Susan Howe and Muriel Rukeyser
Muriel Rukeyser and Susan Howe tell the same anecdote about nineteenth-century mathematician, philosopher, and American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. In it, Peirce has been tasked with defining — among many specialized terms of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy — the word “university” for the Century Dictionary. He calls it “an institution for purposes of study.” They correct him: a university is “an institution for instruction.” Peirce, a profound polemicist, responds, “any such notion was grievously mistaken, that a university had not, never had had, anything to do with instruction.” In Peirce’s understanding of the university, knowledge is to be sought, not imparted or dictated. It remains an institution, but one rooted in shared pursuit, not in hierarchical transmission.
The anecdote appears in Muriel Rukeyser’s 1942 biography of nineteenth-century physical chemist Willard Gibbs and in Pierce-Arrow, Susan Howe’s 1999 hybrid poem engaged with the life and work of Charles Sanders Peirce. Neither Rukeyser nor Howe comments on the story; we are left to determine its significance and interpreting the poets’ reasons for including it. In Rukeyser’s retelling, it follows the lines: “How deeply these adventurers were cut away from each other! And, so divided, how far away they were kept from their own selves!” (378). In Howe’s: “Peer/se pronounced Purr/se blamed most of his problems on his own left-handedness” (7). In both of these versions, Peirce’s renegade act of definition is framed by alienation, otherness.
This reverberating anecdote provides concrete evidence for my intuition that something important can be gained by linking the scholarly projects of the expansive matriarch, Rukeyser, and the stark experimenter, Howe. Despite their travels along non-overlapping taxonomic paths, they share both concerns and methods. The reappearance of the Peirce anecdote is an evocative coincidence, but it is not mere coincidence. As subject matter, it underscores both poets’ trenchant questioning of the systems and institutions by which our histories, our knowledge, our writings, and our lives are organized. As anecdote, it exemplifies the way in which they conduct that questioning on a human plane — through the documents and detritus of actual, embodied, historical lives. Finally, in privileging study over instruction, they — like Peirce — seek out the independent, the antinomian, the forgotten.
Susan Howe’s work is difficult to classify beyond catchall monikers like “experimental” and “innovative.” Visually fractured and syntactically challenging, her books feature diagonal, upside-down, and curved lines of language, often rendered illegible through palimpsest. They contain facsimiles of archival treasures, including Peirce’s notes, diagrams, and drawings. Her poetry collections include personal and historical explorations written in prose, and her works of scholarship are broken into lyrical fragments featuring figurative language and quick leaps. Howe revels in what she calls the antinomian strain of American culture — Anne Hutchinson, Emily Dickinson, Peirce — and peoples’ historical silences, positing the real-life identity of Bartleby the Scrivener, and giving voice to Jonathan Swift’s tragic mistress, Stella. In her own words, she “tenderly lift[s] from the dark side of history voices that are anonymous, slighted — inarticulate.” Howe, the researcher, the “library cormorant,” is always a visible part of the investigative process and resulting text.
Muriel Rukeyser is not often considered a poetic experimenter, though her work is as difficult to classify. With a publishing history spanning from 1935 — with Theory of Flight, her Yale Younger Poets Prize-winning first book of poems — to her death in 1980, she is perhaps the only poet as often invoked in studies of the 1930’s Popular Front as in anthologies of second-wave feminism. Lately, her 1938 poem sequence, “Book of the Dead,” which incorporates both documentary material and dramatic monologue in its examination of the Gauley Bridge industrial disaster, is regularly cited as a seminal work of documentary poetics. In fact, Stephen Burt’s assertion in The Nation this January that U.S. 1 (the book that contains “Book of the Dead”) is “now undeniably influential” on a particular strain of contemporary experimental investigative work — with his “now” and “undeniably” gently indicating prior dismissal — show how her reception has changed. Rukeyser is no longer just the “mother of us all,” where “us all” suggests a particular strain of American feminist. However, works like Willard Gibbs, her musical about Harry Houdini, and her “story and song” about Wendell Willkie — the strangest in terms both of structure and scope — are currently uncategorized and largely unstudied. It is in these texts that I see harbingers of Howe — the violent and slighted voice, the formal stutters to which they are listening and to which they respond. Each takes that which doesn’t fit and makes a form to tell it.
The book Willard Gibbs — and in this way its fate echoes that of the man — was never really understood. As The Kenyon Review summarized, by the spring of 1943, it had earned Rukeyser “a number of slaps on the wrist — and even, from a particularly malicious reviewer, one in the face.” Writing in The Nation in January 1943, Joseph Wood Krutch (the best candidate I have located for that “malicious reviewer”) insults Rukeyser’s style, dismisses her method, undermines her achievement, and condemns her very undertaking, writing: “I am still not certain either that [Gibbs] deserves a popular biography or that, if he does, Miss Rukeyser was the person to write it.” It’s true: Willard Gibbs is a strange book. It is a popular biography of a famously uninteresting individual. It is a narrative culled despite, or more precisely, out of, serious omissions in the archival record. It is completely unauthorized, even opposed, by the subject’s heirs. And perhaps most essentially, it is a book about a chemist whose writings were, and still are, difficult for other scientists to understand, written by a poet with no particular scientific training or background — a book about a forgotten man, with an enthusiast as its author.
“On Presumption” is how Rukeyser titles her introduction. And not only does she presume to write about a figure about which she — as a poet — has no claim to obvious authority, but she also claims to be writing the text because she is a poet. She declares:
It is by a long road of presumption that I come to Willard Gibbs. When one is a woman, when one is writing poems, when one is drawn through a passion to know people today and the web in which they, suffering, find themselves, to learn the people, to dissect the web, one deals with the processes themselves … To look for the sources of energy, sources that will enable us to find the strength for the leaps that must be made. (12)
“The leaps that must be made.” Compare Howe: “Poetry unsettles our scrawled defense.” I take the thesis of Rukeyser’s audacious book to be about the leaps in which poetry traffics, leaps she carries over into prose, to her mode of doing history, and, more urgently, to her project of living. In her controversial chapter, “Three Masters: Melville, Whitman, Gibbs,” she links the three nineteenth-century Americans, not just because they were insufficiently recognized geniuses, but also because of the scope and impulse of their disparate work. She writes, “The symbols and myths of poetry and painting had their parallels in the symbols of science; the analogies are dangerous, but they are most dangerous when they are most usable” (365).
Rukeyser’s great insight — essential to Willard Gibbs, but found throughout her work — is that analogy is “a form of life” (403). It is necessary, perilous, precious, requiring of constant movement and vigilance. This argument is what the book is about: Josiah Gibbs’s intuition about the living structure of grammar refigured in his son’s assertion that “Mathematics is a language” (280); Willard Gibbs’s discovery about the transformation of matter, refigured and reverberated in the operations and theories of linguistics, poetry, and psychology; and Gibbs’s “Phase Rule,” applied by Henry Adams to “The Tendencies of History.” It is also what makes the book possible, the wager on which it is staked. Rukeyser is dismissed as frivolous for asserting these connections in her prose, making such leaps outside of the sphere of poetry, where it is acceptable, expected, and easy to dismiss.
Analogy, dangerous and usable, is also what drives Howe’s Pierce-Arrow, whose title — alluding to the common mispronunciation of Peirce’s name while also calling forth violence, passion, secrecy, and the Buffalo-based car manufacturer — is itself an accretive instance of the practice. On a prefatory page of prose accompanying her list of the book’s numerous illustrations, Howe writes, “Putting thought in motion to define art in a way that includes science, these graphs, charts, prayers, and tables are free to be drawings, even poems”(ix). Thus, she is not only making her poetry out of Peirce, but she is also turning Peirce himself into a poet, just as Rukeyser earlier crowned Gibbs’s “poet’s head” (292). Howe could be Rukeyser, concluding, “There always was and always will be a secret affinity between symbolic logic and poetry” (ix).
Secret affinities are birthed in the logic of analogy: What does it tell us about the systems underlying our thought? What does analogy make possible besides beauty? What is the use of beauty? What is the use of poetry? These questions are Rukeyser’s and Howe’s, as they have been many others’. They are also at stake in my critical act of analogy, joining these two poets. The act of imagination that puts disparate things together, that plays the believing game to join them across rupture, is a profoundly ethical act. What kind of world does it show us? What kind of world does it build? Howe writes, “In poetry all things seem to touch so they are;” Rukeyser, “The world of the poet is the scientist’s world.”
Where Rukeyser presumes, Howe trespasses. Like Rukeyser’s intrepid wandering, Howe’s is figurative (her lines on the page, her slicing of photocopies of other people’s words); it is professional (“I have trespassed into the disciplines of American Studies and Textual Criticism,” she asserts, “through my need to fathom what wildness and absolute freedom is the nature of expression”); and it is physical. In her books, Howe stands in the stacks of Widener Library, sits in the bowls of Sterling Library, enters the neo-Georgian Houghton Library, and worries, in the face of their architecture and power structures, about her appearance, her clothing, her credentials, her briefcase, her name. In trespass, there is the woman’s unsanctioned, undisciplined body. But in the act of trespass, there is power too. Howe writes in The Midnight, “Here — every researcher can be a perpetrator”; in her introduction to The Birth-mark, “The stacks […] of all great libraries in the world are still wild to me […] I go to libraries because they are the ocean” (18).
