Wednesday, January 03, 2007

on authorial voice

it never ceases to amaze me: language poetry flourished some twenty to thirty years ago, since which time its group energies have subsided (even though many of the poets involved still write and in some cases may very well be writing their best work).

and yet without fail, every year or so, some critic or poet or poet-critic launches another attack on language poetry that is based on a pretty narrow, limited understanding of what that movement or moment represents.

this year's entry is one a.c. evans, whose essay "voices of denial: poetry and post-culture" is now available in jeffrey side's argotist online.

evans surveys the landscape of post-WWII arts and letters, fairly accurately as i see it, and i even grant him some of the limitations he finds in postmodern and poststructural theory.

however, his strict alignment of language poetry with theory as academic orthodoxy is both facile and tired; it's a withering critique that has been made time and again these many years, with nothing new that might give it more traction. ("Such a debate, in my view, is long overdue," he claims -- where has he been since alan soldofsky's initial attacks in a 1979 poetry flash?) it's a truism that those who are predisposed to dislike language poetry tell themselves in order to validate their own aesthetic; this does not, however, make it true.

so first of all, let's adjust the historical survey or mr. evans to make it a bit more accurate. when he writes
From the 1970s onwards, in the UK, in Continental Europe and in North America, we see the ever-expanding influence of academia. “Literature” became an almost exclusive domain of the universities, resulting in most innovative poets becoming functionaries in the Academy.
we must note that, in the states and in the field of creative writing, this "ever expanding influence" of the academy goes back to the 1930s with In The American Tree, from spdbooks.orgthe rise of creative writing as a degree-conferring discipline. moreover, the idea of "most innovative poets becoming functionaries in the Academy" is a pure and simple fiction. by the 1950s it was mainstream poets who were increasingly "becoming functionaries in the Academy," and mainstream poets far and away have the bulk of the academic jobs today. of the over 100 poets included or mentioned in the language poetry anthology in the american tree, the number who have made their livelihood in the academy is probably less than ten.

second, we have to correct the literary history of mr. evans a bit, with respect to "the American academic variety [of "difficult" poetry] inspired by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and the Objectivism of Louis Zukofsky." he notes that "One aspect of Black Mountain doctrine was the eradication of the ego." this statement is simply incorrect: the noun "eradication" fundamentally overstates olson's case. in his celebrated poetics statement "projective verse" (1950), olson spoke of
getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of Charles Olson, from poets.orgthe "subject" and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creatures of nature which we may, without derogation, call objects.
"getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego" (emphasis mine) is altogether something different from "eradication of the ego," which means the ego is gone and there's nothing left. for olson, the individual as ego -- that overblown, romantic, self-centered individual genius as subject that masters and dominates objects -- is an interference in the true recognition of the self as simply one among many fascinating and complex objects or things of the world.

it's important to point out this distincton because the kind of exaggerating misstatement of olson's position that evans performs here is precisely how he misreads language poetry as well, particularly with reference to the critique of voice. he writes,
Like Olson, the Language Poets were explicit in their denial of the individual “voice” and were distinguished by their concern to exclude all “autobiography” and “ego psychology” from writing.
again, pure fiction, as anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with lyn hejinian's my life or ron silliman's work knows full well. nouns like "denial" and "exclusion" overstate the case, as i will explain shortly. but for now, evans continues:
This stance, which coincided with contemporary debates in the academic sphere about the role of science, identity politics and knowledge epistemology, assumed the illusory nature of the “Lyric I”, and the non-existence of facts beyond language as unchallenged givens.[...] Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten say in their 1988 group manifesto, ‘Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist’. This statement suggests an authoritarian tendency in operation. Nothing is more authoritarian than the denial of individual “expression”. As an aesthetic or poetic this is entirely retrograde and reveals a mistaken view of the creative process.
while the timing of pronouncements about the death of the subject with the emergence of identity politics is indeed hardly unproblematic, one has to, i think, recognize a spectrum within which various understandings of the relationship between language and the world of lived experience reside. on the one hand, there is the strict linguistic constructivism that evans depicts, where language is all-powerful and human subjects are altogether lacking in agency. on the other hand, there is the all-powerful human subject that uses language as a tool for the utterly transparent transmission of information about the lived world that he masters. as a practical matter, no one resides entirely at one end of the spectrum or the other, although innovative or experimental poets probably reside closer to the former while mainstream poets probably reside closer to the latter.

