Brian Kim Stefans responds to a criticism of the Language Poets for their institutionalization

Subject: BK Stefans on Standard Schaefer
Date: Wed, 19 May 1999 08:13:45 -0400 (EDT)

For those of you not on the Buffalo List, I thought I'd pass along this post from Brian Kim Stefans -- a devastatingly smart critique of an essay and recent listeserv post by Standard Schaefer, the editor of *Rhizome*. The essay, "Preliminary Notes on Literary Politics," which appeared in Rhizome 3 (which I believe the House has) was an attempt to take to task Language Poets for their alleged institutionalization (read: they got themselves academic jobs: bad, bad). Brian patiently dissects and unravels this argument and its an educational read for anyone who has the time. - Mike Magee

> Dear Standard,
> I think you are doing yourself and your ideas a tremendous disservice by
> focusing on this issue of careerism which your statements have not
> demonstrated to be a very well-considered, historically-conscious position.
> It seems to me quite obvious, for example, that very few of the Language
> poets had any idea that their ideas would obtain for them the degree of
> academic acceptance that they have, in the past decade, received, and if
> you would like to argue this point, I would ask you to return to the
> numerous staple-bound, yellowing and otherwise low-tech and low-print-run
> publications that were circulating in the 70s and 80s when they were first
> looking at each other's poetry and seeing a common set of interests
> developing, and cite those instances where you think 1) any of the those
> poets thought they were writing in a style that would eventually become
> something like the norm in academic studies, or maybe how their writing
> styles and ideas actually gelled with what was happening in academic
> studies at the time, 2) where you think that this "careerism" seriously or
> even moderately compromised the general goal, aura or collective effort at
> investigation (as opposed to exploitation) that is, I think, one of the
> nobler aims of a group effort in poetics, the uncovering of lost ideas or
> perhaps the refocusing or "make it new" of dilapidated ones, 3) how many of
> the poets who were writing at this time who are not of the "language
> school" were actually resisting assimilation into what, to you apparently,
> was a very obvious upward track into the academe, which is to say, would a
> poet working in primarily "speech based" poetics at the time (some of whom
> were professors) be considered resistant to an obvious "spectre haunting
> America poetry" or were they working in a tradition which, to some, had
> itself run its course and was not likely to produce anything more
> interesting without a degree of revamping.
> In terms of this last point, I would relate that in talking to several New
> York poets who were around at the time and who were not part of the
> "language" thing -- indeed, being excluded from the publication of that
> name and being quite miffed by this fact -- still are far more generous to
> what happened with the magazine and the "movement" than many of the poets
> of my age or slightly younger, understanding that at a basic level what
> those people were up to was something quite different.  Which is to say,
> these poets who were there at the time were well aware of these several
> factors that I allude to above, that it was really a "grassroots" kind of
> thing that didn't have a Marjorie Perloff or Hank Lazar (the mile-long
> shelf of critics raising the LangPos to the lofty height of canonicity) to
> give it the sort of guarantee that you seem to be believe -- again, I
> challenge you to find where this assurance is -- was there to push on their
> efforts.  There was very little money circulating in that community for
> publications of any nature, that the lifestyles of these poets were often
> at least as radically "outside" as the more standard boho lifestyle of a
> Lower East Side poet (and they mostly lived in the Lower East Side,
> anyway), blah blah blah.  Before "language," all of these poets more or
> less did the same thing, went to see music, art, read at St. Mark's and
> went to the readings, commented, complained, wondered if Olson was what he
> was cracked up to be, etc.  (I would note that despite what people think of
> the New York poetry scene, the crowds mix here quite a bit and continue to
> do so, the real lines being present only in the minds of those who seem to
> need them to get by.)
> I would suggest, if we want to talk about the "co-opting of the arts by
> institutions," that your own method of publishing your magazine plays more
> into the basic method of a fast-track to institutionalization than the
> publishing method of the Language poets, which, again, was very cheap,
> community-based, spontaneous, hard to find "closure" in, etc.  A new issue
> of Rhizome -- and I am not criticizing you for publishing it, I'm just
> asking you to put it's parameters under the "socratic light" in a way that
> I would ask you to put the LangPos publications under the same light, and
> tell me which is more "radical" -- arrives on my doorstep from an anonymous
> publisher to whom I had sent a check in much the same way that Art in
> America would (were I to subscribe to it) or October, etc.
> Here are some quotes from your post and responses:
> "What I was trying to contend in my essay is that "radical artifice" and
> "indeterminacy" often coincide with a poetic practice that looks an awful
> lot like a struggle between academics and their discursive efforts to
> control the determination of good poetry."
