cap, reminding us of Ashbery’s earlier poem about distorted self-regard “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, we realise that this is a soul-searching kind of a poem, if ducks have souls.

Ashbery is not a poet of personae, rather he occupies many subject positions within his work, within a single work, all of which can be seen as constructions and, therefore, personae of a sort. As the title suggests, the poem is divided into two areas of interest, Daffy Duck who is nominally, although in the end not convincingly, the speaker of the poem, and Hollywood the context from which he speaks. In relation to this and within the context of the poem, Hollywood becomes a rather problematic location as the duck-disguised poet suggests in his descriptions of it:

Suddenly all is
Loathing. I don’t want to go back inside any more. You meet
Enough vague people in this emerald traffic-island—no,
Not people, comings and going, more: mutterings and splatterings[ii]

It is something of a cliché now to think of Los Angeleans as a bit flaky, but the description of LA as an emerald traffic island is inspired. The duck that turned could be the subtext of this section as Daffy rebels against the torments of Duck Amuck. Like so many popular actors he is looking for the art; for lasting credibility. The people of this locale are reduced to their mobility and the noises they make, splatterings, surely a reference to Daffy’s soggy lisp, to intersubjective spacing and to the social act of talking irrespective of the content of the conversation. Hollywood has a lot to answer for in the postmodern age; surely it is the origin of postmodern hyper-reality? In addition it seems also to be hell if Daffy is like Satan, an opinion at odds with ideas of Hollywood when Daffy was in his black-plumed pomp, but which a contemporary audience used to endless exposés of Hollywood such as The Player or Get Shorty wouldn’t find to hard to swallow.

Most critics seem in agreement that Ashbery is concerned with the effects of mass, postmodern, popular culture on lasting values, and most critics of postmodernism also take this line, but along with Keith Cohen I am not so sure. While Cohen notes that Ashbery “aims consistently at the glibness, deceitfulness, and vapidity of bourgeois discourse”[iii] and that cartoons are central to Ashbery’s attack on what we might call the industrialisation of the imagination because they “reflect in a quite transparent manner the leading social myths of the day”,[iv] it would be wrong to ascribe to the poem a form of culturalist critique. Ashbery is both a critic of the system and a happy consumer of its products. Like Daffy he occupies an ambivalent position in relation to the cultural homogenisation that is the result of Hollywood’s hegemony. As Cohen notes, “the poem seems to be a celebration of the way Hollywood manages to incorporate everything—from classical opera to pop music”, aware of “Hollywood’s celluloid power of reducing everything it can record to the same level of mediocrity”, still the poet makes it clear “the greatness of Hollywood is that, even at the moment you realize you are being conned, you succumb to the artificial glory, romp amid the discordant array of cultural objects, feel uplifted by the phony appeal of the archaic or exotic effects”.[v]

[i] John Koethe “The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry” in Lehman 89.
[ii] Ashbery, Three Books 30.
[iii] Cohen 128.
[iv] Ibid. 129.
[v] Ibid. 130, 131 & 132 respectively.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Postmodern Poetry (4)

The Terrible Twos, Marjorie Perloff and Charles Altieri and the Dangers of Dialectical Thinking

One of the central critics of postmodern poetry, Marjorie Perloff, treats postmodernism in her various books as an exploitation of the formal potentialities of avant-garde experimentation, collage, automatism, non-referentiality and the like, in a way that much poetic modernism was unable or unwilling to do. This type of poetics she calls “radical artifice,” (borrowing a phrase from Lanham), or a foregrounding of the made nature of the poem at the expense of myths of organicism and naturalism. As she emphasises, the postmodern poem turns against the “natural look” of the modernist poem with its ideas of a thing in nature dealt with directly using an ordinary syntax and placed in a free-verse form that was somehow seen as less artificial. Instead, it is clearly an artificial construct: “Artifice, in this sense, is less a matter of ingenuity or manner, or of elaboration and elegant subterfuge, than of a recognition that a poem or painting or performance text is a made thing contrived, constructed, chosen…”[i]

If Perloff sees postmodern poetry as carrying on and innovating the avant-garde tradition through the application of a self-conscious artificiality, other critics go further back than this beginning their analysis with Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Instead of poet as thing-maker they consider the poet as soul-maker and postmodern poetry as soul critique. Soul critique involves, like the attack on the modernist artefact, a denaturalising of the subject, in fact of being in its entirety. The subject, like the material processes of its expression, is foregrounded as a constructed thing, most probably under construction all the time, especially through the material process of expression which in poetic terms means language and image.

In contrast to Perloff’s sense of postmodernism as being avant-garde modernism operating at its fullest potential, therefore, the other premier critic of the field, Charles Altieri, sees postmodern poetry as being a process for the poet’s mind to find revelatory relationships with the particular. In the face of a wildly divergent, democratised and digitalised hurricane of details within postmodern culture, rather than look for structures to impose upon the vagaries of experience’s sublime magnitude and particularity, Altieri argues that postmodernism strives towards the discovery of relationships within the mind with such experience.[ii] He suggests there are two types of poets, symbolist and immanentist, tracing both types back to Romantic poetry. Coleridge is symbolist. He looks to transform nature into lasting and satisfying human structures called poems. Wordsworth is immanentist. He tries to transform the self through relationships with the vast variety of potential encounters with nature. This is tiring and useful work so every now and again Wordsworth pauses to rest, take stock, and maybe disseminate what he has learned in something also called a poem.

