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Taking the bait

By Alan Gilbert

The question Mark Nowak has raised a couple times concerning the devaluing of politically progressive poetry in comparison with work that appears less socially engaged would take a book, not a blog entry, to fully answer. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the frame of the discussion keeps slipping within and between Mark’s two posts and the numerous reader responses to them. His sets of examples are dissimilar; so, too, are the cultural historians he cites. For instance, in his June 29 post on Linton Kwesi Johnson he wonders whether Johnson’s work might “speak differently and perhaps more powerfully than a poem by, say, [Tom] Raworth or [Bernadette] Mayer or W. S. Merwin.” In his July 15 post, he asks why a poem such as Kenneth Patchen’s “Southern Organizer” has completely disappeared—to the point that even Patchen’s biographer wasn’t aware of it—while James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” is widely anthologized.


Mark then turns to Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945 for explanation. I’d recommend looking elsewhere. Nelson’s book was the first I read in the field of “proletarian literature,” and it’s oftentimes the one initially cited—and recommended—by other people. But Repression and Recovery isn’t much more than a fleshed-out annotated bibliography, and in that sense is excellent for discovering forgotten poems and poets, but a bit thin on the critical-theoretical side. Moreover, blaming, as Nelson does, “the English profession’s ruling ideology of political indecision lived out in uneasy inner anguish and external inaction” for the loss of interest in proletarian literature wildly misses the larger picture. English departments might not be the hotbeds of radicalism that conservatives imagine them to be, but some of the most politically progressive people I know—including Mark—have academic teaching jobs.
The real problem with relying on Nelson is the way in which it keeps the discussion focused on formal/textual issues. Mark writes, “Why does, to borrow Nelson’s terminology, ‘surface indecision and ambivalence’ trump instrumentality in contemporary poetry and poetry criticism?” Yet according to this view, neither Merwin nor Wright are paragons of modernist and postmodernist experimentation, and normally would be considered poets who have an instrumental approach to poetic language; nevertheless, they’re presented as foils to Johnson and Patchen. For this reason, I much prefer Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (if you have lots of free time for reading) and Walter Kalaidjian’s American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique (if you have less).
Denning writes: “But the meaning of a cultural formation, that union of an artistic form and a social location, is not limited to the books it leaves, the writers who become ‘classics’; that is why the battles over the ‘literary canon’ are finally so abstract” [my italics]. And Kalaidjian: “What signals cultural power in the 1930s is a work’s localized and contentious interpretive productivity, rather than any idealized ‘literary’ merit we may assign to it” [mine again]. In other words, focusing, pro or con, on a text’s formal devices—whether ambivalent or instrumental, experimental or traditional—will in the end only serve to further eradicate the very work Mark wishes to see recovered, revalued, and given equal weight, precisely because it ignores the site-specific, socio-historical, contextual paradigm this work both proposes and relies on.
But even this is to miss the larger larger picture. The poetry Mark mentions is devalued because there was a systematic effort by the ruling powers—political and economic—in U.S. society in the early 1940s to begin dismantling the progressive aesthetics and politics of the 1930s. (The year 1943 saw the end of federally funded art projects through the Works Progress Administration.) It began while Roosevelt was still in office, continued during the Truman administration, and is signaled by Eisenhower’s warning against the “military-industrial complex” (which is only one part of his more imperative cautioning against the privatization of everyday life in the United States). Denning is good on the shift away from New Deal aesthetics, but even this is a tiny element within the quest for sole superpower global dominance by the United States in the wake of World War II. I’ve written about this in relation to the careers of Charles Olson and Philip Guston, because Olson saw it happening literally right under his nose during his time in Washington, DC, working in the Office of War Information for the Roosevelt administration.
To continue to read, evaluate, and judge poetry (however implicitly or inadvertently) in terms of formal complexity is to take the conservative post-Popular Front aesthetic-political bait. More to the point, EVERY text is full of “surface indecision and ambivalence,” just as every cultural product is conceptual. Only a snob would say otherwise. Of course one can use this awareness to turn every text into a political equivocation; or one can turn them into interventions. But these interventions only make sense when coupled with the notion that a poem’s political agency lies less in its formal devices than in its site-specificity—what it speaks to whom. But, then, this is how culture is usually understood by oppositional groups—from striking mineworkers in the ’30s, to civil rights activists in the ’60s, to second-wave feminists in the ’70s, and beyond.

