Ron Silliman posted an interesting diatribe on his blog on Saturday. I usually don’t agree with a lot of what he says (who does?), but I’m always appreciative of the thought that he puts into it. Saturday’s post was about the sentimentalist ways in which Robert Creeley’s poetry is being used today.
Rather than say I agree, or disagree, with the whole post, I’d rather simply take a few snippets from the post – highlights, if you will – and respond to those. Some of them are rather harsh and striking. Whether they ring true or not, you can be the judge.
Silliman started off with this paragraph, a finely written thesis that set me up right away with anxious anticipation:
If you set a Google Alert for the name Robert Creeley, one thing you will discover fairly quickly is that there are quite a few blogs and a growing number of Flickr! pages that tend to post snippets of literature as daily words to live by, rather in the manner of homilies on page-a-day calendars. And that Robert Creeley is becoming something of a favorite for this kind of use. I have no idea how long these sites stay up, nor how many of the upwards of 180,000 websites that mention Creeley they might account for. But there do seem to be a couple of new ones every single day.
Creeley has become somewhat of a hero for many poets of my generation, and Silliman’s as well (I’d like to point out that Ron Silliman is a Baby Boomer; I’m one of the oldest of Generation X), though I think he may have had more direct influence on Silliman’s generation. Creeley was a seminal member of the Black Mountain Poets, who were heavily influenced by the Beats, and who in turn influenced later avant-garde movements including Silliman’s own L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School. I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of the avant-garde, though I believe Creeley to be among the best poets of that tradition.
Silliman wasted no time getting right to the meat of his argument, a skill that I admire. Why waste time? In his second paragraph he launched into the “setting of the stage” for what is to come. If paragraph one was “Lights!”, paragraph two was “Camera!” Get ready for action; it’s coming!
Lights, Camera, Silliman!
Here are the opening sentences of “Camera!”:
This is, of course, a traditional use of literature, not so far removed in its historical context from the sort of use implied in the idea that high school students memorizing & reciting poetry is a “good thing.” Both are a far cry from the conception of poetry as “news” advocated by William Carlos Williams, and are in fact profoundly pre- if not outright anti-modern (let alone postmodern) notions. They recreate a world prior to the invasion of technology (or, for that matter, electricity) into the home. They’re one step removed from using the Bible for these exact same purposes,
Nice jibe. In one breath he gut punches high school students, pre-modern humans (if you wish to call them that; maybe “Neanderthals” would be a better term?), and Bible quoters. For the record, I like quoting the Bible; to me, it’s one of the best reads of ancient literature still extant. Nevertheless, Silliman is quite clear that he doesn’t like the use of poetry as “daily words to live by.” Well, quite frankly, I can think of worse.
Ready for “Action!”? Here we go:
(Paragraph 3) I tend to think of such literary projects as the true flarf of our time, since both public recitation and the idea of poetry as homily seem deeply committed to the most sentimental notion of writing one could imagine.
Well, there you go. That could have been Silliman’s thesis statement right there, except that it was finding Creeley in a Google Alert that sparked it. Still, he has a point. As far as “literary” projects go, taking words of out context as a means to daily inspiration is rather sentimental. It’s the same kind of sentimentalism that the majority of Christians adhere to when they clip Bible verses to chains and hang them around their necks. It’s good to look down and be reminded of all the things we should be doing before we forget to do them. “Poetry as homily” as Silliman calls it is the secular version of this practice.
Reductio ad Hitlerum
A little further down Silliman pops a big boner and blackens the eye of his readers with a paragraph so striking in its imagery as well as its truth that many of his readers (as you can tell by their comments) totally missed the point:
Whenever we see poetry being equated with sentiment and sentiment equated with responses to military intervention, as with the Richeys, it’s hard, frankly, not to remember that schmaltz was the aesthetic preference & sentimentality the preferred emotion of the Nazis. Or, for that matter, how these same phenomena contributed also to Stalinist social realism. This isn’t a left/right question so much as one of totalitarian psychology per se. Sentimentality is the quintessential totalitarian emotion.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. As one reader put it, “Reductio ad Hitlerum.” Only it isn’t.
Usually, when someone plays the Nazi card, they have a political agenda. A left-winger hurls it at a Republican, or a Christian fundamentalist screams it at a Yellow Dog. In this case, quintessential liberal Ron Silliman is using it as a statement of literary aesthetic aimed at those who would take literature out of its context to be used for other purposes. Aside from the fact that he misused the word “sentiment” for the more preferable “sentimentalism”, I think he’s right.
