Waxing Hot: Poetics Dialogue: Robert Archambeau (Illinois, USA), Adam Fieled (Editor, Philly, USA)

AF: Let’s address single poems vs. long, conceptual, book-length poems. The trend in post-avant seems to be towards the latter; I prefer the former. Where do you stand?

RA: You’re probably right about the trend toward book-length works in post-avant writing. I have nothing like, you know, actual data to work with, but that’s never stood in my way before, so let’s roll with the assumption that there is a trend toward book-length poems. I suspect you’re right for two reasons: an institutional one and another that has to do with the large-scale history of poetics. You really can’t underestimate the influence of that massive institutional edifice, the MFA program, on poetry nowadays. One of the things many people are encouraged to do in such programs is to write series of linked poems. I understand why: it’s a way to get students to stretch out beyond the short lyric, to explore a form or a topic, and to understand the architecture of a book. So that’s the institutional reason. The other reason is that our poetics have evolved to a point where we aren’t really asking for a very rigorous coordination of parts into a whole. That is, you no longer have to write with the kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder level of attention to how your book-length project adds up to a whole in order to think of it as a single project. Milton would have died a little to think that a part of Paradise Lost had only an oblique connection to the unified whole, for example. But in our time (and I don’t mean this as a judgment, but as an observation) there is a strong sense that the truly sophisticated work eschews classical decorum, or even the kind of hidden unity behind a façade of fragments that we find in a poem like Eliot’s Waste Land. Some of this comes from the triumph of deconstruction and post-structuralism: after Derrida and company showed us all the fissures and disunities in the texts we’d thought of as whole, the goals of the Big Unified Work seemed less viable. And when Deleuze and Guattari described the rhizome as the form of our time, they authorized a lot of works in which various parts connected with each other somewhat haphazardly. So we see a lot of book-length poems where the bar for textual unity has been set fairly low. You can call it a book-length work if a lot of the parts only sort of connect. In a way, you could say what’s changed hasn’t been a matter of substance so much as it has been a matter of labeling. I mean, Wallace Stevens presented his first book, Harmonium, as a collection of individual poems. But those poems have enough by way of thematic and stylistic overlap that, had he been able to anachronistically appropriate Deleuze and Guattari’s language and called it a single, rhizomatic whole, no one now would bat an eye. Anyway, this movement toward big works that are really collections of linked fragments isn’t as new as we’d like to think. The roots of it go back at least as far as Poe’s essay “The Poetic Principle,” in which he argues that the unified long poem isn’t really possible.

But I notice that I haven’t answered your question, which didn’t call for a long, pedantic ramble, but a statement about my own preferences. Do I prefer the book-length work or the collection of individual poems? I don’t think I can answer that in the abstract. Certainly some of my favorite poets work in long forms: John Matthias still seems to me like the great contemporary master of the long poem, and I love his work. Then again, Mairead Byrne (to pull one example from the air) writes these tiny little poems that I think are fantastic.

I suppose a question behind your question is this: should we try to judge a poem on its own terms (“Hey! Look at this haiku — see how it does exactly what a haiku does!”) or should we try to judge a poem against some larger standard (“A haiku? That sentimental seventies orientalist drivel has no place in the post-avant era! Balderdash! I condemn these offensive lines!”). Let me throw that question back atcha, Adam. I’m interested in what you have to say: I’ve been asked to come up with some remarks for a panel on evaluative criticism next month, and have been waffling about which way to jump on the issue.

