October 14, 2005

Theory Kampf

Hokey smokes! The New York Times online edition today has a piece on W. S. Merwin; discussion of Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery; a review concluding with a paean to fiction and poetry as the greater makers; and a careful consideration of a book based on a baker's dozen of double sestinas. You might conclude they were mad about poetry over there.

Except...no poetry. We get, in order: a memoir; Helen Vendler's latest critical opus; a Walter Kirn novel; and Alice Mattison's sestina-based family romance in which "she has made the scaffolding invisible," meaning it's prose. This is the paper's vaudeville; as ever, poets and the idea of poetry have a pretty decent chance of making it to the Sunday Times' Carnegie Hall, and long as no actual poetry is performed onstage. As long as the book in question is the letters, the journals, the year in Tuscany, the cookbook by or biography of—poetry is a hot ticket.

It would be callow to blame the Times for this. It is, after all, an expresssion of a general cultural paradox; by that light, today's Times is simply a sustained anatomizing of the set of understandings by which "Poetry" has become a category revered only in proportion to its absence. Give people a novel, a film, a memoir that's "lyrical" or "poetic" and the critics will swoon and the blurbs will fly. It means these things are light and lovely. Poems themselves, however, are too heavy to bear.

What I'm interested in today is what seems to ride shotgun with this drama in the Paper of Record. Here's the aforementioned paean in the penultimate sentence of the Kirn review: "Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea," John Updike once observed.

This is a curious position in relation to the very trend in question; why, one might ask, does the paper printing this claim (and celebrating Updike in its Editor's Note) celebrate Vendler's shore-hugging rather than look at a book of poetry? Let's go to that review, by Yale English Dept chair Langdon Hammer: Criticism today is impenetrable and irrelevant, since it is jargon-ridden and no longer interested in literature. Or so people have said. If you hope this second sentence is the beginning of a caveat rather than a simple dodge, you'll be disappointed when no take-backsies follow.

Criticism, at least of a certain kind—the impenetrable jardon-ridden kind, the kind sometimes called "theory"—here takes the role of the exalted/reviled. It appears always in a nimbus of anxiety requiring it be mentioned at the same time it's excluded. That is to say, it takes a structurally identical role to that of poetry. Which leads us gently away from the Gray Lady and toward blogland, where we endeavor to make sense of recent discussions in which poetry and theory are seen as anything but congruent...

Josh linked to an interview with Jules and both cited a Rod Smith poem (which I'll recite here) which perhaps inspired an entry or two by 'Dette though she'd been mulling closely-related issues earlier that cycle. Here's the Smith passage:

Let us pause a moment
to consider the relation
of theory to poetry.

Poets who do not have
an interest in theory tend
to be boring because
their works are uninformed.

Poets who have too much
interest in theory tend to be
boring because their works
are not alive.

This is what is known as
a dichotomy.

For Josh and Jules this has great appeal, and I can't say I blame them. It's not just the clarity of the argument (and it is an argument, though not one that favors either of its terms—a fact which complicates recent salvos regarding the status of argument in poetry), but how the language works: it's direct, even prosaic (despite line breaks and strong tendency toward six-syllable lines), and we recognize—I think—this tone, this cards-on-the-table discursivity, as one of the developments of emergent poetry over the last couple generations. Moreover, we don't just find it familiar, but often understand it as the product of the very dialectical pressure it describes: a poetic sound that comes from informedness and vivacity pushing againt each other since ths Seventies. So it's eloquent and eloquent at multiple levels, multivalent without elliptical ambiguity: dialectics in a teacup.

The problem is, I just don't believe it. I don't accept its propositional binary, or binaries; I don't really know anything that tells me that theory/poetry is a real oppositional pair, nor informedness/lifeness. Even those who have more polarized preferences seem to accept the pairs, the suppositions: 'Dette's stance, for example, seems more mistrustful of theory, but she accepts the binary and even clarifies it into the form "life/theory."

I admit I have trouble understanding this, since I don't feel competent to tell people when they are or aren't writing about their lives—aren't we always—or when they're acting out of theory or just livin'. If someone writes the sentence "I like Cixous," is that less about their life than "I like my cousin"? If they write "While reading Cixous, I thought about...," is that less lifelike than "After going to the movies with my cousin, I thought about..."?

Meanwhile, the line-worker who votes for the union because she thinks it means better wages, and the one who votes union after reading Gramsci; is one keeping more sets of the books than the other? What if you vote union after hearing that Billy Bragg song: life, or theory?

What if I acquire theoretical knowledge from reading a poem? Is it a lesser poem, not a poem at all? Well, you might respond, define theoretical knowledge. Which is totally fair, excepting only that it's not possible, since we now have to return to the same set of questions: is the belief in unions theoretical knowledge if I got it from Gramsci but not from, I dunno, just thinking, or from my union rep, or Billy Bragg? Is the idea "negative capability" a theory, or not? Is poetry that has it theoretical, or not?

The burden of these definitions isn't really on theorists or poets, but it does fall heavily on anyone who insists that the two can be separated, that there could be, in the lovely terms on offer, "two sets of books." By the way, is this metaphor, which points up how the distinction between theory and life shares the economic distinction between public and private, itself a theory, or not?


This longish entry has been a bit of a cheat. The criticism Langdon Hammer means, which is also the "theory" of which various blogging poets (and others) speak, isn't anything in general; it's a fairly specific constellation, with a history and an ideology and so on. I'm not sure I'm the one responsible for the generalizing move, where unspecified rejection of largely post-structuralist, sometimes-French, sporadically-Marxist, allegedly-relativist theory becomes an explicit rejection of "theory" in general, never for what it sez, always for the heavy way it sez it. The generalizing move gets made all the time, all over the place, out of laziness, incapacity to render fine distinctions, and because anti-intellectualism is fun. Two concluding notes:

One: the contemporary exclusions of theory and poetry are coterminus and identical acts of anti-intellectual aggression designed to force practioners into the realm of agreeable accessibility; poetry's rejection of "theory" is a balloonist hacking off and jettisoning his own legs in hopes that the reduction in weight will allow him to float back up into the empyrean of dominant culture.

Two: rejection of theory (and the separation of theory from "everyday life" is the main form of this rejection) is, if it has any substance at all, a rejection of specific social and political projects and practices, and should admit to that, rather than pretending to be a simple mistrust of an abstractable kind of thinking.

Posted by jane at October 14, 2005 05:45 PM | TrackBack