Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stephen Burt's "New Thing" - Some Notes in Response

Stephen Burt's Essay is here. There are very articulate responses here as well, Stan Apps being great, and these mean I do not have to talk about the reductive characterization of WCW in Burt's piece.

I think Stan Apps sums it up pretty well, that the purported “newness” is not new at all. It seems to be a selective reading of contemporary poetry, finding similarities, and presenting them as indicative of a trend, direction or movement. Critics always seem to need to label and construct a "new big thing", and it does a disservice to vital heterogeneity of the contemporary moment to try and put it in boxes, say "this [and by implication only this] is what is important in poetry now". It's even worse when it's something boring, that people in the past have done a much better job of. In writing this piece Burt not only misrepresents Dr. Williams, but also makes the Objectivists, HD, Robert Duncan and the great Ronald Johnson (one of my favorite poets) seem aligned with this laconic, sparse verse. Johnson's work is Joyful and expansive, even in the parts that seem small, such as that Burt cites:
___________________of holly
Johnson's poetic is one in which every part is part of something larger, the smallest detail is part of the great spinning universe, everything is meaningful and contributes to the fullness of the whole in all its metaphysical incomprehensibility. You cannot read his work in a selective avoidance of ARK, in spite of its "daunting and hermetic" nature. That's like pretending Pound was an imagist who never wrote the Cantos.
Here I'm going to go through things in a roughly chronological order. And get lazy and not comment on everything. I think I've got a relatively good argument though.
The General tendency of the essay seems to point more toward what Burt likes in poetry, rather than anything else - I read a lot, and much of what I read, most of what I enjoy, doesn't fit under his rubric, or my conception of poetry in general. The thing that struck me most, made me do a double take, was his latching on to a quote by Rae Armantrout: “I’m phobic, somehow, about ‘making things up’.” Burt latches onto this, praising her for her "accuracy", and I'm left baffled. Isn’t that what poets do, by definition? poesias: the act of making (up). I have said before that, to invert the old Sydney-esque moral justification for poetry (poets use lies in order to tell the truth) I use lies to tell bigger lies. I consider this to be just as “serious” and socially necessary (an interrogation, if you will), as any self-important, faux-Whitman-poet-as-prophet-ism (and more honest through its acceptance of the truths of poem-as-artifice, poem as marginal, poem as functionless).

Later: “…the best new books that seem to have goals in common, that is, to constitute a tendency” The best new books I have read recently surprise me, are various, do not need the assurance of being part of a ‘club’ in order to justify their work. If I want to be reassured about my world-view and aesthetics, that I have good taste and judgement, then I'll read a magazine of the newspaper.
“The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things”. Poetry in its functionless superfluity, is ornamental. Sparse, laconic, colloquial poems that mirror “real speech” are boring, because real speech is boring. Andrews: “I HATE SPEECH”. This is why the majority of poetry written in New Zealand (my home) is of little or no interest to me.

“humility” in poetry – don’t make me laugh. If you have the ego to think that your poetry is of interest to other people, that they are going to take the time to read it, and maybe write about it, this is nothing more than Uriah Heep-ism.

These are my thoughts.

Methinks there's a realy good essay in the recasting of masculinity in the work of Johnson, Duncan and Robin Blaser. And in the music of Coil.


E. M. Selinger said...

Always glad to encounter another Ron Johnson fan. I hope you know about the big book of essays on & interviews with him, "Ronald Johnson: Life and Works." It's a dandy book, and I'm trying to spread the good word about it, being its co-editor & all.

Ross Brighton said...

I know of it, but do not have a copy, alas. Shipping books to NZ is very expensive, and being a starving writer etc I have not been able to afford it. Yet.

Johnson's attention to sound and detail have been hugely important to me. His work is sublime.

"a salamander slid within a flame"

Farrah Field said...

When I get home, I'll email the photograph I took of Ronald Johnson's house.

Ross Brighton said...

Thanks, that sounds amazing. Although there could be some disillusionment - I imagine it as a sprawling baroque castle.

Adam Katz said...

I believe it was not Andrews but Grenier who said "I HATE SPEECH" - in the first issue of This.

Ross Brighton said...

You're right. Andrews quoted in in "Writing Social Work and Political Practice" (I think - or somewhere similar). My mistake.