Metamodernism personified: Andy Mister
Excuse us while we laugh at Seth Abramson’s latest piffle: “On Literary Metamodernism.”
Should we be writing that in all caps? METAMODERNISM!
Edgar Allan Poe, the greatest literary innovator in the history of Letters, never struck a “modern” note. Poe’s idea was to be original, not modern, for “modernism,” the buzz word, has always been a stylistic vacuity blaring from the presses. Poe was anxious to discover truths just as true for the ancients as for us. In verse, the vibrations and durations underlying the scientific truths of measured poetry affect all humans with a pulse the same. None of this “now we drive automobiles and now we write verse differently!” pretentiousness for the short story master who gave us detective fiction and sci-fi.
“Now we drive automobiles and now we write verse differently” is a phrase that nicely sums up the con of the modernism pretense. We are always rushing into a vague future with a tenuous connection between poetry and something else: skyscrapers, automobiles, language, young people, and now for Seth—wait for it—young people in MFA programs.
This is the cause of Seth’s stated innovation, sort of the way an apple is the cause of gravity—because people are in MFA programs, there is an innovation, a new thing, a new modernism, a METAMODERNISM, which, if we press Abramson to define it, will be defined as modern, very, very modern, more modern than Modernism or Post-modernism, oh rest assured!
Abramson does two things in his essay. First, he describes, in great sweep, the condition of poetry culture and then he offers a few lines—sentences?—by a poet named Mister, (MFA, Montana, 2003), to prove the actual identity of a new “rebel” poetry which “risks sincerity” and manifests meta- reality in the face of other highly ironic and cynical modern and post modern poets (New Critical, Language and Loner) thrown together by the Program Era: the MFA culture has come to small towns and can’t be escaped.
The M-gen poets (MFA generation poets) are here to save the day by pushing previously safe distinct poetries towards possible social humiliation. This general idea, though somewhat crazy, we like, for here Seth shows a proclivity for party organizing. We can see Seth throwing a poetry blast which everyone would want to attend, even Thomas Brady.
Metamodernism’s brave new avant-garde world belongs to social nuance, as Seth’s “new sincerity,” or should we call it the “new sincere sincerity?” challenges the old hollow snarkiness of Internet Age insincerity, irony, and artificiality with the “hyper-real” vision of an inspired and socially connected MFA student, eschewing language games, formalist, ironical New Critical strategies, and loner, street, maudlin strategies, plunging into an eclectic soup of past modernism transcended, a Henry James-sensitive soup to be sipped politely, and yet with great risk, as the new meal is nothing less than the avant-garde at last breaking into clear clarity, sincere sincerity, and real reality. Now if this sounds crazy…well, here’s Seth Abramson in his own words (with the help of David Foster Wallace):
The challenge today’s younger artists face is to find wholeness of being and clarity of emotion in the midst of a cacophony of Internet-Age stimuli. These stimuli are forever wrenching them back into our noisy American culture, one that impels them to a multifaceted, Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential. The situation has all the markings of a catch-22: To be sincere, one must, presumably, deny the contemporary poet’s multiple “artificial” selves, and therefore be insincere to the real state of affairs; yet to indulge the contemporary poet’s multiple artificial selves is to sincerely detail the insincerity our culture sometimes forces upon us, and therefore be, however inadvertently, insincere in content if not design.
[David Foster] Wallace implicitly acknowledges this catch-22 in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” assessing the development of a genuine avant-garde in relation to the critical concept of risk. As Wallace writes, “The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal…[t]oday’s risks are different. The new rebels might be willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs…to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”
Prior to the Program Era’s promulgation of hundreds of literary micro-communities across the country, the particular brand of rebellion spoken of by Wallace was next to impossible.
Metamodernist poetry’s task, then, is to take “Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential” and make it so, and with all these MFA “micro-communities” uniting poets across the land as never before, there is a great opportunity for the truth and essential in poetry—and thus in life!—to happen.
What this sounds like to us is that Seth Abramson, as part of his vocation as MFA-defender, has been thinking very hard about ways to make MFA programs seem important, and since MFA programs are explicitly about nothing—nothing is taught, MFA officials admit, but what does happen is students and instructors of poetry come together and create intelligent space for poetic things to happen—Abramson, desperate to defend the institution of the Poetry MFA, has decided he will play up the fact that MFA communities are growing in number and herding poets together must have some benefit; and here it is: Metamodernism. Just put a lot of studious poets in the same room for awhile, Abramson thinks, and new and interesting things will happen.
Poetry, in other words, is not an art, but a response to each decade’s news flashes: Pound was troubled by a world war, Eliot by Michelangelo, Charles Bernstein by language, and now Seth Abramson, by the Internet—or rather, the “Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential.”
Each day in his bunker, the news-deprived, would-be poet asks, “What, during this decade, troubles me?” All he needs to do is read Time magazine, or get an MFA in poetry, and problem solved!
The coolest poets are, at this very minute, writing poetry to fix the problem of the day, which you, Internet-savvy person, should appreciate, and if you can’t appreciate it, you need to borrow money for an MFA poetry program, and get in on this metamodernist turn in poetry, before it’s too late!
