Against Progress

Yesterday afternoon, Stephen McLaughlin stopped by on his epic cross-country journey in order to interview me for Jacket 2. He’s interviewing as many poets as he can in Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago … then he’s on his way to San Francisco, before swinging down to Austin, probably with lots of stops in between. He asked me to read some poems — which I wasn’t really prepared to do, as most of our books and things are already packed in preparation for the move — so I hastily pulled up the new version of Spleen that I’m compiling, and later he asked me to read a few of the Translations From Creeley, which I’d slipped in with the latest Kadar Koli in a package for him. Mostly, we talked about poetry.

Afterwards, we stepped outside and he took my picture in the backyard, which felt odd, since we’ll be leaving this house in just a few days. Then I drove him down to the Elmwood area where he was going to meet with Aaron Lowinger. I appreciated his carving some time out to talk with me on a very hot, humid day. And I look forward to the podcasts, and listening to all the other poets he’s planning to talk with.

However… I imagine this happens frequently when one’s interviewed about something… After we were done, I couldn’t stop thinking about awkward responses I’d given to fairly straightforward questions, and mulling over what I should have said. I mean, overall, I think I did fine. Last night, though, tossing and turning, I kept circling round to one question that I wish I had thought a little more about before answering.

It was something like, “So, are you concerned about ‘moving things forward’ with your poetry?” (If Stephen actually used a phrase like “moving things forward,” there were definitely quotes around it, and it came out of a discussion we’d been having about different kinds of poetry and poetry projects. So it was a pretty aware and contextual question, not something he had on a checklist.) And it’s not like I bungled it. I said, “No.” And then I said, “Poetry is going to move forward with or without me, it doesn’t need me for that.” And then I talked about things I’m interested in recovering in and for poetry, like the work I’m doing on Jack Spicer as a medievalist, and the medieval in general in relation to modern poetry.

But naturally, I thought about this some more, and I realized I could have been even more forceful than that. I could have said–I would be exaggerating somewhat, but not that much–that I’m actually against the idea of progress in poetry, the whole teleological, progressive narrative that runs alongside it. The idea that things have to keep being new, and the corollary implication that newer is better.

I thought about Bruce Andrews‘ talk from Orono, 2008, in which he says

For an adventure like so-called Language Writing, emerging in the 1970s, restless with the limits of the New American Poetry, this offers a crucial extra lineage to negotiate.* Not as an incitement to go further, beyond meaning … since the ‘zero degree’ had already been surveyed. But to take inspiration from these extreme (even desperate) radicalisms & yet to go forward to the heart of language, with its distinctive modes of signifying & making sense.

*He’s talking here about an “alternative” lineage for Language Writing, which includes Dada, Fluxus, Happenings, etc., aside from its more traditional roots in Pound, Olson, etc.

Andrews visited our class at UB with Steve McCaffery in Fall 2008 to give this talk again. To understand how patronizing it seemed, you have to imagine the follow-up questions, in which Andrews essentially explained that Language Writing had already done as much as could be done in terms of breaking new ground. The job for poets now is to essentially “back track” to whatever innovations might not have been fully explored by previous movements. Always keeping in mind that “the zero degree had already been surveyed.” For as much as Language / Postmodern writing has tried to break out of traditional, linear, “masculinist” modes of thinking, I’m struck by the Indiana Jones / Joseph Conrad image of poetry that’s offered here — wherein the poet is cast as an explorer, trying to cut new paths to the “heart of language.”

I don’t buy it. To my ear, it simply reproduces the language of capitalism, the language of technology, with its endless demand for newer and better, bigger and faster. (Almost, at times, it’s even the language of war; this is from the end of the talk: “Once we go beyond a totalizing assault on the environmental basics of language…” [emphasis mine]). I’m much more interested in the poet who quietly works on some very small problem in poetry, with little or no regard for how new or innovative the result of that experiment is. I like Jack Spicer’s notion of tradition — don’t have the book in front of me, so can’t quote it except from memory — as being many different poets all working on the same issues from different places and different times. That seems to be a more generous and less “progressive” model. Gaining and losing, he writes; but never really gaining or losing anything.

I find Louis Zukofsky to be a quite modern, even postmodern poet. But I find Lorine Niedecker (pictured, top) to be a much more interesting poet. And it’s hard to put my finger on why, exactly, but it seems to be related to these questions. There’s Zukofsky, grinding away in NYC, corresponding with Pound, whipping the Objectivist movement together, fragmenting, modernizing… While Niedecker toils in obscurity in Wisconsin, working at distilling her Surrealist tendencies into something rural and rhythmical, condensing, smoothing… It’s not just the contrast in life narratives that appeals to me — I simply feel more of a sense of timelessness when I pick up Niedecker’s work. And I find myself turning to it with much greater frequency.

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8 Responses to Against Progress

  1. Sarah Peters says:

    “I don’t buy it. To my ear, it simply reproduces the language of capitalism, the language of technology, with its endless demand for newer and better, bigger and faster…. I’m much more interested in the poet who quietly works on some very small problem in poetry, with little or no regard for how new or innovative the result of that experiment is.”

