Monday, November 07, 2005

Gerald Bruns' The Material of Poetry

: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics (Georgia, $24.95)

includes cd with poems by Steve McCaffery, Christian Bok (doing Kurt Schwitters' 20-minute "Der Ursonate"), John Cage, Jackson Mac Low & Anne Tardos, Henri Chopin, Francois Dufrene

based on a lecture series delivered at Georgia Southern University


1. Poetry as an Event of Language: The Conceptual Achievement of Contemporary Poetics
2. The Transcendence of Words: A Short Defense of (Sound) Poetry
3. Poetic Materialism: The Poet's Redemption of Everyday Things
Conclusion: On Poems of the Third Kind (a Thought Experiment)

two excerpts from chapter 1:

"My idea is that what is philosophically interesting is a poem that is not self-evidently a poem but something that requires an argument, theory, or conceptual context as a condition of being experienced as a poem (or of being experienced at all), as if poetry were, as I think it is, a species of conceptual art, where the relation between theory and practice is a two-way street. In reading a poem, one might experience a theory of what poetry is. The point is that what requires no thought, what can be accepted without question--the chesnut, the museum piece--cannot be of much philosophical interest. A kind of oblivion hovers over 'the canon.'"

"Academic quarrels about critical methods notwithstanding, the university study of poetry, such as it is, is not governed by concepts and examples much different from the criteria and models that underwrite such respectable institutions as The Harvard Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, The New York Review of Books, the poet laureateship of the United States, the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month, the Pulitzer Prize, and Garrison Keillor's Writer's Alamanac. Ours is, being Western, an Aristotelian culture, where unity and coherence of form, clarity of meaning, and rhetorical accessibility are indispensable conditions of efficient coexistence."

Steve McCaffery is a major presence in the book. Bruns quotes his "Poetics: A Statement": "I have no steady poetics, no position or school that I defend, no fixist stance on art or anything else. I have a constant stream of feelings and ideas that constantly change, modify and carry into action as techniques for living. What I try to do is understand this flux and develop for myself a thoroughly nomadic consciousness; a mind in constant movement through stoppings and starts, with the corollary of a language art in permanent revolution, contradiction, paradox and transform."

Clark Coolidge appears, too: "there are no rules. What I think is that you start with materials. You start with matter, not rules." Bruns continues: "And the matter is language or, more exactly, words or, more exactly still, the material of words--the sounds of the voice and the letters of the alphabet, where the letters are experienced not only phonetically but also, as in visual poetry, as patterns of print or ink."

Bruns also writes about Lyn Hejinian's and Charles Bernstein's poetry and prose: "Bernstein's poetry is difficult not because it is obscure in the way poetry often is (sheer density of language) but because it is rooted in parody, quotation, mimicry, and pastiche--and also in what performance artists call 'breaking the frame.'" Further on: "Bernstein's poetry theatricalizes the languages of everyday life, including the contexts in which these languages are used. ... Theatricality is the enemy of naturalization, normalization, standardization, routinization, and obliviousness."

As is probably clear by now, much of the book is a defense of "difficult" contemporary poetry--finding ways to read it "as something other than nonsense." While some readers will wonder about the need for such a book now that this poetry has infiltrated/broadened the mainstream (and thus MFA programs and literary magazines and even the awards superstructure), it's worth recalling that the book began as a lecture series and that the organizations mentioned in the second excerpt above do their best to ignore this kind of writing. (Bernstein's "official verse culture" doesn't mean exactly what it did when he first advanced the phrase, but it's still relevant.)

To that end, one of Bruns' more common approaches in the book is as follows: "the problem [of Coolidge's book-length poem The Maintains] is arguably not one of nonsense but of too much sense, augmented or invigorated by alliteration, assonance, and echoes of all sorts. ... The poem forces us to expand our boundaries of what we think of as meaningful." The Maintains "teaches us something about the limits of exegesis or about the shortfall in the way we are taught to read in school, where the rules of information theory are almost exclusively in force."

Oddly enough, Bruns echoes Vendler's comment re: John Ashbery (in a review in The New Republic): "We make sense of a poem not by the application of critical methods but by living with it until we are part of its world."

