Sunday, June 29, 2008

Poetry about Poetry

Speaking of Narcissus, what do you think about poems that are all or in part about poetry itself? I have mixed feelings and I’m trying to understand why.

Certainly there are some well-known poems with famous lines that talk about poetic processes or philosophies of composition. For instance Wallace Stevens’ “The poem is the cry of its occasion” from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” or Robert Creeley’s “Speech/ is a mouth” from the poem “Language.” Stevens of course writes poetry about poetry frequently, since his poems often theorize about what it means to construct a human understanding of the world in an age when a transcendent ground for meaning has been lost. With the idea of God abandoned but not forgotten, “Poetry is the supreme fiction,” as Stevens says in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” struggling to regain something it can’t have back and acknowledging finally that it can’t. Creeley in his poem wants to emphasize the materiality of language and how that materiality is connected to the physical facts of bodies and their histories: words full/of holes/aching.” So these are poems that deal with theories of what it means to create poems and how the creation of poems interacts with the world.

I’ve written some poems that reference the act of creating poetry. Often that’s been because writers, and writing, are part of the psycho-social landscapes I’m exploring. I want to make clear that processes of writing and the problems of thinking of oneself as a writer are caught up in other material processes and can’t really be ignored or denied if one wants to respond thoroughly to the situation at hand. The poem can’t be outside the situation, commenting on it; instead it’s caught up in the situation. But I haven’t often written a whole poem about poetry, except in my first years writing poetry when I was still trying to figure out how poems worked. I mean, I’m still trying to figure that out, but I don’t as often write it down so directly.

All that said, I can see many potential pitfalls in writing a poem about poetry. It can be done in an uninterestingly insular and self-absorbed way. It could turn easily into a redundant essay or exercise in craft, the tedium of craft discussing craft. The subject matter isn’t automatically the most fascinating topic for a poem either, except perhaps to some poets and critics. Poetry about poetry may often be poetry mainly for poets, and the idea of poets writing poetry about poetry for other poets makes me a little claustrophobic. Or at least would if it was done too often. Actually that may be part of why, as impressive as he can be, I don’t love Wallace Stevens’ work, along with the fact that I’m not nearly as worried as he is about the loss of transcendent unity. Often there’s something a bit arid about Stevens’ concerns, too much worrying about the isolated imagination and not enough of the world. Get out of the house a bit more Wallace, okay?

So what makes the difference between a poem that includes worthwhile mentions of poetry and one that doesn’t? Maybe just that its insights and pleasures are intriguing? Maybe in that sense there’s no difference between writing a poem that’s about poetry and writing one about anything else, that it’s just a matter of what the poem reveals to us. But does it require worthwhile insight just into poetry itself, or does it need insight into the connection between poetry and what isn’t poetry? Does it need to show us something about how poetry interacts with the world?

I’m almost tempted to say there’s no value in asking this question in a general way, that as usual it’s better to look at particular poems and see what they’ve done. But whether there’s value in it or not it’s a question I’m still asking myself. And I think I’m asking it because it’s a question about what we want from poetry as either readers or writers. And of course about what we want from poetics, from critical theorizing about poetry.

Have any favorite poems about poetry? Have concerns or an axe to grind? I’d appreciate hearing from you because I’m not yet done thinking again about this one. But I don’t want to think about it too endlessly. A poet thinking too much about poems about poems is likely to get on everybody’s nerves.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Plug, Interview, Birthday

Jefferson Hansen has recently started an online journal/blog called Experimental Fiction & Poetry: Reviews, Interviews, Commentary. Recent posts by himself and others (Larissa Shmailo, Elizabeth Kate Switaj) have concerned Women in Jazz and writers such as Philip Nikolayev and Josh Wallaert. Here’s his call for submissions:

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: I am looking for reviews, books to be reviewed, and interviews for a new blog, Experimental Fiction & Poetry: Reviews, Interviews, Commentary at Send books for review to 4055 Yosemite Ave. S., St. Louis Park, MN 55416

I hope you’ll send him something.

