Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Curmudgeon Chronicles, Vol. 1

I've been hanging out with Witold Gombrowicz for a long time now. I discovered him in 2000 or 2001, during a period when I was reading every book from the Writers From the Other Europe series I could get my hands on. His novel Ferdydurke, translated into English from a French (German?) version rather than Gombrowicz's Polish. Little purple paperback with a hideous, Francis Bacon-looking cover illustration. To say that it blew my mind would be a bit of an understatement. When I moved to Chicago one of the first books I bought was a new edition of Ferdydurke, translated (from the Polish finally) by Danuta Borchardt. I proceeded to buy up everything I could find, which was pretty easy when it came to his novels. The prize, though, was the first volume of his Diary, which I came across buried in the biography section of a used book store. Score. When I moved to Philadelphia the only books I brought with me were my Samuel Becketts and my Witolds. Everything else I sold or gave away. I've acquired several hundred books since then, but I keep going back to Witold. I reread one or two of his novels a year, and I often return to his diary, which I have in the three volume edition from Northwestern University Press, translated by Lillian Vallee.

I went back to it again the other day. Laura and I were having another of our endless conversations in which we try to figure out what it is, exactly, about poets that drives us so crazy, and it rang a bell, so out came Witold's diary. In the back, as an appendix to the volume, there's an essay he wrote in 1950 or 51, based on a lecture he'd given in Argentina, called “Against Poets,” which begins:
It would be more subtle of me if I did not disrupt one of the rare ceremonies which we have left. Even though we have come to doubt practically everything, we still venerate the cult of Poetry and Poets and this is the only deity which we are not ashamed to worship with great pomp, deep bows and inflated voice....Ah, ah, Shelley! Ah, ah Slowacki! Ah, the word of the Poet, the mission of the Poet, and the soul of the Poet! Nevertheless, I have to attack these prayers and spoil this ritual as much as I can simply in the name of elementary anger, which all errors of style, all distortion, all flights from reality arouse in us.

Now, I'll grant you, Shelley and Slowacki are a little outdated, as references go. So feel free to insert more contemporary idols, such as Zukofsky and Olson, if you feel the need to. Witold continues:
The thesis of the following essay, that almost no one likes poems and that the world of verse is a fiction and a falsehood, will seem, I assume, as bold as it is frivolous. Yet here I stand before you and declare that I don't like poems at all and that they even bore me. Maybe you will say that I am an impoverished ignoramus. Yet I have labored in art for a long time and its language is not completely alien to me. Nor can you use your favorite argument against me, claiming that I do not possess a poetic sensibility, because I do possess it and to a great degree. When poetry appears to me not in poems but mixed with other, more prosaic elements...I tremble as do other mortals.
It bears mentioning here that Witold had, when this essay was published, already written most of his stories, as well as Ferdydurke and his play Princess Iwona, all of them major works of the Polish avant-garde. To say that he had “labored in art for a long time” is simply a statement of fact. I find the second half of the above citation hilarious. Keep in mind that this essay is almost sixty years old, yet every time anyone today criticizes the way poets behave they are countered with the same weak argument, you just don't get it, that Witold brushes aside here. I'll probably hear this same nonsense from somebody in response to this post. What. The fuck. Ever.
Why then does this pharmaceutical extract called 'pure poetry' bore and weary me...? Why can't I stand this monotonous, endlessly lofty singing? Why does rhythm and rhyme put me to sleep, why does the language of poets seem to me to be the least interesting language conceivable, why is this Beauty so unattractive to me and why is it that I don't know anything worse as style, anything more ridiculous than the manner in which poets speak about themselves and their poetry?

