To begin an essay called “Gluten” with anything other than an explication of the metaphorical substance and how it pertains to my subject…would be obscure, or coy. Gluten is a protein that binds fibers together. It’s a “tough, viscid, nitrogenous substance remaining when the flour of wheat or other grain is washed to remove the starch.” It’s strong and pervasive and sticky. Lots of people, those diagnosed with Celiac disease among them, are finding out that they do not digest it properly and that it has been making them sick their whole lives; hence the correspondent growth in the access to food products (and shampoos, etc.) that are “gluten-free.”
I’m thinking about “groupishness,” a term used by her biographer to talk about Laura (Rid- ing) Jackson’s ideas on Modernism in poetry. Jackson speaks in a skeptical, proto-New Critical way about the tendency of poets to form what are now referred to blandly as “communities.” In her book A Survey of Modernist Poetry, she and collaborator Robert Graves say
The real task is, in fact, not to explain modernism in poetry but to separate false modernism, or faith in history, from genuine modernism, or faith in the immediate, the new doings of poems (or poets or poetry) as not necessarily derived from history. Modernist poetry as such should mean no more than fresh poetry, more poetry, poetry based on honest invention rather than on conscientious imitation of the time-spirit.
Groupishness rhymes with “glutinous” in a funny way.
PART 2: OPEN LETTER
Our concerns in these six days begin with the assumption that poetry has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of contemporary culture, and that any poetry which subtracts itself from such engagements is no longer of interest. “Social poetics” is not a settled category, and does not necessarily refer to poetry espousing a social vision. It simply assumes that the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle.
—The 95 Cent Skool, Joshua Clover & Juliana Spahr
Dear Juliana Spahr,
I’ve been going a little nuts lately over various things, and one of them has been some- thing in this statement. For quite a while I’d been writing something in response to it that I’d configured in my mind as an “essay,” or editor’s note, or at the very least a blog post, but then I remembered something I’d been advising others to do lately with their most precious thoughts: write them down in a letter to someone and mail it. I’m going backwards, backwards, looking for something that feels sealed/to be opened and “meaningful” to me in terms of how to converse.
I’m going to give you the nutshell, and then try to expand it and elaborate on it until it makes sense, or at least until I feel sure that you will be able to understand where I’m “at” with it.
I admire, and sometimes look up to, those who work with and experiment with the dynamics of the group, and who can see their way clear to define a group for themselves. You invoke the largest of groups when you state that your mandate for poetry is that it respond to “shared social struggle”—you imply a vast yet identifiable group whose struggles you demand and challenge poetry to address, to respond to. Everything’s fine, with what you say, with me, until we get to this clause: “…and that any poetry which subtracts itself from such engagements is no longer of interest.” “To us” being the clearly implied end of the sentence. I find myself, since I am writing directly to you, wondering: Who died and acknowledged you the legislator of that which is of interest? Why are you putting yourself in the position of eliminating/intimidating, with your implied author- ity, anyone who does not agree with your position? Certainly it is a didactic move, and I understand that there are powerful, timely arguments for didacticism, but it is also a dictatorial one, and this just doesn’t seem very you, nor very “shared.”
While my strongest objection is to the gesture itself, here I will additionally try to out- line my disagreement with the ballast of your assertion, with the ball you are throwing. And I’ll throw in a disclaimer: My disagreement doesn’t really originate or reside in my own poetry, though of course yours is a planet-sized call-out to anyone who invokes the personal in her poetry. I don’t have these kinds of qualms about the poetry that I write. Sometimes it’s kind of social, when that’s what I’m thinking about. Sometimes it’s about my mom, who also is a person in the world so referencing “mom” could be construed as social. “Referencing,” as words do, can be social. The I is a metaphor for others, when it’s working right. Narratives are one way that wisdom is transmitted; plus they’re an awesome trick.
So while I admire your super-strong drive for some kind of unified, community-based, activated practice for your own writing and for the writing of those you want to be surrounded by, for reasons having to do with my free-school, egalitarian upbringing, I really can’t stand anyone telling anyone how it is okay to write poetry. The move is especially egregious in this situation in which it is being posited that there is something really important at stake, such as social change or social improvement or social progress or social anything, however modestly it is asserted that you don’t really know what it is that you are calling “social poetics.” You take a “means justified by ends” approach here, and while it is impossible for me or anyone to prove that a social poetics is not demonstrably effective ENOUGH to justify ultimatistic rule, it is also impossible for you or anyone to prove that it is.
