Wednesday, July 28, 2004


Why now now? or, American powetry and the past, our greatest growth industry

(usual cavil: I know this is probably not all new, or even at all new, but it is as it is occurring and whatever I may have previously read this is first thought from me, so inherently interesting to—invested in—me. It will speculate, and go on, and I am neither awfully-well-learned nor Montaigne so I fear my prose rhythms may not scintillate, let alone illuminate. Conclusion: proceed at your own risk, perhaps by your own lights!)

I’m thinking of the removal of the word from its oral space as a result of wide-spread text availability as a result of printing technology, coupled with the spread of the Reformation, itself supported by the decentralizing possibilities of printing and informing the effect of ‘essentializing’ the word (i.e. stripping it of ‘physicality’ as its first/primary manifestation), sending truth ‘inward,’ beyond physical representation, to a ‘purely’ mental space (I’ll be happy to expand on this for anyone not familiar with this movement of representation associated with early Protestantism).

That technology’s ability to radically foment change while simultaneously keeping form unchanged beyond those forms’ normally-changing state (i.e. ‘evolving’) in a more-purely oral culture, thus undermining a true form’s natural ability to accommodate invention w/ the gradual rolling-over of tradition etc. perhaps necessitates the development of a more-radical rebellion against what-is-received which, since each bucking back against the what-is-text is then recorded, becomes an attempted ever-cresting avant-gardeism (an actualization of what otherwise has been the failure of the radical socialist “perpetual revolutions” to succeed in burying history?).

I mean, the past may feel more burgeoning to us because it is more burgeoning. Our means of preserving information is historically unprecedented. Nothing goes fallow, past forms and iterations don’t only seep into the language like composting elements, they preside over it like idols or corporations, and form absolutely unaccommodating over centuries can feel like tyranny. “Means of Production” indeed. (note to self: did Benjamin say similar things in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?” Oh dear. I’ll go check later, self says.)

I mean that tradition is not mediated through the generations by personalities, but by texts, direct. I mean, personalities modify, but not as completely as in an oral-primary culture, even one as late as Dante, or Chaucer. So we get every sonnet direct, not mulched or preserved through the memory of generations, preserved on the page and not in mouths, behind eyes. By mouths transferred, even if word-for-word identical, is of an entirely different character. That game of telephone, by which tradition must have gradually wended its gradually-mutable forms through history up until history began. Thinking in these (neoromantic?) terms allows me to understand, almost as vision, the iconoclastic impulse which fuels the avant-garde (and explains my ambivalent sympathy for those times Ron Silliman plays the “cooties” game).

You can see the way the printing press affected language in one clear instance, as a tool/shaper of the nascent nation-state. (caveat: this I was taught in a class called “Nationalism: the Politics of Language and Culture” in connection with Geertz, Hobsbawm, de Saussure, & co. So I state it in reference to them. If anyone asks, I will go look up more specifically the anecdote.) In the middle ages, one could walk from Gibraltar up through Provence and down to Sicily, and find that each fishing village could talk no problem with the neighboring villages, in a gradual continuum. This continuum gradually shifted, so that those in Aragon could not talk at all with those in Sicily. Neither could those in Liguria talk with those in Sicily. The printing press allowed for a centralization of power and one of the ways it allowed this is by the wide dissemination of teaching texts. The French king in, I believe, the 17th century (again, I’ll do research if anyone’s curious, I’m flying by memory now, which is a little ironic given my topic), saw it illegal to use any dialect but that spoken in the Ile de France. Eventually, you have Normans and Marsellaise able to speak to each other, and those on the coast in southern Provence unable to communicate effectively with their Spanish neighbors in the north of Aragon. Both effects were desirable from the p.o.v. of the centralizers, in that it both tied the country together via communication and gave it a resultant sense of shared community—created the country, really— and also weakened those local affections which cross national borders (you can see the problems such things cause to large states with the dynamics across the Afghan/Pakistan border) by way of shared language and culture. Think of what impact audio-visual media are having on local dialects in our country, and you get a sense of how strong a centralizer media is on language.

That kind of power we all, poets, live under, and its weight may have distorted what form is, as a presence, in our art, and necessitated the reactions which have come, as a way of saving/representing self in poetry (powetry?).

So such centralization has occurred with poetry, too, in space, then. But the centralization I’m concerning you with here is that which has occurred in time. I suppose this is why postmodern is considered ahistorical, archaic in its manifest juxtapositions. (I also think—and maybe this is the soul of this post—that maybe, now that it’s ten to fifteen years behind me, I’m starting to learn what what I learned in college was all about. Not just words. This is very humbling.

What writer can know the myths they write within the confines of ? Even Barthes wasn’t immune. I expect I’ve exposed/created a few of my own here I won’t see for more years. Maybe that’s the best you can do, trace out the walls you want to exceed before plotting your new shape beyond them.) The centrality works through time, gathering its select into the gravitational center of the canon, and since we are still people of the same size as used to fit into the previous ‘system’ of history, it grows a little rougher to negotiate the space for oneself with ‘tradition.’

What I mean is, the local sonneteer is not the living embodiment of sonnet for the polis (so to speak), he is just another guy who isn’t Shakespeare. This is why I have so much admiration for those who break out of the fragmented social structure of USA and work to create community, along the lines of what Spicer did, I admire that greatly. To embody real personhood, not only textualness, is an importance of its own.

I know this all sounds theoretical, speculative, even cranky. Think of what audio recording media does to musicians. A song becomes known, and everyone hears that one time it was played over and over, until that one time becomes the song. The artist, or another artist, playing it live has limited ability to improvise. Thus, jazz takes stage as a formal structure for improvisation. Something like that is what I mean. Things have to keep changing because otherwise they won’t change at all.

Further speculation: once a word is disassociated from its oral space, who of us can even fathom what other disassociations ensue? Are there cognitive-physical links to somatic expression (i.e. dance, facial expression, non-vocabularied vocables, parasympathetic response?) which go un-“triggered” in text-based poetry (which almost all our tradition is and almost all our writing is, even when uttered, I’d think) or which have for most of humanity governed the forms apparent to poems through tradition? In this light, experimentation is a groping back to wholeness, to reality, out of the cave.

As I’ve said, I find Chatwin’s “The Songlines” useful as a placeholder, a place to imagine what humanity in an evolutionary-mandated balance to its capabilities as a species would look like, the arts unbroken from themselves, from us, from our days.

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