Monday, September 20, 2010

Steve McCaffery on innovation: "innovation for its own sake is, like art for art’s sake, ultimately otiose"

But innovation for its own sake is, like art for art’s sake, ultimately otiose. Kenneth Goldsmith’s and Tan Lin’s recent claims on behalf of unoriginality and uncreativity are major interventions in the contemporary avant-garde that need to be taken seriously. But they too partake in a legacy of negative poetics that starts in anglophone literature as early as the Preface to the second edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Bold innovation is immediately co-optated into a patinated rhetoric of supercession which gets one nowhere beyond the ephemeral titillations of fashion. I prefer to that other narrative of Midas that re-visions the avant-garde as a storehouse of available and cumulative techniques deemed viable and adaptable to the urgencies of the present. Poetry won’t change the world but might render the world rethinkable. This is not a Utopian inclination but a tactical strategy within a multiplicity of dreams, agendas, mistakes and arrogances. It is a poetics of promiscuity envisioned as a tactic. I adopt a chiasmic view of history: that’s partly Eliotian and partly Benjaminian: the present contemporarizes the past as much as the contemporary is historicized by the past. Any worthwhile poetic must be historically rigorous and admit the capricious power of the anachronism. A serious rethinking of the lyric and aesthetics in general is evident too in this selection. I believe Jeremy Prynne derived from the poetry of George Meredith the phenomenon of a dizzying display of terminology that nonetheless is anchored by a feeling of surety, of “lyric” anchor. I won’t call this voice and thereby open a Pandora’s box of problems but I will venture to call it architected style. It is style that offers a refuge for the self and it is evident in the paradox of Eliot’s modernist poetics of impersonality that in so may ways has dominated the contemporary from Cage and MacLow to Goldsmith and Bök. Style reveals the individual behind it bringing word and flesh together in a writing that, of necessity, interpenetrates a world. My “style” is evident in all the poems in this volume and my “life” informs them insofar as my reading constitutes a major component of both my writing and my life. I like to think of lyric not as a historically defined genre but an atmosphere in which its problems, contradictions and aporia play themselves out....

And let’s not forget humour and the simple pleasure of a laugh. Poets should not take themselves too seriously as politicians or world-changes (leave that to the Pol Pots, Stalins, Endira Ghandis, Margaret Thatchers, and Jesus Christs of the planet. Mina Loy envisaged a wonderful portmanteau of practical science and linguistic innovation she called the laboratory of the word and dropped Gertrude Stein in it. Laboratories are used for dissection and transmutations, anatomizations and alembications... That state of the induced laugh has been adequately philosophized from Bergson to Bataille, its revolutionary power installed inside advanced counterinsurgencies against the hegemony of the Logos... Its elder sister of course is satire, that almost defunct telos of writing that dominated and defined the 18th Century. The lampoon seems to have shifted ground from poetry to late-night television.

-- Steve McCaffery, in an afterword to his Selected Poems

Pictured: An 19th century laboratory


Jordan said...


Steven Fama said...

"And let’s not forget humour and the simple pleasure of a laugh."

Have you heard the one about the unoriginalist, innovator, and quietist who walked into a bar -- er, um, make that -- a bookshop?

What -- you think I'm going to give away the punch line to that one?!!

I love to laugh, and that include poetry that makes me smile.

equivocal said...

Wow! Every now and then someone really makes sense.