David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Politics and Post-Modernism?

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No one can know for sure what literary historians will make of it, least of all me as I pound out an editorial about poetry every week. But if I were a betting man, I would wager that the most significant literary event this month is not going to be the Poetry Foundation’s splashy new anthologies for school teachers. Instead, I’d make a wager that it’ll be the ding-dong response by America’s favorite postmodernists and conceptualists to Ange Mlinko’s brief notice about The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry in the recent issue of The Nation. (It’s behind the paywall here and copied onto HTMLGiant here.)

The postmodern poetry establishment’s revulsion to Mlinko was a spark that contains, in its embers, an omen of the movement’s own demise.

Some background. Norton has been in the anthology business since the earth cooled. Their anthology, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well as the The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, have been college standards for decades. In the 1990s, Paul Hoover edited The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry. A new edition came out this year. Mlinko, who has kicked up a few storms throughout poetry land recently by belittling Elizabeth Bishop in Poetry and demurring about Adrienne Rich in The Nation, this week mocked much of Hoover’s new postmodern effort. She disputes the very notion, expressed in the anthology’s introduction, that there is no such thing as transcendence in poetry anymore:

“…the same poetic universe called ‘postmodern,’ a contested notion that Hoover, in his almost thirty-page introduction, is at pains to define in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.’ What a claim to make in a poetry anthology that starts with 1953 and trumpets Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Any notion of history has been leveled by the internet”! What was it Keats wrote to Shelley: ‘Load every rift of your subject with irony’?”

Enter Mr. Goldsmith, who tweeted this week in response:
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I fear I might be leaping into a postmodernist family feud even by addressing this controversy. And, to be fair, I’ll come clean: I find much of what touts itself as postmodern poetry to possess too little interest in writing, to be as emotionally conventional as a prime time sitcom, and to be formally lazy and intellectually superficial. In a word, inert. What I resist above all are apologies for postmodern poetry — for flarf, for conceptualist poetics —that fetishize mediocrity.

Meanwhile, by calling Mlinko “conservative,” it’s clear Goldsmith is attempting to affiliate Mlinko with a brand profile of conservatism in America today — as someone who must surely own guns, quilt, shop at Walmart, watch reruns of Dallas, and curl up in bed each night re-reading Atlas Shrugged. He may have meant literary conservative, but he must have known that the resonance of the brand of political conservatism was clinging to the term as well. That’s how it became the zinger that launched a thousand ships.

Responding in an e-mail, Mlinko wants to assure liberal poets throughout the land, “For the record, I have always voted Democrat. Well, sometimes Green. But I do love country music.”

What makes the latest round of postmodernist complaint against criticism of postmodernism so curious is that hardly anyone is cowed anymore. The war for legitimacy has been won. Postmodern poetry is its own Official Verse Culture, as Charles Bernstein ought to admit, and perhaps he has. The barricade of us versus them has long ago been broken and rebuilt.

And yet read on, please. Because you’ll see that our finest postmodernists have turned into purists and party base delegates. And that’s where things just get sad. The vigor and joy with which our best postmodernists attack any criticism of their aesthetic has all the hallmarks of the apparatchik.

Looking for examples? I had one for you. Several dozen people weighed in over some 60 comments on Noah Eli Gordon’s April 4, 2013 Facebook posting about the Mlinko review. Gordon praised Mlinko’ own poems but criticized her review. Other comments came from Charles Bernstein, Maxine Chernoff, John Yau, Susan Mesmer, Ron Silliman, Julie Carr, and others.

An earlier version of this post had all sixty comments, but an hour after the piece went up Noah Eli Gordon wrote politely to say that the “account is no longer public or active” and asked to have the thread removed in the interest of his privacy. So, sure. Though should anyone wish to comment below, I won’t be removing anyone’s writing.

I don’t mean to sound glib if I say I’m bewildered by the the sense of aesthetic supremacy reigning in the Facebook thread that you no longer get to read. There was an unhinged, anti-civil, even anti-intellectual ease to some of the postings (“Ange has always been rather prissy” was one of the comments). And plus now: there’s just avoiding critical scrutiny. But, hey, birds of feather, and all, eh?

And yet what troubles me is just that, the aesthetic sorting and the urge to affiliate. Goldsmith’s tweet equates being critical to being conservative. You know what conservative is? It doesn’t mean simply stodgy. It means Margaret Thatcher supporting Apartheid in South Africa or it’s Annette Funicello recreating the Mickey Mouse Club as those wretched beach blanket movies. That’s conservative. Implying, as Mlinko does, that lines of poetry such as Catherine Wagner’s “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis / tremendous, penis offend us…” is a ratty imitation of Gertrude’s Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Complete Portrait of Picasso” is nothing if not critical.

But the more we hear from the postmodernists (another comment thread here, for instance), the more we hear how much they want to eliminate comprehensibility, legibility, lucidity, palpability, and salience. They want to unrationalize lyric argument. Our postmodernist poets mean to be counter-conservative, but they now just come off as counter-poetry. Counter-art even. That’s the dullest avant-garde stance there is, dating back to Clement Greenberg attacked contemporary culture as mechanical and kitsch in the Roosevelt 1930s.

Besides, aren’t the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ irrelevant to commentary about poetic style? Are the rhymes of Seamus Heaney conservative? Therefore: Thatcheresque? Is the laterality of Rae Armantrout leftist? Therefore: Stalinesque? The comparisons — the very semantic framework of liberal and conservative — have no legs. Mlinko again, in that e-mail: “I was reading a lot of Tony Harrison today, on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and thinking how inconceivable it would be in the U.S. for a fiery leftist to write in elegant rhyming stanzas — precisely because somehow only ‘conservatives’ rhyme here. It’s Alice in Wonderland logic.”

Or, to put it differently: By adopting and tweeting the semantics of political shorthand for literary criticism (i.e., attacking Ange Mlinko as a ‘conservative’), it’s made the whole postmodernist movement jump the shark. This week Postmodern poetics is looking a lot like the Fonz in a leather jacket on skis.

Still: What I’m astounded by is the aesthetic that professes constant change but is so dogmatic. The postmodernist’s villification is that non-postmodernist poetry is a cancer. That invective is now fully institutionalized. I mean, at one time postmodernist enthusiasts resembled the jazz scene of the 1950s, with players who came of age when the public evaporated, and so they determined that their art must bite the hand that would no longer feed it. They tried to play faster, less harmonically, more complex and with ever more intricacy and flaunt. (Though it’s worth asking, as one has, who is the Miles Davis of this group of poets?)

And, then they got tenured. Mazel Tov! I’m all for work! Teaching is most honorable. Tenure is good. But it’s also not avant-garde. The castle has not been stormed.

Today, our postmodernist folks are armed with a deep bench of apologists, periodicals, publishing houses, and NPR, News Hour, Norton anthology legitimacy that they (like the so-called establishment they sought to repudiate) repudiate attacks with disdain for the art’s multilayers of tradition. Our most influential postmodernists argue, without irony, mind you, given their chosen art form, that the search for meaning is counter to the ambitions of the poet or the poem.

The tree of poetry, I hear someone shouting from the postmodernist halls, must occasionally be watered with the blood of formalists and confessionalists! But the clock on fashion is ticking too. I mean, look around you, where have all the New Augustans gone? The ash heap of poetry is littered with supremacy of movements.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →