New Things? (or Spring Fashion?)

Critic Stephen Burt declares a shift in American poetry style, toward a new "restraint" & "objectivity". John Latta (in his post of May 27th) takes exception.

I've always found something faintly pedestrian in "objectivism", "imagism", & the WCW rubric "no ideas but in things" etc. Though I guess now & then such doctrines offer a needed counter-balance to facetious poetic solipsism, decadence, self-indulgent mannerisms, etc. I'm drawn more to Wallace Stevens' constant exploration of the riddles of imagination & reality, his oscillations between "the ideas about the thing" & "the thing itself".

The best Stevens scholar I know of is B.J. Leggett. His recent short book Late Stevens (Louisiana State Univ. Press) is just superb. Shatters much of the received wisdom about where Stevens received his wisdom, & what he made of it all...


Tom Hunley's Teaching Poetry Writing

I'm really glad Tom Hunley's a part of the Plumbline School. I'm discovering, as I'm reading more and more of his work, that he's an excellent, adventurous, energetic poet. But what I already KNOW is that he's thought deeply about poetry writing pedagogy, a subject on which he's written an excellent book, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach. In this book, Tom argues that those who teach poetry writing need to do away with the traditional workshop model and should consider embracing instead a pedagogy inspired and structured by the five canons of classical rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. This is vital, big work, and work that I think would appeal to all those intrigued by issues taken up on this blog.

I've thought a little more about this over at the Structure & Surprise blog, trying to link up some of what Structure & Surprise tries to do with the big paradigm shift Tom argues for, encourages, and helps to make possible.


I'm experiencing such sensory overload here in HCMC that it's a little hard to pull my thoughts together. Nevertheless, I wanted to at least make a few notes in response to some recent posts here, with the intention of extending my thoughts and perhaps revising them later.

First, a note of gratitude to Henry and the group he has assembled here. It has been a long time since I have felt around me such a sympathetic community of interest in issues that have bedeviled me. Thanks to one and all. Here then are some random jotting from a Saigon cafe, numbered for easy reference:
  1. In comments to the previous post Joseph Hutchinson suggests that we cannot get outside the problem of relativism. Everyone's golden mean is different, individually determined, he says. There is certainly a good deal of truth in his assertion, but I don't think it has to be debilitating to our project. The charge of hard relativism only holds up, I think, if you focus on the individual to the exclusiin of his / her social context. Human forms are, as Henry remarked, pretty durable and they tend to root practice in a social matrix that, while not immutable, is stable enough for practical purposes.
  2. For me, a poetic middle ground and middle voice would look something like the following: A) a poetry that records and investigates experience. [Individual experience is always located within sets of overlapping social practices: no private language.] B) A poetry that while acknowledging and even encoding the limits of language to express experience, refuses to fall into relativism or nihilism. C) Constant reinvention of older forms. D) A respect for grammar, at least at a "meta" level. Ordinary grammar is already so full of breakages and switchbacks that it seems irresponsible to add to the difficulties. E) Style: a play between loose and tight, between freedom and restraint, between perception and wit.
  3. A concern for the connection between the aesthetic and the ethical, the poetic and the political.
I make these notes as much for myself as for others, but I am very much interested in hearing responses from one and all.


Critical Situations

Just a not-so-brief (& probably wayward) response to Joseph's recent post from Vietnam (Situations). His travel report seems like a parable of the relation between poetry and its social/ethical ground. And as such, it is relevant to Michael Theune's latest post on the ethic of the middle.

Joseph paints a picture of the tentativeness of the stranger in a foreign place - the heightened awareness of the role of social forms, the mutual process of recognitions and mis-recognitions - the sort of happy/tense apprehensions of both traveler & host. & then he recognizes this as an experience of the context which saturates & informs art and poetry. Poetry's "forms" (stylizations) can be seen as isomorphs of social customs.

There's an implied warning here, about an over-emphasis on novelty for its own sake. The exaggerated focus on technical innovation obscures the context of complex social forms already in play. It sets art off in a world of its own, of merely technical specialization & sophistication.

One can imagine the experimentalist's retort : social context is the very ground and motive for our innovations! We're doing it to fight the oppressive boredom of conventional art - on behalf of social and artistic freedom!

Recently I've been trudging my way slowly through a monograph by British thinker Gillian Rose, on the 19th-cent. German philosopher G.F. Hegel (Hegel contra Sociology). Very rough sailing. But I think I understand some of the very basic aspects of Hegel's Aesthetics. Hegel's "severe", critical philosophy of history is built on notions of human alienation from, & mis-recognition of, a true comprehension of "absolute Spirit" (the source of creation & history), and the ethical bases of (ideal, normative) human mutuality and freedom. (Writing in Prussia, around 1800, his universal history appears to give little weight to the new democracy rising across the Atlantic.)

