Poetry News

A Materialist Among the Mystics: Robert Archambeau on Barrett Watten, the New Gnostics, & the Louisville Conference

By Harriet Staff


Have you been reading the Samizdat Blog? On Sunday, its host Robert Archambeau posted "'Where's It Coming From?': Barrett Watten, Robert Duncan, and the New Gnosticism in Poetry," a report on the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 and the "double-barreled pair of sessions on the New Gnosticism in American Poetry." What's New Gnosticism?

...[T]here was a full house when Peter O’Leary, fresh out of his car after a blizzard-hampered drive from Chicago, stepped to the lectern to deliver his manifesto, “Seven Tenets of the New Gnosticism.” These tenets (according to the hasty notes I took during Peter’s fiery delivery) were:

1. The New Gnosticism is incarnational, where the body is hidden knowledge.
2. The world into which we are thrown is a broken world.
3. The New Gnosticism is incendiary.
4. You are initiated into the New Gnosticism whenever you contribute to its incantations.
5. The New Gnosticism is epistemologically nonplussed.
6. The coherence of the New Gnosticism is the apocryphon of the fallen… [at this point my notes are unreadable — perhaps I was unconsciously imitating the fragmentary nature of many surviving Gnostic texts]
7. The missing tenant [here O’Leary gave a parable of a missing book, underlining the fallen or broken nature of the world in gnostic thought].

After O’Leary’s manifesto (which will, along with the other papers from the two Gnostic panels, be published soon), Ed Foster took the stage to discuss how Harold Bloom’s version of Gnosticism in The American Religion is a terrible misunderstanding, in which Emersonian self-reliance is mistakenly put in the place of gnosis, which relies on reliance not on oneself, but on attentiveness to the world beyond the self.

Fittingly, Archambeau's own talk was on "neologism and linguistic revivals in O’Leary’s poetry." After the panels were the questions:

From Alan Golding, who noted that all eight of the speakers on the panels were men: “what are the gender stakes of the New Gnosticism?” The answers were various. Many people referred to H.D., Fanny Howe, and Alice Notley as gnostic poets (and their works were discussed in the panels), and I thought of Pam Rehm. It was also pointed out that gnostic theology does away with one of the primary pillars of Judeo-Christian misogyny: the idea of Eve as the corruptor of humanity. In gnostic thought, Eve is a figure of salvation, and her plucking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is the first step on our journey to release ourselves from the illusion that the material world and the world of God-the-father is the horizon of all possibility.

And Ben Friedlander asked Archambeau “[W]hat’s a materialist like you doing with these mystics?”

My next book, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry, Autonomy, Society, is pretty close to dialectical materialism, at least by the standards of a bourgeois like myself. So why am I hanging with the mystic poets? Part of me thinks the question indicates that I’m on to something. I mean, when I heard the question “why are you doing this” from both pro-Prynne and anti-Prynne parties when I was writing about J.H. Prynne and Cambridge poetry, I felt pretty sure I had found a way to discuss things that broke through existing paradigms. I hope I’m at the beginning of an inquiry into gnostic poetry that will give us something new, too.

On to the Watten of the title:

It was Barrett Watten, though, who asked what was, in my opinion, the most revealing question of the conference. A bunch of us were sitting at a big round table in the old Seelbach Bar, working our way through the Bourbon list, when Barrett cast a steely glance over at Norman Finkelstein and asked “This New Gnosticism — where’s it coming from?” It wasn’t a question, I thought, so much as a challenge, and Norman seemed to feel that way too, choosing a beatific smile and amused, raised eyebrows rather than a more direct answer. It took me a while to work out why Watten would put the question as he did, with more than idle curiosity to it, in fact, with a bit of steel behind it.

Here's what I think was at stake: the return of the repressed, or the revisiting of trauma.

The best way to get at this may be to come back to a moment, now legendary in certain poetry circles, when a young Watten had a very public run-in with Robert Duncan, a kind of godfather of the New Gnosticism (and the primary subject of Peter O'Leary's study Gnostic Contagion). The late David Bromige told the story well, maintaining, in an interview, that Watten was “the arch villain” of poetry in Duncan's eyes, because Watten and the Language poets were, for him, “the New Criticism come again. It was everything he, Robert and his gang, had defeated… and now it was going to come back again.” For Duncan, Watten represented “poetry written by critics, and a very buttoned down kind of poetry too...” Matters came to a head, says Bromige, at a conference in 1979, when Watten and Duncan were going to speak about Louis Zukofsky.

Then things really heat up. Read the account of that moment, along with the rest of this fine piece, here.

Originally Published: February 26th, 2013