Why, indeed. Anyone still capable of being honest with themselves will admit that such questions as these have crossed their mind. You're at some poetry reading and the whole thing is so ponderous and pretentious and absurd that the paint is peeling off the walls and it's some “famous” poet up there putting everyone through the wringer. You flip over a poetry book and the blurbs on the back are even more devoid of content than a long speech by a politician, pure word pantomime. You read some interview with the Hot New Voice and the whole thing is just trope salad. Gazes are being complicated, places are being interrogated or investigated, gestures are being made through, toward and around this and that. And it goes on and on and everyone just plays along because nobody wants to be the first one to stop clapping for Stalin and you ask yourself, over and over: What the hell is going on here? Witold conducted an investigation:
I conducted the following experiments: combining specific sentences or fragments of sentences from the poetry of a certain poet, I constructed an absurd poem and then read it to a group of poetry aficionados as the new work of the seer—to the general rapture of those poetry lovers; or I began to quiz them on specific details as to this or that work of poetry and concluded that these poetry lovers had not even read it in its entirety So what was going on? How could a person be enraptured without even having read a work all the way through?...Naturally, each of these experiments was greeted by a great many protests and much taking of offense, and the poetry lovers swore on all the saints that this was not how it was...but these peas bounced off the hard crags of the Almighty Experiment.
If you were to do this today, to take say a dozen different lines of some revered poet like say Charles Reznikoff, collage them together and claim it was something you found in some dusty archive, I am quite sure you'd have people falling all over themselves as Witold describes. What this experiment is testing is the following question: is it the actual poetry or the name (i.e., the brand identity) of a certain poet that people respond to? Answer: past a certain point, its probably the name.

Which correlates to the second experiment, which likewise remains a valid point, perhaps more so now than when this essay was written. Take The Maximus Poems. Ever read the whole thing? I mean the big U of California, 664 page edition. What about A? Pound's Cantos? The discourse around works like these is full of swooning and the word masterpiece, but really very few people have actually read them. In fact, if you say in public that you have read them, people act like you're bragging, showing off. But no one comes out and says those poems are too long and they're boring and I don't like them. Instead, reading them is more like quitting smoking, everyone's trying to do it, or about to, or at least feels like they should, and if they fail then they feel like there's something wrong with them.
I found myself, therefore, facing the following dilemma: thousands of people write verse; hundreds of thousands adore that poetry; first-rate geniuses have expressed themselves in poems; from time immemorial, Poetry has been revered; and against this mountain of praise, I, with my suspicion that the poetic mass takes place in an absolute vacuum...In spite of this, however, my experiments heartened me...Why didn't I like the taste of pure poetry? Why? Wasn't it for the same reason that I didn't like sugar in a pure state? Sugar is good for sweetening coffee, but not for eating by the spoonful like gruel...the excess wearies; the excess of poetry, poetic words, metaphors, sublimations, finally, the excess of condensation and purification of all antipoetic elements, which results in poems similar to chemical products.

Song is a very special form of expression....Yet, behold, in the course of centuries, the singers have been multiplying, the singers who, while singing, are forced to assume the posture of the singer and it is this posture that in time becomes more and more rigid. And one singer arouses another, and one confirms the other in an ever more stubborn frenzy of song, ha, they are no longer singing for other people but for one another; and between them, on a path of unceasing rivalry, a constant perfecting of themselves in the singing, a pyramid is created whose peak reaches the heavens, and which we admire from below, from earth, looking upward. What was supposed to have been a momentary flight of prose became a program, a system, a profession—and today one is a Poet, the way one is an engineer or a doctor. The poem has swelled to monstrous proportions so that we no longer control it; it rules us.
One goes from high school to college. One then enters one of the better MFA programs. One is a faithful disciple, a good mentee. One does what one is told, the way one is told to do it, and one thinks about it in the way one has been taught to think about it. One publishes in journals, gives readings. One graduates and takes an adjunct position. One writes papers and attends conferences. One publishes chapbooks. One has controversies with one's contemporaries. One is granted tenure. One publishes trade editions. One collects disciples and mentees of one's own. One dies. One's collected poems are published. Papers are written about one, conferences are held to study one.
Poets have become slaves and we could describe the poet as a being who can no longer express himself as much as someone who must express—a Poem. Yet there can be no more important assignment than for one to express himself.

