Mar 18, 2007

Against Precision

About a month or so ago I mentioned that I disagreed with several points that Nicholas Manning brought up in his admirably considered and ultimately reasonable review of my long poem Night Season in Galatea Resurrects. My pace in formulating criticism or responses to criticism tends to be glacially slow. It was not until I went to see some of the works in the Minimalist collection at DIA: Beacon that I began to glean an understanding of what, exactly, my point was in differing with some of the notions that Nicholas put forward in his review. I don't really want to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to Nicholas's piece, since I think that it is a fine and self-contained view of the poem in question. Instead, I'd like to offer my thoughts on the matter in relation to my reaction to some of the work at DIA: Beacon and some of my thoughts on precision in art (read: painting, poetry, sculpture, what have you) in general.

My girlfriend Rachel had discussed some of the thinking of one of her professors on the subject of minimalism and the rhetoric of power, which I initially dismissed since I'm generally resistant to the shibboleth of the connection between aesthetics and politics in favor of meeting the work itself in the decontextualized moment of initial contact between artist an audience. Minimalism was, by most reckonings, a reaction to the uber-personalized, gestural aesthetics of the Abstract Expressionists. What the artists were up to was a depersonalization of art and a flattening of affect in order to foreground the idea of art-as-object or art-as-process. These impulses, as I assessed initially are fundamentally populist and aesthetic rather than political. When confronted with the work itself, however, looking at Sol LeWitt's meticulously constructed angles in his "Drawing Series" and Walter De Maria's austere geometries one thing came to mind: the depersonalized machinery of fascism. However, I had exactly the opposite reaction when regarding Agnes Martin's fecund fields of blank penmanship paper, awaiting the immanence of the word, or Joseph Beuys' sound-deadening piles of ragged felt. What I began to realize is that I had no problem with the minimal, on the contrary, those works in the collection that I did not react negatively to, I liked very much; but rather, what I found disquieting was the precision of certain pieces, and how that referenced the power dynamic. I think it probably is not a coincidence that the work I objected to the most was mainly by white males--whereas Agnes Martin seemed to be rejecting some sort of gestural phallic "present-ness" in her work, Lewitt, De Maria and others seemed to be offering a kind of antagonistic swipe at gestural particularities. There is erasing the page, and there is destroying the page.

This is perhaps an intensely subjective reaction to the work, and a cliched conflation of aesthetic precision with the well-worn adumbration that Italian fascism "got the trains running on time"; nevertheless, it was the fundamental reaction I had, and conspicuously close to Rachel's professor's assertion that the resonance of Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc," lies not with its formal purity, but rather with the fact that the work killed people. This, I'd say, is a fine metaphor for the ideological implications of depersonalized formalism--what do the forms do to us when we have withdrawn our human intervention. "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work Makes Us Free") unfettered of its context, hanging above the doorway to the concentration camp. This is a hyperbolic example, but its theoretical and aesthetic underpinnings are sound: the stripping of a people of their humanity is the first ingredient in genocide, the stripping of a work of art of its humanity thows it dangerously into the sphere of the depersonalized rhetoric of power. In Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, he speaks of the organization and precision necessary in orchestrating the deaths of thousands of people employing a few guns, machetes and spiked clubs alone. To me, this is the inevitable end result of precision for precision's sake. Ultimately each and every one of us will be saved or blessed by an error. Insofar as humanity itself is a kind of error, we must embrace imperfection as the very source of our own existence and our own life-force.

What does this have to do with poetry, and with Nicholas's thinking about my poem? I am certainly not calling Nicholas a fascist! However, those moments he objects to in Night Season are those that he deems 'imprecise,' 'mundane' or 'overwritten.' And it is true that they are, in fact, all of those things, as I react strongly against precision in poetry, in the same way that I do against precision in art.