I like (and by like I mean hate) this idea of a sort of concretism or absolutism that is warranted or merited by circumstance, and thereby am adopting same for my oppositional platform, which asserts that the following is the case: Poetry and poems are not socio-politically effective, and therefore claims made on sociopolitical grounds for the relative “interest” or merit of various terms or subject matter or areas of interest for poems and poetry are specious. My assertion is that currently, and concretely, poetry, or poetics, in whatever practical forms and constructed contexts it takes place has actually a negatively measurable effect or impact on real-world conditions of social struggle.
As far as I understand it this is what George Oppen thought, and he made the critical mistake of thinking that he commensurately had to STOP WRITING POETRY and just do socio- political actions. I’m not saying this is what ought to be done, or that poets ought NOT engage the social in their poems, their thinking about poetry, and their reading of poetry. Far from it! My other assertion is that, in the both/and kind of way, poets ought to just go ahead and engage like crazy with the social, IF THEY FEEL LIKE IT (feelings being related to sociopolitical conditions), and engage students/correspondents in thinking about this poetry, and engage publishers in projects that help to distribute it, or just post it on their blogs, or what have you. And I would hope that your Skool has at heart a dream for stirring up some kind of thousands-strong “army” or shall I say industrial-strength, family-sized kind of Activated Coterie of rigorously engaged young people who are going to collectively summon up some material activity, some action that is not self-erasing by virtue of its context.
When I say art has been ineffectual/ineffective I don’t mean by any means to suggest an inevitability, but rather an unfortunate eventuality, or current outcome. So on an adjusted scale of political efficacy I’d say writing a socially engaged poem is a negative, while buying ecologically sound dish soap is a .5, and writing a letter to your congressperson is a 1.5 or greater, depending on the congressperson and what county you live in. Dish soap consumption? No, dish soap production. Why don’t I stay outside the rubric or trope of industrial manufactur- ing? Because it would be disingenuous to do so.
I understand, I like to think, though I do not partake in it, how great it must feel to feel like you are part of a great society of poets who are forging ahead, joining hands, making space for new ideas, getting really deep into some ideas. But I ask again: What is the place in this great society for totally rude, cool-kid behavior like that above? When you seem to be convinced that a great deal is at stake in the behavior of poetry, its comportment, its deportment.
One very practical, material danger of your statement—it is a bold assertion, and really a much shorter version of this letter might simply ask that you instate the “to us,” for maximumclarity of group intentionality—is that there will be decades, now, thousands, multitudes yet to be born, of young poets, especially in California but certainly all over, who will shake in their boots to think that they might fall short or run afoul of the Skool’s requirements, without knowing it, no matter how hard they try, oh lord, it’s their worst nightmare. And if I am still an editor I will be required to plow through their sad output, their earnest attempts to please you. It makes me long for decadence. In poetry.
I do agree that it’s good when poems are perceivably awake to shared reality. As mentioned above, the jury is out, probably forever, on whether this awakeness is ameliorative of bad social conditions. I do not mean to say that this awakeness is a bad motive or context for a poem, but rather that it is nightmarishly bad for charismatic leaders to suggest the hallucinogenically charismatic notion that because of the awesome burden on poems, ultimatistic gestures by poetry “actors,” if you will, are justifiable.
And there’s something in here to say about “degrees.” Degrees of political efficacy, and the materiality of efficacy. It is of course not viable to say that poems have no political value. Everything has some political value. And everything is of interest. A poem that’s “about” industrial production, composed industrially. A poem examining birds in flight and their flight patterns being fucked up by airplanes’ flight patterns. A poem about yourself, you social animal you. You really don’t need to please anyone with your poem. What is a poem, after all. A poem is a document. A poem is, according to some, a ma- chine built out of words. A poem can be a social document, a collaborative document, a text that moves between ideas and transmits changing energy from one conductive station to another. Poems are consciousness; are language. And I can really see how one could feel that the birth of a sort of bloc of poets who share a vision for poetry—a poetry that concerns itself with the social, and even with the construction of the self within the social—could in itself be a kind of positive force for change. It could, it could, and if it were it would be. And I don’t want to neglect the hopeful, optimistic, positive first part of that assertion: “poetry has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of contemporary culture.” I mean, this ought to be true, and I think it is not impossible that it is true that you and your friends—I mean that in the largest sense—are playing your roles right now.
So be careful what you do and say. I suggest and hope that you will retract your intimidating statement regarding what is or is not of interest in poetry.
