Thoughts on the Oulipo and César Vallejo in Response to Calvin Bedient’s Complaint
Feb 11, 2014
25 Min read time
Thoughts on the Oulipo and César Vallejo in Response to Calvin Bedient’s Complaint
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
—W.B. Yeats, “Adam’s Curse”
In his recent piece, “Against Conceptualism,” Calvin Bedient seeks to “defend the poetry of affect” against the tide of conceptualism. I offer four responses here in nucleo before unfolding them below.
One. Contrary to Bedient’s interpretation, the Oulipo, that prolific group of writers and mathematicians (Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle), has never stood against subjectivity. The group aims to offer an alternative to the idea that poetry is born of divine inspiration, access to the subconscious through automatic writing, or procedures of chance. One benefit of Oulipian methods is that writers can avail themselves of literary forms and don’t have to envision the writing process as a protracted waiting-by-the-telephone for the muse to ring them up.
Two. Critics as well as advocates of conceptual poetry assert that it avoids subjectivity. At first blush it may seem counterintuitive, but both groups are invested in the same nineteenth-century values of artistic making. That is, they claim that the artist is the determining factor for the work of art and, ultimately, its guarantor of significance. My main point is that the arguments for and the backlash against conceptual poetry all re-inscribe the notion of the artist’s controlling consciousness and discerning judgment—in a word, her subjectivity.
Three. Both César Vallejo and M. NourbeSe Philip compose poetry according to formal concepts or constraints, and yet strongly communicate affect. The “lyric I” in Vallejo’s tradition-shattering verse is just as uncertain as the “I” of anti-subjective poetry. A lyric I is not a lyric I is not a lyric I.
Four. An alternative to conceptual or “uncreative writing” can be found in a cannibalistic logic of poetic displacement. Certain poets throughout the Americas—writing in English, Spanish, and Portuguese—are working against ideas of literary primacy (whereby an original with great cultural capital is followed by weaker copies). Instead, they are cultivating compositional procedures based in radical mixing. They provocatively rethink socio-political power dynamics and the race-based oppression that language is enmeshed with as they cut up and resituate texts, play with mistaken identities, and employ the cannibal as a figure of resistance to the colonial matrix of power.
• • •
Italo Calvino, a member of the Oulipo, once wrote, “Literature is a combinatorial game which plays on the possibilities intrinsic to its own material, independently of the personality of the author.” That literary material includes all of language (tropes, sound patterning, etc.), as well as any formal constraints the writer chooses to follow. Since writers are always constrained in myriad, unacknowledged ways, as another Oulipian, Daniel Levin Becker writes, “Embracing a set of carefully chosen rules is meant to focus the mind so narrowly that those obscure pressures and preoccupations fade, revealing paths and passageways that one would never notice without the blinders.” We could go even further and say that composing in form produces emotion—not only channels it, but generates it.
This is hardly a new or shocking idea, though. Coleridge, no conceptual poet, described the process of composing his Dejection Ode as a way to “animate” what was “stalled” within him. Susan Stewart notes as much in The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making, where she writes that the poem’s main problem, “the problem of the protagonist who can only see, not feel,” is solved by what Coleridge calls “the shaping spirit of the imagination.” She cites Coleridge: the poet must “out of his own mind create forms according to the severe laws of the intellect, in order to generate in himself that co-ordination of freedom and law, that involution of obedience in the prescript, and of the prescript in the impulse to obey, which assimilates him to nature, and enables him to understand her.”
An Oulipian form is no more about psychological or political control than is a garden-variety villanelle. It is certainly not “safe and reliable,” as Bedient writes; quite the contrary. When writing in constraint, anything can happen on the road, just the same as when writing without a seat buckle. This is a source of great pleasure, and one of the constraint’s great values: language may be composed almost as if in spite of oneself. To the poet, writing in constraint offers the kick of discovering what one didn’t know one was going to say. Of inviting serendipity. Form and constraint can be vastly liberating to the language that they occasion.
