Sunday, March 05, 2006

You Say Tomato, I Say Sidewalk

Two recent articles in major poetry periodicals both urge writers toward greater emotional expression: Dana Levin in APR and Tony Hoagland in Poetry. Both complain about the current fashion, which is, in Hoagland's words, a fascination with dissociative poetics.

They each make similar points, that for poetry to be memorable and lasting, it needs to have emotive content. This makes a great deal of sense to me, although I've become somewhat fond of dissociation in recent months. However, I think that what acts as the cohesive tension in my pieces that make use of dissociation has been an emotional thread. The dissociative and the associative are different sides of the same coin, really. I'm not sure you can have one without the other, it's really a matter of degree of tilt.

This is particularly true of the dissociative: if you put unlike things next to each other, the mind will try to establish similarities. The most successful thing I've read that tends toward the purest dissociation would be Lyn Hejinian's My Life. But, even there, the title provides an associative context, and what is compelling about the book is that tension between realizing that the book repels associative impulses, yet coming across evidence of cohesion and shift--for example, the repeated phrases in that work.

Even a poetics that is largely associative, that works toward cohesion, will, of necessity, allow in some sort of dissociation. Is metaphor primarily an associative or dissociative act? The mind is pulled in two directions with a metaphor, toward the likeness and the unlikeness of the objects of comparison. Thus, even the most associative works use metaphor, and, thus, admit to a certain dissociative tendency. What else is discovery, but the mind's ability to bridge a dissociative gap? Poetry cannot be purely associative--that would be an essay or a newspaper article.

But dissociative poetry must give us a reason to follow it into the abyss. Why do I keep reading? Levin complains, "The poems in which it [the affectless speaker] speaks often display a wide and invigorated vocabulary and keen attention to sound and pacing; they also display a distrust of tonal heat. And once the heat goes from poems, what do they have left? The de-spirited mind and its words. It's as if fear of expressive feeling has led to a zombification of American poetry . . . ." The next question for Levin, whose article (the third of a three-part series) focuses mainly on style, would be to ask her to more fully qualify what she means by emotional heat. That, too, has to be a study in oppositional tension--I think Dean Young says that a poem exists somewhere between information and shriek. How can the emotive voice be held in balance with other elements that keep it in check, so it does not actually become a shriek? That was the problem I faced today in one of my poems I was revising.

Hoagland's essay is ostensibly about fear of narrative, and he is much more generous to dissociative poetics, noting that "it is a poetry equal to the speed and disruptions of the culture. It responds to the postmodern situation with a joyful crookedness." But he warns against the "moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality." Elsewhere he notes that "when we push order away, . . . we give away one of poetry's most fundamental reasons for existing: the individual power to locate and assert value."

My own theory is that the ascendency of associative poetics is driven in part by writing workshops, especially in MFA programs. I don't mean to hang yet another boulder around the neck of MFA programs, not at all. All I mean to say is that, if you're in a residential program, and are meeting every week for workshop with your peers, it's very difficult on all sorts of levels, to write and present a poem that has a significant emotional core. Why? a sort of public scrutiny--and it's much easier to hit a false note, one with embarrassing consequences, in a poem that strives for emotional content. Dissociative poetics are a bit easier to manage.

But I'm certainly not trying to say that that's the only reason--obviously, the main drivers are postmodernism, the tendency toward the avant-garde in American art and culture, and other more significant things. Those latter issues speak to the serious intellectual framework behind dissociative poetics. But as for its fashionability, well, I think the dramatic shifts in the study and teaching of writing may contribute to that--but it's not a sin.

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