There is another stunning reverberation between the work of these two women, in which Rukeyser also writes her act of research (her trespass) into her archival project. She is in England, trying to gain access to the papers of Renaissance explorer Thomas Hariot. She writes in the book that emerges:
The game goes like this: you are admitted to the room in which you have hoped to be, to start your hunt. You declare yourself, saying what you hope, what you want. The person on the other side of the desk slumps down a bit — one vertebra, say — and answers, ‘No.’ Many writers … scholars … Americans … turn raspberry-color then, all their hopes blasted; or go very hostile; or go to the National Portrait Gallery and cry.
When Rukeyser has success as a researching scholar, it is as a poet and as a woman. And it is explained as a relationship: “a link between two people […] however gypsy, however she-poet you appear to him” (308). Howe, the perpetrator. Rukeyser, the gypsy.
This is the seemingly basic insight that keeps rising up for me, linking the two poets: no structure is autogenetic, but imbricated in the life of the mind that articulates it. Further, that mind is always embodied by an individual who lives particular days and walks particular streets. This is true of Peirce in Cambridge, Gibbs in New Haven, Howe in Guilford, and Rukeyser in New York. This is why I find so many of the categories governing the reception of these two poets — categories that pit the description of personal experience against both scholarship and invention — to be insufficient, even dangerous. The things that keep Howe and Rukeyser separate — ideas about the place of the political in poetry, what constitutes experimentation, what constitutes scholarship, and the anger of women — seem to me to be the same things that make it hard to assess their real achievements, to interpret how and why and when they describe, question, tear down, and create systems.
In some ways it’s easier to start asking these questions with Rukeyser because books like Willard Gibbs have been put into categories with which they have obvious frisson. We don’t ask “what is this book” so much with Howe’s works. We are happy to call them hybrid, to call them “violent collisions.” And they are. But perhaps we should ask more. That is what Rukeyser and Howe do in their texts; they ask again and again: What is this document? What is this book? What is this sentence? What was this life? Who decides?
Howe writes in her essay “Incloser,” which appears in The Birth-mark:
The selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act. By choosing to install certain narratives somewhere between history, mystic speech, and poetry, I have enclosed them in an organization, although I know there are places no classificatory procedure can reach, where connections between words and things we thought existed break off. (45)
I said earlier that the act of connection across rupture, the linking of disparate things, is a profoundly ethical act, but also a dangerous one. It is ethically and even physically dangerous to elide the differences between, say, innovative writing and the atomic bomb, a moving narrative and antibiotics, surface connection and profoundly unequal access to justice. Neither Rukeyser nor Howe evades this truth. “Analogy is dangerous,” begins Rukeyser in that earlier quotation, and Howe here: “there are places no classificatory procedure can reach.” We must also make room for this breaking off. It is the violence within Howe’s and Rukeyser’s projects. Theirs is not easy, ameliorative work. But in risk, in diligence, in scholarship, in careful attendance, the model represented by the joining of the work of these two poets might bring us, in Rukeyser’s words, “violence, and daring, and the promise of new freedoms” (9).
1. These quotations appear in identical form in Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1942), 378, and Susan Howe, Pierce-Arrow (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1999), 7. Rukeyser cites Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers, ed. Chas. Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935).
3. “Library-cormorant” is a phrase that Howe borrows from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She explores and extends its resonance in “Submarginalia” in The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 26–42. For Coleridge’s original usage, Howe cites The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 12, Marginalia I, ed. George Whalley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
5. Anne Sexton called Rukeyser “mother of everyone” in a November 1, 1967 letter to her, collected in Anne Sexton: a self-portrait in letters, ed. Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1992), 322. Erica Jong refers to Rukeyser as the strikingly similar “mother of us all” in an interview with Karen Alkalay-Gut that first appeared in Jerusalem Review II in 1997. Both phrasings are frequently referred to in writings about Rukeyser, sometimes interchangeably.
6. In her Foreword to One Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), Rukeyser writes: “With part of the book written, I began to speak of it to friends. ‘What kind of book would you say it is?’ they would ask. That is still a hard question for me to answer. I don’t think it is a biography, although the life of a man is surely one of its chief concerns. Nor a poem, although there are poems here. The other categories: Fiction? Non-fiction? It is a book: a story, and a song” (xiii).
10. Enormous thanks to Kathy Lou Schultz for pointing out that a Pierce-Arrow was also Rukeyser’s childhood family car — another wonderful echo. See Jan Heller Levi, “Muriel Rukeyser,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, e-reference edition, ed. Jay Parini (2004, 2005).
16. Brian Lennon, “Review of Pierce-Arrow by Susan Howe,” The Boston Review, October/November 1999.
17. This is literally true in Willard Gibbs, where Rukeyser writes, “What was this man? What impact? What restrictions? What gift?,” (13), and a few pages earlier, “What was his work and life? What kind of love produced them? What was his impact on the world?, (11).
James Merrill and identity politics
In Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, James McCourt describes James Merrill as a poet who inhabited a universe of his own creation, situated outside the public realm and its urgent social agendas. Unlike James Schuyler, the other “Jim” in McCourt’s Queer Street chapter, Merrill was a poet of remarkable verbal fluency and visionary panache, for whom the attitude of otherworldly detachment served perhaps as the most effective shield against the pervasive homophobia of the postwar United States. As McCourt puts it, he “seemed to see in daily living merely an exciting connection with a remote element when there is only a hint of what is going on. … A naked singularity.” Merrill’s boundless capacity for self-absorption apparently precluded him from any possibility of direct identification with the gay and lesbian community during, in Leo Bersani’s phrase, “the glorious pre-AIDS years of the late 1970s,” as well as in the period that followed. Merrill’s decision not to make his HIV-positive status public suggests that even in the last decade of his life he insisted on, if not his right to privacy, then at least his right to secrecy. Although he indirectly broached the subject of AIDS in some of his last decade’s work, he himself refused to become a token figure of AIDS martyrdom. As McCourt harshly concludes, “the last ten or eleven years of his life was spent in a secret open coffin.”
I begin with McCourt’s comments because they represent the challenge that accompanies any discussion of Merrill’s poetry in the context of identity politics. They give us a picture of Merrill as a poet with little or no sense of social belonging, not quite in touch with the political and cultural transformations of his era, and not quite in sync with the ethos of an unrepressed, uncloseted gay or lesbian poet that we associate with, say, Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich. It is not that Merrill shunned the portrayal of personal experience in his poetry. Anyone even superficially familiar with it knows that the opposite is true: Merrill was a particularly gifted poet of childhood, of everyday life, and of romantic life. And yet he never seems to have gotten over the stigma attached to homosexuality by the scientific orthodoxy of the post-World War II period, which would be brought to the center of public debate at the time of a devastating health crisis in the 1980s. A self-described “enemy of history,” Merrill never participated in street demonstrations for gay and lesbian rights and never wrote what we might call a proper “protest” poem. Instead, he seemed to write the kind of poetry that, according to a 1973 New York Times editorial, was merely “literary, private, traditional.”
As I show in my book, James Merrill and W. H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence, the truth is more complicated. While Merrill’s poetry as a whole suggests the limits of group identification and representation, it also participates in the sexual politics of his time, most earnestly, but also idiosyncratically, in The Changing Light at Sandover, a verse trilogy composed with the help of a Ouija board. In this essay I offer a few thoughts about McCourt’s notion of “naked singularity” because I believe this notion might help us better understand Merrill’s position vis-à-vis identity politics — the rhetoric of difference (whether ethnic, gender, or sexual) that emerged from the liberation struggles of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It is safe to say that after three decades of writing poems that were “literary, private, traditional,” Merrill would be skeptical of what Todd Gitlin dismissively has called “the cant of identity.” And yet he certainly understood the social and political implications of the gay and lesbian rights movement and appreciated its community-building energy. As his honors accumulated and his fame soared, he knew that, whether he wanted it or not, many readers would view him predominantly as a gay poet and look for signs of commonality in his poetry. As critics and reviewers continued to express polarized opinions about his work, this intensely private poet became (to the extent it is possible for a poet in America to do so) a public figure.