One of the constraint’s great values is that language may be composed almost as if in spite of oneself.
The Oulipo has never been anti-subjective. It is quite clearly opposed to several kinds of preconditions for creativity: sheer automatic writing as in the Surrealists’s unedited, “involuntary” works and games of chance (intended to tap into the subconscious), the automatism of conceptual art, and Plato’s influential idea of divinely inspired madness. Part of the reason the group was invented was to offer an alternative to the Platonic model, in which the poet launches into frenzy thanks to the action of the gods. Instead of depending on chance or divine intercession, Oulipian writers devise methods to set their own creativity into motion. As Raymond Queneau once said, there is no literature but voluntary literature. Since it was founded in 1960, the group has sought to formulate new, potential literary forms, drawing on all kinds of resources (from mathematical algorithms to complex, real-life procedures such as writing lines of poetry between metro stops). One benefit is that writers can avail themselves of these forms and don’t have to envision the writing process as a protracted waiting-by-the-telephone for the muse.
Bedient pronounces Oulipian methods “instrumental and parasitical.” He is concerned that the Oulipo has lost what he sees as the earlier avant-garde’s aim to discover “truth,” sacrificing it for “winning and fun.” This is a very odd way to think about literary making. First, because there are few writers today, Oulipian or otherwise, who would claim to be out to catch “truth” in the butterfly nets of their work. Second, because “games” would be a fine term for all of poetry. As Auden writes in “Ode to Terminus,” games and grammar and meters are what poetry is constituted from. (The general term for poetry was “numbers” during the Early Modern Period.)
Bedient writes that for the Oulipo, “originality [is] inverted into ways of demonstrating its demise.” This points to the main issue in the anti-subjectivism debate: where poetry comes from. Following a constraint in composing a poem doesn’t mean that the poem isn’t “original.” It simply means that the poet is drawing upon the copious resources of form to produce a new work of art. Those formal resources may have some longevity, such as the sestina or the venerable lipogrammatic poem, a form dating to the sixth century BCE that avoids any word containing one particular letter, or they may be newly invented, such as an elementary morality (morale élémentaire, a form Queneau minted, involving three sets of three-plus-one word compounds and a refrain of seven lines, each composed of one to five syllables). Rather than subject herself to the vicissitudes of mood and imagination, the poet can avail herself of a blueprint for making—just as she always has.
Much artistic creation comes from a desire to designate a space within which to play. I want to reframe the Queneau quote Bedient mentions, in which he quips that Oulipians are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.” Jacques Roubaud has said that given the labyrinth of mental, physical, and societal constraints that humans are subject to, with death the only way out, the least a writer can do is to cordon off a little section in which she chooses her constraints and decides which direction to take. Building and exploring a labyrinth, false starts, serendipitous discoveries, and an attempt to escape that labyrinth—these are all ways of imagining the process of composition. Once you begin to explore the metaphor, it is not all that different from how Coleridge imagined the creative process during the efflorescence of Romanticism. It is a way to create a reserve or a “realizable field where freedom can appear,” as Stewart writes: “We human makers confront the arbitrary nature of our own signs and the necessity of constantly reinventing them, and remaking them, under terms that are intelligible to others. In doing so, we discover the nonarbitrary—the iron laws of convention and history—that our free making, viewed retrospectively, will literally reform or transform.”
• • •
Today we are seeing a backlash against the idea of anti-lyric or anti-subjective poetry. Bedient’s essay is just one example of a reaction against the canonization of conceptual poetry in recent anthologies such as Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. But so far, no one has noted that both this backlash and conceptual poetry contribute to reifying the idea of what the lyric is. Conceptual writing has actually trenchantly re-inscribed the idea of a guiding authorial presence, bolstering the persistent binary already in place.