What does this have to do with our "situation"? As philosopher, Hegel stakes out a perspective somewhat outside (& critical of) the sphere of art & poetry itself. Artistic forms are "epiphenomena" (my quotes) determined by more general & basic social formations, undergoing the historical process of realization and self-recognition. (One can see why Marx took Hegel as his theoretical template.)

For Hegel, there are only 2 types of art : "classic" and "romantic" (not to be confused with "romanticism"). His "classic" art is equated with ancient Greek epic and tragedy. The art is rooted in the self-reliant, organic freedom of Greek democracy : law, culture and art are one whole (as opposed to both Oriental & Roman societies, where law is allied with dominating administrative power). Neither politics nor religion are alienated from this self-determining community. And Greek art expresses this cultural context : "beauty has for its inner meaning the free independent meaning, not a meaning of this or that but what means itself and therefore signifies itself [my italics]." According to G. Rose : "The classical form of art is a unity of meaning and configuration [ie., content & form]. Meaning and configuration are distinct but not separate; configuration does not re-present meaning but presents it." Rose relates Hegel's example of Greek tragedy, in which real ethical conflicts (between the authority of family vs. community - ie. Antigone, or the Oresteia) - recognized by the whole community - are ritually & dramatically - & severely, simply - presented in the theatre.

Hegel does not merely idealize Greek art & culture. He describes the role of slavery & violence in creating the Greeks' "concrete" forms of democracy. But the "classic" offers a kind of template for integral, "non-alienated" art : art which presents a unity of "meaning & configuration".

In later historical eras, art & poetry reveal themselves to be a sort of index of the distortions of freedom present in society at large. "Romantic" art - emerging from societies in which both religion and the state have been removed from free consciousness & self-determination, and turned into forms of illusion & oppression - becomes strictly sidelined, irrelevant to the inner workings of those societies (except as further forms of illusion). They become "subjective" : mirroring the private concerns of deracinated individual "subjects", or representing art's own processes in a solipsistic hall of mirrors. For Hegel, "romantic" art has lost touch with both reality and beauty : strictly speaking (in his terms), it is no longer art at all.

Clearly this is a grim & "severe" perspective indeed. On behalf of a supreme abstraction of historical world-process, Hegel slights the (partial) ethical integrations of both the medieval & modern eras, and characterizes them as a wilderness of error (a learning-process, nevertheless, for the historical World-Spirit). Greek art is idealized, while contemporary democratic culture & its arts are outside the analysis. The individual is described as "subject" to the inescapable illusions of larger, determining historical forces...

So what does this have to do with us? Hegel's underlying argument - that art is a reflection of the social forms (& inhumanities, injustices) of the culture from which it emerges - applies a critical lens to contemporary debates about the role of poetry & its style. & his characterization of the "classic" - as a harmony of "meaning" and "configuration" - parallels the Plumbline notion of the norm or the middle. We are circling around this recurring concept of the dual aesthetic/ethical "golden mean".

Of course, some strains of sophisticated contemporary poetry incorporate social theory into their stylistic forms & processes. Postmodern, NY School, "Language", elliptical, "investigative"... all of these styles offer some self-conscious critiques of poetry & art themselves. Various more-populist styles also offer examples of both social and artistic protest. Does this mean, by evoking an admittedly very primitive notion of Hegelian social critique, we are offering here merely an amateurish and anachronistic re-delving of an over-worked ground?

Possibly, I don't know... but in response, I would suggest the following :

1) The ancient, vernacular forms & customs of both poetry and culture-at-large tend to be very hardy & long-lasting. The forms are (sometimes, as Joseph suggests) tools for consciousness - which outlast or partially repeal the deformations of oppressive social structures.

2) Hegel's template of the "classic" (as a harmony of meaning and configuration, or theme and form) is only possible where art is simultaneously free & contextualized : both aesthetically integral & socially engaged. Art, on the other hand, which depends on theory - which reflects a critique which negates art's independent validity - seems to be ultimately self-cancelling. It fulfills its own prophecy.


The Middle and Aristotle's Ethics

I've been thinking a bit about Henry's post from April 22, about the Plumbline and the broken middle. I have two responses.


I know the middle gets a bad rap (as Henry notes, it's often thought to be the site of the middling, the mediocre), but I think there's some thinking we can turn to for some direction regarding how we might disentangle the agonistic but hopeful middle from the notion of mediocrity: Aristotle's Ethics.

For Aristotle, the right action was to be found in the middle, between two extremes. For example, between the problematic positions of cowardice and foolhardiness is the virtue of courage.