Modernist, post-modernist, and meta-modernist movements appear and die as quickly as swarms of gnats on a summer evening, and these responses—the new poetries which have replaced the old poetry—cannot be learned in a day, so get off your ass and hie you to your nearest low-residency MFA community in due haste! Hurry! Metamodernism is happening!
Let us give Abramson his due: he may be mad, but see how he describes the whole scenario down to its last nuance and fact:
The bohemians of New York City could argue (if not credibly) that they were forever butting up against the disapproval of the New Critics of the academy, and the long-hegemonic New Critics could falsely opine about suffering the stranglehold of conventional academia. Meanwhile, the isolatos could bemoan their interminable cultural irrelevance and personal despair. But to contend that any of these groups truly “risked” the disapproval (let alone hostile influence) of the others would be farcical. Each of these quadrants of American literature operated largely independently of the others. The Language poets never felt the cold jackboot of academia on their necks until they so desperately and emphatically sought its approval that a short-lived and entirely-manufactured confrontation (followed by a much longer détente) was inevitable; the New Critics were ascendant in the academy for decades (roughly, from 1930 to 1970), meaning that any claims of persecution could never have been more than rank self-mythologizing. And perhaps the sole benefit of being a solitary genius in America is never having the clammy hand of convention clapped down upon one’s shoulder.
What was required to produce the condition of “risk” Wallace wrote of in the 1990s was some mechanism that would, on a national scale, blindly throw poets together with one another in close quarters, that would so violently juxtapose creative and performative spaces that a young artist desiring rebellion would have no choice but to perform her resistance in full view–literally in the very same room as–those whose disapprobation she sought to invite or risked inviting. The dramatic expansion of the nation’s network of graduate creative writing programs across the whole of the United States in the 1990s and aughts provided just this opportunity, especially as it produced collisions not only among student poets but also among formerly isolated non-students who suddenly discovered vibrant, university-affiliated literary communities in their backyards. It is one thing to be an isolated author living in Wichita, it is quite another to be an author in Wichita as that city’s literary scene expands rapidly via a horde of creative writing graduate students at Wichita State.
Fear not, you isolated non-students! Even Wichita has a literary scene now, thanks to the MFA Program Era!
But what exactly is this Metamodernism? What does it look like?
Again, Seth delivers the goods here, too. He has a poet, Andy Mister, and Mister’s actual writings demonstrate for us what Metamodernism is:
Evidence of this seismic shift in poetry’s ambitions is present throughout Mister’s collection, as in this passage: “The weather doesn’t start to take shape until spring, then you’ll see it all around you. Scattering out from a point. That point is not you. Or me.” We are suffused, in short, in a reality that is both not our own yet encompasses entirely our environment.
It’s comforting to know that with “metamodernism” we are still, with all the other Modernisms, escaping the ego of Romanticism: “…not you. Or me.” Okay, fine, but Seth brings even more to the table:
The previous generation of avant-gardes so little understands metamodernism that one can imagine, in advance, their howls of protest as metamodernism begins its steady ascent in American literature. These are mere topical preoccupations, they might say; they are not, first and foremost, linguistic. What these former scions of American literary innovation fail to see is that the time for merely edifying America as to the realities of language is over; the time for speaking primarily in the language of realities is beginning.
Yes, this is a big nut to crack. Where are the “linguistic” concerns? But Seth is undeterred. He’s after the biggest catch of all: “the language of realities.” And it’s just “beginning!” And all you have to do is get an MFA in poetry to know it intimately yourself! Aren’t you thrilled?
Seth continues to quote the poet Andy Mister, his great example:
Liner Notes is a book energetically engaged in exploring hyperphysicality from all sides and in all forms, and few sentences in the book fail to perform this monumental task with an almost shocking clarity. For instance: “Ian Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. He left a note that read: ‘At this very moment, I wish I were dead.'” Curtis thus (with Mister as his witness and amanuensis) instantiates the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality; the writer (Curtis and Mister alike) testifies to the portal through which the self passes when it seeks union between the physical narrative of Life and the hyperphysical narrative of (actual or subjective) Death. Or consider: “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.” Mister acknowledges, here, that encoded within the artifice of the Image is the Image-in-motion, the same cinematic self so often glorified in American culture. What is prescient, though, is how Mister so thoroughly intertwines Art (the Image) and Life (as cinema) that the notion of man-as-moviegoer may be treated as implicit in all real-time action. So it is that Mister must clarify that his poet-speaker is not attending the cinema, but merely performing a workaday task.
In postmodernism, cinema is not acknowledged as a universal preexisting condition, but merely one of many ephemeral guises a man or woman might adopt: that is, a performance. By foreclosing on the premise that the cultural self is elective, Mister forecloses, too, on the possibility of irony and the limitations of postmodernism. Instead, we see sincerity opening its eyes and accepting what it sees–including the presumptive insincerity of multiple selves and multiple realities–as ineluctable, true, and essential. Mister is not a man going to the bank rather than a movie, he is a movie being a man instead of a matinee. Liner Notes so consistently seeks and achieves this superlative level of engagement with metanarrative, metaxy, hypotaxis, hyperreality, hyperphysicality, superconsciousness, and hyperconsciousness that to call it anything less than genius is an insult to both its complexity and ambition.
