Waxing Hot, a poetics dialogue: Andrew Duncan (Nottingham, UK), Adam Fieled (Philadelphia, USA)

By e-mail exchange, Autumn 2005

Adam Fieled: Formally, the paratactic quality of your lines could align you with the Language poetry movement. Nevertheless, the narrative element in your poems is strong enough that one feels moved from "A" straight through to "Z" by them. Are you conscious of a dichotomy here between narrative movement and paratactic "zig-zags," or is this an unconscious process?
Andrew Duncan: I did quite a lot of work on parataxis at one stage of my life. The basic information I found was that it has strong associations with working-class speech, and that dialect writing has very infrequent parataxis. This was asserted of Vulgar Latin, 2000 years ago, so it is quite a deep distinction. I find this difficult to square with its presence in LANGUAGE poetry, written by people presumably of high educational levels. I would say that its presence in my writing correlates with listening to rock music and folk song a great deal. There is probably a link between parataxis and lines which are complete in themselves, without enjambement— like all song and all early poetry. I don’t think the decision about movement through a poem is conscious, although it is part of the process of composing every line. MAK Halliday coined the term “cohesion” to cover the area which includes decisions about parataxis, syntaxis, and hypotaxis, which probably has a lot to do with the question “is this a null and stupid line break or a good one.” This is a large topic!
Basil Bernstein used parataxis as a key component in his theory of language and class. Bernstein was trying to answer the question “why do children from income groups D and E do incredibly badly in anonymous written State exams” in terms of a gap between their language and the language of the classroom and exams. Other linguists misheard the message as “lower-class speech is poor in information,” got upset, and threw away the key question about academic success and social mobility. Science failed here because emotions became too violent. If you get a room of British people talking about these issues, they will very rapidly split into two groups who don’t want to listen to each other!
Where science fails, older and darker subsystems come into play. There was a stage (say 1968-75?) when sociology, and socio-linguistics, seemed able to provide the solutions to the problems tormenting society. A lot of people got involved with them as a means of carrying out political commitments. The instrument seems to have broken under the pressure. The crisis of British Marxism may have inspired the most revolutionary stage of modern British poetry— and brought it to an end.This isn’t directly part of my problem in tuning cohesion in my poems. But if we take the thesis “we will promote social mobility by dumbing-down poetry and withholding information from the lower classes,” I don’t buy it! Not at all!
Writing a line is like designing something on Auto-CAD— I just keep on producing variations and looking at them from every direction until I find something that works. I am not conscious of why a variant does not “work,” or of where the variations come from. So, where do intuitive decisions come from? They may embody conscious activity— with its products which “sink” down and are drawn on, years later, when making intuitive decisions. This may have been unsuccessful conscious activity— an intellectual crisis faced with parts of a conceptual field which was never resolved. So theory played a role— including the theory I learnt from other people.
The superiority of the hypotactic style supposedly has to do with making the implicit explicit, whereas folk songs make everything clear without ever saying it. Although I do have a book called Text and Context, I feel that science has not reached this area (and the book is too difficult to actually read!) This area is of course where poetry has problems crossing the Atlantic
The most attractive thing in verse movement is the sense of boundless freedom. I am aware that I deviate from this— my verse often circles round, is frozen like a snake in a glass box which keeps pushing its head against the glass and can’t move on. The I-subject is not simply enjoying glorious freedom— he is thwarted, blocked, and moving into a social structure which is arrayed against him. The ‘glass box’ ends motion but forces on us a qualitative shift— into thinking, into imagining the social order. If the snake could see itself in the glass, it would become a mammal.
You are probably aware that one of the key splits in the English poetry scene is between the London school (with great reliance on parataxis) and the Cambridge school (with insistence on complex syntax and argument structures.) I don’t have any stylistic affinity with either school.
I don’t know anything about LANGUAGE poetry, I admit. A crude view is that this is a label which is supposed to reduce several thousands of disparate cultural complexes to a single category— which we can then, supposedly, understand. But in fact they are several thousand different things, and that informational complexity is what sustains a cultural life (which might just burn out after a couple of years).
AF: The sexuality in your poems is raw and vital but seems un/de-politicized. One never gets the sense that you are flaunting it or grandstanding with it to get attention. How do you factor sexuality into your poems? Do sexual politics hold any interest for you?
AD: I don’t think they’re in the poems. I can’t write about personal experience in terms of conscious knowledge and the beautiful civic ideals proposed to us. This is like making love while you are being projected onto a screen 100 feet high— the same gestures acquire a second meaning which is visibly wrong.
Talking about l’amour is a good way of annoying people. My poems have a strong flavor; but the expectation that people will be attracted to your poems about love is no more likely than the expectation that they will be attracted to your person. I wouldn’t want to argue with anyone who disliked my love poems.
Let me quote from one of my favourite records, a song by doo-wop group The Dubs called “Where do we go from here? It took a lot of mistakes to ever get this far. But I want to know, I really want to know, where do we go from here?”
I used to have this experience with someone incredibly well-informed who would lecture me, late at night, about a hormone oxytocin, linked to trustfulness, suckling, orgasm, and internal pressure control and the release of fluids. I think she may have been making a point about how untrustworthy I was; but how much I might have learnt if I’d been able to stay awake. I always got confused and called it “oxytoxin.” Oxytocin is the messenger which makes fish release roe, or spawn, vascular pressure displacing the ocean. So we’re talking about a blissful regression in which we immerse and become weightless, the inner and outer waters flow together, and the ocean itself becomes a sexual medium, in which spates of precious fluids form spirals and constellations, sight is replaced by ripples flowing along the skin, personal identity and the time sense disappear. I can never remember this clearly. Sandor Ferenczi wrote a book Thalassa which says that we turn into fish during coupling. I thought it was nonsense. Fish? In Chinese poetry, love is symbolized by ducks. If I was devising a goddess of love, I might well make her a Mouse. Mice are addicted to Lurve, as we know. He was a very persuasive man.
My grandmother was told she would have to give up her job as a teacher if she got married. The State obliged her to become a housewife. This was a gross abridgement of her civil rights. I could cite a hundred such stories, and it would be idiotic not to be a feminist. I accept that property, in our society, is used as the site for a fantasy of domination, and that property is used as a metaphor for the status and obligations of women. It would be inconsistent then to write books in which women don’t suffer and where they are perfectly autonomous. Idealization of the situation also idealizes the male protagonist, something highlighted by feminists. I was most impressed by writers who questioned the monologue of male poets about women. The poem is my property, but I don’t own someone else’s experience. The gap between sex and love, between illusion and experience, between fusion of identity and domination, between me and you, is not an invention. If you stop idealizing the male figure, you can go on writing love poems. I realized that I could stay on air by writing about someone who wasn’t unusually sensitive, who wasn’t sophisticated, who missed his part in the music and made terrible mistakes. I could get away from writing reflexively by never rising above the immediate situation. I’ve always felt that if you present people with comfort and harmony, they don’t engage, whereas if you present them with characters in a terrible fix, they will think it through carefully to try and find out where do we go from here. So you show Love going wrong, basically. The poem takes place at a point on the curve well before knowledge arrives, where ignorance and conflict and uncertainty are at their height. It’s trapped at that point, where all the loose energy is. Then I cut to the next scene of conflict and improvisation.
The insights in my poems are drawn from people who were much more perceptive than I, who knew much more than I did, who saw the patterns and were generally my superior. These were the women I fell in love with. They explained things to me, often slowly and several times. This does raise the question of who owns the poem.
AF: The big debate among poets now seems to be about internet vs. print publishing. How do you feel about it? Do you prefer one to the other?
AD: From some point, before I was nine years old, I used to go to Loughborough market on Saturday mornings and buy American comics, Spiderman and things like that. And on Saturday mornings, still, I go to a library, a record shop, or a second hand bookshop. It’s one of those physical things like, do you write from 8 till 12 mid-day or from midnight till 4. It’s a habit which has scored itself deeper over 40 years, which gives me withdrawal problems if I don’t do it. And I do prefer shopping for books to scanning the Internet.
The issues raised by the Internet are fascinating. Evidently people outside the zones of dense cultural activity, the capitals, got into it much more quickly. It was much more useful to Susan Schultz, in Honolulu, than to someone living in London. It was a leveler. There is an issue here about proximity—
What does literature deliver? How does it transmit a personality? Or is that Stone Age egoism?
What is the anatomy of group feeling? how does it decay as radius increases? What is the “inside”?
Identification (is this the same as “group feeling”?) is a Stone Age thing, fundamental to everything else yet resistant to theorizing— where attempts are of great interest, but really tentative and conjectural. It’s much deeper than literature, and literature could presumably be replaced by a new way of carrying out the archaic functions. Is there a connection between open and closed groups, and open and closed (impenetrable) texts? Should we talk about the design of the social network, rather than the design of the text?
I have just been looking at a vast anthology (Neofitsial’naya poeziya), all on the Internet, of 288 Russian samizdat poets. It was so hard getting samizdat books and magazines in the 1980s, now you can get thousands of pages of old samizdat poetry for the cost of your printer consumables. And, Russians are not interested in the era pre-1989 any more. This project is not commercially possible in print. I’ve also just spent loads of kronor on Swedish poetry of the 1940s, also bought via the I-net. Fantastic! Who was Sven Alfons?
I’m wondering how much small press poetry has to do with the daily intimacy of tiny in-groups. The stifling warmth of their mutual knowledge and rivalry. And the specialist shopping for magazines that are on sale, once, for a few hours, in one room. The ‘rich warm mud of Bohemian life.’ Going to a poetry weekend in Cambridge where two groups hung out in two pubs and refused any contact with each other, & you had to choose which one to be allied with. I propose the poem to a reader as a place they are in the center of—fearing they will see it as a margin to their own moving center.
I love shopping & am trying to write a poem “The History of Shopping” which starts with the Goths making the trip to Rome, seen as the inventors of tourism. Byzantine historians described the steppe peoples as insatiably acquisitive. It’s a sort of Imelda Marcos travelogue.