What intrigues me about this view of ethics is that the extremes are a site for unthinking. One simply is cowardly; or, one simply is foolhardy. The middle requires that one both be informed and be prepared to act in the face of danger. That is, one knows risk, but is prepared to act, anyway. Far from being the cite of middling mediocrity, the mean in Aristotle's Ethics is the site of risk and transformation.

Perhaps the poetic-aesthetic middle the Plumbline School considers and pursues has much less to do with stereotypical ideas of the middling and much more to do with Aristotle's thoughtful, energetic, engaged, critical middle...


When mystico-ethical thoughts such as the above fail me, I turn to a simple formulation: the middle already is being theorized by Elliptical and Hybrid theorists, so it is clear that the middle simply is a site of much theoretical interest, and, thus, we at the Plumbline need not worry too much about thinking about the middle. But we do need to think about the middle in new and revelatory ways, or at least in fuller and more sophisticated ways than those already proposed by Elliptical and Hybrid theorists. A lot of this more-sophisticated thinking already is happening on this blog, I think, and much more is to come, I'm sure. (For example, I very much look forward to Tom Hunley's idea for a new Norton anthology...) We need to continue to work to show what the middle can do...

Very good to be skeptical and self-critical, certainly, to be thoughtful (especially when one is full of thoughts as smart and careful as Henry's), but also good to realize that what's happening here already is and needs to continue to be lively, insightful, and productive.


Tom C. Hunley's first blog post: American Hybrid (part I)

This is a hybrid like the Toyota Prius is a hybrid. All of your hip, socially-conscious friends are driving them. You feel vaguely good about yourself, like you’re doing your part for the planet and like you’re in with a good crowd. At the same, you’re in physical discomfort, you secretly fear that your girlfriend will leap out at the next red light, into the passenger seat of a Vette or Porsche – and you wouldn’t blame her.

I bought this book with high hopes, having just read two new collections bearing the fruit of some serious cross-pollination: All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby and Ka-Ching! by Denise Duhamel. The former is filled with utterly un-stodgy formal poems. Hamby is playful with form the same way Kenneth Koch and some of the Oulipo writers could be. All-Night Lingo Tango reads like an intelligent, exuberant stylistic melding of Expansive Poetry (itself a melding of New Narrative and New Formalism) and the Whitmanian Ultra-talk poetics that Hamby has helped champion. Ka-Ching! gives the lie to the notion that experimental poems must be obscure. Duhamel’s poetry is highly experimental. She is a mad scientist, but a fun, accessible one. In addition to formal, playful poems similar to Hamby’s, Duhamel has cross-pollinated Russell Edson and Robert Lowell in some of the best confessional prose poems I’ve come across.

In American Hybrid, Cole Swenson and David St. John oversimplify the current poetic landscape, just as Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey once did with Naked Poetry and Elliot Weinberger did with Outsiders and Innovators: American Poetry Since 1950. Rather than the old Raw versus Cooked or Outsiders versus Insiders, now it’s Post-Avant versus School of Quietude or Elliptical versus Mainstream, but it’s still the false binary choice of a two party system that divides the world between two entities and sells everyone else out. The editors pretend to consolidate differences between two warring factions and pat themselves on the backs for being so inclusive, but there’s a lot more poetry out there than is dreamt of in their philosophies.



Going around Hanoi and trying to speak Vietnamese (with my limited vocabulary and grammatical resources) has made me acutely aware of the social contexts in which language operates. In a restaurant, certain kinds of words and sentences are used; in a shop, different words and sentences. In fact, this makes it easier for me to communicate because I know what to expect in different places. I've also learned to expect several stock questions: How long have I been in Vietnam? How old am I? What work do I do? What country am I from? And because I expect these questions, I don't have to think quite so hard, but can fall back into language I already know. Such acts of communication always take place within some social context. Aren't poems the same, in some respects. In poetry, the shop or restaurant might be replaces with a mode or genre -- an elegy or a sonnet. So the conventions of conversation or poetry are not something -- at least initially -- to be gotten outside of, but something to be used. The actual language of a conversation or a poem can only be extracted from the context by an act of critical violence, an act of Abstraction, to adopt Blake's terminology. But surely we don't want to be limited to conventional subjects and modes. True enough. I offer my observation only to make the point that such conventional situations can carry a good deal of satisfaction and even emotional power. They ought not be sneered at or avoided in favor of novelty or originality, I think. Such moments of mutuality can be deeply significant. Poems, like my primitive conversations, start in such places and such moments.

Cross-posted at Sharp Sand.


Debating on the "hybrid" in poetry continues here. See more recent posts at this blog too.

New on the Line

Very pleased to welcome Tom Hunley to the Plumbline School!