Chris Stroffolino

Against Lineage

This essay will appear in Spin Cycle, a collection due out in spring of 2001 from Spuyten Duyvil.


I’d like to begin by asking why notions of lineage, canons and traditions (whether "mainstream" or "alternative") are adopted by poets in the first place? There could be several reasons. One is that they provide us with a way to make order out of chaos, by providing a map to get a sense of various strands of writing, or schools of writers — but like any map they are prone to distortion. For the writing that falls outside a given tradition often has as much in common with writing within that tradition than other writings that fall within that tradition. In such cases (and there are many), it seems that questions of lineage, canons, tradition, impose upon a particular poem (and even poet) a pre-existing grid that serves poetry less than it does a more vulgar form of politics.

Politics, indeed, seems to be an ultimately more central reason for adopting lineages (whether mainstream or avant-garde). Of course, to reject the importance of lineage, of influences and affinities, may also be a political act. But I am less interested in denying lineage than in questioning lineages that others have established, and the realpolitik involved in such questions. For instance, if we take at face value the lineages offered in Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence or Perloff’s The Poetics Of Indeterminacy, (and even here there is overlap; not only in which writers they both include but in who they exclude — I’m thinking in particular of Laura Riding), we may distrust the "agendas" they foster. However, if we see Bloom’s theories of poetic influence as a move to break down stultifying academic periodization (that does not let you discuss Ashbery and Wordsworth in the same book, much less non Anglo-American writers as Mann and Kafka), and value the work itself as more literary than critical (in which the poets become exteriorizations (("characters")) in a personal allegory Bloom puts into relationships much as an "abstract" poet may put words and ideas into dialogue with each other), then the book may be generative in ways that do not necessarily implicate a reader of it in his particular agenda/vision/taste.

Nonetheless, the work of both Bloom and Perloff have circulated academically in ways that may legitimize and exclude certain writers and modes of writing. Both have their limits. Bloom reductively dismisses much 20th century writing, while Perloff tends to claim that certain tendencies in poetry are specifically 20th century creations. In Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum (1995), we see a hyberbolic example of a good-guy/bad-guy account of the poetry field. As a historical narrative of how power circulates in the poetic community, this book is highly useful. He traces much of the division in the American poetry scene of the last 50 years to a split over who was heir to the Pound throne — on one side there’s Berryman and Lowell and on the other there’s Olson, Zukofsky and Duncan. This division can be traced through the battle of the anthologies in 1959-60, and many of the "big names" of the last 35 years, in their official pronouncements at least, have thrown their chips either on one side or another (despite the calypso singers laughing at them).

John Ashbery once sympathetically characterized Frank O’Hara’s poetry as "too hip for the squares and too square for the hips ... a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe." This sense of the poet heroically occupying an "excluded middle" between "opposing power blocs" is certainly not unique to O’Hara or Ashbery. It could even be argued that there is something dubious in identifying with such a "position," something similar to the myth of ideological neutrality that has the further "benefit" of claiming "I am such a misfit (outlaw), even the misfits (outlaws) reject me." For some would argue that, far from falling through the cracks between "hip" and "square," the poetry of Ashbery and O’Hara (along with Creeley and others) has attracted (as well as repulsed or simply bored) readers and writers on both sides of the "fence." But in another essay from the late 1960s, Ashbery poses the question (which to my mind recalls Stein’s "Composition As Explanation"): "If people like what I do, am I to assume that what I do is bad, since public opinion has always begun by rejecting what is original and new?" and suggests, by way of a partial answer, that "traditional art" may very well be "even riskier than experimental art." John Cage makes a similar "argument" in his "Lecture On Nothing." At one point in his development, Cage writes, "I fought/ for noises. I liked being/ on the side of the/ underdog./ I got police /permission/ to play sirens" — but such "defamiliarization" allowed him to return eventually to "the old sounds/ as/ though they are not worn out." Both Ashbery and Cage are interrogating the centrifugal (or even Zarathustran) assumptions of what Rene Girard would call the "cult of originality" in which Pound’s dictim "Make It New" becomes "the same old song" as well as the "habit" which Beckett calls "the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit" (just as a hardcore punk music can, after awhile, become more like "easy listening" for a hardcore musician than MOR music). Yet, such a return to "the old sounds" need not be (and perhaps can not be) "once and for all" (as the variety, for instance, of Bernadette Mayer’s work shows).