Latest up is an interview Jeff conducted with me, which you can find here. It has enough words about my own life and writing that I don’t need to burden people with any more this week. Take a look and feel free to leave a message either here or there about what you think.

A friend who was over at dinner last night mentioned his concern from an earlier moment that blogs were fundamentally narcissistic, and if this post doesn’t confirm that, I don’t know what will. Other than that, it’s my birthday today and we’re having a heat wave, which means high 100s inland but low eighties here at the beach. I’m headed out now for some sun and fun, or in this case maybe shade and fun. But it’s funny. I’m old enough now that I don’t feel shocked anymore about how old I am whenever a birthday rolls around, and I’m not so old that I feel surprised that I’ve made it to another one. That feeling's coming soon enough, I guess. In the meantime I might as well enjoy myself, and I hope you do too.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


The call for relevance in literature always suggests that literature should directly engage some important aspect of its historical moment, whether in its content, structure, or most thoroughly in the relation between its context and structure.

Anyone who has spent any significant number of years paying attention to poetics discussions has probably noted the frequent repetition of the call for relevance. In fact I would say constant repetition if it weren’t for the fact that the call bubbles up more frequently at some moments than others. Oddly, if not surprisingly, the assertion that literature should be related to its moment is not itself related to any moment. Insistence on the relevance of the moment is not momentary but repetitious.

Given that oddity, it might be worthwhile to ask, what are the relevant issues in any call for relevance in literature?

One issue is certainly that the call for relevance to a historical moment begs the question of what are the most important historical conditions of that moment. That is, what elements of contemporary conditions are most relevant to a call for relevance in literature?

It turns out that different writers have different answers to that question. Some calls for relevance might call for literature that responds to specific historical events, most likely ones related to violence and the abuse of power. Some might call for response to the troubled and even horrific conditions in which some people live, that is, for writing that speaks directly about poverty or the appalling work conditions created by globalist political and economic operations. Some might call for a relevant address to globalist operations understood in their totality; rather than literature addressing some particular group of people or circumstances, this call for relevance asks for literature that exposes the operating mechanisms of global power. Some calls for relevance might suggest that literature, as a structure of information itself, needs to speak to changes in contemporary structures of information, with particular reference to how those structures of information restructure the lives of people using them, for better or worse. And still other calls for relevance might suggest that we need to look again at social problems whose relevance we have forgotten too quickly, for instance various patterns of systematic discrimination which we may think have been resolved but likely have not. This would be a call for writers to recognize that some issues relevant in the past continue to be relevant now.

The result of such calls might be a poem about the Iraq War, a poem for the poor and disenfranchised, an essay that critiques globalist power structures, a piece of conceptual or procedural writing making use of the structure and information found on the internet, or an essay reminding us that gender problems have not vanished just because we have talked a lot about them in the past.

There may be many other kinds of calls for relevance, but the ones above are the ones that seem to have the highest profile recently, at least that I’ve noticed, which might suggest that they are, at the moment, the most relevant calls for relevance. Certainly all of them take up issues of crucial human importance.

That said, many debates occur around the degree of relevance of various calls to relevance. Calls for relevance frequently come into conflict with other calls for relevance, with some people suggesting that their call for relevance is more relevant than some other. Yet it is also possible that all these calls for relevance are relevant, although it’s certainly not unreasonable to debate the extent of the relevance of each specific call for relevance. What all this might suggest is that there may be multiple points of relevance, multiple things about which to be relevant in any given historical moment.

