Thursday, May 18, 2006

kaufman on lyric's constellation

patrick tipped me off to and essay in Modernist Cultures by Robert Kaufman entitled "Lyric's Constellation, Poetry’s Radical Privilege." According to the abstract, Kaufman "shows that... Benjamin and Adorno – while certainly holding no brief for “pure” formalist methodology – actually develop the constellation and force-field in urgent response to a kind of Left criticism that sloganeeringly maintains that works of art and culture are historically and sociopolitically determined....the essay turns to a too-little considered example of how lyric itself animates the theory, practice, and movement (among national cultures, languages, and literatures) of the constellation and force-field: the work of the poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988)."

anyone who does not wish to register by submitting your email address can be emailed a PDF of the article for the asking. below are my thoughts on the piece as i emailed them to patrick this morning...


i hafta say, not being especially enamoured of dialectics and the "continental gothic" writing style he deploys, kaufman's piece is interesting i find but not without some serious flaws.

1) for all his efforts to recuperate the specific sense of "constellation," his idea of stretching past conceptual predetermination, once you cut through the thicket of jargon he has cultivated over pages 210-220, really boils down to something like a making it new or defamiliarization of/for thought-concepts. i don't see the necessity of running through these great dialectical machinations to arrive at that.

2) it's ironic that, if there really are "far too many sources" from the frankfurt school oeuvre to demonstrate the centrality of lyric for the notion of constellation, kaufman ends up choosing an adorno essay about "the *essay* as form." i know, in some sense it's all language, but if lyric is really so central to adorno, why can't kaufman find and use adorno specifically on lyric poetry? because he doens't (or can't), kaufman frequently has to make these awkward substitutions ("what adorno is saying here about the essay also applies to poetry...") -- right down to his very last sentence.

3) this is symptomatic of a larger problem with kaufman's essay, and that is what i see as the disconnect between its two hemispheres, theory and practice, adorno and duncan. i just don't see them as being a terribly good fit. and it's not just because a western marxist orientation is i think fundamentally alien to duncan (although his gnostic, heretical and kabbalistic inclinations probably do overlap in interesting ways with some aspects of benjamin's thought; the easy thing to do, and that anyone who knows what's going on in poetry would do, is ask lisa jarnot about this, find out what besides gershom scholem was in duncan's library for exmaple). kaufman wants to nuance "constellation" in a specific western marxist way in the adorno half of the paper, but this won't hold up in the duncan half because duncan clearly is not using that specifc sense of "constellation" (though i'm intrigued about this use of this word by duncan and others at the time, from eugen gomringer to clark coolidge). instead, kaufman is forced into a kind of terminological sloppiness -- constellation, configuration, conceptualization, composition -- that ultimately up-ends the rigor he is trying to maintain. sure, one can argue that these "c"-words themselves form or enact or constellate in the very manner adorno and kaufman are describing, so that the paper becomes a exercise in negative dialectics between conceptual rigor and conceptual sloppiness, or a kind of staged failure. either way, i'm not won over.

4) the reading of duncan itself i find a bit suspect. yes duncan is essentially a modernist and even a post-romantic modernist. but to say that "duncan's relationship to the aesthetics of constellation... is traceable in a fairly direct way to British Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist poetry, and, on the American side, to related developments that owe much to Whitman, Dickinson, and their lines of influence, and, above all, to Emerson" really i think quite misses the mark, particularly in the first half, from which one might easily gather that duncan is all about, i dunno, tennyson and auden. it leaves out the whole gnostic, heretical, kabbalistic angle, which the note on marcuse and norman o. browm might mislead the reader into think duncan rejected those traditions. it's like saying the language poets were inspired by joyce and pound but got into a dispute about zukofsky. makes me kinda wonder if kaufman really knows what he's talking about.

and ultimately, constellation for duncan turns out simply to be the permission to include heterodox materials into the poem -- and again when kaufman says something like "Duncan goes well beyond Olson in terms of what could be brought into, or back into, the mix" (22), i hafta wonder if he really knows what he's talking about as it strikes me olson went just as far afield in terms of what could or could not be brought into the poem. or again, "Duncan doesn't really have that much patience with this either/or, both/and dance" (223), someone who knows how important the figure of "the dance" is for duncan and how he very much, i think, embraces "both/and" would not venture such a statement.

ultimately, Kaufman's reading of duncan comes down to some rehearsal of the old form-vs-content debate, some quibbling with levertov over terminology, and a rehearsal of the duncan-levertov dispute over vietnam that doens't really offer us anything new beyond some citations from the RD-DL correspondence.

all that said, it was an interesting read. the poet in me enjoyed reading that

lyric dramatizes with special intensity modern aesthetic quasi-conceptuality's more general attempt in semblance to stretch conceptual thought proper, precisely in the aesthetic's enactment of a tought-experience that maintains the form of conceptual thought without being beholden to extant, status-quo concepts and their contents. Lyric's special formal intensity within this larger field of quasiconceptual aesthetic experience arises from lyric's historically constitutive need to stretch in semblance, via its musicality, the very medium of 'objective' conceptual tought, language -- to stretch language quasiconceptually, mimetically, all the way toward affect and song but without relinquishing any of the rigor and complexity of conceptual intellection, so thta in a semblance-charcater vital to the possibility of critical agency, speech can appear as sone and song can legitimately *seem* to be logical, purposeful speech-act" (212).

as a validation of the kind of language-work in which we're all involved. it reminded me too of how much i love the way duncan talks about poetry and his relationship to it, for exmaple in the retro preface to The Year as Catches

...I have come not to resolve or eliminate any of the old conflicting elements of my work but to imagine them now as contrasts of a field of composition in which I develop an ever-shifting possibility of the poet I am -- at once a made up thing and at the same time a depth in which my being is -- the poems not as ends in themselves but forms arising from the final intention of the whole in which they have their form and in turning giving rise anew to that intention. (221)

and over levertov's "organic form" his preference for an idea of
"linguistic" form, in which

the artist uses language to make forms, and in this he(s) in a creature/creator relation to a god who is also creature/creator of the whole. Where "organic" poetry refers to personal emotions and impressions -- the concourse between organism and his world; the linguistic follows emotions and images that appear in the language itself as a third "world"; true to what is happening in the syntax as another man might be true to what he sees or feels. (224)

which makes me want to troll through the (800 pages of the?) duncan-levertov correspondence for more gems such as this.

1 comment:

csperez said...

definitely read the correspondence, it is worth it...