Sunday, June 10, 2007

To wit

As I mentioned yesterday, K. Silem Mohammad's recent post on "Competence and Wit" is quite interesting, and I thought I might weigh in for a moment, if only to work through some of Kasey's ideas. I do so in the spirit of "thinking out loud" some ideas that are not yet fully fleshed out. [Note: I've added a bit more, at the end.]

If I read Kasey's post correctly, he's raising questions about what sort of "test of poetry" might be applicable to contemporary poetics, given that poetry (or, rather, the sort of poetry he's writing about) no longer thinks itself in terms of rigid and formally codified rules. As he explains, Victorian poetry (to use one example) could be objectively regarded in terms of prosodic rules — that, in other words, its "mere competence" could be objectively regarded by way of testing it against rules of scansion, rhyme, etc., and that its relative merit beyond this point is extrinsic to these qualities. Competence, then, is a value at once positive and prescriptive: it can be ascertained by testing the poem against the rules, and can be used to rule out a poem as merely incompetent without a consideration of the poem's "content," without reading the poem for other, less-quantifiable values, like "brilliance" (whatever that means).

Modernism, as Kasey describes it, arrives onto the scene, and intervenes within its space, as a sort of "death of art," as the term has been applied to, and subsequently used by, Arthur Danto in theorizing aesthetics after Warhol. As Danto writes (after Hegel), "...whatever art there was to be" after this point "would be made without benefit of a reassuring sort of narrative in which it was seen as the appropriate next stage of the story," at which point art becomes self-reflective of necessity, the meaning of the term art having been placed under question, though not erasure, by such works as Warhol's Brillo Boxes. Thus, and thenceforth, "an artwork can consist of any object whatsoever that is enfranchised as art, raising the question 'Why am I a work of art?'"

Tests of poetic merit still exist, though, as Kasey notes, these usually rely upon subjective qualities as their bases for valuation. Kasey notes that certain tendencies in post-war poetry value avoidance of cliché, or the construction of arbitrary rules, and adherence to those rules. We might add to his list such consideratons as the maxim that a poem must strive for a minimum number of words used to express a maximum of ideas, or certain notions of formal "closure" and "completeness." Or strictures like Olson's "form is never more than an extension of content" (and the architectural analogues thereof). Or the phrase "what will suffice" in Wallace Stevens' description of the "poem of the act of the mind." Or etc. etc. etc.

But certain of these tests present themselves as an ironic refutation of absolute rules. By way of an example, he cites O'Hara's joking "Personism," which treats craft-competence as "common sense" and "tightness": "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you." As Kasey points out, O'Hara's invocation of craft is raised only to poke fun at it. He — O'Hara, that is — doesn't deny that craft exists, but suggests the objective measure is nothing more than desire, itself a subjective value, even if it is playfully universalized with the word "everyone."

O'Hara's account of techné serves as a model for what Kasey calls "wit," which he (also playfully, if I read him correctly) describes according to the mathematical formula "competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence [as a model for assessing a poem's relative merit]." It's this ironizing awareness — analogous, if I read correctly, to the "why am I a work of art" question posited in Danto's account of art — that wit relies upon in his formulation. Wit, then, is dialectically related to competence; it is a competence at competence's limits, or some such.

Certain hints in Kasey's post — namely his reference to "certain strands of contemporary poetry" — lead me to believe that he's talking about flarf, to which the notion of wit seems particularly applicable. I could, of course, be wrong, and I suppose that one could also ask how we know that this or that of Bruce Andrews' poems is competent. But flarf's desire to be deliberately "bad," at least in certain of its theorizations, necessarily invokes a standard, a certain quality of "goodness," according to which it negatively positions itself. This need not presume competence, of course — and Kasey's own formulation of this badness as a heavily ironized rejection of "acceptable" and "P.C." sentiments is one way of formulating it. Nonetheless, the general tenor, or what have you, of flarf is such that it not only implies, but relies upon, a standard of goodness against which it positions itself, and this standard is, at least in part, based on notions of craft that, if a poem can be determined to be flarf, or "good flarf," must be at least somewhat stable.

It might be interesting to look, even if only for a moment, at the question of wit (and at flarf in general) in terms of Danto's writing on the "death of art." One of the examples that he raises, and that might be relevant, even if only partially, to flarf and to Kasey's notion of wit is that of the Most Wanted paintings by Komar and Melamid. These paintings, executed after the collapse of the Soviet Union's totalitarian rule over art production, and desgined according to poll results on what people want from art, are terribly bad. Nonetheless, they do adhere — and surprisingly strictly — to normative paradigms of art, including a particular emphasis on mimetic representation that isn't all too different from the realism demanded by edict under Soviet rule. That is to say that they would score high on the comptetence measuring stick.

