poetry and the savage

Two days ago, I was having coffee with a friend. This particular friend is an expert on recent and avant garde American poetry. Unlike her, I know very little about American poetry after Berryman and Lowell. So she was patiently asking me why I was so sniffy about Jerome Rothenberg or Charles Bernstein, and other carriers of the torch passed down from Pound and Stein.

In response to which, I am trying to read more of these poets.

However, in the course of our discussion, I did say something that wasn’t absolutely ignorant.

I said this. There’s a story Yuri Lotman tells in Universe of the Mind about a Russian mathematician who advertised that he was going to give a talk on the geometry of dressmaking. Naturally, the audience for this talk filled up with dressmakers and tailors. Finally the great man arrived, ascended the podium, unfolded his manuscript and began: for the purposes of this talk, let us assume that the human body is perfectly spherical.

There was a great rush for the exits by the dressmakers and the tailors.

My loyalties are divided between the audience and that mathematician. Similarly, my loyalties are divided between one tradition in writing and the experimental writers and poets. On the one hand, I, like the tailors and dressmakers, find it a little absurd to mix together the highly theoretical and the pragmatic – and writing is, on one level, as pragmatic as spreading jam on toast. Thus, when an avant garde writer seems more interested in the theory of what he or she is writing than the product itself, it seems absurd.

On the other hand, it is just as absurd to think that the mathematician is wrong. Far from it! For unlike jam, which comes from fruit, water and sugar, and bread, which comes from wheat, writing comes from somewhere else. A nineteenth century positivist would say that it comes from the brain, and think that he has thereby said something scientific and true. But this is like saying it comes from space, or from time. It is not so much true as a truism that gets in the way of a problem - and thus is the enemy of the true.

The standard history of literary criticism tells us that Mallarme introduced ‘theory’ into poetry – as writing turned to its material and metaphysical circumstances in order to go on.

I don’t have a quarrel with the story that Mallarme and Rimbaud make an inflection in poetry. But lets not be provincial. It has not escaped the notice of any human who learns how to write and read that something – ungraspable – is going on here. In the seventeenth century, European explorers and settlers began to distinguish ‘civilization’ on the basis of writing, distinguishing themselves as possessors of the book from those who did not write. This division is hard to justify – the supplements and codicils added to this story have long ago been unlocked by Derrida. It is in the history of the downfall of that literate/uncivilized distinction that avant garde poets – cousins of my Russian mathematician – make the most sense to me.

I will not end this post by judging between the tailors and the mathematician. How could I?


Max Clark said…
yeah, C. Bernstein's "Content's Dream" is ungodly magnificent, not so much his new stuff (or no?). then there's Adrienne Rich, who's new stuff seems better than the old. + i'd also reccomend Tan Lin, altho i've not really read him that much yet. ALSO, MAXWELL CLARK: HE RULES! + if American Poetry is rather theoretical, that's because American Philosophy is a joke. (or not?) maybe, just maybe, American Poetry addresses the same deviant's need of revolution philosophy plays in France. end.
roger said…
Thanks for the reading list! I will look out for Maxwell Clark. I'm trying to make it ultra clear that I think I need to know more about these contemporary poets, not to knock them. My friend shrewdly pointed out to me, reading this: well, you mean you read certain poets when you were young and stopped - and she is right, there is the age thing, the canon you set up over time.

Anyway, I will definitely read Maxwell Clark!