Now of course, all the good little poet-types are just frothing at the mouth. He's talking about self- expression! He can't do that! There's no such thing! It's totally invalid! Ssshhhh...calm yourselves. Now listen: there's nothing you could possibly do that isn't self-expression. Not one thing. Even the pathological desire to deny the existence or validity of self-expression is itself a form of self-expression. And anyway you're just parroting second- or third-hand French theory you picked up in school. Or confusing what's being discussed here with confessionalism, which is another thing entirely. No one's suggesting that every poem should be some foggy glimpse into the “soul of the poet” or any such nonsense. That would be limiting, and the point here is not to limit anything, but rather to look for a way to get past the ways in which poets limit poetry.
We should never lose sight of the truth: that all style, every distinct attitude forms itself through elimination and is, basically, an impoverishment. Because of this, we should not allow any attitude whatsoever to reduce our potential, becoming a gag—when it's a matter of so artificial, no, of almost pretentious posture as “singer,” then that is all the more reason that we should be especially alert. We, however, up to now anyway, have spent a lot more time perfecting ourselves in this or that style, or in this or that position, rather than maintaining a certain inner freedom and independence from them, in order to work out the right relationship between ourselves and our position. It would seem that Form is a value in itself independently of whether or not it enriches or impoverishes us. We perfect art frantically but the question, to what degree has it maintained its bond with me, doesn't seem to concern us at all.
Of course nowadays we have to add to this the phenomenon of poets slavishly adhering to ideology as well as form, to the extent that for some of them ideology basically becomes form. Anybody who, at this point, is thinking that Witold is just some kind of literary philistine should go get any one of his books and read it. What you'll find is that this is not a writer who can be called “conventional” in any way. Far from it. Witold was just as concerned with form as anyone, but it had to be his and it had to change from book to book because each book was different, and therefore required that form best suited to its content. He was, as should be apparent from this essay, the mortal foe of form calcified into expectation or cliché, and by form he means not only the characteristics of the individual work but also ways of conceiving or thinking about literature in general, works as well as writers in addition to the role of both in the larger culture.
There exist two contrary types of humanism: one, which we could call the religious, tries to send man to his knees before a work of human culture...and the other, a more difficult current of our spirit which strives to restore sovereignty and independence in relation to the Gods and Muses, which are ultimately man's creations. In this second instance, the word 'art' is written with a small letter. And it is beyond doubt that a style that is capable of encompassing both of these tendencies is fuller, more authentic, and more closely relates to the antimonies of our nature than a style that expresses only one of these two poles of our emotions. Of all artists, poets are the people who fall to their knees most persistently—they pray most fervently—they are priests par excellence and ex professo, and Poetry in this understanding simply becomes celebration. It is exactly this exclusivity that causes the style and position of poets to be so drastically unsatisfactory, so incomplete. Let us speak a moment more about style. We said that an artist must express himself. But, in expressing himself, he must also take care that his manner of speaking be in harmony with his real situation in the world and he must render not only his relationship to the world, but also the relationship of the world to him. If, being a coward, I take on a heroic tone, I am committing a stylistic mistake. But if I express myself as if I were respected and loved by everyone, while in reality people neither respect nor like me, I am also making a stylistic mistake.
These days our poets still fall to their knees and pray as much as they ever did, though politics and ideology have supplanted the Gods and Muses. And they certainly conduct themselves, in many instances, as priests. Of what? Of poetry itself. And of course they would all claim to embody the second type of humanism Witold describes, but they are lying. It's the first type they're really into, the kind that forces you to your knees in a state of awe, the kind that leaves you disposed to pay someone to explain it all to you, to initiate you and grant you access to the Great Mystery, which, when it's finally revealed, looks a lot like an internet video of a guy fellating himself, playing on an endless loop.

Yes, Witold is drawing an explicit link between an individual, their personality and situation, and that individual's literary output. This is not an idea that most contemporary poets can support. They prefer a conception of the poet as a sort of disembodied combination college professor/thesaurus. This is because their personalities, in many cases, consist of little beyond the wish to have air conditioning, a pathological desire for middle class physical comfort and a fear of its lack. If poets went around saying things, especially things that related to them specifically, rather than making shadow puppets out of Helvetica, then these people would be in bad shape, because they have essentially nothing to say. So they labor to make saying much of anything unfashionable.
If we want to have an idea of the real situation in the world, we cannot avoid a confrontation with realities that are different from ours. A man who has formed himself only in contact with people similar to himself, who is a product of only his milieu, will have a worse style than he who has come to know various milieus and people. And thus in poets not only their piety irritates us, that complete surrender to Poetry, but also their ostrich politics in relation to reality: for they defend themselves against reality, they don't want to see or acknowledge it, they intentionally work themselves into a stupor which is not strength but weakness.