Komar and Melamid's paintings are, by any standard other than kitsch, quite bad. At the same time, they are quite good — once the viewer becomes aware of the apparatus according to which they were produced, their insistence on an imagery that Danto compares to calendars is re-read not in strict terms of normative conventions of art production, but in something like an opposition to them. Or a problematization of them, rather, as simplistic models of opposition are not apt either.

The question, then, is whether this constitutes a form of wit, as Kasey's using the term. Danto reads Komar and Melamid's paintings in different terms, of course, regarding the "rules" to which they apparently adhere as, in actuality, a result of the reductive values of the marketplace, to which the polls implicitly refer. Nonetheless, that the paintings find themselves drawn into relation to extremely conventional rules according to which, as in Kasey's mention of the Victorian measures of competence, contemporary assessments no longer subscribe. So, in other words, the rules are "there," even if only accidentally, and the paintings' process of generation would seem to ironize them, even if their "target" is elsewhere. Furthermore, Komar's and Melamid's insistence on designing the paintings such that they include everything the polls identified as "wanted" points to an ironic relationship to the rules extrapolated from the polling data.

But what, then, of the bad paintings Komar and Melamid created as an adjunct to these? I'm referring, of course, to the Least Wanted series, which turns the screw of good/bad with regards to polls and to conventions of competence once further? Can this still be considered wit? Do they continue to "= competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence"? What's interesting in them is precisely this further complication of the relationship. These painting's can't rightly be considered kitsch — they're too much a departure from conservative notions of competence — but their continuation of the play executed by the former series doesn't produce "good" works of art, either...

— - — - —

Another question we might consider, and which I've added later: what happens if we regard the question of competence from its opposite perspective? Competence, as Kasey describes it, could be applied to a critique as follows: a poem that follows the prosodic rules of its era might be good or bad (or interesting or uninteresting, or whatever), depending on what it does within the framework those rules allow. But, from an objective perspective, it cannot be regarded as incompetent. Competence, then, serves as a kind of baseline by which an absolute — incompetent poetry — is "weeded out."

But what of the incompetent poem — the one that breaks the rules or is sloppy with its use/application of rules — that nonetheless says something fascinating? I'm thinking here of Dickinson, and the history of the editing of her work. Her work — as she wrote it in her manuscripts, that is, with the "irregularities" that have been "corrected" by her editors — demonstrates the failure of competence as an absolute measure of poetry, and does so twice over. First, because it shows that a poem can be good despite its refusal to conform itself to prescriptive rules of versification. And second, because it allows us the occasion to see what happens when the publication industry forces her work to conform: it reduces the poem by forcing its conformity to regularizing rules.

The reason I think this last is worth considering is that it raises the issue that "competence" — as a way of evaluating a poem's merit — works as an exclusionary device. I'm not going to suggest, though I suppose that the point may be raised, that there's an intersection of competence and gender politics, at least not necessarily. But there is a limit to competence, as Kasey no doubt knows, as a measure for poetry or its criticism...

But the issue of Dickinson's work also seems relevant in that it shows the ways comptetence, as a measure, functions in relation to those other things that the poem takes as its business. In particular, what I'm thinking of is Dickinson's description of poetry as, essentially, that which "makes [her] feel as if the top of [her] head were taken off." I'm inclined to read this statment — one of those subjective tests of poetry — alongside her writing's violation of the prosodic rules that, in her day, might have regarded the poems as "incompetent" (and that, in fact, have allowed her editors to feel it necessary to edit the poems). That is, to see her apparent "incompetence" as a symptom of a very real "competence" (if we can use that word) of the poem's non-prosodic/intellectual elements, which might in fact be considered an excess — demanded by the poem's intellectual process — of the rules that constitute competence in the first place.


Anonymous said...

so why isn't the poetic equiv of Komar and Melamid (the soviet gilbert and george) our own Billy Collins . . . isn't he providing what the masses "want" (his sales figures would argue for it), in a manner consistent with Warhol's silkscreen elvis and marilyn and mick icon-ironic on everyone who's anyone's wall but even the flarfiest surface can't be blank enough to complete with the vistaless emptiness in the next 60 million dollar Rothko . . . it's wittier to give em what dey want than to rot in your avantghetto-got

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