Comments (10)

  • On July 21, 2008 at 8:02 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    “Today poetry is largely ignored by literary studies because it forces the question of the category of the poetic as such, for poetry does not respond very well to current constructions of the ‘discipline’ of literary study, which emphasize the social, economic, or political determinants of literary production. Literary production may be so determined, but critical approaches to poetry from these angles cannot tell us much about the nature and function of poetic language, which may be said to be the marker of the literary, the presumed object of literary study.” — Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words

  • On July 21, 2008 at 8:17 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Alan,
    Excellent points.
    I’ll take the bait, too, and repost part of a comment that I’ve posted before. I am doing this in perfecly good faith, though it might seem too much to keep insisting on the matter. But the comment seems to me quite within the area of your points, to say the least. And maybe it is obnoxious to keep asking the same question, but your post convinces me that the issues raised are ones that others are asking, too. Nevertheless, so far, my questions have had no direct response, which strikes me as strange, since Mark had requested response so that further discussion might ensue. Here is what I wrote, orignally, under his Kwesi Johnson post and then reposted under the Cannon Fodder post, which devolved, for some reason, into accusations on another subject.
    Kent
    *
    >Mark…your suggestion that working class poems like Linton Kwesi Johnson’s are undervalued in the literary world at large and should be seen as more intrinsically “powerful” or consequential (you *are* suggesting this, correct?) vis-a-vis the poetry of mainstream or avant formations seems suspiciously premised on assumptions that working class poetry should, or can, be in some way reckoned by standards of the high-art poetry economy, that there is some kind of negotiating to be done, for a seat more towards the head of the table.
    Such comparative anxiety, granted, is hard for us academics, whatever our stripes, to get away from. But why fret over how working class poetry might be granted more cultural capital in the teeny market of belles-lettres? Isn’t the real, ultimate question how such poetry might lead to deeper and sustaining forms of autonomous solidarity and class identity, regardless of what other literary types might think? How the poetry might deepen connections to its real, vital audience, its needs, its ideological independence, without concern for what academics, or prestigious publishers, or government foundations might think about it, or do for it? Why does it matter, after all, if Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry is as “powerful” to professors at Orono as Barrett Watten’s power-pointing pop-tarts about Late Capitalism? As much as they talk about Badiou, after all, What is to be done is not going to be done by the high-art poetry communities. Especially as they prattle on about being the radical opposition while swooning for the hipper of the two parties of big business…
    Come to think of it, with a view to the precipitous domestication of Language Poetry and its professionalized progeny, WHY on earth would you want trade-union poetry to have ANY connection to the academic order of things?

  • On July 22, 2008 at 10:42 am Rich Villar wrote:

    Kent:
    The last time a grassroots poetry movement genuinely tried to undercut the academy and give poems back to the people, 60 Minutes dragged out Robert Pinsky to tell us what savage beasts the slam poets were. And you know what happened? The slam poets are off getting MFA’s now. And the ones who don’t are off finding lucrative careers on the college events circuit…that is, until new batches of youngins scream their way onto the marquee. Not exactly banging on the castle walls, are they?
    I would fret more about this, except that I know this is an old story. Even Ginsburg understood what a contradiction he’d become in his old age, teaching at Brooklyn College and living somewhat stably.
    And even us working class poets gotta eat, Kent. That means at some point we have to deal with the establishment, and that means we have to deal with these wine and brie, plain vanilla yogurt-eating critics who would savage political poems, identity poems, or working class poems. While I do have plenty of FRIENDS who are of the brie and yogurt variety, still it’s enough to make me want to pull my curly-kinky island hair out.
    So what do we do? Well, if it’s a war you want…I suppose we worker bees of the world (and ain’t it funny how dark we all seem to be?) could start establishing our own foundations, grants, schools, workshops, etc. In fact, I’d argue Cave Canem has done pretty well as it relates to Black poets feeling isolated in the academy. I dig this concept, and I’m moving in that direction too, but to deepen the question: if we choose to stand against the perceived monolith of academia, how do we ensure that we don’t become the same kind of creature?
    I hope this at least makes an attempt to answer your question. I understand what you mean, and I appreciate the gesture away from the staid academes of the world, but even staid academes have a right to their opinion. The problem begins when those staid academes exercise the right to repress MY opinion…and that, I think, is what Mark Nowak is trying to point out. We need not fight each other or leave each other out of our Selected Collecteds. Just a little respect would be nice.

