Poet and critic Calvin Bedient has a strongly-argued essay in the new (July/August) issue of Boston Review entitled “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect.” Bedient’s title proves a bit narrow, because he rightly attacks “the cerebral avant-gardes,” specifically “Oulipo, Language poetry, conceptual writing, visual poetry, Flarf, [and] critical poetics.” The single root from which these six scrawny flowers spring Bedient describes in psychological terms: an absence of affect, that is “emotion or desire.” Yet he traces the expression of that absence to another affect: the fear that language is simply not up to significant engagement with “the deep and shocking experiences brought about by this [technological] civilization upon every human being” (the words, quoted by Bedient, are Theodor Adorno’s). In other words, the cerebral avant-gardes express their existential dread by designing an aesthetic that bans that dread. The result is clear: “Stuttering repetitions of words and lines, labyrinthine permutations, serializations, parataxis, cut-ups,” Bedient writes; “there are a score of such devices, all of them grammatizing a sense of stalemate.”
Now, the existence of cerebral avant-gardes is no outrage. Poets in every age have made stupid aesthetic choices and as a result have been forgotten by everyone but specialists in this or that period or movement. What is outrageous is the fact these marginal “head poetries” (Bedient’s resonant term) have been embraced by institutions from colleges and universities to the Poetry Foundation and publications like the Boston Review.* How convenient for the elites of late capitalism to find so many writers eager to knuckle under in the face of what Bedient calls “the suffering of being mortal,” which is expressed in the individual as melancholy and in history as militancy—the impulse to oppose “history’s devastating march from one catastrophe to another.”
Here Bedient zeroes in on the greatest weakness of writing as a glass bead game:
The upshot of plastering procedures over melancholy and hence militancy is political compliance or social under-concern. Veined and vexed by the sensations organized around melancholy and militancy, the imagination is essential to politics: your positions make me miserable, make me mad. It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it. Otherwise, it is merely being contrary, which is the conceptualists; post-political position.In other words, by banning emotion and desire in order to play safe, whimsical games without a twinge of shame, cerebral avant-gardists leave nothing of quotidian life for imagination to work on. And because they are taken seriously by cultural institutions, they squeeze out genuinely imaginative writing, which in turn helps to make the world just a bit safer for the ruling class.
As long as these servants of the elite agenda continue to take up so much air in the Culture room, this country will never have another Whitman, another Thomas McGrath or even Allen Ginsberg, never mind a poet like Nazim Hikmet or Pablo Neruda. Perhaps we simply don’t deserve poets of that kind, or maybe it’s poets who must make themselves deserving of an audience by writing the world back into their work.
* In the issue under discussion, Bedient’s powerful argument flows around two “head poems” used as filler, whose affectless lines seem especially vapid next to Bedient’s impassioned prose. Unfortunately, only one is available online: Claire Sylvester Smith’s “1776.” The other will have to be represented here only by its title: “Divide and Conquer Algorithm for the Pacifist,” by Jeff Encke.