Tag Archives: readerly anxiety

Poetry and crisis, the case of Better than Language and Kazoo Daydreams

The question here can be briefly formulated: does poetry get better as things get worse?

Others have remarked here that we are especially fortunate to be living through a period in the UK where a great deal of excellent work is being produced both by ‘established; poets and a younger group of rising stars. There may be all kinds of reasons for this but I’m increasingly of the view that the above correlation might be a major factor.

This is prompted by a view I came across this morning that ascribes the flowering of poetic and dramatic endeavour of the 1590s as a response to the many religious upheavals of the previous fifty years. My initial response was to reject this and replace with something about the much improved teaching in grammar schools of the period or the growth in the legal profession or the rise to dominance of the mercantile class or colonial adventuring by grammar school boys on the make. I then paused and tried the ‘crisis’ thesis out on other periods. The flowering of what J A Burrows has described as Ricardian verse occurred after the Black Death of 1348 which decimated the population and emptied large parts of our countryside, the reign of Richard II was (to put it mildly) politically fragile and the practices of the church were being challenged by Wycliffe and the Lollards.

The 1590s pale in comparison with the latter half of the fourteenth century but they were nevertheless difficult times. The church was making reasonably draconian attempts to enforce some kind of orthodoxy, military campaigns were being pursued in the Low Countries and yet another futile war was being fought in Ireland, the monarch was getting older and no-one knew who would succeed her, there was famine in the middle of the decade and the elite were more paranoid than usual about domestic unrest. These were not the easiest of times.

So, the hypothesis gathers a strength that is reinforced by the Romantics who first flowered in the aftermath of the political angst brought about by the French Revolution and who flourished during a period of enormous social and political upheaval.

There is also the argument that Paradise Lost could only have been written after the various traumas of the previous thirty years.

But before I get carried away, it might be as well to consider what I might mean by crisis. The third OED definition is:

A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.

I want to put a slight twist on this and point out that the anxiety-inducing experience of being in a crisis stems from the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Those living through the latter half of the fourteenth century were acutely aware that disease could strike at random and with enormous force and were living through a chaotic ‘re-balancing’ of social and economic forces which are reflected in the vibrant poetry of Langland, Chaucer and others. What I’m trying to get to is that crisis is characterised by societal and individual anxiety stemming from this not knowing.

It seems to me that we are in a period of not knowing which is manifested by the rise of China and India and the consequent decline of the West together with the slowly dawning realisation, especially in the UK that the elite are both corrupt and dismally incompetent. This is matched by the massive changes wrought by the internet which do throw many prior truths into question (privacy, authenticity, ways of doing science etc.). There are also the challenges posed by an aging population and climate change.

I’m going to start with Better than Language, Chris Goode’s magnificent anthology of younger British poets. In his astute introduction Chris writes:

To write a poem is to to want to see something in the world that isn’t yet in it, however direly complicated or conflicted that wanting might be and however ungraspable the author’s sense of the lack of the poem before it’s made. And from its earliest intimations, the poem is asking questions about what will and will not be included in its compass. Which voices will be heard, what life-paths will cross within its system, whose desires can be admitted? To which areas will the reader have access? How tall must you be to ride this attraction? What moments will amount to to the constructed event in which author and audience encounter each other? How much language can this poem bear? And of course all these questions point to another: on what basis, and in the light of what responsibilities, will the poet attempt to answer as she proceeds? Which is partly to ask: What don’t I know yet? What are the known unknowns, those Rumsfeldian phantoms, that negatively shape the composition of a particular poem at a particular time and place? And what do we do with the impossibility of an approach to these questions that takes us even a whit beyond tolerable insufficiency? – Believe me, not every poet now at work is aware these are real and present questions. Here are thirteen who are.

Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the above, I’d like to argue that this awareness is bound up with and is directly related to this wider sense of crisis fuelled by the many (too many) Rumsfeldian phantoms inm the wider world.

The other point that I’d like to throw into the mix is that Prynne read ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ to a group of Occupy activists and that the Occupy movement does seem to be the most sensible political response (with its refutation of dogma and refusal to promote ‘easy’ solutions) that we currently have. I’d also like to point out Prynne’s use, in ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ of ‘Piers Plowman’, one of the great poems of the Ricardian period and concerned with all aspects of crisis as discussed above and one (in any of the three texts) that doesn’t present solutions.

I’m not suggesting that good poetry now is a direct reflection of these phantoms but what I am considering is that crisis throws things into a state of flux and that there are a number of very talented poets that have used this as a tool and are producing work of tremendous strength and depth with it as opposed to trying to make ‘sense’ of it.

In a recent discussion about readerly anxiety with John Boomberg=Rissman, John made the point that “RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that”. I’m now of the view that these poets are engaged in this ‘bearing’ with more than a little honour.

