Let's Take Mysticism Seriously: An Interview with Daniel Kane

By Harriet Staff

In a very dark room called The Argotist, critic, professor and New York School scholar Daniel Kane has been interviewed by Jeffrey Side, who asks Kane about many of his recent publications, which include We Saw the Light: Conversations Between The New American Cinema and Poetry (The University of Iowa Press, 2009); Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School (Dalkey Archives Scholarly Series, 2007); and All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene In the 1960’s (The University of California Press, 2003); among others. A lovely aspect of this interview is that they get into the mystical:

JS: In We Saw the Light: Conversations Between The New American Cinema and Poetry, you mention a conversation you had with poet Marjorie Welish where you reply to her question asking why you are interested in the intergenre relationship between filmmaker Kenneth Anger and poet Robert Duncan, by saying, ‘I’m interested in stories that aren’t being told anymore. I’m interested in what we miss out on when we’re constantly looking in our experiences of the avant-garde to be rewarded by instances of breaks between high and low, evidence of the decentered sign. What about sincere belief in God? Elves? Magic? Can’t we appreciate that?’ Can you expand on this a little for those who haven’t read the book?

DK: Sure. This might make me sound a little naive, but I always wondered why there was relatively little attention paid to the mystical aspects of the New American poetry and cinema. With the so-called linguistic turn in the humanities, there has been little opportunity to take poets’ and filmmakers’ religiosity, mysticism, even (in the case of Kenneth Anger) Lucifer-worship seriously. Too often, I’ve found work driven by an epistemological or religious imperative interpreted through poststructuralist/postmodern optics that essentially disappear the very material that inspired the work in the first place. . . .

All that said, I end up in We Saw the Light by pointing to Allen Ginsberg’s late-60s, proto-"language” exploitation of the polysemous sensuousness of language rather than emphasizing his life-long engagement with Buddhism; I totally ignore John Ashbery’s Episcopalianism, which I now sort of wish I hadn’t. I kind of moved away from the whole elves and mysticism focus pretty early on in the book, though I am happy that I reframed the poet Robert Creeley as at least a touch mystic by reading his work alongside that of his filmmaker friend and collaborator Stan Brakhage.

JS: What are your guesses as to why so little attention is paid to the mystical aspects of the poetry you mention? You mentioned the ‘so-called linguistic turn’ in humanities studies in respect to this; do you think that has something to do with it?

DK: Yes, I do, but I would argue in perhaps even more grandiose terms that the kinds of biographical/cultural historical/archival work that I'm committed to—work that takes seriously something like the author's personal investment in a given religious tradition—has been held as somewhat suspect since at least the advent of the New Criticism! There's a funny kind of valence when you think about it between New Critical prescriptions against intentionality, the “affective fallacy”, and so forth; and the emphasis on the arbitrariness of the signifier and resulting critiques of “nature”, “identity” etc. which interested so many of the theoretically-inclined poets affiliated with the late 1970s/1980s poetic avant-gardes. I had a bit of an argument last year at a “visual cultures” conference on this score. I was talking about how excited I was learning that Warhol attended church regularly and how that knowledge affected my viewing of Warhol's late 'Last Supper' paintings. I discussed how I now see practically all of Warhol's work in an entirely new light. How, say, watching Warhol's eight-hour long shot of the Empire State building could now be understood as deep meditation; how the images that make up Warhol's famous series (the soup cans, the Marilyns, the Maos) might be reread not as materializing the erasure between “original” and “reproduction”, but as individual beads on a Rosary necklace. One guy at the conference seemed kind of angry! 'Why should I care whether Warhol went to Mass every Sunday' he harrumphed! 'Well,' I responded, why shouldn't you care?'