Is there something to consider regarding the reactive nature of the idea of relevance? That is, the call for relevance presupposes that literature should respond to already existing social conditions and that the writer is therefore a social critic. But this fact raises the question of what constitutes a successful or at least a worthwhile response. Does a relevant work of literature prioritize describing that social condition or celebrating or speaking its outrage against it? Does it prioritze imagining another, perhaps better, possible condition? Is it a call for its readers to group together to change or even overthrow the social condition that it speaks against or to engage more thoroughly the condition that it speaks in favor of? Can it be described as successful or not in the degree to which it leads to such change?

Another issue worth taking up is the basic fact that the call for relevance presupposes that a successful work of literature is defined by its relevance. But if we look at the issue of relevance historically, do we actually find that those works of literature most defined by their relevance to the social concerns of their moment are the works that we find most relevant at a later time? It’s intriguing to consider the varying ways and degrees of relevance to their moment of, say, Wilfred Owen, Marinetti, Stein, Dickinson, Hughes, Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and really anybody else. How does one measure, after the fact, the relevance of each of these writers to their historical moment, and how much that relevance is or is not related to the degree of relevance which different people might assign to them today?

And in order to be thorough in discussing the relevance of relevance, we need to consider the other side. Is it possible that an irrelevant poem, however we would know that it was irrelevant when we saw it, might still be engaging and worthwhile? Is it possible to conceive of literature as not reactive, maybe less a response to its times than a creator of its times? Or even maybe as removed from the issue of its most immediate times? Or if some of the extremes implied here may not quite seem possible to some of us, is there a possibility of worthwhile literature that is more irrelevant than relevant, more creator than reactor, more removed than engaged?

None of these issues can finally suggest that calls for relevance are irrelevant. There’s no doubt that relevance remains relevant. Yet it might be worthwhile, in calling for relevance, to consider the dynamics of relevance as part of the problems related to calling for relevance. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that many times, a call for relevance will be related to an issue so genuinely pressing that considering the issues related to the dynamics of calling for relevance will be of secondary or no importance. Yet I suspect that even when that is true, the dynamics of what it means to call for relevance will still come into play when somebody calls for it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Greats in Contemporary Detective Fiction Part Two

Thanks to everybody who wrote in. There were so many interesting suggestions that I felt it would be better to respond in a new blog post rather than in the comment box.

I appreciated all of you who spoke up for Hammett, and thanks for suggestions about his work and Chandler’s. I don’t know the Chandler short stories and I need to follow through on that. Just to develop my thoughts on the Hammett-Chandler connection, while I still think that Chandler is the better stylist, capable of more memorable sentences and paragraphs, I think the social dynamics in Hammett’s work are more insightful and even at times genuinely subversive. Although in Chandler’s work American culture is too corrupt for detective Phillip Marlowe to be in any sense purely innocent, nonetheless his devotion to the job and the client make him a symbol of the right values in a world gone wrong, the last even partly honest man toughing it out alone, attempting to maintain his principles when people around him have none. A fascinating cultural script that remains the standard for the following seventy years of American tough guys, even as those tough guys become less observers of the dark side of human nature and more often just murderous jingoistic thugs. Hammett’s work unsettles the notion of the tough guy detective’s goodness more thoroughly. Sam Spade for instance is much closer to an existentalist hero in a world where all values, even and especially the notions of good and evil, are socially constructed functions based on a will to power and a desire to create images of ourselves that please us. Hammett can thus critique the commodity, American politics and crime not from the perspective of the last man trying to stand outside and above the corruption, but as someone who understands that these kinds of social conditions shape everyone’s character. In Hammett’s work, character and experience are a kind of accident that people are constantly re-shaping, but the accident is one that has resulted from social ideologies.

Mickey, thanks for writing. I had a great time in Seattle, at the reading and otherwise, and it was great to meet some of the people there interested in contemporary literature who I had never met before. I already do teach Auster’s City of Glass in the detectives class, actually, although I didn’t mention it before. It’s the book I use in the postmodern section as an example of a social analysis of the detective fantasy. I use the comic book (or if you must, “graphic novel”) version put together in tandem with Paul Karasik and D. Mazzucchellil. It’s an amazing book. I have to admit that for my students, the power of the drawings really helps ground what I think of as the novel’s ethereality and makes the sense of disorientation more concrete. Also, I’ve enjoyed the Simenon novels that I’ve read and I like their crisp functionality, but I’m not sure they add enough different to the genre to make them worth teaching in a class that’s introducing readers to a genre that most of them don’t know. Is there a best Maigret book that’s a must read?

