Scattered Thoughts on Fracture
I am in the hospital with complications from my previous illness. In the meantime, my partner Robert is posting this piece of mine for me.
Despite its many accomplishments over the past century or more, poetic experimentation for its own sake has gotten become rather routine, even rote. By now it has frequently come to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion: never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you’re wearing next season’s clothes. This is part of what Jack Spicer means when he writes to the long dead Federico Garcia Lorca that “Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.” Those trendy outfits also strikingly resemble the clothes they wore in the Nineteen Teens and Twenties (many things new are old), which too many people too often forget. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz noted in the mid-Nineteen-Sixties, “the avant-garde of 1967 repeats the deeds and gestures of those of 1917.” So many of the “experiments” in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, Moore, Williams, et alia, long before any of our current practitioners was born. There’s nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there’s something unseemly about claiming that you invented them yesterday.
The Modernists, let alone the poets who preceded them (both those who inspired them and those with whom they struggled) cannot be merely wished away. “You cannot experiment with only the history of experimentation as your archive,” in Ann Lauterbach’s acute admonition (The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience 65).
The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” contains two parts. They concentrate so much on trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn’t in fact available to all) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that newness is not a value in itself (no human being is “new,” though each person is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously, of our experience of and in the world). Ann Lauterbach points out that “In re/citations of Ezra Pound’s injunction to ‘make it new,’ emphasis has invariably fallen on the word ‘new,’ the word which most conjures the operations of commerce. We have been in thrall to the new, even as it has worn itself through with recyclings, a kind of déja new, which has exhausted our attention and made us all victims of fashion. As Jean-François Lyotard says, ‘Hidden in the cynicism of innovation is certainly the despair that nothing further will happen.’ We have ignored the other two words, ‘make’ and ‘it,’ as if they were of no significance” (The Night Sky 44).
Though it has produced many wonderful works of art, fracture has become too easy, even evasive: it’s become simply another style. Rather than just cutting things up or claiming that they just are cut up (a reductive view of art as a reflection of the world shared by many avant garde writers, at least in America), it’s much more difficult and interesting to put things together despite or in the face of fragmentation, not to create false wholes or a false confidence in wholes, but to see and show that things are related, however random their surfaces may appear. That randomness is an ideological illusion, and this is as much the Marx in me as the John Crowe Ransom. Marx wrote in the Grundrisse of the distinction between the apparently real and the actually real, the chaotic, disconnected surfaces of the world and the interrelated, interconnected whole (however riven and fissured) which that world actually comprises. In Terry Eagleton’s explication, “it is a mistake to equate concreteness with things. An individual object is the unique phenomenon it is because it is caught up in a mesh of relations with other objects. It is this web of relations and interactions…which is ‘concrete,’ while the object considered in isolation is purely abstract” (How to Read a Poem, 142).
Totalities are always contradictory, but they are totalities, and we live in, among, and with them. Part of the work of thought and the work of poetry is to trace out their lineaments: poetry, language, and thought are about producing and revealing relation, about making connections among disparate things often seen as disconnected or even opposed or contradictory: contradiction and opposition are also modes of relation. Barbara K. Fischer notes in The Boston Review of some of the transgressive or subversive claims of “experimental” writing that “From the vantage point of our current historical-political moment, ‘sense, order, and coherence’ don’t seem like such terrible things,” and goes on to warn against “the dangers of enshrining yet another chaos that cannot redeem itself.”
Our experience is (falsely) fractured, atomized, and my self (like my society) is likewise fractured and atomized, in pieces. But it is also a whole, of a piece, a complex unity of contradictions. As Fredric Jameson writes in “Reflections in Conclusion,” the afterword to the Frankfurt School compilation Aesthetics and Politics, “An aesthetic of novelty today…must seek desperately to renew itself by ever more rapid rotations of its own axis…when modernism and its accompanying techniques of ‘estrangement’ have become the dominant style whereby the consumer is reconciled with capitalism, the habit of fragmentation itself needs to be ‘estranged’ and corrected by a more totalizing way of viewing phenomena” (211). Paul Hoover puts it another way in his essay “Murder and Closure: On the Impression of Reality in American Poetry” (included in his collection Fables of Representation) when he asks, “ if this interruptiveness is inspired by electronic mass media, which is controlled by powerful capitalist interests, how is such a literature revolutionary?” (14). Far from being transgressive or subversive, it becomes just another social symptom and reflection.
It’s much more difficult to articulate things together than just to toss out the pieces and say “Nothing can be done with this,” or even, “I have seen the future and it is broken.” As Jack Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser, “Things fit together….Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence.” My interest in syntax, the relation of words and phrases to one another, arises from the desire to make or reveal connections among the elements of my poems and my world(s). My questions are always, “How can these things be put together? What constellation do they form?" Which is not to claim that a reconciliation of self and society, or self and self, can be effected in or by means of language, let alone linguistic art.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...