"do things that matter" - political poetry, the avant garde, and the possible 'return of the subject'

Date: Mon, 6 Dec 1999 09:49:35 -0500 (EST)

				political poetry, the avant-garde,
				and the possible return of the subject


Francesca and Shawn had an exchange about Brian Kim Stefans' poem "Storm
Fields" and it caused Shawn to raise an issue about what kind of political
poems can be written following the writing experiments that encourage
linguistic "disruption" as a form of social opposition.

I think this exchange is really important and see here I reprise it a

Also since Brian Kim Stefans will be on hand for our webcast tomorrow
night, it might help us focus some questions for Brian. (I'm also taking a
chance that we're imposing on Brian and am sending him a copy of this
message. [Brian: I know you're getting this message way out of context but
perhaps you will pick up on what we in our class are wrestling with.])

Responding to Francesca's take on "Storm Fields" Shawn made a start on
interpreting that poem. First she wrote a little preamble:

 Stefans' language is difficult, but it is not impossible, and it doesn't
 quite give you sentences to finish in the same way that Perelman's poem
 does.  If we all take a line, similar to the way we did with Ashbery in
 the webcast, I'm sure we can work through it.  I'll start off...
Then she began to 'read' the poem, this way:

 "Blowzy" with age:  sounds like "drowsy" sounds like "blowing it"
 "Matta Fact":  personification of matter of fact
 "contemplated testicular / violence":  thought about castrating himself,
 or thought about the violence his testicles caused
Then Shawn generalized about the tone of the beginning (following my
earlier attempt at characterizing the tone):

 This is a pretty depressing beginning.  Facts have become so useless
 (perhaps because they can be manipulated to serve anyone's ends), that
 they may as well not exist.  Some of you might have other readings.
[By the way, "festoons of frankness / had ways" reminds me of Ashbery in
his uncharacteristically political poem "Hard Times." Remember that that
poem raised problems of experiment and accommodation: it ended with the
American Dream narrative of people westering to California where the spent
the rest of their days explaining why they were so well settled.]

Francesca had responded in her message to my request for 88'ers to say
where Brian Kim Stefans' poem stands on the accommodation/opposition
scale. Francesca wasn't sure what I meant, quite, and asked:

  ps.  accomodating to what exactly?  This may be an obvious question, but
  I ask it anyhow....

Shawn really got going on this one, using her response to Francesca's
question about "accommodation" in poetry to complicate any discussion
about the politics of contemporary avant-garde poetry. Read Shawn's
remarks slowly and carefully, trying hard to follow what she's saying
about the political effectiveness of THE NEW POETIC AVANT-GARDE now 25
years after those first dramatic, even shocking linguistic disruptions
took place. For instance, does the relation between traditional narration
and status-quo capitalism, which led to poets from O'Hara to Bernstein to
create anti- and non-narrative poems, still need to cause us worry? Does
narration still mean submitting to social authority and control? What's so
perfect, for me, about what Shawn wrote here is that it comes right back
to Brian Kim Stefans' poem--to the idea that we should

			do things that matter
		when purchasing oranges

Here's what Shawn wrote:

| This is a great question, Francesca.  A lot of it has to do with the idea
| of poetry as opposition.  The gestures we're reading in language poetry
| are oppositional gestures, refusals to participate in the creation of a
| well-crafted "product."  These are, in some ways, attempts to disrupt the
| status quo, to disrupt the inevitable equation of capitalism (the
| Narrative will go on, regardless of who it goes over.)
| But now, a quarter century later, it seems that such language disruptions
| perhaps don't easily lead to an overthrow of the government and the
| establishment of a society based on different (better?) rules.  So we have
| all this language-play-disruption left over (along with the *very
| important* changes it's made in our literary consciousness), and what is
| there to do with it?
| 1)  Write more and more ineffectual "disruptive" poems.  or
| 2)  Do things that matter.
| But doing things that matter requires a return to some sort of idea of a
| subject which is a sort of hero on a daily basis.  But didn't we
| effectively leave that behind?  Where do we recover a sense of effective
| responsibility if we can't locate a self that is responsible?

Here, then--again--is Brian's poem. After all this about political poetry,
I ask all 88'ers this question: does the final line - "Nobody talks of
development, anymore" - take on any special political meaning to anyone?
What about the "polaroid / as a cheap thrill in Hoboken"? Okay, the poem

                       Blowzy with age, Matta Fact
                       contemplated testicular
                       violence; festoons of frankness
                       had ways.  Pale as seeds,
                       going gone laughter on the chill
                       chance of recovery, stuck in
                       the effigy, instilled more
                       confidence in hype.  Ape
                       a penny, do things that matter
                       when purchasing oranges (hot
                       or cold), lacquered tribute.
                       Connecticut as Kearny, polaroid
                       as a cheap thrill in Hoboken.
                       Nobody talks of development, anymore.


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