Conceptual poetry is currently being defended by many of those who write, appreciate, and theorize it on grounds that rely on the notion of subjectivity. Notably, they don’t agree that it has no truck with emotion. Craig Dworkin cites Charles Olson’s dictum that poetry should be “rid of lyrical interference of the individual as ego,” but he also observes that it also may contain “heartbreakingly raw emotion, undiluted by even a trace of sentiment.”[i] Even the appropriation of language, that signature practice of conceptual poets, has been hailed as the reassertion of individuality and authority. Marjorie Perloff writes in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century that “If the new ‘conceptual’ poetry makes no claim to originality—at least not originality in the usual sense—this is not to say that genius is not in play. It just takes different forms.” She explains, “According to taste: it is important to remember that the citational or appropriative text, however unoriginal its actual words and phrases, is always the product of choice—and hence of individual taste.” Kenneth Goldsmith terms this “self-expression,” “emotion,” and “authorship” in Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. Viewing the recontextualization of language as a marker of “taste” or aesthetic judgment (or cultural capital), and therefore a sign of genius, is a surprisingly hoary claim, given Perloff, Dworkin, and Goldsmith’s emphasis on innovation.
We are at a moment of category fracture, when it is clear that the old terms won’t do, but we don’t have any new terms yet.
Attributing recontextualization to “genius” bolsters the fetish of authenticity that reins in late capitalist society[ii] and shows how ideas about literary originality stem from a metaphysics of origin, in Francoise Meltzer’s phrase. (By “metaphysics of origin,” she means the Western worship of all that is seen as new, true, and creative, and the accompanying paranoia that “originality” may be impossible. In late capitalism this leads to anxiety over private property and individual sovereignty.)[iii] If we follow Perloff and Goldsmith, cut-and-paste becomes the latest way to summon inspiration. This set of methods is deeply invested in reassertingnineteenth-century values, according to which the persona and subjectivity of the artist are determining factors in the work of art and, at bottom, its guarantor of significance. The arguments for and against conceptual poetry allre-inscribe the notion of the controlling consciousness and discerning judgment of the artist—in a word, her subjectivity.
Matvei Yankelvich, a poet, translator, and founding editor of Ugly Duckling Press, made an excellent point in an open letter to Marjorie Perloff. He writes that if we follow Perloff’s (and Goldsmith’s and Dworkin’s) arguments to their conclusion, the conceptualism of works such as Goldsmith’s The Weather and Traffic displays “an embarrassing indulgence in left-over Romantic assumptions of authorial intent.” I’d like to add to Yankelvich’s observation by arguing that casting authorial intent as an “embarrassing indulgence” is symptomatic of the very dynamic that Gillian White identifies inLyric Shame: Producing the “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. This embarrassment congregates around poems seen as offering abstracted, “personal” expression—particularly Romantic, Confessional, and “mainstream” poetry—belonging to what is assumed to be the transhistorical genre of lyric poetry. From the twentieth century onward, such poems have been criticized by scholars, critics, publishers, and writers for their “expressivity,” which is understood as narcissistic and often politically conservative. White tracks how being associated with lyric poetry has become a source of shame in many literary circles. It is disparaged for being monological and oppressive, for relying on a lyric first-person speaker (a coherent “I”) to guide the reader and articulate the perspective of her single subjectivity, or for offering closure. The lyric poem is accused of being so directive as to put the “author” back into “authoritarian.” White argues, however, that such lyric poetry doesn’t actually exist as a form or a genre, but rather is called into being through reading practices. She persuasively explains that the dynamics of shame, and lyric-expressive reading (nineteenth-century constructions of lyric codified as reading methods by twentieth-century critics), have combined to denigrate some poetry as “retrograde, politically conservative, self-indulgent.”
