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Robert Archambeau Interview


Robert Archambeau is a critic and poet whose books include Laureates and Heretics, Word Play Place and Home and Variations. He has written articles for Poetry, Boston Review, Chicago Review, Pleiades, PN Review and many others. Among his awards are those awarded by the Academy of American Poets, Illinois Arts Council, and a grant from the Swedish Academy. He is professor of English at Lake Forest College (having formerly taught at Notre Dame and Lund universities). 



Johannes Göransson among his books are A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, Dear Ra, Pilot ("Johann the Carousel Horse") and forthcoming this winter Entrance To a Colonial Pageant. His book translations include With Deer (by Aase Berg) and Collobert Orbital (by Johan Jönson). Together with Joyelle McSweeney he publishes Action Books. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame, and his blog can be found here




JG: seems to me you might flesh out what you see as politically efficacious poetry. Does this mean: it helps immediately generate healthcare reform, defeats Prop 8 or something like that? Is this the only type of politics possible? This is the type of idea of politics that is often used to dismiss poetry; i.e. a major politics. This is of course the claims of the scholars you quote (that they smash power etc). 


RA: In the context you’re referring to, the article “Public Faces in Private Spaces,” I’m talking about the kind of effectiveness that was claimed for the poetry—its supposed ability to return specialized scientific discourses to the public sphere, its supposed ability to smash the established public sphere to bits. These are major claims, so in that context I take “efficacious” to refer to the specific, rather grand, political effects in question.


As for poetry in general, I don’t suppose there’s any such thing. That is, poetry is always in a context, and its role and scope of effect will vary with that context. An Iranian sociologist Ahmad Sadri, told me once about how poets are revered in Iran by a broad public, in whose lives those poets play a significant role. There’s even a kind of pilgrimage-effect, with people going on family picnics to the graves of the poets. It put me in mind of some comments the Irish scholar Declan Kiberd made about how, in imperial or metropolitan societies, the majority of the population will not look to poetry as a means of articulating their values, because their values are (or seem to them to be) embodied in the institutions around them: in the educational system, in the military, in the mass media, and so forth. His argument was that it was in colonized or otherwise marginal communities that poetry will play its most prominent role, because in those places people do not see their values articulated elsewhere. You can see this, certainly, in Irish literature before independence, and you can see it, too, in many parts of the Islamic world today, where populations tend to feel alienated from the political regimes. By this logic, in places like the U.S. and the U.K., poetry would be a minority concern— prominent in groups who feel their values are not represented elsewhere. This certainly seems true of the prominent role poetry played in, say, the various identity politics movements of the 1970s.  As those groups—feminist, African-American, gay and lesbian —gained access to more favorable representation in mass media (as images, as people with influence behind the scenes—the need for poetry seems to have abated somewhat.  Less so in some cases than in others, I suppose.


So: there are certainly instances where poetry can fill an important political need, and where, perhaps, it can have “major” political effects. As for experimental poetry in the contemporary West—I agree with Andrea Brady, when she says, of such poetry, “At my most optimistic, I hope it encourages its readers—who, as readers seeking out this kind of work, aren’t likely to require encouragement—to think critically about politics, or perhaps to be inspired by such thinking to participate in collective efforts to overcome the tyrannies of capitalism.”  That is, I think that thinking about this kind of poetry can be an important spur to critical thinking about one’s assumption—although, like Brady, I do feel there’s a component of preaching to the choir involved. Also, I’m not sure this is a kind of politics in which poetry has any special role over, say, sociology or history or ecology. I’ve always been suspicious of claims about the specia ness of poetry: my colleague Josh Corey, whom I admire, claims that “only poetry can undo the Big Lie—I’m not at all sure that’s true, I’m not convinced that film, or music, or street protest, or editorial writing, or talking to one’s friends, isn’t similar in its effect.  There’s a kind of narcissism one encounters sometimes in poetry circles, a sense that this thing that we care for must be of central importance not just to us but to others as well. Sometimes we even see the lack of evidence for such importance as a sign of importance—as proof that we’re Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” after all.  My instinct is to distrust such claims, though I’m open to demonstrations to the contrary.