Adam Fieled (editor, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, USA): "Chimes #31"

I liked the festive aspect of celebrations, and the little adventures one could set loose at a party: running wild, smashing things, drinking forbidden alcohol. Driven by a delirious continuance, I put my hands all over girls’ bodies. I prodded, pinched, teased, respectful yet prolonging the experience any way I could. My will dovetailed with a wonted continuance and I was precocious: jacket off, tie loosened, a little wolf. I learned how to ride a high and how to direct cohesive energy into a palpable magnetic force. At a festivity on the top of a Center City skyscraper in April ’89, on an immense rectangular outdoor porch bordered by chest-high railings, I looked down to see, a great distance beneath me, an empty street, what I would later know as Sansom Street. I was talking to a momentary companion about my philosophy of life as not a game of chance but a game of daring. “Look,” I told her, “watch.” I took a wineglass I’d stolen while the adults in the indoor festivity area adjacent were not watching, and heaved it over the railing. She rolled her eyes, but, as I could not help but notice, I got away with it. Wherever the glass had crashed, and the resultant shards, were invisible to my eyes. Nothing happened. I wouldn’t be henceforth carted off to reform school. I had been daring, riding on my luck, and I succeeded. Just as, at a birthday party at the Greenwood Grille, I snuck another wineglass out of the restaurant into the tunnel connecting one side of the Jenkintown Septa station to the other, and smashed it down in some kind of compactor unit. But on the top of the skyscraper, looking out over the baroque, well-balanced Philly sky-line, a seed had been planted which I hadn’t noticed. What the city was, in contrast to the suburbs, was as invisible to me as the rogue glass-shards then. I was destined to learn that a spirit of adventure was one thing in the ‘burbs, but could be pushed out and developed much further in the city, where crowds of interesting people could always mean interesting action. As we turned back into the main festivity area to shake off the April evening chill, I had a calm sense of being in tune with the cosmos. I picked up a spare Kahlua, and drank it.

Vladlen Pogorelov (Rocklin, California, USA): "No. 34"

Experiencing her body 
Next to mine 
It felt warm and very close 
It had the smell of alcohol 
She was laughing like crazy 
And talking 
And swinging 
Looking at me 
From time to time 
I was drinking too 
And smoking 
An easy way to deal with life 
Old easy way 
And I was so happy 
Happy just because of her presence 
Beside me 
With her soft hair 
Flying around my neck 
I didn’t wanna bother to 
Ask her name 
Instead, I asked for a cigarette 
And she gave me her last one 
I bet she would have given me 
All of her 
If I’d asked her 
But I was happy with things 
As they were 
So I just kept drinking, 
Smoking and writing on 
The napkin of very poor quality 
Finally, she asked me, 
“What are you writing?” 
“I’m writing shit… 
I’m writing nothing… 
I’m writing a letter to my wife… 
Any more questions?” 
She didn’t hear me 
It was too noisy in the bar. 

All published poems on P.F.S. Post by Vlad Pogorelov taken from the 1997 print chapbook Derelict, published in Philadelphia by Repossessed Head Press.

Susan Wallack (Philadelphia, USA): "Tahiti"

Death's young, lush, smooth skinned, canny,
posed au naturel, cocoa belly
down on an improvised divan, eyes

rolled back to study Gauguin (who
flatters himself she's scared of him). Slapping
liverish paint to a faux

background, fantasy blooms
where the native truth would be: an endless
queue of stunted men,

shuffling forward, shifting dumbly
outside thatched huts infested with fleas.
Inside Death squirms, ever horny, flexing

moist pink lips as if he were a child,
slow to see where to fix his bristling
prick, bury Art, take his pleasure now.

originally published in the G.W. Review, spring 1999

Post-Avant: A Meta-Narrative

Some time during the summer of 2009, I initiated a discourse on my blog, Stoning the Devil. The object of this discourse was to give the term “post-avant” concrete significations. “Post-avant” is a term with a mysterious history and an unknown etymology. Up until the discourse, no one had demonstrated the initiative to fix the term in place. That it signified, in some sense, contemporary experimental poetry, was well known; what, specifically, made post-avant poetry post-avant (rather than, say, Language poetry or Flarf) was not known. Prior to the composition of this discourse (which was very much interactive, in a “blog,” virtual context) I had devised a definition of post-avant; I called it “the diasporic movement of Language poetry towards a new synthesis with narrative and erotic elements.” I still find this to be, on some levels, a viable definition, but a little top-heavy and academic to use in a blog context (where the patience of deliberate reading habits is only slowly becoming common, both for readers and writers.) The wedge I used into this discourse was something more like a sound-bite in the American press; I defined post-avant as “anything with an edge.” I feel ambivalent about this move now— if “diasporic movement” was top-heavy and academic, “edge” was vague and too catch-all. But I forged ahead with “edge,” and the discourse took off. Largely through links placed on a number of blogs, the discourse gained hundreds of readers, but generated mostly critical comments. What I would like to do in this essay is explore some pieces of the discourse that still seem interesting, in a context (print anthology) that encourages patient reading and serious, formalized commentary. In the end, I believe that the post-avant discourse is more intriguing for bits and pieces it generated than for what it told its audience about this amorphous entity, “post-avant,” which has still yet to generate currency or a strong foot-hold among a wide number of poets. 
One primary issue that got addressed in passing, and that I find interesting, is the issue of movement-titles: specifically, whether they are ciphers or not. Here is how I chose to address the issue in the blog discourse: 

Many people continue to complain that “post-avant,” as a phrase, is meaningless, a cipher. I would not necessarily disagree that “post-avant,” in and of itself, is a cipher, but I do not find this to be a problem…what does “post-modern,” in and of itself, mean? Whatever comes after Modernism, whatever that happens to be? What about “Romanticism” or “Symbolism”? 

