Academic journal article African American Review

"Progressive Lit.": Amiri Baraka, Bruce Andrews, and the Politics of the Lyric "I"

Academic journal article African American Review

"Progressive Lit.": Amiri Baraka, Bruce Andrews, and the Politics of the Lyric "I"

Article excerpt

Bruce Andrews's poetry and criticism have done much to establish the assumptions about dissent that became standard for readers of Language poetry during the seventies and eighties. For many readers, Andrews's position made oppositional poetry in the tradition of Whitman impossible to believe in: Beat poetry, (1) for example, seemed politically unselfconscious. Andrews assumes that the lyric poet's freedom to dissent is only the freedom to say "yes" to the American ideology--individualism. (2) Calling poems that fail to explode the lyric "I"--in other words, false dissent--"progressive lit.," Andrews tries to establish a consensus that exploding the lyric "I" is the only true dissent possible in poetry. (3) However, Amiri Baraka's poetry shows that Andrews's position is reductive and brittle. Baraka's lyric "I" is always already exploding, reinventing the social and the historical within individual and collective lyric.

Corrosively and with persistent monochromatic anger, Andrews's "Gestalt Me Out!" substitutes a particular kind of paratactic irony for the lyric "I." However, in sacrificing (certain modes of) representation, narrative, and expression, Andrews may unintentionally throw out the political "we" along with the lyric "I": "That's the way you spell it, dear, it's the way you look it up, arouse the beat, saccharine zip-a-tone ... wake the knees of the normals?" (Romanticism 97). Andrews's pastiche is neither a parody of "mainstream" culture and values nor a parody of Beat (individualist) nonconformity-as-opposition ("arouse the beat ... wake the knees of the normals?"). Instead, "Gestalt Me Out!" performs symptoms, acts out the poet's inability to transform alienation into prophecy ("that's the way you spell it, dear ..."). Andrews tries to develop a mode of opposition, a poetics of resistance, more genuine than what most readers still think of as political poetry. Andrews's stance toward opposition and resistance depends on his assumption that "progressive lit." ("Praxis" 23) is naive--and is always coopted into the ideology of American "freedom."

"Gestalt Me Out!" slaps repeatedly at the sort of themes and narrative trajectories readers expect to find in confessional lyric. Andrews's tone oscillates and wobbles, connecting camp, schizophrenia, and outrage: His mode is a cyberpunk version of what Fredric Jameson called "the hysterical sublime" (the sublime as schizophrenia--psychological liminality without reintegration). Andrews politicizes the surface of his poem in order to embody individualism, representative democracy, and representation as inextricable, as a single sinking ship:

   Sometimes you just get tired of sucking the same dick all the
   time. I'd never break a mirror. Religion=chucksteak; ego quits
   its sap. All elderly feel parental. (Romanticism 97)

Andrews's staccato concatenation empties potential plots, one after another, of lyric force, and these unstable micro-narratives obviously are not "believed" the way the fictions animating "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or "Kaddish" are "believed." Through tropes, allusions, and routines (as in stand-up comedy), Andrews calls attention to the problems that bedevil subjectivity and identity. For example, "ego quits its sap" is a thumbnail parody of the vital continuum--a language rather than a single analogy--among the self, the body, and nature--a continuum central to Emerson and Whitman and countless gorgeous (and valid) poems.

"I'd never break a mirror" hints at magical thinking and the (proposed) connection between magic and schizophrenia in a faux-naif voice. The trope recalls the fragility of self in Marvell's "The Mower's Song"--

   My mind was once the true survey
   Of all these meadows fresh and gay
   And in the greenness of the grass
   Did see its hopes as in a glass (109)

--or the catastrophic/gothic recognition in Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" ("the mirror crack'd from side to side" [24]). …

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