Reading, Raiding, and Anodyne Eclecticism: Word without World
Wheeler, Susan, The Antioch Review
"There's only one real, gut-level sincerity: that as readers we need only what absolutely had to be written, that as writers we must write only what absolutely has to be written. The question--Does this need to be written?--is an ethical one."
--Rachel Blau DuPlessis
What would successful assimilation look like, if "successful" were to mean both ethical in its writing and ethically enlarging in its reading?
I ask that from my own agreement with, my own assimilation of, Pierre Bourdieu, whom surely I will misrepresent here more egregiously than a recent Iowa crew "mis-re-presents" Michael Palmer or, for that matter, their successors mis-re-present Dean Young. I note this so as to pocket the assertions in a specific (and in any case apparent) I, for, as Ron Silliman has pointed out in an essay on poetry readings' self-"ventriJoquism," the poet (as well as the reader) is "a real person with history, biography, psychology," and this mix trails with her into the text regardless of that acknowledgement. Or, with Nietzsche, "all philosophers are sick."
[Four sentences and a quote in and, so far, seven brand names. Although we're all informed consumers here, I'll try to keep count on your behalf, while falling right into that hole Marjorie Perloff calls Big Name Collage, and upholding the Bourdieuian notion of a restricted field of production with its "holy men, that 'discrete elite' set apart from ordinary mortals." More on that to come. So: DuPlessis, Bourdieu, Iowa, Palmer, Young, Silliman, Nietzsche.]
For wrong assimilation--or appropriation--has been roiling the radical seas. Last year, a lambasting--on an ad hoc email list--of the journal Fence erupted. The magazine was taken to task for what was seen as an uncritical cooperation with a broader market, for "trendifying" difficult ideas; the disagreement that ensued was passionate. A characterization, by a contributor to the late journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, of young poets as "de-politicized" drew vociferous counter-arguments in a recent The Poetry Project Newsletter. "Mere aestheticism" (a term coined by the Cambridge poet Keston Sutherland) dilutes the integrity of ideas.
There have been, of course, other trickle-up appropriations, represented at their most cartoonish by this definition from a recent creative writing textbook by David Starkey: "Language poetry is an experimental movement that emerged in the 1970s and values playful irony, fragmentation, subjectivity, and 'open' forms. Like Jackson Pollack, who created memorable paintings by splattering paint across huge canvases, language poets have expressed interest in scattering words, phrases, and sentences on the page, believing that the unexpected juxtapositions they create reveal more about life at the end of our chaotic century than more traditional poems [sic]." Is this where graduate students are getting their crib-sheets?
But such whoppers are easily dismissed; "mere aestheticism" is more pernicious. It employs, to quote from the Fence debate, "surface characteristics" (disrupted syntax or Oulipian generators, say) of (O Lordy, what will we call it?--a) more rigorous work, while it continues to, for example, foreground the drama of the individual self. Inscribing self might be the phrase mere aestheticists would use, their feet in Bruce Andrews but their heads in James Merrill. At its worst, their use of certain linguistic features along with a mis-apprehension of these features' underpinnings is seen as a marketing ploy, the models now having obtained brand-name recognition. At the very least, the appropriators use these strategies to address, instead, "mere" Cartesian crises. These crises of the private lyric might be characterized, as Mary Jo Bang recently did, as:
1) The model of uninterrupted linearity or unidirectional progress is no longer viable.
2) Nor is "representation which does not admit and make evident the subjectivity and willful bias 'of its construction. …