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Monday, September 19, 2005

Chuck Baudelaire, about to hock a loogie

The Modern and the Present

After getting schooled (in the best and friendliest way [scroll down]) by Franklin about "Language" Poetry, I decided to do some more reading up on it. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's 20th century anthology "For the Millennium" has a useful precis: In "Language" Poetry, language itself becomes the subject. Coming as it did in the early '70s, "Language," which always struck me as a silly name for the genre, now seems like well-thought-out marketing, like a good band name. (Not casting asparagus here -- it took me more than four years to come up with my current band's name, and now might as well be the time to publicly unfurl it: Ruby Thicket.) Because coming as it did in the early '70s, and being primarily concerned as it was with the primary materials of its art, of its being, the logical art-historical name for it would have been minimalism. Except, maybe not, because musical minimalism was already misnomered on the map. But art minimalism shares many features with langpo -- a dryness of affect and tone, an obsession with the history as well as with the materials of its art, an asceticism. What we now call minimalism in music would much better be called "pulse music," because, while the old familiar stuff of Riley, Reich, and Glass developed from the truly minimalist works of LaMonte Young and John Cage, it really was doing something different. Reich's "Piano Phase" and Riley's "In C" and a few other really early pieces share the affect-less asceticism and primary interest in primal materials with art minimalism and langpo, but the style quickly attained affect and the composers quickly drew their primary attention away from the history of their artform and toward their listeners. Which is a good thing! (I'm putting this polemically, but I don't think too unfairly.)

Franklin is right that the Langpoets weren't all "asyntactical," as I badly put it, and that their consideration of their primary materials -- words and their combinations -- led them to a disjunctive aesthetic, either syntactically or by non sequiter.

And as David Antin has pointed out, a commitment to the disjunctive is part of what defines a modernist -- 20th century -- approach to the arts.

Reading Antin and thinking about Langpo led me to page through some of the essays of the art critic Harold Rosenberg, who coined the phrases "Action Painting" (as an alternative, more descriptive name for Abstract Expressionism) and "the tradition of the new," his wonderful slogan for modernism. In an article from the '60s on an art-history conference whose subject was "searching for the present," Rosenberg credited Baudelaire with founding the tradition of linking vitality in the arts to "the modern." This pleased me, since I had recently linked modernism and dandyism, and Baudelaire is the founder of the latter as well.

Since Baudelaire's time, one of history's milder ironies has made a word that originally meant "up to date" out of date, and so when people say "modern," we usually either mean "back then," or we're joking. The joke is complex, a sardonic admission of our lost faith in progress. And even though the old stand-bys of progress -- medicine and technology -- continue to develop -- we can all see that medicine continues to find new cures, and technology continues to go smaller and faster and cheaper -- we are now more conscious of the un-itemized costs -- environmental, psychic, economic -- of progress.

Instead of saying "modern" to mean "up to date," people now say "the present." Antin has talked about the need to be connected to the present. And Jane Dark just posted a really nice piece on contemporary poetics that's all about the need for connection to the present. The poetics presented are not dogmatic; as Jane rightly says, "Poems are indeed free to do anything but leave the present." (Another gem from Jane's gem-filled post: "history’s present is changeable, and . . . one proceeds without any certainty about results." Yes.) But Jane's stylistic interest in Godard's montage sheds welcome light on the Langpo and post-Langpo question. The montage is a species of the disjunctive; in other words, it's intimately tied up with early 20th century aesthetics -- it's old-fashioned now. I write songs in the styles of rockabilly, Tin Pan 32-bar, talking blues, 12-bar blues -- I have nothing against old-fashioned, being myself the fuddiest of duddies. In fact, I even love the Mercer-Kern song, "I'm Old Fashioned." Very quite a lot. ("I love the moonlight . . . Sighing sighs, holding hands, these my heart understands.") But the focus on the disjunctive is another way of cutting the contemporary poetry pie. Ron Silliman's post-avant differs from what he calls the "School of Quietude" by the post-avant's allegiance to the disjunctive; the Poetry Slammers lack this allegiance and so escape notice. (Though not from everybody -- Jordan's hip to them, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if Jane were too.) I am sure that there is an epistemological argument to be made as to why a disjunctive aesthetic has a power of apprehending aspects of the present that a non-disjunctive aesthetic lacks; whatever the merits of such an argument -- and I'm not discounting them (John Berger has made such an argument, persuasively) -- as a reader/listener, I have found aspects of the present apprehended in poems of poetry slammers that disjunctivists have missed.

The present, dude, the present is a procreating gift.

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