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Calvin Bedient on Affect in Poetry at Boston Review
Boston Review posted this thought-provoking piece by Calvin Bedient called “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect.” The lengthy essay considers why “more poets are suspicious of lyrical expression and devote themselves to emotionally neutral methods” and why that shift is an indicator of the demise of a broader culture. As Bedient puts it, the new poetry: “is thus devoted to ruins.” Dark!
This turn against strong emotion leaves much at stake. Writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan—thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself—neglect life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats. The new cerebral writing implies that the conceiving head is superior to the intuitive heart, to use the old words. It reinstates the ages-long assumption of the supremacy of culture over biology, the scheme that modern art and thought, as José Ortega y Gasset argued in The Modern Theme (1931), set out to overturn with pagan gusto.
But this cerebral poetry does its work in a period when the old assumption that culture could be progressive is dead. It is thus devoted to ruins. It is reactionary at the same time that its alliance with digital technologies—technologies that facilitate copying, sampling, and remixing; that “float” documents and make them seem up for grabs—gives it the lure of being very “now.” As an effort to form an avant-garde, “head” poetry thus diverges sharply from the disruptive-to-revolutionary aesthetic and political aims that characterized the early 20th century avant-gardes.
Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.
Shed some tears at Boston Review</em>.