Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

2/04/2005

I don't want to give this person anymore airtime than necessary, but I had to post something about Richard Trayson's article on the evils of experimental poetry, specifically Language poetry. Not as much for his specious "argument," which could be summed up as "D00d, language poetry SUX and Whitman is so 1337 and Whitman would say language poetry SUX--w00t". Rather, it's fascinating how his article is laden with the kinds of, er, "issues" that seem to inflect both his own poetry and the type of poetry that he's purporting is the gold standard.

Here's one of the paragraphs from his article that I was thinking of:
I had a bitter taste of language poetry in the first literary magazine I bought, the November/December 1985 issue of American Poetry Review. Leslie Scalapino was on the cover, but it was the Sharon Olds poems that I craved. It was misfortunate for my sense of language poetry that I came to Scalapino’s "that they were at the beach—aeolotropic series" after I’d read Olds’ frighteningly powerful "I Go Back to May 1937" and early scalp-raising versions of poems that would appear in The Father (1992). Scalapino’s work, by comparison, was emotionally flat, unengaging, uneventfully bland...[excerpt given]

This wasn’t my idea of any poetry I wanted to live by—so I packed my bags and moved to New York to study with Sharon Olds.

You thought that this was an article about Whitman, didn't you? But instead it's...The Richard Tayson Show, Starring Richard Tayson! He's seemingly oblivious to the fact that it's this exact kind of cloying narcissism (coupled with not-so-subtle name-drops to teachers, to show how one's own work has garnered official approval and therefore is "making it" as a Real Poet) that the poets he disparages are reacting to in the first place.

Let's look at the beginnings of one of his poems (you can read the rest here):

After the Vanishing

I didn't know what the movie was about
but I was angry at you for not wanting
health insurance or western
medicine, I phoned 777-FILM
and found the closest theater with a 2:45,
I put on my winter coat and said
it's your life, not mine, I'm going to a show.
I didn't know it would be about losing
the person you love in the prime
of your life together, I stood
on the corner of Henry and Orange
and heard the voice of Louise Hay,
her meditations you kept playing
over and over until I hoped
she'd become mute in some tragic accident,
I sat down in the dark to forget you.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Positively scintillating, isn't it? And this is the poet who calls for a return of the Whitmanesque, who is pretty much setting himself in the article as a contemporary Whitman? My god. (After all, he has the gall to speak for Whitman: "I think if he were here today he would boldly state that we are pursuing the wrong course and would bow his head in perplexity.") Notice how the self-romanticizing figure in this essay is pretty much a carbon copy of the self-romanticizing figure in this poem. The only difference is that one set of sentences has line breaks and the other doesn't. The act of necromancy he performs on Whitman's ghost is little more than clearing the field for one's own preferred poetic turf. Although he makes a rather lame attempt at the end to acknowledge "Experimentation is key, and there are many modes of experiment, Language Poetry being merely one." The problem is that he really doesn't have any clue what Language poetry is, and never defines it; it's something rather specific. (I certainly wouldn't consider Leslie Scalapino a Language poet at all.) So, a rather broad brush.

There's legitimate room to talk about various ways to incorporate the body and the body politic into writing. This is beyond narrative or anti-narrative; it's about actually being well-read enough about a subject that you dislike so you can legitimately criticize it. Conversely, I think that a lot of experimental poets who critique the bland realism that Tayson is championing do so BECAUSE that type of writing (Olds, Doty, Clifton, etc.) is considered so normative. They often know it--and decided to move away from it.

The fact that he is "well-published" and has won a book contest only supports the fact that his prose-with-line-breaks is pretty much in the bland, dead center of American verse. "No to cleverness, surface luminosity, trickery, language for its own sake—attributes disdained by America’s least ironic poet but now often touted as the next 'new' thing," he writes. But his own construction of his own self is the ultimate trickery; a work, if nothing else, of intense cleverness--his work is unproblematized and clear to a fault, and clearly comfortable in using whatever materials necessary to Getting Ahead.


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