Don't poets create for poets? Don't they look only for disciples, that is, for people like themselves? Aren't these poems merely the product of a certain, tight-knit group? Aren't they hermetic? Of course, I am not accusing them of being 'difficult'—I am not demanding that they write 'in a way comprehensible to everyone' or that they step under thatched roofs. This would be equal to having them surrender the most real values such as consciousness, reason, a greater sensitivity, and a more profound knowledge about life and the world in order to lower themselves to an average level, oh, no, no art which respects itself would ever agree to that! He who is reasonable, subtle, noble, and profound must speak reasonably, subtly, and profoundly, and he who is sophisticated must speak in a sophisticated way—for superiority exists and it does not exist to lower itself. It is not bad, therefore, that contemporary poems are not accessible to just anybody, but it is bad that they are born of a one-sided, tight, coexistence of identical worlds, identical people.
This touches on what is probably my single biggest problem with the social politics of contemporary poetry, especially so-called “experimental” poetry. You go to a reading and 98 to 100 percent of the people there are white and 98 to 100 percent of them have college degrees, many of them advanced degrees. The overwhelming whiteness is, of course, instantly visible, undeniable. So they have a panel about it and decide that everything's fine since some of their best friends are Black. The college degrees, however, are never mentioned. Why? Because there's no way to look at it honestly and reach any conclusion but this: contemporary American poetry, especially that with high aesthetic pretensions, is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the white middle and upper classes, who can pursue poetry as a profession or vocation because they have the luxuries of education and leisure that their class privilege affords them. It is, in a word, bourgeois.

But don't expect anybody to cop to this. Gombrowicz's term “ostrich politics” is dead on. They just stick their heads in the sand and act like nothing's happening. Of the three big Critical Theory hobby horses; race, class and gender; gender is far and away the most examined of the three. Race is a distant second. Class is hardly discussed at all, except in the context of an empty, pantomime Marxism that conducts itself with all the assumed objectivity, and all the condescension, of 19th Century anthropology. This is the politics of rich painters all over again, and it is both fundamentally dishonest and disgusting.
Allow me to present the following scene....Imagine that in a group of several people, one rises and begins to sing. This singing bores the majority of listeners, but the singer does not want to acknowledge this fact. No, he acts as if he were captivating; he demands that all fall to their knees before this Beauty; he demands a ruthless recognition of his role as Seer; and even though no one attaches great importance to his singing, he acquires a mien as if his word had decisive meaning for the world. Full of belief in his Poetic Mission, he casts thunderbolts, thunders, roars, and goes crazy in a vacuum. What is more, he does not want to admit to himself or others that his singing bores, torments, wearies even himself—because he does not express himself freely or naturally or directly, only in a form that has long lost contact with direct human feelings and is inherited from other poets. Behold he not only vaunts Poetry, he is also enamored of it; being a Poet, he adores the greatness and the importance of the Poet; he not only demands that others fall to their knees before him, he, too, falls to his knees before himself.
The above could easily be a description of a Barrett Watten reading.
This helplessness in the face of reality, therefore, characterizes in a devastating way the style and attitude of poets...The minute poets lost sight of a concrete human being and became transfixed with abstract Poetry, nothing could keep them from rolling down the incline into the chasm of the absurd...Language has become ritualistic...The narrowing of language is accompanied by a narrowing of style, which has led to a state in which poems today are nothing more than a few insistent combinations of a miserly dictionary...Because, on the one hand, the poem, deprived of all brakes, inflated itself to the limits of a gigantic poem...and on the other, began condensing itself to dimensions too synthetic and homeopathic. Poets also began submitting themselves to various experiments and discoveries with a mien of frightening initiation—and nothing is capable of restraining this boring orgy. It is not a matter of man's creativity for man, but of a ritual completed before an altar. And for every ten poems, at least one will be devoted to the worship of the power of the Poetic Word or a glorification of the Poet's vocation.
At this point, Witold is on such a roll that I don't feel compelled to provide much commentary. He's now demolished, by my count: romanticism, symbolism, modernism, post-modernism, quietism, objectivism, academic poetry, language poetry, theory-infused poetry, all things “post-avant”, conceptualism, and flarf. Basically everything within a hundred years of him in either direction. He now proceeds to attack the general community of poets:
If casting aside the works, we concern ourselves with the persons of the poets and the little world that these persons create along with their followers and acolytes, then we begin to lack even more air and space. Poets not only write for poets, but they also praise and honor each other. This world, or rather microworld, does not differ much from other hermetic and specialized microworlds: chess players consider chess the height of human creativity, they have their hierarchies, they speak of Capablanca with a reverence equal to that used by poets when speaking of Mallarmé, and one confirms the other in the feeling of his own importance. Yet chess players have no pretensions to a universal role and that which can be forgiven in chess players becomes unforgivable in poets. As a consequence of this isolation, everything becomes inflated, and even mediocre poets puff themselves up to apocalyptic dimensions and trivial problems assume outrageous proportions.
I used to hang out with chess players, in Chicago, serious chess players, and he's right, the two groups have a lot in common. Witold has noticed another modern problem: there are a hell of a lot of poets:
Another no less compromising fact is the number of poets. To the excesses just touched on above should be added the excess of seers. These ultrademocratic figures explode the aristocratic and proud fortress of poetry from within—and, of course, it is quite amusing when one sees them all together at some sort of congress: what a throng of exceptional beings!
And finally Witold winds down the attack by taking the poetry press, which these days is mostly journals and bloggers, down a peg or two:
Really funny are the criticisms, the little articles, aphorisms, essays, which turn up in the press on the subject of poetry. This is gibberish, but bombastic gibberish, so naïve and childish that it is difficult to believe that the people wielding the pen did not feel the ridiculousness of this publicism. Those stylists have still not understood that one is not allowed to write about poetry in a poetic tone and their newspapers are bursting with such poetic lucubrations. Great is the ridiculousness, too, that accompanies the recitals, contests, and demonstrations, but it is probably not worth going into great detail about this.
And here we'll let Witold go on his way.

