Interlude: On Progressive Poetics and Unexpected Invitations

Recently I got an invitation to participate in a fascinating collective project led by H.L. Hix of the University of Wyoming. (Not often does something so lovely come unbidden, am I right?) Called Progressive Poetics, the work lives now on his blog, inquire, and describes itself as follows:

The Progressive Poetics project asks each contributor to respond, in light of something she or he has already said in print, to this question:

Poetry makes nothing happen.” (W. H. Auden, 1939)

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (Theodor Adorno, 1949)*

Though often cited as timeless, authoritative truths about poetry, those two pronouncements were made at particular historical moments, in particular cultural contexts, and from particular subject positions. But we (choose any “we” from those of us alive now) occupy various subject positions, live in various circumstances, and stand nearer the mid-twenty-first century than the mid-twentieth. It is not self-evident that we should (continue to) defer to Auden and Adorno, so:

What must or might be said now about poetry?

It resonated with me in many ways: because it is a collaborative undertaking; because of my interest (obsession) with questions of literature and ethics, literature of witness; because the fraught place of poetry in thepoetry_doesnt_suck_button contemporary world is something I make students talk about to excess when I teach Contemporary Poetry–(one semester we all wore this button to spread the word)– etc.  Both poets and critics are part of Hix’s project, which he hopes to eventually move from his blog to a book, though in some ways the sheer size of what the blog can hold makes it a perfect receptacle (see: my still-unwritten essay on “the capacious blog”).

What H.L. Hix sent me was a “string” with some responses he’d already gotten from others (Cherry Smyth and Cynthia Hogue**) for the project that he felt resonated with my own words. They were followed by a quotation he’d chosen from my chapter, “Introduction: Hearing Over,” in the volume that Chad Engbers and I co-edited, Poetry and Dialogism: Hearing Over (Palgrave, 2014).  Calling it a “one-question interview,” H.L. Hix asks that in 200 words a contributor respond to her own quotation and/or to the claims by Auden and Adorno on and against which he has formed the Progressive Poetics project. (200 words??? Gah.)

Here, then, is my small bit in a really large utterance.

Thank you, Harvey Hix, for your kind invitation.


* Hell yeah I linked Adorno to Wikipedia.  Don’t blame H.L. Hix for that outrage.

** Such company!  It makes one’s head woozy with pleasure.


On Tentativeness and Permanence

Fingers above keys. Well, two fingers, the middle ones. . .in my high school back in the day, only those NOT going to college were taught to type.  Somehow I missed the part where going to college was going to get me a secretary.  Though I am reasonably fast and accurate all things considered, this fact seems worth mentioning as I begin a blog that will, in part, reflect on changing technologies and their relationship to reading, research, writing.

Hesitance to commit words to a medium that carries those words to others is something I have been thinking about (struggling with) this week.  This blog is rooted in my sabbatical project for Spring 2014 (thank you, UMW).  The project has a rather brave abstract:

This project focuses on four of my primary areas of research and teaching: poetry, women’s writing, literary Modernism, and digital humanities.  It centers on the digital archive of periodicals called the Modernist Journals Project.  I anticipate producing a scholarly article on the presence of “the poetesses” in these journals; maintaining a professional blog on my reading/research; designing a new course for the English major called Modernism in the Magazines; and contributing pedagogical materials to the MJP site.

More specifically, my proposal said:

I understand the last major element of my proposal as a hybrid of process and product.   My past and proposed work in the MJP archive grows directly out of my vibrant interest in digital humanities.  I do find, however, that the work in literary studies on digital scholarship and teaching lags well behind that in, say, history.  The research I do in the MJP archive will obviously make use of the primary resources available only through digitalization, but I propose to use meaningful technologies also in disseminating that research.  Specifically, I plan to use an active, specialized blog to record, cultivate, and share my ongoing pedagogical and professional work in the archive.  The “Looking for Whitman” project vaulted me from being a blog facilitator to a literary blogger, but with a voice largely distributed across my teaching blogs on UMWBlogs, so it is a job (identity?) that I hope to refine more intentionally in the next few years.

My reading thus far has focused on the field of periodical studies, especially in the Modernist period.  Some of the lead writers and editors of the little magazines churned out thousands of words of copy a week–reviews, manifestos, retorts, editorials, poems, stories.  Without the benefit of hyperlinks, periodicals engaged in elaborate cross-reference and dialogue. Was it less anxiety-producing to write for those modernist periodical writers, producing  language and ideas at such a tremendous rate that, even when undistracted by tweets, kiks, messages, alerts, vines, snapchats, it must have been nearly impossible to refine them, to feel secure about and committed to them?  (Okay, at least for everyone but Ezra, the Evil Godfather of Modernism.)

By nature the periodical challenges the sense of permanence that characterizes our widespread understanding of literature; it’s not just the bunk about timeless universality, but also the physicality of books. (Remember them?  That thing made of paper that the e-book is supposed to make extinct?  As one who festishes my books and also owns an e-reader, I frequently find that I download the books I don’t care if I “have forever”–see what I mean?)  Periodicals are to be read and recycled, replaced in quick succession by the next issue.  They are in waiting rooms, newsstands, mail boxes, art classes where they get cut up for collages.  Even literary periodicals like Poetry, begun by the bad ass Harriet Monroe, are focused on the contents of one issue and maybe give a tease about what to expect in the next issue.  The periodical is also a forward-looking genre, then, pitching itself through weeks or months, trying to keep its subscribers hooked for the next round.

crossroads of past and futureEven those with the funds to produce on thick paper or with stronger covers couldn’t have imagined that, a century later, the issues would be digitized cover to cover and made available to millions of potential readers– and furthermore, that the genre defined by impermanence and expectancy would be thereby transformed into an artifact, impervious to rot, ripe for study.  Permanent.

Like the little magazine, a blog follows a logic of periodicity and therefore of replacement.  People subscribe to blogs in anticipation of what is still to come.  Although blogs have archives, it is timeliness rather than timelessness that characterizes the genre.  And yet one never knows how the copy produced, how the language and ideas thus published and disseminated, will travel and live.  But the journey begins.

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