Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.
The internally coherent “narrative” of modernism can be thought of as the attempted reification, and necessary deconstruction, of master narratives: the subject as determined by class (Marx), biology (Darwin), or pre- and post-industrial labor activities (artisanal, agricultural, or in service to the Church or State). Wallace Stevens was unique among the modernists for creating not master, but lyric narratives, underscored by the maker’s “rage to order” amidst modernist fragmentation, turning polemic into prosody rather than dissipations of non-sense, through the poems’ guiding conceits as image-driven dramatic monologues, and on the level, grammatically, of the syntactical line.
From the anxiety of influence documented by Harold Bloom to Jonathan Lethem’s amendment of the “ecstasy” of influence, our generation’s grudging willingness to accept limits to unregulated markets (of economy, and, libidinally, mind), signals a severance with the past, so as to enter the future, begins with the semiotics of poesis: goodbye, and hello. Poetic language as cultural capital: the Achilles Shield of actual property, in the successive moments granted us after what Stevens termed “the event of life” (being born), structured, musically, by the cyclical returns in meter (e.g. the rhyme schemes, in the French sonnet, of abba, abba, ccd, eed), marking the matrix of the page, and the body in its transition from the dark matter of inarticulate chaos to the inked letters and sounded sense of possibility, creation, life.
Contemporary poets—Heather Christle among them—whose monikers include “neo-surrealist” or “neo-absurdist” and who claim an allegiance to Stevens are today writing poems as acts of imagination against “the pressures of the real,” to quote contemporary poet Matthew Zapruder: a Stevensian trope, yet one mediated by new definitions of (and strengthened resistance to) the putative “real.” Stevens was obsessed with “making,” ex nihilo, aesthetic forms attentive to Eastern and Western traditions, in shaping an American aesthetic apart from European and British literary histories: a position from which to “master the night and portion out the sea,/ Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,” and resist fascist and communist ideology, in turns.
Considering the proliferating wage gap between rich and poor, attenuated by the 30-something brain drain major US cities, particularly New York, are experiencing now (the New Great Depression?), the time of inventing for the creative and manufacturing classes (white, blue, pink, and no-collar workers) under the sign of cognitive capitalism seems officially over. Is our literary era thus constrained to acts of spectatorship, commemoration, traumatic repetition, and, as Zapruder suggests, resistance, as a collective, against the fatal, dominant X, to quote Stevens, of the myopic (the class war, social realism, market ideology) “real”?
For many contemporary poets, Stevens’ legacy has been internalized into a resistance not to British rule or mediations from the East, but the incorporation of canonical giants such as Stevens as a “pedagogue of the clouds” to quote Timothy Donnelly, and the determinations of “reason” from French schools of aestheticism (symbolism, surrealism) since the Enlightenment.
Surrealism is an aesthetic privileging chance operations and unconscious “dictation” as well as a coded historical movement. According to Ilya Kaminsky, Paul Celan was influenced by his friendship with surrealists, but his art is much older than that particular movement: “The first real surrealist was Ovid, not Breton. The first American surrealist was Emily Dickinson: ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.’ One could call “Deathfugue” a ballad, secular Kaddish, fugue, but what then? It’s not the literary devices that matter but how a poet confronts them.” [i] Thus, when Christle says “Funny how Stevens always shows up when you need him, perhaps especially when he gets to interrupt surrealists” she seems to be implicating Stevens’ power to not just interrupt but alter (through parody, or a threatened foreclosure of the imagination by the “real”) literary history. [ii]
The surrealists were themselves responding to the dadaists, bent on distinguishing between dream, life, and art. For Stevens, these inherited traditions culminated in rhetorical antimonies between God and the Imagination, lyric and historical consciousness (the foreign nightingale of “Of Mere Being” versus the high-toned Christian woman of Western culture), and ethical praxes with aesthetic innovation (the “death of Satan” being coterminous with the death of the Imagination).
What can be said affirmatively of postmodern American poetry, writ large, beyond mapping its deviation from the avant-garde and surrealism (Christle, Joshua Clover, Jeff Clark)? At times, new modalities for the postmodern lyric project seem not to have gone much farther beyond theories of poetic impersonality the modernists inherited from the Romantics as recapitulated in Sharon Cameron’s Impersonality: Seven Essays, though exceptions exist (e.g. the “third-way” or “elliptical poets” described by Stephen Burt).
