Monday, October 09, 2006

Intro for Andrew Joron
Artifact Reading Series, San Francisco
B. Cunningham

“Where language fails, poetry begins.” That’s from the essay “The Emergency” in Andrew Joron’s FATHOM, and I wanted to keep that line in mind, since I actually have it in mind a great deal. The first time I read it I felt it was possibly, in part, a response to language poetry, which does seem often concerned, except maybe in some of Barret Watten’s recent thinking, with what language does, how it manipulates, how it socially conditions, as opposed to the negative space it also describes.

Like the essay itself, “where language fails, poetry begins” is a philosophical line, or more accurately an example of aesthetic theory. If you don’t know Andrew’s writing, there’s no doubt that it does take “aesthetics” seriously—it’s never ponderous about it, that’s true, and it’s not about aesthetics in its sense of the “aesthete.” Or maybe it’s sort of about the “aesthete” too, but if so it’s a decadent and out-of-place aesthete who can be found sipping absinthe and playing the theremin while living on a moon with an earth-like atmosphere.

What I mean, though, is that it takes aesthetics seriously in its old sense, as a science, specifically as a science of the unknown—or as Andrew sometimes calls it the “emergent,” or even, as in that line I began with, simply: poetry.

A lot of us know that Andrew has allowed himself, to some extent, to be connected to a tradition that’s not always very understood nowadays, which is Surrealism. I don’t think I write very much like Andrew, and I don’t consider myself a Surrealist, so I’ve often wondered why I response so affirmatively to his writing if in fact this is surrealism. And that speculation led me to wonder about similarities between the Russian Formalists, especially Viktor Shklovsky, who I consider a great influence on my thinking, and the almost simultaneous activity of the French Surrealists.

Breton’s surrealist manifesto opens with a long description of the adult contemporary “man” who is inured to his life, and who has sold body and soul, as Breton puts it, to an “imperative practical necessity.” Sounds like the American 1950s, yes, but it was written in the 20s in Paris. Imagination, childhood senses of freedom, madness, the unconscious—in a word, the irrational—will be Breton’s counterbalancing force to that practical necessity, and art its entryway.

Over in Russia, meanwhile, Viktor Shklovsky will make “ostranenie” (sometimes translated as “enstrangement,” maybe “defamiliarization”) central to his own theory of art, repeatedly stressing that we become indifferent because of habitual repetition, and that literature makes the familiar strange, renews perception, wakens us to our own lives.

Breton’s suggested artistic response is quite different from Shklovsky’s: in France, Breton and Robert Desnos are soon falling asleep with their arm in a sling and a pad of paper in front of them, with one of them whispering “now write!” in the ear of the other, while in Russia Shklovsky’s school is turning out long essays on the sonic-structural patterns in Pushkin’s conceits.

I try to be careful finding similarities, and I think it’s usually the case that distinctions are generally what matters for thinking: it’s deceptively easy to find points of agreement, much harder to appreciate historical and subtle differences. Nevertheless I think that the common project between Shklovsky and Breton is something like a science of the unknown. And that’s also how I interpret even the smallest gestures in Andrew’s work. He defamiliarizes, in one small way, and to give an example, by using homonyms and, well, near-homonyms and off-homonyms, sometimes puns of translations, synonyms, to restructure our way of reading, zeroing it in, down to the phoneme. I remember reading “Spine to Spin, Spoke to Speak” for the first time, and I got to the last line (“All signal is this / single”) and, because the work had gotten me into such a strange, focused place, I couldn’t actually recognize the word “single.” I pronounced it, in my head, “sin-gal-ee,” then I tried again: “signal,” but, no, that was obviously the word above it, then I tried again, “SIN-gal,” etc. So I put the book down a second, picked it up, and it was pretty easy.

I have a lot of thoughts about this scientific project, this science of the unknown, I see Andrew engaged in. But for now I just want to get across that it really is a choice he makes: there’s another way to go in poetry. If you take poetry, as he does, as investigator of a beyond meaning, announcer of the incommunicable, zone of the actually strange, it’s clear that the particular techniques he uses aren’t the only ways to go. In the first place the strange is always shifting around, and it’s dependent on our backgrounds, our history, the new news and the old news—so any decent science of it has to be pretty modest, and take the difficulty of the project into account, admitting there’s going to be a lot of ways to run this investigation, or this lament, or this revivification. At first saying that can sound like a dodge: what poetry isn’t somehow engaged in these things? Isn’t emerging knowledge always the point in art? But then think of how many poets, how many poetries, seem primarily concerned with stylistic similarities—how many poetic schools come down to using similar forms or tones.

So maybe that’s a place to bring in Andrew. I think there’s something profoundly open-hearted in Andrew’s writing. It might not be your own style, and it’s one of the few writings that doesn’t seem to want you to encounter it as a projection of your own style. It’s the emergent investigations that matter, and there’s a lot of ways to sur this reality—

“Where language fails, poetry begins."


Blogger stan said...

Nice intro.

I love it when poetry leaves me unable to recognize common words. When you suddenly become a dyslexic child again while reading-- that is poetry.

1:22 PM  

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