In the heat of the moment, I neglected to mention poetry movements to which relevant appellations have been affixed, like Objectivism and Surrealism. Many people who commented had specific complaints about the term “post-avant”; that it is logically absurd, because it is impossible to be “post” whatever “avant” is. A more thoughtful take than the one I presented on my blog (or the responses my detractors offered) might walk a middle ground between these two responses; that literary appellations used to designate movements have a so-so success ratio, when measured in terms of their resonant power. It would be nice if self-conscious literary creators could aim for the upwards target, name their movements with a certain amount of caution and deliberation; but the lesson here may be that naming movements is generally a haphazard venture. Not everything that sticks, name-wise, sticks for a reason; the arbitrary nature of the signifier is applicant even in situations when (poets think) it should not be. Other issues that came up in the context of the discourse have even more rich complications, which will move us farther from post-avant and closer, I hope, to issues with more permanent relevance. 
Here is a basic issue that came up repeatedly: to be an artist (rather than merely a poet) using poetry as a means of expression, how wide does one’s frame of reference need to be; to put it in another (perhaps more positive) light, what is the maximum range potential for poets (by range, I mean diversified knowledge of the arts, as arts)? I brought this up online, and I bring it up again here, because I believe that poets over the last forty years have lost something. I specifically designate fifty years because fifty years roughly corresponds to the advent of post-modernism which, despite the cipher status of its common name, has revolutionized the world of the visual arts (including film) while poetry has (arguably, at least in its mainstream manifestations) remained virtually untouched. What have been the manifestations of post-modernism in the visual arts? In large measure, straightforward painting has been marginalized, in favor of videos, installations, and conceptual pieces. In this case, it is not so much the forms but the import of the forms that matters— in these works, visual artists have made strides towards new definitions of space, bodies, sexuality, language, history, and the contentious relationship of art and politics. The only major poetry movement of the past fifty years that can make similar claims is Language poetry— however, I have seen little acknowledgement among Language poets of what these visual artists have achieved. This is important because the visual artists (from Warhol to Nauman) were mining this terrain for 15-20 years before the Language poets emerged in cohesive form in the 1980s. Moreover, visual artists like Warhol, Nauman, and more contemporary artists like Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, and Paul McCarthy have conquered the museums, galleries, and art-markets, while Language poetry remains barely acknowledged by mainstream poetry publishers, journals, and academies. In other words, the Language poets have been considerably less successful than the visual artists in disseminating their version of post-modernism, and were beat to the punch into the bargain. All this combines to give experimental poetry the look of a lag-behind. There are good reasons to support the notion that art-forms should not compete with each other. Nevertheless, the demarcations have become so pronounced that visual artists rarely even mention contemporary poetry. I (unabashedly) believe that this is a problem. It certainly cannot be rectified by one article, but it is an issue that deserves as much attention as any nascent poetry movement. 
I am proud that the discourse touched on levels more fundamental than “frames of reference” and “maximum range potentials.” I made the argument that two essential constituent elements of artistic process have a preponderant quality, which much experimental poetry has denied them: subjectivity and representation. Often, an emphasis has been placed on non-representational poetry, and the stance that manifestly subjective poetry imposes a kind of closure on poems-as-constructs. There is undoubtedly some truth to these positions, especially as regards mainstream verse, which tends to lean heavily on the subjectivity of poets as a perceived wellspring of universal wisdom. Representation becomes the tool by which this wisdom is revealed to the world. Dealing with poems that I called “post-avant” or “edgy” allowed me to open up the possibility that perhaps experimental poets have thrown out too much. Poets in this milieu tend to defend their aesthetic decisions by falling back on the tenets of Deconstructionism— that words, though arbitrary, are tactile and sensuous, capable of carrying the weight of poems, series of poems, and books, in and of themselves. I find this problematic, on several levels— firstly, because I do not enjoy engaging texts that preserve what I perceive to be myths about language (that the tactility of words is sufficient to justify a thematically, narratively, and affectively impoverished text); secondly, because contemporary experimental poets have failed to win a significant number of converts, either among the general public or among wide numbers of poets; thirdly, because new generations are rising up, that are looking for fresh perspectives and novel directions; as such, I would hope that rehashing the textual ethos of an earlier movement would not seem particularly interesting. Roland Barthes discusses the necessity of bits of narrative, bits of representation; as he says, “the text needs its shadow” (32)— the novels of Robbe-Grillet demonstrate how this can be done. There are few post-modern poetry texts that raise possibilities of intermittent subjectivity and representation to the apotheosis that a text like Jealousy does, and all too often these texts are simply evacuated of any traces of humanity. They tend to be hermetic, and exceedingly prudish. There is a definite perversity to denying the preponderance of subjectivity and representation, and not necessarily an endearing perversity. The truth is straightforward: words not charged with at least traces of subjectivity and representational import, words which are merely tactile, generally hold little pleasure for most audiences. 
Once it is acknowledged that subjectivity and representation are, in some senses, preponderant, questions arise as to what should be represented and who should be representing it. Much of the poetry I was writing about is both overtly narrative and explicitly sexual— thus, I argued for post-avant as a movement with “sex at the center.” Central inclusion of sexuality in an art-movement seems so obvious in so many ways (sex having been at the center of most art-forms for the length of recorded history) that it may seem strange that I felt the need to argue for sex’s centrality. However, I feel that the new generation of experimental poets has been, in many senses, sanitized into frigidity by their teachers. So, like arguing that blinks should follow a poke in the eye, I argued for sex at the center of post-avant. The texts I used to posit this argument were ones like Brooklyn Copeland’s chapbook Borrowed House, which uses sex as one component part of a mosaic woven of desire, dark imagery, need for intimacy and impulses to confess (which never quite shade into the melodramatic bathos of Confessionalism.) The rag and bone shop of the heart that Yeats wrote of has all the durability and permanence (not to mention tactility) of words, with the added bonus that affect, sexuality, and their representations are not arbitrary. They are born out of lived experience, which is (willy-nilly) as preponderant as subjectivity and representation. “Write what you know” is a pretty hoary cliché— nevertheless, like most clichés, there is a grain of truth to it. Writing what you know does not necessitate the impartation of universal wisdom, or even an attempt to do so— we can know disjuncture, ellipse, torqued forms of narrativity— but it does presuppose the preponderance of subjectivity, that I continue to argue for. Hard as it is to believe, all these home-truths (some of which border, admittedly, on platitudes) have not been spoken in an experimental poetry context in decades. In earlier contexts, they would have all the surprise of a tautology or axiom; in 2010, I hope they may be relevant, even revelatory. All these are the what; as to the who, it is my conviction that any poet (male or female) should be able to write as much about sex as they wish. The only ideology that is useful for an artist is one of complete freedom. Special interest groups want political correctness; artists (and I do not mean to romanticize the status of artists) know that there is no “correctness” in politics or anywhere else. Correctness is relative, and “correct” for an artist is whatever forms conform to the myriad shapes of subjectivities that can be manifested in text. 
The problem, as I see it, is that most poets currently writing in the English language approach poetry in a way consonant with what I call minor artist strategies. They let their texts be dictated by little rule books and primers they carry around; everything must be defined, everything must be spelled out. Approaches to representation and its sword-carrier, narrative, are decided beforehand; and those that do away with narrative do away with thematics into the bargain. Who wants to read poetry with no themes? Those who willfully obfuscate away from narrative build little but obsolescence into their poems. Likewise, those who take a hackneyed approach to narrative guarantee that their poems can be of no continuing interest, as invention is effaced from their discipline. That rare middle ground, where narrative approaches are concerned, in which invention is met by discipline, and old themes are endlessly refreshed, is only accessible to those who approach poetry like the major high art form it is. “Post-avant,” as I have defined it, is an ideal; it occupies the space wherein that rare middle ground approach to representation can be occupied and reoccupied. These issues may be pertinent to anyone who feels that the second half of century XX saw too much taken away too fast from English language poetry; and who want to see vistas open up that can lead our poetry back to the safety of danger, the middle ground of extremes, and the timeliness of permanence.

This piece originally appeared in the Penned in the Margins print anthology Stress Fractures in 2010. 

Contextualists and Dissidents: Talking Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons

