Tuesday 22 July 2008

Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment

There's been an recent outcry in some poetic circles that "narrative" is the devil's music, a capitalist, patriarchal construct. Poppycock, I says! A narrative is whatever you write it to be.

Poet Tony Hoagland, seen here looking eerily like actor Matt Frewer when he guested on Star Trek, released a book of essays last year called Real Sofistikashun which I thought was wonderful. Perhaps my favourite essay in the book was one called "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment" which mirrored a lot of my current thoughts and concerns with recent fashions in contemporary North American poetry.

That essay is available, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation, to be read online. Here is a sample:

In the last ten years American poetry has seen a surge in associative and “experimental” poetries, in a wild variety of forms and orientations. Some of this work has been influenced by theories of literary criticism and epistemology, some by the old Dionysian imperative to jazz things up. The energetic cadres of MFA grads have certainly contributed to this milieu, founding magazines, presses, and aesthetic clusters which encourage and influence each other’s experiments. Generally speaking, this time could be characterized as one of great invention and playfulness. Simultaneously, it is also a moment of great aesthetic self-consciousness and emotional removal.

Systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in. Especially among young poets, there is a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative. Under the label of “narrative,” all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the “Poetries of Continuity.”
You can read the entire essay here.
You can order the book here.


Anonymous said...

I felt he did an excellent job differentiating modernist poets from the younger poets today. If he hadn’t done that, I would have dismissed his argument as reactionary. I say this because I think there is a lot that unites the young poets of today with those of 80-100 years ago. He outlines an important difference and I agree with him. I’m talking about the part where he brings up Lorca and cites Aragon’s poem “Cloud”.

What I find curious about Hoagland’s article is that he begins with narrative. Narrative is not typically a term applied to poetry, unless it’s epic poetry. Homer is narrative, so are Virgil, Dante and Milton. Usually narrative is a term one applies to novels, comics, cinema, biography and history. What am I missing here? I mean, I know what he’s talking about (i.e. coherence), but why does he use the term narrative?

Paul Vermeersch said...

Ormond, there is a long tradition of what is called "narrative poetry." It's poetry that tells a story. Hoagland himself writes mostly narrative poems. It's quite common.

Anonymous said...

... but if he is using narrative here only to refer to one set of poetry genres (ballad, epic narrative), then his contention is that young poets are not writing story-based poems.

But that's not what he says. His article goes much deeper than mere generic concerns.

He's talking about a "sensible order", "conventions", an "elegiac attitude toward reality", "stability" a faith in meaning and the "individual's [ability] to locate and assert value".

Truth be told, he's not really talking about storytelling at all. First of all, he's talking about hermeneutics and narrative's role in interpreting and forming meaning. Secondly, he's asserting the ethical function of art -- which is to say that art must serve an end, be of value.

The weakness here is that he seems to assume that by eschewing order, convention and intelligibility younger poets are less concerned with issues of hermeneutics and ethics, which is not necessarily the case.

[I think I may have sent this comment twice. apologies if so]

Paul Vermeersch said...


But Hoagland explains the 'misuse' of the umbrella term in his third paragraph, when he says:

"Under the label of “narrative,” all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the “Poetries of Continuity.”"

And no, he isn't assuming that younger poets are eschewing issues of interpretation and ethics. Far from it. In his his second paragraph, he clearly states, "Some of this work has been influenced by theories of literary criticism and epistemology..." I don't blame him for not dwelling overmuch in this dreary bit of exposition, but that takes care of the youngsters' interest in "hermeneutics" (Ach, what a vile coxcomb of a word! Far too puffy and overblown for such a simple thing as "interpretation" or "point of view"). And Ethics? I don't think Hoagland is really touching on ethics in this essay. He's not really talking about a poet's responsibility to anything. He's talking about poetic fashions and their practical outcomes, not their high-minded justifications. He is talking about the risk that, if you seek to elude meaningfulness, you might end up with, whether you mean to or not, meaninglessness. Fair warning, I think.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Ormond, accidently nixed your latest comment. Sorry, new software. Repost if you wish.

