No. 10, Autumn 2006.)
Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita of Humanities at Stanford University. She
is currently Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California
in Los Angeles, where she taught before going to Stanford in 1987. She is President of the Modern Language Association.
She is the author of twelve books and a few hundred essays and reviews on
twentieth century poetry and poetics--both Modern and Postmodern--as well
as on poetry and the visual arts. Her first three books were on individual
poets--Yeats, Lowell, and Frank O'Hara; she then shifted to questions of
poetics in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981) and
The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound
Tradition (1985). The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde and the Language
of Rupture (1986) takes up an alternate Modernism and its influence
today; this book was republished with a new Introduction in 2004. Of her
later books, perhaps the most important are Radical Artifice: Writing
in the Age of Media and Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and
the Strangeness of the Ordinary. She has recently published a cultural
memoir, The Vienna Paradox and a collection of new essays Differentials:
Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy
Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg
Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A
Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s
Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket,
Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International,
Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist
publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013,
High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email
Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.
In your book Twenty-First Century Modernism you observe that what
we, today, regard as experimental and avant-garde in poetics is a
consequence of what you call the “embryonic phase” of early modernism.
And you cite Charles Bernstein's concept of the "artifice of
absorption" as having more in common with the High Modernism of T.S.
Eliot than the "true voice of feeling" or
"natural speech" paradigm dominant in the 1960s and 70s.
If we can accept (which I do) avant-garde poetics as, indeed, the natural
heir to High Modernism, what significance do you see the term
“postmodernism” as having with regard to experimental poetics? Is the
term born out of a basic misunderstanding of High Modernism's actual
This is an excellent question! In
my essay ‘Postmodernism: Fin de siècle,’ in Poetry On & Off
The Page (Northwestern 1998), I trace the term
"postmodernism" from the sixties to the nineties and argue that
what was once a term of praise (e.g., the postmodern was more hip, more
chic, more avant-garde, and radical than the modern) gradually became a
term of opprobrium: postmodernism
referred to a late capitalist decadent media glut, and no one any longer
wanted to be a postmodernist. But
the evolution of the term doesn't change the fact that back in the
sixties, Ihab Hassan and dozens of other critics, especially in Germany,
took postmodern to mean more than.
Hassan has the famous chart which I cite, where the items in the
"Postmodern" column represent a break-through from the elitist,
centered spatial form of Modernism. And
I then discuss the changes brought about by Fred Jameson and the French
the sixties and early seventies, then, postmodern was more or less
synonymous with avant-garde and I wrote about Frank O'Hara, John
Cage, and Jasper Johns as "postmodern" (e.g. avant-garde)
poets/artists. What is it
that changed my own sense of the term?
Well, as time went on, it became clear, at least to me, that as
wonderful as Frank O'Hara was and is, his poetry is not really a decisive
rupture with what came before, or at least not the sort of rupture we had
with Eliot's "Prufrock" or Pound's Cantos.
O'Hara's lyricism comes squarely out of the Romantic tradition and
certainly he is a modernist in that he believes in poetry as a high
calling. The same is true of
Ashbery. Meanwhile, as the century wore on, the "avant-garde"
kept moving forward in time and soon became equated with Language Poetry
and related experimentalisms like the book art of Johanna Drucker.
political events have taught us that progress is illusory; art is not
becoming increasingly "postmodern" (or avant-garde) and as we
look back, it seems that the break-through we all talk about and celebrate
came much earlier. Accordingly,
by the time I came to write Twenty-First Century Modernism, I was
looking at the larger picture and thinking that exciting poetry today must
be understood in terms of the modernist revolution, a revolution much more
dramatic than that of Charles Olson in "Projective verse" or
Allen Ginsberg in "Howl”. In making this rather sweeping
connection, I did neglect mid-century poets and I want to get back to the
60s avant-garde I think was so significant: that of Cage, Cunningham,
Johns and their circle.
I share your view of O’Hara and Olson. I have always thought it odd that
O’Hara is regarded in some circles as “important” innovatively,
whereas his roots, as you say, come out of the Romantic tradition. The
same could be said for Olson’s poetic which with its concentration on
perception (as manifested in: ‘One perception must immediately and
directly lead to a further perception’); something that would not have
found much dissent from William Wordsworth who wrote: ‘The objects of
the Poet’s thoughts are every where; though the eyes and the senses of
man are, it is true, his favourite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever
he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’. It
is the abandonment of this concentration on perception and sensation that,
it seems to me, distinguishes much of High Modernism from later schools of
poetry claiming some sort of lineage with it. From what you say, it seems
as if the innovativeness of High Modernism was not fully reflected in
later poetic “schools” and “movements”, and that only in the 60s
did the vestige of High Modernism look as if it could re-emerge. Given
this how do you account for the stalling of this innovativeness between
the years of High Modernism and the 1960s?
