Monday, February 17, 2003

Rodney Koeneke asked a number of pointed & relatively loaded questions yesterday predicated on one key presumption – that there is a critical & deep correlation between the unconscious & what Koeneke calls the spiritual. That’s a presumption I’m willing to grant, at least for the sake of a response today, given my own sense that God, a term Koeneke employs complete with capital G, is a word humans invented to identify something they can apprehend but never articulate. By definition, then, the unconscious & the divine are realms that can never be accessed directly, even if/as they act profoundly on all aspects of our lives.

Beyond this concurrence, however, there are many specific points in Koeneke’s line of questioning that need to be teased out further. Before I proceed, I want to note first that the gist of his thinking has important parallels with the somewhat more contentious editorials that appeared a decade or so ago in Apex of the M. I appreciate Koeneke’s more straightforward approach, frankly, since I think it enables the possibility of a response. On the other hand, it’s also possible that I might be more able to reply today precisely because I’ve had a decade to mull over what lay behind the cattle-prod effect of the Apex gang.

Also before I proceed, I want to set aside what strikes me as the banal, & ultimately evasive, way to respond, which would be to note that many of the individuals associated with language poetry are quite active in various spiritual practices, from Fanny Howe’s very active work with exactly the aspects of Gnostic tradition that Koeneke appears to be most interested in*, to some poets such as Tom Mandel & David Melnick, participating in a study group focusing on the Old Testament, and to several others who pursue specific meditative practices, both through the San Francisco Zen Center community and elsewhere. At one level, this is like noting that both Nick Piombino and Steve Benson are practicing psychotherapists – one could use the fact as a substitute for addressing the question of langpo & unconsciousness directly, but by itself it doesn’t tell you very much. Frederick Feirstein is a practicing psychoanalyst, but that doesn’t make the New Formalists any less clueless about the unconscious in their work, craven & craving though it might be.

A presumption hidden in Koeneke’s questioning suggests that langpo, as a collective endeavor, has not addressed or otherwise visibly engaged the unconscious. That’s one assertion I’m not prepared to grant, even though I wrote that “the unconscious in writing has been given short shrift at best by my own generation of poets.” My very next sentence, after all, read

Most of the effects of a text such as Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains or Polaroid occur at the subconscious level or else can be described in the matter-of-fact language of feature analysis, a close reading of surface devices that never actually gets to what occurs elsewhere when one reads.

The new sentence, after all, becomes new precisely by being positioned so that its effects & implications don’t resolve up into normative structures of narrative & exposition. Those effects & implications don’t dissolve, but rather carry on in new combinations with “inappropriately” juxtaposed materials. If anything, these effects are far more powerful in these new combinations than the predictable linking of figurative or depictive gears. My assertion – or possibly just my assumption, I probably could have been more articulate in this regard – was that the “failure” of psychoanalytic discourse in poetry, its virtual absence as a critical issue during the crucial 1970s & ‘80s, gave poets the freedom to more fully explore this territory without having it déjà toujours mapped out with giant signposts for Mommy, Daddy, the primal scene & other readymade conceptual buckets.

An important part of both the success & problematics of psychoanalytic method in the U.S. in particular is the way in which Freudian training, by virtue of remaining outside of the academy, being conducted through a handful of extra-academic institutes, turned the entire Vienna vocabulary into a free-floating signifier capable of entering into any academic field. This could never have occurred, for example, if Freudian training had been concentrated in medical schools. But without a “home” – by which I mean both a “turf” to be protected & a position of authority from which to contain its application in fields as diverse as comp lit & paleontology – Freudian methodology has had a profoundly curious history across the curricular boundaries. A history of its impact in the English department, beginning with Norman Holland & Fred Crews in the late 1960s, then proceeding through Jameson, de Man & the Lacanians later, reveals the vocabulary & tools of psychoanalysis to have been employed not with any great interest in or concern for poetry, but rather to carve out & then fortify various “positions” within the institution, a political process that is conducted largely through the appropriation & expropriation of “the canon.” The history of psychoanalytic thought in the English department has yet to get around to the bulk of the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Benign or otherwise, that neglect also formed a freedom for those who might otherwise have found their work becoming mere proof points in somebody’s tenure argument. Thus with a handful of exceptions – Piombino, Watten, Perelman, Harryman, Dahlen** – poets tended mostly not to address the psychoanalytic framework altogether.

But, as Jack Spicer demonstrated quite manifestly a generation earlier, not addressing a professional dialog is hardly the same as not engaging the dynamics of the terrain that this dialog professes to discuss. Coolidge, Grenier, Armantrout, Hejinian, Mullen, Andrews, Bernstein, Scalapino, Hunt & others all manifestly engage aspects of language & experience that exist beyond the superficially rational. That, more than any specific use of literary devices, seems to be what joins them as a community of poets.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at a specific text.

* Rae Armantrout, reading Koeneke’s letter in the blog yesterday, noted that “Fanny Howe's work is explicitly ‘apophatic.’ She even uses that word.”

** A really interesting list of poets, it should be noted.