What is “innovative” after 9-11-01?: Reflections from the MSA 01 Conference

Michael Bibby

Signals Over the Net

What Elisabeth and Cynthia had originally proposed was to conduct a roundtable discussion about the relationships between modernist and contemporary poetics, and the idea was to circulate a list of questions some time over the summer for Kathleen, Carla, and Lorenzo to respond to in advance of the conference.  One of the first e-mails I received on this after 9-11-01 was from Elisabeth.

Dear Kathleen, Carla, & Lorenzo,
On behalf of Michael, Cynthia & myself, I’m sorry for being out of touch for so long about our upcoming panel at MSA.  At the moment, it all seems surreal & irrelevant, especially here in NYC, where we are all only beginning to absorb the ramifications of this last week.  I am enormously lucky not to have been directly affected, but work remains difficult in many ways.  My e-mail is not functioning at home; long distance calls rarely go through; and a feeling of emergency prevails.

Here in south-central Pennsylvania, I felt a benumbed and uncanny calm for days, even as the ROTC, which is housed in my office building, was more animated and busy than I'd seen before—I saw lots of ROTC students carrying guns and military hardware in and out of my building.  A ROTC student in my Intro to Poetry class was more upset than I’d ever seen him, visibly shaking as we discussed (by coincidence that week—it was just where the chapters ended up in my intro textbook) Wilfred Owen—“the great lie.”

Elisabeth’s e-mail continued:

The MSA conference seems to remain as planned.  As to our panel?  Perhaps a broader perspective is in order.  Not just “modernism” but our future(s)? Whatever the subjects of our conversation, we hope as much direction as possible comes from the three of you.  Over the next day or so, we will brainstorm some subjects & questions.  We ask that the three of you look back at the original proposal (pasted in below) & use that as a point of departure for a few issues/questions to be sent to me.  Michael & I can then organize the results & send a copy to all of you in preparation for our panel.

Kathleen, Carla, Lorenzo, and Cynthia soon followed with responses.  Kathleen wondered about the viability of even doing the MSA conference and questioned the need for more academic presentations in the face of this historical situation.  But Lorenzo’s e-mail touched an especially strong response in me.  He touched on how participating in the MSA might meet a pressing need for community but also serve the need to act in the face of a growing intolerance, a hysterical vertigo of machismo, the language of “enduring freedom,“and the drumbeats for “eternal justice.”  He noted some striking historical parallels between the situation for many radical and minority writers during the early 20th century in the wake of the Palmer raids which seemed precisely to the point, especially given our panel’s original theme.  To what extent might we think about the notion of modernist innovation as a response to the historical experience of state-sponsored repression in the US and to the Palmer regime, in particular?  Lorenzo was highlighting a dimension of African American modernism I could not recall having been adequately examined.  The same day that Lorenzo wrote, Carla’s response articulated both the sense of emergency so resonant in those first days and a kind of immanent narrativity connecting the seemingly disparate moments she related, offering some kind of suturing for what seemed so damaging and fragmented.  Cynthia wrote out of her then current work on Marianne Moore and the need for an ethical poetics.  I had just read Cynthia’s paper on this topic, and it raised a number of issues I found quite compelling about a commitment to a poetics of moral concern, of conduct.  As Sidney wrote in Apology for Poetry: “The Ethicke and politick consideration, with the end of well dooing and not of well knowing onely.”  How to write after historical disaster, in the face of organized violence of the level of 9-11 (or of the Red Summer, World War I, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, on & on) in a way that does not reiterate the epistemological shape of violence?  It’s an old question.

Here’s my contribution to this e-mail discussion:

Lorenzo makes an important point . . . —perhaps we might consider along these lines the baleful historicity confronting vanguard and/or oppositional poets in this moment—the intensified calls to expand the reach of the Justice Dept, the increased alliance between major internet providers and the FBI, the expansion of the Bush administration’s targets, and the constant cries in the public discourse for “retaliation” strongly suggest that we may be entering a period that bears comparison to the early 20th C—
Can we focus the direction Lorenzo’s suggested in terms of the panel’s original proposal statement?  Here are some questions I’m brainstorming after my morning caffeine jolt: How might we think of all “this,” of “911” and the calls for war in connection with how modernist poetic radicalism relates to contemporary poetic experimentation?  How might the disruptiveness of modernist poetic radicalism register the “disruption” in historical experience then (WW 1, the Red Summer, the Palmer raids, etc.), and how might contemporary poets continue to register those historical disruptions in their experiments with lyric and narrative modes?  Do such contemporary practices extend, expand, &/or diversify what might be considered modernism’s staging of the poet as the voice of historical disaster (perhaps a better word than disruption)?  Is the prevalence of linguistic disruption in contemporary avant-garde poetry a reiteration of the initial and historically specific impulses in early 20th C modernism toward a re-presentation of historical traumas?  And if so, does it merely fall into a repetition historically inadequate to contemporary poetry’s own times? or does it generalize early 20th C experiences of historical trauma as the tenor of poetic experimentation?  How can the contemporary poet radicalize lyric and narrative modes in ways specific to the historical moment of 911, geo-political crisis, and transnational terror?

My e-mail was an attempt to pick up on some threads I’d sensed in previous e-mails as well as to return to a concern I felt had been initially invoked presciently prior to 9-11 in the panel proposal Cynthia and Elisabeth had written. 

Less commonly acknowledged . . . is the Modernist influence on other contemporary poets, and how Modernist poetic radicalism has produced other kinds of experimentation than the linguistic disruptions favored by Language theorist-poets.

In the wake of 9-11 and the subsequent militaristic hysteria which erupted throughout U.S. culture, my initial thoughts about the relations between modernist and contemporary poetics kept coming back to the incipient reification of violence that seemed so foundational to the narratives of poetic experimentalism since1900: “the avant-garde,” “the vanguard,” the radical break, rupture, disruption, fragmentation, “the shock of the new.”  This militaristic, violent language seems endemic to the criticism and history of modernist poetics—even though it clearly only describes a particular poetics (say Pound’s or Breton’s).  Certainly I don’t mean to suggest that such language is the only way to represent “innovative” writing—but why does it seem so dominant? 

Obviously, as Lorenzo’s post reminded me, the rhetoric of “ruptures” and “avant-garde” expresses a very different historical experience of violence than those expressed by, say, Fenton Johnson, Jean Toomer, or Langston Hughes.  While Paul Fussell and others have linked the modernist experimentation of Pound, Eliot, et al. to the violences of World War I, as a kind of rearticulation of those violences, it strikes me as a considerably different experience to reify in poetic form the violences endured by others in war than to speak about violence from the position of one violated or of one always historically the target of violences foundational to the structure of one’s social existence—and further, to speak about such experiences of violence at a time when to speak this way risks violence itself.  As Lorenzo stated at the panel in Houston, Fenton Johnson’s magazine was seized by the state under the Palmer regime. 

At the same time, though, the violences of early 20th century history inscribed the pages of modernism because of their overwhelming concrete presence everywhere in the social—I’m not suggesting that Eliot’s or Pound’s relatively privileged positions meant that they were not justified in registering the violences of their time—the loss of Wilfred Owen, Gaudier-Brzeska, and other poets and artists, the everyday experience of the maimed, the “demobbed” (The Waste Land but also Mrs. Dalloway), the pathetic patriotic conscription—it’s no wonder so many commentators focus on modernist innovations as an expression of historical violence. 

But then I wondered, why must the particular forms and modes of poetic experimentation which arose out of the historical experiences of the early 20th century still manifest such a powerful relation to the poetics of a postwar generation whose experiences of historical violence have been qualitatively and quantitatively different, more generalized and more systematized?  Must contemporary poetic experimentation necessarily express its “newness,” for example, via syntactic breaks and the paratactical methods favored by modernists?  Why must “rupture” be the privileged modality of contemporary radical poetics?  Why must the post-structural skepticism of suturing prevail? 