Anonymous said...

All I was saying is that it is inconsistent to talk about meaning being "good" and meaninglessness being "bad" and then say you're not discussing ethics. Good and bad are ethical criteria. From my perspective, Hoagland understands this problem as an ethical one.

And I still say Hoagland is criticizing the young generation of poets for what he sees as their problematic attitude to interpretation and meaning (i.e. hermeneutics). Why else would meaning, value and coherence be so important to him? Why else would he decry the detachment, meaninglessness and nihilism he finds in their work?

I feel like we're moving in a circle. It would be interesting to see where we could take this discussion, but I don't think you're actually interested in discussing it at all, at least not with me. This is fair, considering I am unknown to you.

I guess the most responsible thing I can say is that I look forward to seeing how these issues play out in your work. Obviously they are of great interest to me too.

Paul Vermeersch said...


I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on the ethical matter. For me, I don't really believe that writing discursively or not is an ethical issue. I don't think it is morally or ethically wrong to write in a dissociative fashion. And I don't think Hoagland thinks it's ethically wrong either. My take on his essay, and my take on the issue in general, is that it's really a practical matter, i.e. suppose these poets want to convey some philosophical or theoretical idea through this “skittery” kind of poetry -- it begs the question: is it working? Is the idea being effectively conveyed? Is communication, even an illustrative kind of communication, possible when you are trying to subvert communication? Does it create its own inherent paradox from which it can’t escape, or in Hoagland’s terminology, its own narcissistic cul-de-sac? Or, at bottom, does it succeed only in being a kind of aesthetical or formalized gibberish?

I think it is possible to talk about good and bad without talking about ethics. Personally, I may not like purely dissociative poetry as much as other kinds, and I might even say that a lot of it isn’t “good” writing, but what I like is a matter of taste, not ethics, and in this sense, what I think is “good” is a matter of aesthetics and, again, not ethics. Furthermore, I may not find it as “functional” or “meaningful” or even “utilitarian” as other modes of writing, but I’m not assigning any ethical value to its usefulness, not in a John Stuart Mill kind of way, and I don’t think Hoagland is either. I don’t believe it is ethically wrong to write poetry that doesn’t mean anything. I might even it find some of it poncey, pretentious, or even downright ridiculous, but not immoral, not unethical, not nefarious.

And it’s funny, you know, that sometimes poets who purposefully write “difficult” poetry, as Hoagland put it, who take artistic pride in alienating the reader, who aren’t interested in meaningfulness or entertainment or communication, still sometimes decry the smallness of their readership, their sense of helplessness against the tide of philistines who refuse to revel in their cleverness! As if the readership for poetry weren’t small enough! And no, I don’t think that’s unethical, either. Just… sort of… you know.

I do think there’s a way to write abstractly and still be able communicate something, still entertain your reader, or involve them emotionally in the poem. Ashbery does this effectively, to name one popular exponent; there are others. But when Ashbery uses the word “table” it still means “table.” His abstraction has more to do with modernism (surrealism, for example) than with post-modernism (deconstruction, for example). The new breed of difficult poetries is less concerned with involving the senses/memories of the reader in “knowing” the poem. I think that, largely, in the attempt to illustrate their favourite critical or epistemological theories, they have neutered their poetry of its potential linguistic and/or imagistic prowess. Again, I don’t think it’s ethically wrong to do this, I just don’t find that I have a lot of reasons to want to read poetry like that, and I don’t blame people who feel similarly. The irony is, this “difficult” poetry is only difficult to understand (or enjoy). I think it’s actually very easy to write, and also very easily imitated or made into a pastiche. Create a formula, plug in some language, and you’re in business. And if someone criticizes it, you can always call them a fool for not understanding it. Win-win, right? Maybe that part is unethical. The rest, well, is just uninteresting… to me anyway, and maybe to a few others.