Friday, August 20, 2010

Source texts & sore subjects

The trend in American poetry books is to have lists of your source texts that are lengthier than the traditional "acknowledgments" page - and sometimes even substantial in their own right.

Just a few recent examples:

Caroline Knox's Nine Worthies
Andrea Brady's Wildfire
Tim Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation
Jean Osman's The Network

(& dare I include Don Share's Squandermania?)

What the devil does it mean?

The practice seems to foreground some aspects of the modernist, or more strictly speaking, "objectivist" legacy, e.g., Charles Reznikoff's Testimony and Holocaust (moreso than, say EP's relentlessly elusive and allusive Cantos). A taxonomy would include Berrigan's Sonnets... and be brought up to date with a consideration of documentary poetics, about which Mark Nowak has written, and works such as M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! and Rachel Loden's Affidavit, among many others. And it would no doubt culminate in Kenneth Goldsmith's Day (augmented, of course, by Kent Johnson's Day) and Vanessa Place's Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts; on the former, see Bill Freind's "In the Conceptual Vacuum" and Goldsmith's essay "Uncreativity as Creative Practice;" on the latter, see Steven Fama's recent blogpost.

A pair of recent articles "on the ethics of poetic appropriation" has just gone up on the Poetry Foundation website, one by Abe Louise Young and the other by Raymond McDaniel which respectively represent two opposed views; it's not just a textbook debate when your sources are living breathing people.

I recently blogged about Paideuma, and in the current issue is Aimee L. Pozorski's fascinating look at the way Reznikoff shaped and handled his sources for Holocaust, "Reznikoff's Holocaust Revisited." She makes the point that "given Reznikoff's focus on the power of testimony," Holocaust is a poem that is both "exemplary" as an objectivist poem - and "a document that exceeds the very category." Reznikoff, she writes, "became frustrated with the subjectivity and pathos driving the poetry of his contemporaries," and "called for a move away from the confessional, self-absorbed, symbolist qualities of poetry, and instead sought to detail only the facts [echoes of Steven Fama!], as traditionally instructed in the court of law." What came around is still (make it new?) going around.

Living breathing people, it needn't be pointed out, have deeply lyrical experiences all the time - even when they are under duress and suffering terribly. (My own recent reading provides stark evidence for this: Herman Kruk's The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps 1939-1944 - the most excruciating, heartbreaking book I have ever encountered; even in this literally tortured account of the destruction of an entire world, there are recorded numerous moments of astounding and enduringly-articulated lyrical beauty.) Yet the lyrical-as-such is distrusted, discredited in AmPo; when it rears its lovely head, it gets repurposed - ostensibly for ethical as well as aesthetic reasons.

I don't have an opinion or preference here, I hasten to add; I lovingly and avidly read every "kind" of writing, from goop to experiment, and none has caused me any great harm. As Pozorski poignantly demonstrates, in any case, a poet can be caught "between objectivity and emotion when it comes to matters of life and death." Literary language tells us, she writes, "something useful about what it means to try to articulate 'the truth' or 'the facts' of an event that remains so horrific it often eludes even the most talented wordsmiths." One cringes (tellingly) at "wordsmiths," but she is surely right.

In juxtaposition, this, from Brenda Wineapple's essay, "Voice of a Nation," (which is about how "American literature in the 19th century speaks in the 21st in terms we have not yet abandoned for all our sophistication, technology, globalism, and panache.") -

“How slowly our literature grows up!” Hawthorne had groaned in 1845. Could he have read James, who read Hawthorne with such delight and profit, he might have felt that an American literature was, indeed, growing up and perhaps growing wise to boot. Though naysayers accused James of denuding American literature, rendering it bloodlessly detached from the everyday, he actually broadened its definition much as his friend Howells and their friend Crane had tried to do, by making it alive to the possibilities of that mind on whom nothing is lost—not the struggle for survival, not the need for time and money—and which in the end makes literature a place far broader than the borders of nation.

MEANWHILE... This, from Max Saunders' Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografication, and the Forms of Modern Literature:

... from the 1870s to the 1930s autobiography increasingly aspires to the condition of fiction and... this rewrites the literary history of Modernism, to show that, far from negating life-writing, Modernism constantly engages with it dialectically, rejecting it in order to assimilate and transform it.

Modernism's play with masks, personae, unreliable narrators, and its engagement with psychoanalysis too, while they can all be seen as attacks on traditional ways of writing about the lives of people, or understanding character, can themselves be understood as not so much an abandonment of these things, but an attempt to find new ways of doing them.

Pictured: the source of the Po


Kent Johnson said...

Hi Don,

Just to reiterate a point made (via a quote from me) by Bill Freind in the article you link to at Jacket:

Having temporarily superseded (or superceded) Kenny Goldsmith's position, I have renounced my status as Author of DAY and officially passed the title on to Geoffrey Gatza. My name should not be associated with the book, even though it is on the covers and the spine. Geoffrey Gatza is the true conceptual Author of DAY.

thank you,


Steven Fama said...

That Pozorski article on Rez's Holocaust sounds important enough that I might well pay the National Poetry Foundation the 30 bucks I just found out it charges individuals for a single copy of Paideuma.

On the other hand . . . at 30 bucks a pop for a journal, I'm thinking maybe NPF really doesn't want individuals to read the thing...


(I appreciate you writing about Pozorski's article, and thanks too for mentioning my posts.)

marc said...

thank you for introducing me to Herman Kruk's book

arguments and examinations of concepts, strategies, techniques, in poetry - remind me of amiri baraka's "next time someone use the word "postmodern, ask them, axe 'em, "what do that mean, jim?"

ultimately, the best excuse for literature is moral beauty in the midst of atrocity (I think)