In Stevens’ poem “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts,” he elucidates (as he does in many of his epochal poems, including “Sunday Morning,” “Of Mere Being,” and “Tea at the Palaz at Hoon”) the project of modernism (poetic impersonality, objectivity, Emersonian idealism, paradigm versus individual, self-consciousness, and the recentering of authority on the self), providing, for those readers able to decode his baroque poem-syllogisms, a cartographic map of the 20th century not didactic or theoretical, but lyrical. Mapping of perspectival distance from of what Stevens, witness to modernism’s incipient institutional state apparatus, refers to as “The American Sublime” is a guiding trope for Christle (agrarian v. capitalist economies, eco-catastrophes, post-pastoral necromancy), as well.
Stevens sought to find images of adequation for the industrial sublime (man-made monuments of early capitalism, such as Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge), and the pastoral sublime (along with Lorine Niedecker and William Carlos Williams) by transposing, through metaphor, natural and man-made objects into objets d’art. In “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts,” this object is a not a figure, as in many of his poems (Peter Quince, Raymond Fernandez, Crispin) or a thing, however, but a cat. However “low” on the ontological totem pole, for Stevens the cat, as an Egyptian symbol, is just as “monumental” as a chieftain of state. Être, or Être là (being there), for Stevens, is the fundamental verb upon which going, doing and having, are founded. “To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,/ Without that monument of cat . . . And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light/ In which . . . nothing need be explained;/ Then there is nothing to think of.” The cat is the sign to which the poem serves as referent, paradigmatic not of particularity or non-being (from works such as “On the Pleasures of Merely Circulating” or “The Course of a Particular”) but of the subject-object relationships in an I/Thou or I/It dyad.
As Stevens says, the idle cat’s “selfhood,” as epistemological site, is unequivocal and all-consuming, the “whole of the wideness of night [nature]” obviating the “light of day” (Western cerebrations) and binary logic. This cat, like the decentralized state of communism, is “red,” suggested a possibly despotic self “humped high, humped up” by inflated self-regard, everywhere at once, like a Panopticon eye rather than a concentrated locus of identity. The poet’s order of business for Stevens is not necessarily self-expression, then, or socio-historical allegory, but putting into metaphoric hierarchy the dissolving referents of early capitalism (laborers, places, people, and things), when it was still possible to “fix prices” (metaphorically speaking, assign names, and values) to the world.
Christle’s poems, conversely, bear witness to the evacuation of signification, and an uneasy relationship both to factories of production, and the land (“Onward and Onward”; “A Biography of Someone We Know”). She fills in the absent referents of her poems with linguistic place-markers (What is Amazing; “It’s Not a Good Shortcut if Everyone Dies”). This passivity of language, lacking interrogatives and directives, is endemic to post-language aesthetics, as well as the dubious category, because essentializing, of “women’s writing”: poets including H. D., Emily Dickinson, and Susan Howe describe a women’s writing on the horizon, waiting to signify, (re)claim an absent referent, and/or name.
Commenting on Stevens’ “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract,” Christle said “Surrounded by such reason one cannot help but imagine that the middle is at last at hand and that whichever edges one has seen one also has imagined. Has had. Has held. Having in point though disappeared one is weatherlike. One are all clouds.” [iii] This response to Stevensian philosophy (not Cartesian logic, but French Enlightenment reason) suggests our vantage point has become that of a fully democratized aesthetic devoid of vantage point and agency, absconding “possession” (lyric or material): a dissolution of form, currency, and the boundaries demarcating the aggregate not as a collective (the royal “we”) but an individual (“the one”).
Cathy Wagner, in her essay “I am a poet and I have,” speaks eloquently to the tension of a poetic laborer, unless independently wealthy or the recipient of a state or private patronage, forced to sing, and/or endure academic wage labor, to earn her supper, claiming the verb—and material assets—of not just être, and faire (to be, and make or do), but avoir—the anxiety over possessing, or having, while others lack, a self, body, or salaried job, albeit in a broken system (the “sharecropper estate” of academia), with benefits. [iv]
Along with being a vested capitalist of the upper middle class who made his living as the Vice President of Hartford Insurance, Stevens’ allegiance, as with T.S. Eliot, was to high modernism and neo-classicism. In “The Motive for Metaphor” he suggests the very motive for denotative language is to mark “place”: a masculinist reflex not only of assigning names to places, but the conceit of having been the first, in a colonialist sense, to arrive at or “make new,” to quote Pound, the commercial field of production.
