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‘Corean Music’ Part 4: In Defense of Parapornography, ‘Plague Grounds,’ Solaris Poetry, and the Intoxicating Aesthetics of Too Much
“Her eye saw not just beauty but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty” – Jack Smith on Maria Montez
In my last post, I referred to Steve Burt’s essay on “The New Thing,” an essay about the common rhetorical strain in contemporary American poetry that dismisses the excessive, the “candy,” the spectacular, the “surreal,” in favor of the “thing”-like and empirical. An important point in this essay is that this rhetoric is not being perpetrated solely by “traditional” or “experimental” poets; it’s everywhere, coming out of every “camp.”
As I suggested in my last post, I think the “new thing” rhetoric is connected to another common rhetorical strain: the idea that there is “too much” contemporary poetry. The assumption is that if there’s too much of something it must be bad. The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine keep sending me subscription offers in the mail in which they tell me there are all these bad poets out there and only the supreme taste of Poetry magazine can cut through the crap and deliver the true poetry. Both the rhetoric of the “thing” and the rhetoric of “too much” are anti-inflationary aesthetics, austerity moralities. Gold Standards.
We don’t usually think of Marjorie Perloff, great champion of language poetry in the 1980s and now a champion of conceptual writers, as occupying the same aesthetic ground as Poetry magazine. But she too frequently utilizes this “too much” argument. In her recent article on conceptual poetry in the Boston Review, she spends several pages detailing just how much bad poetry that is proliferating before even getting to the conceptualist poets. It is as if the main reason to read conceptualist poetry is to avoid the “too much” plague of the contemporary. It’s the cure against art’s illness. Conceptualist Kenny Goldsmith has made a whole schtick out of there being “too much” creative writing, which has led to his invention of “uncreative writing.”
Although they may seem to be opposites in the Great Poetry War of quietism vs experimentalism, both Perloff and Poetry magazine, both the Quietists and Conceptualists enlist this rhetoric of excess. And not surprisingly, Poetry magazine publishes a portfolio of Conceptual poetry along with its more conservative fare. A more important key element of their rhetoric is that this anti-excess rhetoric mirrors an investment in taste as something that shows restraint. To have taste is more about refraining from certain things: For example, in the Perloff catalog of no-dos, there used to be don’t use the word I, don’t use images, don’t use metaphors, and it has with conceptualism reached the point of don’t write poetry at all (Vanessa Place’s rule against “retinal” poetry—i.e. poetry that you have to read. Though I think Vanessa’s own performativity makes her work quite interesting. And this is true of a lot of the conceptual writing.).
But again, this doesn’t seem very far away from the strictures of the much hated MFA dictums: such as “you have to earn your images.” Or: “Find your true voice.” I.e. don’t use the “I” too much. The difference is of course, the conservative aesthetic opposes the excesses because it doesn’t want to let artifice ruin the expression of your authentic interiority. The conceptualist stance is: don’t let the poetic excess suggest that you have a subjectivity. In all these cases, to have the right taste means knowing when to say enough: to moderate art’s intoxicating influence is a sign of taste.
All of these rhetorical strains are based on an economic model: “Too much” is inherently bad, is inflation. Each one sets up a kind of “gold standard”: the work of art cannot be gratuitous, must follow the standard. The problem is of course that poetry is not a “thing”—It’s all masquerade, all pageantry, all inflation. All gratuitous. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Daniel Tiffany’s forthcoming book on kitsch shows its strong connections to poetry and to the sense of an “excessive beauty.” Poetry is kitsch, poetry is inherently too much. Poetry is inflationary. Even Plato knew that! It’s why he got rid of the poets!
This rhetoric also reminds me of discussions about the movies. How there’s this commonly accepted belief that violence and/or sex is often “gratuitous.” I.e. the film-makers don’t “earn” the image of violence and/or sex (often the gratuitous sex/violence go together—violent sex or sexual violence). It also reminds me of the use of the word “porn” as condemnation of something too intensively visual without the proper context, without the proper critical distance. For example, when people attack those beautiful pictures of dilapidated Detroit as “ruin porn.” It’s not just that representations of sex runs the constant risk of being deemed gratuitous or pornographic, this sexuality can also be used to describe the intensively visual, the intensively artificial, the intensively art-y—as gratuitous. In other words, it is not just that sexuality is too intensive, too visual, to be tasteful; it is also that, by extension, that the intensively visual is sexual, pornographic. It’s all trash.
Rejection of violence in art and literature as “schlocky” is so widespread that it does not seem to ever be questioned. To me it doesn’t make sense because we live in a highly violent culture; and a culture where violence and art is already constantly merged—whether in the Abu Ghraib photographs or the letters of serial killers, whether in the rape of beauty pageant superstar JonBenet Ramsey or in the bloodied strollers of anti-choice protestors (not to mention whole silky history of orientalism and imperialism). We live in a world that is convulsing with violence, and the role of taste it seems is to give us distance from that violence—if we even dare to bring it into our poems.
But what if we wanted to engage with, explore, wallow in the “too-much-ness” of poetry instead? What then? A few years ago Joyelle gave a talk called “The “Future” of American Poetry” that did just that, embracing the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry:
Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favor of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.
What would it mean to wade through the plague ground as a model of reading/writing as opposed to transcending the tasteless “too-much-ness” of poetry? Well, I think for one thing, I would do away with the model of “access”—take away the idea that when we read (or listen or watch etc.) that we are agents, that we are in control and we try to “access” the passive artwork with tools we’ve learned. Instead of access, lets think about fascination: When I read poems that I love I am not in control, not in charge, not trying to access some meaning that will redeem the work (make the shit valuable). No, I’m enthralled, overwhelmed, spellbound. This is what Steve Shaviro, writing about the movies in The Cinematic Body, “fascination.” Instead of judging the poem, let’s become overtaken by it. Instead of reinforcing our position as complete agents of evaluation, let’s be compelled and possessed.
Last winter, Blake Butler and I wrote a play about the massacre at Sandy Hook. We were both very pleased with the results. Unfortunately, no journal was interested in publishing it (even journals that had solicited work from us). Apparently it was “offensive”—it was offensive to make a work of art about such a violent tragedy. This reminded me of Aase Berg’s brilliant essay “Tsunami from Solaris,” in which she discusses an episode where her poem was deemed offensive in the wake of the tsunami that killed hundreds of Swedes, but fictional “moments of silence” were considered a good, pious response. The reason for this according to Berg is that poetry (and art in general) offers “a representation that chafes and fucks up. It is not authentic. It has margins where troubling things happen.”
Berg ceases on this chafing quality of art, this artificiality, this generator fake copies (there are too many copies, too much tsunami, too much violence) and find exactly in this offensive reproductiveness her interest in art, comparing it to Stanislav Lem’s famous novel Solaris, in which a planet makes copies of the dreams and fantasies of the humans sent out to colonize it:
Solaris is poetry itself. The tsunami is poetry itself. How can one carry on with cruel poetry when the sense of security is collapsing and what reminds one of reality is more horrifying than the real? Why is similarity scarier than authenticity? Why is the copy more dangerous than the original? Why is the poem such an insult to this evil life?
This is the aesthetic that American poets and critics—whether “experimental” or “traditional,” “conceptual” or “quietist”—try to hide, deny, vilify. This is a model of aesthetic that is not “thing”-like in strict obedience to mimesis, but spectacular in its copy-ness, its violent “candy.” This is the aesthetics of “too much,” of a poetry that does not offer taste, distance or context. It’s “parapornographic” art: an art of too much, too close. Like our murderous fantasies made material by Solaris.