> -- You fail to establish this point in your essay, but as I don't have this
> with me I can't argue with that text.  But I would like to ask where you
> find Charles Bernstein, for instance, talking about "good poetry," in those
> very terms since you obviously are very happy with taking other terms of
> his out of context.  I would also like to argue that Charles would not make
> the mistake that you are making in your comments here, as he goes to great
> lengths to establish any sort of new terminology with a wealth of often
> very rich material, whether it be Veronica Forrest-Thomson (whom I would
> suggest you read before deciding that "radical artifice" and "emotion" are
> as incompatible as you state) to Langston Hughes.  This is an effort to
> show exactly what he is talking about "looks like."  You might want to
> illustrate, also, which "struggle" you are talking about, perhaps a lengthy
> quote from one such struggle, and compare this to, say, one of these poems
> you are talking about.  As a final point, I would add that a comparison
> with Pound's "discursive efforts to control the determination of good
> poetry" probably resembled the mainstream and academic effort of his time
> to make these very same value judgments, though in form rather than in
> content or even style of rhetoric, than Charles' do his own mainstream
> contemporaries.
> "In concrete terms, this means that we who believe that radical politics is
> at least possible cannot mistake the act of simply writing vague,
> fragmented, ambiguous etc. poems with the changing of the business of
> poetry."
> -- Yes, you cannot, but there are many other mistakes that can be made,
> such as that of an emotionalism unmodified by recourse to the data at hand.
> "The business of poetry is all the various devices, contraptions which do
> the actually judging of poetry and that lead to a belief that the only
> important writers are those who are being written on (cf. the writers of
> dissertations)."
> -- One thing I would mention, again looking at this Pound / Bernstein
> dichotomy, is that Bernstein has struggled to come up with a critical
> apparatus with which to gauge the "quality" of poetry which is
> decentralized, open to anomaly, not focused on the racial or gender make-up
> of the group with which he is most associated, non-canonical in the sense
> that many of the poets he writes about were not "universal" writers in the
> sense of Goethe or, closer to home, Frost, etc.  While there are many ways
> to argue with his essays -- and I have several friends whom you would
> consider "stooges" (I think you use this word twice in your essay) of the
> Language Poets who have taken essays such as "Poetics of the Americas" to
> task -- the essential contours of the project are very admirable and
> deserve very close attention, and the method, which relies on incredible
> amounts of research, thought as to the context in which the statements will
> appear, etc. not to mention focusing _on_ that context, which indeed is
> often an academic context -- who has been a more strong and legitimate
> critic of the practices of the academy (which, despite our coolness in
> pride in being "non-academic" and "street-wise" is a major cultural
> institution which, unless you want to throw it out completely, is worth
> attempting to review and rebuild) than Charles Bernstein?  I'm sure there
> are dozens of people who are willing to claim that it's "ruining poetry,"
> blah blah, and that Charles is just another cog, but there has been a
> subtle shift in the attentions of his essays that has been toward a
> consideration of that very institution to which he belongs -- a very
> pointed, angry, to many annoying, specific, meaningful, researched,
> criticism which, if anything, illustrates the integrity of his project.
> That is, he is not in denial that he is part of an institution of which he
> is highly critical, and in fact may find abhorrent (though I shouldn't
> advertise this point, he would be the first one to dissuade you from
> attending the Buffalo program if he didn't think it was worth your time).
> Well, I won't go on here, unless this really bugs you.
> "What I commend Jeff Clark for in my essay applies to Garrett Caples,
> Martin Corless Smith, Cathy Wagner, Tracy
> Grinnel, Emily Grossman, Brian Lucas and other "non-allied" poets."
> -- They won't be much longer, if you or anyone else decides to group them
> that way.  The "Non-allied Poets" will be the subject of Marjorie Perloff
> 2010's famous book, the "Poetics of the Oops Decentralized."
> "I commend these poets' refusal to use theory as a way of justifying their
> own work as either socially relevant or "radical" or even  "progressive" or
> even necessary.  I also commend them for not falling into the (fake)
> hermeticism
> of the mainstream. A refusal to play poetry for tenure, promotion, etc. may
> be the most politically effective gesture yet because as along as poetry
> resembles business, some way to join the firm or succeed in school, we
> cannot have
> "radical" poetries."
> -- But the turn has to be made to suggest how these poetries are "radical"
> apart from their apparent break with the fake, in your terms, radicalism of
> the previous generation.  In other words, let's find positive terms rather
> than negative ones, and the "challenge round" could be: let's find positive
> terms for these poets' poetics without being Ezra Pound, i.e. finding a
> tradition for them to be in the line of defending.  I don't find anything
> radical about the poetries of these writers, but I am more than willing to
> be convinced that they are "radical" -- but then again, they certainly
> don't have to be, either, for me to like them, as I read all kinds of stuff
> that's politically luke-warm and like it bundles.  Consequently, it's very
> depressing to me to think that this is the most "politically effective
> gesture yet" since, well, that's a pretty narrow sense of politics.  I
> wouldn't be able to explain _that_ to my mother.