Although widely considered a member of the American “poetry establishment” (most recently by Rita Dove in her introduction to The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry) Merrill had an uneasy relationship with the American poetry establishment. For one thing, it appears that he almost made it his priority to distance himself from those networks of affiliation (whether geographically or institutionally constituted) that make poetry communities possible in the first place. This insider/outsider position was largely the result of Merrill’s itinerant lifestyle; he and his partner David Jackson spent summers in Stonington, Connecticut, and the rest of the year in Athens, Greece, where for two decades they owned a house. As he once disclosed in an interview, “I feel American in Europe and exotic at home.” While he always kept an apartment in New York City, he also spent considerable amounts of time in the American Southwest and later in Florida, after Jackson had purchased a house in Key West in 1979. In Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie records her impressions of Merrill as a detached figure in terms that echo those found in McCourt’s book, at one point describing him as “a kind of Martian.” (So apparently Merrill also owned a house on Mars.) The point is that while Merrill certainly published his work with the kinds of journals (Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books) and presses (Atheneum, later Knopf) that generally stood for the idea of “poetry establishment,” he himself, at least in the way he structured his personal and social relations, was only a part-time member of that establishment. (In this respect he can be compared to Gore Vidal, though he did not share Vidal’s passion for American politics.) It is also worth pointing out that, at the time when the New York Times editorial was essentially calling his work irrelevant, the terms “poetry establishment” and even “formal” and “traditional” poetry were about to undergo considerable changes in meaning. Ten years later Robert von Hallberg suggested in his book American Poetry and Culture 1945–1980 that Merrill was a representative of — in fact, that he had forged — the “Cosmopolitan Style” of poetry writing in the United States. But the label didn’t stick. Labels, in general, never seemed to stick to Merrill for very long.
Was Merrill really such a detached, remote, solitary figure as McCourt and Lurie make him out to be? What do we know about his literary associations, his friendships with other poets and writers? Langdon Hammer’s biography, when it is published, will reveal that Merrill certainly enjoyed many close relationships with his peers — especially Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn, Richard Howard, John Hollander, and W. D. Snodgrass. But as Hammer himself notes, evidence suggests that these relationships “tended to be distant, or usually diverted to friendship and gossip; his more substantial literary exchanges were with protégés” — Stephen Yenser, J. D. McClatchy, Judith Moffett, and many others. We should recall that between 1984 and 1990 Merrill served as the judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, and in this capacity he indeed became a fashioner of at least one kind of poetic community, as well as a potential mentor. My own research showed that Merrill saw himself as a resource to many younger poets; this also included financial support he would provide to some of them through the Ingram Merrill Foundation. While letters to his contemporaries, like Bishop, abound with details about their mutual friends, the latest opera performance, or an upcoming trip to Istanbul, his correspondence with younger poets offers practical advice and even bits of poetic theory. It is those letters, I believe, that ultimately will be useful to poets and scholars in the same way Keats’s letters are, or Hart Crane’s. So even this glimpse at Merrill’s literary relationships reveals what the concept of poetry community might have meant to him. It was not, first of all, centered on one particular geographical location or institutional setting; it certainly crossed national borders and transcended the solidarity of gender and sexual identity. Most importantly, it tended to be intergenerational rather than marked by alliances with contemporary schools and movements.
Merrill’s cultivation of this insider/outsider status also shaped the general reception of his work in the United States. Over the course of his fifty-year career, he was able to sustain a dedicated, influential, and some would say, elite, readership. His reputation grew with every volume he published, but this reputation depended on his readers’ strengthening loyalty as much as on their expanding number. Some of Merrill’s admirers praised his ability to reveal the minutest aspects of personal experience in a way that makes them applicable to a larger audience. Here is Helen Vendler’s often-cited remark from her review of Merrill’s 1972 volume Braving the Elements: “The time eventually comes, in a good poet’s career, when readers actively wait for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life — under whatever terms of difference — makes you long for news … He has become one of our indispensable poets.” Merrill, a “good” poet in Vendler’s opinion, is an alert and thoughtful chronicler of the second half of the twentieth century. By describing the vicissitudes of his own life, he at the same time portrays our common amusements and anxieties. According to Vendler, his poems have the uncanny ability to speak directly to the reader — as long as they can reach “one perfect reader” (in Merrill’s own phrase) or as long as that one perfect reader can reach them.
We can contrast Vendler’s encomium with reviews that fault Merrill for his apparent failure to communicate with a larger audience. Writing for Parnassus in 1991, Mary Karr called his poems “mere amusements, rather than paths to or from human experience.” What did Karr mean by “human experience”? The fact is that Merrill grew up surrounded by governesses, frequently traveled abroad, and never had to work for a living. Clearly, his poems can only portray the kind of experience that is unfamiliar to most readers. His oeuvre may be a goldmine of subjects — life and mortality, fact and fiction, love and loss — but his poems still seem limited in their scope, written by an individual with a specific social background, leading a specific lifestyle, and holding a set of specific attitudes about the world. They portray the experiences of a person leading a life of comfort and privilege; they are intended for a particular kind of reader who happens to share the author’s personal characteristics and social status. Underneath their brilliant colors and dazzling surfaces, Merrill’s poems describe, as Anatole Broyard remarked in 1983, “liberties that most of us never know.” At all times the poet is aware of his social position — and so are his readers.
What’s interesting about these statements by Vendler and Broyard, and to some extent by Karr, is that each critic, regardless of their estimation of Merrill’s work, speaks in a kind of code. Vendler’s image of Merrill as a poet who writes down the century “under whatever terms of difference” is just another way of emphasizing his “naked singularity.” For whom does the poet write? Vendler’s evocation of the common reader impatiently awaiting “news” from Merrill’s poetry is hard to reconcile with Merrill’s declaration, in one of his most representative poems, “I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote.” It seems more likely that Merrill’s audience would consist of readers that are intellectually and temperamentally similar to him, perhaps similar to the Harvard critic herself, but not to the mass readership her words envision. Broyard, in his not entirely unsympathetic review, says bluntly that Merrill’s access to wealth “sets him apart in certain ways.” To further emphasize Merrill’s detachment he deploys the Narcissus trope — his review is entitled “The Mirror of Poetry” — to the effect that Merrill now emerges as a self-involved, self-referential, indeed very much dispensable poet. Commenting on the visionary aspirations of Merrill’s Ouija board trilogy, Broyard says: “For all their brilliant lines, the three long poems strike me as a grand and perhaps necessary digression, a fling with that infinite so foreign to poetry. It’s the sort of experience, I think, from which one generally returns chastened, surfeited, wise and reconciled once more to the exquisite convenience of the concrete.” In their wildly exaggerated opinions of Merrill’s centrality (Vendler) and marginality (Broyard) to American poetry and its readership, both critics underscore his singularity; he is a poet out of reach, if not out of touch. In each review Merrill’s homosexuality is barely alluded to, and yet undoubtedly registered.
Merrill’s foray into the occult, his 600-page “digression,” is a haunting and haunted poem, featuring deceased family members and friends, celebrated artists and writers, and a host of fantastic, nonhuman creatures. It begins as Merrill and his partner’s personal exploration of the afterlife, but quickly becomes a kind of all-encompassing investigation of history (including literary history), metaphysics, theology, science, culture, etc. A few years ago Emily Apter proposed to read Merrill’s trilogy on terms borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” as (in her words) “an extreme case of translation without an original; an example of translation as language code transmitted from the beyond”; the idea is that Merrill’s derivative technique in the poem, his apparent transcription of messages from the dead (including dead poets), “devalues the original.” More to the point of poetry communities, Sandover is also a fascinating example of how one can construct an alternative poetic community, even an alternative poetic canon, under one’s own “terms of difference.” The poem contains, as Robert Polito has noted, many “literalizations” of Eliot’s theories about poetic maturity, the idea of the poet as a medium, “the historical sense,” etc. laid out in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The composition of The Changing Light at Sandover also coincided with the publication of Harold Bloom’s series of books about poetic influence. That Merrill was deeply interested in what Bloom, in his latest volume on the subject, calls “literary love, tempered by defense” is evident in his 1972 interview with David Kalstone, where he discusses protest poetry in recognizably Bloomian terms: “they aren’t poems first of all,” he says, “so much as bits of honorable oratory. A protest poem would be one written against a poem of a different kind, one that reflected a different tradition. Wordsworth against Pope, Byron against Wordsworth.”
Many scholars have shown how that “literary love, tempered by defense” operates in Merrill’s trilogy vis-à-vis the legacy of earlier poets, including twentieth-century ones like Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot. Its cultural ambitions aside, The Changing Light at Sandover demonstrates that the most significant literary relationships are also the most personal ones — those that transcend the temporal boundary, those that are made possible through the solitary acts of reading. In his intertextual engagements with his predecessors Merrill also goes to great lengths to protest against the masculinist and heterosexist biases that are often implicit in their constructions of poetic authority; taking a cue from Apter, we could say he “devalues” his “originals” in this way. As he examines scientific theories, religious concepts, ideas about “human nature,” and the Western canon itself from a markedly queer perspective, Merrill participates — more vigorously than is usually acknowledged — in the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s. However, this participation is still defined by the position of “naked singularity” — the inimitability of composed voice and of created vision. Ultimately singularity may be as elusive and imprecise a term as community, but it seems quite fitting to our considerations of this mercurial, unclassifiable poet. As we look at varieties, models, and definitions of poetry and/in community, the example of James Merrill gives us a chance to talk about the possibilities of resistance to community, or at least about transtemporal versions of it.