JG: But what about Deleuze and Guattari's idea of Kafka as "minor literature." His very deformation of the German language becomes a profound type of political activity. Could there be a minor politics involved in the Cambridge School?


RA: This, I think, is an interesting path to pursue, and one that leads in a similar direction to the observations of Sadri and Kiberd. For Deleuze and Guattari, major literature is the literature that articulates the values of a dominant population. I think Goethe’s Faust was the example they used in the book on Kafka: Faust became a kind of model for the bourgeois subject of the nineteenth century, trying to police his own desires in a world of new powers and possibilities, and in the absence of the old hierarchical constraints on actions. But minor literature, in this scheme, is the really interesting thing: it’s the means by which dominant values, and even the language through which they are articulated, and inverted, parodied, questioned, and mocked. Deleuze and Guattari didn’t see this as necessarily the literature of a marginal or oppressed population, but to write in this mode was to position oneself outside the dominant values of one’s place and time.  Is this political? It depends on the definition of the term. If we take politics in a very strict sense—as a change in the polity—it’s probably fair to say that such a literature is political, but weakly so.  If we think of long-term shifts in consciousness, its role could be taken to be larger, perhaps considerably so, but of course it is easy to exaggerate this, and hard to demonstrate it. I remember a conversation back in 1996 at the “Assembling Alternatives” conference in New Hampshire, a huge event that gathered experimental poets from all over the English-speaking world.  A woman from the audience stood up, and declared that the funding for her experimental poetry magazine, and for all other magazines, was precarious, because “the power structure knows we’re the ones challenging their language.” This, I thought, was an understanding so crude as to be almost a parody. I’ve encountered that kind of thinking more than once, though.


JG: Could you imagine a politics of obscurity? It seems that what this discussion needs is a more interesting understanding of obscurity and the politics of obscurity, one that perhaps has something to do with D+G and Kafka and perhaps Daniel Tiffany's recent book Infidel Poetics?


RA: A politics of obscurity? Well: one could argue that there’s a long tradition of this, or several traditions. One kind of obscurity takes the form of what George Steiner calls “tactical difficulty,” a kind of encoding of messages to get past censors of one kind or another. This depends on the right kind of reader or auditor being able to pick up a message that the wrong kind can’t: old style blues lyrics offer a case in point. There’s another kind of politics of obscurity, which we can think of as going back at least as far as the symbolist, decadent, and aesthetic movements. People like Mallarmé or Gustav Moreau, who advocated an art that turned away from the world, and from intelligibility, as a means of rejecting modernity. If the realist novelists sought to combat social injustice polemically (as did, say Zola or Upton Sinclair), this other path offered an implicit critique via the turning of its back on the world. It’s less a transformation of the world than a refusal of it, or a retreat. The analogy that comes to mind from my personal experience is the hippie commune I spent some of my childhood living next door to, in Maine. Many of these guys had been politically engaged, trying to change policy through protest (a Zola-esque politics, in this analogy), but at a certain point they decided to withdraw from that engagement, and turn their backs on the world they despised, living in obscurity (if that’s not too much of a pun). It’s a politics of sorts, I suppose, in its refusals more than anything else, and its general, unarticulated assertion that there’s got to be another way of doing things. But the ways it changes the world—if indeed it does, and I imagine there are ways—are difficult to trace.