The world of literary critical discourse is governed by one central imperative: to expound. Every point must be developed, every quote “parsed”, every nuance and inflection (whether of tone, dialect, or syntax) “unpacked” to find a maximum density of critical material. This is an industry that thrives on complexity, with the assumed premise that (usually) great works of literary art (though “greatness” or “privilege” are now much debated, and do not hold the currency they once did) are “complex organisms”, in need of a specialist’s expert appraisal. Whether it is a Deconstructionist or a Formalist reading, we can generally expect complex reactions and complex schematizations, and essential simplicity and simplistic reactions to be avoided like the plague. 
How strange, then, to hear Paul Padgette make the following remark about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons in the New York Review of Books: “You either get it or you don’t.” The breathtakingly blunt simplicity of this statement cuts right to the central critical crux that runs through the bulk of what has been written about TB; can it be criticized (as in, expounded upon) or can it not? Those that do engage in criticism of TB almost always do so within some contextual framework: Stein-as-Cubist, Stein-as- feminist, Stein-as-language manipulator. Others, like Padgette, are reduced by the extreme opacity of Stein’s text to a bare assertion that the text is too hermetic to be “parsed” in the normal way. It is interesting to note that the “dissidents” (as opposed to the “contextualists”) are often great fans of TB (as Padgette is), but evidently believe that the work either holds some “ineffable essence” or else must be read, first-hand, to be appreciated. That Stein’s fans (literary critics, no less), would lobby against critical discourse is a tribute both to the power and the singularity of her work. 
The contextualists have a problem, too. Because TB is determinedly non- referential, any attempt at contextualization must also be rooted in an acknowledgment that the work is beyond a single contextual interpretation. As Christopher Knight noted in a 1991 article, “One can locate it in the long history of nonsense literature…in the French Cubist movement…in the Anglo-American tradition of literary modernism…and in that relatively new artistic order— the post-modern.” What is so baffling to literary critics is that, more often than not, one cannot “turn to the text” in order to verify these kinds of assertions. TB’s sense (or non-sense) is determined largely by who happens to be reading it; it is extreme enough to stymie but not as extreme as, say, Finnegan’s Wake, which by general consensus need only be touched by Joyce specialists. Simply put, there is enough sense in TB to make an attempt at locating it, but not enough so that any stated “location” could be feasible to large numbers of critics or readers. Thus, to this day, the pattern holds; dissidents argue against interpretation (and for first-hand experience), contextualists argue (with foreknowledge of “defeat”, in the sense that no contextual argument about TB in almost a century has seemed to “stick”) for a specialized interpretation. As Christopher Knight concludes, TB “embodies all…traditions even as it can be said never to be completely defined by any of them”. 
The most influential writing about TB seeks to straddle the line between dissension and contextualization. Richard Bridgman’s Gertrude Stein In Pieces, more frequently cited than most Stein critical tomes, adopts something of a centrist stance. Bridgman makes clear that the ineffable quality of TB is not lost to him; the book is “all but impossible to transform adequately into normal exposition”(127) and “unusually resistant to interpretation”(125). Bridgman’s use of the word “transform” in this context is very relevant. Just as Stein’s language experiments transform conventional vernacular usage, so “normal exposition” would have to transform Stein’s language back into something resembling a normal vernacular. Bridgman’s work also points out the central critical dilemma surrounding TB; it is “all but impossible” to expound upon, but the “ineffable essence” that makes it so compelling also becomes a goad to try and expound nonetheless. “Adequately” also points to the manner in which TB turns literary critics back on themselves; critics are forced to confront the limitations of their own methodologies, criticize themselves and their own competence. Stein makes critics feel “inadequate”, and it seems likely that, were she here to see the bulk of TB criticism, this would have pleased her. 
Of those brave enough to “jump into the ring” with Stein, none does so with more panache than Marjorie Perloff. Perloff’s attack on the “locked semantic gates” of TB is multi-tiered and determinedly contextual. In “Of Objects and Ready-mades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp”, Perloff posits a space for Stein’s experiment alongside Dada-ists Duchamp and Jean Arp, while also granting its unique nature and inscrutable texture. Though this texture seems interpretation-proof, when Stein, for instance, talks about a carafe (“A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange…”(3)), Perloff claims that “Stein’s verbal dissection(s) give us the very essence of what we might call carafe-ness.” For Perloff, Stein is not talking “around” objects, but using language to “dissect” them, in much the same way that Picasso and Braque dissected objects, using Cubist techniques to put them back together. Or, in the same manner Arp and Duchamp “dissected” the nature of works of art by presenting “ready-mades”. 
It would seem that Perloff’s use of the word “dissection” would make a Cubist analogy more apropos than a Dada one. TB, however, is so much like a Rorschach blot that almost anything can be made to “fit”, and the more perceptive contextualists, like Bridgman, realize this and foreground their assertions with a central disavowal. Perloff goes on to say, “to use words responsibly, Stein implies, is to become aware that no two words, no two morphemes or phonemes for that matter, are ever exactly the same.” It could be stated, without too much hyperbole, that a discussion of literary “responsibility”, as regards TB, is an extreme stretch. This leads to the major problem contextualists have in dealing with TB; no two of them seem able to agree about even the most general framework. Thus, reading contextual criticism about TB is like looking at snowflakes; no two contextual critics say the same thing, which makes “grouping” a problem and talking of a “majority” an impossibility. 
Perloff saves her most provocative card for last; she says, “long before Derrida defined difference as both difference and deferral of meaning, Stein had expressed this profound recognition.” This is a plausible interpretation, and it would seem likely that others might come to similar conclusions. However, this is not the case. Virgil Thomson takes the more centrist tack that “if (Stein’s) simplifications occasionally approached incomprehensibility, this aim was less urgent…than opening up reality…for getting an inside view.” Between Thomson and Perloff, we get opposite ends of the contextualist stance, as presented in criticism. From Perloff, we get definite, authoritatively presented analogies (Duchamp, Arp, Derrida) that seek to situate Stein and her work in a specific literary and aesthetic context. In fact, Perloff’s approach is both more definite and more authoritative than the vast majority of approaches that have been made to TB. From Thomson, we get a very anti-authoritative sentiment, which leans towards an abject- seeming generality; Thomson talks of getting an “inside view” of reality, but he cannot commit to a single or singular definition of what this reality is. He does not join in with the dissidents who argue against critical interpretation and/or the ineffable quality of this text, and in fact somewhat boldly claims to surmise Stein’s “aim”; yet, though the “why” is accounted for in his interpretation, the “what” is lightly brushed aside in a platitude. Considering that Thomson is writing, like Paul Padgette, in the prestigious New York Review of Books, it is remarkable that a platitudinous statement in this context seems par for the course. Few knew what to do with Stein and her work during her lifetime; it appears that little has changed. 
Platitudes and arguments against critical discourse are both anomalies and rebellions against critical orthodoxy. Marianne DeKoven takes this one step further. As a fan of TB, she asserts that “We needn’t plough through it all. We need pay attention only as long as the thrill lasts, the tantalizing pleasure of the flood of meaning of which we cannot quite make sense.” This statement breaks important critical rules, and seems to relegate TB to the status of a sort of meta-literary “freak show”, even though DeKoven (like most who write about TB) is clearly a Stein supporter. By suggesting that TB need not be read in full, DeKoven shows that it is a work which flouts normal, thorough critical reading patterns, forcing critics into compromising positions that aren’t “natural” for them. By speaking for an assumed “we”, DeKoven awkwardly posits her own words as panacea for a “problem-text”, for which she has a solution. However, the “snowflake” scenario previously mentioned applies here too. All attempts at an authoritative judgment of TB thus far have failed, just as the “flood” has yet to be fully levied or dammed. There is a condescension to DeKoven’s stance, a tone of smug complacency-within-dissension. Rather than even try to grapple with Stein’s conundrums (in the form of a contextualist reading or only a centrist one), she creates a half-baked “we” that can safely and without fear disavow literary responsibility (like a full reading, or an honest interpretive attempt) toward TB. Thus, by deferring responsibility, DeKoven’s problem is solved. 
The flip side to this kind of responsibility-deferral is the centrist approach of honest, long-suffering bewilderment. In this scenario (which has also not achieved hegemony in TB criticism), a critic takes a long, hard stare at the entire text, then throws up his or her hands, owning up, honestly and without condescension towards Stein, to “total defeat”. This is how Mena Mitron chooses to approach analysis of TB. She writes, “Perhaps more than any other text of the same period, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons remains impermeable to any interpretive operation aimed at thematic synthesis”. This is a more balanced approach than that used by DeKoven, but we do get an “authoritative” statement (“Perhaps more…”), which asserts a comprehensive knowledge of the Modernist era. Mitron sticks to critical terminology to make the point that the text is “impermeable”, but also leaves room for other methodologies; she does not say that “contextual” approaches cannot work, or that the text is somehow “closed” by its impermeability. It is all a matter, as with Virgil Thomson’s approach, of “aim”; if a critic is “aiming” for a conventional victory in closing a conventional hermeneutic circle, the attempt will probably fail; but Mitron is careful enough with her wording to suggest that approaches “aimed” at something other than thematic synthesis, such as contextual approaches that focus on language alone, might work. Mitron further emphasizes the unique place TB holds in Stein’s oeuvre, its “intransigence” and “uncompromising linguistic surface”. 
Marjorie Perloff sought to situate TB contextually via a discussion of Dada and Derrida. Her bold, assertive, authoritative style is doubled by Lisa Ruddick, who nonetheless makes a somewhat different claim: “I find what amounts to a set of powerful feminist reflections in this text. Tender Buttons represents Stein’s fully developed vision of the making and unmaking of patriarchy.”(191) As we have seen, TB is a text that seems to force extreme reactions; critics throw up their hands, generalize, become pedantic or didactic, lose the kind of disinterested balance that criticism often aims for. Here, we have a case being made for an interpretation so definite that it obviously and demonstrably belies the quality of the text it is glossing. A “fully developed vision” of patriarchy overthrown seems an unlikely designation for a text whose subtitle is “Objects, Food, Rooms.” Moreover, Ruddick’s assertion stands more or less alone; she is somewhat seconded by Franziska Gygax, who more moderately claims to hear in TB “a definite female voice speak(ing) about things female.”(21) Again, we see how a text that is both provocative and opaque can become a Rorschach blot, in which anyone can claim to see anything. 
It would be disingenuous, however, not to admit the close tie that has developed between Stein and feminists. Stein has become a symbol of the emancipated female artist, blazing trails and covering new ground whilst not sparing any of her power to the male superstructures that dominated society in her era, and persist today. Stein never volunteered for this role; it was foisted upon her. So, when Lisa Ruddick continues her argument with “once one sees male dominance as dependent on sacrifice, one is in a position to undo sacrifice and to transcend patriarchal thinking”(191), it is easy to wonder whether the essential nature of TB is being lost so that a critic may pursue a specific, specialized agenda. A close look at Ruddick’s statement confirms this; it is suggested that in TB, male dominance is both visible and visibly dependent on “sacrifice”. However, this begs the question; how could such a complex issue (the inner structure of male societal instinct and domination) be adequately and authoritatively addressed (as Ruddick is claiming) in a work completely devoid of a narrative, or even of conventional sense? Ruddick’s claim postulates a TB that works in a conventional fashion towards a conventional aim (to challenge “society”, in a broad sense, when it is understood that society is patriarchal). She is trying to transform TB into “normal exposition”, which, as Richard Bridgman said, is “all but impossible”. 
Yet perhaps Ruddick deserves points for going out on a limb, trying something different, however specious it may seem. This contextual interpretation, Stein-as- feminist, at least has the virtue of lending TB a social utility is might not otherwise have. When modified down into a less shrill key, it could even approach plausibility, as when Franziska Gygax claims to hear in TB “a female speaker address(ing) another female person in a very intimate and private tone.”(13) Even in a modified, toned-down setting, the contextual reading of Stein-as-feminist forces critics to “stretch”; the “intimate and private tone” Gygax speaks of could well be apparent, but it is by no means apparent in TB that anyone is being addressed. Pick up TB; you may find “If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance”(6) or “Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot”(33), but nowhere will you find an “I” and a “you” looped together in such a way that one could see something epistolary happening here. Gygax, like Ruddick, is coming to this text with a very specific hermeneutic agenda; but the text makes it difficult for her to make a convincing case for her assertions. 
One thing that this text does encourage is “close reading.” There is a certain irony here, in that “close reading” as we know it was created by the New Critical generation, who had no time for Stein and her potently weird experiments. Nevertheless, when Randa Dubnick, in The Structure of Obscurity, takes this tack with TB, the results seem both more satisfying and more feasible than other contextual approaches. Dubnick writes, “Tender Buttons has a less abstract vocabulary in that it contains many more concrete nouns, sensual adjectives, and action verbs than does her earlier style.”(31) Dubnick’s “attack” is two-pronged; she is both applying “close reading” skills to TB and attempting to situate it in Stein’s imposing and inscrutable oeuvre. What distinguishes TB as a text is its “concrete”, “sensual”, and “active” language, which seems counterintuitive, in that a “concrete” text is usually more accessible than an abstract one. As usual, Stein proves anomalous, and rules that apply to most literary works do not seem to apply as readily to hers. 
Dubnick, unlike other contextual interpreters (who seek to impose a structured schema on an unstable and destabilized text), always seeks to understand what Stein, herself, was trying to achieve. She notes that “the new interest in the world itself…was what Stein considered the essence of poetry.”(36) “New interest in the world” is both general (“world” being a broad term) and specific (“new interest” in this context suggesting the process by which Stein recreated both literature and physical objects in TB), and fits with Stein’s own attitude toward art. Dubnick also nods to the contextual trope of Stein-as-Cubist, asserting that the formal style of TB is “a flat and opaque rather than a deep and transparent style.”(44) In forging an analysis of TB that draws from all the various contextual camps (Stein-as-language-transformer, Stein-as-visual artist, etc.), Dubnick seems to be on to something. It would seem that the most balanced approach to TB would have to be a “various” or “eclectic” one, rather than one that would be situated and singular. 
Dubnick seems to understand both the “Rorschach” quality of the text and the “snowflake effect” that it gave birth to. By trying to see the text from all angles, she gives us the most complete possible picture of TB criticism. In a strange way, the uneven, contradictory, haphazard quality of the criticism mirrors the text itself; one could almost say that, in interpreting TB, critics are forced to enact a mimesis of Stein’s own skewered aesthetic. It is remarkable that a text almost a hundred years old could remain so confounding to so many trained, seasoned critical minds. It is likely that the body of criticism about TB will continue to expand, and it also seems probable that few consensuses will be reached. 
                                                WORKS CITED 
Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. 
DeKoven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003.          

