Friday, July 18, 2008

Church of the Poison’d Mind

“Where They May”

“The reverend takes this opportunity to step over to the sideboard and pour himself, as he says, just a line of the old author.” (That’s out of Jaimy Gordon’s novelette, Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue (Burning Deck, 1979), something I found myself reading around midnight, in a fit of fictive immobility, certain that whatever truth there is to be “got at” by any other means is hardly worth the scavenging. (The novelette’s all “about” General Ambrose E. Burnside, he of the “Burnside breech-loading rifle,” who “invent’d” les sideburns, rage of mid-nineteenth century Paris—and the Doctor P. Mariam Wishey, “architect of the vagina, inventor of the Wishey Speculum, Position, and Procedure, and of the Wishey Silver Sutures for that tenderest theater of the art”—it is about there (sad hap and havoc) that I tumbled back under Lethe’s soporific keister, yea, the horse’s ass of sleep, rebuttal of all truth.) Though not before noting reference to one “Captain Moran, recognizable by the famous left ear which a military macaw had notched like a gear wheel,” and Burnside’s “theory that the nose is the seat of the soul. Not the pointed end of it, but the little cavity or sea behind it and this we know because the point is erected over it by Providence as a sort of temple, an Athenaeum.” Legion the gaspy delights. Whatever “hap’d” to Jaimy Gordon (isn’t she in Kalamazoo?) I dig out my copy of Shamp of the City Solo (Treacle, 1974), publish’d by Bruce R. McPherson, pre-McPherson & Company. Whatever “hap’d” to the unobstruct’d saliences of the picaresque? Shamp is a scramble, with pen and inks (by James Aitchison), newspaper clippings, recipes, syllabi, ditties, footnotes, lectures, songs, braggadocio. It begins with “Thanks All Around”:
        From Shipoff I learned to move in the world: how to solo, to fit where your foot falls, and always to keep an eye on the exit; where you cannot rule, to serve; and to talk unceasingly, for no word is wasted, nor can a word be empty, but even popped off in vain, lights up the point that popped in the lector’s brain . . .
        He taught me to covet the life of a lector, to crave to orate the most timely topos from a lectern in Big Yolk, the city-solo . . .
It all rather unsettles me, how the rashy virulence of prose experimentalism in that “period”—the prevalent story anthology in the university one titled Anti-Story—and the hubbub of ev’ry-wch-way poetry along behind, disparu, tout disparu, just like Jimi Hendrix. Whence passeth it all? (There’s likely a story “available” concerning the arrival of Raymond Carver’s strip’d-down Hemingway muggery, the incipient crop of Ann Beattie lady realists “funk’d up” with brand name doodadery, making it all so “explicable”: I ain’t the one to tell it.)

And it’s unlikely that such a traversal is anywhere near a direct route to Charles Bernstein’s somewhat flatulent (inflated) review of Alan Filreis’s Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) in the recent Boston Review. Which is where “one” is going. (It’s one thing to resort to a little “brainpan cooling” nap, another to rouse oneself to a stove caught fire in the wrong room, unable to distinguish (or extinguish) one’s “temporary” enthusiasms.) Why does Bernstein so persistently attempt to stretch the parameters of the study up to today? Bernstein says: “the toxic mix of what Filreis calls “anticommunist antimodernism” is not only pervasive in the 1950s, but also provides an ideological foundation for the official verse culture of the 1970s onward.” [It is odd to note how, in a review that points repeatedly at the vocabulary of the attacks against “non-conventional poetry”—“alien,” “barbarous,” “poison,” etc., Bernstein quickly amasses a set of tit-for-tat rejoinders: “toxic,” “noxious,” etc.] Bernstein says: “The connection of radical formal innovation to genocide is likely to strike contemporary sensibility as bizarre. These ideas, however, belonged to the immediate postwar mainstream, and they underwrite the allegorical unconscious of the anti-modernist factions of official verse culture in our time.” [It makes no difference whatsoever, of course, that “underwrite allegorical unconscious” is thorough gobbledygook: the point is we are still under attack. Which smacks of the doctrinaire Bush-Rove Republican method of “rallying the boys,” no? Invent a danger in order to buck up a faltering constituency.] Bernstein says, again:
The demonization of the aesthetic left in poetry is still with us. It persists, often in defensive, sometimes farcical, form in the teaching and writing of those who, ironically, may sense they are on the wrong side of history. As with anticommunist antimodernism, dogmatic protest against the dogmatism of others is the standard operating procedure. The intellectual heir of anticommunist antimodernism is a post- or neo- liberalism that underwrites its defense of dominant aesthetic values as common sense. Critiques are dismissed as unjustifiable agonism (ideology of the avant-garde), part of a struggle that is now said to be outmoded. The post-partisan creed is that the avant-garde has won its battles and now it is time to return to kinder, gentler forms—poetry with a human face. It is the end of ideology all over again. The only way not to be divisive is to accept the dominant poetic values as inevitable and natural, as craft rather than ideology, sincerity rather than artifice.
(There’s something of a raw pathos to be extend’d, one supposes, to the claim that opponents “may sense they are on the wrong side of history.” Who—except Marjorie Perloff saying “I like to pick winners”—is so completely temper’d by posterity as to think anyone in the daily agon and rut and removal considers history’s “sides”? I’m remind’d of O’Hara’s brilliant riposte, “you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may.” Unless, of course, one is best known for Controlling Interests. Once one arrives at the final sentence opposing “craft” to “ideology,” “sincerity” to “artifice,” one sees Bernstein’s on automatic pilot, Filreis’s book long abandon’d, rehashing the arguments of thirty years ago. Funny stuff out the mouth of the “stature’d”.) And, still unable to relent, Bernstein says: “The ideology of the ’50s anticommunist antimodernists is now embedded in the mainstream; it has come to shape common assumptions of popular taste about poetry.”

Tellingly enough, the one point of common ground Bernstein finds with the “aesthetic and political right” is that a politics of form indeed exists (“One thing the anticommunist antimodernists had right was that the poetic form of radical modernism was political; Filreis calls this the “cold war politics of poetic form.”) Here, one’s got Filreis borrowing the Bernstein construction “politics of poetic form”—see the Bernstein-edited 1990 Roof book of that title—applying it to the “anticommunist antimodernists” stance, and Bernstein (handily) returning to ratify it. Is poetical form politically efficacious? Frankly, disjunctings poetickal seem an astoundingly crude insufficiency of means for world-changing, and defense of such (particularly in times of emergency—see Bernstein’s response to the Poets Against the War project at the beginning of Bush’s illegal and immoral preemptive war: “At these trying times we keep being hectored toward moral discourse, toward turning our work into digestible messages. This too is a casualty of the war machine . . .” is Bernstein’s paltry aesthetical quibble when the shining clarity of moral anger’s call’d for.) Bah. Filreis’s book’s a better document than to be used as a mere platform for Bernstein’s own peccant worries about Charles Bernstein’s place in history.

Charles Bernstein