5. “There is a World West of Yale,” New York Times, January 16, 1973, A38. Written in response to the awarding of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry to Merrill in 1973, the editorial faults the administrator of the prize, the Yale University Library, for neglecting poetry that is “raucous in character or that has an abrasive public sound,” including “poetry in the Whitman tradition,” “poetry that is experimental,” and “the poetry of black writers.”
13. Helen Vendler, review of Braving the Elements, in Modern Critical Views: James Merrill, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), 69. This passage was also reprinted on the jacket flap of Merrill’s Collected Poems.
20. Emily Apter, “Translation with No Original: Scandals of Textual Reproduction,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, ed. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005): 170–171.
Humor and discontent in women’s poetry of the Black Arts Movement
Against the dynamic backdrop of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the black liberation struggle was moving from Civil Rights to the Black Power era, a sense of responsibility propelled artists, writers, intellectuals, and politicians to use “their public voices to address the nature, aims, ends, and arts of the black world.” The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was a movement in letters in which ethics and aesthetics converged to confront and tear down what Larry Neal called “the Euro-American cultural sensibility.” Poetry, especially when publicly performed, served as a driving mechanism in this cultural, political, and aesthetic confrontation. In fact, Neal called poetry “a concrete function, an action […] transformed from physical objects into personal forces.” With the goal of cultivating a new, “authentic” blackness, poetry was an embodied imagery and linguistic repertoire that promoted critical thinking and heightened political consciousness, and attempted to incite the black urban masses to revolutionary action via aesthetic practices that lauded the unapologetic use of black vernacular styles “that challenged hegemonic and racist White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.”
Poetry was a cultural weapon for BAM aestheticians. Literary scholar Darryl Dance remarked on black militant humor of the 1970s: “Writers […] express their bitterness and deep disillusionment with a vengeful, demonic, mad comedy that is bizarre, grotesque, perverse, terrible, sardonic, absurd.” Some of the humor, however, was subtle and understated in a way that made BAM poetry nuanced and sophisticated. More specifically, humor was a resource that enabled BAM women poets to express the negative emotions they felt as a result of the racial conditions in America, the political silence they endured on account of their race and gender, and the weariness generated from this combination — and to have these emotions taken seriously. The primary issues at stake in BAM women’s poetry I want to explore in this essay are the discourse of black women’s subordination regarding their participation in social/political movements, and black women’s problematic public image versus how she saw it.
This paper is less concerned with the ways in which the black woman was subordinated or represented in BAM poetry, and more with how she publicly articulated this image and carved out her role within a field marked by gender rhetoric that rendered her always already in a subordinate position. More specifically, I argue that BAM women poets used poetry infused with humor as a platform to respond to prevailing racist and sexist attitudes. Poetry was a space where imagination and “truth” collided; practitioners wrote life as they saw it, and as they envisioned its possibilities. Framing this study is black women’s use of humor to reach beyond subordination. I will look at two poems, one by Nikki Giovanni and one by Carolyn Rodgers, that highlight the social efficacy of humor in BAM women’s poetry.
Humor and discontent
The poets of this study enact what Patricia Yaeger calls “redemptive language games,” using humor to construct “an emancipatory relation” to traditions they were often excluded from or maligned in, or to simply represent themselves unrestrainedly. Humor was a resource that facilitated the uptake of women poets’ expressions of discontent. Feminist scholars have noted the political consequences of dismissing the significance of women’s negative emotional expressions, especially anger, bitterness, and more recently, contempt. Sue Campbell, for example, brings attention to a group of negative emotions associated with women that she calls “diseases of the affections.” Diagnoses of bitterness, sentimentality, and emotionality, Campbell argues, silence women who, once diagnosed, are no longer taken seriously, “limiting their effects on the world.”
Campbell proposes a “theory of affect,” in which women secure uptake through direct engagement with their expressions of negative emotions and publicly convey significance using a range of socially acquired and interpretable resources, securing responses frequently enough that meaning can be formed. By its very nature, BAM women’s humorous poetry — most of which was written to be publicly performed using vernacular styles — can be understood in terms of a theory of affect that facilitates uptake of black women’s discontent. As Macalester Bell points out, women’s negative emotions are given uptake in limited circumstances. As opposed to actual interactions that would prompt women to express and have negative emotions engaged — for example, a woman who brings her car in to a male mechanic who performs an unnecessary repair — Bell argues that greeting cards and joke books are spaces where “women’s contempt is perfectly intelligible.” She warns, though, that the man-bashing jokes in greeting cards and joke books are “objects of low-brow amusement,” and their uptake is seized by only a narrow range of women consumers, to whom the books and cards are marketed.
However, we should seriously consider black women’s humorous poetry as a space where their expressions of discontent are directly engaged, precisely because of the reach of their literary work at the height of the BAM; 199 books of poetry were published between 1968–1976, more than any period before it. In addition, as Bell points out, negative emotions are “intelligible and given a certain amount of uptake” in humor. As a creative resource, humor permitted BAM women poets to wield more power than would be possible in other modes of expression.
The sexual mountain
Calvin Hernton notes the 1960s and ’70s as one of the most prolific periods of black women’s literary achievement, but ironically, it was also the time in which they were publicly maligned in the most bigoted ways. Hernton cites as an example Stokely Carmichael’s infamous pronouncement in 1965 that, “The only position in the revolution for women is prone!,” along with a host of vignettes that demonstrate black men’s general masculinist and phallocentric philosophies in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Hernton describes them as “the mortar and bricks out of which the mountain of sexism is constructed both before and on top of black women.” Amiri Baraka, the most visible figure in the BAM, encouraged black men and women to behave in traditional “African” gender roles arguing, “We do not believe in the ‘equality’ of men and women […] we could never be equals […] nature has not provided thus.” It is against, and on top of, this sexual mountain that Nikki Giovanni and Carolyn Rodgers produced the works to be discussed.
Popularly and politically demonized as castrating matriarchs and/or irresponsible mothers usurping public funds, by the beginning of the 1970s, black women had borne the brunt of problematic stereotypes that were at the center of representations of the broken-down black family. That year, however, Nikki Giovanni brazenly glorified black women as the mothers of the great world civilizations in her poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).” Originally written for little girls as a counter-narrative to traditional gender roles instilled through children’s games, the poem, which was an unmistakable commentary on Langston Hughes’s 1921 “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” became a captivating celebration of black womanhood that invested them “with the power to (re)make history.”
When Giovanni performed the poem publicly on her first recorded album Truth Is On Its Way (1971), it was with a subtle, rich, comic voice backed by the driving beat of drums and handclaps, with calls from the audience of “Yeah, Right On!” The poem reads:
I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
The speaker transforms the waste products of everyday life — bowel movements, fingernail clippings, and mucus — into assets, an inversion of the racialized and gendered abjection historically projected onto black women’s bodies. The black woman becomes more than merely a disposable laborer who builds up the wealth of the nation and the world with her body. Instead, the world’s riches are located directly within her. The abject — those parts of the body and its functions that seem alienable — reappears, transformed into objects that can be manipulated and controlled. The speaker playfully, sarcastically, and audaciously invents and locates the wealth of the world within her body, unmasking an alternative vision that brings forth smiles to black women listening to the new narrative of the origin of wealth. Even though the poem has a celebratory tone, part of the positive feelings it evokes emanates from an underlying humor steeped in contempt, a robbery of the status quo that briefly frees black women from its constraints.
Contempt is distinguished as an expressive emotion, according to Macalester Bell, by a particularly unpleasant affective regard for and psychological withdrawal from the object of contempt, based on a judgment that the contemptible person has failed to meet an interpersonal standard, and marked by a positive self-feeling that holds the “contemptor” as superior to the object of contempt. Giovanni’s speaker boasts, “For a birthday present when he was three / I gave my son hannibal an elephant / He gave me rome for mother’s day / My strength flows ever on.” The objects of contempt here are white men who are traditionally cast in the roles of great historical figures. Later her target is black men, who during the BAM attempted to constrain the gender roles and voices of black women. Here, black women are cast as Gods: “I turned myself into myself and was / jesus / men intone my loving name /All praises All praises / I am the one who would save.” The speaker laughs in the face of the hegemony of Western and black nationalist religious rhetoric. As Giovanni retells historical narratives with black women as the central figures, her inversion humor is not only a crucial expressive resource that obliquely cloaks her contempt, but also an enactment of emotional insubordination in which Giovanni claims moral superiority, “indicat[ing] [her] refusal to obey sexist norms and constraints.”