My thought here was less to question the “right” or “wrong” of particular poetics but to consider how those poetics may stem from specific historical experiences or endure synthetically as a stylistic gesture to a “moment” when the ruptures of poetic forms seemed so “new,” so “fresh” (a fresh wound).  Why must it be presumed that for a poem to be innovative and express its historicity it must present rupture, breaks, and fragmentation?  To what extent are such modes now in the dawn of the 21st century simply repetitions, blank copies (Jamesonian pastiche?) of their necessity a hundred years before?  And if so, to what extent does the dominance of paratactical methods, montage, semantic breaks in contemporary poetry inadequately express the particular lived historical experiences of violences perpetrated in the contemporary geo-political sphere, in the era of “the Web” and the new deterritorialized information economy?  Or in an age of multiple and ever-developing “low-intensity conflicts” (military jargon from the 70s used to describe the future of conflict in the “third world”), an age of “permanent war” (the U.S. has been in a constant state of military war buildup since World War II), and an age in which “violence” has become one of the primary spectacle commodities?  The cinematic montage pioneered by Eisenstein as a revolt against ideology has now become the dominant mode for the delivery of violent spectacles for media entertainment—from Potemkin to MTV-X.  How to disrupt semantics under the Bush regime, when semantic incoherence is normative of state discourse? 


Break or Threshold?

In her paper, “Another Postmodernism: Towards an Ethical Poetics,” Cynthia writes:

It is not wrong to subordinate art to history’s horrors, in [Alicia] Ostriker’s view; she argues, however, not to stop there. . . . The site of . . . struggle—the witnessing, the transmuting (i.e. the representing), the act of contemplative analysis (or vision, if you will) that becomes the work of art—is a place where aesthetics and ethics can meet synergistically.(1)

Later in this excellent paper, she asserts that “[w]hat [Marianne Moore and Alice Fulton] call for is a less visually, formally, and thematically stabilized poetry—a poetry that is on the verge or at the edge. . . . Fulton is interested in a poetry open to the fluctuations of conscious, mindfulness, openheartedness.”  She’s interested in the point at which “structure is incipient, all threshold, a neither-nor” (4).  Cynthia sees Fulton’s work as expressing a concern with the “ethical aspect of the artistic practice,” as “reconstructive (rather than revolutionary)” (8).  Rather than “rupture” as incipient, structure, coherence.  This notion also reminded me of Kathleen’s essay on a “local coherence” as a recuperative poetics.

Some of what Cynthia’s paper was suggesting about the notion of a coherence that is also on the edge was corroborated for me by a conversation I had with Kathleen in Houston about “edges”—that while they may be viewed as breaks, gashes, wounds, as traces of violence, it is important to consider what’s at the edge, who speaks from the edge, the margin, how the edge might be a threshold, a potentiality, a verge.  As Kathleen asked in her essay, “Partial local coherence”:

To what extent has [women’s] experience been suppressed or examined exclusively through the finely polished lens of male writing sensibility?  What qualities of perception, what moments of importance may have been devalued consistently by the absence of a significant body of writing by women that might have reinforced a reality that did not find validation in the bulk of literature brought forward in textbook choices--the literary canon. (76; emphasis original)

Couldn’t it be said, for example, that the incipiently violent rhetoric used to describe avant-garde poetry stems from a male-dominated hypostasization and objectification of edges and gaps as scary, violent, threatening “breaks” and “ruptures”?  Couldn’t it also be the case that perhaps from the perspectives of many women poets, edges and gaps may be more productively seen as potentialities, as openings, as apertures into and through which new meanings, syntax issue?  The former reifies an act of violence—the latter rearticulates an experience of creation and suturing.

Of course, this all rehearses a rather old feminist critique of the phallogocentric discourse of “whole/part” in which the whole (Phallus) is valorized over and against the partial.  Yet what I’m also understanding in Cynthia’s paper and in much of Kathleen’s and Carla’s works is a relation to poetic innovation that does not, like Pound, Eliot, et al., seek a reification of violence hypostatized as paratactical fragmentation. Carla’s work, for example, seems to me to be about rethinking narrative, about reimagining the possibilities for suturing.

In a 1996 interview, Carla said,
I’m trying to find out if there is a sort of nonrigid utopian imagination. . . . if it’s possible to do this in a way that admits and addresses and doesn’t simply alter but actually takes on as a material reality, in some way or other, dystopian conditions. . . . Much utopian thought in literature . . . is basically reactive and reactionary. . . . [I]t has to do with the individual’s critique of the present world.
[From Carla’s e-mail to the panelists on 9/22: “What I thought on September 10 is not obsolete today.”]

