04 March, 2010

Circa 2005: Kent Johnson, Charles Bernstein, and Karl Rove

Joshua Corey has written a review of Tracer on his blog, and I'm grateful for the time he took with it. At one point he had made a point of comparison of my poem "Avenger" to a poem from Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. It is true that I decided not to include the poem in the book, and he's right about that it's a proto-Tracer poem.

Johnson's book was very important to me. I presented a paper (at the University of Denver's Attention/Inattention Conference on October 9, 2005) that approached the way I was reading the book then. These are excerpts from that paper. I'm missing the texts that I read from that accompanied the paper--there was a handout. And I talked extemporaneously in the gaps between the paragraphs. And Rove's "reality-based community" seems to have lost currency, but is no less of a truth even with a change in the administration--even with the "success" that we would now call Iraq. But I think Josh's post recalled for me just how important Johnson's book was to me at the time I started writing Tracer and how it triggered the ethos that led me from writing more "Avenger" poems.

Ron Suskind’s disquieting exposure of the terms of what a senior Bush aide had titled the so-called “reality-based community”—that is, a community of “academics”—defined as those who “believe that solutions emerge from [a] judicious study of discernible reality.” This unnamed senior aide is attributed with saying, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you [the reality-based communities] study that reality—judiciously, as you will— we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” (Suskind). The term judiciously shares characteristics with the term "consensus."

In August of this year, Kent Johnson published a chapbook titled Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War. I believe this book can be read as a site of debate between
the “reality-based community” and this “solipsism of empire.” The cover art of the book features the infamous image of US Army reservist Lynndie England holding the end of a leash at Abu-Ghraib prison. Hovering over this image are cupids. Besides 9 poems, the chapbook includes a letter to Campus Watch written in defense of Ammiel Alcalay, and an afterword addressing comments made by Charles Bernstein in a short essay titled “Enough!” that has appeared on the Buffalo listserv, the website Skanky Possum, reprinted in VeRT, and presented by Bernstein himself at a reading at The Bowery Poetry Club to promote an anthology by the same title. The anthology, edited by Leslie Scalapino and Rick London and published by O Books, has been described by Scalapino as a “collection of poets whose writings are interactive with the current time, writing as its matter and syntax not separate from oppressive conditions and war… The editorial basis of enough is that for these poets, art is not separate from their being in the world—and that: Seeing what’s happening is a form of change.”

Charles Bernstein’s “Enough” asks poets “to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans.” His essay also remarks on a moment in a Bush State of the Union address on January 28, 2002 that eerily offers a variation on the “reality-based community” concept: “America’s purpose is more than to follow a process; it is to achieve a result.” So, when Bernstein asks poets to “not draw away from our poetics” in the same essay, he is asking that poets not choose results over process. A poetry that chooses results over process “represses ambiguity or complexity” and “substitutes the righteous monologue for a skeptic’s dialogue.” He is worried about poetry being turned into “digestible messages” and “moral discourse.” As Rick London says, “A radical purpose of poetry in critical times is to disrupt the language of consensus, taking possible thought into a more intimate relation to life as anybody lives it, contradicting the fanfare of established power. And inventing new ways of making art reflects the rejection of hegemonic forces in the world.”

These are important questions at stake. To ask them is enough. To answer is them is beside the point. Is a poem an event? Does a poem build consensus? Is a poem made of a recognizable consensus, and if the answer is yes, is this kind of poem more relevantly “political” than a poem that rejects “consensus”? What types of consensus are we speaking of here?

Because of this very clear and distinct moment of Empire—of the imperial imagination that puts all of its resources and force in the world into constructing its own reality on its own terms, which in turn, are often paradoxically contradictory, decentered, and disconnected with the official agenda of imperial imagination. I won’t go so far as to say that we now find ourselves at the ultimate moment of imperial hubris in this country’s history. As that singularity known as “our nation,” which is clearly not a singularity, encounters, mediates, or attempts to control the Other of its choice, it only appears our moment is here. No wonder poetry of the “political real” seizes on the catch-phrases: “weapons of mass destruction,” “war for peace,” “insurgents,” “radical Islam.”

Raymond Williams, who calls this "political real" “negative identity,” whereby “the exposure and suffering of the writer, in his own social situation, are identified with the facts of a social history that is beyond him… the identification between his own suffering, and that of a social group beyond him is inevitably negative [because] the present’s relation to past and future are unavailable.”

The precession of the moments— each a set piece, the set piece of an invasion— and our response to each as the moment before the prophesized collapse, and our historicizing of them into a larger narrative—constitute our collective histories as a nation. Poetry, too, is historiography. Charles Olson: “ The poem is… an act of poetry + history made as one, a redisposition of the force we have known as ‘poetry’ and a retaking altogether almost, of what… ‘history’ has been since history.”

I fear our work fails to keep up with the imagination of empire—which seeks to set the terms for how a conversation is to be held, as revealed in Suskind’s source, by always concealing or rejecting the alternative terms authoritative discourse would rather not have to answer for. When we accept from authority the controlling conceit of how we are to read and perform our moment, we form consensus with those terms.

