Wednesday, May 27, 2009

That New Thang (Again and Again and Again and Again . . .)

“Moving Images”


A thrasher in the choke-
cherry, doing its twice-told
mimic deliberations while rainwater off
the eaves makes a crease-
mark in the mulch. The
Tyvek stretch’d around the Mulberry
Street addition hangs slack and
the leaves of the honey
locust look toxic, jaundice-yellow
in the drench. May: through
the fingers like water, or
money. X: “If anybody asts
yo’ ass to expend it’seff
for time against money, you
gonna choose time eb’ry time—
it nebbe lose.” A Panamanian
up in the Crimean yayla
with a butterfly net, squared
off and terribly white. It
reminds me of the cream-
color’d lozenge, the “pocket handkerchief”
of the black-throat’d blue,
coming through about now. Grief
lodges in my throat. Grief’s
hard lozenge in my throat.

Isn’t Stephen Burt, in racing, apparently, to score a follow-up success in trend-spotting (see the “elliptical” poets—first sight’d in 1998), stacking the deck with “The New Thing” (in the May/June 2009 issue of Boston Review) gambit? How’s the old argument go? “Elliptical” = “the most imitated American poets” of the last decade or so (a stretch) = “slippery, digressive, polyvocalic” poems with airy whiffs of narrativity-defying “life stories” or of argument-empty “continental philosophy,” poems “full of illogic” and “associative leaps” (echoes of Robert Bly?) = “sparkling bursts of voluble utterance.” No examples provided (though Fence “(founded 1998)” is offer’d up as “emblematic magazine”). Nevertheless, Burt, straw props in place, solemnly intones: “Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them.” And adds (presumably mimicking Edgar Poe): “And yet the pendulum has started to swing.”

Burt next proceeds, with a nod to Tony Hoagland’s recent caning (in Poetry) of “the skittery poem of our moment” (that “moment” being, according to Hoagland, when “the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality”—as if the elusive—as opposed to the brute tangible—had a direct line to the trivial—one need only recall that “era” of the early ’seventies when it seem’d every American poem had its “stone” and poetry readings demand’d the husky voice, the “weight’d” cadence, material seriousness abounding)—Burt proceeds to reject Hoagland’s “nominee for a replacement” (poetry, the democratic art)—narrative—and, hoisting the blinders, (narrowing the field), trots off in search of the Next Big Thing. It’s no surprise that Rae Armantrout’s work provides the template for the excursus—the bandwagon for Armantrout’s so overload’d of late that it risks tipping all its riders into the creek. She is, of course, the easiest of the historical Language-crowd to rescue, to recuperate. Burt notes how her “compact, sharp work, too-long conflated with Language-writing-in-general [what is that?], now seems to some younger poets worth emulating on its own.” What Burt sees in Armantrout is “brevity and the skeptical pressure she puts on each word.” And he makes a point of quoting an interview wherein she says “I’m phobic . . . about ‘making things up.’” Her “difficult poems strive for accuracy,” says Burt, and “take bearings from real events.” The upshot, the payoff pitch, unarticulated by Burt, is: the New Thing is that old thing—sincerity and authenticity, “craft” and honor and seriousness. That (and here the enunciation is emphatic) “distrust of the unaided (or unchecked) imagination” informs Newthingism (and, presumably, Burt’s Newthingists).

Off of that beginning, model to hand, Burt attempts to “constitute a tendency.” He points to minimalist (Creeley) and Objectivist (Oppen, Niedecker, Zukofsky) forerunners, and Williams’s “No ideas but in things” and “small (or large) machine” front the parade; he jaws about the “well-made, attentive, unornamented” (casually linking the restrict’d, the humble, the faithful to durability, as if all lofty structures fall down). And just when one’s about to quote a completely “skittery” Armantrout poem out of Versed, as counter-exemplary proof,* Burt tosses down an escape hatch, skittery enough in itself: “The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.” Those airy nothings. (Or: “Why, those airy nothings.”) Though, a few paragraphs later, that ’seventies “stone” gets wedged in tight to the fit: Burt rehashes an argument that sees classical antiquity’s lyric poetry oscillating between “fleeting song” and “an inscription in stone,” and declares: “The New Thing represents a shift from the first idea of lyric to the second: from performing art to hard craft, from air to stone.” What’s need’d, it is imply’d, is restraint, hard work, control, severest measure, and, fidelity. Poetry is no longer an exploratory means, a testing (as one gingerly—or brashly—swings oneself up into a tree to see if the limb’ll hold); it is a religion. (Burt: “Fidelity implies limits; it implies self-restraint.”) Oh dear.