While affect studies have become fashionable across several disciplines (anthropology, psychology, literary theory), “lyric shame” has continued to thrive, and Goldsmith has brought Conceptual poetry to the White House and to The Colbert Report. At the same time, in academia, the question of whether the lyric may be considered a transhistorical genre is producing influential reflections (such as in the work of Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Jonathan Culler, Meredith Martin, White). The entry for “lyric” in the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, written by Jackson, specifies thatsince the eighteenth century, “brevity, subjectivity, passion, and sensuality” have been associated with lyric poetry, but that “lyric” has not always named the same thing throughout history. She writes, “The story of the lyric charts the history of poetics.” The current conversation about conceptualism is part of this larger-scale history of poetics. It has struck a nerve with poets and critics alike, because we are at a moment of category fracture, when it is clear that the old terms won’t do, but we don’t have any new terms yet. Where are we to go after Hegel’s assertion that lyric poetry expresses personal feeling, and John Stuart Mill’s idea that poetry is an utterance overheard? And should poets also be activists? Commentators? Outsiders? Visionaries? Media mavens or PR wizards?
Today’s conceptualism debate is not really about constraint or procedure and their relative merits for writing poems, although that is the way Bedient’s piece leans. It is about the fraught notion of the lyric, the “lyric I,” and the possibility of emotional sincerity in art. It is predicated on polemical distinctions between sources of poetry (rational and planned, or “method” poetries versusirrational and “inspired” poetries), which all derive from a metaphysics of origin. Today’s debate once more asks the fundamental, mystifying questions, Where does poetry come from? How is it made?
• • •
There is a danger in canonizing non-English-language poets as martyrs whose “suffering” may serve as a beacon to “us.” Bedient names Peruvian poet César Vallejo, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and Chilean Raúl Zurita as such paragons. I heartily agree that their poetry is some of the most powerful of the past century, and fervently hope that it will be better and more frequently read in the original and in English in years to come. But do these poets have more access to the quiddity of poetry (and truth, and suffering) than English-language poets who have not been tested by difficult times? Does the experience of suffering translate into specialized, ineffable knowledge? Sanctifying these poets and their work runs the risk of exoticizing them. It is tenuous to claim that melancholy, militancy, and misery born of extreme circumstances are more authentic, sincere, vital, and tapped into life values (Bedient’s terms) than those of North American experimenters. Seamus Heaney diagnosed this phenomenon in his essay “The Impact of Translation” (The Government of the Tongue), where he discusses the vogue experienced by Eastern European poets in the West during the 1980s. “Many contemporaries writing in English have been displaced from an old at-homeness in their mother tongue and its hitherto world-defining poetic heritage,” Heaney reasoned in 1986. One can only wish for more displacement of that old at-homeness in the twenty-first century, and indeed, it is inevitable; it is already happening, not only geopolitically, but also through literary translation and through digital advances that galvanize cultural exchange. The English language itself is changing thanks to multilingual and code-switching literature, such as Spanglish (as the United States is becoming an increasingly bilingual nation), and the valorization of vernacular literatures of many kinds (including the Caribbean demotic that Kamau Brathwaite calls “nation language”).
Vallejo has often been hailed as a great bard of human suffering. His work is concerned with the “blows” (golpes) that the world doles out, and the shackles that confine and define human existence. Bedient holds up Vallejo as a counterexample to English-language conceptual poets, calling him “a seer in regard to Malignancy” and a poet “of alarm and indignation.” Vallejo does articulate one of the twentieth-century poet’s central dilemmas (inherited from Romanticism) in poems such as “A Man Passes By…” which sets the reality of poverty and death against the uselessness of art:
A mason falls from a roof, dies before lunch.How can I renew, after that, the trope, the metaphor?…An outcast sleeps with his foot behind his back.Can I later speak to anyone about Picasso?[iv]
What use, after all, in writing poems when there is work to be done to repair the world? Can we afford to be non-instrumental? This is a question that Vallejo’s poetry poses from first to last. Yet it is odd that Bedient sets Vallejo’s salutary humanism against conceptualism, for Vallejo’s poetics are deeply experimental—and share many of the concerns of conceptual artists, although not quite in the way Bedient means. Latin American conceptualism, according to Uruguyan conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer, has questioned the quiddity of art and its socio-political role, rather than focusing on institutional critique as European and North American conceptualism has.[v] Vallejo’s poems are shaped by a concern with the plasticity of language and the process of writing, ludic maneuvers, and a mix of registers (colloquial, popular speech and Peruvianisms romp with arcane scientific vocabulary) as he fashions a poetic form that corresponds to his sense of the contemporary. His work has contributed to the conceptualist strategies, politicized critique, and climate of experiment found in twentieth-century Latin American visual arts as well as in the poetry of Peruvians César Moro, Carlos Oquendo de Amat, and Jorge Eielson, Chileans Vicente Huidobro and Nicanor Parrra, and Brazilian Oswald de Andrade and groups such as Noigandres and Poema/Proceso.