Dubnick, Randa. The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984. 
Gygax, Franziska. Gender and Genre in Gertrude Stein. London: Greenwood Press, 1998. 
Knight, Christopher. “Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, and the Premises of Classicalism.” Modern Language Studies, 21-3 (1991): 35-47. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003

Mitrone, Mena. “Linguistic Exoticism and Literary Alienation: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.” Modern Language Studies, 28-2 (1994): 87-102. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003 
Perloff, Marjorie. “Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, 23-2 (1996): 137-154. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/finnegan/English%20256/tender_buttons.htm
Padgette, Paul. “Tender Buttons.” New York Review of Books, 16-12 (1971). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10510. 
Ruddick, Lisa. Reading Gertrude Stein. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. 
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. New York: Dover Publications, 1997. 
Thomson, Virgil. “A Very Difficult Author.” New York Review of Books, 16-6 (1971). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10510
Presented as a seminar paper at Temple University by Adam Fieled in 2006. 
Re-published first by Cordite Poetry Review in December 2011, then by Michael Blackburn’s Plunder and Salvage site, 2-18-12.

Waxing Hot, a poetics dialogue: Chris McCabe (London, UK), Adam Fieled (Philadelphia, USA)

By e-mail exchange, Autumn 2005

Adam Fieled: ‘You use a lot of humor in your poems. It's an all-purpose kind of humor that can be directed any which way— towards George W. Bush, for instance, or towards yourself, or towards the act of creating a poem. How much of this is conscious? Do your favorite poets tend to be "cut-ups"?’
Chris McCabe: I’ve never really thought of myself as using humor, in the sense of a deliberate, literary device which attempts to have an effect on a reader. It seems obvious to me that poems that set out to be funny, once you’ve identified the poet’s intentions, fall flat and fail. The traditional vehicle for the ‘humorous poem’ is narrative, which doesn’t interest me at all: I’m much more interested in fusing together the seemingly disparate, crude bathos, clashes of cultural registers and any other shock tactics that can, first and foremost, surprise me as the writer. Dr. Johnson’s comment that Donne took “the most heterogeneous ideas and yoked together by violence” is relevant here. Being from Liverpool (a city famous for its humor) and writing poetry, strangely doesn’t offer any legacy in terms of a more challenging poetics. The territory ends with McGough and The Mersey Poets and all that ponytailed twee-ness. A lot of my poems seems to come about through the making of a connexion, for example George W. Bush & the Wizard of Oz, which interests me more than attempting to get a laugh. Obviously, humor can be used as a kind of survival tactic (certainly in Liverpool, a blinker against the memory of the slave trade), a communal ethic of moving on. There’s no great theory to this, but things are either funny to me because they make me laugh or because it generates a response against something that scares the living shit out of me. It was only five days after the recent London bombings when I heard the first joke made about it on television. It was a huge tension reliever. In this sense, the politic poems that I’ve written have probably used humor as a way of dealing with The Fear.
My favourite poets all tend to use speed (harder, quicker, faster) as an element in their writing, but I wouldn’t say they are distinguished by “cut-ups.” Dadaism was an incredibly important movement, and one I go back to from time-to-time, but the idea of using this technique without some interesting form of intervention has probably had its day. I’m more interested in the effect that television has had on the development of the minds of people of my generation (the MTV generation) and the ability this brings to be able to soak up great streams of images and messages and still be able to read them critically. Poetry as a potentially more meaningful form of channel-hopping. Randomness and synchronicity is the everyday experience of dealing with life in the city and there’s little chance of a slow, closed, conventional poem doing much for anyone who’s just spent a few hours trawling the internet on broadband. Mimetically our minds have been altered by these massive cultural shifts and I feel that poetry needs to change to retain the capacity to surprise and capture the imagination.
AF: You've published your first book at a relatively young age. As a fellow twenty-something poet, I was wondering if you could talk about how it feels to be playing what's traditionally seen as an old man's game. Have you felt your youth to be a liability or an asset?
CM: Age seems to work on a different dimension in the poetry world, with poets under the age of forty usually being classified as ‘young’. In a recent Poetry Society-sponsored Next Generation promotion (the corporate spawn of the original Pod People) the cut off age for a young poet was, I think, 55! In relation to that I suppose I’m comfortably in the young bracket, though I’ve had an extra 10 years to think poetry through and make decisions on which direction to take it than, say, Rimbaud or the MacSweeney of ‘The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother.’ They are examples of precociousness on a preternatural level. I think the reality is that, although poetry has been traditionally an ‘old man’s game’ (this of course refers to the centuries of closed doors to women writers) much of the best poetry that’s been written has been done by young poets. The argument booted against young writers is that they haven’t got the life experience to actually have anything meaningful to say. This may be true if you’re interested only in a confessional, story-based, wizened kind of writing, but if poetry’s going to come directly from the poet’s experience in life — sourced by the fabric of a variety of culturally experienced factors —then it’s in youth that the future is embraced and the past not held close as a personal Golden Age. What comes next is valued more than what went before. This appeals to me as I’m interested in poetry of the present tense as opposed to a poetry that foists a nostalgia for the past. It’s also the case that younger writers can draw from developments and new directions in technology, music, film and, of course, the language itself, that might strike older poets as alien.
There’s nothing more detrimental to a poet’s output than the self-assurance that comes with certain publication. Poetry’s dominated by staid, complacent poets living off the glory of successful, earlier work. They don’t need to push themselves as middle-of-the-road stuff will do. They won’t take chances as this might lead to their publisher actually reading their work and becoming critical of it. Of course there are exceptions to this, and I’ve got great respect for Geoffrey Hill and late-career risk-taking of ‘Speech! Speech!’ and ‘The Orchards of Syon’. Resonant, meaningful work that smacks of now-ness. There are also exceptions to publishers and SALT, the publisher of ‘The Hutton Inquiry’, are interested only in the merits and energy inherent in the body of work itself. This might seem like an obvious starting point for larger poetry publishers, but SALT are something of an exception – at least in the UK.
In terms of getting published in the first place youth is a real liability. Mediocre work by an established poet will nearly always be published before more exciting work by an unknown. However, if you’re trying to write because you believe in the work, for the sensation of pinning down the never-before-said and in attempt to push the boundaries of poetry as it’s understood, then youth is a distinct advantage. This doesn’t mean that you’ve got less to lose though. Paul Morley talks in ‘Words and Music’ of how trying to create the genuinely new when you start off in a band is far more risky than changing direction when you’ve got ‘a name’: you don’t risk giving up a reputation, you risk never having one in the first place. The same could be applied to young poets. If you can deal with this possibility though, then it’s as a young writer that you’ll have the energy, playfulness, insight and rebellious capacity to attempt to forge out a distinctive kind of poetics. The ultimate aim would be to keep such a fresh outlook and perspective throughout an entire writing life.
AF: Your "Progress Poems" work on many levels. They're frequently directed at specific individuals (often literary icons), and seem to play up the ironies inherent in "progressive thinking", but they could also be taken straight. Could you talk a little bit about how this series developed, at what point you decided to call them "Progress Poems," etc.?
CM: This sequence was named “progress poems” from its moment of conception, but at that point, it was to be only a temporary title i.e. ‘work in progress’. There were a few stray directions in my thinking that seemed to come together at the same time, both poetically and politically. I was reading a great deal of very different poetry at the time and was thinking of ways in which it might be possible, if at all possible, to write something that might be genuinely ‘new.’ I was kind of conceding that every possible novel direction that poetry could take had probably already happened, and all that was left was to play around with the pieces. I didn’t find this thought as deadening as I might have done and it seemed to free up and, in a way, liberate the decisions that I could make when putting together what I considered to be a poem. I wrote the poems between January and about September 2003, following closely (with everyone else) the time leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was insane how often the word ‘progress’ was used during this time, by both Blair and Bush, to justify their moral-ethical crusading. The more convinced they seemed of taking the world into a better place the more obvious it was — or at least it seemed, to everyone else — how dangerous and corrupt was their ideology. It set me off on the notion of progress as that ideology arrogantly put forward by the powers-that-be of every generation to justify their own idea of themselves as ultimately modern and to further their own careers. That the notion of everyone together moving forward in a society at any one time is a fallacy. The Industrial Revolution would be a classic example of this: the nine year old boy under the factory machine in 1803, asleep with nine blackened fingers on his hands. I started to collect quotes from all kinds of people from different periods on the idea of ‘progress’ and to put them together to see what patterns came about. The sequence starts with some of these. My favorite was the Tony Blair one: “the great thing about the human spirit is that it never gives up and that is how we make progress.” This very surreal time in history was a mind-fuck for me in that my Dad was very ill with cancer (the book is dedicated to his memory), and when I look back at this sequence there is a kind of manic energy to these poems that I can’t quite account for.
In terms of the form for these poems I suppose I just wanted to show myself that a poem could come about from anything at all (bar nothing). Inspiration is what happens when you make connexions. I gave all of the poems random numbers between 1 and 2,000 and pictured the whole sequence as an internet search engine response to the word ‘progress.’ As there’s no place to progress to, the sequence would be randomly jumbled and might suitably disappear up its own arsehole. I might get lucky in the trawl though and if not write something genuinely new, at least write something I could call a ‘poem’ (I saw Charles Bernstein’s ‘The Sophist’ for the first time after I’d finished these poems and really identified with the idea of a book of poems containing multitudes of genres). The first publication of the poems was fitting for its composition. The poet Peter Philpott took a group of about 20 poems for his ezine Great Works and jumbled them into his own order. He later added another 50 or so poems and put them into numerical order, which as they weren’t written or planned to be like this, was also a kind of randomness. I’ve enjoyed doing readings since then in which I’ve flicked through the sequence and read any random poem that I’ve landed on, then moved on to lucky-dip another. The strange interrelations and juxtapositions that have come about from this have interested me although it is also possible that I’ve inadvertently undercut my own project with more subconscious patterning in the poems than I realized.
AF: Where publishing is concerned, print vs. online seems to be the big debate now among younger poets. Where do you stand? Having been in a lot of online journals (Argotist, Great Works, etc.), do you find online publishing satisfying?
CM: I’d say that, broadly speaking, there’s a further division among younger poets based upon the kind of poetry they’re writing. This is in no way a truism but in my experience I have found that the more open-ended and experimental the poetry, the more the potential of cyberspace will be embraced. This is obvious in a way: if you hold the conventional close then you’re probably likely to reach for conventional methods of publication (i.e. printed matter). There’s also a certain inverted logic among technophobic poets that because ‘anyone’ can make a website, then publishing poetry online isn’t really publishing at all. It might not occur to them that with Desk Top Publishing within reach of the average western poet, anyone can make a book as well. What publication in either place will come down to is the judgement of an editor, which does not (or should not) change depending on the medium.
What the web offers is instantaneousness. If somebody should want to read my poetry they don’t have to find out the publication details, publisher, ISBN, order the book and wait for it to arrive on their mat. I can give them a URL, mail them a link, and it’s there in front of them asking for no VISA details. The speed is there without the comfort. What’s often forgotten with books though is just what amazing pieces of technology they actually are. Diverse, compact, portable: I don’t leave home without one. For me, both forms of publication bring different possibilities and it’s never been a case of one against the other. The physical feel of a book (colour, weight, smell, sensations, portability) are certainly not threatened by a monitor and a clunk of plastic in your hand. What the internet does offer though is not only a potentially much larger readership (especially compared to small print-runs of magazines) but also a much wider one. Online communities are based upon shared interests to the detriment of other obstacles, such as location, physical appearance and even language. What I’ve also found fascinating is the experience of somebody latching onto a poem because they are interested in its subject – its straightforward content – and not just because it is a poem. They would never have looked inside a poetry magazine or book to find it in the first place. Where your poems could only be browsed in book form, they can now be searched and weeded out by people with massively different interests. It’s also worth pointing out to poets who are skeptical of poetry on the internet (who won’t of course, be reading this) that there is a whole generation coming through who will look to the internet to find about contemporary poets. If you don’t Google, you don’t exist. Personally, I’m always hugely satisfied with being published online. No more or less than in book form. It means somebody’s liked my work enough to go to the effort of getting it out there and that it then has the potential to be read by people. After the initial buzz of writing something you’re happy with, these are the two most important things for a writer. Or should be anyway.
This Waxing Hot initially appeared on the Art Recess 2 blog in 2005