Readerly anxiety- a dialogue

I first identified readerly anxiety in something I wrote about the Emily Dorman poems on the Claudius App site and since then have been in correspondence with John Bloomberg-Rissman with a view to thinking more generally about this particular response. The following is an edited record of the discussion thus far:
JA I experience RA as as a number of intellectual variations around the status of what’s in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words. I’ll try and give an example of RA other than the Dorman thing- I fret about both John Ashbery and about Paul Muldoon in that I think I know what they might be about and I recognise their abilities but I am completely at sea when it comes to deciding how I might feel about them. I can also read both as ‘just words’ and find myself often just staring bleakly at the text. This is also an itch that I cannot scratch, I continue to buy the books on publication but no longer open them.
Because I’m self-taught I do become more anxious than I should about the nature of a text- part of me still thinks that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I’m missing the ‘point’. Reading Blanchot has helped with this because I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would without any prior notion of context or background- I’m now trying to apply this to poetry that remains beyond my reach.
J B-R I think everyone is self-taught when it comes to contemporary poetry, really. There are no authority figures who can tell us what to do with Kazoo Dreamboats, at least none I believe know any more about the text in front of them than I do … expect perhaps in the sense they’ve spent a lot more time with his texts than I have – as you’ve obviously done with Hill … but that doesn’t mean they can do my reading, have my experience for me. You write “part of me still thinks that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I’m missing the ‘point’.” A friend of mine from Nottingham, Alan Baker, told me that Lee Harwood believe that Prynne is entirely a … well, not a fraud, but just uh meaningless air or something. But I can’t believe Harwood, either. I have no reason to “believe” anyone. All I have is who I am and what I know and the text in front of me.
You describe RA as “a number of intellectual variations around the status of what’s in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words”.
I think that describes my own RA as well.
I think there are two “sides” to it. Both are readerly, but one is social and the other is more phenomenological, so to speak. The social side has to do with what you call status. In spite of the “death of the author” I do think authorial intention comes into play (e.g. is this a feminist poem? is this satire?, is this a mashup?, is this to be read as fast as I can or as slowly as I can? etc etc. All of those are authorial or public or community determinations … (for instance, it wasn’t til heard Tom Raworth out loud that I understood how to read him (fast fast fast). The other side is what I’m clumsily calling phenomenological, tho I’m sure there’s a much better word for it. And that’s what am ***I*** doing when I read, that shifting nature thing. Am I looking up words in the dictionary? Am I trying to find a narrative line (narrative used loosely, to mean something like “one words follows another and is tied to it, and the next word is tied to that chain, somehow, etc etc etc, i.e. that the words are syntactically/semantically connected somehow no matter how they first hit me”)? What am I doing with the images? the line breaks? the music?
The anxiety from the social side is easy to understand: am I reading a satire seriously? Am I missing something everyone else in the room so to speak is getting?
The other anxiety is worse, tho. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m reading at all, actually, or whether I’ve turned the poem into some sort of mirror, and am just projecting onto it (what if I’m finding a narrative thread? Am I constructing it out of nothing that’s actually there? What if I’m not finding a narrative thread and there is one?) … the real question is: how do I know whether e.g. narrative [or whatever] is even relevant when I think about this thing in front of me?
This is all a way of saying that when you write, re Prynne, e.g., “I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would” there’s a little voice w/in my saying, even if that brings me to a more satisfying experience, can I call that experience **reading*** – or must I call it something else?
I don’t think Kazoo Dreamboats is a hoax, by the way. I think it was an odd sort of poem to perform at Occupy, surely; I don’t now what people thought, because it’s sure not obvious what he’s “saying”. But when I got my copy I sat down and read the first half-dozen pages without stopping. Did I get it? Depends what “it” is (which is where the anxiety comes in). But I enjoyed the hell out of it, and couldn’t stop marveling at the way each sentence of bit started one place, and ended someplace else, and took me on a journey which was delightful.
I’m reading a book about Sherrie Levine right now and came across a bit I want to quote. But first a little background. Clement Greenberg and then Michael Fried attempted to define modernism as a “space” in which each art was true to its own inner necessities; it was a failure of some kind when one art made use of a technique or an aspect of another art. Fried called this impurity “theatricality” and saw it as a real negative. (I’m simplifying to the point that I’m losing all the subtlety and interest of their arguments, so I’ll quote Fried a little to be fairer: “the concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre” …). In any case, a bit later Rosalind Krauss wrote a piece called “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. The author of the book I’m reading (Howard Singerman) suggests, “Her ‘expanded field’ maps out and articulates that frighteningly unjudgeable space **between** the arts – and perhaps between art and criticism – that Fried dismissed as theater.”
When I read “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” I immediately thought of RA and began to wonder – maybe RA is the only truly appropriate response to art now. Maybe a Greenberg/Fried kind of purity that will enable us to categorize/assimilate/”get comfortable with” the kind of poetry we’re discussing is over. Maybe that was modernism. Maybe we’re somewhere else now. Maybe the problem with trying, e.g. to classify Kazoo Dreamboats is the attempt to read it as a modernist poem. Maybe it, and Ashbery, and Muldoon, and Hill, and Anne Boyer (nice post, by the way) etc etc etc are all working in “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” and we simply have to live with anxiety of not KNOWING – which is different than not reading, of course. As Thomas Pynchon wrote at the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow: “It’s all theatre” … [tho not quite in Fried’s sense of the between or bastardized, except to note that we are “always already” between …]
