Kim Addonizio, interviewed by a former Workshop student Susan Browne, said the following:
I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that “something” remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader’s part, I end up as frustrated as you.
This got John Gallaher, the Ashbery fan, upset, and he reacted with a piece that begins like this:
As part of her line of questioning, Browne apparently wants Addonizio to talk about the “split” in American poetry. Is there “a” split? I think it’s probably more like a net of fissures. But over and over again, when I hear people talk about contemporary American poetry, they often talk about it as if it were these two creatures. One is a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding, or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative/lyric that revolves around a realistic-feeling scene with an identifiable lone speaker going through some generally domestic task. The other side of the split is usually described as something like “energetic word play.” What bothers me most about this, is that the first category is centered around content, and the second, around an attitude toward language. That sets up the question of what we’re looking for when we go to poetry. We know examples that are usually trotted out for each. For the first category, we have Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. For the second, we have John Ashbery, et al, and groups with names (LANGUAGE poets, Post-avant, experimental, etc).
The problem—well, one of the problems—with this is that it isn’t so cut and formed as that. Where does Dean Young fit, for example? Category A, we agree. But why? Where does Kay Ryan fit? Also A, but why? The lines are, in many ways, political. It’s like party affiliation. So lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of Category B, so that people can feel OK reading her work, I guess. Or something like that.
Gallaher will never forgive Dan Chiasson for his New Yorker piece on Rae Armantrout in 2010, in which Chiasson attempted to make Armantrout palatable to the masses by presenting her narrative/autobiographical side. Chiasson is who Gallaher has in mind when Gallaher fulminates above, “lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of category B, so that people can feel OK…”
This was no doubt triggered by my August 12 piece on Chiasson and The New Yorker—Gallaher’s rant against narrative by way of Kim Addonizio appeared on August 13.
Why do I call Gallaher’s article on narrative a “rant?” Gallaher, like most avants, is really a pretty simple fellow. His thinking, no doubt, went like this: he read Scarriet’s skewering of Chiasson, not without a certain pleasure, but couldn’t help being reminded of Chiasson’s greater sin—one Gallaher himself had tirelessly pointed out—Chiasson’s attempt in the New Yorker to make avant star Armantrout into one of them—the poets who are narrative and accessible. Nothing freaks out a fan of the avant-garde like the idea of one of their idols being eaten and digested by the insensate mainstream. In a panic, Gallaher decided he had to turn the tables, and quickly whipped up an article of a narrative poet moving away from narrative—Kim Addonizio, a ‘column A’ poet, seeking to free herself from her chains. When Gary B. Fitzgerald, who also visits Scarriet, showed up on Gallaher’s blog, to bash Ashbery, Gallaher snapped. Gary B. was banned. A piece on narrative begun in high anxiety had ended with a punishment.
Here is part of the interview excerpted by Gallaher, with his comments right afterwards. You’ll see what I mean:
Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It’s from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren’t very many good parts. My poem was originally titled “By Way of Apology.” I had a few phrases, one of which was “a pair of big, invisible hands.” Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it’s more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a “this happened, and then that happened” kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.
Browne: I want to hear more about that.
Addonizio: Take a poem like “November 11,” from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, “The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous.” That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor’s niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it’s not about the gym. That’s the framework.
Browne: It’s interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn’t have the narrative, I don’t think I’d be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I’m thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it’s me. And I don’t care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can’t wait for her next book to come out because I think I’m going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.
Browne’s response is as interesting as Addonizio’s comment. It seems to me Browne is almost admonishing Addonizio to keep from straying too far from the narrative (the party line): The Narrative, the solid Category A platform. It’s quite an interesting moment. The poet, Addonizio, is expressing boredom with the party, wanting a little of that Category B mix-it-up attitude, and is being nudged back by her reader, Browne.
And why must there be this frame? This narrative frame of the person going to and then at the gym? Is it a counterpoint? Is it necessary? Life vs Death? What would the poem be like if it were to be just the stuff Addonizio seems to want to talk about (the piles of dead), rather than what she feels she needs to add? It’s a small moment, but telling, when it comes to our predispositions, our assumptions about what art needs. Browne is reminding Addonizio not to forget to add the frame. Why? Because if it weren’t there, Browne wouldn’t know how to follow it. But why does the narrative frame help? Why can’t the poem just be the web of accruing associations around the idea of death? Would it then be a Category B poem? Possibly. Might this be the line of distinction?
Gallaher celebrates a “moment” in catching out a narrative poet confessing that the personal narrative element in her poem is only a “framework,” and not the important element in her poem—what is important, evidently, are the journalistic “piles of dead”. Gallaher is perfectly in his rights to ask: why do we need the narrative frame, if the “piles of dead” are the crucial item?
But Gallaher is confusing means and end: as Addonizio explains to Browne in the interview, her poem is not just about ‘the deaths,’ but about the poet’s personal view of them as overwhelming—and therefore ‘going to the gym’ places the mundane activity of the overwhelmed narrator in the poem—and secondly, the rain is a metaphoric expression of the high death count (beyond the narrator’s grasp) and it’s an easy matter to have it rain while going to the gym.
Here’s an excerpt from the Addonizio poem, “November 11”:
to say what killed him, his wife is fighting/with the Palestinians over his millions, the parking lot/ of the gym is filled with muddy puddles!/ I run 4.3 m.p.h. on the treadmill, and they’re dead/ in Baghdad and Fallujah, Mosul and Samarra and Latifiya –/ Nadia and Surayah, Nahla and Hoda and Noor,/their husbands and cousins and brothers –/ dead in their own neighborhoods! Imagine!/ Marine Staff Sgt. David G. Ries, 29, Clark, WA.: killed!/ Army Spc. Quoc Binh Tran, 26, Mission Viejo, CA: killed,/ Army Spc. Bryan L. Freeman, 31, Lumberton, NJ — same deal!
