Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gertrude Stein is Overrated Because of Men

In an interview done by Karen Winkler for the publication of Elaine Showalter’s new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf), described as a “600-page survey of known and not-so-known authors,” Showalter answers one question in a way that really surprised me:

Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?

Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a "sister": That doesn't sanctify her work. We can criticize it.

The idea that Stein is unreadable is hardly new, although I’m a little disappointed that such a well-known scholar as Showalter finds work unreadable that not only I have read with pleasure, but many of my undergraduates as well—Stein often ended up being the favorite writer of many students who took a class I used to teach on Modern American Poetry at George Washington University. Still, the unreadability charge, no matter how transparently incorrect, is one I’ve heard many times. Beyond a bit of bored bemusement, it doesn’t get much of a rise out of me anymore.

The point that surprised me though was the idea that Stein played an important role in modernism but only, apparently, for men.

My goal here isn’t primarily to criticize that idea, although I will a bit. Instead, I simply don’t understand it. What does it even mean to play a role in modernism only for men? Can someone explain that?

For instance, I hope Showalter doesn’t mean that Stein wrote on subjects only of importance to men. Leaving aside the problem that if she’s unreadable, it wouldn’t be possible to know what subject she was writing on, there’s nothing inherently masculine that I can identify in the subjects that she writes on: reconsidering of the value of the domestic in Tender Buttons or exploring lesbian sexuality in “Lifting Belly” are only two examples of subject matter that hardly strike me as masculine.

(Note: by unreadable, I know that Showalter probably means "no fun to read," but still...)

Does Showalter mean that the way Stein wrote was only of interest to men? That her concerns with the nature of language and representation are theoretical concerns that only men care about? That one seems wrong also, given the significant influence Stein has had on many women writers since, whether Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack, Harryette Mullen or many others.

Does it mean that, politically and socially, Stein’s writing, and perhaps her behavior (“played a role for men” doesn’t automatically suggest that it’s Stein’s writing under consideration here) played no role in the development of feminism or the history of feminist literature? Here I’m a little out of my own area of expertise. I don’t know enough about Stein’s relationship, say, to the Women’s Right Movement in the U.S. or any other kind of feminist social action, so I suppose it’s possible that she had no connection to women’s political movements in her own time, without quite believing that the phrase “played a role (only) for men” really expresses the problem adequately. And again, since many feminist writers of later generations (again, see short list above) have been very influenced by her work, how can it be true that her role was played only for men?

Can anyone help me? What does Showalter mean here? And is the point uniquely her own or have others made it and I’ve simply never heard it before? Is there a discussion going on among experts on women’s literature about what makes literature “for men” or “for women” that involves grounds by which Stein might be seen as a writer for men?

Thanks for anything you can tell me.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Are You a Poetry Ideologue?

Because of some comments about a month ago on Johannes Görannson’s blog, in which Johannes was accused of being an “ideologue,” I’ve been thinking about what it might mean to be a poetry ideologue and to what extent I and other people I know are or are not poetry ideologues.

I would define a poetry ideologue as someone who can only like poems if those poems express ideas (whether in theme or aesthetics) that the person approves of or agrees with. The true ideologue cannot like any literature that does not fit with what the ideologue believes literature should do. Pure ideologues would think that the literature they don’t like is so harmful that in fact it shouldn’t exist.

So now it’s time to explore whether I’m a poetry ideologue.

Someone who has no standards or set of values at all regarding literature would not be particularly interesting to me, and of course anyone who says they “like everything” probably just isn’t being honest with themselves. The most interesting critical takes on literature always have some sort of defined perspective. It doesn’t have to be rigid or narrow but it has to exist. So key questions for me are both how one defines what one values and whether or not one can like work that does not fit those values.

I must be at least partly an ideologue (if to say “partly” here is not already inherently a contradiction). I have strong ideas about what I like and what I don’t and why. I don’t think that literature I don’t like shouldn’t exist though, although I can think of the work of a few poets that, if it did not exist, wouldn’t bother me much.

Still, here’s a partial list of some poets from about 1800 until now whose writing I really like and who don’t fit well with my usual ideas of what I think makes for the most worthwhile poetry or whose ideologies or aesthetics are very much different or even opposed to mine.

John Berryman
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Ezra Pound
Robert Frost (North of Boston only; the rest, yuck)
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Laura Riding
Algernon Swinburne
James Wright

The list is actually pretty short, isn’t it? That may be partly because my ideology regarding poetry is fairly broad-minded, while I clearly prefer risk-taking aesthetics and poetry not afraid to explore social and political problems. I don’t feel like I have to choose my interests too narrowly (none of this “Language poetry is great! New York School sucks!” for me, as just one for instance) and so there are probably a fair number of writers who wouldn’t like each other’s work while I like both just fine. Nor am I putting writers like Audre Lorde or Nazim Hikmet on the list: as a writer I have nothing much in common with their social or political struggles or aesthetics, but I love their ideas as well as their work. And I suppose the list would be longer too if I was including poets whose aesthetic I don’t really feel much commonality with and whose work I like well enough without deeply liking—Plath or Sexton or the Life Studies/Union Dead-era Lowell, for instance, or earlier figures such as Yeats and Stevens. Similarly there are many poets whose poetry and aesthetics I really love while not entirely agreeing with their poetics. For instance I could probably quibble with almost everything Steve McCaffery or Ron Silliman has ever said about poetry while at the same time I think their writing is fantastic and it has been crucially influential on how I think and write. And needless to say perhaps, there’s a very long list of writers whose ideas I don’t like and whose poems I don’t like either. As one example, I’ve read a few Robert Pinsky poems that I like well enough, but the rest strike me as so much Dead Text.