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The term “reality-based community” had not occurred to me as important to a critique of poetry's inability to not lag behind history. There is some challenge to Adorno's infamous quote in the title of Kent Johnson’s book, but I'm more interested in the subtitle, “Eleven Submissions to the War,” as an address not only to the war in Iraq, but to the war for the very terms of how reality shall be constructed by artists in a time of war. In the example of the poems “When I First Read Ange Mlinko” and “The New York School (or: I Grew Ever More Intense), a condemning tone is directed toward “American experimental poets going nowhere on little exercise bikes” (examples of which include John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, David Shapiro, Barbara Guest, and Ange Mlinko), and the tone is equally directed toward Modernist figures such as Stevens and Williams, and their critics (the “bladder of Helen Vendler.)” But is the tone also self-indicting, as he when he states “Good night, Mr. Kent, good night, for now you must/ soon wake up and rub your eyes and know that you are dead”? Does Johnson claim membership and damn membership at the same time? I think yes, and I see this not as a contradiction but as a necessary stance. None of us may write poetry outside and apart from the center of this empire; we may write against it, but it does not change our position or location, and writing from this location, self-indictment is a necessary ethical gesture.

Johnson’s rejection of Bernstein’s argument—accusing him of mere aesthetic elitism— has fueled charges against Johnson’s book as an attack on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing (Johnson refers to this writing as “innovative writing”—always with the quotation marks around the term “innovative”).

Bernstein calls for a skepticism directed toward the reality created by “history’s actors.” History’s actors desire to set the terms for how the “reality-based community” will be later read. The very conceits of that discourse’s metaphors, when they are faithfully subsumed, consumed, or mimicked, become the unwitting carriers of authoritative discourse. Indeed, Bakhtin notes authoritative discourse “demands our allegiance” and cannot be represented—“only transmitted.” I suggest that there is no distinction to be made between the so-called reality-based community and consensus reality--or by extension, consensus poetry.

Despite Johnson’s afterword (indeed I wonder if it is an oversimplification of what Bernstein means by “pursuing our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response”) Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz can be read as providing both sides of a dialogue between those who want to “form consensus realities” (eg, political realism) and those who propose they “make reality” through art “unregulated by a predetermined message”—both of which seem to claim to “reject reality.” In terms of a consensus reality, the book engages with all of the familiar catch-words of the war in Iraq, “terrorists,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “Saddam’s torture chambers.” But is also defamiliarizes by intertwining the American poetry communities within realist depictions of atrocities—a juxtaposition that is disturbing and rich in possibility of formalizing—not saying, but enacting—the disconnect between making poetry and the simultaneous unfolding of history. In “When I First Read Ange Mlinko,” after describing the visceral pleasure of reading one of her poems, the speaker takes a disturbing turn toward a critique that I believe has actually nothing specific to do with Ange Mlinko’s poetry--the poem is the poem of the moment for the speaker, nothing more. Mlinko's poetry, and the pleasure the speaker takes in its consumption, is interrupted (disrupted?) by thoughts of the deaths of children in Iraq. The poem encounters consumption and commodification of poetry, implication of what constitutes "witness," and manipulation of the poem for “moral pressure." In “The New York School of Poetry, I Grew Ever More Intense,” he emphasizes the “consumption” of poets as personal hygiene products—worn by the speaker. The list of poets used as shampoo, shaving cream, aftershave, toothpaste, deorderant, mouthwash, and hand soap, respectively, includes Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, Joseph Cerovolo, Joe LeSueur, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery. As he comments on the sensory response he feels to each of these products, realist depictions of death, violence, torture— especially directed toward children—interrupt the Romantic-infused fanciful flights of the speaker. Like the image of the shrouded prisoner with attached shock wires collaged with the image of the cupid, this poem is both an indictment and upholding of the “uselessness”of poetry in the world. Certainly we can read this poem as a conversation between a poet and his community. I say his community because he inserts himself actively into that community to provoke conversation: this is happening. Poetry is conversation, and to say that poetry is useless is to say that conversation is useless. Conversation tells us that this is happening. To say that poetry is useless is to say that people are useless. Laura Riding Jackson: “The word poem itself is an ever new meaning of an ever new combination of doing and making as one act, with a third inference of being perpetuating these in dynamic form.”

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From “The Auroras of Autumn”: “The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world.” Yet Stevens states elsewhere that reality acts as “a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real.” (Stevens, Necessary Angel, 22). Is the imagination both valorized and damned? Let us hope so.

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Gertrude Stein, “Geographical History of America”: “The world as we see it looks like this. They used to think that the world was there as we see it but this is not so the world is there as it is human nature is there as it is and the human mind” (Writings 1932-1946, 385).

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Maurice Blanchot: “Write in order not simply to destroy, in order to conserve, in order to not transmit; write in the thrall of the impossible real, that share of disaster wherein every reality, safe and sound, sinks… Trust in language is the opposite—distrust of the language—situated within language. Confidence in language is language itself distrusting—defying—language: finding in its own space the unshakeable principles of a critique.”


Richard Greenfield said...

I just noticed that Johannes has posted a link to a overview of Johnson's work, which includes a discussion of Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz. Amazing coincidence!


Kent Johnson said...


This is tremendously interesting. I didn't know you had done this paper. Of course, it means much to me that my LPAA had that impact on you.

Can't wait to see your Tracer! Bravo.


Richard Greenfield said...


What was most impactful to me about your book was its willingness to be self-critical, to always acknowledge the position of the American poet at the center of empire. Very few poets have signaled in their writing the privileged position of that location--striking out as if they were not in some way always a meme of empire. Poems of protest have the travesty of appearing to us as a part of the good and necessary dialogue about our policies and actions. I saw this acknowledgment in your book, and though I wouldn't say Tracer is very much like LPAA in tone or method, I hope it signals the same acknowledgment.