Where Steven claims centrist, nominal authority, Christle signals a different crisis: making poems, and a living, as a poet, in a privatized, technocratic state whose anti-Apollonian (and anti-Dionysian) gods, instead of ruling over the polis, weather, pleasure, or wine, manage media networks, information superhighways, energy grids, corporations, and the labor market. Christle, despite the odds, continues to create forms (individual poems and collections) mapping language onto the “damaged life,” to quote Adorno, of our disillusioned generation (X and The Millennials). From her poem “Five Poems for America,” the first word of which is a double entendre between a market (buy now, pay later) and military imperative: “Charge! I said, but nobody/ heard me, because they were all listening to their mother, the iPod. . . . Magnificence comes/ in a small car, but we all fit.”
The most salient link between Christle and Stevens is their mutual interest in verisimilitude and a poem’s solvency, “essence” made manifest through the autonomy (Stevens’ “Anecdote of a Jar”) of form—the human voice “blankly propounding” language that reflects, reifies, and ultimately produces the phenomenal world.
From Stevens’ “The Man on the Blue Guitar”:
[ . . .] the voice
In the clouds serene and final, next
The grunted breath scene and final,
The imagined and the real, thought
And the truth, Dichtung und Wahrheit, all
Confusion solved, as in a refrain
One keeps on playing year by year,
Concerning the nature of things as they are.
For Stevens, capital was linguistic capital, for which attempts to fix price and represent value, derives (“money is a kind of poetry”): one could even argue that the sublime (metaphor or meaning incarnate) was, for Stevens, the “thing itself” upon which speculative or propositional, i.e. the paper currency of “mere ideas,” was based. For Christle, the anxiety of representing capital is structural and affectual: her tropologies are those of an urban aesthete nauseated by post-industrialism, as were the symbolists and surrealist poets by the rise of industrialism.
As with Stevens’ recourse to the animal, the primary speaker in Christle’s poems figures herself as agricultural fore-woman in The Difficult Farm, in a time of eco-disaster (the earth, and the farm are in crisis), and form (the volta representing the broken “plough” in the lyric line). Having drifted from modernist screeds against epic monumentality (Stein’s “What Are Masterpieces ”), and overtly political verse (Reznikoff’s Holocaust, or Pound’s Pisan Cantos), Christle and her contemporaries write resistance without a manifest statement of purpose, culling from literary history (Kafka, Borges, and surrealism) to craft what reviewer Angela Veronica Wong calls Christle’s “absurd magical realism” in lieu of intentional signification or direct engagement with received forms. [v]
From Christle’s The Difficult Farm:
. . . & now I’m scattering feed I ordered
from mother nature’s catalog
which everyone knows has the best
pictures that’s why it’s all cut up
& the seed is falling out the holes &
the chickens are falling out
the holes & everyone gets papercuts!
goodbye chickens have a nice
time exploding in oblivion!
Christle, as well as her contemporaries Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Zapruder share the black-humored malaise of the surrealists as well as their formal problematics (blurring intergenre distinctions; how to map a poem and situate a post-expressionist lyric speaker amid disappearing planes of temporality and space) yet not within the grid of laissez-faire capitalism, or the bourgeois class’ safe refuge, but, today, the exploitative anti-logic of late capitalism. The Lyotardian incredulity toward macronarratives has yet to result a statement or school—and, perhaps that’s the point—deconstructing metaphysical belief not in a positivistic, agnostic sense, as in Stevens, or Eastern, Taoist synergy, but a worship of lack itself.
Spoken of, in reviews, as employing a tone of “naïve sentimentalism” (akin to contemporary poet Dorothea Lasky’s recapturing of the lost in-scape of surrealism and Romanticism—awe—but without the postmodern ennui or criticality), is Christle’s voice—at times snarky, aggrieved, lost in reverie (exclamatory remarks, questions), really that of naïvete, or is this a belittling of her formal interventions by inattentive readers? [vi]
Evincing an awareness of the poet-producer’s overwriting by the money sign of capitalism in poems like “Big Spender,” Christle’s speaker refers to herself metaphorically as “a scientist and businessperson,/ looking for results.” [vii] In poems such as “The Small Husband,” and “Cocorico,” Christle’s speakers attempt to escape false consciousness: the fear of being a victim of the system rather than an agent (a “dumb,” whether duped or insensate, consumer, prey to the manipulations of markets).