Wordsworth and de Man: paper presented at Temple University (2006)

On the surface, there seems to be little common thread binding William Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads and Paul de Man’s Criticism and Crisis. The contextual circumstances that gave rise to each were radically divergent. Wordsworth was consciously, boldly inaugurating a new movement in British poetics, away from abstraction and impersonality and into the personal, candid, emotional realm that we are now familiar with as that of British Romanticism. His strategy was earnest and direct, his use of language purposeful and linear. Conversely, Paul de Man’s Criticism and Crisis emerged right in the midst of a Deconstructionist and post-structuralist revolution. The terms of Deconstructionism, as applied to individual writers, necessitated that the “I,” the constitutive subject, be subsumed. Rather than start his own counter-revolution, as Wordsworth might have done, de Man took on Deconstructionism on its own terms. There is no “I” in his piece, and the rules of the then au currant critical style were closely, carefully followed.

Nevertheless, a close reading of Criticism and Crisis reveals that de Man was, in fact, making a purpose-statement, in the manner of Wordsworth. Because convention precluded him from expressing himself in the first person, de Man resorted to a dizzyingly sophisticated use of irony and mirroring to make his points. That is, he used similar instances and subjects from the history of art and aesthetics to help make his aim clear. His central theme was the idea of the “crisis” as applied to literary criticism. De Man wanted to show that “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis”(8); in other words, that any new aesthetic reality forces a confrontation between a critic or audience and the innovative, challenging work. De Man’s piece, as it was a reaction against the new aesthetic theories being touted by trend-hungry Continental critics, is itself also a crisis-statement. It is de Man’s ironically rendered representation of a trend- created crisis. Likewise, Wordsworth’s purpose-statement can also be seen as a crisis- statement. Wordsworth is not merely inaugurating British Romanticism; he is reacting against the “gaudiness and inane phraseologies”(77) of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors. The aesthetic conventions of his era forced this crisis, as the critical conventions of de Man’s era forced his.

Purpose-statements are personal; they give an artist or critic a chance to set forth a personal agenda. Crisis-statements are social; they involve the activities of many others, as perceived by the constitutive subject, and of the Zeitgeist. Wordsworth and de Man stand united in the impulse to achieve a dual aim; to set forth a personal, purposive agenda, and to frame it in the larger context of a crisis existent around them. For de Man, this dual aim is doubled by a need not only to refute trends, but to question the entire endeavor of literary criticism; Wordsworth, conversely, states his fundamental faith in poetry-as-literary endeavor.

Wordsworth, not constrained by a need to subsume his subjectivity, is able to present his personal agenda mostly unimpeded. He makes a novel claim for his poems and the language found therein; he is using the “real language of men”(76) to describe a universal interiority, how the mind “associates ideas in a state of excitement.”(78) Wordsworth never completely defines what “real” language might be, except to associate it with “low and rustic life”(78), which for him signifies purity, lack of social vanity, and freedom from the distractions of urban life. Wordsworth’s vision, though it makes claims on universality, is self-created; Wordsworth recognizes this, and his own limitations. His approach to the public display of his vision is cautious and calculated; he states his aim, which is quite ambitious, humbly; he will gauge the receptivity of the public to the real language of men, and in due course gauge how much pleasure “real language” can impart on receptive minds.

Implicit in Wordsworth’s claims for “real language” is a critique of the then- current modes of poetic production. Wordsworth feels himself surrounded by “deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.”(80) His stance is one of resistance against fashion, rebellion against prevailing trends, and isolation from the mainstream. In other words, once his purpose is stated, and with it his personal agenda, it becomes clear that he is also in the midst of a crisis. His social position is uncertain, and his feeling about his contemporaries ambivalent at best. This ambivalence plays itself out in a shifting discomfort that appears when Wordsworth is forced to address them; he is sometimes willing to lash out, then retreats behind a more even-handed “I do not interfere with their claim, I only wish to prefer a different claim of my own.”(81) Always, the figure of an unseen, assumed reader looms large, and adds at least a modicum of self-consciousness to Wordsworth’s expressed subjectivity. The purely subjective, placed into a social mode of expression, is part and parcel of Wordsworth’s crisis. The purpose, easily stated and developed in solitude, becomes embattled and “crisis-like” when placed into the social context of a published preface.