AF: I have mixed feelings about it. I also have to be careful— I don’t want to just justify my own habits and inclinations. There are two basic forms I’m addressing— the long poem, as exemplified by Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts, and the collection of short poems that conform to a central thematic or formal rubric. At the moment, I’m thinking of Chris McCabe’s Hutton Inquiry. I love Drafts, I love Chris’s book too, but I can’t help a feeling of disappointment with the less accomplished variants (I will not name names) of these texts. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the variety? In a strange way, I think it’s just a kind of marketing scheme; publishers in post-avant are more likely to pick up a manuscript that has a kind of superficial cohesion. Somehow, aesthetic stasis has come to signify consistency; dullness becomes a stand-in for solidity. I like the loose connection of a distinctive voice— O’Hara, Ashbery, Creeley. Or like a number of your fellow Chicagoans, including you— I call you all, and you might want to kill me for this, the Chicago Eliotics (formality when its good, tight, and productive, as I believe Eliot at his best was)— Allegrezza, Halle, Muench, Bianchi, Severin, throw LundwallStempleman, Stacy Blair and Brooklyn Copeland in there for the hell of it. Steve (Halle) writes loosely connected manuscripts, Bill too, etc, etc. What I don’t like is MA or MFA programs where kids feel that to create a manuscript they have to be massively pretentious or write the same poem sixty times. My own MFA program (New England College) was pretty loose that way; I’m grateful. I’m not a Centrist, but I appreciate the way someone like Gerry Stern gives every poem a lot of energy and attention. Michael Waters is like that too, Paula McLain, Mary Walker Graham. Centrists generally believe more in single poems. They are less overtly ambitious, less conceptually ambitious, but often have superior craft skills. And post-avantists sneer at craft the same way Centrists sneer at concepts and they’re both wrong, or half-right. Do Berrigan’s sonnets each have a particular identity? Certainly not the way Keats’ do, or even Edna Millay’s. When your shtick is indeterminacy, you had better work double hard to be memorable, or you wind up right in post-avant’s scrap-heap.

Here’s something to follow-up on what you said— post-structuralism engendered a massive critique of poetic representation, and textuality in general, right? We learned that words, being more or less arbitrary, are not to be trusted. I’m starting to feel ready to trust language again; how ‘bout you? Can or should we make another bold stab at transparency?

RA: Transparency, eh? The funny thing is, there’s been a tradition of transparent, neo-Augustan poetry in this country, but it has been, for the most part, a fairly submerged tradition. I’m not talking about the kind of backyard epiphanic lyric tradition that we find everywhere. I’m talking about a more essayistic, thesis-driven kind of poetry, the sort of thing written by, say, James McMichael and Laton Carter. I wrote a piece about them, and Ken Fields, for the Notre Dame Review not long ago.

For me, poetry is rarely at its best when it moves to extremes of transparency or indeterminacy. Since I’ve already invoked the ghost of Wallace Stevens, I may as well mention his famous line about these issues: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully." In a paragraph I love, Reginald Shepherd name-checks most of the big thinkers on this issue (and uses a lot of language from Sartre’s “Why Write?” too). Check it out:

T. S. Eliot said that the poet must be as intelligent as possible; Wallace Stevens said that the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully. It is in the play between the intelligence of language and the resistance to intelligence of language as an object that poetry occurs. What matters is not what a poem can say, a preoccupation Harold Bloom shares with the multiculturalists he so despises, but what a poem can do. I look to poetry for what only poems can do, or what poems can do best–to alienate language from its alienation of use (the phrase is Adorno’s), to treat language as an end-in-itself rather than a mere means: to communication, expression, or even truth. This moment of apprehending language as an in-itself and a for-itself provides both a model of the possibility and a palpable instance, however fleeting its recognition, of what Kant calls the realm of ends, the possibility of being-for-itself, of non-alienated existence. To imagine language as something which one simply “uses,” either well or badly, is to imagine a world which is simply a collection of objects of use. Poetry leads us away from this instrumental reason.