But can poetry unbind actual fetters?
Vallejo’s Trilce, a watershed in Spanish-language poetry—published in the fateful year 1922—directly counters the aestheticism of modernismo with its revolutionary poetics of disjunction and linguistic acrobatics. Bedient may have been thinking primarily of Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry rather than Trilce (which he previously described in Boston Review as an “apotheosis” of “exuberant experimentalism,” lamenting that Vallejo’s “early clarity is quickly mussed”). In Trilce, as in many experimental works, solidarity with humanity cohabits with a profound engagement with language and the problem of language’s mysterious relation to the world. Vallejo’s poetry investigates the linguistic function of “I,” that stuttering, halting, fragmented convergence of energies. His poetry is an investigation of the possibility of subjectivity.
Like others who experiment with language—like Gertrude Stein, who pursued her “own interest”; like Oulipian writers who are anti-chance—Vallejo is concerned with deliberately crafting his work. This concern should not be confused with a commitment to unified subjectivity, however. In a notebook Vallejo kept while writing his poetic sequence on the Spanish Civil War, he wrote: “Is it better to say ‘I’? Or better to say ‘the man’ as the subject of emotion—lyric and epic—. Of course, it’s more profound and poetic to say ‘I’—taken naturally as a symbol of ‘everyone’—.” Vallejo is interested in emotion, but the subject of emotion may be called what you will. He might say, with Arthur Rimbaud and with philosophers and linguists, that the pronoun “I” is a grammatical cipher that indicates that the event of language is happening, before it points to anything in the world.[vi]
In one ars poetica, Vallejo compares his own poetry to a piano—without describing the music it produces. The piano alternately soars and attains the carefully orchestrated rest provided by form: it “travels inward, / it travels in joyous leaps. / Then ponders in iron-clad repose, / nailed with ten horizons” (Este piano viaja para adentro, / viaja a saltos alegres. / Luego medita en ferrado reposo, / clavado con diez horizontes. XLIV). The piano bounds the way the poem navigates through language. In this way Vallejo’s piano is akin to Arthur Rimbaud’s bugle (“For I is another. If brass wakes up a bugle, it is not its own doing…. I strike with my bow: the symphony stirs in the depths, or leaps suddenly onto the scene”).[vii] Vallejo’s first-person singular is made of language, and even if it produces music, ultimately, it is still sheer language—not a conduit for subjectivity. The notes produced are incidental to the passage of art-making through the medium of language. It is worth noting that Vallejo’s ironclad repose is not the repose of the mystic Saint John of the Cross, whose poem on theological conviction the piano poem (XLIV) responds to. Nor does Vallejo’s poetry curve smoothly like the swan’s neck in Rubén Darío and the poems of other masters of modernismo. Instead, Vallejo advocates a poetics that is fashioned through disarticulation, embracing the potentiality of the Venus de Milo’s imperfections (and literal lack of articulations) as he makes a call to “refuse symmetry unfalteringly” in XXXVI:
Are you around there, Venus de Milo?You hardly feign you’re a cripple, buddingdeep within the capacious armsof existence that furthermores aperpetual imperfection.Venus de Milo, whose severed, uncreatedarm turns over and tries to elbowacross green stuttering pebbles,eastern nautiluses, yetnesses that have startedto crawl, immortal eves.Roper of imminences, roperof parentheses.….Yield to the new unevennessmighty with orphanhood!