He isn’t saying, of course, that the Nazis were wont to lay around reciting pretty verses of love poetry to inspire them in their quest for the Ubermensch. Rather, what he is referring to is the underlying philosophy that led the Nazis to their political statements of superiority. What is underneath it all is the Romantic notion of art. The Romantic aesthetic, which Silliman is criticizing, is the bedrock of the Nazi weltenschauung.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, was an aspiring novelist whose doctoral thesis was on 18th century Romantic drama. Hitler’s favorite classical composer was Richard Wagner, one of the best classical composers of the Romantic era who is well known for his fascist beliefs. Indeed, the entire Nazi philosophy is based on the idea, propounded by Wagner and his philosophical cousin Friedrich Nietzsche, of the leader as a man of vision and the superiority of The Will over intellect and reason. Likewise, the Romantic aesthetic is based on heightened emotion to create within the reader, or viewer, a cathartic experience rather than to appeal to reason and intellect as the Modernists attempted to do. This is what Silliman is criticizing when he says “Sentimentality is the quintessential totalitarian emotion.”
And, he’s correct.
True blue liberals know this. That’s why the extremists on that wing of American politics are so quick to judge their conservative counterparts when the latter approache that end of the philosophical spectrum. Unfortunately, they seldom see the same tendency in the extremists standing next to them. And this is why Silliman is so careful not to draw a line between political right/left and to instead draw the line at the aesthetic door. The Stalinists were just as guilty.
Can Poetry Save The World?
In his penultimate paragraph, Ron Silliman follows his loaded guilt trips on the psychological extremes with this final sentence:
But no amount of poetry is going to solve the problems of Iraq.
This is a hard pill to swallow for some because poets are largely an “anti-war” crowd. I’ve said it before – I wouldn’t go to a peace rally organized by poets because it would generally consist of sentimentalism with regard to peace, love, and flower pots. There would be little, if any, intelligent discussion on when it’s right to fight, what makes a war just, and how a strong defense can curtail conflict and make the prospects of war less threatening. Instead, all one would hear is a bunch of ranting about those “Nazi-like warmongers.”
The problem with Iraq is not that it is war – it really isn’t. The problem, rather, (or one of it’s many problems) is that it is an unnecessary and unjust police-like action that could set a precedent for how future presidents, and Congresses, deal with foreign nations. This Administration’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policies have established our nation, both in the minds of our enemies and our friends around the world, as bullies and unenlightened militarists. If we can’t get what we want through diplomatic means then we’ll just bomb the hell out of them and take it by force. That’s not a principle upon which this nation was founded.
Politics aside, poetry cannot solve the problems of the world. We’ll do well if we don’t create any new ones. And when Silliman makes these sweeping statements that appear to be non-logical, one must understand them in terms of historical context and the underlying philosophical principles that this context stands upon.
So far, I’ve agreed with Silliman’s insights. It is uncanny, I know, but I was with him all the way up to his last paragraph in which he wrote:
The question I have isn’t about Frances Richey or Robert Creeley or Ron Padgett, who are being used for the agendas of others, so much as it is why are we seeing this resurgence, right now, of totalitarian framing on the part of NPR, PBS and the National Endowment of the Arts? And why do we see it burbling up like so many toadstools along the riverbanks of the Web?
Well, I can answer that last question – it’s because the Web in all of its “democratic” glory is the last bastion of sentimental freedom. Since anyone can get online and start a blog, everyone does. And the same level of sentiment that they bring to their daily lives will undoubtedly be taken to their online lives. People’s natures and characters don’t change on the Internet. If anything, they only shed themselves more light – like a drunk’s at an all-night party.
But I do take issue with the statement previous to that last. I don’t take issue with the philosophical underpinning, but rather the timing. Why “right now?” Well, quite frankly, I think Silliman has already answered his own question, in the previous eight paragraphs.
I think the “totalitarian reframing” may be a bit harsh, but remember that these programs, for the most part, were invented by Silliman’s generation. They are the outpouring of the Baby Boomer sentimentality that has followed in the wake of the New Deal and the Kennedy/Johnson years. It his Silliman’s own generation, and the one before it, that has been the most adamant about using the government and public funding to promote the arts. I am against this.
I believe that literature and the arts should be subject to the same market forces as all other products, but if you want to see the essence of authoritarian philosophy, one need not look beyond the hallowed walls of our own institutions, one need not glance across the great pond to a small nation with big ideas or a larger nation with a dwindling economy. If one wants to be confronted with totalitarian ideas, you don’t have to listen to the radio or turn on the TV, you can just drive by Pennsylvania Avenue on any day of the week during any month of any year and pay homage to the two legs of the body politic that hold up and support the arms of our warfare. And by arms I’m not referring to arsenals, but to literary artists who survive on grants and fellowships.