Tuesday, May 31, 2016

So You’re a Critic—Now What? A Note on Barry Schwabsky and Critical Distance

What is a critic supposed to do? If I know anything about critics, you could put a dozen of them around a café table and at the end of the evening have at least two dozen opinions, and as many excuses for not picking up the tab for all those bottles of Pinot Gris that disappeared in the interim.  So let’s skip the big gathering, and go straight to Barry Schwabsky, who not too terribly long ago wrote a piece called “A Critic’s Job of Work” for The Nation, where he raises a tremendously important question about the role of the critic, and the very idea of critical distance.

Schwabsky begins by saying how much he’s always admired Marcel Duchamp’s dictum about the viewer completing the work of art—“the creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” declared Duchamp, “the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”  It merits attention, this notion of the audience participating in, rather than passively receiving, the creative act.  For one thing, it sets art apart from something like science.  There are, Schwabsky points out, no science critics.  There’s peer review, of course—that’s central to the whole scientific enterprise.  But scientists review each other’s work as fellow practitioners.  Although some art critics are also art makers, the relation of the two activities is accidental, rather than of the essence. The art critic, in his or her role as critic, doesn’t identify as a fellow art maker, but keeps a certain distance, and identifies as a spectator.  Indeed, the critic is, according to Schwabsky, “the self-appointed representative of the audience.” And despite the audience’s creative role, this means being something other than being an artist.

Schwabsky points to how, back in the 1960s, Allan Kaprow (godfather of the “happening” as artform) called for an art that had only participants, and no passive observers—he wanted what he called “the elimination of the audience,” if what was meant by the audience were people whose involvement with the artwork was to be nothing more than “empathic response.”  Everyone involved in a Kaprow happening was to be a co-creator, and the distance between artist and audience was to be collapsed entirely.  This is not where Schwabsky wants to be.  If Kaprow wants to recruit the spectator as a fellow artist, Schwabsky envisions the critical spectator as someone who isn’t caught in the binary of creative artist/passive spectator.  Instead, the critic maintains a degree of distance, but from this perspective adds something new to the work, in part by virtue of maintaining that sense of distance.  “I still prefer Duchamp’s model of the spectator who, through his or her distance from the artist’s creative act, nonetheless makes an independent contribution to it,” says Schwabsky, “and my experience tells me that a great deal of art is still being made with this kind of viewer in mind.”  One could make an analogy to a good relationship between a baseball catcher and a pitcher—it’s not that they’re both pitchers, but it’s not that the catcher is entirely passive, either.  He watches what’s going on and makes a real, if largely invisible and certainly unglamourous, contribution to the team, largely through analysis of what he sees.  He needs a bit of distance to do this—he’s not preparing a pitch, he’s watching the batter and the pitcher interact, and communicating what he sees.

I found Schwabsky’s article fascinating because it enters into a very long conversation about the nature and meaning of spectatorship, and does a great deal to redeem the conceptual respectability of the spectator.  Western aesthetics, after all, begins with contempt for the spectator—or perhaps not so much contempt as fear, specifically fear of the spectator’s passivity.  Plato argues in the “Ion” that the spectator is as easily moved by the poet as iron filings are moved by a magnet, and in The Republic he condemns the audience of poetry as ignorant, emotional, and dominated by the worst part of the soul.  The history of aesthetic thought largely continues in this suspicious mode, although sometimes we find someone who is optimistic about the audience’s presumed passivity.  Sir Philip Sidney, for example, thinks of the audience as every bit as passive as Plato does—he just sees the effects of art as salutary rather than deleterious.  But by and large the audience is seen as dangerously passive, and many thinkers seek ways to eliminate it (Kaprow is no innovator here, but a latecomer).  Rousseau, in his “Letter to D’Alembert,” condemned theater, and called for participatory entertainments that looked, for all the world, like a cross between a North Korean stadium rally and the Iowa State Fair.  Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, spoke of the pallid, tepid weakness of the Apollonian observer, who kept distant from that which he observed, and yearned to bring us closer to the condition of the Dionysian reveler who lost himself in the revels, becoming not an observer but part of the art—a gesture repeated at a higher pitch by Antonin Artaud.

It’s been difficult to find defenders of the kind of spectatorial distance Schwabsky upholds, although there is, of course, Duchamp—and one thinker of our time, Jacques Ranciere, gives, in The Emancipated Spectator, a powerful case for the spectator as making, from the position of distance, an interpretation of the work of that is also a kind of participation, analogous to the creative contribution made by a translator.

Schwabsky’s article occasioned a fair bit of controversy, samples of which appear (along with my own short note of appreciation andhistorical context) in a later issue of TheNation.  They’re well worth checking out, and not just for the kind words Schwabsky has for me—which I’m planning on plucking out of their present context and using on the jacket of my next book of essays, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme (out this fall! makes a great gift!).