Anytime you buy anything
you should buy an extra, in case
you really like it. I am aware
this makes me sound dumb,
like I am a really dumb shopper . . .
one day we will be the two
lonely souls forced to sit together
on the Ferris wheel. We will need
a signal. What if when we reach
the top you start humming something
from “The Planets”—then I will know
it’s really you and not some radio DJ
trying to give me another prize. [viii]
Within this rejection of consumerist incentivization (the false shepherd, as it were) in favor of a “signal” (voice) from a higher (lyric) authority or beloved, we see how Christle’s diction has less in common with the rococo performativity of Stevens’ elaborate stagings of self, than with the dark psychology of, say, Robert Frost, for whom the rural poverty of New England rather than the postmodern self, writ large, was the final frontier, in his ballads and dramatic narratives. Nature, for Christle, needs the poet to economize, be territorialized and parceled out (given names and forms)—the proliferations of metaphor or capital having resulted in overdetermined, factory-produced texts, whose images don’t “speak,” and whose sounds don’t resonate, leaving only ghostly traces of cadence and meter (the “bawds of euphony” Stevens references in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”).
From Christle’s “Acorn Duly Crushed”:
Dear stupid forest.
Dear patently retarded forest.
Dear beautiful ugly stupid forest
full of nightingales
why won’t you shut up.
What do you want from me.
A train is too expensive.
A clerk will fall asleep.
Dear bitchy stupendous forest.
Trade seats with me.
Now it is your birthday.
Someone will probably slap you
about the face and ears.
Indulgent municipal forest [ … ]
Men love to hang themselves
from your standard old growth trees.
Don’t look at me.
You are the one with
the ancient noble terror. [ix]
Both heir and secessionist from Stevens’ monolithic presence, and determined to out-derange the surrealists’ involutions of reason, Christle’s verse stands out as ballast and vanguard for the oneiric work of her generation, much of which reads as being ironically bound to, or actively courting, an aesthetics of flarf, repetition and citationality, whether from a frustrated inability to create anew, respond to the structural frame and inequities of the market, the other, or the Rimbaudian autre of themselves.
It is difficult to speak of 21st-century cultural practices (literary and extra-literary) without reference to what Jean-Michel Rabaté refers to as the “ghosts of modernity”: a prematurely aborted modernity in the process of becoming. It is modernism’s “failure to mourn” that has led, in his view, to post-modernism’s attempted erasure of historical memory. Derrida calls the apprehension of death “a priori mourning”: “an apprehension [that] weeps before the lamentation, it weeps death before death, and this is the very respiration of friendship, the extreme of its possibility. Hence surviving is at once the essence, the origin and the possibility, the condition of possibility of friendship; it is the grieved act of loving.” [x]
Christle’s comments about feeling besieged by the “real,” or the manifest sublime, are notes in the echo falls of post-modernism’s already-failed modernism. As a vested member in what she calls the “Avalanche Club” (falling, rather than poised, on the volcanic edge of entropic collapse), Christle’s wry, dolorous eco-epistles testify to the lyrical “work” of marking the trace and stitching up the cadavre exquis in a post-auratic age: actively pursuing a hope in the beyond, yet to be written, or if déjà dit, accepted, or believed.
[i] “Of Strangeness That Wakes Us: On mother tongues, fatherlands, and Paul Celan,” Ilya Kaminsky, Poetry Magazine, January 2, 2013.
[ii] Heather Christle, Poetry Crossfire, August 10, 2012.
[iii] Christle, Ibid.
[iv] Cathy Wagner, “I am a poet and I have,” Poetics Labor Project, July 2012.
[v] Angela Veronica Wong, Review of Heather Christle, Sink Review, 2010.
[vi] Daniel Moysaenko, The Volta: Friday Feature review of Heather Christle’s What is Amazing, July 13, 2012.
[vii] Heather Christle, The Difficult Farm (Portland: Octopus Books, 2009), p. 23.
[viii] Ibid., p. 17.
[ix] Christle, Boston Review, September/October 2008.
[x] Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (Verso, 2005), p. 14.