How can one possibly top “the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality,” in a rock star’s suicide note, no less?
And we especially like, “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.”
A refund check from the financial aid office at his MFA university, no doubt.
Our final quote from Abramson’s essay is a look at what Abramson does best: New Critical close reading (at least he does it ambitiously). Seth’s analysis of Mister’s “paragraph” is showy, but it does sound learned. Of course there’s nothing new about conflating the metaphorical with the literal—the “drowning” example—why in the world does Abramson think this is metamodern, much less new?
Reading metamodernistic verse is bewildering if done correctly, and Mister’s Liner Notes is no exception. Consider this paragraph: “Once when I was riding home in the school bus, I drowned. I had to convince myself that I was breathing. Just for a moment. People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” In conventional lyric-narrative verse, the word “drowned” would here function as a metaphor; presumably, our hypothetical lyric-narrative poet would intend a comparison between panic attacks and drowning, which is to say that drowning and panic share traits in common, per the poet. At the first level of such a comparison, simile, one might say, “I felt like I was drowning”; at the second level of such a comparison, metaphor, we could expect the two terms (“panic” and “drowning”) to be even more closely aligned, as in the implied comparison of the metaphoric construction “I was drowning”; at the third level of comparison we have actually moved beyond mere relation to actual equity, or what Mikhail Epstein calls metabole: Panic is not like drowning, in this new equation, it literally is drowning, as the contemporary subject-cum-poet-speaker loses the ability to distinguish between alternate realities with shared traits (the one in which literal “panic” is operative, and the other in which literal “death” is) and thus finds wholeness, form, and sincerity in the singularity, literality, and accuracy of these concepts’ metabolic combination (“drowning”).
In the metabolic function, as opposed to the metonymic or metaphoric functions, the two presumptive originary terms–“panic” and “death,” in the example above–are both elided in favor of a common denominator, “drowning.” “Drowning” is consequently elevated by the poet to the level of discourse; it becomes, in short, the poet-speaker’s metareality. Mister achieves this effect by doubling down on his investment in the word “drowning” not once but twice: “I had to convince myself that I was breathing”; “Just for a moment.” The poet here confirms that he means not to compare two realities but to unify and resolve them through metamodernistic linguistic operations. His rhetoric is not merely gestural–that is, he is not merely evoking the concept of drowning–it is essential to his always-already ambition of self- and world-creation. Thus lines which may at first appear ironic (because they conspicuously deny readers the word “panic”) or sincere (because they conspicuously deny readers the word “death,” thus implying a common and sincere fear of same) must be read as existing outside, or above, either irony or sincerity. In this way the poet-speaker creates a new metareality, one in which all elements of constituent realities are true but by themselves terminologically insufficient. In the Internet Age, the young do not feel “like” their essential selves are dying, for to say so would be to stand apart from those selves and ironically comment upon them; nor do they deny the breadth and depth of their desperation by wielding the weak sincerity of the word “panic.” Instead, they accept myriad planes of reality as and for what they are: The immersion in dialogues from which there is no escape because, in fact, there is no outside to escape to.
We might perform a similar analysis on the two-sentence sequence, “People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” The poet-speaker is here isolated from his culture (“I don’t stop”) and simultaneously impoverished by it (“I don’t have any money”), yet at the level of metabole–the level at which these two sentences operate combinatively–we see neither the words “isolation” nor “poverty.” Nor, indeed, could we even report conclusively that this poet-speaker is either isolated or impoverished, for consistent with the metabolic function, both of these originary terms have been elided from the discourse. Instead, we’re greeted by a new reality, a metareality, in which the poet-speaker is caught in a sociocultural cycle of participation and non-participation, profit and non-profit. The poet-speaker knows how to access information in the Internet Age, but lacks the resources to engage any information-seeking processes. This is not “like” being isolated or impoverished, it is literally an always-already (that is to say, eternally preexisting) inability to process culture that is a permanent constituent of the self-as-subject. Mister expresses this idea in metabolic language, and thus over-leaps both the sincerity-irony spectrum and also the sort of theory-as-poetry or immanent language that might respectively define or perform it. Mister is, in short, describing without description, thereby avoiding and resolving the late Ed Dorn’s longstanding complaint about description–that it destroys the actual self. Indeed, metamodernistic poets habitually find mechanisms to describe the self that are deadly accurate but avoid representation altogether, and thereby speak of the self in terms so suitable and exacting we may term their resultant self-identities “hyper-real” or “superconscious.” This solution to the problem of the lyric “I” is far more elegant and ambitious and relevant to contemporary culture than any the previous generation of avant-gardes devised.
Andy Mister avoids panhandlers, those who “tell you things,” because he (Mister) doesn’t “have any money.”
College loan debt has recently surpassed all credit card debt—surely this is what Mr. Mister, and his Program Era Metamodernism, by way of Seth Abramson, “at the level of metabole,” is trying to tell us?