The language poetry tradition has been deeply invested in the idea that poetic language ought to avoid mere meaning, in order to avoid being mere a commodity or a mere utility. There’s this sense that if you say something clearly, you’re complicit in a world that sees everything as a means to an end, and nothing as valuable in itself. On the other hand, people like James McMichael and Laton Carter are all about clear statement, often as a means of understanding and controlling the self, trying to keep from being a pawn of passions and urges (including, I suppose, the passions and urges planted in us by the culture industry so deplored by the language poetry tradition). It’s possible that these very different alternative traditions are working toward goals that are more similar than they seem. And there are other ways of working toward such goals: Shepherd, for instance, is neither so opaque as language poetry nor so essayistic and transparent as McMichael and Carter. I suppose he occupies a space closer to my own most immediate sympathies.

As for the “Chicago Eliotics” — aw, gosh. I’m not at all sure there’s anything like a school of poetry here in the Big Onion, but there’s certainly something percolating. We’ll probably be able to make more sense of it when Bianchi and Allegrezza’s new anthology, The City Visible comes out next month. They’ve put together a big collection that pulls together work by poets who’ve been reading around town at a group of Chicago venues that have become oases of interesting poetry (Danny’s Tavern, Myopic Books, Series A at the Hyde Park Art Center, the Discrete Series at the Elastic Arts Center, others too.)  Then again, all of this is happening at a time when geography seems to matter less than it once did. You’re in Philly, for example, but looking at P.F.S. Post I see you’re totally plugged in to what’s happening back here…

AF: I’m not familiar with McMichael or Carter, but I take your point. The problem with the meaningful-language-as-instant-commodity argument is that it doesn’t (for my money) hold up to reason. In this case, context is more important than substance, i.e. if you put a poem in a journal or a book, it becomes a commodity anyway, owing to its contextual placement. It would seem like the only way to be a good Marxist-in-poetry would be to stop publishing, or, better yet, stop writing. Anything in the public domain is a commodity to one extent or another; which goes for Duchamp, and Warhol, and Koons, and all the Language Poetry people as well. I don’t think discussion of degrees is that important; a Language poem being 50% commodity, an epiphanic ode being 90% commodity, etc. If you want to move language too far from meaning, you’ll find that you can’t do it; you can’t take away its status as a commodity either, unless you burn it. Furthermore, you wind up writing nonsense, and being as arbitrary and capricious as the precious Neo-Classicists who Wordsworth rebelled against. I mean, what do we want from poetry? I like your idea of moving away from extremes, which, given the climate of post-avant in 2007, is actually a pretty extreme idea. How many post-avantists care about balance, harmony, grace, and beauty? How many younger post-avantists could actually admit that they want to write beautiful poetry? What was standard for centuries is now anathema. I don’t think moving towards the beautiful means moving towards the center, either—Bill and Simone’s work both attest to that. Simone has given us a prime lesson in how to be sexy without being sappy. Bill’s work, beyond being conceptually sound, entertains. Ray’s does too, in its polyglot, acidic punch. I would talk about your stuff too, if I didn’t think I’d embarrass you…

I’m not sure I agree with Shepherd’s paragraph, thoughtful though it is. He uses terms from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (in-itself and for-itself), and I’d say misuses them; he’s talking about poems, but Sartre’s idea of the for-itself specifically refers to human consciousness, the part of us that can self-reflect, bounded by temporal and spatial restraints. A poet can self-reflect; a poem itself may represent this process but cannot, obviously, literally self-reflect. I like the idea, self-evident though it is, that poetic language is not instrumental, and should not be expected to be instrumental; but Shepherd doesn’t seem to leave any room for mystery. He seems to know what a poem should do, and I definitely don’t know what a poem should do, and I’m not sure I want to know. I think melding epistemology to poetics is probably a bad idea. Don’t you think all good poetry has a kind of ineffable X-factor going for it? Isn’t good poetry a mystery, to a greater or lesser extent, even though good poetry means a lot of different things to a lot of different people?