The rhetoric of power is different in poetry. "Minimalism" in poetry is more often than not focused on a kind of gestural preciousness that, while often cloying, is not depersonalizing and doesn't inspire in me the same revulsion as some of the minimalist painters and sculptors. I think the analogous impulse occurs not in minimalist poetics, but rather on a "craft-centered" (Serra's work is often centered on "materials" in the same way) poetics. It is easy to single out "workshop poetics" (as parodied, hilariously in Tim Petersen's "Tarzan Workshop": "Do student know Louise Gluck make over FORTY DRAFT of single poem, and over half of draft just CHANGE SEMICOLON? Do student know that most “serious poet” do nothing than sit at desk and REVISE POEM ALL DAY LONG? Because Tarzan poem “never finished”!") But some culpability also lies elsewhere with writing that completely emphasizes form or process over the human gesture (note, I don't say "content" here, because I don't believe in content, only human marks made): the oftentimes hermetically-sealed irony of Flarf can be guilty of this, as can some Oulipo-type writing that entirely foregrounds procedural devices. Language poetry most often seems in keeping with Martin's fecund immanence, to my mind at least, though I'm sure some who are sympathetic to this perspective would differ with me. (I am speaking generally here, it is important to recognize that there is actually a fairly vast variety of work which falls under the aegis of such blanket terms as "Flarf," "Oulipo," "Langpo," "Minimalism," and any other critical marker that we use out of convenience to classify a body of related work. And, as you probably guessed, I am against these makers anyway (with all due respect to Joshua Corey and other "classifiers"...))

I am most sympathetic to writing that is self-consciously "flawed" (though not necessarily as relentlessly and pristinely "flawed" as Flarf, which is sometimes like a shelf of identically pre-ripped jeans) or "excessive" in some way--poetic Art Brut of a fashion: thus leading to my fondness for Hopkins, Crane, Stein and Duncan to name a few 'canonical' types. I won't name contemporaries in order to avoid sounding cliquish. This is something I strive for in my own work, and the impetus which leads to the undermining of say, "May my death never come." with "Still--I am just / a plant like all the rest," or the borderline cliche of "We sleep even/as figures/ march/ through snow/ or dust to enact/ violence." It is certainly a reaction against precision when I push myself to "overwrite" moments of extreme psychic intensity or extreme biliousness. I'm drawn to the excess of the Weimar Republic or the fecund pond of Rococo or the gestural purity of Abstract Expressionism more than I am the austerity of minimalism or bald-faced formalism.


François said...

I wouldn't let a mixed review bother you. On the other hand, there is something that bothers me about Nicholas Manning's contributor note, where it states he is a lecturer at the University of Strasbourg (my hometown). There is no University of Strasbourg. Strasbourg hosts three universities, U. Louis Pasteur (Stras. I), U. Marc Bloch (Stras. II) and U. Robert Schumann (Stras. III). Not implying anything though.

Mark said...

I wasn't really taking issue with Nicholas' review at all. He had mentioned that he was curious to hear on what basis that I disagreed with some of his assessments, so I just kind of combined my thinking about the DIA: Beacon stuff with that, as it was sort of related.

It's really a pretty good review, I am just extending the discussion here. Bios can often be muddled or simplified. For example, I say that I teach English at Kingsborough Community College, when in reality I am kind of a permanent adjunct lecturer of English composition who sometimes teaches other classes. Sometimes we just simplify things.

I'm definitely appreciative of folks chiming in in support of my work, but I really don't have any problems with the review. If I did have problems with it, I probably would not have devoted this much effort to offer comments on it.

Nicholas Manning said...

Mark, this is a fascinating post: thank you. I’ll try to respond to it in more detail in the next few days, when I’m a little less busy.

As for the bio thing: I teach at l’Université Marc Bloch (Strasbourg II) in the Département de littérature générale et comparée. With Mme. le Professeur Michèle Finck, I’m in Office 402!!

Francois, I’ll be in Strasbourg next week: if you’re still there we should have coffee.

I’m serious!


François said...

Nicholas, I haven't been to Strasbourg in 7 years. You may however have a beer for me at Nelson's, an Irish pub near the cathedral with my former roommate Antonin, if he's not back in Japan again. Or tread my old grounds in the Neudorf, Illkirch-Graffenstaden or at the Hôpitaux Universitaires (I used to attend l'Université Louis Pasteur) and run into old friends of mine.

Tim Peterson said...

RIP Sol Lewitt

Anonymous said...

Sol lewitt helps me with the knee anatomy myths project in 1996 she was a great person