De Man, unlike Wordsworth, chooses to begin with an explicit acknowledgement of crisis. The piece is titled Criticism and Crisis, which gives an indication that it will address salient contemporary issues in criticism. He quickly tells us that “well-established rules and conventions that governed the discipline of criticism…have been so badly tampered with that the entire edifice threatens to collapse.”(3) We are placed squarely within a social context; we do not yet know who is doing the tampering, but it is clearly (we assume) not the work of de Man himself. He presents himself to us, initially, in a reactive mode and stance. Yet it is not a stance, as with Wordsworth, of raw subjectivity; there is no “I” here. We know that a social nexus of critics is being addressed; we know that the situation is designated as “crisis-like”; but we do not get an immediate sense of how de Man posits himself in this scenario. Since use of “I”, in the context of an attempted Deconstructionist or post-structuralist statement, would seem blasphemous, de Man opts to use a “sideways” or “ironic” method to pursue his agenda.

De Man begins with a quote from Mallarme, which he then echoes. Just as Mallarme claimed that his French contemporaries had tampered with the rules of verse, so de Man claims that his Continental contemporaries have tampered with the rules of criticism. As the piece progresses, de Man seems to use Mallarme as a sort of mirror or double, a predecessor in an analogous situation. As such, everything that de Man says about Mallarme could equally be applied to de Man. The substantive, purposive element of this comparison occurs when de Man informs us that Mallarme is not really perturbed by what his contemporaries are doing. He “is using them as a screen, a pretext to talk about something that concerns him much more; namely, his own experiments with poetic language.”(7) Likewise, it would seem that de Man’s purpose in Criticism and Crisis is not to jump on any bandwagons or even to take sides in a public battle. His purpose is to talk about his own experiments with criticism. He wants to get to the heart of the matter, to address what criticism really consists of and whether it “is a liability or an asset to literary studies as a whole.”(8) What his contemporaries may or may not be doing is a detour, albeit a necessary and unavoidable one. Their battling and bickering serves to demonstrate what may happen when self-scrutiny becomes lost, and this becomes useful to de Man as a means of representing his purpose.

For both Wordsworth and de Man, historical awareness is paramount. Both take a long view of their respective disciplines, believing that historical awareness adds depth and gravitas to vision. To situate their endeavors in time is part of their purpose, and a lack of historical awareness among their contemporaries is part of the perceived crises. However, each must adopt a different strategy in order to effectively present a historical case for themselves. The pre-Romantic milieu in which Wordsworth was working put an emphasis on the objective, the impersonal. For Wordsworth to break through this wall, he had to adopt what was then an unconventional strategy. He dared to be personal, thus inaugurating a new era. Conversely, de Man conformed to the anti-subjectivist standards that surrounded post-structuralist discourse. Only then was he able to make his points in such a way that they would be listened to, possibly heeded. De Man’s submission to the trends of his day, however, were merely apparent. Through the use of irony, and through the indirect use of himself as constitutive subject, he was able to historicize himself, his purpose of self-scrutiny and the crises both within his own consciousness and without.

Within his piece, de Man, unlike Wordsworth, is willing to stoop to self- contradiction. First he tells us that the entire critical edifice may be collapsing, owing to conflicts on the Continent. Then he remarks that “we have some difficulty taking seriously the polemical violence with which methodological issues are being debated in Paris.”(5) So, almost immediately there is a sense, within this contradiction, that de Man is being subversive, and that his seeming dismay at his contemporaries’ flightiness is intended ironically. He is indulging in self-contradiction in order to achieve his purpose, part of which may be to put the Continental critics in their place. Indeed, he tells us that the authority of the best historians can be invoked to show that “what was considered a crisis in the past often turns out to be a mere ripple.”(6) De Man’s view of history, as seen in this piece, is cyclical. It is not that changes do not transpire; it is that they transpire slowly and almost invisibly. Thus, part of the crisis he is rebelling against is an attitude of shallow, ill-considered fickleness. It turns out that de Man’s crisis-statement is two-pronged; he castigates literary poseurs for their lack of historical awareness, even as he notes that the utility of literary criticism has not been proven conclusively. The first crisis applies to him, as an outsider looking in; the second is generally operative, and it applies to him directly. Just as Wordsworth makes universal claims for the utility of poetry, de Man makes universal claims against the utility of criticism, or shows that its utility must be proven and scrutinized.

On this level, it is interesting to note that the analogues de Man chooses to act as his shadows or doubles are not critics; Mallarme is a poet, Husserl a philosopher, Levi-Strauss, a structural anthropologist. Further, it is remarkable to note that not once in Criticism and Crisis does de Man mention one of the Continental critics whom he is taking to task. He mentions Sartre, Poulet, Starabinski, stars of an earlier era; but those who have created the seeming crisis that de Man is addressing remain unnamed (just as de Man, himself, does.) This returns to the fact that de Man is naming a crisis that exists to him only ostensibly. The more profound crisis is whether criticism, once scrutinized, retains any meaning. Historicity becomes a method whereby de Man, rather than making claims for criticism, sees the cycle of crises and purposes that defines any kind of literary creation. The final question as to the ultimate validity or non-validity of criticism is never addressed directly, but merely suggested. This suggestion constitutes a substantial part of de Man’s purpose, just as his contemporaries neglect of the question forms part of the crisis.

Wordsworth’s approach to historicity, like most angles of his approach, is more direct, less convoluted than de Man’s. Wordsworth is a poet, concerned with poetry; when he looks for analogues, in the context of a discussion of metrical language, he thinks of “the age of Catullus, Terence, and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope.”(77) What we have here is a variety of implicit assumptions, none of which can be found in de Man. Wordsworth seemingly believes that poetry is an art-form valid both through history and in his present; that there is a stable canon of great work that can be relied upon unquestioningly; that knowledge of this canon is essential; and that Wordsworth, himself, is going to attempt to join the ranks of canonized, historically important poets. Wordsworth’s tremendous advantage over de Man, in making a purpose-statement, is that he does not have to resort to subversion, irony, and self-contradiction. On the other hand, his straightforward subjectivity leaves him open to accusations of pomposity and complacency.

There is, in fact, a note of complacency running through Wordsworth’s preface. He idealizes the poet as a being “endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.”(81) This attitude aids and abets Wordsworth in delivering the purposive element of his preface; he believes in the “poet”, as an idealized figure, in the same manner that he believes in “poetry”. Thus, he seems to suffer comparatively little cognitive dissonance regarding his agenda, and his ability to express himself and his purpose. His faith in the “inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind”(80) gives his address assurance, and his tone rarely wavers from this measured, assured calm. When “crisis” issues arise, i.e. when Wordsworth mentions his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, he does not slip into another register, but maintains a dignified, even keel. We are able to infer from this that if a “battle” of sorts should take place for domination of British poetics, Wordsworth is confident of victory. Wordsworth sees a crisis all around him, and is able to name the crisis, and talk of how it must be overcome, but it does not seem to concern him overmuch. His tone is that of an already privately established eminence waiting to be crowned with conventionally-earned laurel. He sees his isolation as a temporary condition and waits without haste for the world to come to him.

Circumstances, of course, proved Wordsworth to be correct. His eminence grew to be widely recognized, he was eventually made laureate, his avowed purpose was embraced by many poets, and the poetic crisis of “false refinement” and “arbitrary innovation”(79) resolved itself in the birth of British Romanticism. Consequently, a certain amount of complacency might have been justified. However, it could be argued that a lack of rigor makes many of Wordsworth’s claims untenable. Coleridge, for example, was disturbed by Wordsworth’s claim to the “real language of men”, “real language” not being definable or discussable by any objective measure. Such claims formed an essential part of Wordsworth’s purpose— to stake a claim for poetry as universal truth, “carried alive into the heart by passion.”(82) The sort of rigorous and unstinting self-scrutiny advocated by de Man is not part of Wordsworth’s agenda. It may be that, as this preface was not his idea, but that of his friends who “advised me to prefix a systematic defense”(76), he did not feel the need to question himself, as he might have were it a poem.

De Man, unburdened (at least on the surface) with complacency or egotism, makes no claims for criticism, universal or personal. His purpose, discernible beneath the twists, turns, ironies and meta-ironies, is to stake a claim for self-scrutiny, on all levels. Following in the footsteps of Mallarme, who is seen to be “ironical”(16), de Man suggests that the act of writing must question itself at every turn; “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis.”(8) Yet, de Man takes another detour, to an unlikely destination. He uses a lecture by Husserl to demonstrate that “the rhetoric of crisis states its own truth in the mode of error.”(16) Though never explicitly stated, we can use these two statements to make an inductive leap; if all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis, and if the rhetoric of crisis states its own truth in the mode of error, then all true (and rhetorically based) criticism must be erroneous! It must be noted that this inductive leap is never made by de Man himself. It is left in wait for the attentive reader. The irony is that this passionate plea for self-scrutiny in criticism should suggest (albeit indirectly) that criticism, once scrutinized, may lose all meaning.

