The history of poetry is never the history of the best poems, but rather the history of change in poetry. —Ron Silliman
Ron Silliman took a break from his cutting and pasting video links on his no-comments-allowed blog, recently, to explain his love for Lyn Hejinian’s new book of poems. The paean reached heights like this:
When, in 200 years, students are reading the poetry of Lyn Hejinian – as certainly they shall if humans are still about – those readers will undoubtedly begin with My Life (hopefully in its initial Burning Deck version, not because the earlier edition is “better,” but because that is the volume that changed the lives of so many other poets). Those who go on to read Hejinian’s finest work, however, will then turn to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which Omnidawn brought out earlier this year.
Coming in at 333 pages, Eyes is a project on which Hejinian has been working for decades and the concentration of effort yields remarkable insights. Although 95% of the volume is in verse, Eyes is – alongside Tony Lopez’ forensic masterpiece Only More So– the deepest thinking over the role, form, history & future of the sentence I have encountered:
Perhaps my dear family can profit from my story
As it continues two pickpockets are denying a robust policeman’s suggestions that they are ‘suspiciously encumbered’
If encumbered, they insist, they would resemble kids with a lot to say
They would resemble unwanted sympathy
They would not be like holes in a hallway
This poem, pulled at random from page 196, demonstrates how large portions of this volume proceed – lines here function as sentence equivalents, there is a story & an expository voice that is cheerful & just a little supercilious, a tone that may invoke certain characters in novels, indeed that may invoke the novel itself. But the focus here lies not on sentences so much as on the character of the adjectival as a role of language & perception, and of the underlying problem of comparison. The term that announces this is not about the pickpocket’s nor even the policeman – “robust” as he may be – but the characterization of the listeners (plural) as “my dear family” (singular).
Every line/sentence here invokes at least one problematic comparison – the wavering focus between fictive listener and factual reader in the first line is just the opening ploy (unless of course one counts that disparity between singular noun family and multiple listeners). The characterization “dear” is in this sense the very opposite of what it appears to be: ceremonial rhetoric with little real content. The second line has at least 4 such moments of characterization, five if we begin to delve into the problem of naming characters pickpockets. First there is number, then the policeman identified as robust (meaning what? comically rotund? vigorously muscular?), then a denial that these pickpockets are encumbered (one of three key terms repeated in the four lines of the story), finally a representation of this encumbrance as suspiciously. Two terms in the sentence represent representation itself –denying, suggestions – both of which imply a gap between language & the thing itself.
At this moment, the entire tenor of the poem shifts as tho it were on an axis: the three final lines invoke (without quite being) anaphor, a sequence of not-quite-parallels that give the poem a strong formal flourish as it concludes. At one level there is the humor of the clash between the denial that they would resemble kids with a lot to say just as they begin to say a lot. At a second, there is a third characterization of representation – insist – followed by the trio of they would statements.
Each statement is about resemblance is some very odd way. Kids with a lot to say ≠ unwanted sympathy ≠ holes in a hallway. Except that, grammatically, formally, they do. It’s worth considering further what each of these complex representations invokes, holes in a hallway for example – are we talking doors and windows, pocking in acoustic tile, or something stranger even?
This description barely scratches all that is going on in this little poem. What if I were to base my analysis on the meaning of that very first verb, profit? An entire discourse concerning acquisition, ownership & value looms suddenly into view. And who precisely is that speaker? It hardly sounds like the Lyn Hejinian whom I’ve known for nearly 40 years.
Here the advantage of verse formatting starts to become evident: the use of lines here as sentence equivalents is hardly incidental to the argument of the poem. They foreground the disjunct angles of the three pseudo-parallels at the end, for example, and highlight the excessiveness of that second line.
And there are over 300 other pages at least as complex & condensed as this. Often, as in the term dear in the first line, Hejinian employs a single word to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming. Reading Eyes is a lot like my imagination of standing before the Grand Canyon. Unlike the Alps, which are simply large & majestic, Eyes is also deep. Vertigo is a distinct readerly risk and I recommend going through the book slowly. If you finish it in less than six months, you’re not giving it the attention it deserves. So many of these poems don’t start to yield their secrets until the second, third or fourth readings. I found myself going over facing pages over & over – it really seems to be the best way to proceed.
Language is eyes, as somebody once claimed (invoking not only Shakespeare, but a particular character, and not just any, but one in theatrical guise, one who dreams). Might I note that if one searches Google for “bottom Shakespeare Hejinian” (sans quotation marks), one will find 19,000 responses, just 400 less than a parallel search that switches out Hejinian’s name for he-who-whose-literary-executor-shall-not-be-named? In this sense, Hejinian’s project is part of that particular American tradition that begins with Moby-Dick.
For Silliman, the Hejinian poem “yields remarkable insights” into “language, perception & the underlying problem of comparison.” The “Hejinian employs a single word [dear] to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming.”
We simply don’t believe this, and are certain no one else does either, not even Silliman. There is nothing insightful or linguistically problematic about a policeman (robust, or not) viewing “pickpockets” as “suspiciously encumbered.” The “gap between language and the thing itself” found in the words “denying” and “suggestions” is of no interest. Silliman’s straining after significance resembles a small time party host embarrassing himself with a big speech on small beer. “The scale here is vast” could only embarrass the host. The whispering among the invited guests need not be repeated. We can only assume Silliman likes Hejinian—in a kind of grade school crush, maybe?
Avant-garde poetry, like modern art, can be summed up in one word: Abstract.
In this one word lies the pseudo-science of the whole enterprise—for whatever attempts to be aesthetically abstract ends up being particular, not abstract, the word merely adding an air of mystery to what is otherwise mundane. Abstract art, which ostensibly explores color, presents, in reality, the colored. It is art that is anything but abstract. Color which vanishes in non-abstract depiction reaches what might be called abstraction. So-called “Abstract Art” is not abstract. Modern art cannot escape the same law which applies to everything else: the abstract cannot exist in an aesthetic vacuum, cannot exist purely.