Rather than offer certainties, Vallejo’s beautiful exemplum generates imminence, possibility, productive doubts (inquietudes constructivas; like Keats, like Auden). His poem promotes a broken form, but it is still a form: it is written with precise technique.
Even the most celebrated poets of feeling, such as Vallejo, build their idiosyncratic poetics by constraining language through careful composition. To create the startling poems of Trilce, he drafted finely interlocking, Golden Age-style sonnets only to de-create and torque them. This is certainly a procedure, a constraint. (Think of what Jen Bervin or Flarf poet K. Silem Mohammed do to Shakespeare’s sonnets; or what Oulipian poet Frédéric Forte does in his anagrammatic rendition of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift.) Vallejo’s neologisms, unorthodox orthography, register mixing, and fragmentation—on every level from morphemic to syntactic—are strategies strikingly similar to those Bedient excoriates in Oulipian writers and others he critiques for being “conceptual,” such as, surprisingly, those of M. NourbeSe Philip. These poets all employ similar strategies, but because they do so at different times and places, those strategies take on diverse meanings in the economy of literary capital—just as ideas of authorship, originality, and work are construed and legislated differently in each case.
The poetry of both Vallejo and Philip is composed according to a formal concept or constraint that conveys strong affect. In Zong! Philip brilliantly breaks down language to indicate the problem of articulation. (Oddly, Bedient deems her book conceptual because of its use of gray font in the closing pages, not because of this phonemic fragmentation.) Philip “tells and untells” the true story of 150 African slaves murdered by a ship captain in order to collect insurance. She disarticulates the historical event. In the opening, she indicates the stuttering of drowning voices, disassembling the word “water” to its component phonemes:
w w w w a waw a w a ter
It is hard not to feel one’s chest clench empathetically, asthmatically, while reading this book. Emotion is conveyed about and through the search for communication. The cry haunts, even when it is broken, disassembled, unclear from whom it issues. In these two cases Bedient adduces (Vallejo and Philip), feeling cohabits with constraint. Philip borrows language from the 1781 legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, which is the single document bearing witness to the massacre—its “tombstone.” In the first twenty-six poems (as many as there are letters in the alphabet), she restricts herself to a “word store” composed solely of the text of the legal decision.
itis saidhas been decidedwas justifiedappeared impossibleis not necessaryis another groundneed not be proveditwas a throwing overboard
Philip spins together a fugue, as she calls it, both in the musical sense and the sense of a state of amnesia. She explains,
In allowing myself to surrender to the text—silences and all—and allowing thefragmented words to speak to the stories locked in the text, I, too, have foundmyself ‘absolved’ of ‘authorial intention.’ So much so that even claiming toauthor the text through my own name is challenged by the way the text hasshaped itself. The way it ‘untells’ itself.
In writing Zong!, she tried to avoid imposing meaning, and to create a poem that would demand the reader’s effort to “‘make sense’ of an event that eludes understanding, perhaps permanently.” Her poetics arose out of her feeling that she needed “permission” to tell the stories of the dead. I’ll return in a moment to the notion of authorial intention that she wishes to avoid, but for now I want to note that Philip—who is a lawyer as well as poet—says that she distrusts language because it is part of the system of logic and rationality that orders the world. She compares her poetics to the contortions, force, and spontaneity of the dance style crumping (or krumping), so that “the ordering of grammar, the ordering that is the impulse of empire, is subverted.”