Had Wordsworth wanted to make this point, he would have spelled it out explicitly. However, the context that de Man is working in precludes him from doing this. For the Deconstructionists, Romanticism, of which Wordsworth is so salient a representative, was the enemy. Any hint of egotism or complacency would be pounced upon and used to discredit the subject. Yet, it was clearly de Man’s intention to make this point, by whatever means available. He notes that “in the language of polemics the crooked path often travels faster than the straight one.”(14) This must, of necessity, be the path he takes. Because it is not stated overtly, de Man must hope that his audience is subtle enough to catch the purpose behind his twists and turns. Likewise, de Man must hope that his enemies, those who have created the crisis we encounter at the beginning of the piece, and who are never openly named, will appreciate the self-scrutiny that has led de Man to his rigorous conclusion; that nothing in literature can be taken for granted, and that literature itself might be a kind of nothingness.

Here, we have two apparently simple designations: Wordsworth, the Romantic egotist, spelling out a personal purpose and reacting to crisis in a personal way; de Man, the objective Deconstructionist, subsuming subjectivity both in stating a purpose and reacting to a crisis. However, beneath the surface, things may not be so simple. Wordsworth, reacting as he is against objective modes of creation that (he feels) have grown stale, is using bare subjectivity to spell out a new vision. Subjectivity becomes the most attractive expedient, the shortest distance between what was and what may be. It is being purposefully used, and with self-consciousness. Complacency creeps in specifically because Wordsworth knows himself to be doing something original. Had Wordsworth’s ego been subsumed, his entire construct would collapse, and he would not be making an original statement. His crisis would remain untouched, his purpose unstated. In the contextual framework of early nineteenth century Britain, nothing could have been more revolutionary or revelatory than a lone, rebellious subject taking a bold stand against trends that had prevailed for decades.

Likewise, De Man’s lack of subjectivity, his apparent objectivity, is a carefully crafted illusion. De Man speaks of using the language of polemics, because Criticism and Crisis is polemical. It is a personal statement based on a subjective experience, both of criticism as a personal, purposive endeavor, and of criticism as it exists in de Man’s social milieu. This milieu is being dogged by crisis, and a crisis (of false refinement and arbitrary innovation) that closely resembles the one that Wordsworth is enumerating in his preface. Because de Man is not self-consciously inaugurating a new era but reacting against one, his strategy seems to be to outdo the Continental critics at their own game. His “I” is so cleverly concealed that, far from seeming like a “privileged consciousness”(9), it seems evanescent. Yet multiple re-readings of Criticism and Crisis reveal an “I” that is fluid, mercurial, and capable both of enumerating a two-pronged crisis (the fickleness of Continental critics and the uncertainty of criticism as a discipline) and stating a two-pronged purpose (to show that fickleness in criticism is fruitless and to show equally the need for continued self-scrutiny). In a way, de Man’s circuitous technique could be seen as even more egotistical than Wordsworth’s. There is an element of dazzle to de Man’s performance that is lacking in Wordsworth. De Man demonstrates that he can use irony, mirroring, and deliberate self-contradiction to craft a statement that is as essentially personal as Wordsworth’s preface. He is beating the Continental critics at their own “unprivileged” game, demystifying them in such a way that at no point does he reveal himself as the dreaded, Romantic subject. Yet every point he makes moves forward the argument that it is not the Romantic subject to be guarded against, but a contradictory awareness of literature as a “something that is really nothing”. De Man might choose to designate literature as a “nothing that may or may not be something”.

There does remain one fundamental discrepancy between Wordsworth and de Man: their attitude towards language itself. This discrepancy was largely determined by the eras in which they lived; Wordsworth, right at the dawn of Romanticism, had no notion of words as arbitrary signs, nor that the connection between thing and word, signified and signifier, might be flawed or, worse, non-existent. When Wordsworth addresses language itself, he does so in such a way to reinforce the impression that he believes words are capable of “pure” signification. Wordsworth mentions “in what manner language and the human mind act and react on each other”(76-77), in the context of a complaint as to the general taste of the British public. We do not see Wordsworth questioning the inherent value of linguistic signification; we see him questioning the uses to which linguistic signification can be put. If language is seen to be stable, reliable, and just to the expressive intent of the human subject, then an attitude of confident self- righteousness would seem to be, if not admirable, at least understandable. Wordsworth does not doubt that he can make clear his purposive agenda, nor that he can spell out the crisis in British taste as he sees it. His trust in language, and in his own expressive capacities, seems secure. For Wordsworth, language may be purified and simplified by a retreat into rural simplicity; the language of rural people “is adopted…because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived.”(78) Rather than admit of fundamental duplicities or confusions, Wordsworth advocates reducing language to its barest essentials. Here, there is likely to be less static between sign and meaning, less needless ornamentation. This simplification of language forms part of Wordsworth’s purpose, just as the ornate, “gaudy” language of his predecessors forms part of the perceived crisis he is counteracting. Once simplified, language need not be scrutinized. This bedrock belief in the power and reliability of signification is part of what allows Wordsworth to be so straightforward. Purpose and crisis can be equally addressed, an even keel may be maintained, and faith in the ultimate triumph of truth and nature (both, in this context, assumed universals) are demonstrated. Wordsworth enacts the discourse of the privileged subject, making a singular claim for his finite notions of truth, in precisely the manner that de Man eschews.

For de Man, things must be more complicated. In the post-Saussurian era, faith in language, even simplified language, had been drastically reduced. The arbitrary quality of the linguistic sign had become a guiding precept for both Structuralism and Decontsructionism. De Man works with the knowledge that every discourse falls prey to “the duplicity, the confusion, and the untruth that we take for granted in the everyday use of language.”(9) The kind of self-scrutiny that de Man is advocating would seem to preclude the confident vigor of Wordsworth’s tone and literary demeanor. De Man’s complete awareness, both of his own situation as a contemporary critic and of the situation of his Continental colleagues, allows him room to maneuver, to use the trends and tenor of his times to make a personal claim on, if not universal truth, at least enduring value. Whether there is a direct correlation between universal truth (the legitimacy of which took a beating, alongside linguistic signage, as the Structuralist movement developed) and enduring value is not, for de Man, the point. What de Man is demonstrating, with just as much confidence and vigor as Wordsworth (though sans the “I”, and the directness that it lends), is that certain situations and circumstances tend to repeat themselves, that trends pass, and that the self-scrutiny which “scrutinize(s) itself to the point of reflecting on its own origin”(7) has a value. De Man does not posit this value as universal; he does not need to. The very fact of Mallarme’s speech to an English audience at Oxford in 1894, the nature of Mallarme’s ironies, his twists, turns, and ability to turn trends and fickleness to his own ends in a sort of charade, show de Man (and, by implication, his readers) that Nietzsche’s “eternal return” might apply to aesthetics as to all other things. The end of Mallarme’s charade is adopted by de Man; to sneak “enduring value” (for want of a better, less authoritative sounding term) in through the back door, via irony. Through adopting Mallarme’s stance, de Man gets to have his cake and eat it too; he makes a personal purpose-statement without ever using the first person, while revealing a seeming crisis to be a trifle (and one with many antecedents in the history of literature.) Mallarme becomes a Virgil figure (albeit a highly ironical one), leading de Man through the dark wood of conflict, into the open air of disciplined thought.

As this “air of disciplined thought” entails a fundamental ambivalence or uncertainty towards de Man’s chosen discipline, this metaphor might be misleading. Better, perhaps, to say that de Man’s Mallarmean mask allows him to tell the truth (or, at least, his version of the truth). Wordsworth does not feel compelled to wear a mask. His only artifice involves the use of rhetoric to make his perceived crisis clear and his purpose known. His famous “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”(79) seems more rhetorical than reality based. “All”, in this context, universalizes a sentiment that, in its time, might have seemed shocking. It would be difficult to imagine Paradise Lost as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, or The Rape of the Lock. Wordsworth exaggerates the aspects of his argument that make him seem singular, atomized, and extraordinary. The exaggerations are subtle, but they color the entire enterprise of the preface.

Perhaps this is the essential similarity between Wordsworth and de Man, as reflected in these two pieces: both feel the need to make calculated overstatements. De Man’s “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis” is mirrored by Wordsworth’s “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” These two pieces are joined, not only by the need to assert a purpose and a crisis, but by the ambition to be bold, to think big. These are pieces written to be read. They demonstrate a keen awareness of an assumed audience, and both display a sense of intellectual showmanship, a certain bravura quality. These two figures, writing to such different ends and audiences in such radically dissimilar eras, are showing us (one through earnestness, one through irony) how a literary gauntlet might be laid down. Judging by the intense reaction these pieces received, de Man and Wordsworth both succeeded at meeting their divergent, contradictory, but not entirely dissimilar goals.


 de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1983.

 Wordsworth, William. The Essential Wordsworth. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1988.


© Adam Fieled, 2006, Philadelphia