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Henry Weinfield’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)

 

(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)

   

 

Stupid to say merely 

That poets should not lead their lives 

Among poets, 

 

They have lost the metaphysical sense of the future, they feel themselves 

The end of a chain . . .

                                                                                                                                           George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous”  

   

 

I found myself in substantial agreement with Jake Berry—and found this surprising, given the fact that the position I represent is as different from his conception of an “otherstream” as that conception is from the “mainstream” against which it is posed. I too can say that I belong to an otherstream, but it’s another otherstream. I am a lyric poet, and though I began writing in what in the ‘60s was still called “free verse,” for many years I have worked in traditional rhyme and meter—in what the academic mainstream (what now has become the academic mainstream) used to refer to contemptuously as “closed forms.” My work, grounded in the tradition of English poetry as well as in a study of European poetry and literature generally, is as different from the mainstream as it is from Berry’s otherstream. I mention this in order to situate the response that follows—a response that will agree with Berry in certain respects but will end up disagreeing in important ways.   

 

Berry will probably be criticized for oversimplifying the current situation—that is, for locating the poetry of the academic mainstream in terms of only two, diametrically opposed positions, those of the Iowa and Language Schools. I myself have no quarrel with this representation because it seems to me that contemporary poetry, cut off from its roots in the tradition, continues to oscillate between polarities of this kind, even if the Iowa and Language Schools have given way to other tendencies. Neither is capable of producing lasting poetry, in my view, because both are based on a fragmentary conception of the art. (At the end of his essay, Berry seems to abandon the very possibility of poetry lasting, and I shall have something to say about this later on.) The term “language poetry” is a tautology, as has often been said, because all poetry worthy of the name is language poetry; that is, its medium of expression is as much its message as what it conveys. The very fact that the Language School adopted this name suggests that most mainstream poetry for many years has been written as if language were not important, as if the poem could be reduced to a speech-act of some kind. Indeed, most of the poetry that comes out of the Iowa School poetry has no music and no language. This is poetry that fetishizes the “individual voice,” as Berry observes, which is ironic because most of the poets who work in this mode sound alike. Their work is based on what Jack Spicer called “the big lie of the personal.” So, the poets of the Language School were quite right to attack the Iowa mainstream, though wrong in the way they went about it, and ultimately part of the same futile enantiodromia (Jung’s term, borrowed from Heraclitus, for the violent shuttling between opposites). Poetry must always involve a dialectics of making and saying: it must have something significant to say, and it must simultaneously arrive at the form in which what it has to say is contained. It must be memorable. What is required of poetry today is the same as what has always been required of it; we have different circumstances, but our needs are pretty much the same. Where the Iowa School poets merely speak, without making anything, without creating a composition, the Language poets, invested in language, but for the most part in a merely self-indulgent, self-referential way, rarely have anything to express that one would want to remember. The Iowa poets are naïfs; the Language poets are pedants. Both are equally prosaic, though in different ways; they are able to write only because they have taken a fragment of the art of poetry and have presumed to treat it as if it were the whole art. 

 

Berry’s most important emphasis in his essay is on the collapse of time, but we have to take this idea farther than he himself goes with it (and perhaps is willing to go). It’s quite true that the idea of the avant-garde is no longer relevant—though that does not stop it from continuing to haunt the halls of academe, where it long ago took up residence in creative writing departments. Berry sees the collapse of the avant-garde as the result of “the ceaseless flood of information [that has] created an atmosphere of perpetual renewal.” Perhaps so, but one could also argue that the procedures of the avant-garde have become empty formalisms and mere clichés; they no longer have the power to shock us and we are suspicious of their pretenses because, however much they may gesture at participating in some sort of radical analysis or revolutionary renewal of society, we sense that they are frequently propped up by little more than ambition, narcissism, and money. Many of avant-gardes of the early twentieth century were sincere—and sincerely motivated by hatred of bourgeois society and consumer capitalism. But, too often, consumer capitalism won out in the end, not by defeating them but simply by consuming them and spitting them out as radical chic. It’s perfectly obvious to anyone who has ever visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York that Andy Warhol is no threat to Madison Avenue or Wall Street. In any event, the situation is perfectly clear: for serious artists, as Berry intimates, the very concept of the avant-garde is now “a relic of [a] different age.”