Giovanni is what Tony Bolden calls a “secular priestess,” she who possesses the ability to use her “magical art to promote healing by infusing sensations of freedom into the consciousness of her listeners, stimulating them to convert feelings into new realities.” “Ego Tripping” is a public and politically conscious effort to encourage black women to “revise the terms in which they view themselves, so that they can move, at least psychologically, from the margin to center.”
Besides confronting the sexist and racist practices of black and white men, BAM women poets aimed their critiques at black women, especially to explore generational antagonisms. The 1970s saw a younger generation of black women, militant and anti-white, attempt to break away from the more traditional ideals of black womanhood anchored by the Civil Rights discourse of the politics of respectability. Carolyn Rodgers’s poem “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED, or It Must Be Deep (an epic pome)” is an autobiographical dialogue and reading of black women’s humor that represents the ruptures in the relationship between traditional mother and radical daughter. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” incarnates Patricia Yaeger’s notion of the “honey-mad woman,” a strategic discursive position “in which the woman writer appropriates language ‘racked up’ in her body and starts to sing.”
Specifically, Rodgers constructs a liberatory relation to Civil Rights political rhetoric and the constraining politics of respectability emanating from its prevailing social demands. She highlights the conflict between the older generation of black people tied to the Christian, middle-class, respectable Civil Rights Movement and the younger generation of activists who had more radical ideals of what black liberation meant and how it could be achieved. Rodgers employs what Yaeger terms “subversive multivoicedness,” a dialogic structure that has the power to “subvert past silences and refashion the terms of a repressive discourse.”
In the poem, Rodgers’s mother attempts in vain to convince her daughter that the Bible can heal not only her sick body, but her mind too, and that not all white people are evil. She tells her, “in yo heart you know it’s true.” Rodgers shoots back wryly “(and I sd) / it must be d / eeeep,” to which her mother replies, “U gon die and go tuh HELL.” Rodgers’s quips back are filled with a defiance that performs the distance between her generation of self-possessed, radical black women and those who came before — respectful, obedient daughters who would not dream about back-talking their mothers: “and I sd / I hoped it wudn’t be NO HUNKIES there / and she sd / what do you mean, there is some good white people and some / bad ones, just like there is negroes / and I says I had neva seen ONE (wite good that is).”
In this conversation, we see Rodgers’s contempt for “hunkies,” as well as for her mother, couched in the context of playful if uncomfortable banter. Her insult establishes her feelings of superiority over white people, and the act of “sassing,” or talking back to her mother, signals the moral chasm that has grown between herself and her mother. Moving the conversation along, Rodgers continues to narrate a dialogue between her mother’s outdated views on Christianity, insisting on demonstrating that she has grown and transformed, that her version of black womanhood is better and freer than her mother’s, with her unfailing belief in a white, Western Christian doctrine. Rodgers uses “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” to demonstrate to her black audience (including her mother) that “systems of oppression preclude relationships of mutual respect and engagement between oppressors and oppressed.”
she sd, I got tuh go so I can git up early tomorrow
and go tuh the social security board to clarify my
record cause I need my money.
Work hard for 30 yrs. and they don't want tuh give me
$28.00 once every two weeks.
I sd yeah …
don’t let em nail u wid no technicalities
git yo checks … (then I sd)
catch yuh later on jesus, I mean motha!
It must be
Rodgers sarcastically indexes her mother’s struggles and contrasts them with those of Jesus’s redemptive suffering, acknowledging the mettle, yet fruitlessness of her “working hard for 30 yrs.” Inevitably, her mother meets the same sacrificial fate as Jesus — both are “nailed wid […] technicalities.” Rodgers takes her mother’s blind faith in the Bible to its logical end. Her unwavering belief in a government that refuses to make good on its promises, leaves her faithful but broke. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” exposes the absurdity of her mother’s complicity in her own oppression; as she jokingly calls her Jesus, Rodgers unmasks Christianity, the Bible, and the American political system as illusory symbols from which black people must extract their blind faith if they are to move to a new social and political order.
Absurdist humor and sarcasm are effective resources to think through how women of different generations might come to understand each other’s experiences within the context of the shifting social and political landscape of the 1970s. Rodgers’s inversion of the authority figure in the mother/daughter relationship is played out through the sassy way in which she addresses her mother. This exchange is the locus of the comic scene in “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED.” Inversion, or, as John Limon puts it, “the resurrection of your [mother] as your child,” is a functional, pedagogical resource in Rodgers’s poetry.
Black women often occupied liminal positions in the BAM, at once committed to the struggle for black self-determination and working against sexist oppression within the movement. In addition, they grappled with conflicts between their own ideals of radical politics and aesthetics and the outdated standards of womanhood expected of them by the women they most respected, their mothers. The act of poetically naming and renaming themselves forced BAM practitioners and their audiences to rethink the terms of revolution, as both a collective movement and individual occasions for consciousness-building. Humor was an essential component in Giovanni’s poetic masterpiece, which, overall, reclaimed the past via a clever remix of black nationalist feminist aesthetics, blues poetics, and re-presentations of Western narratives. Carolyn Rodgers’s work elaborates on the intra-group humor amongst black women, using familiar rhythms of black speech, inversion, and absurdist techniques as mechanisms for communicating and working through complicated emotions and political agendas. For her it was “a way of saying the truth that hurt with a laugh.” Humor was a creative expressive resource and a performative labor in which black women poets not only survived conditions in which they were systematically marginalized, but thrived as writers and political activists. Humor directly and obliquely confronted racial and sexual oppression, functioning for some black women to “keep from crying and killing … [to] educate … [to] correct the lies told on them, and ultimately to bring about change.”
16. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was Langston Hughes’s first poem published in The Crisis, in 1921. Its simple, elegant narrative style evoked a sense of proud black heritage, in which the ancient is connected to the present. Like Hughes, Giovanni idealizes Africa as the origin of human civilization. Giovanni, like Hughes, uses markers of a glorious African past — the Congo, the sphinx, pyramids — and links them directly to the richness and depth of contemporary black life. The speakers in both poems are black agents in the creation of civilization; the pyramids stand as a representation of it. Blackness becomes a proxy for humanity in each poem and Africa stands at the center of its manifestations. Each poem’s final line demonstrates the invariable relationship between humanity and nature. Hughes firmly roots humanity in the earth, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” while Giovanni’s speaker finds humanity in the ability to move from it and within it, “like a bird in the sky.”
20. Freud called this kind of humor “tendentious” in his important monograph Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: that which allows the humorist to express negative emotions in a way that allows for catharsis without the threat of violent retribution. The two main types of tendentious jokes described by Freud are hostile and obscene. As he explains, tendentious jokes “make possible the satisfaction of an obstacle that stands in its way. They circumvent this obstacle and in that way draw pleasure from a source which the obstacle had made inaccessible.” Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), 100–101.
32. Kimberly N. Brown conceptualizes black nationalist feminism as a hybrid of nationalist and feminist discourses that “resulted from awareness … of the intersectionality between gender, race, and class.” Brown, Revolutionary Diva: Women’s Subjectivity and the Decolonizing Text (Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, 2010), 73.
For Jessica Lowenthal and Chris Mustazza
and in memory of Bob Lucid
Author’s note: This paper was delivered informally, mainly for the purposes of provoking a discussion. As such, this should read more or less as it was presented orally.
I don’t generally see contradictions between poetry and community (to use a phrase from the title of Steven Yao’s paper to be given later), but my topic is academic politics and “clearing a space” for poetic communities inside the institution known for both Panopticism and look-the-other-way-ism (or head-in-sand-ism). So I will have to say something about contradictions first before I get a little happier.
If the space for the poetic community is not a priori characterized by caste, class, or sect — by sectarianism based on level or function — then the poetics of the group can carry on successfully for quite a while before the barriers get erected. But the university is not typically, alas, such an uninhibited community; its scholasticist caste system predates the entry of innovative poetic modes into it. The differences between and among its variously admitted members are a priori true. It’s not a matter, as it were, of degree. The question is whether the institution is capacious enough, or can be discerned as capacious enough, to enable intentional, non- or quasi-academic spaces in which the caste system is checked at the door.
Let me be a little more specific and describe one of the contradictions at most US universities — and I apologize in advance for the bluntness of this. Undergraduate tuition and funds raised from contributions of philanthropic former undergraduates pay for humanities graduate fellowships in programs that tend to produce acts of specialization and professionalization that exclude undergraduates. This constitutes, to my mind, one of the most regressive aspects of the university today. I want to argue that the preprofessionalism of the doctoral program in the academy — at least at the poetry-and-poetics end of that realm — should be fully conceded and frankly embraced. Or it should be fully suppressed, which is to say not so much worried over. Any middle ground there affords us the much-too-easy opportunity, at any point, either to bemoan our fate as under-served impractical advocates of the aesthetic or to roll up our sleeves and contend for resources and centrality, but to be able to choose moodily between those two dispositions anywhere and anytime we like.