Gallaher’s hero, the Pulitzer-prize winning, Rae Armantrout, might write this poem sans narrative, and leave out the trip to the gym, and try to express the feeling of being overwhelmed by the deaths in a more concise manner, using exclamation points, a reference to puddles and rain, a shorter list of deaths; but if we agree the end of each poem is precisely the same, and the means is less narrative by Armantrout, more narrative by Addonizio, it really just becomes an issue of clarity in acheiving the end: the narrator is having these feelings, and damnit, she wants the reader to see the narrator on her way to the gym in the rain. Addonizio said the poem was not about “the gym,” but she did not say the poem was not about her feelings or the rain present (to express the metaphor) as she went to the gym, or her thoughts interrupted by her mundane activity at the gym, and Armantrout, attempting to write the same poem, would fail or succeed on precisely this same issue: is it clear to the reader what I am saying?
Gallaher, the clever avant, is missing the whole point, confusing “the gym” with the necessity of being clear, and he compounds his error by going off the deep end philosophically, by seeking a duality: narrative v. non-narrative, which simply does not exist. The issue is merely one of clarity, and clarity should never be an issue, unless, like the avant, you are under the burden of some tremendous neurosis, and you neurotically strive to be unclear.
This issue is never whether or not there should be narrative, for narrative should always exist; the question is whether it is done well, or not, and in this particular case it is not done well; the self-serving, third-rate Addonizio poem is naturally vulnerable to attack by an avant critic like Gallaher, who has no trouble prying the hapless poem from its “frame,” in order to make a non-point.
Once you begin referring to your narrative or your plot, as merely a “frame,” the game is over, and transparently cretinous, avant-garde tricks, like “so much depends upon all those deaths in the news,” are probably the next step in your writing career.
The near-insanity of the avant sensibility is on full display in this comment on Gallaher’s article:
In poetry the only law is that of gravity, but here are a few things I’ve always thought about poetry, in no particular order:
The extraordinarily fertile and preternaturally lit-up imagination of a poet like Tate may need to be counterbalanced by a limiting force, either narrative or structure. (I may be echoing an essay by Gregory Orr.) Narrative seems to be the limiting force in the Tate poems most people like best. (I may prefer some of his old stuff that doesn’t work that way—poems circa Hints to Pilgrims. But I’m all over anything he writes.)
BUT. “Narrative does not dictate image; image dictates narrative.”—Charles Wright.
Eli is quite right about poetry as “the new metatropism.” Writing poetry is passivity not activity. You watch your thought grow like mould on cheese in the fridge. I is an other. You don’t write the poem; it writes you.
You should work FROM, not TOWARDS, words. Dylan Thomas said that a long time ago, but recently Elisa Gabbert said the same thing in connection with Bill Knott. Begin with words not ideas. Make poetry out of words not ideas; seek ideas for your words, not words for your ideas.—Valery? Mallarme?
“So many lousy poets/So few good ones/ What’s the problem?/No innate love of/Words, no sense of/How the thing said/Is in the words, how/The words are themselves/The thing said:…A word, that’s the poem”—James Schuyler. Mallarme said every word of “L’Azur” cost him several hours of searching. What Ted Berrigan cared about most was the startling pieces of language he overheard or read.
The language must be fresh. There must be delightfully strange combinations of words in almost every line. But the lines without startling contrasts have to be good, too. All the lines should sound cool by themselves. IT’S PERFECTLY FINE TO CHOP OUT A LOGICAL CONNECTION IF THAT’LL MAKE THE LINES SOUND COOLER. Fuck logic.
IF YOUTRY TO IMPOSE UNITY ON THE POEM, IT’LL FALL APART. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE CONNECTIONS; THEY’LL TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES. ORDER IS LIKE YOUR SHADOW: IF YOU PURSUE IT, IT’LL FLEE FROM YOU.
“A poem SHOULD remain mostly inscrutable.”—Ashbery
“What it’s about” is only one aspect of it. There are—or should be—equally important things going on. (I tend to worry about those other things and let “what it’s about” take care of itself.) “The pleasure one gets from reading poetry comes from something else than the idea or story in a poem, which is just a kind of armature for the poet to drape with many-colored rags.”–Ashbery
You don’t have to understand your poem in a way that enables you to explicate it.
There’s nothing wrong with confessional poetry but the name. Poets who expose their intimate thoughts in a painfully honest, uncensored way—e.g., Ginsberg—are doing a great thing.
Don’t sit on any arse poetica—raw or cooked, autobiographical or “energetic word play.” Keep your mind open and try the other side, like Addonizio. “Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” –Emerson
The commenter, David Grove, just wants to be wild and free, and believes Charles Wright’s “image dictates narrative” and his own “a poem just grows like mould on cheese” How French! That must be Mallarme talking… And Ashbery’s “words, not ideas…” For Grove, “narrative” is a “restriction.”
It takes but a moment’s reflection to realize that narrative in the literary arts is not simply a “frame,” but a cause-and-effect network of vast importance and nuance.
Narrative is first and foremost, temporality. Avant poetry is feeble, by comparison, as it declines to use what might be called time’s flesh, and all subsequent imagery, harmony, melody, and thought-like music ranged upon that flesh’s movement reflects the movement of life itself; the speech of the statue, the glittering of the stream, the warming of the sigh, the deepening of the night, the steps of the traveler, the lifting of the bird, the singing of the dactyl, or the sigh-inducing advancement of the dance towards you; the lack of all this makes avant poetry a bland, or self-importantly clever, re-telling.
Which makes avants like Gallaher feel empty. And angry.