You can see that I am totally in earnest. I’m writing this on April 1 but not fooling. If I sound a bit nuts it’s because I am, but hoping to continue keeping it together to some degree. This all started on account of the moon, which this winter came the closest to our planet that it has in years. I didn’t know about this until later; I knew I felt woozy, and kind of intensely obsessed with mentally rehearsing visible political structures and the damages done to our reality, environmentally and structurally, by corporate oligarchy.
If I had made this into an essay I was going to call it “Gluten” and include a “self-ejecting documentary poetics pod” somewhere in it about autism and the gluten-free diet and the way the medical industry in conjunction with mass media has been working to suppress in- formation about why the diet works to ameliorate symptoms of autism, which has to do with something called “leaky gut syndrome,” yeast overgrowth, and the presence of heavy metals in the body. I had put in stuff about my autistic son but then I took it out because it didn’t fit the requirements, made it seem too much about “personal expression or the truth of any given individual,” and just not cool in that way that poets want to be cool. Blah.
But I will take that story and eventually try to publish it in some glossy magazine.
PART 3: SELF-EJECTING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL TIE-IN POD
My son is autistic, and when he was three our pediatrician recommended that he try a gluten-free—and dairy-free, and soy-free—diet; this seemed to be helping a lot of kids on the autism spectrum to be, well, less autistic. More communicative, more expressive, more related; less rigid, less aggressive, less perseverative. For whatever reason, kids with autism didn’t seem to be able to digest these proteins correctly, and they left the gut and traveled through the blood- stream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, acting like opiates.
The change in my son was immediate. At three he had never asked a question, formulated an original utterance, or pointed at something in a referential fashion. He spoke almost exclusively in high-speed paragraphs he had memorized from the books he wanted to hear over and over and over, to the exclusion of all other activity. His pronouns were reversed, and when he wanted something he said “You want,” in a lilting, high-pitched echolalic way that we later realized was simply an iteration of how we spoke to him: “You want a banana?” we might ask. “You want to read a book?” He had memorized all the flags of the countries of the United Nations, and perseverated on marshes (freshwater and tidal) and on images of the masks of comedy and tragedy—we spent countless dismaying hours satisfying his desire for pictures of these, drawn or on the internet. Within a week of cutting gluten out of his diet he had spontaneously asked a question, begun looking us in the eyes, and dramatically reduced the amount of time he spent pacing up and down throughout the house reciting paragraphs from Madeline in London or Puss in Boots. After about a year he had lost his classically savant-ish habits. The progress has been continuous, and at seven he is a super-bright, emotionally plugged-in, communicative boy who still “quotes” from books and movies and things he has heard people say but does so in a way that is so supremely inventive and nuanced that it verges on brilliance. You’ll have to trust me, as most people can’t distinguish it from “normal” speech at all.
My own poems have always been concerned with the social, but I come to understand now that it’s the wrong social. Not as wrong as “the sock hop,” but almost.
If Laura Riding believed that words are “linguistically infallible…perfectly depend- able,” then I applaud her as a true Knight of Faith. I come at language and its usage from a personal history of deep skepticism; in a nutshell I took some bad acid when I was 16 and it made me incapable of participating in shared reality for about ten years; most significantly it gave me a (gift of ) kind of infantile self-consciousness about speech whereby I could not believe in my own power of assigning meaning to language. There was no a priori source of intention or solid meaning within myself, at the source of my speaking. I therefore could not control, to any degree, the content of that eventual communication. So if I said words to someone in an effort of communication I deeply, often painfully felt that it did not matter what words I said; the best I could hope for was to communicate the intention of communication.
This was part of or led to or potentially came out of a whole other kettle of social alienation that I think is fairly common to people of, perhaps, my generation, whereby I could not believe or did not care to think (and did not even closely apprehend the exigency of same) that my actions might effect change in the social realm.
I’m not so zealous as Laura Riding Jackson. There are always those who determine that, because for them it has been really really beneficial, to, for example, make sure to have intercourse every single day, that this constitutes proof of the inherently beneficial results of this for every living person, up to and sometimes including a mandating of such beneficial activity, or a writing of it into law, or at least a prescribing of it and a proscribing of some other schedule of sexual activity. The degree of zealotry is necessarily based on a conviction of the supreme degree of usefulness, or righteousness, or exigency of said action or activity. So Riding Jackson determined that words discretely had absolute values attached to them, and set out to provide absolute definitions. So Clover and Spahr determine that, because it is beneficial and fruitful and redeeming for them to write poems that “engage the social,” in ways they deem “of interest,” it is justified to attempt a proscription of other kinds of poems.