In a recent interview in the Canadian magazine BOO, Bob Perelman writes "The first time I saw high disjunction it seemed like an heroic act, and the five-thousandth time I saw disjunction it didn’t seem like such an interesting thing." He, too, expresses a feeling of being hemmed in — not only by the "avant-garde" standards as practiced by others, but by the limits of his own practice. When the character Kreon (in his earlier poem "Oedipus Rex") says: "The people, hemmed in by liberal playgrounds/ and rightwing communications systems, are dead/ or dying" — aside from the relevance to the political world-at-large here, Perelman (in the voice of Kreon at least) seems to be referring to a debate over the politics of poetics form in which writers who valorize "play" or "chance" or "music" or "noise" often refer to writers who "have something to say" (regardless of subversive content ) as "conservatives." Perelman, as I read him (see, for instance, his remarks on O’Hara in his essay/talk "The First Person"), may also be seen as another writer who is "too square for the hips and too hip for the squares" in his attempt to de-alienate music from meaning and contention from beauty (or at least pleasure). Such a "project" can take various forms. As Alan Golding has suggested, "Much of Perelman’s recent poetry and criticism has been concerned with its own uncertain generic status."

If "experimentation" can spiral out so far it ceases to be experimental, does returning to "meaning" and "sentences" or traditional syntax (if not traditional "forms") thereby become more experimental? Or should we cease to hold "experimental" as a value and claim, with Wallace Stevens, that all poetry is experimental? How, then, may I separate the, er, wheat from the chaff? I may discover that what I thought I was reacting against is not really the tradition, or the Western Canon, but a reductive misreading of it.

But such reductive misreadings are quite common and it’s possible that many who currently uphold "the great tradition" wouldn’t do so if they really plumbed the texts’ complexities. In a recent post to a contemporary American poetry list, Alfred Corn wrote that, for him a successful poem should "try to get at the truth — which means avoiding falsehood, dishonesty, sentimentality, and cold heartedness." Yet, the problem for me with such a definition of truth is that it claims that poetry is (or should be) always and only at the synthesis point, in a kind of moodless mood. But what of the times when there’s nothing between coldheartedness and sentimentality? After all, Shakespeare defined the ever-fixed mark rather negatively, didn’t he? When I read a Shakespeare play, I read the poetry of a cold hearted character and then the poetry of a sentimental character. It’s only on rare occasions that Shakespeare achieves that "synthesis" point. So why should other poets always be expected to? (Perhaps this analogy is not readily seen because of the myth of Shakespeare as the impersonal — rather than multi-personal — artist). I, too, like poetry to come from the "heart" but am wary of the ridiculously high standards such notions as "the heart" and "the truth" seem to set on a day-to-day basis. Can poetry really be "honest" if it’s always and only "just right" (a la Goldilocks) and "moderate" and the Aristotelean mean or is it possible that there is no moderation but by erring on one side and then on another — in extremis. The latter (as Hank Lazer argues in a recent talk on "the lyric valuables") allows for a more polyvocal truth — (just as the "I" of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems may have more in common with the the "master" or "owner" or "slant of light" of another one of her poems that it does with the "I" of that poem). ...

So there’s these two nuns ... I mean poles. There’s binaries, and dualisms that pose reductive dichotomies. They exist not only between individuals but also within them. Neither option in the debate between so-called "modern" (essentialist) and "postmodern" (differential) notions of subjectivity, for instance, adequately accounts for the most interesting and empowering thinking on the question of subjectivity. This debate is played out in terms of the difference between the aesthetics of a mainstream academic workshop poetry and the aesthetics of a more patently avant-garde poetics of indeterminacy. While the former largely supports humanist values and the notion of a pre-existing "I," the latter, insofar as it problematizes the self at all, considers it a function of cultural/linguistic determinations. Most of the poetry of the former "school" considers poetry an essentially mimetic and expressive art form, while the latter, for the most part, denies the value of personal emotions and relationships. While postmodernism, at its worst, has thrown out the baby (of emotional, perceptual engagement with the world and others) with the bathwater (of an unreflective employment of essentialist humanist "jargon of authenticity"), the "self" that dominates much mainstream poetry can too easily become the bathwater in which the baby is drowned. Unless these two modes are put in dialogue with each other (as Nietzsche argues Greek tragedy put the Apollonian and Dionysian in dialogue), both foreclose an interdividual notion of identity. Between these two (illusory, but nonetheless exercising a real power in the ideological superstructure or hyperontological similacrum in which the cart of theory is put in front of the horse of poetry) poles I find the possibility of POESIS, of what Montaigne calls an author "consubstantial with the work," or what Nietzsche calls "an artistically creating subject," that rejects "essentialism" even if it works largely within a vocabulary that can be, and has been, (mis)understood as a vulgar humanist one.

