Monday, July 26, 2010

Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics

Beach, Christopher, ed. Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1998.

As he states in the preface to his critical anthology, Christopher Beach conceptualizes Artifice and Indeterminacy as a “bringing together [of] the most significant previously uncollected essays by avant-gardist poets and critics” that adhere to four main principles: 1) each piece was written after 1980, 2) “contains no material collected in [previous] anthologies,” 3) represents “the strongest...examples of postmodern avant-garde poetics,” and 4) places a premium on essays that eschew “conventional format” (ix). Beach further delimits the anthology by subdividing the material into four separate categories. The centerpiece of the incipient section, titled “Form/Syntax/Speech,” is Charles Berstein's “Artifice of Absorption,” which he composed in lineated verse; of particular importance to his argument is the claim that the “meaning” of a poem is located in a “complex” residing “be- / yond an accumulation of devices & subject matters” and that poetry is a “writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate / ...styles of/ reading” (3). Likewise, he promotes “artifice” over “realism” because the former actively calls attention to its “artificiality,” which both have, but only one acknowledges (4). Bob Perelman's essay “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice” is also important in that it defines, explains, and critiques “the new sentence,” which was integral to texts associated with the Language movement. The new sentence employs paratactic elisions within a sentence, but also “gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance” (26). In addition to attempting “to redefine genres” (26), such techniques foster a discontinuity that resembles the dissociative nature of contemporary “ADD” culture (28), while simultaneously promoting a “quite different political and aesthetic aim” (29) intended to subvert, or at least work outside of, mainstream/capitalistic paradigms. In the second section, title “Pattern/Experience/Song,” David Antin's “what it means to be avant-garde” employs a spatially fragmented, unpunctuated, and colloquial writing style that investigates staid notions of the avant-garde as a discourse and historical tradition; in contradistinction to such formulations, he promotes an alternative conceptualization that does not “look backwards or forward,” but instead “occup[ies] the present” (121) wherein “nothing...could have prepared [one] for [this] moment” (129). Another key moment within this section is Lyn Hejinian's commentary on metonymy, in which the trope “moves attention from thing to thing” and focuses on “combination rather than selection” (147). To this extent, “Metonymic thinking moves more rapidly and less predictably than metaphor permits” because it develops “an associative network” as opposed “elaborated” relationships. Section three, titled “Institutions and Ideology,” concentrates on both the political freight and implications of poetry as a discourse. James Sherry's “The Boundaries of Poetry” explores the possibility of an expanded notion of the poem through an “appropriation [of] art and the use of modes of discourse not native to the writer in poetry” (185) in order to generate “complex systems” that render “dynamic properties” (187) and reside in “an objective zone of fluctuation” (188). Ron Silliman's essay “The Political Economy of Poetry” offers a marco-level view of poetry wherein poems are zones of contention: they “both are and are not commodities” and, as such, poets struggle in coming to terms with this fact (190). Furthermore, Silliman goes on to state: “The social composition of its audience is the primary context of any writing” (194), thus highlighting the contextualization of poems as communal objects, as opposed to hermetic, primarily aestheticized artifacts championed by New Critical approaches during the first-half of the twentieth-century. The final section of Beach's anthology, “Poetics and Gender,” contains some of the most progressive writing in the entire collection. Rae Armantrout's “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity” examines the “question of how best to represent women's social position,” while refuting Charles Berstein's claim that women don't compose in “language-oriented writing” (287). Instead, she proposes that “women had [not] shown a marked preference for poetry of an easily readable...conventional kind” (287). Actualizing this stance are Rachel Blau DuPlessis' “The Pink Guitar” and Susan Howe's “Flames and Generosities of the Heart.” The former employs a fracture, aphoristic, and experimental form that channels “A desire to change the authority relations to the text and possibly to language” in an effort “to stop a normal, normative, coherent, flowing, and consumable” text. To her mind, the “struggle on the page is not decorative” (314): the aesthetic innovations of her essay are politically charged statements that attempt to undermine hegemonic conventions. Likewise, Howe's essay incorporates images of Dickinson's manuscripts and extensive block quotes from a variety of sources to create both a collaged and hybrid text that “[re]Define[s] the bounds of naked Expression” through “indecipherable variation” (336).

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