One of the topics that came up in exchanges between Elisabeth and me on this panel back in the summer was the return to narrative in experimental poetics.  I was intrigued by this after 9-11, especially given the overwhelming hype lyric poetry seemed to have gotten after that event, the unexamined turn to poetry in a time of crisis—not that such a turn isn’t promising, but that it all too often relied on the reaffirmation of comfortable and normalizing responses to the moment.  Poetry now seemed for many in the wake of 9-11 to play the role not of a “making strange,” but of a means for reaffirming ideological norms (the repetition of Auden’s “September 1,” especially).  But it’s just as true that narrative plays important roles in a society experiencing crisis.  Is it possible to recuperate narrative as a viable resource for a new poetics which would resist and/or “make strange,” which could act critically against the cultural logics of war? 



— What does “innovation” mean in a time of historical mass violence and state-sponsored repression?

    Innovation: introduction of novelties; alteration of what is established

      — Revolution (=L. novæ res) Obs.; a political revolution
      - the alteration of an obligation; substitution of new obligation for old (Law)
      - formation of a new shoot at the apex of a stem or branch; esp. that which takes place at the apex of the thallus or leaf-bearing stem of mosses, the older part dying off behind (Bot)
      - the action of introducing a new product into the market (Comm)

—   from the Oxford English Dictionary

—  The formation of a new shoot—new life, growth, coherence as against rupture, breaking, violence, death.

—  But the word also bears the sense of market logics and revolution.


The example of early 20th century African American sonnets

Critics/academics tend to identify “innovative” poetics in the early 20th century as work which makes strong textual, formal, and linguistic breaks from 19th century poetry, especially Victorian verse in conventional form characterized by sentimentalism.

This view of poetics necessarily depends on presuming the hegemonic character of a certain style of 19th century poetry against which the early 20th century poets could revolt.  By taking for granted the canonical view of literary history, this view runs the risk of reinforcing and affirming that canon. 

But the conventionality of a verse style can only be judged as such by those readers to whom it is already overly familiar, for whom it has become cliché.  What of a community of readers who had had comparatively little exposure to such verse, who might be approaching, say the sonnet, for historically the first time in any systematic fashion, for whom, let’s say, an education in the very verse forms Pound, Eliot, and others railed against had just lately become available?

During the early 20th century, one of the most popular poetic forms among African American poets was the sonnet.  While it’s true that, as Lorenzo points out, some black poets (Fenton Johnson, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer) were developing new ways to bring black vernacular culture into the lyric, the vast majority of publishing black poets favored conventional, “genteel” forms written in high poetic diction and standard English.  Do we accept the agonistic, even crypto-Darwinian argument (they were the strong exceptions that introduced the evolutionary progressive innovations) that Johnson, Hughes, and Toomer were the most innovative, and therefore the modernism of early 20th century black poetry can best be defined by their experiments?  Or do we need to rethink what “innovative” means for black writers in this period?  By the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, for the first time in U.S. history, a significant segment of the African American population had received college degrees from liberal arts schools. 

What was the appeal in an age of “red summers” and KKK-violence and in the shadow of Reconstruction’s failures for black writers of the sonnet, this most orderly, classical form of poetry?

-> Wordsworth called it a “scanty plot of ground” (2 acres & a mule)

From the Lukacs/Brecht debates, to Adorno, to Deleuze-Guattari and postmodernism the impulse to suture, to cohere has been viewed as logically related to normalization, stablization, an acquiescence to power, to hegemony.   

There was a debate on Poetics-L during the early days after 9-11 over the waving of the flag—some denounced it as empty jingoism, others wanted to recuperate some vestige of authenticity in this gesture—there was a lot of discussion about the flag as “transitional object”—Winnicott’s theory that traumatized people often cling to a particular object of symbolic significance to help them psychically endure and survive in desperate times.

    —  Sonnet as transitional object?


The (un)homeliness of the lyric in the era of total war

How does the lyric “hold up” in a time of historical violence?

Eavan Boland asked this question in a dialogue she had with Kathleen published in Parnassus May 1998.  From Boland’s perspective, from the experience of Belfast and the constant state of emergency borne of sectarian strife and British military occupation, this question reverberates tangibly in ways that perhaps the more theoretical musings I’ve been doing necessarily cannot.