evans takes one sentence from a group manifesto out of context -- "Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist," which again sounds to me in the olsonian way of simply saying that the individual is not central, not that the individual is altogether absent or has no role whatsoever -- and from there claims that
This statement suggests an authoritarian tendency in operation. Nothing is more authoritarian than the denial of individual “expression”. As an aesthetic or poetic this is entirely retrograde and reveals a mistaken view of the creative process.
again, this is nonsense. "Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist" contains nothing authoritarian whatsoever; it's a statement about their work and makes no prohibitions whatsoever, fully recognizing your work to affirm the centrality of the individual artist if you choose. to me, what's authoritarian and retrograde is to insist that the individual author is and has been governing the creative process since time immemorial. but no, to do otherwise according to evans "reveals a mistaken view of the creative process."

so what is the correct view of the creative process? (i love this: people insisting that there's a right way and a wrong way to create.)
In my view, the term “progressive” must be related to freedom and – in a literary context – to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression depends upon the concept of “the authorial voice”; consequently, if you deny the voice, you deny the agent of expression. To deny the voice is, thus, a reactionary and not a progressive position.
see, the problem here is as much terminological as it is ideological: for evans, concepts such as "voice," "the individual," "authorial voice," "individual expression," "integral authorial voice" -- these are all used by evans in a pretty closely related fashion, are all closely linked, and are all located pretty near the end of the spectrum that fully present human subjectivity in command of language as an instrument for the transparent communication of lived experience.

now i'm not at the far opposite end of strict linguistic constructivism personally, where some language poets may or may not have been or are now in theory or practice, i'm clearly closer to it than evans. nevertheless, i agree with him that "Beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed towards a specific poem, the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the unique 'signature' (strong or weak) of the writer," although the parenthetical aside is too oedipal or bloomian for me. and i'm also not so sure if that "of" in the phrase "unique 'signature' of the writer" is possessive or not; that is, i'm pretty sure i'd want to say that "signature" or "voice" is not something the writer possesses or belongs to her, even though it is largely unique to or for each writer. i'd rather say that signature or voice is the trace in language of human use, and is found in the resulting language a poet composes.

language is a human thing, and bears the traces or imprints of human use, not inherently but in its use. thus i can agree with evans on the centrality of signature or voice to verbal arts without insisting that the individual, ego subject as author or authority that grounds and guarantees "freedom of expression." this is of course the lesson of dada that evans evokes but somehow fails to appreciate, evidenced for example in tristan tzara's recipe for a dada poem. the key part of tzara's instructions come at the end, after you've torn up the newspaper and put the scraps into a hat and drawn them at random from the hat and transcribed them as you've drawn them: the results will resemble you. he's kind of kidding but kind of not. there is nothing whatsoever about that process that ties "freedom of expression" to "authorial voice"; the resulting poem still bears the inevitable trace of human subjectivity, and yet that an individual ego does not subject the poem to its dominance. instead, what emerges is likely a polyphony of voices brought together by the synchronicity of that newspaper being cut up in that way and put into that hat and drawn in that way at that moment.

evans writes that "you cannot surgically remove the individual (“voice”) from the creative process without destroying the mechanism of the creative process itself," and yet not simply dada poems but a whole range of arts deny this claim -- from chance, procedural and non-intentional works to ecstatic religious practices to gamelan music. even in the western poetic tradition, as plato tells us in the ion, the ego of the rhapsode was subservient to the divine. in this context, it's the "authorial voice" of evans and not the critique of that voice by olson and language poets that looks peculiar, romantic, and reactionary.

1 comment:

dudivie said...

LANGUAGE IS A HUMAN THING, are yu trying to say something with this_?