Fascinating about Riding Jackson is that she had allowed for some kind of fluidity to these definitions inasmuch as words are spoken between people, as forms of communication, and that, as Nolan puts it, they “travel out beyond private contexts of self-referent mean- ing into the open of presence to one another. To know words thus,” he says, “is to know them as belonging to what [Riding Jackson] calls ‘the natural language of our minds.’” That “open of presence to one another” is not so dissimilar from what I experienced, at the time negatively, as a kind of unfixed area of inefficacy, by which I could not ever know “what to say” because there was nothing really to say but that it basically did not matter because someone would hear me anyway and think that I had said something that they had understood. Samuel Beckett says: “‘there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” And I kind of relied on that.
So what’s wrong, then, with Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr issuing a dictum, a decree, a gatekeeperish sort of sentiment on the order of—?
Here’s what’s wrong with it: The political efficacy of a social poetics cannot possibly merit the authoritarian and exclusionary nature of the 95 Cent Skool’s call. Spahr and Clover are, however inadvertently or unconsciously, wielding what I will call a “rapier of coolness,” by which they are meaning to dictate, and chop the heads off of those who fall outside of, the parameters of what is cool to do in poetry. If we follow them down the road they’re building, we abandon free thought for group fitness.
It is important to me to acknowledge that if I thought that there was a sufficient degree of efficacy attached to a social poetics, I would truly feel compelled to espouse this platform and reform or reverse or regroup myself as a poet and as a publisher to reflect it. I’ve recently become acquainted with the positive benefit of feelings of extremism. Lately I feel acutely, in an everyday kind of way, that I must do something to intervene in the way things are going. To effect whatever change I can in the course of events. Things in our country and world are fucked beyond anyone’s imaginings (well, some have imagined it, yet those dystopic narratives have not served to forestall or preempt dystopic realities).
Recently I watched this movie called “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” It’s a German film based on events that took place in the late 60s through the mid-70s, in which a group of German students and journalists, including one Ulrike Meinhof, became radicalized through their protests against the Vietnam War. They ended up engaging in what we would now call “acts of terrorism”—blowing up buildings, assassinating politicians, hijacking airplanes—and their popularity spread widely throughout German youth. We know that Germans have a national tendency toward extremism, and toward, um, signing up for shit, but at one point at the height of the activities of the Red Army Faction, as they were called, “A poll at the time showed that a quarter of West Germans under 40 felt sympathy for the gang and one-tenth said they would hide a gang member from the police. Prominent intellectuals spoke up for the gang’s righteousness…”
Watching this film, along with some other documentary footage of activism in the US in the 60s and 70s (stuff about the Weather Underground and other counter-cultures), I found myself wondering: What has happened to our activist urges? Most closely: What was I doing when I was in my late teens, my twenties, when this kind of urgency is most possible, most likely, most fueled by youthful idealism and energy and ability? (Not, you understand, please, that I wish I had been blowing things up. But that I wish that I had been angry and connected enough to want to blow things up, and thus to find my way to some equivalently forceful action/engagement that might have effected some change.)
If they’re anything like me, the generation of citizens who ought to have been crucial in resisting the onward march of globalization, deforestation, pollution, corruption, oppression, who are now in their 40s and feeling a certain amount of shock and awe at how totally and completely everything seems to be for shit, were all totally on drugs in the late 80s and early 90s, literal and figurative drugs, many of us crippled, defused, disabled by neurosis, social anxiety, alienation, paranoia. No doubt all this in no small part brought on by an insidious, partially self-inflicted lack of agency, political and otherwise. So now I’m looking around, from my hunkered-down, semi wised-up position, and really trying to figure out how to insert myself into this mess in a way that will be both a good use of my time and an effective means of changing things around me for the better.
Getting radicalized to me has come to mean: establishing direct mental contact with my government, and assuming direct responsibility for effecting change therein. Like Ulrike Meinhof, only it has also been shown to be true that violent actions are ineffective in producing lasting positive change.
This extremism I mention above, in which Clover and Spahr have suggested that things are SO bad that only a certain kind of poetry is “of interest,” is a comically misplaced extremism.
Well I hope you already understand what’s wrong with it and will do everything in your own personal power to reject it.
GIANT DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed herein are those of Rebecca Wolff and are in no way representative of those of other Fence editors or authors or institutions associated with Fence. Neither her friends nor her family necessarily share these opinions.