JG: One way to go there would be to look at the Auden quote you use as the title of your paper: The Orators is a poem that very much problematizes notions of private/privacy and public sphere. If I remember correctly (it was many years since I read it), The "public" Orators in the first section are largely parodies of scholastic addresses coupled with testimonies of spying activity as a means of enforcing normalcy, conformity. These spies are public faces in private places (Auden certainly intended the sexual pun, something that seems strangely missing from this discussion). The narrator of the second secton, "The Journal of the Airman," to my mind the most daring and kooky and spectacular piece of writing Auden ever did, is a gay character concerned mainly with the marginalization of gay people. But his cure for this is not some easy Public Talk about the Advancement of Gay Liberation, but rather a highly punny, profusively allusive (to Shamanistic practices etc, see Peter Firchow's article in the PMLA from like 1985), utterly ridiculous text. When he decided to airbomb London with his pamphlets, I suspect many people would be confused by his genetic tracts and invocations of epileptic shamans. His text is one of obscurity (and full of sexual puns—cock pit etc). “The Journal of the Airman” is in other words a private face in a public space (pamphlet and all). But this does decidedly not mean the figure of authenticity etc. you mention. That would be a public face in a public place. No, the airman is a private face in a public space—an obscure face, a damaged, minor face, not a face that can speak in a unproblematic Public Voice. (This is of course also a transitional poem, and Auden went through many many changes and contradictions.) To understand “The Journal of the Airman”, I think we need a politics of obscurity, a queer politics that indeed resists falling back on that Public Voice of the Orators (poetry that is "public," that supposedly makes things happen.). Of course there are many "Audens," but I think the airman is the most interesting of them all. 


RA: The Orators is my favorite of all Auden’s books, and it’s a shame that it is so little read. I think many people think of Auden only as the kind of Augustan poet he became in the American portion of his career. Of course it would be good to remember that the complex, ironic nature of the book made Auden himself wonder about its politics. “Which side am I on?” he asked, and at one point he said that he felt the man who wrote that book was, if not a fascist, on the verge of becoming one.


JG: One more thing: I think it's a big mistake to conflate the radical (largely anarchistic) decadence of late 19th century Europe with the reactionary formalism of the New Critics. But the New Critics bring up an important point: what is the importance of the two meanings of "school" in The Cambridge School. It is after all a highly academic group. 


RA: I don’t wish to conflate them in the sense of denying their differences, but I do want to emphasize their similarities which to my mind are of even greater importance. The New Criticism has, I think, been badly misunderstood by our generation, and by the generation before us. In a way it’s been truncated, reduced to the formalism of a few of the most-remembered essays. But there were at least two ways in which the New Criticism was politicized—firstly, there’s the whole Agrarianism, the longing for the pre-industrial world. But much more importantly, there’s a strong sense that the engagement with literature will help undo the alienation of the self brought about by modern conditions of living. I. A. Richards (whom some disqualify as a New Critic because he’s British, although his ideas are much-cited in American New Criticism, and although he had a long career at Harvard) is particularly explicit about this: there’s an ethical dimension to reading literature, something that, in his view, involves and integrates the whole person. I remember writing about this once, quoting Richards and the New American Poet Paul Blackburn to show that what they believed was substantially similar.


What the aesthetes and decadents had in common with the New Critics was, at its core, this: a kind of anti-modernity, and an anti-instrumentalism. The obscurity of a Mallarmé, or even the wayward, subjectivity-shattering poetics of someone like Rimbaud, are fundamentally opposed to the instrumentalizing nature of modern civilization, where everything seems calculated for a means to an end; and the autotelic nature of the artwork as conceived by the New Critics is similarly anti-instrumental.  I think there’s a shared enemy, but a difference in tactics.  Although he doesn’t have much to say about the New Critics, Michael Löwy does a great job of establishing anti-modernity, and anti-instrumentalism, as a shared ground of many apparently antithetical movements in his study Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, a book I can’t recommend enough.


As for the question of the academy—it’s certainly become the main place where one finds poets in the United States, and, increasingly, in the U.K.  Of course this has an impact.  In the case of the New Critics, the first American generation of poets to enter the academy, it did have the effect of playing-up the formalist element of their agenda, for reasons that are quite explicit if you read their correspondence. The university demands specialization, and poetry can defend itself as a specialization—as something distinct from philosophy or history or sociology or journalism—with reference to form.  And if one looks at the kind of poetry coming out of academic programs in the United States now, one sees it is overwhelmingly elliptical in form: that is, it insists on its distinctness from the language of quotidian prose, on its formal qualities that make it a kind of special field of endeavor in an environment that is dominated by the logic of specialization. That’s not the only thing that’s going on, but it’s certainly a part of our current cultural logic. All of this may change, with the big changes that seem likely to come to academe over the next generation, but I’m not in any position to make predictions about what lies ahead, except that it will be different from the way we do things now.




copyright © Robert Archambeau & Johannes Göransson