In: With meaning

Ron Silliman & James Meetze

James counters Ron’s latest comments on Langpo & emotion. One problem here is one that gets brought up a lot at places like the Buffalo Poetics List: the same disagreements and misunderstandings tend to get played out from scratch by different parties over and over, so that the same argument essentially gets re-rehearsed in slightly altered form in one generational sub-arena after another, with little or no acknowledgment of the past forms the argument has taken and whatever tentative strides toward mutual understanding might have occurred as a result. This can be disspiriting, and it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and resign oneself to perpetual schism. Of course, there is a case to be made that any poetic movement which requires that its readers be familiar with an entire tradition of critical subliterature and obscure correspondence between obscurer polemicists in order not to be misunderstood has no right to complain when it is misunderstood. Nevertheless, the optimist in me believes in an ideal scene of speaking softly and rationally in the midst of the warring din.

In my view, the root of the oft-repeated problem frequently has more to do with a clash of sensibilities between the two parties battling it out than with the object itself (i.e., the actual poetry). In this case, I’m seeing potentially irreconcilable differences between Ron and James from the start. In somewhat caricatural terms (because people love to be caricatured), we have in the one corner the Senior Poet, presenting his case in terms that tend towards an aura of Unassailable Doctrine, gazing down imperiously on the unmotivated, underpoliticized generations of younger poets who have felt, either negatively or positively, the pressure of His accomplishment. In the other, we have the scruffy, sap-filled Byronic spokesman for Poetic Youth, charismatically crunching his way through the Senior Poet’s position, heedless of grammar, historical accuracy, and—well—emotional continence, in favor of a New Aesthetic of Expressive Vitality. At the risk of alienating myself from both parties with this absurd reduction, I think we can see that the clash of styles represented by this setup doesn’t promise much in the way of a sustained, productive dialogue.

But as I just said, it’s an absurd reduction, so I had better backtrack a little, both to try to dig myself out of whatever hole I might be making for myself with the two parties, and to demonstrate that much of the conflict arises from loosely focused ad hominem generalizations (though not necessarily focused on one particular hominem). First of all, Ron has shown himself to be very supportive of many younger poets and poetic movements, despite his publically voiced concerns about their political coherence and so forth. Much of the “Darth Vader” reputation comes not so much from any specific theoretical position he has upheld as from the general air of Zeuslike magisteriality he sometimes projects in his blog-writing (and I have to say, the new, huge dark-shadows author photo doesn’t do much to correct this impression). On the other side, beyond James’ tousled rock-star naif stance rests a valid and pressing concern about a tangible Language-associated oppressiveness experienced by many younger poets, whether its source is in any actual quality of Language Poetry itself or rather in the social complexes of resentment and misapprehension that have built up around it, sometimes though not always as a result of certain Language Poets’ prickly resistance to populist public relations. Again, on his side, James doesn’t do much to promote a constructive dialogue with pronouncements that Language Poetry “is over,” and I wonder how much of Ron’s early work he is actually familiar with when he posits such a strong divide between the “lyrically aware” work in VOG and the “pedantically theoretical” poetry that came before it.

Sigh. So much for re-endearing myself to the parties involved. All of this is personality politics, which I’m not saying is entirely irrelevant to a “serious” poetics, but what remains to be examined here is the very question of emotion in poetry: James says he’d like to know what Ron’s idea of emotion is, and so would I. James has given us some idea of his idea of emotion, though he could go further: what, for instance, is the dividing line between emotion, on the one hand, and sentimentality, which he dismisses at one point? I read a lot of New Brutalist writing as being very sentimental, but in a way I find fascinating and exciting. Isn’t the de facto dismissal of sentimentality akin to the same kind of intellectualizing tyranny that James wants to escape? In Ron’s case, I have a hard time imagining Ron (or more abstractly, a “typical” senior male Language Poet) being able to appreciate much of what I find fresh and vital in the best N.B. writing, for many of the same reasons that many of them have demonstrated a characteristic recurring antipathy to New York School aesthetics. In the case of the NYS, this had something to do with the Language Poets’ own generational resentment toward predecessors who were complexly influential for them in a way similar to the way the Language Poets have shaped the work of New Brutalists and other recent groups.

It’s interesting that “New Brutalism” is beginning to feel like it actually refers to something. Is it just me? I’m not sure that what is needed, as someone said, is really a Manifesto that programmatically sets out a coherent N.B. aesthetic, but it would be an interesting exercise if as many more of us here as possible, in addition to those who have already started, could offer some experimental hypotheses as to what might constitute the core (or orbiting network of dynamic semantic surfaces) of N.B. What could it be, based on what we’ve seen so far? How is it different from “Postlanguage” or “Post-Avant” or “Creep” or “Surf Poetry,” etc.? Are You Brutal?

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