Silliman searches for qualitative traces of poetry in Hejinian’s poem—allowing the (universal) banality of the latter to confirm the (abstract) discovery of the former.
The object takes on a doubled interest seen through the pseudo-abstract lens. Aesthetics, which, by its very nature, grounds the flight of the false, is vulnerable to this craven, pedagogical exploitation.
Listen how lapsed poet Rob Holland, after taking a U. Penn on-line ModPo course, thrills to the “abstract” of the new poetry:
I took the course on a whim after seeing it promoted somewhere online, having been out of academia for nearly 40 years, since I finished graduate school (in English) at Emory in 1975. The only previous online “education” I had had was work-related training videos and PowerPoint sequences, so my expectations were really low. What were they going to teach, and more importantly, how were they going to teach it? I got my first clue when I started following the instructor, University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis, on Twitter. He was talking about Gertrude Stein. Did Gertrude Stein write poetry? Apparently, yes. And what poetry it turned out to be!
This was the beginning of what became one of the greatest intellectual and emotional adventures of my life. That sounds a little overblown, I know. I have a great marriage, children, grandchildren in increasing numbers. I have a satisfying photography hobby, and run several websites on the side. But ModPo broke something open in me that had been locked tight in a chrysalis for decades. I wrote and published poetry in small magazines in the 1970s and ‘80s, and studied with Charles Wright and Donald Justice. Eventually, though, I fell silent, both from the pressures of family life and from my inability to imagine my way out of the traps of self-expression. I grew up in the era of Lowell and Plath; confession was a synonym for poetry. The Beats, whom I admired, were also at their core romantic, self-absorbed, and often sentimental. I tired of the artistic ego, and the felt conviction that in order to write poetry I had to manifest one. Besides, what I was writing was old-fashioned, traditional, out of step. So I stopped. For twenty-five years.
Then ModPo ambushed me. It was not, as I expected it might be, a rehash of the old chestnuts of modernism (Eliot, Stevens) or a revisit to the poets of my coming of age. Instead it pointed at the heart of radical experimentation and rebellion against the poet as sage, myth-maker, prophet, tortured soul. Its selection of poets was designed to show a way, multiple ways, of using language for art largely in the absence of direct self-expression. Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers? This probably sounds dry to someone who has not experienced ModPo, but the introduction of this simple idea broke down all the barriers that had built up in me, and gave me permission to not worry about poetic fashion, or even whether what I was writing was “good,” “bad,” or even poetry. Let somebody else decide that, it said. Just write.
Holland knows he sounds “overblown.” It is just as “overblown” as Silliman’s praise of Hejinian. What’s going on here? Holland naively asks: “Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers?” These leaps into the “overblown” we suspect are due to an exaggeration of abstraction’s powers. The avant-garde artist abstracts himself from reality (good and bad, beautiful and ugly). The “overblown” of Silliman and Holland is the natural result.
With MOMA’s new exhibit, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” it’s time we take a hard look at the concept which blocks our escape from curious Modernism each way we turn: the Abstract.
Of course no one “invented” abstraction in 1910, but since abstraction implies the scientific and the pedagogical, the avant-garde p.r. department will naturally run with the (misunderstood) term, ‘the abstract,’ in order to puff themselves up.
To abstract from any reality, there must be coherence and continuity present. But not just in the universal sense; coherence and continuity must also exist in the found example—abstraction must occur on both levels—specifically as well as universally, for how can consistency be perceived abstractly? Things are necessary with which to be consistent.
With abstraction, then, the artist can steal reality’s coat but not reality’s soul. The specific will always betray itself as such, no matter how abstract we attempt to be. We wish to buy abstraction with specificity, but the deal always collapses; there is not sufficient material to purchase priceless abstraction: the abstraction can only be perceived in the exchange which fails and has to be called off, that is, in the specificity brought to the table in the failed attempt. The abstract painter abstracts the essence of primary color with shapes of such, but the failure matches Faust’s dream of Helen.
Specificity cannot help but be beautiful or ugly, no matter what abstract property happens to be manifested through the shape of the specificity.
And the beautiful or ugly manifestation always occurs not through the specificity, but through the shape (limit) of the specificity—and here we see abstraction eclipsed not only by specificity, but by itself (the shape of the specificity).
We understand the philosophical catnip in the attempt to find consistency in what is not consistent—Silliman nobly seeking coherence and consistency in a poem by Hejinian or Ashbery; these kinds of poems are sufficiently abstract for some (“Just write,” don ‘t worry if it’s “good” or “bad”).
But our failure to be truly abstract (coherently and consistently) is not an abstract failure—it is real and final and complete; no partial victory is possible; the Ashbery poem succeeds only in our minds, minds that must give up, replicating the deal (specificity buying abstraction) which collapses—thus enjoying an Ashbery poem is only to unconsciously scratch an itch, to rub up against the sad truth that abstraction is fated to fail and is an utterly useless path, a dead-end, a suicidal errand, and thus to “enjoy an Ashbery poem,” the reader happily gives up, surrendering to specificity’s power; the Ashbery effect and the Ashbery process is a surrendering to the complete absence of abstraction.
The Negative Capability of Keats should not be confused with Ashbery’s freedom; the former limits the scope of poetry precisely because of the problem outlined above; Keats, and the Romantics generally, seek examples in nature which already possess ideal qualities.
The freedom of the Modernist, however, understood by its obsession with “the Abstract,” errs in terminology, understanding, and judgement, and the ultimate result is ugliness and unhappiness—which the avant-garde unfortunately accepts. The beloved is lost to them.