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Andy Mister’s Liner Notes as Exemplary of ‘Metamodernism’
Seth Abramson’s newest poetry column is up at Huffington Post: This month, Abramson turns from his usual group review to focus on only one collection, using it as “a springboard for discussion of metamodernistic poetry and poetics in the twenty-first century.” Said springboard is poet and artist Andy Mister’s Liner Notes (Station Hill of Barrytown, 2013), which aides Abramason in thinking about “metamodernism,” a term defined here “to circumscribe both our own poetry and much of the innovative poetry and poetics we see emanating from Gen-M[FA] poets.” Abramason’s Gen-M is defined here as those born between 1964 and 1989, just in time for the MFA boom–and he considers Mister’s “sincerity,” or “nonfictional” approach within that context. More:
…Scholars who heretofore found it profitable to ignore the nation’s youngest two generations of literary artists merely because some of them had spent two or three formative years in a university-affiliated fine arts program–when there would have been virtually no scholarship on twentieth-century Modernism had a similar bar been set in the 1930s, given how many Modernists intersected briefly with well-known Continental arts academies–will no longer warrant their titles as scholars without a deep understanding of the Program Era and “Gen-M” poetries. This explains, in part, this review series’ commitment to so-called “horizontal” analyses of literary subcultures, rather than the fetishization of eccentric literary iconoclasts who may be ripe for canonization but are in no sense instructive as to what makes this Age superlative (even a “Golden Age” of verse, as I recently termed it.)
Andrew Mister’s Liner Notes appears within the context described above. It is one manifestation of metamodernism, not its embodiment. The collection, a series of brief prose poems variously addressing musical culture’s intersections with death and the poet-speaker’s twenty-first century ennui, doesn’t go in for flourishes of language–it is in no sense paratactic–and detractors will shortly conclude, on that scant evidence, that it fails to innovate. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth.
The previous generation of avant-gardes so little understands metamodernism that one can imagine, in advance, their howls of protest as metamodernism begins its steady ascent in American literature. These are mere topical preoccupations, they might say; they are not, first and foremost, linguistic. What these former scions of American literary innovation fail to see is that the time for merely edifying America as to the realities of language is over; the time for speaking primarily in the language of realities is beginning. Hypotactic verse simply has different aims from paratactic verse, and until those well-versed in the latter become well-versed in the former it will indeed appear as though metamodernism is merely a topical or thematic phenomenon–as though investigation of the nature of reality is somehow less rigorous and exacting than investigation of the written mark (or that these two investigations are not, finally, but two sides of the same coin). There is nothing louder, it says here, than an entirely new literary mechanism for circumscribing realities and selves, and if Mister’s Liner Notes is superficially unassuming in its circumscriptions, readers ought not be fooled into confusing intellectual subtlety with conceptual silence.
Liner Notes is a book energetically engaged in exploring hyperphysicality from all sides and in all forms, and few sentences in the book fail to perform this monumental task with an almost shocking clarity. For instance: “Ian Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. He left a note that read: ‘At this very moment, I wish I were dead.’” Curtis thus (with Mister as his witness and amanuensis) instantiates the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality; the writer (Curtis and Mister alike) testifies to the portal through which the self passes when it seeks union between the physical narrative of Life and the hyperphysical narrative of (actual or subjective) Death. Or consider: “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.” Mister acknowledges, here, that encoded within the artifice of the Image is the Image in motion, the same cinematic self so often glorified in American culture. What is prescient, though, is how Mister so thoroughly intertwines Art (the Image) and Life (as cinema) that the notion of man-as-moviegoer may be treated as implicit in all real-time action. So it is that Mister must clarify that his poet-speaker is not attending the cinema, but merely performing a workaday task.
In postmodernism, cinema is not acknowledged as a universal preexisting condition, but merely one of many ephemeral guises a man or woman might adopt: that is, a performance. By foreclosing on the premise that the cultural self is elective, Mister forecloses, too, on the possibility of irony and the limitations of postmodernism. Instead, we see sincerity opening its eyes and accepting what it sees–including the presumptive insincerity of multiple selves and multiple realities–as ineluctable, true, and essential. Mister is not a man going to the bank rather than a movie, he is a movie being a man instead of a matinee. Liner Notes so consistently seeks and achieves this superlative level of engagement with metanarrative, hyperreality, hyperphysicality, superconsciousness, and hyperconsciousness that to call it anything less than genius is an insult to both its complexity and ambition.
Reading metamodernistic verse is bewildering if done correctly, and Mister’s Liner Notes is no exception. Consider this paragraph: “Once when I was riding home in the school bus, I drowned. I had to convince myself that I was breathing. Just for a moment. People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” In conventional lyric-narrative verse, the word “drowned” would here function as a metaphor; presumably, our hypothetical lyric-narrative poet would intend a comparison between panic attacks and drowning, which is to say that drowning and panic share traits in common, per the poet. At the first level of such a comparison, simile, one might say, “I felt like I was drowning”; at the second level of such a comparison, metaphor, we could expect the two terms (“panic” and “drowning”) to be even more closely aligned, as in the construction “I was drowning”; at the third level of comparison we have moved beyond mere comparison to actual equity, or what Mikhail Epstein calls metabole: Panic is not like drowning, in this new equation, it literally is drowning, as the contemporary subject-cum-poet-speaker loses the ability to distinguish between alternate realities with shared traits (the one in which literal “panic” is operative, and the other in which literal “death” is) and thus finds wholeness, form, and sincerity in the singularity, literality, and accuracy of their metabolic combination (“drowning”).
Read the full piece here. Image at top: Andy Mister’s Light Box, 2012, 48 x 30 x 3 in.