"Talk of poetry as communication worries poets and critics for a variety of reasons, some good, some not. Those who view language itself as essentially suspect will see that definition as either naive or deceptive."


So says Bill Coyle in a note accompanying work by Håkan Sandell in the April "translation issue" of Poetry. One thing poets and critics do when they have such "worries" is to create "-isms." The number of poetic "-isms" is legion, of course: Imagisme (sic), Vorticism, Futurism, Modernism, Personism, Post-Modernism, New Formalism, you name it. Well, here's one I hadn't heard of before, though it has a kind of inevitability about it: Retrogardism. As Coyle explains:
"Om Retrogardismen (On Retrogardism), which Sandell co-authored with fellow poet Clemens Altgård, was published in 1995: the book's argument was that poetry had become too insular, and, in the case of Language poetry, too contemptuous of its own medium, to communicate meaningfully with the public. The remedy the authors proposed was a return to techniques and genres that Modernism had rejected or neglected."
Sandell is aware that language is "essentially suspect," and at the same time recognizes that regarding poetry as a form of "communication" can also be a coded demand for accessibility; as you can tell, Sandell is rather more sympathetic to the latter - but, Coyle makes clear, "what Sandell has done is not to enslave himself to the past, but to give himself permission to plunder its resources at will." (This sounds a lot to me like architectural postmodernism in which, to go Wiki on you for a moment, "styles collide.") Has anyone out there actually read Om Retrogardismen? Please let us know.
The argument, as one of Sandell's poems puts it:
Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies,
over the girl with her first electric, how her high,
thin voice, amplified many times
over by the loudspeaker, is like a giant's
in the green grass of the festival site....
If the retro-garde is too quiet for you, maybe you'll prefer Frederick Seidel's "John Philip Sousa "Stars and Stripes Forever" cross-species salute to Imru' al-Qays," from which I quote:
I kept a rainbow as a pet and grandly
Walked the rainbow on a leash.
I exercised it evenings together with the cheetah,
A Thorstein Veblen moment of conspicuous consumption:
A dapper dauphin in a T-shirt that said FRED
Parading with his pets decked out in T-shirts that said FRED'S.
I left my liver in the Cher.
I ate my heart out en Berry.
We drank and ate
France between the wars,
And every morning couldn't wait.
It felt sunshiny in the shadow of the château.
If that cracked teacup plundering of the linguistic past doesn't open a lane to the land of the dead for you, then try Roddy Lumsden's Scots translation of Jean Follain:
The sneck's aye sweirt and ayont
a doverin cratur wi a lit o the lowe
they ken ilka gadge on the bowe
bi the soond o thir foot-fa
glisk the skyrie lamp
hingin on the smittie ceilin
a spreckelt green plaunt is deein
a wandert bairn greets
aneath thon laich an gowstie lift
at lang an last the onfa.
And if that doesn't bring out the fighting spirit in you, perhaps Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, translated by Sawako Nakayasu, will do the trick; here's poem 108:
In a decidedly vacant stone plaza, you are tapped on the shoulder by the convulsions of a section of light, and turn back, to your delight. However, to think that the countless hidden fibers of the atmosphere were already attacking you at once and tying you up, shadow and all. Inside the convulsive laughter, fight. Because the fighting spirit is that of the enemy, flooding over the plaza.
As the translator explains, this is from a "book-length serial poem which comprises 111 interlocking prose poems. The characters that inhabit this book are not limited to walnuts, as the title implies, but could be extended to include those who might possess this 'fighting spirit' of the walnut. At times this belongs to smaller, ephemeral objects, such as insects, plums, or the space between brushstrokes. At other times, the walnut-like 'fighting spirit' is manifested in an ability to envelop and enclose, with the toughness of a walnut shell."
So: no cruelest month jokes this time around - but instead an issue full of things to elicit a few hard-headed debates, or at least some pleasurable reading. I'll close these April ruminations with some lines from the late Miroslav Holub's "Creative Writing," translated by the author and Rebekah Bloyd:
On the express train to Vienna
she writes in her diary
notes about Rome and Naples.
Ink marks like parthenogenetic aphids,
pages like blood smears
of homing pigeons.
She is alone, gray, reconciled,
a Leda long after the swan's departure,
Odysseus retired at Lotophagitis.
Back home, in Maryland,
the notebook will be interred
in the archetypal drawer,
among the yellowed love letters,
among the infant hair curls,
among the dried adult flowers,
near the cushion where the castrated cat dreams
while Mahler's forever forever forever
chokes in the green wallpaper...

Originally Published: April 6th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. April 7, 2008
     Johannes Goransson

    Swedish retrogardism has more in common with American New Formalism (from the 80s) than Laibach and the Slovenians.

  2. April 7, 2008
     Don Share

    Thank you, Johannes. Makes sense, and I rather suspected as much.
    (Laibach's Let It Be comes to mind as a good bit of anti-retrogardism!)

  3. April 8, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    "Talk of poetry as communication worries poets and critics for a variety of reasons, some good, some not. Those who view language itself as essentially suspect will see that definition as either naive or deceptive."
    My recommendation for "poets" and "critics" (the particular sub-sub-group of these to which the author refers richly deserve their quotation marks) who are worried by talk of poetry as communication is that they become visual artists or instrumental musicians. Then they can lecture their colleagues on how much they "suspect" paint, or stone, or metal, or the way air flows through a flute. And maybe they can get a few of their like-minded pals to sign on to their movement: Stupidism.

  4. April 9, 2008
     Michael Gushue

    Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.
    -Wittgenstein, Zettel 160
    I suspect that all poets feel at some level this anxiety -- that what they're doing isn't information, but something else, and pinning down what that something else could be isn't possible in any permanent way.

  5. April 9, 2008
     Matt

    Joseph, it would be easier for me to agree with your basic point if you weren't so mean. Also--paint, stone, metal, and air are all physical things, whereas language isn't, and is therefore more slippery in many ways. It's true that words are all we have if we're going to say anything, and I'm comfortable living with that, but I also like being open-minded about other ideas. Besides, if you don't like it, don't read it. It can easily be avoided. It's not as if an experimental poetry craze is sweeping the nation.