Competing Nostalgias and the Politics of the Accessible Poem
“…we have to get over, as in getting over a disease, the idea that we can ‘all’
speak to one another in the universal voice of poetry” (Charles Bernstein, A
Today on my drive to campus, I found myself mulling over a recent discussion with a poet friend about appeals to the “common reader” and “universal human truths” in the discourse around contemporary American poetry, and our mutual distrust of these terms. Poetry, so the story goes, has lost its ability to speak to plain folk in plain language, has lost sight of its true and higher purpose of connecting to deep truths held by all of us, and has instead found itself speaking only to the overeducated elite about things that don’t really matter. So what does matter? Here, Garrison Keillor interrupted my reveries. 8:58 a.m., time for The Writer’s Almanac: “Today’s poem is by Joyce Sutphen and is called ‘The Come Back’.” In his distinctive Midwestern voice—that plain, accent-less accent of the radio and TV newsman—Keillor began reading the poem’s first line: “He was 87…” Of. Course.
Who is the common reader? What are the universal human truths to which all poetry ought to speak? (If we are answering this first question in terms of who is most likely to read a book, then the common reader is an African-American woman who has been to college, but I digress.) In the particular instance of “The Come Back,” we are meant, as common readers all tuning in to a national radio broadcast, to identify with an old man struggling to come back from an injury. In finely crafted, syntactically regular sentences broken into neat lines that move us from past to present, the poem speaks, rather predictably, to the kind of vulnerability we all might experience as we grow older and of the “gift” of “repair” that one might feel throughout one’s life, even approaching the end. And it does so through our presumed identification with an elderly male of unspecified race in a (perhaps) rural setting. Fine. I don’t deny Joyce Sutphen’s poem the right to exist or to reach an audience via Keillor (her work has been broadcast on Keillor’s show 44 times). What I object to is the argument that this is the kind of poetry—the only kind of poetry—that matters, and the dual suggestions that 1) its subject, themes, and form are universally accessible because they occupy a neutral position, and 2) those who do not connect with its themes or form are simply missing the point, so lost are we in an academic haze.
Because for some of us, what matters to our daily lives as citizens—as well as to the way in which we come up against those existential matters of life and death—has very much to do with our social position as members of marginalized groups. The fact of the matter is that while the general categories of “love” and “loss” might well be universals, their specific iterations are just that—specific. How and what we love, how and what we lose, are subject to social and political conditions. To deny that specificity and to claim that only a poetry purporting to transcend those conditions by sidestepping them is to perform an erasure of certain subject positions. It is to say that if I can’t connect to one kind of truth, I don’t count. A great deal of commentary, (a small sampling of it is summarized here) about the relative merits of being “accessible” or “inaccessible” misses this point entirely because it fails to adequately define the terms “accessible” and “inaccessible.” Such discourse does not acknowledge that what is plain and simple to one reader can be as opaque as a brick wall to another reader based on a difference in social position and perspective.
I connect more often with non-narrative and so-called difficult poetics than with the narrative lyric poem. And this is precisely because the former better fulfills a specific need I have as a gay person (whose relationships to my partner and to my daughter are denied political and social legitimacy by the state) for aesthetic and political dissent, intervention, and, ultimately, affirmation. I don’t expect every gay person to have the same aesthetic taste as mine. The point is not to stake out certain aesthetic modes as belonging to a privileged or marginalized group, but rather to assert that our aesthetic sensibilities, whether we go in for Gerald Stern or Gertrude Stein, are inextricably linked to the material conditions of our lives.
So what does all this have to do with nostalgia? The regrettable divide between the two aesthetic camps can be viewed as a competition between two forms of nostalgia. On the one hand, it is easy to see that a kind of nostalgia exists for an alleged time during which poetry was “accessible” to the masses in the form of nursery rhymes or songs: poetry to put the baby to sleep, poetry to make sense of the everyday chaos of love, loss, and living. On the other hand, I see (and, I’ll admit it, experience) nostalgia for the poetics of dissent found in modernist, avant-garde aesthetics.
As David James and Urmila Seshagiri write in a recent issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, a number of contemporary writers such as Jeannette Winterson, Zadie Smith, and Michael Cunningham have adopted formal elements of modernism and/or taken modernism itself as subject matter in their work (I would add poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Harryette Mullen to this list as well). James and Seshagiri use the term "metamodernism" to describe contemporary literature that pays homage to modernism through the practice of "remobilizing modernist procedures" for ethical and political purposes in response to specific contemporary concerns (95). In other words, metamodernism works at establishing a space of dissent in the present precisely by reaching back into the aesthetic toolbox of the past. The metamodernist text, in my view, is a kind of politicized nostalgia. Metamodernism looks back to past aesthetic models to construct a home in the present for dissent. By “remobilizing” the themes and formal innovations of modernism, metamodernism challenges the contemporary arena of articulate speech—what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible”—asserting the legitimacy of speech that others perceive as “mere noise” (38). The moment such “inaccessible” works assert themselves as a threat to the current model of sense-making is the moment when, according to Rancière, politics begin.
One of the aesthetic tools that writers like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and (to some degree) T.S. Eliot developed was a new way of conceiving of the “I.” These writers challenged the notion that “I” can speak to and for everyone else, showing that what we call universal is perhaps worth looking at again, from a new angle, using language in different ways. If the paratactic writing of Stein is, to some, inaccessible, it is to others, myself included, more accessible, more affirming of my life experience (not to mention aesthetic taste). In short, it is more meaningful to me than any number of linear narrative poems about, say, the coming of old age. I, for one (and Marjorie Perloff, for two) still find value—political, aesthetic, and personal—in this “new” way of positioning the speaking subject of the poem.
Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
James, David and Urmila Seshagiri. “Metamodernism: Narrative of Continuity and
Revolution.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 129.1
(2014): 87-100. Print.
Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Trans. Steven Corcoran.
New York: Continuum, 2012. Print.