Sunday, February 16, 2003

An email takes the question of poetry and the unconscious further, to poetry (especially langpo) and the spiritual.

Dear Ron,

Rodney Koeneke here. I'm a San Francisco poet and a steady reader of your blog, which is one the best uses of public space I can think of since Socrates hit the agora. It's a generous endeavor and I learn a lot from it.

Your recent discussion with Rachel Blau DuPlessis prompted me to write. You both offered compelling reasons to explain why Language poets tend to steer clear of the unconscious as a subject. I agree with you, too, that Spicer probably explored this area more acutely than any writer of his generation. He's also the poet whose interest in the spiritual affects the way he actually uses language most concretely. In fact, it's his interest in those areas - the unconscious and let's call it the spiritual - that marks him off most starkly for me from the following poetic generation, who often draw inspiration from his more explicitly language-y concerns while leaving the ghosts and Mars and radios to one side.

My question is whether Language writing really CAN address these subjects, or if that's exactly the point at which it parts company with the New Americans and the current mainstream. This seems especially urgent to me with so many younger poets sounding like Language, displaying a sense of disjunctive cool while holding onto content that Blyowa can staunchly approve of. In your view, can Language poetry address areas of human experience like the unconscious and the spiritual? Or does the theory which explains and extends the practice of Language writing somehow by its nature mitigate against this kind of subject matter? To borrow Rachel's phrase, can you really be a spiritual girl living in a material world? Or do you have to let the Language drop to go into the mystic?

Part of my interest in the question comes from some of the parallels I've noticed between experimental poetics and certain branches of mystical theology. Psychology, especially with Freud but even in Jung, emphasizes models of depth vs. surface, enlightenment (illuminating the absent), analysis and expressive creativity that run afoul of a lot of the basic presuppositions of current experimental writing. The unconscious as it's constructed by psychology is an absent presence, hovering behind the language, which can ultimately be seen and shown. I can see why writers of a poststructural bent rejected this and left the subject largely to the mainstream.

The apophatic tradition in mysticism, however - approaching the divine by what it's not - shares a lot of (perhaps superficial) parallels with Language writing. The subject, or ego, comes into question as an external construct; language is inadequate to apprehend reality; ideas are an arm of the secular, external social institutions that seek to limit freedom. I could imagine an apophatic spiritual poetry that looked very much like Language writing, one that didn't raid the poetics for nifty effects, but took a similar orientation towards writing out of a shared sense of what's at stake with words. I wonder if Spicer was one of them.

In short, do you think Language writing (broadly speaking) can address a subject matter that isn't primarily social? Or does the mainstream alone get to Hoover up subjects like the unconscious and (gasp...I'll say it) God (or Buddha or the Tao or Allah)? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Thanks for your work on the blog. It turns me on to many things.