RICHARD OWENS'S RESPONSE TO "SOME DARKER BOUQUETS"
Hasty Notes on Aggression, Abuse, & Criticism
The question of an aggressive criticism is always connected to the question of what is at stake in supporting, dismissing, ignoring or attacking a particular poetic practice.
Insisting on a “more forceful satiric push” to the “negative spirit” Jason Guriel calls for in the March 2009 issue of Poetry, Kent Johnson seems to be seeking a “derisive fare” that would compel poets to publicly lay their cards on the table in order to develop more meaningful poetries and open up a public space for rigorously critiquing practices compromised by ego, ambition, misunderstanding or the violence of a market system. But derision is a form of attack and so the question of what is being attacked and who is attacking is also crucial to any call for an aggressive critical tendency.
P-Queue editor Andrew Rippeon recently called my attention to a short piece by Steve McCaffery in vol. 2 no. 7 of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Here McCaffery remarks, “For the book that's told me best how not to write: Theodore Enslin: Synthesis: the product of a fourth rate mind with access to a third rate technique.” Like the funeral for Olson in the first number of Watten and Grenier’s This magazine, McCaffery’s unforgiving dismissal of Enslin’s work was possibly informed by the need to draw a hard line between Language projects and projects connected to prior practices with different concerns. The aggression we encounter here is tactical.
In a 1997 interview with Dale Smith and Michael Price we see Ed Dorn viciously disparaging the patron saint of Language poetry:
Gertrude Stein is embraced because she is a big fat nothing. You can embrace this big fat nothing and it costs you nothing. There’s no intellectual labor and every inanity you have makes it right and it encourages you to perpetuate all your inanities. She is a slug that should have had salt poured on her.
Aggressive public statements—reviews, essays, comments in conversation or satirical works—are forms of critical intervention. Is there a space—a productive space—between pandering obsequiousness and all out aggression? Again, the degree of force embedded in a critical statement cannot be disentangled from one’s sense of what is at stake in the object of criticism. But force is not a synonym for aggression and I wonder about the extent to which an abusive or biting rhetorical approach reproduces destructive behaviors or impulses. Such an approach might turn heads or get a laugh—but at what cost and to what end?
I find humor in Dorn’s scathing comment on Stein—a sort of iconoclasm from below—but I also question how the seductive rhetorical force of such cocksure comments works to persuade me. Aggression as a rhetorical strategy allows one to publicly stand against a particular practice—but aggression is also used to persuade. Peithos. From the Greek. A turning made possible only by way of coercion.
Gender is central to any discussion of aggressive criticism. Is there a measure of masculinism in Dorn’s comment? Dale Smith has posited elsewhere that the reduction of an argument to masculinist aggression has at times been deployed as an underhanded strategy for shutting down a conversation.
Aggression—a desire to storm the castle—often comes from the outside of a conversation moderated by an already entrenched community, a community satisfied with its location and the principles upon which its work is built. Any set of principles has an expiration date built into it and what’s good for the goose is not always good for other geese. This needs to be announced.
It’s one thing to ridicule power in an effort to dismantle it and another to pander for laughs by kicking a pack mule. The question is one of belonging.
It’s one thing to deride an institution or an abstraction (the everyday makes Eileen Myles barf) and quite another to target an individual. Individuals are sometimes institutions. We can differentiate between the two by locating the space between beheading a monarch and lynching a tenant farmer. The question is one of power and where it resides—in the attacker or the attacked.
Yvor Winters was a prick. Pound a more useful prick. There are always more pricks than kicks.
Ian Hamilton Finlay insisted, “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.” To be attacked is not to be expelled from a garden but situated in relation to it. Damnatio Memoriae. So many dear friends stricken from the record. To willfully forget is an order of attack. The question is always one of belonging and no one wants to be expelled.
On the terrain of criticism—in producing criticism—perhaps it is most useful to be concerned with situations, problems, potentialities and imaginings. How does a given work, practice or tendency emerge out of or respond to a situation located at a particular historical conjuncture?
Commenting on contemporary American music Jonathan Williams remarked, “Philip Glass has, personally, lowered the IQ of the American polity by at least 35 points.”
Iconoclastic. The Hulk’s uncontrollable drive to smash is informed by a desire for a particular order of justice. Eikon. An image. These are fetish objects that stand in for much more than what they are. In any city there are thousands—millions—of households. The city is a state shoring up its strength through the power of its eikons and the irreconcilable tension between oikos and polis is grounded in deeply antagonistic interests. Kenny Goldsmith like Philip Glass is an eikon supported by the state. These are images of the state and my house is under siege. In other words, smashing a golden calf is crudely equivalent to accepting a Trojan horse.
I attack the state. I attack others attacking the state. They are always already handmaidens of the state and the state will always have a place for me in my attacking.
Read more responses here.