Redemptive Turns

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
–T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

In a much-debated essay, Marjorie Perloff characterizes contemporary, mainstream poetry thusly:

[T]he poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.

This description came to mind when I read world-ending poetry in today’s NYT. Without exception, all the poems demonstrated a final “turn” toward something I’m calling “redemptive.” Bob Hicock’s “Leave a Message” ends, “The dead have no ears, no answering machines / that we know of, still we call.” The final stanza of Dana Levin’s “Morning News”:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . what
we call Doom —
which might be a bending —
a flow of permissions —
to forge a mutant form —

Laura Kasischke’s “At the End of the Text, A Small Bestial Form” concludes:

And the wife, the mother, the daughter, the hostess, and those
few people on earth she would
ever wish were dead
were the ones she loved the most.

And on it goes.

It is unsurprising that poems on endings—and end times—should demonstrate this kind of uniformity, a search for “what really matters”: a look, a gaze, love, a kiss, possibility. Eschatological thinking produces its own forms, its own modes of resistance, its own belief in redemption. Editorial decisions also matter.

I’m wondering if a shift from “epiphany” to “redemption” might more aptly characterize the contemporary poetry Perloff so readily dismisses. Look again at the three “scenes” she mentions: imperialism, late capitalism, tragedy. How should one feel about these three “scenes”? Is it some kind of formal cop-out to reach for “redemption,” for what Berlant might term “cruel optimism,” which, as she argues, is a structure that allows “persistence” or, to use Elizabeth Povinelli, permits “endurance” under ongoing conditions of attrition?

While she is a stunning interpreter of poems—I read and re-read her books to learn how to think about poetry—Perloff is often stubbornly ahistorical. “Context” is not absent from her work, but her contexts are more often literary than socio-political. We do not disagree here: from Houston Baker, I have learned the importance of emphasizing aesthetic genealogies. That said, because I am interested in how feelings become conventionalized (expected, circulated, comprehended), I am very interested in works that might be termed “banal” or “common” or “over-used,” even and especially in poetry. Where Perloff sees banal uniformity packaged in inadequate formalism, I see an index of contemporary feeling, a moment when the turns toward the redemptive not only feel necessary, but inevitable.

The lyric speaker that Perloff claims sediments too easily and too readily as the subject who feels—we might ask if Perloff is describing what Berlant describes as the problem of sentimental politics: “sentimental politics are being performed whenever putatively supra-political affects or affect-saturated institutions (like the nation or family) are proposed as universalist solutions to structural racial, sexual, or intercultural antagonism” (“Poor Eliza”)—should elicit our suspicion. We are, after all, in territory covered by Baldwin and Wright, who contested works that made readers cry too easily. And while I understand the urge to contest dominant modes of any genre—I remain modernist, not to mention Africanist, in this particular resistance—I also think a lot about what repetition tells us. For Perloff, it’s about laziness. The contemporary poets she dismisses do not pay attention to the “line” or to the “word as such.” Their “irregular lines of free verse” demonstrate an absence of thinking about aesthetics as construction and experimentation. Yet, at a moment of such intense surveillance and uniformity—consider the lines at airport security of people engaged in endless, repetitive motions of lining up, opening and closing bags, removing shoes, and you see a factory logic of repetitive tasks at work—a time when surveillance compels uniformity, one wonders if these “irregular” lines in poetry enact something we need, and need desperately.

As we understand, daily, how we are living with dying in our zombiefied present—the question is not whether we are poisoning ourselves and the world, but, rather, about the rate at which this is happening across differentiated populations—the turn toward the redemptive is all the more urgent for those who understand poetry as a social actor. The circulation of “epiphany,” to return to Perloff, demonstrates a kind of bad faith, a disengagement from the very political projects that poets ostensibly engage. This is a very real danger—and I’m grateful that Perloff makes it visible. The traffic from the personal to the socio-political or to the structural is much more difficult than being “merely confessional,” as Aaron Bady has recently pointed out. But if we read the “epiphanic” within a logic of redemption, or, rather, as a desire for “redemption,” we might understand something different about feeling in contemporary poetry. We might also understand something different about what Perloff dismisses as the “uncreative” forms of contemporary poetry. We might begin to understand how form and feeling come together to index—and negotiate—our precarious now.

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