Peter, it’s great to hear from someone who’s an insider/promoter in the detective and noir novel industry. I like your blog a lot and I’ve now linked to it here at mine. Writers in my social context rarely interact with genre writers or their informed supporters, and I appreciate the chance to think about what that lack of contact does to the way all of us see the world of writing. I’ve read one Ken Bruen novel, actually, though not Priest. I think Bruen does have something of a furiously poetic darker-even-than-noir literary style, and I do like some of the social frameworks and issues he takes up. In the book I read (can’t remember the title now) I found the characters a little too one-dimensional noir for my classroom purposes at least. Maybe the most basic thing I can do in a class of this kind is help people think beyond the desire to stereotype. But I’ll try Priest. And of course I have to admit that unlike you I’m not an enthusiastic and thorough supporter of the genre necessarily. Often I’ll read one book by somebody and if it doesn’t really stand out to me I’ll go on to something else.

Both of you recommend the Deluca series, which I don’t know, so I’ll check that out. Is there a best place to begin?

Chris, I think the PD James Dalgleish novels are good too. Obviously he’s her most popular detective, given that the several Cordelia Gray’s are out of print. James writes well, and the Dalgleish books really have powerful narrative drive. They can be intense. James is something of a political conservative and that comes across in fascinating ways, and even the thought of the poetry Dalgleish must be writing makes me cringe. What I find worthwhile about the Cordelia Gray books is their insight into what it would really be like to be a woman trying to be a private detective. Although conclusions of James’ novels are often convoluted to the point of total unbelievability (PD James and The Curse of the Puzzle!) , her books still do seem grounded in an understanding of social conditions and actual human emotion. She’s far better than many detective writers of her generation.

Clint, thanks for the pointer to the Chandler stories. I definitely need to check those out. Thanks for the Andrea Camilleri and Laurie R King suggestions too. I remain surprised that in a genre which has so many women readers, there are still only a few women detectives. In fact one of the things I’ve noticed is how many women (not all by any means) who write detective novels still focus on a main male detective. I wonder whether that speaks to the conservatism of the genre or is maybe just a follow-the-money thing (and the two obviously would be connected). I’ve read some of the exceptions (Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and others) but haven’t yet found much that’s really hugely insightful, although the Grafton books are quite entertaining. And thanks also for suggesting Resisting Arrest. I don’t want to spend too much time reading criticism of detective fiction but that sounds worthwhile. Do you know the book Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style? It has an excellent overview of film noir, but the psychoanalytic tinge to many of its brief readings of specific films can be really ridiculous. Sometimes after watching a film I go to that book to see just how hilariously off base the reading turns out to be. A few of them are pretty good, but a lot of them really make me laugh.

Anybody have further follow-up thoughts or suggestions? I’ve put together a new list of books I should read based on these comments, and I really appreciate it.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Little Known Greats in Contemporary Detective Fiction

Actually there aren’t many, at least that I know of. I’m hoping that maybe you have some suggestions.

I’m teaching a course on Detectives in Fiction and Film again this summer. It’s more or less a survey: I start with Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and their concept of the great detective, cover the feminine British rural murder mystery and the American masculinist hard-boiled response. Then we look at the way postmodernism exposes the philosophical and representational shortcomings of the genre, shortcomings that were apparent right from the first, when Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Roget” showed, despite his intentions, exactly how disconnected his notion of the great detective was from any actual crime. After that I like to close with one more contemporary work, and this is where the problem comes in: finding a contemporary book of detective fiction that has enough qualities of serious literature to be worth teaching, at least for me.