But for many days after 9-11 as I prepared to go to Houston and the MSA conference, this question kept coming back to mind.  What struck me about it was the idea of poem as “holding up”—something so evanescent, ephemeral, and fragile as the lyric as not just having a discursive structure that may or may not hold up, but as an edifice [f. ædis temple, house + -ficium making]—the lyric as spiritual dwelling or gathering place, the made shelter of the holy.  I was also thinking about the implicit need expressed in that phrase, that notion of a lyric “holding up,” for the security of lyric in a time of historical crisis, for it to “stand” and to shelter, to maintain, persist, to not crumble, fall—the solace of the lyric in a time of ruptures—the lyric as dwelling and shelter—


Social network analysis

On my way to Harrisburg International Airport to catch my flight to Houston on October 12, the traffic along Rt. 581 was backed up for miles—a car had caught fire up ahead (an emergency).  Sitting in traffic, I heard an NPR report on the increased interest after 9-11 among anti-terror professionals in the use of “Social Network Analysis,” a largely academic field which combines sociology, statistics, math, and computer science to analyze behavior patterns in social groups.  On the program, an expert in this field said that Social Network Analysis focuses on “Isolates”: individuals who tend to act apart from the social group—they tend to be “different” and often act alone and against the social group.  It is believed that by identifying isolates in terrorist groups, the U.S. could find potential informants and, thus, disrupt a terrorist cell.  Along with isolates, network analysis also tries to identify individuals with “centrality”—those who are well-connected and yet are not the main power of the group.  These individuals may likely have the ability to spread disinformation within the group that need not be scrutinized closely, since such individuals are so well-connected.  Another element of concern was “betweenness,” a characteristic of certain individuals within a group who move easily between others and, thus, may act as a conduit or circuit in the social system.  The applicability of Social Network Analysis for anti-terrorist work seems to be its ability to chart connections within social groups through “pattern recognition” and exploit those connections so as to disrupt the group from within.  By exploiting the outsiderhood of an isolate, for example, law enforcement might be able to coerce this individual to betray the group.  By exploiting the connectedness of persons with traits of “betweennenss” the state could circulate disinformation within the group to undermine it. 

Besides the eerieness of the jargon used in Social Network Analysis and its “big brother” potential and the uncanny chill it gave me listening about it on my car radio as I sat in a traffic jam, a car on fire up ahead, my flight due to leave in an hour, on Oct. 12, just a month and a day after the attacks, it also occurred to me how this news might relate to my conundrums about modernist and contemporary poetics, about the possibilities for narrativity and paratactic/syntactic disruptiveness.  In some ways this story reveals how such analytical and discursive modes can be seen as inscribed into the workings of power.  “Disruption” is the goal of the new narrativity of Social Networks Analysis—this field that monitors groups for patterns, that searches out connections, sutures—which are also always already points of fissure, potential gaps, potential breaks or ruptures in the system to be exploited and torn open—bears out much of the post-structural analysis of hegemonic formation (see Laclau and Mouffe).  Patterns are always about connections while at the same time they are always an arrangement of ruptures, however elided or well-concealed.  No system is monolithic, seamless, without fissures. 

The outsiderhood so often mythologized in literary cultures is itself the potential partner of power—the very asocial character of the isolate makes the individual more susceptible to carrying out the behests of power—although undermining the isolate’s immediate group, this individual serves the needs of another group.


. . . down by the riverside . . .

Ultimately, I have been concerned since 9-11, and the online and in-person conversations with my MSA co-panelists with trying to think about the possibilities for poetry in this moment of geo-political and micrological violences, in this time of massive military excess (how many tons of munitions dropped on Afghanistan?) that is also a time of the Deleuze-Guattari “nomadic” terror, when the body politic has been “infected” from within by secret agents traversing the molar state at will, waiting to release toxins into the system and unleash indiscriminate forms of death—while at the same time, “my” country drops bombs indiscriminately on the already bombed into the stone age people of Afghanistan—“eternal justice”—the total war state.  How to think of an innovative poetics that is not a violence?  I don’t want to study war no more.

Bio: Michael Bibby is associate professor of English at Shippensburg University.  He is author of Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Rutgers University Press, 1996) and editor of The Vietnam War and Postmodernity (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).  He has published articles on antiwar poetry, the poetry of the GI Resistance, poetry and political insurgency, and Michael Harper’s Debridement.  Currently he is working on a study of African American poetry and poetics from 1945-1955 and editing a collection on goth subcultures.

poetry post 9-11: witnessing dissent index

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