The position I am taking here may be seen as similar to the position taken by the editors of the controversial Apex of the M who, in their essay "State of the Art," aim to "resist equally both the suburban vacuity of mainstream poetics and verse and the avant garde’s poetics of "language itself." But their wholecloth rejection of the potentially positive value of a poetry which conceives itself as "a process which, however protean it may be, preserves the ego, and strengthens its identity by making it more adaptable to its own disintegration" is naive at best and irresponsible at worst. We need not claim, as the Apex editorial does, that the ego unequivocally gets the last word in a poem that allows it to become "more adaptable to its own disintegration." Rather than "preserving" the ego, I find in such protean equivocations a dialogue between the "ego" and "language" that allows neither a final triumph. Even if certain poems do, in fact, strengthen the identity of the ego, I am reluctant to give assent to a sweeping generalization that claims that there is not, at times at least, a positive social (and even spiritual) value to such a process — especially when the critique, or denial, of the ego itself becomes a form of self-flagellation (or a disabling interjection of the voice of an oppressive system that has a stake in extinguishing any assertion of "ego" not its own). In my own poetry, as well as in the poetry of my protean "lineage," I certainly find moments in which what Paul Zweig calls "the heresy of self-love" is critiqued as well as times in which the Apollonian principium individuation is joyfully left in the dust, but to claim that such moments are the ultimate goal of poetry narrows the range of the properly poetic to the moments of rapturous ecstasy (even if such ecstasy is also seen as a critique) and runs the risk of a too easy affirmation that, in defying gravity, serves to thicken the line between "art" and "life" as much as the flawed alternatives with which these editors take such pains to contrast their stance do.

Granted, such a criticism can be levied at poets of all "persuasions." On another, more "avant-garde" email poetics discussion list I participate on, I witnessed two poets, both of whose work is "polyvocal" and abstract in its problematization of the self, adopt the very defensive (hostile) "I"-based discourse in characters that their own poetries seems to be most vigorously and rigorously opposed to. What this exchange illustrated for me was that the "battle" is not so much between "avant-garde" and "mainstream" as between the poet’s poetry, or the poetry’s poet, and the "non-poetic" utterances made by a person who calls himself a poet. In putting the "non-poetic" statements of these poets in dialogue with their poetry (and the ideologies or aesthetics implied by their poetry), I’d like to at least consider the possibility that the strictures and/or demands that many (if not all?) kinds of poetics makes on its writers can actually stifle to the point where the only "equalizing" outlet can be a kind of ostensibly non-poetic admission of a frustration and rage whose reality may "call into question" or "severely problematize" the very standards for which the poetry itself may be said to be speaking.

This is a problem I believe we all face (unless I’m just trying to bring you down in the hole that I’m in). Although the proliferation of MFA programs can be blamed for promulgating an aesthetic that emphasizes craft at the expense of vision (or political critique), has placed a restrictive horizon (or halo) around what constitutes the poetic and may be seen as an outgrowth of (or return to) the well-wrought urn aesthetics of the New Critics (an aesthetic program that lead John Berryman — in his poem "Professor’s Song" — to suggest that were Blake alive today ((the 1950s)) he would have written prose), even the more self-conscious "process" oriented writers, whether wittingly or unwittingly, become equally aestheticized. The question, then, as now, is: What must poetry do to free itself from what Perelman would call its "abject object" status? There is no doubt a level on which poetry will never be free from this (until the "world market" crashes in on itself). But the increased balkanization and specialization that I’d claim all notions of poetic lineage play a part in is something that can, and in fact should, be challenged. It is not only because of the proposed dismemberment of the NEA, and other market considerations, that I believe we can no longer afford the luxury of willful self-marginalization (however defensive and preemptory) of those who refuse to put their "high disjunction" in dialogue with a more "conventional" rhetoric of self. It is because to "live as variously as possible" should not be merely immured on Frank O’Hara’s tombstone. Despite the much touted urge "to write ourselves out of romanticism," I don’t see what’s so terrible about noticing similarities (in spirit if not in letter) between the romantics at their best and the writings of, say, the language poets at their best.

In looking for similarities between various poetic traditions (or factions), it also must be mentioned that one of the most time-honored distinctions between poetry and other forms of literature (narrative, philosophical, critical, technical) is that poetry rejects the hegemony of teleology and cannot easily be reduced to a single meaning. Its function, in short, is not to have a function. The generative possibilities opened up by such paradoxes are certainly not unique to poetry. We see them foregrounded in the self-reflexive novels of Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes and, despite the way they have been deployed as "theory" in the academy, much post-structuralist writing as well (Derrida on Cixous: "A great writer must be a poet-thinker, very much a poet and a very thinking poet.") In fact, many of these writers are more "poetic" than what often passes for poetry (just as I would argue Bob Dylan, Gil Scott Heron, the Clash, and others — in their eschewing of the "show don’t tell" mode that seems responsible for the decorative quality of much verse — are often more poetic than much of what passes for poetry).