  • On July 22, 2008 at 11:25 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I’m so glad that the Harriet blog site has finally made it possible to circulate the important notion presented by Alan Gilbert here, namely, that poems have no meaning in themselves – they just mean whatever particular groups of people want them to mean. At last, the air is cleared, and poets can get back to their real business : making meaningless but adaptable objects for the use of anyone & everyone to pick up & spin however they like. In fact, this notion allows poets to take their own work and ideas seriously – it’s just that they shouldn’t think that that in itself makes their POEMS serious, in the way they (the poets) might have intended. Because there is no objective standard for “seriousness”, or any other quality of anything, actually : it all comes down to what your interest group wants to accomplish. That’s why these meaningless art objects come in so handy – they can “mean” exactly in the relative, invested sense that also gives meaning to the term “interest group”. In fact, as Alan makes clear (through inference), the task of liteerary criticism is a highly-useful one, in terms of the supportive role it plays in the political-cultural sphere, by focusing our attention on those meaningless art objects, and showing just HOW interest- and oppositional groups can MAKE them valuable – to themselves, of course. Interest groups cn a learn a lot about “making meaning”, ironically, from these meaningless objects (or fetishes, we might say). Fetishes become so important in a world where all meaning is relative, don’t they? In fact, in such a world, where our political and moral views are so firm and strong, while their “meanings” are so plastic and flexible, it helps to have a committed, activist literary criticism, which can show us how to adapt our fully-formed views to only parrtially-formed fetishes such as art objects, in order to expand the influence of the fully-formed out onto the great ready-to-be-activated partially-formed masses, by way of these adaptable objects (poems! poems!). Ever since the Right took over (about WW2 or thereabouts), and stopped funding artists through the WPA programs etc., and started funding artists through the CIA, and promoting aesthetic purism and all that stuff, we have been under attack, and the oppositional poetries and art works have been ground down under the canons of the elite and the Right. Fortunately, we are learning how to bring art out from its cloistered critical enclaves and back to the people, the oppositional people, where it belongs – by way of this new theory produced by critics, that art itself is meaningless, but flexible, like a lump of clay in our Hands. I can foresee new collectives and associations forming, where artists themselves offer these Adaptable Lumps for the Good Usage of the People – since artists too can learn from critics how to do what they do so well. Art, like War and cell phone usage, is politics by other means, as we all know, and as the Right and the Establishment would like Artists to forget. Artists need to stop pretending they can criticize or scold or condemn things through their art – this is a job for the People and the People’s Committees of Art Usage or Clay Formation, which are currently forming as we speak, and hopefully the New Administration and the NEA will look kindly on them after the Bush Era is over, and our so-called National Government (agreed-upon fiction) will stimulate further grassroots development in this area. Forward, Meaningless Art Workers!

  • On July 22, 2008 at 2:31 pm Joe Safdie wrote:

    A bit of Alan’s last paragraph, namely “Of course one can use this awareness to turn every text into a political equivocation; or one can turn them into interventions. But these interventions only make sense when coupled with the notion that a poem’s political agency lies less in its formal devices than in its site-specificity—what it speaks to whom.” might have led to Henry’s sometimes funny if ultimately wrong-headed response. The whole of Alan’s post, and Mark’s before it, however, would seem to ask for deeper reflection.

    Summing up the comments field at this point, I can’t help but ask a perhaps naive question — why exactly does there have to be an absolute contradiction between “instrumentality” in poetic language and “formal-textual devices”? Surely any serious practitioner always has both in mind, all the time. I’d ask the same question, in a slightly different context, to Kent — why eliminate the possibility that one’s progressive poetic work, addressed primarily, perhaps, to people of the same ideological bent, might not also attract the attention of the academy? I take Alan’s point that academic treatment of most poems is limited to formal and textual matters, but such matters can also be addressed politically. Likewise, works like Ed Dorn’s late “Languedoc Variorum” with its championing of heretics and dark, bitter satire, is also formally innovative, and achieves many of its effects as a result.

    I dunno — maybe I’ll never escape my undergraduate enthusiasm for German romanticism, the whole union of opposites biz. Still, although they make for great blog commentary, some polarities are best seen as negatively capable vortices impelling the pens or keyboards of poets, only later to be extracted in forums like this one.

  • On July 23, 2008 at 11:29 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Rich and Joe,
    Thanks for those thoughtful comments, remarking on mine.
    But I have nothing against people in the academy working with “working class” poetry! And I think, as I’ve said something like four times, I think the projects Mark Nowak has embarked on are wonderful and obviously impressive. (In fact, I will ask the question again: Where is the “post-avants” in this discussion? How is it possible there is such a paucity of “leftist” poets responding here, pro or con, to Mark’s work and ideas, which clearly are challenging and worth serious reflection?)
    The point of my comment is not to question the legitimacy of such study and research, in the least, whether coming autochthonously out of working class experience, located in academic milieus, or some sociological articulation of both.
    What I am questioning is the premise of the question Mark posed twice (asking for feedback as he did this): Roughly, why is the work by such and such a working class poet less valued *in the academy* than the work by such and such a canonical poet? Who proffers value and why? Etc. And my point is that the question is ultimately an *academic exercise*, as it were, a waste of time, because the answer is patently evident, for reasons I sketched above (a general argument hardly mine, see Bourdieu). Moreover, Mark’s question “begs the question”– the one which I follow up with, above… Though posed in the context of a mild critique, I posed it in good faith.
    And a big problem I see with this focus on the academy and its lack of “proper reception” of working class poetry is this: It risks getting the bigger picture of things bogged down in vulgar “radicalism” and self-defeating PC name-calling, as witness Mark’s post and discussion string on James Wright’s famous poem.
    OK, just a quick response there. Insufficient, no doubt.
    Kent