Some explanations. After postmodernism, detective literature and film/TV went in several key directions. One was simply to keep doing the genre as if the critique never happened; there’s still money in it, after all. Another was simply to accept or even heighten the artificiality of the genre, indulging in overt period piece nostalgia or other “look it’s fake but it’s fun anyway’ shenanigans, a fascinating example of which is the recent Jericho series on PBS. More fruitful though, to my mind, is what I think of as works that participate in “The Era of the Non-Traditional Detective and the Problem of Culture.” In works of this kind, a new attempt to ground the genre in the realities of the world is made by some combination of having a non-traditional detective (differences in race, class, gender, sexual orientation and cultural or national context abound) explore a contemporary social problem (often also race, class, etc, but also money, politics, power and so on). If the plots remain trapped by the disconnect between the necessity of a puzzle and the real world dynamics of crime, in taking on significant cultural problems these books can at their best offer effective social criticism. Perhaps the essential paradigm for these works are the great Harlem crime novels of Chester Himes. The best of these novels, Cotton Comes to Harlem, has frequently been the book that I use to end the course. Its over-the-top campy plot nonetheless manages not only to provide a panoramic picture of social conditions and political power in Harlem but also defines a new notion of how detectives succeed: British genius and sidekick and American last even partly honest man on earth toughs it out are replaced by equal and flawed partners, while a mind devoted to the logic of the puzzle is replaced by the importance of knowing the neighborhood and the players. But lately I’ve been teaching work other than Himes, not only to keep things interesting for me but also to move more definitively to the present, since the Himes novels are now more than forty years old.

This session I’m going to close with Dog Day by Alicia Gimnez-Bartlett, a well known mystery writer in Spain. I like it well enough but it’s not completely satisfactory. Barcelona police detective Pietra Delicado is a lustful, independent feminist detective with concern for social outsiders and who abhors all violence, especially police brutality. The book explores the connection between greed, human poverty and animal abuse. It’s also very amiably and comically Spanish: even the police don’t work all that hard and there are long digressions for meals, socializing, and love affairs often only tangentially related to the plot. There’s none of the absolute and constant devotion to the job that marks American detective fiction. So it’s an enjoyable and insightful book, if ambling rather than gripping and with a style in translation that’s very clunky.

I also really like Henning Mankell, a Swedish author whom Michael Davidson suggested to me. Mankell’s Kurt Wallender novels always explore globalist economic and cultural problems, but the books are too long to be read in a few days of a summer school class. After that I’m stumped: the PD James Cordelia Gray mysteries are out of print, for instance, and some other books I’ve read have their interest but are sorely lacking in style, character, and/or story. The Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone novels come close to being good enough in some cases. Maybe a Walter Mosley book would do, but I’m still figuring that out. And of course the Prime Suspect TV series starring Helen Mirren (pictured above) is great, but it’s not a book.

What do I mean by “serious literature” when talking about detective genre fiction? A couple things. I’d like a book to have all of them but even one or two is enough. Some quality of style would be great, although frankly in the whole history of detective fiction it might be said that only Poe, Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, PD James and Himes have more than a throwaway style (Doyle and Hammett to a lesser, occasional extent; Christie is functional but no more). Even more essential than quality of style, significant insight into human character or social realities can help raise a book to a standard that I might call worthwhile literature. And story counts too: it can’t be too utterly and unselfconsciously ludicrous.

It’s remarkable to me that despite its tremendous popularity, or of course perhaps because of it, detective fiction has produced many less excellent works of literature than science fiction or even horror fiction. I’m not sure what to make of that, except perhaps that science fiction and horror allow more range for a speculative intelligence and so are more likely to encourage genuine originality. But right now I wold make that point only tentatively. I’m still looking for some great works of recent detective fiction to prove that the genre is alive and well and not just riding its commercial success into literary oblivion.