> "I commend their humility and I believe that it will go along way farther
> to counteracting the self-aggrandizing, self-promotional careerist
> tendencies that have arisen out of an american poetic-theoretical nexus
> associated with "collapsed subjectivity".  The decentered poem does
> nothing, but when it is consecrated by a host of Hank Lazers,
> Marjorie Perloffs, and so forth a very real subjectivitiy is made:  the
> celebrity poet."
> -- I'm sure they are very nice people, and there are, without a doubt, a
> few "self-aggrandizing" poets of the Language ilk whose purported interests
> in collectivity and objective, informed consideration of cultural politics,
> etc., runs counter to the obviously (not necessarily masculinist but
> certainly mostly) pride in being as learned as they are, and being able to
> muscle through the most abstract conversation about issues that, in the
> end, are pretty dead as soon as they hit air.  I could tell you a few
> stories.  But there just aren't nearly as many as statements like the above
> would suggest, and, again, I am not sure why we choose to criticize poets
> who have done the kind of reading that their ideas deserve in order to make
> them fuller, more informed, etc.  As Pound himself would write, do we
> commend a musician for bragging that he/she does not know how to play
> Mozart?  (Yes, Paul McCartney never took singing lessons, hurrah.)  It's
> also a terrible reduction, again, to think that "collapsed subjectivity"
> has been the primary modus-operandi of the recent American poetics,
> especially since you suggest, above, that "radical artifice" is the main
> axis point -- you like to work in scare quotes, with interchangeable
> targets.  I think many of us are not nearly as oppressed by the catch
> phrases.
> "One of the most important points Perloff makes in POETICS OF
> INDETERIMINACY is, if I recall, in the chapter on Stein where she discusses
> the difference between indeterminacy and ambiguity.  There her formalism is
> at its finest: she shows in detail what made Stein great and what her
> imitators were not too clear about."
> -- Please elaborate on this binary.  Despite what you might think, I agree
> with you that cartloads of writing has been produced out of a very vague,
> un-aesthetic (I mean non-self critical in terms of whether the art at hand
> is really "working") sense of praxis, and that, in bulk, it is likely to
> turn off anyone to what we call "postmodern" or even contemporary poetry.
> On the other hand, when I approach this work and my teeth start to gnash, I
> have that little line of Bob Dylan's floating around in the back of my head
> -- and if I could sing it the way he does right here I would -- "Don't
> criticize what you don't understand."  And so I try to understand, and
> gnash later.  This language of "imitators" is very Poundian, but so again I
> ask you to look at these ideas -- innovation, imitation, originality, etc.
> -- divorced from your obvious aesthetic biases and see if they really work,
> or are even necessary.  "Imitation" has a certain "radical" (a word I
> rarely use, actually) potential which, well, I am investigating.
> "It is in an interesting time to consider whether or not a writer should
> possess a strong ego and whether or not the language school's post-humanism
> was every anything but the proliferation of the ego by new means, in new
> modes."
> -- This is any easy one to answer: yes.  Of course, but from there, let's
> see what these particular egos have managed to produce, what are the
> contours of the work, how to they operate socially, when and where has the
> ego been sacrificed for something that could be called (for lack of a
> better word) "constructivist," how is the ego played off of this
> construction, is it really as closed and negating an ego as we at first
> feel, is it charmless and sterile, etc.
> I think that your essay, and this particular post, are part of a trend that
> I sense very strongly write now in poets who are, say, generally within my
> age range, some older some younger (so that would be mid-twenties to
> mid-thirties) who are prone to making very over-arching, "emotional" (most
> more often hysterical) statements about how the Language Poets have
> completely subtracted a certain variable -- "emotion" -- from the poetic
> equation in America.  I would suggest two quick things to read, Max Weber's
> Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for an idea of where "our"
> sense of emotion has gone -- it's gone quite far, but far away, I think,
> such that now we don't really know how rich "emotion" can be, or how
> complicated -- but also Charles' exchange with Louis Simpson in one of
> those books that Lazar published a while back, an exchange that reappears,
> I think, in the Politics of Poetic Form, in which his ideas on "emotion"
> are most misunderstood and most strongly stated.  I certainly don't think
> it's wrong to take CB up on his ideas -- that's what they're there for, in
> fact, and few welcome strong criticism of his ideas like he does -- but the
> "ambiguous, not too clear" criticism the likes of which appear in your
> essay are none to0 productive.
> Well, I could go on, but, luckily perhaps, am out of time.
> Sincerely,
> Brian



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