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I love what you say here!

    Also, I love your candor about having doubts about your interview. I can relate completely to this.

    Great post!

  2. Sikkema says:

    Nice! I think that the idea of “progress” is what fuels a great deal of academic-think and anthology-think and polarizing-think. It feels sort of pseudo-scientific and sort of male adventure model. The New American Poetry crowd improves upon the stuffed shirts then are improved upon by LANGPO and then everything else is just post-LANGPO. Blech. It’s a boring useless narrative that excludes people. Different poets are always doing different things with language. We are not working towards isolating the poetry genome or programming the ultimate poem. I think poets progressing on an individual level is interesting. So, reading all of Niedecker, or all of Jonathan Williams, or all of Baraka, or all of whoever, you can get a sense of how the person/poet changed and how the world conspired in that. I miss you man.

  3. dhadbawnik says:

    @Sarah: thanks! I’m probably coming down a bit harder on Andrews than need be — i think he’s deliberately provocative and looking for a response, antagonistic or otherwise — but he did almost single-handedly make my first semester here a depressing experience…

    @Mike: and again, thanks… I love this: “We are not working towards isolating the poetry genome or programming the ultimate poem.” Ah, but we are, don’t you know? I hear they’re testing it now in a lab somewhere in the Bay Area…

  4. Ben Friedlander says:

    Well, it’s also the language of communism and Christianity … I’m not a big fan of argument by analogy. But I share your lack of interest in teleological poetics. I do value many writers who have that interest (Whitman, for instance), but I value them in spite of it. So far as Zukofsky goes, the things you mention are matters of ambition, not teleology. And if you set him in relation to anyone *except* Niedecker, he’d be the one “toiling in obscurity”!

  5. dhadbawnik says:

    Thanks for the comment. guilty as charged with regards to the analogy, which, if nothing else, could be developed further. but if we’re talking language of progress, i suppose i’d have to get into the whole hegelian notion of history — capitalism, as both fueled by and fuel for history, is perhaps shorthand for that.

    i don’t mean to pick on zukofsky. yeah, he seems ambitious, esp. in those cloying letters to pound. maybe not teleological, but doesn’t ambition imply (or invite) progress? the development in niedecker seems less anxious to me.

    i’m guessing you were at bruce’s talk — wonder what you thought of it. the tone of the language struck me at once, but as i say, i’m not sure how much of this is deliberate rhetorical strategy. i find it off-putting…

  6. Ben Friedlander says:

    Thanks for the answer, David! “Off-putting” is just the right word, one whose meaning is well worth contemplating. I do love Bruce’s work, btw, even the r & d quality of his critical writings … but for the imagination involved. The progress aspect is horseshit. Though even that could be made interesting, I suppose. Poetry as planned obsolescence? Actually, that sounds sort of Robert Kocik-like.

    So far as Zukofsky goes, I guess I would want to distinguish, as best I could, the social or spiritual or material progress of persons or groups, on the one hand, from a belief, on the other, that art as such progresses. Zukofsky’s ambitions did imply or invite an idea of progress, but for himself or his group, The ambition of his work was just the opposite. he wanted to achieve a contemporaneity with certain works from across time. Isn’t that what A Test of Poetry is all about? Anyway, I don’t think all desires for improvement–all qualitative distinctions–are teleological.

    Or I dunno. Do you?

  7. dhadbawnik says:

    No, definitely not. I hate to use another analogy here — but given the initial references to spicer, perhaps it’s appropriate; i’m thinking about baseball. as a hitter, maybe your swing doesn’t improve — it’s a natural motion, you don’t want to mess with it — but you learn to foul off certain pitches, take walks, and you become a better hitter. in terms of poetry, that might mean that you plug in more quickly to those sources your poetry springs from, you learn to recognize and avoid your weaknesses, etc. For me personally, it means trying to remain with something of a beginner’s mind with each new project — and you’re right, i don’t think that’s something zukofsky or andrews would disagree with for their own poetry. though when they begin to put themselves and their work in terms of group ambitions and some kind of overall poetic progress, it’s troubling. and i can’t help but wonder if those concerns don’t inevitably seep into the approach to the work.

    and finally… i think it’s really harmful to engage in the sort of “progressive” discourse that andrews does with the orono talk, because i would think it either discourages you as a young poet by making you feel hopelessly behind, or it makes you want to rush to catch up. and neither of those things is conducive to finding your own “sweet spot” and plugging in to your own tradition.

    on a more positive note… new goose is one of the most impressive projects of any poet i can think of. it seems counterintuitive for someone to go from surrealism to an engagement with objectivism to this weird hybrid of nursery rhyme / political commentary / quotidian observation. it’s about the least progressive project there is. and yet it feels remarkably fresh — perhaps for that very reason.

  8. Ben Friedlander says:

    New Goose is wonderful. These days I’m also interested in how writers decline in power, yet struggle to continue. Which is also like baseball.

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