RA: I hear you about commodification. Some people have gone to extremes to keep their work from being chewed up by the culture industry, but in the end real purity (which I’m not so sure is even desirable — words like “purity” make me nervous) doesn’t seem very possible. I mean, think of the people who’ve gone to extremes in trying to avoid being chewed up by the culture industry. There’s a real irony to the fate of the Dada crowd, for example. They started out trying to short-circuit the whole gallery and museum system, doing things like presenting mass-produced objects as art and displaying their work next to axes that could be used by viewers to destroy works they didn’t like. Fast-forward several decades, and the National Gallery of Art is reverently presenting their work. Anyone coming at the exhibit with an axe would be hustled out the door and into a squad car in no time. Or think of Jeremy Prynne, for many years England’s most deliberately obscure poet (in every sense of that word): for a long time he chose to publish in the most weird little, non-commercial venues, and stayed off the reading and lecture circuits, too. Now you can order up his poems on Amazon.com, he’s being talked about for some of the big prizes, and he’s a star in China, where one of his recent books sold 50,000 copies. In the end, the big cultural institutions devour whatever they want. I suppose we might ask whether the institutions are changed in the process. I think there’s something to this. Certainly the boundaries between “mainstream” and “otherstream” seem more fluid than they used to.

As the idea of an “Ineffable X factor” in poetry, I suppose I have divided feelings. On the one hand, I’ve never liked the Romantic notion that “we murder to dissect,” that “our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things” and all that Wordsworthian jive (I say this as a guy who loves much of Wordsworth). When I was teaching in Europe, one of the things I got really enthusiastic about was structural narratology, an approach to literature that comes out of linguistics, and seeks to define and describe the properties of literature with something like a scientific precision. I learned an awful lot from that very rational way of thinking. Then again, there are so many different ways for a poem to succeed or fail, any attempt to define a single set of criteria for what counts as a good poem is probably doomed. So in the literal sense of the word “ineffable” (“unspeakable”) what makes good poetry good remains ineffable.

Or do you mean that good poetry is mysterious in that it resists paraphrase, or points toward the unknowable or unspeakable? A lot of people are intrigued by that notion, and there are some poems I’d consider “great” that come out of that tradition (some of Celan’s poems, for example). But there are other poets who aren’t mysterious in this sense, and write remarkable works. Recently I had the good fortune to spend a few days hanging out with Albert Goldbarth, whose poems are talky and full of explanations and conclusions. Goldbarth’s not mysterious in the Celan sense, but at his best I think he’s produced work of truly enduring value.

AF: I think the greatest mystery in poetry is that good poetry (whatever that might happen to be to/for any individual subject) appears natural, effortless, organic. Coleridge was always talking about the organic, an organic sensibility, balance, harmony, and the like; you can get this balance from the poetry itself or its conceptual basis; but why would we read anything if it didn’t, on some level, please us? I think a primary difference between post-avant poetics and Centrist poetics is that post-avantists enjoy being challenged. They want confrontation, conflict, dissonance; they are not put off by having to read texts a number of times; they can apply themselves patiently to a text, and, as Roland Barthes said, help generate the texts they are reading. The mystery is not in a Romantic genius talking to us from a lofty perch, but in the interrelation between the text-as-object and an individual subject; the text creates its own phenomenological ecstasy, half in-itself, half in the reading subject. We participate in our own enlightenment; we generate our own epiphanies; we collaborate with the text, and, if it is good, it will meet us halfway. I don’t think this process can ever be fully defined. The closest I’ve ever seen is Roland Barthes’ “The Pleasures of the Text”. He describes it as a kind of lovemaking— a perverse, transgressive roll in the hay. Sex, of course, is a mystery too; why are we attracted to one person and not another? Why does this person make us flip, and this person turn us off? Textual pleasure is the same way; identifiable, but essentially a mystery. The canon, that shriveled entity, can be seen as a kind of bordello….and we are, all of us, regardless of sex, always about as randy as a sailor. We are building bordellos of our own…but I digress.

RA: The canon as bordello? Hey: I gotta go. The Norton Anthology of English Literature just started looking a whole lot more interesting…

© Robert Archambeau and Adam Fieled 2007