Thursday, April 5, 2007

April is the cruelest month

It'd be interesting to have Bernstein meet up with Steve Kowit [www-rohan.sdsu.edu] and see if they can hash out their differences. As Bernstein rails against the fact that National Poetry Month emphasizes a more accessible , "mainstream" style in order to secure an audience , all while sacrificing the brave work of more experimental, edgier, gutsier poets (like himself), Kowit argues in his essay that the difficult, the avant gard and the abstract poem had taken over the poetry main stage and choked out more accessible poets as a result. Each side seems to view it's aesthetic as an endangered species at the hand of their evil twin. Bernstein himself is a Language poet, a method that attacks the idea that traditional ways of writing about experience and ideas in poetic fashion accomplish anything like truth; in fact, Bernstein and friends would insist that traditional Western poetics are oppressive and express nothing but the hegemony of soul-crushing capitalism.


Language poetry, and similar radical styles before and since, are by nature limited to a small audience, less because the means of distribution kill potentially high sales of the works of Zukofsky, Charles Olson or Ron Silliman, but more that the originality of the new styles are constructed precisely to challenge, baffle, and mock the expectations of the general reader. Marginal poetries demand intellectual rigor, the argument goes, and those who stay the course and master the critical vocabularies will get "IT".
That might be the case, but the general audience instinctual dislikes being held in contempt by small bands of snobs, whether New Formalist conservatives or left-leaning Languagers, and the collective sensibility of the interested audience will seek things that don't precede on the premise that they're morons who need to be instructed by their betters.Poetry has been an elitist practice for decades, and the efforts to bring a larger audience into the fold and investigate the diversity of verse styles is a good think, regardless of the misgivings of the abtruse few. I doubt books will vanish, nor that experimental and radical writing will cease; more likely, such forms will most likely gain readers because of efforts to get buyers to invest in Dorrianne Laux or Frank O'Hara instead of Mitch Albom or Dwayne Dyer.I have to say that I've enjoyed a good number of language poets and their poems, having taken classes from more than one of them, and done readings with them in the past. Take away the political shell of their theory and you have yet one among the many avant gard movements that have contributed to the richness and variety of American verse.Their agenda and goals were limited , though, and the problem is that the good work was done early on; particular works of Bob Perelman are perfectly comprehensible once you discern the satiric shrift he gives the rhetoric of political and academic speech, Rae Armantrout's best work has a compressed self awareness that compares somewhat favorably with some of Dickens and Millay, and Ron Silliman's work extends the cubist angles that Gertrude Stein gave her more invigorated writings.The difference, one might say, is that they gave their devices a different name, though I think the techniques are largely the same, and the purpose of their writings is to force language to do things other than render the world into pretty pictures and have valorize the predictable responses of narrative personalities within the conventional framework.We see, of course, that the work was finished early, and what was legitimate experimentation , a desire to develop new ways of looking at the world through the sieve of language , became naught but another style, incoherent for its own sake.By the time I came across and met these poets in college during the late Seventies and early Eighties, their moment had already passed, and since then have ceased to be a leading force in the culture. The controversy over the language poets in the areas where these contentions matter abated some years ago, as we've seen the vital resurgence of meaning as the principle purpose of the poem. Houlihan's 2000 essay is many years behind the times, and it makes you think that this was an old, unpublished batch of resentment she had lying around until this opportunity to publish it online.I'm sure she's a fine writer and a nice person in real life, but one wonders as well what kind of trauma the language poets put her through to make her attempt to revivify a controversy that's no longer relevant to the state of the art.

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