MFA programs and poetics-specific doctoral programs participate in this specific form of regressive institutionalization, and contribute to the overall effect of self-marginalization. They make understaffing, underfunding and sometimes outright defunding crises far worse than they would be otherwise, especially at some very large institutions that, if left to their own devices, would pay no heed, for better or for ill, to the “arts” end of the humanities. And yet the field of poetry and poetics happens indeed to be one sub-area of that larger zone called “arts and humanities” (marking a mode of intellection and action not born in the academy) where the line of separation between and among the academic castes (tenured faculty, lecturer, graduate student, undergraduate, marginally affiliated community member in the town/gown sense, unenrolled local artist) has for the most part not been very clear. That line has been obscured by the tendencies of the very form that brings them together. The example of and reality of — and I dare say tradition of — this more or less intellectually classless state should present us with sufficient motive for exploring that state at a conference devoted to the topic of poetry and community. I mean to explore why in and because of the newest forms of innovative poetry the lines of separation are getting less clearly drawn, in spite of a period of extreme academic retrenchment and consolidation.
Al Filreis with Michael Golston, Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
I attended a heady several-day conference thirteen years ago devoted to the idea that there is, or should be, a close, studied relationship between the practice and advocacy of innovative poetry on one hand, and the experimental teaching of that poetry on the other — that there should ideally be a connection between the experimentalism of the poem and that of the mode by which it is presented. How much of the radicalism of Lorine Niedecker’s “condensery” (in the poem in which the speaker’s grandfather tells her to get a job but she refuses, except to do the job of producing this resistant poem) is diminished by the I know/you don’t, I speak/you listen lecture that merely delivers (shall we say, in grandfatherly fashion) the “teachings” of that poem in a university seminar room? I note with some pleasure that in this case it’s a form-content relationship in which the poetry itself is the content, and pedagogy is the form. The conservative pedagogical form is never more than an extension of its liberationist content.
My sense is that the conversation has hardly progressed in all that time. Why not? I’m not certain, but I’ll venture a guess: we’re too busy separating the work of those two areas, worried that the convergence of them, the synthesis or un-disaggregation or de-alienation of that work, requires far more effort than the two done separately and distinctly; and because our drive to innovate in the field of contemporary poetry and poetics has a stronger and greater “tradition” supporting it than the institutionally unrewarded, unincentivized project of reforming our pedagogical poetics, which has typically been the most entropic — and also the least known and least observed — thing we do.
And yet, since 1999 we’ve developed the capacity, fully, for the so-called flipped classroom — and also, not incidentally, for the flipping of the room in which a poetry reading takes place. The “flipped classroom” is a phrase used by IT people to describe the structure in which the presenter-lecturer has been digitally recorded, stored, and made asynchronously available, such that the face-to-face meeting time can now be reserved entirely for the spontaneous, collective, collaborative interaction between teachers and learners and among learners, between performers and audiences, between those who know and those who want to know, between those who already are and those who want to become, etc., such that the interaction can’t be, or can’t easily be, reproduced and redeployed. As hip and contemporary as everyone in this room is, and perhaps even more so those watching today via digital video stream, I hazard the guess that rather few of us have really flipped our classrooms and poetry readings. And yet we are quick to speak in analogous terms about the poetry we produce and admire. The analogy between (1) innovative poetries in the digital age (whether they are digital themselves or not) and (2) institutional spaces in which novices are helped into the world of poetics is not a heuristic metaphor but a real prospect. The connection, moreover, is I think an obligation, given our ideas.
If we are sanguine about the revolution augured by the first, but are taking no advantage of the revolutionary resources available to us in the context of the second, then we are naturally more likely to bemoan our fates as pawns or victims of the institution, which we can say ignores us or deploys its resources elsewhere. Those resources are more ideologically neutral than we think. So much has been made of the hegemonic deviousness, in effect, of the relationship among (a) the Cold War university, (b) formalist close reading, and (c) short-poem creative writing pedagogy — an association I take to be historically and politically accurate, by the way — that we tend to forget that the close reading of the so-called difficult poem is a relatively free zone in which academic and nonacademic can momentarily converge, and in which the sectarianism of doctoral program and non-academic generalist learning/studying can relent the concept of expertise productively tested and doubted as inefficacious. Collective collaborative reading, whether ‘close’ or not — potentially a poetic community’s greatest performance, I think — is a form of open access at the level of the line or sentence.
The intellectuals residing in an institution like the university easily incline toward the values of open access, while the keepers of the institution’s prerogatives tend toward proprietary (not to mention monetized) definitions of the knowledge and productions of its contracted members. (This is an area where the Obama administration has been positively effective, by pushing hard to require free open access publication in science and medicine, a reform from which artists and humanists will soon benefit.) Here again the poetics community can have a specific role to play within the institution. How do we promulgate the values of open access at a university whose data officers and librarians side ideologically with the concept, but whose digital/computing/indexing systems aren’t set up to confer upon open-access writings the credentialed bibliographical and other official commendation that conventional scholarship and academic art-making automatically receive? Does it matter if a magazine like Jacket2 moves into the zone of the academic in order to take advantage of securer servers, longer-lasting storage, stable domains and addresses, only then to face doubts within the academy, its new home, about whether non-peer-reviewed publication can “count” as means of bona fide assent within the system? Well, it matters when the conventions of peer review are deliberately eschewed — a more radical move, actually, than many will realize. In fact, something of the opposite of “peer review” can, and I think should be, valued — writing that takes advantage of the instantaneity and interactivity that the ascendancy of networked computers made possible twenty years ago already but which the credentialing end of academic publishing in the humanities and arts still for the most part resists. I’ll note that peer review isn’t really conducted by “peers” — more typically by those higher up assessing those lower down.
And it matters when the prospect of a cash-cow MFA program is similarly refused by the faculty whom deans and provosts need to run it and live on its masthead — a refusal achieved partly on the basis of skepticism about whether what we should do with poetry in the academy is have it taught (I say no) or, alternatively, make spaces available in which it can be learned (I say yes). If the answer is truly the latter — and I think it is, at its best (the model for that having originated outside the university, by the way) — then degree programs in the making of poetry, and in the field of poetics, tend unintentionally to undermine rather than support what is, in curricular, institutional terms, the site analogous to open access in writing and publishing.
Earlier I said that the new resources of the institution “are more ideologically neutral than we think,” and I am aware that this is a statement that can be disputed. I remind you that “than we think” makes the assertion about our negative expectations. Given that risk, I want to conclude by commending to you a recent talk given by Kenneth Goldsmith which bore the provocative title (with its Cold War echoes) “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution” (first delivered on December 16, 2011, in Chicago).
Goldsmith reminds us that the mode of “institutional critique” is already at least a half century old in visual and conceptual art, and that quite a while ago art schools began offering classes in “post-studio practice, where the studying of institutional critique became an act of making art in and of itself.” Soon he moves on to examples of this sort of thing in poetry, and refers to the controversy surrounding Issue 1 (a 3,785-page unauthorized, un-permissioned anthology of poems not written by the poets whose names appear under them), in which it can be said — although (anti)anthologist Steve McLaughlin et alia might quibble with me — that the project originated from this very institution, and in a sense from the spirit of this very space. The complaints, in favor of proprietary authorship and stringent copyright, came from people outside the academy who otherwise typically decry the squareness of university-based poetry. Such anarcho-flarf vandalism isn’t easily described as “institutional,” but it certainly had support — actual as well as pedagogical and spiritual — from here.
Goldsmith then charts a path from, in effect, his affiliation with this institution (where he teaches) to the ultimate American institution, the White House, where he was asked to give a reading along with several other poets, and to speak with school-aged writers whom Michelle Obama had invited. For agreeing to appear in such an official, allegiant setting, Goldsmith was criticized. The poet Linh Dinh called Obama a mass murderer (for his war policies) and Goldsmith a “minstrel.” I myself replied to Dinh, who then requested my permission to publish my personal note on his blog, whereupon it in turn was picked up by the web team at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere. In his talk, Goldsmith quoted my rejoinder to Dinh, calling it a “nuanced and moderate argument.” I had described my assumption that Goldsmith had pondered “the downsides” of accepting the presidential invitation, which Goldsmith elaborates as “a rare opportunity to put radical poetic theory and practice into institutional play.” He then, in his talk, offered at length a close reading of the event in “institutional terms.”
I think Goldsmith flipped the White House.
McLaughlin and Carpenter flipped the poetics classroom on the day they released Issue 1. The anti–open access argument waged against Issue 1 came from outside the institution — from people who decry the warping effect a large institution has on poetry and poetics.
(With a smile on his face, Goldsmith notes that there is no irony in the academic origins of “anarcho-flarf vandalism.”)
What’s flipped about the Goldsmithian classroom at the White House — distinct from let’s say Billy Collins “teaching” his poetry at the White House — is that the innovative poet momentarily transformed the space into a discussion of the “institutional terms” of his dubious practice, certainly not the authoritative role he was invited to perform.
