Showing posts with label Rodney Koeneke. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rodney Koeneke. Show all posts

Saturday, June 07, 2014

reading @ Counterpath

Denver, May 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Annie Finch wants to reframe my entire discussion with Rodney Koeneke.

 Dear Ron,

In your response to Rodney Koeneke you accept quickly, though provisionally, the equation of spirituality with the unconscious. But consider that that very equation may be making it more difficult to account for the spirituality evident in much experimental poetry. Goddess spirituality offers one useful alternative model; it is immanent and conscious, not transcendent and unconscious. My own essay "Poetry and the Goddess" explores how the model of immanent spirituality, as opposed to transcendent spirituality, frees language from the need to "say the unsaid" and other models that privilege "transcendent" meanings over actual language. Perhaps the Judeo-Christian spiritual model being assumed in the discussion with Koeneke is causing as many problems as the literary model--or more problems, being even more unquestioned than the literary model.


Finch is certainly right that Koeneke posed the issue in Judeo-Christian terms, but I’m not at all sure that a solution lies in an approach that “frees language from the need to ‘say the unsaid.’” The problem of the apophatic is hardly the exclusive property of just one tradition: if I recall correctly, Alan Davies invoked the idea though not the term within a Zen framework in his piece on “Don’t Know Mind” early in the 1970s. Further, from the perspective of poetry, Viktor Shklovsky’s expansionist model of the artistic process – his concept that art as a collective activity proceeds precisely through incorporating phenomena previously not acknowledged or not thought to be appropriately artistic – privileges the “unsaid” as the source of innovation & vitality. Where would women’s poetics be today had it not emerged out of the terrain of the unsaid?

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Consider the first ten sections of Complete Thought by Barrett Watten, first published in 1982, available now in Frame (1971-1990) (Sun & Moon, 1997):

The world is complete.
Books demand limits.

Things fall down to create drama.
The materials are proof.

Daylight accumulates in photos.
Bright hands substitute for sun.

Crumbling supports undermine houses.
Connoisseurs locate stress.

Work breaks down to devices.
All features present.

Necessary commonplaces form a word.
The elements of art are fixed.

A mountain cannot be a picture.
Rapture stands in for style.

Worn-out words are invented.
We read daylight in books.

Construction turns back in on itself.
Dogs have to be whipped.

Eyes open wide to see spots.
Explanations are given on command.

The poem continues this spare, riveting process for a total of 50 sections.

Like all the best works that I’ve quoted in the blog that are already 20 or more years old – Grenier’s Sentences, Faville’s “Aubade,” Stanley’s “Pompeii” – “Complete Thought” is as stunning today as it was when it was first published. For me, reading Watten is a good amount like listening to early Bob Dylan: an experience so powerful that I have to ration it judiciously. Otherwise I’m apt to find myself sounding like a poor imitation days, if not weeks, later. “Complete Thought” is a poem very close to the center of my own experience of what it means to be a poet. I can’t imagine reading it as anything less than a life-changing event.

Thinking specifically of Rodney Koeneke’s questions Sunday concerning language poetry, the unconscious & the spiritual, “Complete Thought” strikes me as a text aimed almost directly at the unconscious. At one level, Watten is the first poet since Spicer to really get the power of overdetermination & render it not merely palpable, but unmistakable in a text.

Part of this is accomplished through a classic deployment of new sentences – the image schemas enveloping each first sentence is sufficiently remote from any schema surrounding the second sentence in its pair that the structurally implicit “causal” relation between them is felt for what it déjà toujours is: the reader’s superimposition, a form of violence acted on the text by the reading process itself.

By themselves, the sentences of “Complete Thought” are unexceptional – so much so that they stand out with a sheen one associates with neomodern design, a functionalism so bare it almost hurts, casting every individual element into a high-contrast relief. An important part of Watten’s genius here lies in the recognition that the form of the direct sentence, by itself, carries its own psychic & socio-political baggage. The aggressiveness of the piece, indeed its emotional tone, is governed precisely by our experience of syntax as force – in every sense of that word.

Koeneke links language poetry to mysticism through apophasis, a term with both rhetorical & theological meanings. From the Greek for “to speak” (phasis) “away” (apo), the term is a primary device of critical negation – the standard rhetorical example is a single sentence that asserts negativity while claiming not to speak of it, as in “I won’t discuss George W’s incompetence.” The little I know of negative theology* suggests that apophasis proposes the idea that God is “absence,” “difference” or “otherness.” Framed as apophatic discourse, it becomes evident that the privileged moment in the new sentence lies between the period of one sentence and the capital letter that initiates the next – the same terrain rendered so vividly in “Complete Thought.”

Koeneke’s paragraph on the apophatic is worth repeating:

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.

It would be possible to pick apart each of these sentences, phrase by phrase: the idea that “language is inadequate to apprehend reality” is a considerable leap, given the diversity of writing that gets typed as langpo**. But it seems evident that what Koeneke most usefully is after is the link here between Spicer’s use of overdetermination in his writing and that gap between sentences at the heart of langpo.

Does this make Barrett Watten a spiritual writer? Only if he wants to be. Rather, I think the question more important to pose here is what really occurs in that gap between sentences that a generation of writers would begin to explore this all-but-invisible terrain in such significant numbers. To frame a response in terms of psychology, spirituality or even linguistics is to freeze the discussion into the constraints of an already existing discipline. Yet it is exactly the inability of any inherited intellectual or social tradition to – and I’m choosing my words deliberately here – “nail down” this space that has given it just such potency for our time.

So in this sense I would agree with one aspect of Koeneke’s initial argument – that there are a lot of relatively younger writers today who adopt some of the surface features of langpo in order to rehabilitate it back into an already canned psychology of the person, say the way Carol Maso’s Ava tames Beckett when what we really need is a writing that explodes & explores that which is most wild there. Watten, in contrast, is not a poet of compromise. Which is precisely a mark of his greatness.

* Cf. Silence and the Word, edited by Oliver Davies & Denys Turner, or Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying.

** Koeneke’s reductive tendency to collapse language writing to a single (if transpersonal) agency – as in “can Language writing address X” type statements – I’ve simply ignored here in order to chase more valuable avenues of response. My usual reply to Can-language-poetry-address type questions is “only if it has an envelope and some stamps.”

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.

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.