It may be remembered that the pre-Socratics made no distinction between what we now call poetry, theater, philosophy, narrative and even music. As a teacher (and especially when forced to teach such ostensibly non-poetry centered courses that are oriented to producing a "functional" populace more easily harnessed to the economies of the military-[post] industrial complex), I try to emphasize the "poetic" moments found in ostensibly "non-poetic" texts. Poetry, in this light, is at least as much a way of reading, and of being, as it is of writing. Of course, some texts resist such a reading. But I would argue that Lynn Heijinian’s assertion that the novels of Charles Dickens are directed to a "single end" tells us more about the way Dickens was taught to her than it does about the novels "themselves." The task, then, for me, is not simply to break down divisions between "schools" and, as Rod Smith says, "take what you need and leave the rest" but, more broadly, to attempt to de-alienate "poetry" from "prose" not simply to invert the hierarchical privileging of theory-as-knowledge over poetry-as-pleasure, but to do away with hierarchies themselves (though my biases, no doubt, are obvious).

Collapsible Boundaries

And then the need to make it seem difficult
seemed to return. The way the self resists
flesh, the way flesh resists the airiness
of spirits, electrons, or the way systematic
logic and physics exceed themselves.
The need for structure — at least as theme —
if not as form as known by formalism or
even tepid so-called free verse.
                                             By thematizing
the need for structure, one is either 1)
biting the indeterminacy hand that kinda sorta
feeds it (and thus falling into a crack or a loophole
in a corrupt world of opposing camps or 2)
these indeterminacy people like having their
hand bitten — they wouldn’t be indeterminacy
people otherwise and so you’re one of them
after all and can be used in the binary struggle
against formalism or 3) you are really a structure
person since form is never anything but
an extension of Creeley.
                                    I WILL BE a romantic
and that’s why I’m here among those I hate to
see my reflection in who I need like a ghost I’m
afraid to give up and very well may breathe
into being. For it is categories and camps which
cause or at least reflect the cultural contradictions
within which I must work as in monkish solitude of
German night. Such an act of differentiation
could make me christ-like as the human always is,
impaled on a cross you’d see as a crutch
were this a comedy of detachment.
                                                     And so it is.
The unconscious that is collective is the utopia
made conscious and splintered into one’s pact
with realism. Let’s stay enemies for awhile,
language and I, as if nothing can only be done
by appearing to be a candidate’s debate,
a lover’s quarrel with himself, the wisdom of
discontents, the unmoved mover of an accident
that blocks our view of the void it is
in less "heated" moments.

But what if I’m making a tempest of the holy water
a woman has sprinkled on me as a going-away present?
What if such a rift is but a need for a backdrop
against which my "natural propensity" or "acquired habit"
to want to mix things up can be seen in a new somewhat
heroic light? What if I am simply trying to sell another
kind of snake oil that also misses the entire point
of emotional engagement and am flitting along habitually
as it were on automatic pilate, killing, killing, killing
(but not dying). Maybe every synthesis is but another
thesis or antithesis, maybe the circles that don’t
exist in nature are only taken seriously by the superhuman crew
that comes out to round up everyone who knows more
than they do — and yes the animals are laughing at us —
all of us — I shout and find myself alone as if the clouds
of culture clear, for a second, and I see

the one-sided gymnastics of my caffeinated dallyings
with language would not be so sickening were I not
afraid of changing selves midstream as ideas run
out of steam so my renunciation of parachutes
is taken for a test drive if I hope to make it to the
crucifixion once enjoyed vicariously as if ritual
is enough and the body but a word in
a completely democratic dictionary always awake
while we sleep and never asleep when we wake ...

One can not be placed in poetry by the will of one’s poetics.
The trickledown society in which such coins aren’t
counterfeit is the kind of marriage that demands a mistress
unless the tin man never makes it to the heart, the inner city,
the anti-climactic OZ of such knowledge, but in the form
of cops disguised as enterprise zones. Fuck
this hybrid mush, the "natural transvestite"
of the social body. I take a position. Then another.
This is not the same as being on the side
that’s against taking sides. Now, if you’ll excuse me
I got a call to make, to return.

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