Friday, February 29, 2008

Contemporaneity

Four years will elapse before I’ll be able to post anything on February 29 again, so let’s not miss the opportunity.

I was reading a blog recently where someone analyzed a contemporary poem and devalued it because some of the phrasing was “dated.” Being “dated” was clearly a cardinal sin. The way to fix things up was to adopt an undated way of putting things. I’m not concerned with the judgment where that particular poem was concerned but instead with the notion of works of art being “dated.” Obviously all works of art have a date of manufacture. So when that recedes into the past they can be seen to be “dated.” OK, so how long is the “shelf life” of a poem? When is it to old to qualify as good art? Ten years? Maybe there should be a volunteer committee that gathers on December 31 of every year to assemble a list of poems about to pass the ten-year mark; the list is announced, and the next morning these poems may no longer be read by self-respecting literary folk who want to belong to the sophisticated part of the reading audience.

Why is being “now” the single most important quality a work of art can have? And who decides what “nowness” is? How is applying the criterion of up-to-dateness in the arts different from the policy of planned obsolescence in car manufacture or fashion in clothes? Isn’t “the latest thing” one of capitalism’s most powerful resources in stimulating the desire to throw out perfectly usable goods and replace them with new and costly consumer items?

Back in the Sixties I remember apologists for the French nouveau roman criticizing other novelists who used standard narrative techniques on this basis: that their novels “could have been written in the 19th century.” This, despite the fact that these novels included items like cars, phones, TV, Fascism, and the Second World War. Never mind: I swallowed the argument, which to my twenty-something mind seemed undefeatable. Now I have no interest in the nouveau roman, not because it’s now “dated,” but simply because there isn’t enough in it to make me want to reread.

Moving forward a decade to the Seventies, I witnessed the inception of the “Language” Poetry faction, and of course the same kind of argument was advanced. One could no longer use the traditional techniques of poetry because they belonged to the past. Not only were narrative and autobiography old-fashioned but equally misguided were notions that language could represent or signify anything at all except language itself. And to cling to such outmoded props as meter and rhyme was tantamount to going out in the evening wearing a high collar, button shoes, and spats—to be absurdly out of fashion. Poets! Never forget that couture rules! Don't fall victim to planned obsolescence.

Well, thirty years later it’s fair to ask if Language Poetry and Postmodernism in general are “dated,” at least if contemporaneity is the single most important quality a work of art can have. Thirty years is a long tenure for an artistic movement. The funny thing is, the huge outpouring of “experimental” writing that began in the Seventies and that continues up to the present minute was “dated” even back then. If it is correct to sneer at current literary productions that resemble those in earlier periods, then Postmodernists should admit that theirs do also. Precedents for the methods of non-linear organization, pure verbality, and disjunctiveness are numerous, found in many earlier writers--everything from Pindar to Gòngora, from Mallarmé and Rimbaud to Spanish ultraísmo (ca. 1919), from Dada and Surrealism or Italian Futurism and Russian zaum, from Gertrude Stein to Vallejo’s Trilce, from the forgotten American poet Abraham Lincoln Gillespie to Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962), everything from Concrete Poetry and Oulipo of the 60s to French poets like Denis Roche and Anne-Marie Albiach of the 1970s. I grant that defenders of the Language Poets’ practice or Postmodernism can offer plausible justifications for what they do. But the main justification cannot be that this is all new. If every poetic method that has already been tried must be scrapped, so must Language Poetry be scrapped. If not, not.

Actually, I’m thinking that one of the qualities that draw us to works of art is precisely that they are “dated,” I mean that they can recall an earlier period—its special flavor, its difference from the nuts and bolts of our 2008 existences. Reading older works is like time travel, through a literary intermediary; and the arts in general are so far the only means we have to manage that trick. I enjoy reading Crane’s The Bridge not only for the feeling content in it and for general aesthetic reasons; but also because of its period flavor, the way it uses Dixieland jazz, the way it embodies the “Machine Aesthetic” that was big news in the 1920s, and other kinds of Twenties experimentalism. Also, for the optimism about American civilization, a stance we can no longer adopt without enormous reservations. When The Bridge was published it was absolument moderne, of course, but it was also a projection into the future. And what is so poignant as yesterday’s imaginative projection about the “art of the future”?

5 comments:

dorettaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dorettaw said...

Hi, Alfred—

As someone who has been sucked down the job-and-family funnel, your comments in this and the previous post are actually quite reassuring.

Bad enough to be entering obsolescence in the business world; the added pain of becoming a literary anachronism would be all too keen.

This relic is happy to have escaped.

Touché. I like your comments as I love your poems!

Doretta

Ryan said...

Hi Alfred,

This post interests me a great deal. A question I've been mulling over lately has been: If Yeats wrote Yeats poems in the present, could he find a publisher for them?

Obviously, contemporary aesthetic values are generally far from Yeats', and his cultural assumptions are impossibly different from the cultural assumptions of the literati in 2008.

What concerns me is that I think Yeats would be ridiculed as 'obsolete,' that he'd be encouraged to do away with his graceful lines and to replace them with more jagged, more sassy prose sentences.

Doesn't the idea that poetry must be 'new,' or a representative of its particular time and place, reduce poetry to a cultural artifact, and isn't such a reduction not only aesthetically but philosophically dangerous?

I'd love to hear your take.

Best,
Ryan

Alfred Corn said...

Ryan: We're not always fully conscious of the conventions that govern the production of artworks, for example, the convention adopted around 1918 that poets may no longer use inverted syntax in composing their poems. Another even stronger convention is that a poet may not use the diction and style of an earlier poet, I mean, without being criticized for the error. You might contrast this with Egyptian art, which continued for centuries, even millennia, without altering the fundamentals of its visual language. Emphasis on originality became very strong with the advent of Romanticism. Why it did so, and why originality is so highly valued is beyond the scope of this letter.

David Graham said...

Alfred,

I just wanted to say hello--it must be over a decade since we last corresponded? Back in the days of the CAP-L listserv?

I am very glad to see you will be improving the level of poetry discussion in blogland, and I look forward to following yours. . . . I don't have a blog myself, but I invite you to drop by my online poetry library & have a look around:

http://web.mac.com/drjazz/iWeb/Site/DGPoLibrary.html

Among other things, I have a page listing good poetry blogs, to which I've just added yours.

Best,

David Graham