In addition to a few humble words in The Nation, I’ve written a few humble words in the May/June issueof The Boston Review about Johannes Göransson’s collection of poems The Sugar Book.  If, in the manner outlined by Schwabsky, I’ve made any contribution to the thing, I hope it’s been by linking it to a tradition that runs back through film noir to the novels of An Radcliffe.  Göransson’s  book is gothic, immoderate, and very good.  The review begins like this:
The Swedish word lagom, meaning something like “just right” or “perfect moderation,” might well describe or even encapsulate Swedish culture.  But it is not a word that applies to the poems of Johannes Göransson’s The Sugar Book, which seems to have been cooked up to create antibodies to inoculate us against a creeping case of lagom.  Göransson— Swede by birth, a Minnesotan by background, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—writes as if he were on a mission to destroy our preconceptions about all three places.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Apt Emblem of Robert Duncan

I'm quite convinced this photograph of Robert Duncan touches on something central to the man and his poetics.  Two things, actually.  When Michael Anania showed me the photo, taken by David Lenfest when Duncan was reading to Anania’s students at the University of Illinois—Chicago, he described the movements of Duncan’s arms, which made Duncan appear almost as if he were in flight.  “One hand played the rhythmic beat,” said Anania, “the other kept the longer cadence.”  And here, already, is the first fact of interest: the fact that Duncan was not only a strongly rhythmic poet, but that he thought of his poems in polyrhythmic terms, so much so that he enacted those rhythms for his audiences.

Just as interesting as the figure of Duncan ‘conducting’ his own reading, though, is the contrast of the figure with its ground.  The background does not, at first, seem particularly promising, and from a visual standpoint, it isn’t striking, although those two long blackboards do provide a nice dark field against which Duncan’s light shirt can pop.  What’s interesting about the background are less the visuals than what they represent—if we taken them as metonymic, as parts representing a larger whole.  What are blackboards, after all, but nearly universally recognized signs of the educational system of which they are instruments? They show us that this is a university, an event sponsored by an English department, by the rationally organized, administered, modern institution that has become the major venue for American poetry’s reception and, increasingly, its creation.  Many poets and lovers of poetry cringe a little at the word “academic,” even though (or perhaps because) so many of them bear advanced academic credentials, and have, at the end of their email addresses, the letters “edu.”

Duncan, too, was uneasy with the academic institution as a venue for poetry—and, indeed, with the much broader cultural and historical movement of which the university is but one minor emanation.  He was uneasy with—no, that doesn’t go far enough—he waged war against modernity itself, inasmuch as modernity can be defined as the triumph of the rational over the irrational, the positivist over the mystical, and the disenchanted over the magical.  The university lecture hall hardly seems a fitting place the broad, dramatic gestures caught in Lenfest’s photograph of Duncan.  Don’t they belong elsewhere? Perhaps in a sacred grove, a temple, or a catacomb where the members of a sect have gathered for their rites.

Duncan’s mysticism and irrationalism are, of course, in his blood: his adoptive parents were Theosophists, believers in the occult, who selected him as their child based on astrological projections.  He was raised with a deep respect for the mystical, and we find this background very much alive in his conception of the poet as magus, as the sorcerer-priest of a heterodox spiritual tradition. 

"There is a natural mystery in poetry," wrote Duncan in one of his notebooks, "a poem, mine or another's, is an occult document."  Metaphors matter: any reader of poetry knows that.  And Duncan's metaphor is a far cry from, say, William Carlos Williams' when he writes that a poem is a machine made out of words.  Come to think of it, though, Duncan doesn't intend this notion of the occult document as a metaphor.  He means it, earnestly, seriously, literally.

Duncan’s war with modernity was deadly serious, a matter of passion, even rage.  In one of the many documents collected as The H.D. Book, Duncan tells us of his own incipient attachment to poetry, first to the Romantic poets and then to the tradition of the troubadours.  “There has been a fire,” he writes, “ a fire of anger that rose, as I found the Romantic spirit and back of that the Spirit of Romance and back of that the cult of life as a romance of the spirit belonged to an order that was under attack or under boycott.” The world of scientism and rational disenchantment—the world of modernity—was for Duncan what it was for William Blake: an iron age, a cage confining us, a set of mind-forged manacles.  Poetry was a counter-attack upon our enemies, a tunnel dug beneath the walls of reason in which our wardens confined us, a weapon in the only war that mattered.

And make no mistake, it was a war, to Duncan.  Here’s what he says in the essay “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife”:

For men who declare themselves partisans of the rational mind at war with all other possibilities of being, the pre-rational or the irrational appears as an enemy within…. In the extreme of the rationalist presumption, the nursery is not the nursery of an eternal child but of a grown-up, a rational man. Common sense and good sense exist in an armed citadel surrounded by the threatening country-side of phantasy, childishness, madness, irrationality, irresponsibility... In that city where Reason has preserved itself by retreating from the totality of the self, infants must play not with things of the imagination nor entertain the lies of the poets but play house, government, business, philosophy or war.

