Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama's America the Death of Irony and Mediocrity

Josh Corey- mentioned a recent post of mine about
Obama and the end of irony in our poetics. What I think is a deeper question is that poetry and poetics have been dominated by two tendencies in recent years- fascileness and a fixation on the obscure.

The fascileness in poetry is embodied by the Flarfists and other nonsense poetry that substitutes chance for craft. Chance of course is a great tool in art. I for one am a huge fan of Jackson Pollock and much of drip painting for example began in chance and it has grown into great art. But having said that you do not get great craft from chance.
It is hard for example when looking at a great piece of architecture to separate the craft of the work from the form. Many times in poetry there is an elitism which simply removes so much of the potential audience as to make the work a secret of the know club rather than art or even communication.

Another fixation is on the obscure. We have a large school of Obscurists here in Chicago. Poets like Peter O'Leary and John Tipton who are great at Craft. These are good examples of Obscurists poetry. They tend to be elitists and are drawn to very peculiar minutiae as fonts of the work. O'Leary for example will use medieval Byzantine monastic tropes, Tipton will re translate Ajax and so the poetry instead of being nonsense like Flarf and instead of being left to chance is very controlled. The control however protects the poet from engaging with the world as it is- rather the poet constructs his/her cathedral and dwells in it in a kind of sacred mystery.

So why do these two tendencies present a problem for poetry as we move into an age where irony is challenged?
I am convinced that many poets retreat into obscurity or fascileness because they are insecure with their place in our society. During the Bush era it was easy to think of oneself as John the Baptist or St Simon of the Pillar standing against the barbarians. But in the age of Obama how does a poet do this and remain a prophet and not a frothing at the mouth lunatic? The problem is that poetry is filled with people who have peculiar gifts. Most poets are not in the business of big things and we are woefully low on poets with big projects. The result of this is that poets retreat into obscurity or fascileness because it is easier than engaging with the world.

So Obama presents for poets a challenge. We are already marginal --but does poetry as an artform want its innovative and experimental self to become anachronistic? I have argued for a long time that poetry needs to reach out to the greater world of poetry for answers. Even a nonsense/ironist poet like Charles Bernstein has done this with his great interaction and work with the Brazilian poet Regis Bonvicino.

Having said this I think that it is time for poetry- especially of the experimental variety to move out of the shadows into the light. I think that best model for this type of poetics is a place like Brazil. In Brazil most poets are engaged in a greater dialogue with their society. There are fewer readers of poetry in Brazil than there are here in the USA but many of the poets are about big things.

I just translated RETRATO TOTÊMICO DE CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS by the Brazilian poet Sergio Medeiros. In this work Medeiros weaves Strauss, Scriabin and Ives into a work that has challenged silences. None of these subjects are particularly Brazilian but the work itself harkens back to not only Iberian writing but to Guarani and the Jesuit reductions in its complexity. (the work will appear in the next issue of the magazine Mandorla) When I look at the work that some of these Brazilian poets are doing- with its depth and layering I think this is where poetry in the USA must go.

We must move away from a poetry of shallowness. I would use poets like Duncan, Olson and Creeley as models but also the linguistic strength of a poet like Stein would do as well. We cannot as an artform remain in this world of throw away poetry and throw away opportunities. The moment we are in with a new president and a new age before us offers as chance to open dialogue with global poets and also to our past. A past not without irony but also a future with a big project.


Nada said...

"substitutes chance for craft"... um, no. You obviously haven't actually read any of it. Gawd.

Raymond Bianchi said...

When a 'movement' becomes an orthodoxy it stops being a movement

Steve Halle said...


First of all, although Obama's election provides me with a sense of promise or possibility, he and his regime have done exactly zero to change things thus far (whether he's a Sox fan or not). His election only provides the possibility for change to occur, and that is why it is monumental. I'll reserve judgment on Obama for later, say like eight years from the Inauguration. Obama's synechdochal and symbolic significance notwithstanding, America is still a severely fissured thing with a lame-duck president who is one of the worst leaders in American history.