JA I think there is a case for thinking that we are somewhere else now and one of the things that might concern me is that RA might be not the appropriate response but the only response of any kind that can be made. I’m also coming to the view that this might be more about what’s happening to the act of reading than about the material and much more about the ‘figure’ of the reader in the wider scheme of things.
A further thought is that elements of RA have been addressed by poets down the ages. I’ve just spent the afternoon in the 16th century and this got me to thinking about EK’s commentary or gloss on the Shepherd’s Calendar whereby Spenser placates anxiety by providing some context and also manages to draw attention to his many gifts. David Jones’ notes to ‘The Anathemata’ are extremely detailed as if to compensate for the complexity and obscurity of the text.
One of the things that it beginning to help is to try and widen the frame to think about the ‘work’ in a wider and perhaps less cultural context as in (for example) the place of reading poetry in the national psyche or the relationship between the teaching of expression (and the ways in which this is funded and marketed), the production of expression and its consumption more in the style of Bruno Latour than Derrida or Fish.
The final thought for this evening is the nature of the value of RA and whether it can be the itch that can be productively scratched. I like to think that my recent experience has kick-started a process of different modes of reading (as a child, as a writer, as a mentor etc etc) which might just make the ‘unjudgeable space’ a bit more bearable.
J B-R Maybe we readers are catching up with the kind of dark ecology / black metal nihilism that the speculative realist philosophers like Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Nicola Masciandaro, Reza Negerastani etc have been working with the last few years. I mean, if “god is dead” then all values have to be created – by us … something like that. [And we’re too hip to believe ourselfes, our self-created values] Question: where did you find Readerly Anxiety in Blanchot? I’d like to read that.
Some material makes us more anxious than other material. I think we do still have culture that appears to cohere (even if it’s only running on fumes and momentum ..) so a kind of writing that “looks normal” allows us to play readerly games we already know how to play … of course keeping our anxiety tamped down some.
I agree with you that RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that.
JA I’m really struck by your notion of honourably bearing the unbearable- this resonates with me on quite a deep level because I think I feel the need for a way to be within RA rather than to try and struggle outside it.
The other thing that strikes me is that Prynne might be right and it is the reader’s view/response that matters then RA becomes a creative force for change, even if that entails more than a degree of Brassier’s blend of activism- which could be what’s required in the poetic networks in which we ‘operate’.
I don’t want to get hung up on the Latour/Derrida thing because I think they both point in the right direction, I just feel that I can do more with Latour. Hardcore Blanchot is to be found in the utterly brilliant ‘Writing the Disaster’ which (for me) sets out some of this territory.
J B-R I too think we need to be within RA rather than to struggle to get outside it. As far as I can tell, there is only one type of person today that has no RA, so to speak, and those are the types who have an absolute book [whether scripture or capital or race or nationality or …] to do their thinking for them, to ground their being – a grand récit; the rest of us aren’t so lucky (or unlucky, rather) (no, or lucky).
I think that to be within RA is to be within a state of negative capability. But not quite Keats’. I’m sure you recall his slightly sexist definition: when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason. I only repeat it here to emphasize the “without any irritable reaching” bit. I think that’s what problematic …
I’ll take myself as example. Last nite I picked up the Blanchot and found myself “irritably reaching” – I, like the translator, wanted to pin ‘the disaster’ to B’s “The Death Sentence” – which would, of course, remove my irritable reaching, as I’d then know what the “disaster” is. Which would, of course, also destroy the power of the text, which demands RA, utterly (in the most utterly utterly meaning of utterly) demands it, is nothing without it.
I think that irritable reaching is a difficulty we don’t want to transcend.
I’ll get back to the Prynne notion of reading in a second, but I want to note that I believe that RA and negative capability (with irritable reaching – reaching without grasping) and Derrida’s différance all point us in the same direction.
Re: Prynne: yes, I think that “the reader’s view/response … matters”, but that’s only part of the story. After all, all responses are not equal.* There is a text that we must face (honorably). Which would mean, I think that we can’t privilege our role in the process as a palliative for our RA.
*What I mean is e.g. a reading of the disaster text that simply substituted “death sentence” for “disaster” would be a less honorable (worse) reading that one in which I “stay irritable” if need be in order to remain in RA.
It suddenly occurs to me that Socrates thought his wisdom was based in his knowledge that he knew nothing. But he always seemed a little too proud of the fact, a little too smug, for me. It’s as if he treated that knowledge the way the folks above treat their base text. We don’t even have that “knowing we know nothing” to fall back upon.
You write: “RA becomes a creative force for change, even if that entails more than a degree of Brassier’s blend of activism- which could be what’s required in the poetic networks in which we ‘operate’.” I’m very interested in this notion. I’d like you to elaborate on it. What kind of change are we talking about? How is RA instrumental?
Which is another way of asking: if poetry (writing it or reading it) changes anything, what does it change and how does it do it? I think that’s a question that [almost] torments me …


(There is more of this discussion but I’m going to leave it there for now to see if it strikes a chord with others. I hope the above makes clear that both John and I experience RA as something real and almost tangible and that the response would seem to be the development / deployment of ‘honourable’ reading.)