I am notorious for getting distracted from my studies, even in libraries. Last week I decided very resolutely to search for material on Achebe and Achebe alone. What I did instead was to happen upon an anthology of American poetry — The Best American Poetry, 1999 edited by Robert Bly – and then ignore the rest of the world and my, well, academic obligations. I copied down a poem by Russel Edson taken from The Prose Poem (it begins “She had fallen in love with her doctor’s stethoscope; the way it listened to her heart…”; stunning, don’t you think?)
Then I read Robert Bly’s introduction to the anthology, which is interesting and rather scathing. Here’s the relevant bit:
When the irreplaceable flavor of a given decade disappears, our language loses its vigor and becomes merely useful. Sven Birkets, in his new book of essays Readings, points directly to the decline of intensity that results from the shift from the page to the screen. “We are losing our grip, collectively, on the logic of complex utterance, on syntax; we are abandoning the rhythmic, poetic undercurrents of expression.” He suggests the “postmodern” merely means the destruction of all style. Postmodern novelists have fallen headfirst into this release from period style, producing novels that contain only the melancholy emptiness that follows from the longing to become universal. When language cools, it becomes a corpse.
American poets are fighting against this cooling in several ways. Not all poets, of course. One group of poets who call themselves “Language” poets work very hard to drain all the meaning out of the words they use, and in this way resemble those eighteenth-century doctors who treated all problems by bleeding, occasionally failing to notice that the patient had died from loss of blood. All of us, poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike, are being pressured by example to remove flavor from our work, along with our idiosyncrasies. We are fighting a front-line action against the cooling of language…
At first, I loved the line, “When language cools, it becomes a corpse.” It’s just the sort of cool (no pun intended) thing you can quote out of context. In context, it’s quite a striking statement on poetry and what it should do. It got me thinking about what Bly meant by “heat”. Throughout his essay, he describes the poems in the anthology as exhibiting some sort of heat. At first, I thought he meant “excitement” or “surprise” or “energy” — the usual thing you expect of poetry. Then, I looked at this more carefully:
One group of poets who call themselves “Language” poets work very hard to drain all the meaning out of the words they use…
So if it is meaning that’s being drained out, then maybe heat = meaning, or possibly, intent? It’s too easy an equation, I know.
The anger towards L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is pretty remarkable. He doesn’t even write it the way it’s supposed to be. I’ll be honest: I haven’t quite gotten the hang of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. I’m going to blame it on age and lack of experience. In other words, no opinion really.
But what a gruesome analogy! I don’t think readers are as helpless as patients having their blood let.
As for postmodernism, I have read a few things, all right. A few novels at least, and Birkets’s view is pretty reductive. I’m also tempted to say that the destruction of all style is a style in itself. But then the postmodernists I’ve read have a very distinctive style that isn’t merely an absence of something else.
Does anyone have any, well, insight into this “war” between L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and the other kind(s)? Something more than Wiki, please.