The theory is grand, even grandiose—imagination, irrationalism, and innocence putted against reason, materialism, and war—and the poetry that is both explained and fuelled by the theory is some of the most powerful in the American poetic canon.  But the actual manifestations of this great historical struggle in the events of Duncan’s life are, as one might expect, rather less Titanic in scale.  One thinks of an event in front of another blackboard, in 1978.

It was at a gathering to celebrate the poetry of Louis Zukofsky.  Duncan spoke first, and, by all accounts, manifested very much as the poet-magus, in a broad-brimmed Spanish hat and cape, praising the mystical side of Zukofsky and looking, as David Bromige recollected, like he was there to “ward off evil magic.”  Then another speaker took the stage—Barrett Watten, then just 30 years of age, looking every inch the junior professor in his sport coat, khakis, and buck shoes.  He began by drawing a diagram of a Zukofsky stanza on the blackboard, and proceeded with a clear, rational analysis, to which Duncan took immediate, vocal exception.  He heckled, he cajoled, and ultimately he pushed Watten from the stage.  The moment was many things: an older poet worried about the Oedipal drama of rebellion, and a generational conflict, Black Mountain vs. Language Poetry, among other things.  But it was also, and definitively, a moment in which the magus of the irrational turned against the Apollonian representative of reason.  The breach of decorum and the incivility are entirely explicable, if not necessarily excusable.  Here, at a celebration of poetry from beyond the mainstream—in what to Duncan’s mind must be a center of resistance to modern rationality—was a representative of our enemy, rationality.  Indeed, from where Duncan stood, the breach of etiquette was all Watten’s, and “breach of etiquette” hardly touches the seriousness of the offense.  Poetry, charted, mapped, and analyzed theoretically? We murder to dissect! It was heresy, blasphemy, a desecration of the temple. The great and domineering enemy has found us in our catacombs, and must be cast out!

Greer Mansfield once observed that for Duncan, the study of poetry was a version of a lost, primitive religion—how could he react to the young Watten with anything but a sense of outrage? And how could his gestures when reading in a university, in front of a blackboard and behind a lectern, be anything but incongruous? The incongruity, though, is its own explanation. Duncan’s mysticism, like that of his Theosophical parents, is very much a product of modernity—the modern theosophical movement, which draws on many ancient traditions, was founded in New York in 1875.  Duncan’s beliefs—his poetics and his mysticism—are fundamentally reactive, attempts to correct a culture gone too far in the direction of positivism, materialism, utilitarianism. 

So when we see Duncan in a gesture like that in which Lenfest’s camera caught him, against a background so out of keeping with the grand drama of the physical movement, the jarring juxtaposition is in fact quite revealing.  It shows not only Duncan’s sense of himself as magus, but the rationalized, institutionalized social environment that gave birth to that sense.  The photo, then, is an apt emblem of Duncan as a counter-cultural figure, a man in rebellion against his world.  And where else would we encounter a mystical poet of Duncan’s time but in a university, the modern institution that is so frequently, but with such fragility, the site of modernity’s self-critique—as well as modernity's preservation, and perhaps co-optation, of its others?

Monday, May 09, 2016

John Crowe Ransom's Quarrel With Himself

This afternoon the latest issue of The Hudson Review landed in my mailbox with the satisfying thump of old-school print media, and it's a fine issue, with writing by Alfred Corn, William H. Pritchard, Dean Flower on Nabokov's letters, Carol T. Christ on Jeanette Winterson, and much else, including my own essay, "John Crowe Ransom's Quarrel With Himself."  It starts like this:

Once, in the waning days of the nineteenth century, a southern preacher’s son quarreled with his father about the place of human happiness in God’s plan. He pointed defiantly to the world’s disorder as proof that God cared little for our desires, but he was too much his father’s son not to doubt his own position, not to wonder if benevolent Providence could be real. He carried his doubts with him when, years later, he sat down to write. That preacher’s son was John Crowe Ransom, and the quarrel with the father became a quarrel with himself, from which sprang his poetry. Later, his doubts resolved, he took up quarrels with the world and modernity. From this sprang prose and, eventually, disciples both political and literary. The poetry of the old inner quarrel was never quite abandoned, though the font of inspiration ran close to dry. Instead, the poems were rewritten, ironed smooth, the self-division suppressed, chastened, or ironized. What remained was assured, refined, supple—but somehow confined.  One thinks of Rilke’s panther in its cage.
            During Ransom’s lifetime, many thought that what he’d wrought in poetry was great, and numbered him among the storied names.  Robert Lowell, speaking of the generation of American poets born in the 1870s and 80s, listed Frost, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot, and Ransom as the masters, sure of lasting fame, adding only “who outranks whom will be disputed.” Randall Jarrell said Ransom’s poems would “outlive Mother Goose.” And at the height of his own fame Robert Frost told a fawning audience at Kenyon to redirect their enthusiasm, because the greatest living poet was their own Professor Ransom.
            From certain perspectives, Ransom’s legacy may count for more than that of more enduringly famous poets. 
The rest is available in the Spring 2016 issue of the magazine, available now!