 

In the concluding paragraph of “The Collapse of Time” section of his essay, Berry writes with a strange sort of eloquence, as if he were chronicling an ancient time, though the period he is referring to was only yesterday: “Poetic identity was erased and recomposed from one day to the next. A manic state of exuberance co-existed with despair. The desire for literary immortality became impossible to maintain in such an environment so poets abandoned the concept as just another extinct idea.” This is compelling in its rhetorical sweep, but what troubles me in this passage is its quasi-Hegelian arrogance, the sense the author conveys of having a leg-up on history, of squatting outside the universe and seeing things in their entirety. How does Berry know that the desire for literary immortality has become impossible to maintain and that it has been entirely abandoned? Has he taken a poll? The desire for literary immortality, insofar as it is not mere vanity, is tantamount to the hope that one’s work will last, and that hope is connected, in turn, to the desire to create work that will last. Nobody has a crystal ball and can see in advance what will last, but if it were now impossible to hold onto even the desire to create lasting work, then indeed we would have to submit to the fact that poetry had come to an end. Berry ties the collapse of the idea of the avant-garde to the collapse of the desire for literary immortality, and hence, implicitly, to the collapse of the possibility of creating work that will last; at the same time, however, in the concluding section of his essay, he sees poetry as continuing, albeit only in a kind of vacuum in which “there is no real advance, no before or after, no origin or terminus, no space or absence, [and] all that remains is an activity that compels us outward.” This is again compelling in its way; there is a certain innocence about conceiving of poetry as a pure activity unto itself that compels us outward regardless of extenuating circumstances. But it’s also very pessimistic because poetry, under these circumstances, deprived of both a telos and a sense of origin, exists without a sense of history and (to employ another Hegelian term) at “the end of history.” 

 

The question that needs to be asked, however, is what Berry’s phrase “real advance” means in regard to the history of poetry. Wouldn’t a real advance be simply a “good” or “beautiful” or “memorable” poem, one that deserved to be read not only by one’s own time but by succeeding generations? Obviously, poetry hasn’t improved since Homer, or, if we take the history of English poetry, since Shakespeare. At the height of the modernist revolution and in the heyday of the avant-garde, did poetry possess greater amplitude or complexity or eloquence than it did in Shakespeare’s time or Wordsworth’s? What are we talking about here? Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads felt that he was effecting a real advance by turning away from the poetic diction of the eighteenth century and embracing what he called “the real language of men.” No doubt there was something efficacious in this development, given the sense of weariness that the previous generation of poets experienced. (The eighteenth-century conception of “the progress of poetry” was extremely pessimistic in that it viewed the movement from Shakespeare and Milton to Dryden and Gray as a decline.) But obviously “real advances” of this kind are contingent on a particular set of historical circumstances; they have their moment and then they cease to be relevant. Would anyone now want to insist that contemporary poetry needs to embrace the real language of men? If anything, Wordsworth’s slogan was too successful. Every generation has to fight a different battle.

 

Art always has to be renewed and revivified, so avant-garde movements are always necessary. The question, however, is what counts as the avant-garde. In our culture, what has long been reified as “the Avant-Garde” is no longer avant-garde because it no longer advances anything. Berry recognizes this, but he is so tied to a reified concept of the avant-garde that he imagines that its demise constitutes the “collapse of time.” The real question now before us is where poetry can generate the resources necessary to enable it to make real advances. If the phrase “real advances” is to be more than an empty formalism, it must refer to what will allow poetry to recover a power and amplitude that it now seems to have lost. In my own view (and it is one that I imagine few will embrace), the “demotic” tendencies that have been at the forefront since at least the advent of modernism (but we can probably trace them back to Wordsworth) will have to be reversed and poetry will have to reengage with its own status as a “literary” art. One thing is clear, and this is that poetry will have to recover the tradition that the modernists and post-modernists jettisoned. This is certainly not being done in Creative Writing departments.

 

Berry’s position is overly pessimistic as well as overly deterministic (in a quasi-Hegelian fashion). His mistake, as I said, is to accept a reified conception of the avant-garde, and then to equate the demise of this avant-garde with the “end of history” and the collapse of time. But the avant-garde that is now a relic is not the real avant-garde. The real avant-garde, whatever it is and wherever it lies (and regardless of whether it is currently being heard), is simply what allows poetry to begin to recover its ancient power and range. There is no point in declaring that this will come from an “Otherstream” —the invention of new categories is not going to help us. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge and our culture gives every indication of being exhausted. We face formidable problems—we are utterly fragmented, for one thing, and it’s questionable as to whether our culture will ever again have a center. But history is far from being over.

 

   

 

copyright © Henry Weinfield

 

   

 

Henry Weinfield’s most recent collections of poetry are A Wandering Aramaean: Passover Poems and Translations (Dos Madres Press, 2012) and Without Mythologies: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Dos Madres, 2012). He is also the author of The Poet without a Name: Gray’s Elegy and the Problem of History (Southern Illinois UP, 1991), The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk (University of Iowa Press, 2009), and The Blank-Verse Tradition from Milton to Stevens: Freethinking and the Crisis of Modernity (forthcoming from Cambridge UP in the summer of 2012).  He is also the author of a translation of and commentary on the Collected Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé (University of California Press, 1995) and, with Catherine Schlegel, a translation of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (University of Michigan Press, 2006). Weinfield is Professor of Liberal Studies and English at the University of Notre Dame.