Next, I don't think Pollock's art should be considered chance. Controlled chaos possibly fits, but he has a craft, in the sense of having a way of going about doing his drips paintings.

Plus, what about the idea that one can craft chance?

Additionally, my assessment of your dis-ease with certain sects of contemporary poetics/poets has more to do with a perceived disjunction between theory and product in a post-LangPo poetic landscape. Another way to say it would be LangPo and Flarf have more resonance because of the theory undergirding what they are trying to do than from the work itself (a contestable point, surely). Whereas Stein, perhaps, engages with her theory, the assertions in her "Poetry and Grammar," say, more successfully in the work, both in craft and content.

Lastly, the notion that you "have argued for a long time that poetry needs to reach out to the greater world of poetry for answers" is kind of saddening because it creates a closed poetry circuit, making poetry into its own po-island, as it were. I find looking outside of poetry, generally, whether it's cross-genre, cross-media and/or cross-cultural looking, to be the activity that leads me to my closest encounters with the bigness you seek.

I'll be looking forward to the Medeiros in Mandorla. It's a top-notch rag.

DAVID said...

I think that the work by John and Peter are both way off mark as examples for your argument. When you say, "Most poets are not in the business of big things and we are woefully low on poets with big projects," what could you mean?

Both John and Peter, it seems to me, are in the business of "big things" (and, on the side, some "small things," like John's "tokens"). John's Ajax, as many others have noted (including The Nation), knows its place in "our society" as well as any literary piece, because it negotiates both current, political events (ex. war in Iraq) as well as the transcendental themes (hubris, violence, ambition, etc.). Peter's work is much more than mere "medieval Byzantine monastic tropes" - it moves in an intellectual/psychological/spiritual way, as he says admittedly not for everyone, but it certainly strives for "big things" beyond himself and beyond our time (and well beyond the ambitions of poets who default to simply crazing their syntax or making non sequiturs or throwing around Ashbery's pronouns).

I struggle to see how the end of the Bush administration will turn Peter O'Leary into a "a frothing at the mouth lunatic."

How, in the view of this lens, was Robert Duncan not "a frothing at the mouth lunatic" during Kennedy's administration? Olson often seemed to me to be a "a frothing at the mouth lunatic." There are recordings that support this thought.

Steve H.'s skepticism is well founded. Presidental administrations don't simply negate other societal influences, either. There was excellent poetry during the Kennedy administration; there was all kinds of shit going on in the world despite a youthful, shining Camelot of a president (Bay of Pigs, anyone? Assassinations?).

Raymond Bianchi said...

many poets today have retreated into irony and obscurity creating a closed circle of 'in the know' poetics.

Steve Halle's new book from our Cracked Slab Books is a great departure from this weakness and we were proud to publish it...www.crackedslabbooks.com

One tendency among poets, especially those of my generation is to seek out obscure topics or interests and instead of engaging the larger world and perhaps writing 'history'but they write poetry for the in the know crowd. i used Peter as an example because his work is pointedly obscure and a good example of this tendency.

i enjoyed reading 'david's post I always like poets who froth at the mouth like him....

Poetry in the US in many ways has become a clique rather than an artform with friends publishing friends and pretending that innovation is taking place.

Sometimes people even publish other poets books just so they can get something from the other poet later like getting their book published by the other's press can you imagine that?

Rauan Klassnik said...

"In Brazil most poets are engaged in a greater dialogue with their society."

Ray: i agree with you about too many obscurists. I think, though, that they're, for the most part, just little monkeys goofing off.

And I'm definitely against directly engaging in any great dialogue, other than with one's own self. Certainly not with a country: whether it be The States, Brazil, Mongolia or Lithuania.

(A dialogue with the past is inevitable... but a self-conscious and obvious dialogue with things done and dusted usually just comes off as pretentious. if not obscure)

Isn't it obvious that there are bigger stages than the colored scarves of one's own time and country?

or i am just lost in a lyric forest?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...