Charles Olson, as I argued in an essay called ‘Olson and the “Inferior
Predecessors”’ in ELH in 1973 or so—an
essay I never reprinted in book form because it made people so mad
but also convinced a lot of others of the case—took most of his
"Projective Verse" essay straight from Pound and Williams.
I demonstrate the "steals" in a long list.
Olson had little original poetics but he did try to expand Pound's
internationalism so as to make it less Eurocentric or
Chinese-Japanese-centric. Olson wrote about the Yucatan, about African
poetries, and so on. And he
seemed "radical" vis-à-vis the very tame New Critical poetry of
the 40s and 50s.
was late modernism so retrograde? In
the 30s, as the political picture became darker and darker, poets either
turned to a more overt political poetry (on the left) or to a non-engaged
poetry on the right. Left-wing
poetry, with the exception of the Objectivists, was usually
straightforward and didactic and hence hardly likely to carry on the
modernist tradition. Meanwhile,
in the mainstream, modernism hardened into what was often called "modrenism”.
In the poetry of Archibald MacLeish or, later, Howard Nemerov,
Modernism meant a heavy symbolic structure, replete with ironies and
paradoxes but in fact quite assertive, unlike the poetry of Williams or
Stevens, which refused the semantic closure of these modrenist poets.
A good example is the verse drama of the forties—for example,
Maxwell Anderson, whose plays were very popular when I was in high school.
Winterset had "poetic" texture and every speech
supposedly had large symbolic resonance, often Freudian.
Everything was MEANINGFUL! Think
of Martha Graham or later Eugene O'Neill.
So, too, the poetry of the New Critics, while ostensibly based on
Eliot's aesthetic, used tight metrical forms and contained its ironies
carefully. In this context, a
poem like Olson's “The Kingfishers” seemed nothing if not
revolutionary, but of course if it were read against, say, Mallarmé or a
section of Pound's Cantos, or Apollinaire, there was nothing very
revolutionary about its collage cuts and fragmentation.
the real innovations and ethos of modernism remained largely
misunderstood; indeed, critics began to assume that Allen Tate or, later,
Louis Simpson were great "modernists”.
It took decades to undo the damage: the false dichotomy between
"raw" and "cooked”, between Tate and Olson and so on,
became a new orthodoxy, masking the reality that Olson wasn't all that
avant-garde either. Fifty
years after ‘Projective Verse’ this is becoming apparent.
In your published conversation with Robert von Hallberg (‘Dialogue On
Evaluation In Poetry’) in For Professions: Conversations on the
Future of Literary and Cultural Studies (edited by Donald Hall,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001) you say: ‘Experimentation is
not ipso facto a good thing. There are plenty of "experiments"
that are merely boring’. Can
you expand on this a little?
I talk about this issue in the essay ‘After Language Poetry: Innovation
and its Theoretical Discontents’ in Differentials.
I suggest there—and have said so elsewhere—that sometimes we
fetishize innovation, experiment, and “making it new” in ways that
aren't too useful. It was
Hugh Kenner who said that the "avant-garde" can be just as
boring as anything else. What
he meant was that once the avant-garde has been codified and, so to speak,
professionalized, it just becomes another style that poets can tap into
and we've seen some very boring work that pretends to be doing new and
exciting things. Pound said
that after the inventors come the diluters and then the imitators; this is
always the case. A poem (or
fiction) has to be "innovative" for a reason; there has to be a
motive for doing things in "new" ways.
take an example: when Duchamp
exhibited Fountain by R. Mutt at the Independents in 1917,
the concept of putting a common plumbing fixture in a museum seemed
amazing. But fifty years
later when an artist exhibited a sink in another art show called ‘Avant-Garde’,
it seemed merely boring. Duchamp's
Fountain involved a subtle iconography and style:
it played on Renaissance and Baroque fountains, it had a sexual
subtext, it was photographed by Stieglitz against the backdrop of Marsden
Hartley's painting of a Buddha and hence this “Buddha of the
Bathroom”, as it was derisively called at the time, was made
"beautiful”, so that its status was quite complex.
But the experiment can't be repeated—at least not in Duchamp's
way—and so the imitations of Duchamp's urinal—and there are
hundreds—are often merely dull.