It would seem that there are two Romantic traditions; the ideology is bifurcated. Both struggle with nature’s vastness and endless dynamic of change much in the same way that modernists struggled with everyday life’s multiplicity and transience. One poet seeks to select what is important and freeze dry it in prosodic form, the other to lose themselves in nature and take poetry holidays from the process so as to reflect on that process. The symbolist poet sees the poem as artefact, he is also typical of a particular type of modernism. The immanentist poet sees the poem and poet as part of the process. He is typical of another type of modernism which we call postmodernism, or at least that is Altieri’s argument.

Perloff and Altieri have both made significant interventions on postmodern culture through their analyses of American postmodern poetry and their work will inform much of what I attempt to go on and do here. From this brief overview of their work we can already see that postmodern poetry has a critical relationship with the past where the mode of criticism and the object of the critique is under contestation, and where the dating of the past, in any case always very difficult, remains obscure. Does poetic modernism begin in the late 18th century in England with Romanticism, the mid-nineteenth century in America with Transcendentalism, the late nineteenth century in France with symbolism, all over Europe at the beginning of the 20th century with avant-gardism, all over Europe and American in the early twentieth century with modernism, or has any of this really passed us yet? Both also, by definition, do not believe in a postmodern poetry per se. Perloff sees contemporary innovative poetics as an innovation of avant-garde modernism, Altieri as a continuation of one strand of Romanticism.

Aside from their scepticism towards the term postmodern poetry we can put together a simple picture of postmodernism’s rejection of modernism, taking modernism to mean poetry in the period of our modernity. First, we can identify what is rejected, the naturalism of form essential to modernism but also to Romanticism of course, and the naturalism of being broached by Romanticism and left pretty much untouched by modernism. Second, we can describe how these two naturalised poetic meta-narratives are rejected in both instances by a revelation of the constructed nature of language and being. Finally, we can say that in both instances the reason for this revelation of construction is not to show the poet’s artfulness and skill, but to force the reader to question perhaps the most centrally important assumption of the modern age, that we are autonomous beings able to express ourselves significantly through language and be understood in full by other similar beings in doing so confirm common values. Remove this assumption and issues of politics, history, science and technology also begin to collapse. Postmodern poetry, therefore, must be located at the centre of contemporary culture even if its audience is relatively tiny.

[i] Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1991) 28.
[ii] See Charles Altieri, Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960’s (Lewisburg Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1979) where he first broaches this theory, and Postmodernisms Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts (Pennsylvania: Penn. State University Press, 1998) where he restates and further develops it in relation to more recent poetry.

John Ashbery, Daffy Duck in Hollywood (8)

Words Words Words

I have already provided a detailed analysis of the disruptive strategies of referentiality and allusion used in the poem, but words are also utilised here in more positive ways. Postmodern poetry does not just question the materiality of the signifier, it also innovates that materiality in semi-utopian gestures of how signification might operate away from the hegemony of communication, exchange and transparency typical of contemporary rhetorical stances.
Ashbery loves words. Let’s go back to the last quotation and note the number of strange words and phrases he uses here, words that you may never have encountered before, at least not in a poem, at least not all together: Anaheim, riot act, Etna-size, firecracker, jock-itch sand-trap, asparagus, algolagnic, nuits blanches, cozening, micturition, Tamigi, Skeezix. Why was it that you never met these words in close proximity like this before? Well, the more cynical might suggest because they make no sense placed together and, in addition, they are ugly and stupid. Yet, if one can relish the strange lineation and, for us, weird diction of Keats or Whitman, often irrespective of a meaning which is in many instances obscure, then why not here? This is a good question never satisfactorily answered by champions of more traditional poetry.

Ashbery is interested in the excess of words in the language and also of their potential for inconsquentiality, the two meanings of excess being far too many and unnecessary. Try “Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts”; dactyll, spondee, spondee, iamb. It feels great in the mouth, that arresting “hard”, the skip of the “by the”, the strangely satisfying feel of a double spondee, and the traditional lilt of the final iamb which almost makes the pentametre here—you want “skirts”, already a long syllable, to get you to the magic ten, only it just doesn’t. Who cares if it’s meaningless, so is Keats’ final couplet to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and like that Ashbery’s prosody is also gorgeous with its assonance and alliteration, a’s and k’s and ts/ch’s. It is also funny, sounding so lyrical and yet, in terms of diction, so daft.

Then again there is meaning here as well. The jock-itch almost becomes a scratch with the letters on offer like a suggested half-anagram. One can feel the jock strap itching there with the sand that is trapped in it. Perhaps the speaker should have worn trousers instead of skirt. Having said that, the hard jock-itch also sounds rather pleasant in a sexual kind of a way. Remember that ugly word algolagnic? It means sado-masochism and places us back with the suggestive pix of the opening lines. Certainly, there are gaps here as everyone says about Ashbery’s work, but I feel he fills in these gaps with humour, invention, talent, intelligence and aplomb. That should be enough for anyone don’t you think? More than this, his work expresses the full disruptive and pleasurable power of linguistic excess. I am reminded here of the French concept of jouissance, an excessive burst of pleasure, quasi-sexual, beyond the control of ideology and symbolic orders. Postmodern poetry’s use of words, therefore, is radical in two ways: it teaches us to distrust language that is not honest about its rhetorical excessiveness to truth, but it also provides us with a medium through which to break free from western metaphysical ideas of truth and value.