Is Poetry Fifty Years Behind Poetry? Is Art Fifty Years Ahead of Art?: The Shocking and Unexpurgated Truth … Told Here for the First Time

Charles Bernstein responds to recent discussions about his review “Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?” in last winter’s Parkett.

Suzanne Stein has asked me to make some comments on two posts on Open Space, one by Kevin Killian and then Julian Myers’s response (to which several responses were subsequently posted). Both Killian (whom I know for many years) and Myers (whose name is new to me) focused at least in part on a review I wrote for Parkett magazine of Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, titled “Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?“. I wrote my review of Shaw’s book in December 2008 and it was published by Parkett this past winter.

In his post, Killian gently chides me for not giving the original source of my ironic title, which I guess I took for granted. But the sentiment has become a kind of received wisdom, removed from the specifics of Brion Gysin’s original remark:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint . . . lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

Killian and I would both be sympathetic to Gysin’s point—and indeed my “experiments list” (based in part on Bernadette Mayer’s) is deeply indebted to Gysin. Gysin was arguing for a poetry that challenged the conventional norms of “official verse culture”—that would use cut-ups, visual display, parataxis, and appropriated language to create a new kind of poetry. (See William Burroughs/Brion Gysin, The Third Mind.) But it was never true that the actual practice of poetry was ahead or behind the visual arts. Gertrude Stein may get less respect in the mainstream than Pablo Picasso, but the one is neither ahead nor behind the other. Frank O’Hara is as significant in his poetry as Robert Rauschenberg in his art, to take an example from my review. And poetry has one advantage in the postwar period: its publication and criticism is not dominated by market values. (Of course, for the poète chétif this is hardly an advantage at all.) Certainly, naïve conceptions of representations, narrative continuity, and expression (what I once called “ideational mimesis”) have great credibility in official verse culture, but no more so than in the stylistically strait-jacketed critical writing (and enforced copyediting) of the major art magazines. (As I’ve said before: I don’t blame the writers but the market-driven focus of the editors/publishers.)

The aspect of Myers’s post that interested me the most, and that I found most relevant to my review, was the tone. I have talked with Michael Fried about the relation of his art writing to his poetry, in the discussion following his University of Pennsylvania poetry reading, which we’ve made available at PennSound. On James Meyer: it was good see the acknowledgement that if poetry was not adequately addressed in his introduction to the collection of the writing of Carl Andre, that would be a problem. And indeed Meyer does little to situate Andre’s poetry into the context of related poetic work, either radical modernist or contemporary, and prefers not to address the formal and aesthetic issues foregrounded by Andre’s poetry with reference to the considerable body of critical writing on poetry (including visual poetry) that explores similar issues.

No one owns art. You can own the objects, but no one—not museums, not artists and not art critics, not art historians or poets—can contain how they come to mean in the world, what they mean to us, what we make them mean. What I value most in art criticism and art history (the two are as if one intertwined figure) is thinking that defies the established norms, that refuses to bow to received values, that reinvents the aesthetic at every turn.

A critical writing that is dialogic rather than proscriptive. (But is that itself a prescription?)

Art criticism and art history, just as literary criticism and literary history, are made up of words and can’t avoid poetics, can’t avoid the problems of representation or the implications of tone. When art criticism represses its own writerly investments, then it falls prey to the same naïve positivism as the most conventional representational portrait, no matter how sophisticated it claims to be. The modes of representation in art criticism are just as much at issue as they are in a work of visual art or a poem. That’s, of course, where O’Hara comes in.

I hadn’t given that much thought to the significance of O’Hara’s art criticism until I read Shaw’s book. I haven’t seen anything else that makes such a compelling and complex case for O’Hara’s art writing and its interconnection to his poetics. Shaw’s book is primarily, or at least at first, about “coterie”—a term he turns from dark to light, a feat of transvaluation that is at the center of this exemplary historical study. Killian makes the crucial point that coterie has been used homophobicly, belittling those stigmatized with it, from O’Hara’s circle to Jack Spicer’s, and there is a lesson to be drawn from that, well known, but relevant: that it is often those who claim to be free of “special” interests that have the greatest vested interests. It occurs to me that you could look at art criticism in terms of coterie too, but by reversing the stigma, pointing how much the tone of interest-free imperious authority, self-assured knowledge, and doctrinaire aesthetics functions because it is … coterie criticism.

We are all coteries now (only some are in more denial about it than others and they are the ones that trouble my sleep).

My idea is not that we should all get along, and certainly not that the same things should be on our radar, but rather that we’d be better off not to cast our disagreements in terms of the ignorance of those with whom we disagree. This is harder than it may seem. Stigmatizing aesthetic or ideological disagreement as if it were the results of ignorance, fraudulence, or insignificance is too often the way both art (and poetry) business is conducted by those who fiercely police what they too often regard as their own turf.

No Trespassing!

Don’t get me wrong: I am ignorant, I make mistakes at every turn; it’s my awareness of that, to the degree I can be, that is my guide.

I am as partial and partisan as anyone. Preference and selection are a necessary part of aesthetic judgment. Yet, my radar might be the exact map of another person’s exclusions, just as another’s exclusions might begin to map my paradise. The relation of these two ideas (conviction in one’s aesthetic judgment and its inevitable limitations) is not irreconcilable but dialectical.

The axiomatic wounds art. And yet art seeks this wound and deepens in relation to it. The fashion of the day is almost never fashionable enough unless you make it so yourself. This is as much a problem for poetry as for visual art, for poetics as much as art criticism.

It is the same problem.

N.B. As Killian notes, I was in the Bay Area in June for a reading, with Judith Goldman, at the terrific New Reading Series, curated by Alli Warren and Brandon Brown. Happily, the reading was recorded by Andrew Kenower and is posted to his superb archive of Bay Area readings, “A Voice Box“, so you can listen to an mp3 of my reading, and Goldman’s, at the web site. I also read at Moe’s in Berkeley for a launch of Goldman’s and Leslie Scalapino’s new issue of War and Peace; there’s a good review of this event at Omnidawn’s blog. Susan Bee, coeditor with Mira Schor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, has the cover of the new War and Peace and that brought us to Leslie Scalapino and Tom White’s house for a slide show of her recent paintings and collaborations with poets.

It was in Oakland.


Comments (2)

  • Charles, thank you for your comments and for your thoughtful, respectful approach to this conversation. Thanks Suzanne for inviting this response. I am hopeful that a cross-disciplinary dialogue can be engaged that enlightens both sides. In the wake of waning influence of literary and visual arts alike on contemporary culture, we cannot afford to alienate one another.

  • It’s much easier to unnsaetrdd when you put it that way!

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