In general, do you think that this “experiment for experiment’s
sake” has led to the overvaluing of a poem’s formal and visual
properties (i.e. quirky typographical arrangements of the text etc.) to
the detriment of the poem's semantic operation? The latter being more able
to evoke a response in readers that is distinct from responses that are
associated with the experience of visual art works. If this is so, could
this be one of the reasons why these works seem uninteresting to those
readers who are expecting the poems to operate semantically?
A good example of "experiment for experiment's sake" may be
found in the work of Richard Kostelanetz, who based his own "writings
through", alphabet games, procedural works, and concrete poems on the
work of John Cage, but does not have much to say and so the forms lack a
sense of urgency or purpose. Any
poem must operate semantically as well as visual/sonically.
Even a tiny poem like Decio Pignatari's famous ‘Bebe Coca Cola’
(the concrete poem) plays with the letters and words so as to create a
subtle critique of modern capitalism, and so on.
Do you think the foregrounding of form may be one of the reasons why much
experimental poetry is perceived as dull?
No, not at all. Take the experiments of Frank O'Hara, which were
pretty radical in the fifties. No
one wrote in what seemed to be such a casual way: ‘It's my lunch
hour....’; ‘Lana Turner
has collapsed!’ The new
manner was taken over by a generation of younger poets from Allen Kaplan
to Tony Towle, and visually their poems resembled Frank's.
The difference was one of tone. They couldn't capture Frank's racy
insouciance or real pain and so it became just a matter of writing,
‘It's 12.34 in Manhattan’ or whatever, and the poem went limp. It's
the absence of semantics in the poetry of the disciples, not their formal
features that made the difference.
In your essay ‘What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Poetry’,
you highlight the difference in scholarly standards between reviews of
books about, for instance, architecture, and books about poetry. The
former being written by scholars knowledgeable in the field under review;
the latter being reviewed by mainly mainstream practising poets mostly
ignorant of the wider issues concerning poetic discourse, especially that
which is not mainstream. This ignorance helps to foster in the readers of
such reviews an ill-informed and potentially damaging view of
non-mainstream poetry. You illustrate this by demonstrating how a negative
review, by the mainstream poet Glyn Maxwell, of Linda Reinfeld's Language
Poetry: Writing as Rescue, is negative precisely because of
Maxwell’s ignorance of the theoretical issues underpinning Language
Poetry. Is one remedy to this state of affairs to stipulate that poetry
reviews should not be written by those who have not formally studied
literature academically? This is not as preposterous as it sounds given
what you say concerning the reviews of books on other disciplines. Indeed,
most visual art reviews I read are by people who have studied the field
No, I wouldn't want to stipulate this because of course, as we both
know, some poets are much better reviewers than comparable academic
critics. I love the early
reviews of John Ashbery: for example, his review of Adrienne Rich's poetry
where he says that her poetry seems to be suffering from ‘objective
correlativitis, otherwise known as Dutch Elm disease’.
And sometimes an older poet introduces a younger one to a larger
public, and that's very useful.
on the whole, poets-as-reviewers are too biased; they have their agenda.
To assign Charles Bernstein's poetry to Glyn Maxwell, as the Times
Literary Supplement did, is to ask for a negative review, and a snide
one at that. The converse is also true: when Robert Pinsky is asked to
review, say, Czeslav Milocz, he is obviously going to treat the Polish
Nobel Prize winner, with whom he worked at Berkeley, with veneration.
So one hardly gets an objective view.
But I wouldn't mind the lack of objectivity so much, if the
reviewer were well informed and that's too often not the case.
nadir of reviewing, these days, is the New York Times Book Review.
A recent issue carried a review of Elias Canetti's posthumous The
Party In The Blitz, the fifth installment of his autobiography, partly
in note and diary form. I
reviewed it for Bookforum, and found it to be fascinating.
The Times gave the book to the notoriously snide, clever
British (originally Australian) Clive James, a "big name". I
found his review almost libelous. He called Canetti a "twerp"
and made fun of him. It was a
case of THE REVENGE OF THE BRITS against a book by a Central European who
dared criticize some of them. What
a choice for reviewer!
again, take Langdon Hammer's review, this past week in The Times,
of Helen Vendler's very slim and slight book on Herbert, Whitman, and
Ashbery—a set of lectures she gave fairly recently.
