One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.
The Cult of Silence
Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)
At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)
And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).
Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.
The Heresy of Eloquence
David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:
THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL THEY ARE UNREAL
STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME
THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER THE CONDITION OF POETRY THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND
Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.
A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,
at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement thats not based on understanding and i would like to contribute to not understanding i would like to contribute to human not understanding i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people and see how far away they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding the notion that its always possible desirable and costs nothing
For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.
The Price of Vision
It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.
None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)
Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.
I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.
The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.