  • On July 23, 2008 at 12:39 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Yes, it’s interesting that no one’s taken up the fairly straightforward argument Kent & I have proffered (as noted, one hardly original with us), which answers the questions Mark raises without remainder: to say again, the syllabus’s primary purpose is not (or is no longer) to reinforce social ideations, but to insure the reproduction of the social institution within which it is produced. The solution is to start asking ourselves how to ensure, not equal representation within cultural capital, but equal distribution of cultural capital.

  • On July 24, 2008 at 8:05 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Actually, the notion that academic institutions think like Darwinian amoebae with highly-evolved self-preservation antennae has its source in a French conspiracy (Foucault, Bourdieu) to simultaneously globalize and centralize the Parisian intelligentsia. Don’t believe a word of it. It’s this kind of thinking which is the ultimate in self-defeat, since it’s based on a concept of epistemology, sociology and politics which acknowledges no “instrumentality” to Public Opinion at large – as if artists, thinkers, writers, & social movements are mere playthings of the institutional puppet-masters who design discourse solely to maintain themselves : as if they had no practical vocation or duty to society at large, and as their agents had no personal interest or investment in, or moral scruples about, matters outside those purely institutional pursuits. This kind of thinking is self-defeating by way of cynicism.
    But what do I know, I’ve never bothered to read these turgid French guys. I hate college.

  • On July 24, 2008 at 9:55 am Jasper wrote:

    Kent, Michael–
    I don’t think we need to see working for equal representations with cultural capital and equal distribution of cultural capital as opposed processes. No doubt, working for the former w/o attention to the latter might merely reinforce existing hierarchies, but I don’t think anyone here can claim that this is what Mark is up to. He’s demonstrated a remarkable commitment to coming up with, and implementing, actual programs for alternative pedagogies and poetry distribution–the union workshops, for instance. He has a good deal more practical savoir-faire than most poets I can think of. We might disagree with the actual programs themselves, but that’s a different matter.
    Look, I’ll be the first to admit that what I do, primarily, as a university teacher, is reproduce intra-class hierarchy. I have no doubt that this is what schools are for, nor do I have any illusions about what it means to help one disadvantaged kid pull himself or herself up–the system requires that someone else fill his or her working-class shoes. Occasionally, I might pass along some content that will become useful at a later date. Or not. But can we really imagine alternative education systems without a changed set of historical, literary figures? Can you have equal distribution of cultural capital with the same representations, the same white males? The two projects should and must go together. . . And I actually question the extent to which the education system *can* absorb truly equal representations–that kind of content would lay bare the contradictions between content and form all the more. The strategy of the academy is to allow for token radicalism, token representations of the under-represented, not equal representation. There’s a point, I think, at which struggles for an equal content will threaten the form itself. Furthermore, it’s clear that, whether or not a changed canon is likely to change the form of the educational apparatus, it matters at a personal and psychological level for individual students. Can you really claim that it matters not at all whether an African-American in an English class reads texts entirely by white writers? Such a claim is simply reactionary. It may not oppose the dominant hierarchy but it might do a bit less violence on a everyday level. And that matters. Try taking a poll and seeing what people have to say about their own college experience.
    Literature lives a life outside of the university, but many people encounter it first in secondary and higher education. Giving people access to alternative representations that more fully account for the variety of experience in capitalism is likely to help any kind of opposition movement we might imagine. Nobody’s claiming that changing the canon will, on its own, overthrow class-based society. But it could be a part of a process of radicalization, and a wider variety of texts could provide key insights into any program of opposition. Let’s not hit the faux ultra-leftist button here (especially since hitting that button seems to invite a sort of complacency on the part of academics–as in, “oh well, nothing to do here”).
    As for the Zizek you cite as a contribution to this debate, Michael, it’s really difficult to imagine anything more repellent. It’s this kind of rigid, and ultimately imperious and Eurosupremacist, universalism that has been a primary cause of the dissolution of the left in this country. I don’t think he has even a clue about what working-class experience is like in this country, and to the extent that you quote it, you participate in his cluelessness. I’m sure that the millions of working-class women who work as administrative assistants and office support and who put with sexual harassment as a matter of course will look quite kindly on your relegation of their experience to the realm of bourgeois melodrama.
    Jasper

  • On July 24, 2008 at 2:17 pm Jasper wrote:

    I meant “inter-class hierarchy.”


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, July 21st, 2008 by Alan Gilbert.