One could tell from the review that the book was fairly slight,
something of a footnote to Vendler's other writings, but The Times
gave it a whole page and chose a reviewer who was almost sure to give the
book a very good review. If
you know Hammer’s own writing on Allen Tate and Hart Crane and now on
James Merrill, whose biography he’s writing, you would surmise that he
would be in the Vendler camp. Whereas
any number of other reviewers—I am not talking about my friends but
regular Times reviewers like William Logan—would have raised a
few hard questions. Ideally,
then, editors would choose reviewers (whether poets or academics) who are
disinterested, who have nothing to gain from praising or blaming X or Y.
Poetry reviews, though, are mostly just puffs, as in American
Book Review. One would think each poet reviewed were a genius!
criticized the Times Literary Supplement in the essay you cite, I
want to go on the record as saying that the single best editor I know
today (although I've never met him) is James Campbell at TLS.
I've reviewed 4-5 times for him and he really knows the poetry in
question—say, Creeley or Ian Hamilton Finlay.
He could write the review himself! And then his editing is
exemplary; he carefully improves the piece.
A brilliant editor, neither poet nor academic but himself a writer
and anxious to see the work in question in its complexity rather than as
an exemplar of the good or the bad.
have said elsewhere that poetry is not ‘straightforward, expository
discourse (as in a chemistry textbook), whose aim is to convey
information’. I agree with this, but am interested to know what a poem
is doing when it is not doing this?
I would say that the poem holds the meanings involved in
suspension. It was Yeats who
said, ‘We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel
with ourselves, poetry’. I've
just written an essay on Yeats's ‘Easter 1916’ as a political poem,
and what's so remarkable about this poem is that one can read it ten times
and still not be sure which side Yeats was on.
The fact is that the Nationalists-revolutionaries thought it
supported their cause, while others thought the opposite, the oxymoron of
"terrible beauty" reflecting the basic paradox of revolution.
Now, does this poem convey “information"?
Not exactly. It
assumes that the reader will know the facts of the Easter Uprising, the
take over of the Post Office and the center of Dublin on Easter Monday
1916 in response to England's indefinite delay of the Home Rule Bill.
It helps to know who the persons mentioned like Patrick Pearse and
John MacBride are! So the
reader must get some "information" just to read the poem
intelligently. But that's not
the same as the poem conveying information, is it?
You don't learn anything new, but the poem is full of rich
meanings, ideas to think about, emotions that are conflicting.
Does ‘too long a sacrifice’ make ‘a stone of the heart’,
and so on?
Tim Peterson has said that 'there needs to be a way of talking about
innovative poetry that allows for both stylistic inclusiveness and
polemic'. By which he is referring to his rhetorical question: 'If a
central characteristic of avant-garde poetry is that it's somehow
politically oppositional, then what do we call "political
poetry" that's not "avant-garde"? His question assumes a
view of avant-garde poetry as encompassing the political. How far (if at
all) do you agree with his analysis?
I take up this question early in the semester when I teach
‘Theory of the Avant-Garde’, a graduate seminar.
The first thing to understand is that in the early avant-gardes,
the aesthetic and political were inseparable.
Especially the Russian avant-garde was politically AND
aesthetically revolutionary, marking a sharp break with the past.
But as time went on, there was a split.
This was already true of Zurich Dada: the Cabaret Voltaire was
"against" but not really political, as Tom Stoppard shows well
in his play Travesties, where Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara all find
themselves in Zurich and Lenin has no use for Tzara at all or vice-versa.
may be asked: well, if a movement isn't politically radical, can it in
fact be avant-garde? The
issue is complicated. The most avant-garde artist of the century,
probably, Marcel Duchamp cared nothing about politics and left the country
as soon as war was in the air—anything to avoid being drafted or even
involved. And Gertrude Stein
was actually quite reactionary politically as were many other
avant-gardists like Wyndham Lewis, who was a Fascist.
the two don't necessarily go together, and a lot of "polemic
political" poetry is very traditional so far as form is concerned and
not at all innovative. There
is, by the 21st Century, no necessary relationship between the two
although our own avantgardists certainly tend to be on the Left!
But being on the Left is not the same as a committed engagement in
What are you currently working on?
fall I caught up on too many commissions: a long essay on Celan,
which is a first for me, a piece on Yeats and war poetry for an Oxford
book, on Cage for a book on theatre, and so on. And I've reviewed a
good bit for Bookforum, TLS, Boston Review.
But for the long term
I want to begin two projects (1) on the role of sound in poetry; we'll see
what the MLA sessions on that topic I'm organizing will yield, and (2) on
a revisionist view of the later 1950s, a pivotal and much maligned period.
We'll see. For the moment, I'm going to work on an essay for the
Dada/Surrealist conference at Abersythwith in July.