But can poetry unbind actual fetters? Bedient writes that “the imagination is essential to politics” because it transmutes empathy into solidarity. This is a very messy kind of alchemy—and unpredictable in its results. Keston Sutherland cautions that “readers will be more or less active and free in their uses of texts depending on thousands of unpredictable factors that no poet could ever control or design.” It is a “patronising fantasy” to imagine that one’s poetry will liberate strangers, he writes, “whose actually infinitely complex lives full of many kinds of incalculable unfreedom and oppression are routinely ignored in favour of a stupefying heroic abstraction.”
• • •
One last thought in response to Bedient’s complaint. A comparison may be helpful. Just short of a century ago, a similar confluence of debates about literature occurred in Latin America. At the same time as De Andrade’s manifesto advocating cultural cannibalism (antropofagia) was circulating in Brazil, the polemic surrounding the reception of the Hispanic poetic vanguard clustered around three major issues that may ring familiar right now: the significance of technique; the existence of genuine novelty in vanguard poetry; and creative sincerity.[viii] At that moment, a pressing question for many writers was how to craft a national literary tradition that was proper to Latin America and separate from Europe. There are some important analogies between that moment and the present one in North America, including the pitting of sincerity against an insatiable devouring of cultural memes. There are critical differences, of course, between the social and political circumstances of these cases, but it is worth pointing out that these are old tensions that exist across cultures. There are many experimental currents today beyond the one championed by Goldsmith or Vanessa Place. A poetics of cannibalism, for example, has pointed politico-aesthetic implications: it constitutes an aggressive program for the construction of a poetics that draws at will from the world’s cultural heritage.[ix]
Some very interesting poets are offering a provocative rethinking of cultural and socio-political power dynamics as they cut up or appropriate language of many sorts, play with proper names and mistaken identities, and imagine the cannibal as a figure of resistance to the colonial matrix of power, with its accompanying regime of language and capitalist consumption. There is a usurping impulse at work, as Haroldo De Campos calls it. I’m thinking of writers as varied as M. NourbeSe Philip, Mónica de la Torre, Terrance Hayes, Mark McMorris, Haryette Mullen, and Wendy Walker; and Latin American Neo-Baroque poets including Argentines Néstor Perlongher, Osvaldo Lamborghini, and Arturo Carrera, Uruguyans Roberto Echavarren and Eduardo Milán, Cuban-American José Kozer, and Peruvian-Argentine Reynaldo Jimenez. These poets appropriate literary capital through constrained recombination, recycling, and (often playful) of language. Their subversive copying indicates fissures in capitalist and race-based notions of property and subjecthood.These poets are all participating in a broadly cannibalistic logic of poetic displacement that is an alternative to conceptual or uncreative writing.
• • •
Maybe the most striking thing about this new debate is how old it is. We keep tripping over the idea that poetic inspiration and originality are possible, when we are fated to repeat ourselves, repeat ourselves, repeat ourselves—even when we go against the grain. “Arroz is arroz is arroz,” as Chicano poet José Montoya wrote.
[i]Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011), xlv.
[iii]Françoise Meltzer, Hot Property: The Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality.
[iv]Translations of Vallejo are from Valentino Gianuzzi and Michael Schimdt, published by Shearsman Books.
[v]Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation.
[vi]Roman Jakobson makes this point, as does Giorgio Agamben: “before designating real objects, pronouns and other indices of enunciation indicate precisely that language is taking place; in this sense, they refer to the very event of language before referring to a world of signfieds.” For a discussion of this idea, see Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses.
[vii]“Car Je est un autre. Si le cuivre s’eveille clairon, il n’y a rien de sa faute…je lance un coup d’archet: la symphonie fait son remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d’un bond sur la scène.”
[viii]Mirko Lauer notes that vanguardistideas of authenticity show their Romantic roots in La polémica del vanguardismo, 1916-1928.
[ix]I discuss cannibalistic poetics at length in “Poetry Is Theft,” Comparative Literature Studies (50.1) February 2014, p. 18-54.
February 11, 2014
25 Min read time