Just as an aside, Silliman, whose sometimes murky yet still useful School of Quietude notion sends so many people into bemusement or teeth-grinding anger, and who is perhaps more often accused of being an ideologue than anyone else in contemporary poetry, in fact writes frequently and admiringly on his blog about poets whose aesthetics he does not share. I sometimes wonder if many of the people who accuse him of ideological narrowness actually consider how much narrower their own aesthetic range is.

Anyway. It turns out to be true that I find it difficult to really love poetry that goes against my own ideas about poetry. But my guess is that I’m not alone in that problem. My guess is that there are more Poetry Ideologues out there than there are people who will acknowledge that they too don’t like much poetry that isn’t in accordance with what they want out of literature. Frankly, I think Poetry Ideologues are much less of a problem than people whose preferences are guided by ideologies that they have never tested or become conscious of having.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Beyond Avant Garde/Mainstream and Back Again

Based partly on the discussions about third-way and hybrid poetics that we had on this blog some weeks back, Michael Theune have been playing around with some ideas for conversing at more length in a public forum on the issues involved. Perhaps a panel at AWP or other conference, perhaps a one-day or even weekend conference if we could find a location and the resources.

Below are the ideas we have at this point for a potential event of this kind. Both of us would appreciate hearing any thoughts you may have. Additions, questions, problems, annoyances, accusations of heedless arrogance or willful ideological bias are all encouraged.


Recent years in poetry and poetics have seem numerous attempts to break out of, blur, or undermine distinctions between ideas of “mainstream” and “avant garde” poetics, a distinction that from the 1950s well into the 90s often dominated discussions about new directions in contemporary poetry. Yet after as much as fifteen years of attempts to move beyond this often unnecessarily limited distinction, it’s important also to move beyond assertions that the distinction has collapsed or is irrelevant. Instead, it now seems time to evaluate the specific attempts that writers and anthologists have made to create a hybrid poetics. Are we really living in an era when the mainstream/avant garde distinction no longer has value and significant common ground has been found among poetic approaches long considered opposites? Or has this new era simply adjusted, replaced, or perhaps only re-named this older boundary? Do the terms “avant garde” and “mainstream” still have any contemporary value or have they become the marks of a bygone age? If, as Hegel suggested, any synthesis of earlier ideas is always followed by a new antithesis that challenges it, what future poetic ideas will challenge any common ground that actually has been achieved or has been claimed as achieved?

This panel will feature diverse answers to these and related questions that have intrigued writers, editors, and anthologists involved in the issue. Are boundary-crossing, hybrid aesthetics a moderate, moderating force that smooths distinctions in a homogenizing and perhaps bland way, or one that allows for radical conjunctions not dreamed of in earlier generations of the “poetry wars”? Have anthologies promoting the collapse of the mainstream/avant garde distinction created genuine bridges across aesthetics or simply new poetic coteries? Do we now have no camps, new camps, more camps than ever? Have a variety of aesthetics really been included in the hybrid approach or have they instead been offered only token inclusion? Is the attempt to eliminate or downplay coterie inevitably a good idea, or is the often intense argument and difference between coteries a crucial source of vitality in new directions for poetry? What fringes and margins remain, if any? To what extent has the debate been framed too often as simply a problem within American poetry and thus remains wedded to a nationalist vision? What role do poetries in different languages, multiple languages, and translation play in complicating the notions of what it means to cross boundaries, whether aesthetic, linguistic, or cultural? What roles do race, class, or gender issues play in this new environment? When if ever are there reasons to assert the importance of maintaining or recognizing boundaries? What aesthetic, cultural, or ideological boundaries remain most relevant?

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Pot Calls The Kettle Black

How about the implications of that metaphor? Still, the writer writing the following deplores the situation that he describes below and believes to be true:

I also think poets are no longer taught the art of “judgment”, or evaluative criticism…”good” and “bad” are simply not supposed to be the way we look at things—they are more apt to look at how poems work, the various contexts behind poems and at poets themselves, as, perhaps, one big happy family of the like-minded engaged in a collective project which will lift them all equally to whatever degree of importance poetry can still have in public life.

Huh. The above does not seem to me to be a comment that shows an understanding of the art of judgment. It seems general, willfully subjective, and totally lacking in evidence. Did I forget to mention pompous and wrong?

A lot of poets obviously know how to judge poetry and spend a lot of time doing it, whatever they were or weren’t taught and by whom. Anybody think I’m wrong about that? Sure, many people—maybe most—have poor judgment, when it comes to poems or anything else. But does anybody think that poor judgment is a recent development in the history of literature or that it’s something that has been created by recent changes in what aspiring poets learn in school, unlike the good old days when people were really taught how to read poems?

I’m not going to say, here, who this writer is, since my goal isn’t to insult anyone but to encourage all of us wonderfully trained evaluators to evaluate just a little more carefully what we ourselves are saying. You can find out easily enough who said this if you want. Let’s just say that he takes himself to be a commentator of some significance upon contemporary poetry, and that other people seem to believe he is one.

It’s not that I expect every person writing a blog or participating in a blog discussion to avoid big statements or resist generalized accusations addressed to the aether. Let’s face it: they’re all over the place. It’s just that I’m thinking, were I to receive an undergraduate student paper with comments like this in it, the paper would look like C material to me. “On what grounds do you make this claim?” is one of the main comments I make about weak undergraduate paragraphs.

Note to well-respected literary critics: please evaluate contemporary writing well enough to get at least a B in an undergraduate lit course at Cal State San Marcos, okay?

Guess my spring break’s over.