There follows some exemplary figures and presses: Devin Johnston’s poems and Flood Editions (and some of its roster, Graham Foust in particular) get tout’d, as does Jeffrey Yang’s recent An Aquarium. (Flood Editions’s Lisa Jarnot is mention’d, who’d conceivably “fit” the scheme—though not always—not in the Night Scenes naming binges and neologistickal archaisms romps; Jennifer Moxley, particularly in the new Clampdown, is completely beyond the terms of Burt’s argument. See the opening of “The March Notebook”: “The intellect at work can alienate the world. / Should, during the progression of your life, / the fashions change and the young, / ever capricious, abandon you, it may be / because they know better than to follow / the compass of an unpopular idea, / upon which the most rarified needle / risks leading them away from the source.” William Fuller (a Flood Editions stalwart), writer of wily and difficult attempts to put down the shifting transfers and runs of consciousness in language liable to jump register mid-word, fits no “right basinski’d” New Thing agenda, unh-unh. Ange Mlinko’s musically lush and linguistically baroque maneuvers soar maximally faithful to no mere “thing”; the poets print’d by Rod Smith’s Edge Books pull together contemporary—often highly politicized—bric-a-brac, speech acts, popular detritus, noise, and effusions. Little “brevity, self-restraint,” or “material objects as models” there (though both Kevin Davies’s The Golden Age of Paraphernalia and Chris Nealon’s Plummet show amazing handiwork with large malleable structures, lattice-works capable of terrible expandings and embrasures). One could assemble a colossal heap of such errant practices, each countering the wan and pre-stress’d New Thing mirey categorical.

And, as if aware that the New Thing model’ll account for only that tiny slice of contemporary practice, midway through the essay, Burt attempts to expand the definition to include forms of documentary, apparently on the theory that “material conditions” is kin to “materiality”—thingness—tout court. Call it The New Fact. Or The New Condition. So Mark Nowak’s transcriptions of workers in Shut Up Shut Down is ink’d in under the New Thing rubric. Even more absurdly, Juliana Spahr’s Steinian grammar-exercises get roped so, too (Burt: “she . . . connects the material conditions she observes to her own inner life”). Don’t we all. (And Burt quotes some versets of Spahr’s “The Incinerator” about growing up in Chillicothe, Ohio, warning that if “read too fast” the lines “look like prose memoir. But they are not.” Neither, though, are they restrain’d, or compress’d, or Williamsesque. Nor (“We worried a lot about my father getting fired”) do they exhibit the incisive clean-cut measure Burt extols / calls for. How square it with Burt’s (rather awkwardly-phrased) pronouncement that: “The opposite of showy insubstantiality is not . . . narrative, but inscription: a poem that fits an object designed to last.”

Toward the end of “The New Thing” Burt turns sociologist, attempting to locate a reason for the claim’d shift in sensibility and means. The usual culprits tick’d off:
Is the New Thing—with its documentary cousins—related to 9/11? To the rise of the Web, where most texts seem ephemeral, and where short texts (but not long ones) circulate easily? To the depredations of the Bush administration, which cast as irresponsible a Clinton-era poetry of free play? Or simply to the exhaustion of the effusive, associative, neo-Baroque mode that came just before? These are questions better answered later on. For Wright, as for Spahr and Nowak, poetic attention to facts and things—emulated, reclaimed, quoted, re-framed—speaks to the material conditions a left-wing politics works to change. For other makers of the New Thing though, the solidity they seek is not so much economic as phenomenological: the poem finds, and emulates, some permanence—it is, and describes, something with weight and “measure,” small enough to hold in the hand.
The Wright refer’d to is C. D. Wright, whose work in Rising, Falling, Hovering, is described as “by turns documentary, thing-like and songlike.” Meaning, yakking and wild, and unrestrain’d, stone and air and hardly New Thing at all. I’d quarrel with the suggestion that short texts somehow circulate with facility (opposed to those lumbering billion-pixel’d long poems). I’d quarrel with 9/11’s having changed a thing. I’d quarrel with the idea that “poetic attention to facts and things—emulated, reclaimed, quoted, re-framed—speaks to the material conditions a left-wing politics works to change.” (As if only clarity and plain speech—and not satire, not caterwauling, not opulence, not music, not inebriation and excess—lent weight to change: that’s Pound’s use of Confucius—“making words precise” makes for durability and use.)

*A poem by Rae Armantrout, out of Versed. Consider how it fits (or refuses) Burt’s rejection of the “skittery” in favor of “accuracy” and the taking of “bearings from real events.” I’d wager there’s less concern with “thing” here, than a concern with the feints and parries of conversation, with relations, with the miasma of choices language itself always supplies. Its beauty is precisely in the tenuousness of its syntax (and imply’d situation); it is hardly an “inscription in stone.”

The intentions come

Little apron leaves,

what are you
covering up,


and forgotten on a
woody stalk?

Will itself



These dark tunnels

and through
the loving look.

Reaching both
and neither

always makes me hot.

“Did you have fun
playing with trains,

Phantom Stallion,

Rainbow Frog?”

Stephen Burt
(Photograph by Jessica Bennett)