The flipping still needed in precincts close to here is going to require (to quote Goldsmith again) “put[ting] radical poetic theory and practice into institutional play” by displacing or at least decentering poetic authority — the grandfatherly dictum to get a job other than one this kind of space trains you for — in favor of open discourse that pays no heed to (nor connects resources naturally to) the usual academic class divides.
Conceptual writing and community
In an apartment studio performance from 1986, Russian conceptualist writer and artist Dmitri Prigov greets the prominent Moscow artists and writers in attendance: “Here we have gathered again. There’s Tarasov, and here I stand. Kabakov is somewhere there, and there’s Chuikov. […] And there are other people sitting and standing — they are my heroes! Heroes of Pushkin! Of Lermontov, of Tchaikovsky!” In a poem written six years earlier, Prigov also clearly demarcates both a community and individual talents:
An American is an enemy
An Englishman is also an enemy
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pushkin is a pure genius
Prigov is also a genius.
Vanessa Place echoes Prigov’s approach in her poem “Prigov is a genius,” which uses the roster of the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a small sampling:
Wanda Coleman is a genius.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge is also a genius.
Billy Collins is a genius.
Martha Collins is a genius.
Tony Connor is a genius.
Nicole Cooley is a genius.
Jane Cooper is a genius.
Alfred Corn is a genius.
Gregory Corso is a genius.
Jayne Cortez is a genius.
William Cowper is a genius.
Hart Crane is a genius.
Robert Creeley is a genius.
Prigov and Place describe artistic communities constructed of individual talents, but they also eviscerate the notion of community. Both Prigov and Place produce this anti-community community through repetition. Prigov’s alphabetical list of rules for the Soviet citizen defines the national community through collective enemies and individual geniuses. His hailing of his friends as heroes ties nonconformist Russian artists to Tchaikovsky, the national composer, and Pushkin, the national poet. National community and artistic community are not opposed, but equated. Echoing Prigov, Place links an international aesthetic community of conceptual writing to a national register of officially recognized poetic geniuses. She performs the construction of an artistic community as a shout-out –– as the repetitive naming of individual talents.
Conceptual writing’s representation of community is very different from that to which the title of this conference alludes. The title, I take it, echoes the now almost two-decade-old Buffalo Poetics List discussion of “community and the individual talent” and Charles Bernstein’s subsequent essay of the same name in a special issue of diacritics on poetry and community. That discussion in the 1990s can be seen as an extension of Language writing’s participation in the late twentieth-century renegotiation of community in the United States (and the West at large), which was a response to the pressures for multiculturalist communities and the backlash against such inclusiveness.
Language writers sought to question and reform conceptions of individuals and collectives that were often taken for granted. We see this in Bernstein’s term ideolects, with its fusion of collective ideology and individual idiolect, and in his many other essays on the problems with both individual and collective identities and the possibilities of new forms of uncommunity or “commonness in partiality” –– from “The Conspiracy of Us” to the “Poetics of the Americas.” Lyn Hejinian undertakes a similar search for new models of community in her engagement with Russia. In “The Person and Description,” for instance, she writes: “Subjectivity is not the basis for being a Russian person. ‘Our independent separate singularity can hardly be spoken of, but,’ Arkadii said, ‘many people wish it.’ ‘You know,’ I said, ‘many of us wish to overcome it. We think that if we can surpass or supersede the individual self we can achieve a community.’” Bruce Andrews likewise envisaged “Language-centered work” as, in his words, “a creation of a community and of a world-view by once-divided-but-now-fused Reader and Writer.” And in their manifesto, Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten insisted, “If there has been one premise of our group that approaches the status of a first principle, it has been … the reciprocity of practice implied by a community of writers who read each other’s work.” For all their concern for the oppressiveness of fixed group identity, Language writers’ positive vision of poetry communities differs markedly from the conceptual mode. If, for Bernstein in the late 1970s, “every group has the same possibility for insularity as each individual,” conceptual writing takes this possibility to be a certainty and proceeds from there. Conceptual writing would seem then to have little to do with a conference that looks back to Language writing’s more hopeful negotiations of community.
Yet the repetition now of the terms of that debate, the reframing of such early digital communities as the Poetics List in today’s Web 2.0 world, and the echoing of Eliot’s almost century-old essay also seem entirely to the point of the appropriative and repetitive, or iterative, practices of conceptual writing and its very different model of community. Community enters conceptual writings, first, in the iterations of empty markers or signs of community (what I term the Facebook “like” effect); second, in the self-construction of an artistic community through the rhetoric of individual talent (the “shout-out” effect); and third, through relation to tradition (the “Eliot” effect). Together these iterative modes constitute the conceptual anti-community that gives unity to the statements “An American is an enemy” and “Prigov is a genius.”
1. The like effect
Conceptual writers like Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place strongly foreground the empty rhetorical modes of community. They rigorously dismantle positive notions of community by highlighting how imagined communities are constituted through banal acts of liking, from sports and fast food restaurants to popular song that, as in the Facebook model, are also acts of repetition.
Goldsmith cites the shared textual material whereby imagined communities of New Yorkers or Americans are constructed through their liking of sport. Extending this line, Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis cites the empty signifiers of imagined communities to be found in shopping malls and fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. The point is emphasized in his collections of online food reviews, in which the reviewers construct a community out of their common love of restaurants such as Panda Express. Caroline Bergvall interrogates the same construction of a mass community through her own memory of lines from popular songs involving sex. Place’s appropriation of online material with the question “what does this say about me?” foregrounds the construction of mass communities and individuals based on repeated acts of likeness and liking. In Place’s words, “we are of an age that understands corporations are people too and poetry is the stuff of placards. Or vice versa.”
This is a world away from the positive vision of community articulated by writers like Hejinian. Indeed, Place describes her practice as an attack on the utopian view of collaboration, and by extension on community. In the conceptual anti-community, collective identity is constructed through the repetition of material on the model of an algorithmic system, or –– as in Christian Bök’s self-replicating The Xenotext Experiment –– a virus.
2. The shout-out effect
Conceptual writers also stress the construction and marketing of literary and artistic communities –– including their own –– through what we might call the poetics of the shout-out. I have already mentioned Prigov’s shout-out to the artists in attendance at a performance in Moscow, a shout-out that became an integral part of the published poem. I have also mentioned Place’s appropriation of this move. Place takes up the shout-out in a different form in her focus on the blurb –– a subgenre of the shout-out –– in her Tragodía trilogy. Alluding perhaps to the controversy over the interpretation of Statement of Facts at the Rethinking Poetics conference, Place subjects the blurbs to deletions over the course of the trilogy, inverting their meaning and thus stressing that in the blurb genre liking takes precedence over meaning. Craig Dworkin performs a form of shout-out in his listing of books in his library, and those that he wishes were in his library, in The Perverse Library. Goldsmith presents the New York art community as a field of individual self-promotion in Soliloquy, his transcription of every word he said for a week. Bernstein was already in the late 1970s exploring the shout-out effect through stock phrases such as “the ‘heroic’ work” of “a few ‘men’” or “I … want to take this opportunity to thank everyone.” But whereas Bernstein’s phrases were expressly ironic and frequently surrounded by quotation marks, conceptual writing presents the possibility that there is no alternative to the shout-out model of artistic community.
The Web 2.0 world is of course another context for the shout-out model of community. Vanessa Place has over 3,000 friends on Facebook. We can see Place’s work on Facebook as an extension of the shout-out mode of community construction. Facebook is perfectly suited to the conceptual mode of community. Much of what is published on Facebook involves community construction through the sharing and liking of existing texts, videos, and images. But Place’s Facebook page also presents community as the place where a person’s “individual talent” is constructed through a network of recognition. Place writes: “I am because and as my facebook friends know me.” In the passage Place echoes here, Gertrude Stein opposes recognition and identity to the working artist’s entity and creative genius: “Identity is recognition … I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation.” Yet Stein also took pleasure in her position as celebrity, as identity — the genius who “is an ideal consumer as well as an ideal commodity, never sullied by anything resembling use value.” Place collapses this tension in Stein’s work, embracing identity as the source of her writing and genius. Or as she puts it elsewhere: “Facebook is not a metaphor. It is, and it is likeness. I like this … 25 random things about me, calculated algorithmically. So I can interface with more texts like me.” Place’s view of the individual and community invokes the science of statistical community detection, the identification of nodes of concentrated network activity, places where “texts like me” group.