Is Bruns a kind of Vendler, but a Vendler with a greater capacity for / interest in experimental writing? If Vendler's attempts to offer "synopses" of Ashbery poems seem misguided or old-fashioned, then how do we take Bruns' attempts to "make sense" of McCaffery and Coolidge (and Bernstein and Hejinian and Retallack) poems? If both Vendler and Bruns want to make sense of difficult poems--i.e., to render the effects of the poems in normative prose--then are they as different as their topics / associations / tastes would lead us to believe? Or do venue / rhetoric / assumptions trump method in how we view / align critics of contemporary poetry?

Does one need to be an experimental critic to write about experimental poetry in an appropriate way, or just an open-minded reader? Do university-based critics still need to follow the rules of academic prose when championing work outside the center?

Bernstein clearly has demonstrated a way (or, really, many ways) around the normative in his criticism, but most prose about "difficult" poetry is as straightforward as the poetry it denigrates. A prominent example is Ron Silliman's writing on his blog (, which contains some of the clearest, most cogent writing about poetry today; yet Silliman does not work in a university and thus seems freer than Bruns or Vendler to pursue non-normative critical prose. But the techniques of his own poetry (as well as those of the poetry he champions) and of the writing on his blog seem quite different, if not at odds.

Bruns has a sharp mind and wide-ranging tastes (he also writes approvingly of Marvin Bell in the book), but The Material of Poetry cannot be considered experimental itself. This could be due to the book's origin in a lecture series, though when one considers the possibilities for innovation in that necessarily performative format (in which Bruns played sound poems for his audience), that doesn't seem like a valid reason. Consider a book on the same topic and with the same impetus if David Antin, or Bernstein, wrote it.

Verse would welcome responses to the questions above as well as responses to The Material of Poetry itself. You can use the comment field or send 'letters to the editor' to Brian Henry at bhenr [at] yahoo [dot] com.


Simon said...

I wonder about the wisdom of setting out to defend "the difficult". It seems a little like setting out to defend (or attack) poems about flowers.

At some early point in the 20th century, being difficult was news, it was a statement, it said (implicitly) come do this thing that I'm doing with me. Today, well -- it's hard to say there are secrets. So the hortative aspect of the difficult is gone.

I'm not sure if Bruns phrases his book that way, of course. Just reacting to the depiction in the review. I like his rather clear statement of the "new" poem: something that requires a theory to be properly experienced. On the other hand, not to be too much of an undergraduate, isn't this true of any poem? One has to absorb whole conceptual schemes before something like Tristan becomes comprehensible as something other than fan-fiction.

Brian said...

Thanks for your comment. I think Bruns' book has some excellent points, and I'm glad he focuses on sound poetry and on poets like McCaffery and Bernstein. My main question is why his book is in such a normative academic style. To me, there seems to be a disconnect between his style and the aims of the work under consideration. Of course, I'm guilty of this in my own criticism 95% of the time, and I wonder why someone like Silliman writes about poetry in such a straightforward way. One person I see taking poetry criticism in consistently new directions is Jim Behrle (I'm thinking of cartoon series like Future Stars as well as his poem-pimping excursions). Behrle takes on the social world of poetry rather than individual poems (except when he pimps them), but to me that doesn't make him less relevant as a critic. When (if?) someone 100 years from now wants to know what the poetry world was like at the beginning of the 21st century, they could get more from Behrle's cartoons than from most of the reviews and essays and books published by academic presses.

I've been derelect in relaying what a few people have said, via email and in conversation, about the issues that Bruns' raises, but will try to sketch them out here: mainly, once criticism becomes idiosyncratic or otherwise abnormal, it ceases being "secondary" to a primary text and instead becomes a kind of primary text itself. Its focus, then, is less the work under consideration than its own processes. A few of Bernstein's pieces in Content's Dream do this, of course, as do books like Glas and S/Z. Given the recent chatter around the New Yorker piece on Ashbery, I wonder if most poetry criticism now is akin to literary journalism, at least in its general approaches, norms, standards of conduct.