They also discuss the evolution of "official verse culture." Kane says: "Can we even speak of an academically-defined “canon” anymore in which there are insiders and outsiders? . . . . The University of California Press published a Collected and Selected Ted Berrigan recently, as well as work by Ron Silliman, Harryette Mullen, and others; fan-packed seminars on J. H. Prynne and John Wilkinson take place where I work at the University of Sussex; Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian are in the Norton Anthology of Poetry; Billy Collins blurbs Ron Padgett; Rae Armantrout wins a Pulitzer; purportedly “avant-garde” poets hold teaching positions in Ivy League universities in the U.S and in Russell Group institutions in the UK (or are trying desperately to score teaching gigs at said institutions). I could go on and on here, obviously." ("Trying desperately to score teaching gigs" might actually indicate another turn of the screw, but we digress.) Kane also looks at some of our outmoded framing devices:

JS: In [your essay] ‘Angel Hair Magazine, the Second-Generation New York School, and the Poetics of Sociability’, you say that some language poets ‘tended to determine reception [of a text] by practically ordering the reader to situate the text within a clearly defined theoretical space defined by a commitment to poststructuralism’. You then point out that this is in sharp contrast to those second-generation New York poets who were published in the magazine Angel Hair, whose approach to writing you describe as being based on ‘far more casual effects’, as well as not being ‘predicated on the understanding of a highly-specialized discourse typical of language writers. Do you see poststructuralist influenced writing practices (and other types of procedural poetic composition practices) as being generally less preferable than approaches that are more “organic” or spontaneous?

DK: No, I wouldn’t say ‘less preferable’ by any means. I find most of the poetry I’m drawn to is grounded in a relatively clearly defined poetics—O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ manifesto is as serious and romantic in its own light-hearted way as anything Wordsworth or Coleridge came up with. I’d read Ted Berrigan’s ‘On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living’ alongside Ezra Pound’s ‘A Retrospect’ any day. I’m not sure I believe in a poetry or poetics that is “organic” or ‘spontaneous’—I find those kinds of words are absolutely bound to theory as opposed to practice. “Organic” poetry is abstract idealism, a dream, not writing...I mean, the legends around Kerouac and Ginsberg’s “spontaneous bob prosody” and “first thought—best thought” slogans are famously belied by the fact of the many revisions that went into creating On the Road and Howl. And, at the end of the day, don’t you find Breton’s and Soupault’s experiments in “automatic writing” boring?

I think what I was trying to say in the article you’re referring to—and maybe I could have been clearer about it then! —is that 2nd Generation work wears its theory lightly. Yes, that’s it, the light touch…that’s what I as a reader go for. That’s why I absolutely love, say, Ron Silliman’s books What and Tjanting whereas works by some other poets affiliated with language writing strike me as a bit frosty, a bit bossy, even a bit obvious, particularly if you’ve been a good boy or girl and read your Saussure, your Marx, your Barthes, your Cixous etc.

Now, I certainly don’t want to come off as if I’m suggesting one shouldn’t read Marx, for heaven’s sake, or that a poetics informed overtly by political and/or linguistic theory is somehow automatically bad. I wouldn’t be able to hold my ground for a second in a conversation about Cixous et al with poets who have spent decades devoted to thinking critically and brilliantly and at times beautifully about such writing! And of course Silliman is influenced by Marxism and poststructuralist theory, and his works are often built quite rigorously around a predetermined structure (the Fibonnaci sequence, say, that made up Tjanting). Good good good. It’s just that, to my ears, the books I mentioned by Silliman are in the first instance intimate, fascinating, sweet, and at times hilarious—you’ve got all these lovely moments of vulnerability, you’ve got rump-roasts, salads presented to you as desserts, blustery walks along the shore. Above all, Silliman in books like these is always wonderfully surprising. (I’m reminded here of the final stanza in Creeley’s fabulous poem ‘The Warning’: ‘Love is dead in us / if we forget / the virtues of an amulet / and quick surprise’). I’m a sucker for surprises, and Silliman to my mind delivers.

So, getting back to your original question, I wouldn’t want to suggest that Berrigan’s poetics, say, or certainly Bernadette Mayer’s poetics, are not as “specialized” as Silliman’s or related language-affiliated writers. They are. There’s just less of it in terms of actual volume, they’re messier, and they’re not systematic. In terms of second-generation New York School poets’ attitudes about “theory”, well, they just don’t take themselves too seriously—or at least they pretend not to! I’m totally seduced by that kind of stance.

Find the full interview here.

Originally Published: August 22nd, 2011