Conceptual writing itself could not exist without the notion of a community of individual talents. Here the familiar dynamics of communal literary alliances play out, where various forms of conceptual writing compete in the marketplace (Against Expression vs. I’ll Drown My Book), and various “individual talents” within the group trade on their points of difference –– Place’s presentation of hot material in a cool container vs. Dworkin’s material of scientific and linguistic description in works like Fact and Parse. Yet even here, there is a contrast with Language writing. While the attacks on Language writing in the mid-1980s elicited a serious collective response in the form of a manifesto, Goldsmith chose to post Johanna Drucker’s piece on the end of conceptualism under the “obituaries” section of the Harriet Blog, immediately situating the attack and defense of conceptualism within a humorous, simulated realm of avant-garde community contestation. When, in that piece, Drucker describes conceptual writing’s institutionalization as its death, she projects a vision of the avant-garde community as oppositional, a vision that Language writing still shared, but that is antithetical to conceptual writing.
3. The Eliot effect
If the conceptual model of community is in some ways antithetical to Language writing, it is not, appropriately enough, entirely original. Indeed the community, or anti-community, poetics of the shout-out also involves a turning to tradition, and in this respect returns me to that other essay title echoed in the name of the conference: Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Jacob Edmond and Joshua Kotin at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
While in that essay Eliot insists, “novelty is better than repetition,” his stress on “depersonalization” through tradition, whereby “art may be said to approach the condition of science,” anticipates the depersonalization through citation and copying in conceptual writing and the scientific orientation of conceptual works like Dworkin’s Fact, with its listing of its chemical components, or Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment. In Simon Morris’s bodily occupation of the tradition in his retyping of On the Road, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head, we might detect an echo of Eliot’s “historical sense [that] compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling [of] the whole of the literature of Europe” –– or elsewhere, the “mind of Europe.” Eliot’s insistence on making the past present is extended by Prigov’s extensive verbatim or near-verbatim reproductions of Pushkin’s texts, especially the opening lines of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Other examples include Place’s white-out of Gone with the Wind, her reproduction and detourning of classic feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, and Goldsmith’s singing of texts by Benjamin, Derrida, Barthes, and others.
Goldsmith’s reading at the White House illustrates the conceptual approach to community, tradition, and the individual talent. He began with Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” moved to Hart Crane’s 1930 work “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and concluded with excerpts from his 2007 book Traffic. He might equally have read from Stein, who stressed her genius by highlighting her invitation to tea at the White House. Like Stein, Goldsmith stresses the relationship between genius and national recognition. Through his individual talent, he situates himself in a US poetic and national community. Whether through a “like” button or citation from a past master, conceptual writing performs the construction of community as a shout-out to individual talents: Walt Whitman is a genius, Hart Crane is a genius, Kenneth Goldsmith is a genius.
One further text that the title of this conference echoes is Marjorie Perloff’s “Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In that essay, Perloff concludes that what matters finally “is less the specific avant-garde ‘tradition’ … than the ‘individual talent’” –– at least in the case of the genius Charles Bernstein. But what Perloff leaves out is the key role that imaginings of community or anti-community play in the individual talents of various groups including, in contrasting ways, Language writing and conceptual writing. Conceptual writing in particular emphasizes the interrelationship between the construction of individual talents and poetry communities. It makes the naming of individual talents the basis for constructing artistic communities, and communities the basis for constructing individual talents.
This is also why national communities matter to poetry even in the apparently placeless world of the Internet. And it is why the inclusions and exclusions of poetry communities also matter –– even those poetry communities such as Language writing that question the very nature of community, or those like conceptual writing that seem to eviscerate it. Only through attention to the construction of communities and their inclusions and exclusions can we see, for example, how the exclusion of Prigov from Anglophone conversations about conceptual writing reinforces the image of conceptual writing as a US export and so US claims to leadership of the international community.
In other words: an American is an enemy. Dmitri Prigov is a genius. Vanessa Place is a genius. Craig Dworkin is also a genius. Charles Bernstein is a genius. Bob Perelman is a genius. Maria Damon is a genius. Steve Yao is also a genius. Al Filreis is a genius. Alexander Pushkin is a genius. Katie Price is a genius. William Shakespeare is a genius. Jonathan Fedors is a genius. Gertrude Stein is also a genius. And all you others out there –– you too are geniuses. Or, to conclude, please like this essay.
1. Dmitri Prigov and Vladimir Tarasov, performance of Azbuka 49 in Kabakov’s studio, 1986, DVD, private collection. The published version of this poem also includes this greeting, though in a modified form.
2. Prigov, Azbuka 1 in Azbuki.
4. Charles Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” diacritics 26, no. 3–4 (1996): 176–95; Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” email to the SUNY Buffalo Poetics List, February 20, 1994, archived here.
5. See, for example, Charles Taylor’s characterization of the tension between migrant and minority groups’ increasingly assertive demands for recognition of their identities and the exclusionary and normative models of Western democratic communities. Charles Taylor, “No Community, No Democracy, Part II,” The Responsive Community 14, no. 1 (Winter 2003/2004): 15–25.
6. Bernstein, “The Conspiracy of ‘Us,’” in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1986), 343–47. Originally published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 8 (June 1979): n.p. Facsimile available online; Bernstein, “Poetics of the Americas,” Modernism/Modernity 3, no. 3 (1996): 1–23. On ideolect, see also Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Jonathan Monroe, and Ann Lauterbach, “Poetry, Community, Movement: A Conversation,” diacritics 26, nos. 3–4 (1996): 205–7, 210; Matthew Hart, “Taking the Unity out of Community,” Mantis 1 (2000); and Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 168–71.
14. Caroline Bergvall, “Wired Madeleine (1DJ2MANY),” in Middling English (Highfield, UK: John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, 2010), 22–26. Audio version and images from the installation version available online.
15. Place, “What Does This Say about Me?,” reading at Birkbeck College, University of London, September 24, 2011. Place likes the phrase enough to appropriate it in a discussion of conceptual writing: “A mirror only works insofar as I recognize or refuse to recognize myself reflected in it — like poetry, it answers the question ‘what does this say about me?’” “Vanessa Place: Poetry and the Conceptualist Period,” interview by Andrea Quaid, Bomblog, March 5, 2012.
16. Place, “Poetry Is Dead, I Killed It,” Harriet, April 5, 2012.
17. In September 2011, when I told her about the conference at which this paper was to be presented, Place expressed her disgust at the notion of poetry communities. See also Place’s attack on collaboration in experimental poetry in Place, “A Poetics of Radical Evil,” Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion 3 (2010): 97–99.
19. In her report on the Rethinking Poetics conference held at Columbia University, June 11–13, 2010, Stephanie Young writes: “When Marjorie Perloff makes the comment, during a formalist reading of Vanessa Place’s forthcoming Statement of Facts, that the rape victims in the book are ‘at least as bad as or worse than the rapists’ there’s this wave of faces in reaction throughout the room.” See “Repoport.” For responses to the report, including a reply from Perloff, see here.. Place reframes Kim Rosenfeld’s blurb (itself the product of appropriation) for Statement of Facts so that instead of saying Place’s work opposes Judge Gilbert Alston’s infamous statement that “A whore is a whore is a whore,” Rosenfeld’s blurb ends up saying that Place’s work affirms Judge Alston’s view. Compare the inside blurbs for Place, Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts (Los Angeles: Blanc, 2010) and Tragodía 3: Argument (Los Angeles: Blanc, 2011).
23. Place, “The Case for Conceptualism,” Revista Laboratorio 5 (2011).
26. Place, “The Death of the Text: Kenneth Goldsmith at the White House,” Harriet, May 19, 2011.
27. For an example of the burgeoning use of mathematical models for detecting communities, see M. Girvan and M. E. Newman, “Community Structure in Social and Biological Networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99, no. 12 (2002): 7821–26.
28. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011); Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Place, eds., I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2012); Craig Dworkin, Parse (Berkeley: Atelos Press, 2008); Craig Dworkin, “Fact,” Poetry 194, no. 4 (July/August 2009): 338.
29. Silliman et al., “Aesthetic Tendency”; Johanna Drucker, “Conceptual Writing Was Intriguing and Provocative,” Harriet Blog, reprinted from the Poetry Project Newsletter (April/May 2012).
30. Simon Morris, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (York, UK: Information as Material, 2010); T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928), 49, 51.
31. Among many possible examples, see Dmitri Prigov, Faksimilʹnoe vosproizvedenie samodelʹnoi knigi Dmitriia Aleksandrovicha Prigova ‘Evgenii Onegin Pushkina’ s risunkami na poliach raboty Aleksandra Florenskogo (Facsimile reproduction of Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov’s self-made book “Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin” with drawings on the margins of the work by Aleksandr Florenskii) (St. Petersburg: Mit’kilibris; Krasnyi matros, 1998).
32. Vanessa Place, “White Out,” Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival, Greenwich University, London, July 14–16, 2010, video available online; Place, The Father and Childhood (Buffalo, NY: P-Queue Editions, 2011); Kenneth Goldsmith, Kenneth Goldsmith Sings Theory, recorded at the WFMU studios, Jersey City, New Jersey, 2006. Available on PennSound.
35. On the importance of the US imperialist position to US conceptual writing, see Place, “Global Conceptualisms: I Am American,” UbuWeb, 6 June 2012.