Please recall that this essay's title is “Against Poets,” rather than “Against Poetry.” Poetry itself is not the problem. The problem is poets. Those who consider poetry their private property, which they alone are qualified to write, evaluate, explain. Those who insist that their own narrow practice is the full extent of the valid applications of the art. Those who mistakenly believe that what goes on in their own language is all that matters or is relevant. Those who restrain poetry, keep it confined in the restricted space occupied only by other poets.

A few weeks ago some friends and I did a reading in an apartment in Brooklyn. There were about twenty-five or thirty people there. Unlike most readings I've been to or taken part in, the audience on this occasion was not composed of other poets. They were most of them between twenty-three and thirty, a few older, a few younger. They weren't poets but they weren't idiots either, and they came out to hear some poems, drink a little, hang out, have a party. They all sat on the floor while we read and I've never seen a better crowd in my life. They were engaged, invested, responsive. Everybody who read wound up having good conversations with them for hours afterward. Those with books to sell sold more than the average number of copies, and I'm sure that most of those books were actually read. Because that's who they were: readers.

One of them asked me, “Hey, where the hell did all the poets go?” My answer was this: Up their own asses. That is not, however, an irreversible historical process or the fate of “Art” in a philistine age. That's not something poets had to do “to survive,” by which they mean “to have air conditioning.” That's a choice made by two or three generations of individual poets, who could just as well have chosen to do the opposite, but lacked the nerve.

I could now rant and rave, exhort people to make a different choice from now on, etc., but that would be embarrassing. It would also be useless because, as Witold says toward the end of his essay, we can "rest easy: nothing will ever change among poets."


  1. Thank you. I've been feeling something is vaguely wrong with me for a long time because I loathe most poetry readings--and I write poetry. Witold is right on the mark—if a bit less than compassionate and still euro-centered in his critique of poets. I do take some issue with your note of how we have addressed gender more than race or class. Yes, but. Gender is class embedded in the privacy of your own home. And not likely to get much remedy for that any time soon, in literature or out of it, love being mixed up in it. Again--interesting rant. I'll be checking back on your blog.

  2. i stopped reading the cantos quite quickly because it was boring, failing to justify its length. same with this piece.