Fables of Representation: Essays

Fables of Representation: Essays

by Paul Hoover

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From the acclaimed author of Winter (Mirror) and Rehearsal in Black, Fables of Representation is a powerful collection of essays on the state of contemporary poetry, free from the stultifying theoretical jargon of recent literary history.

With its title essay, "Fables of Representation," one of the most cogent studies ever written of the New York


From the acclaimed author of Winter (Mirror) and Rehearsal in Black, Fables of Representation is a powerful collection of essays on the state of contemporary poetry, free from the stultifying theoretical jargon of recent literary history.

With its title essay, "Fables of Representation," one of the most cogent studies ever written of the New York School of poets (a group that includes the influential poet John Ashbery), this book is required reading for anyone who seeks to understand the poetry and culture of the postmodern period.

Author Paul Hoover's wide-ranging subjects include African-American interdisciplinary studies; the position of poetry in the electronic age; the notion of doubleness in the work of Harryette Mullen and others; the lyricism of the New York School poets; and the role of reality in American poetry. Hoover also introduces two provocative essays sure to generate attention and discussion: "The Postmodern Era: A Final Exam" and "The New Millennium: Fifty Statements on Literature and Culture."

Paul Hoover is the editor of the anthology Postmodern American Poetry and author of nine poetry collections, including Totem and Shadow: New and Selected Poems and Viridian. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, The New Republic, and The Paris Review, among others. He is Poet-in-Residence at Columbia College, Chicago.

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University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Poets on Poetry Series
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5.54(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.65(d)

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Fables of Representation

By Paul Hoover

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-06856-2

Chapter One

The New Millennium Fifty Statements on Literature and Culture

(Agree or Disagree)

1. The word "consumer" has replaced the word "citizen" in most forms of discourse.

2. Traditional culture is the enemy of consumerism.

3. Media culture collaborates with consumerism to destroy traditional beliefs.

4. Postmodern theory was created to confuse and intimidate the average literate citizen.

5. Avant-gardes are a necessary aspect of late capitalism.

6. Poetry has the same connection to social class that it had under aristocratic social orders.

7. The erotic allure of narrative lies in the courtship of author and reader, usually involving the courtly deference of the former to the latter. The eroticism of nonnarrative lies in the shared refusal of normal relations.

8. The mind can only conceive of uncertainty as a certainty-in other words, as an image. But images are of interest only when they communicate an uncertainty.

9. Poems are entirely factual.

10. The list, or series, is the major organizing principle of writing.

11. The out-of-sequence series is the organizing principle of most avant-garde writing.

12. The "new" in art is always imported from another culture.

13. Annihilation is the sincerest form of Battery.

14. There is more difference between one and zero than one and one million.

15. Poetry is a rumor told by the truth.

16. Even at their most fantastic, our thoughts are based on the world with which we are already familiar. All metaphor, therefore, is homely at base.

17. In photographs, the pose confronts the camera like a camera.

18. Photographs are by nature momentary (they are slices of time), dramatic (they are staged), and elegiac (they fade); in this, they resemble poetry.

19. Creativity is a sentimental concept.

20. The Alm script is the primary literary genre.

21. Choose one: (1) The names of things have more power than the things themselves; (2) The actuality of things is more expressive than language; (3) Things like oranges have tremendous presence, but are invisible without their names.

22. Writers, like actors, require personae.

23. The "new" is always strangely familiar.

24. The politics of language appears first in the preposition.

25. Relativism and pluralism are forms of absolutism.

26. Irony is closer to the truth than direct statements of fact.

27. Simple things like armies can be understood by pointing.

28. Postmodern dispersion is a form of irony, using multiplicity to arrive at a "new realism." But it is a form of irony that lacks irony.

29. Language poetry is a sign sung by a seme.

30. Do writers feel pain, or are they too dishonest?

31. Fame is the truest form of transcendence.

32. Thought is sexless, but its subject matter is gendered.

33. Art is a form of social control.

34. Theory is Action with only one character.

35. Erasure is its own reward.

36. To know the future of an art, examine the most ridiculed and marginalized form of its current practice.

37. A sentence is never innocent.

38. Only actors have souls.

39. Transgression is a form of postmodern worship.

40. The past is still under construction.

41. All literature is ultimately narrative.

42. All narrative aspires to the chase scene.

43. Only poetry approaches the speed of truth.

44. The speed of reality is faster than the speed of attention.

45. Nature Alls the gaps that authors leave.

46. Dignity requires a history of suffering.

47. Avant-garde poetry is nostalgic for tradition.

48. Modernism has yet to complete its mission.

49. Postmodernism is sentimental about the future.

50. Because there is no belief, there is no millennial fervor.

Chapter Two

Murder and Closure On the Impression of Reality in American Poetry

Where there is belief, there is millennial fervor. But belief is in retreat. Among postmodern unbelievers, the approaching millennium has been greeted with a yawn. There has been no resurgence of An de siècle temperament beyond Camille Paglia and no outcry about cultural exhaustion despite Jerry Springer.

The romantic resurgence of midcentury, as exhibited by the Beat poets and confessionalism, remains in sight mainly for its nostalgia value. Despite the prominence of poets like Sharon Olds and Li-Young Lee, the free-verse confessional poem is not the dominant force that it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, other influences such as the New York School, language poetry, and spoken word poetry have already affected mainstream practice in ways that did not seem possible at the turn of the last decade. None of these influences has any quarrel with the apocalypse. The end of the second millennium invites no thematic ardor and no call for new categories. Language poetry, performance poetry, and expressions of multicultural identity, which constitute the "new," have been around since the 1970s. Historically, moreover, they can be seen as after-eruptions of the 1960s rather than signal forces. Thus we approach the end of a thousand-year period not with a fear of historical closure but a fetishizing of poetic closure by the new formalists (return to traditional forms) and language poetry (methodical and often whimsical Oulipian applications and the forever-closing "new sentence"). Despite their obvious differences, both movements are enamored of artifice and method. In its preference for the part over the whole, irony over lyric ardor, and wit over belief, language poetry represents a neoclassical revival with a Marxist letter of introduction. The bridge between these left and right formalisms is Oulipo.

In Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, Warren F. Motte, Jr., gives a brief history of the Ouvroir des Litteratures Potentielles, a group of French intellectuals who met in September of 1960 to establish "a new defense and illustration of the French language" and to create new literary forms. Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Raymond Queneau's sonnet sequence Cent mille milliards de poemes (One hundred trillion poems), and Georges Perec's lipogrammatic novel A Void (La Disparition) are prime examples of the Oulipo method. Calvino's novel consists of the beginnings of several different novels but has no middle and no ending. Queneau's sequence consists of ten Shakespearean sonnets with the same end rhymes. Since the rhymes make the lines interchangeable, mathematically as many as one hundred trillion sonnets, or ten to the fourteenth power, have been written by writing the first ten. (The interchangeability of parts owes its existence, by the way, to Henry Ford, democracy, dada, and Gertrude Stein.) The Perec novel is a lipogram, an invention of Oulipo that requires the elimination of a letter or letters from a piece of writing, with the result that there is no letter e in A Void. Motte writes, "La Disparition, received as resolutely avant-gardist, is in fact merely the most recent manifestation of a venerable literary tradition that can be traced back to the sixth century B.C." (5). In his essay "History of the Lipogram," Perec mentions the Greek writer Nestor of Laranda, third century A.D., who rewrote The Iliad but disallowed the letter A in the first canto, the letter B in the second, and so on until the entire alphabet was exhausted (Motte, 101). Other historical practitioners of the lipogram include an American sailor named Vincent Wright (1872-1939) who published the novel Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words without Using the Letter E (106). Oulipo is eccentric and vanguardist. It is also traditional in its distaste for inspiration, self-expression, and other trappings of romanticism. Oulipo is highly methodical. "The only literature is voluntary literature," wrote Raymond Queneau (Motte, 6). "All writing is a demonstration of method," adds Charles Bernstein in his essay "Writing as Method" (Content, 226).

There is a tradition of experimental formalism that includes writers like Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy; John Ashbery, whose interest in minor poetic forms like the sestina, pantoum, villanelle, cento, and noel helped revive their recent use; and, most recently, the language poets, whose distaste for the poetry of personal epiphany leads in the direction of processual composition and formal gamesmanship. Ron Silliman's book-length prose poem, Tjanting, is built on the mathematical constraint of the Fibonacci number system, with the result that the number of sentences in each paragraph equals the number in the preceding two paragraphs. The poem develops arithmetically toward infinity. Lyn Hejinian's prose poem sequence My Life, written when she was thirty-seven, counted thirty-seven sentences to the section. She rewrote the poem at the age of forty-five by adding eight sentences to each poem in the sequence. My Life and Tjanting display important features of Oulipo practice: the use of formal constraint, the devaluation of inspiration, and the use of mathematics in the development of constraints. Because the Fibonacci number sequence is also to be found in nature-for example, on fern fronds and snail shells-and because Hejinian uses a mathematical code personal to her own experience, their work can also be considered romantic formalism.

As the new avant-garde, language poetry proposes method rather than madness. We live in an age of software, not hardware, process rather than product. Channel surfing and web crawling are process metaphors that also describe our current concept of the mind in action. In Oulipo and language poetry, the medium is the product.

Is it the avant-garde or Panasonic that's "slightly ahead of its time"? And what are we to make of an avant-garde that adopts the performance urges of dada cabaret, the compositional scatter of Mallarmé's Un coup de des (ca. 1898), and Gertrude Stein's "recreation of the word" and calls it the postmodern? Is everything late in the century tainted with nostalgia for earlier avant-gardes and "new" mainly in its opposition to the recently old, like projectivism, the aleatory method, and the organic poem? Now that a purple patch from Kerouac's bohemian-as-everyman novel On the Road has been used to sell InAniti automobiles, what does the baroque have in store? Wit, ambiguity, formality, irony, complexity? Imagine Night of the Living Dead with a cast of William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and the Fugitive poets. That's the furious ghost of Laura Riding up-attic.

In his essay "American Nostalgias," Sven Birkerts writes of his own late-in-the-century, middle-aged nostalgia for a more perfect past when the American small town, as represented by his favorite Actional character, Harry Angstrom of John Updike's novel Rabbit, Run, defined the moral universe. Caught in "time sickness" and a sense of rupture with his own past, Birkerts's American "is increasingly susceptible to eruptions of elegiac fondness, not just for his past, but for a whole way of life that he sees fading before the chaotic excitements of late modernity" (27). The cause of our hero's malaise is a "large-scale experiential shift, moving from a largely unconscious to an ever more conscious-even 'hyperconscious'-relation to reality. We have ... shifted from a simple, direct, unmediated sense of reality to one that is complexly mediated, saturated with information and the possibility of information" (27-28). What Birkerts describes is a "shock of the new" more intense than the modernist encounter with nonfigurative art. It is loss of one's sense of reality, therefore of identity. The standard markers by which the self was mirrored-community, family, earth, church-are erased by the more illusory markers of (commodified) virtuality. "Something slippery has interposed itself between us and our neighbors," Birkerts writes. "For the real we are substituting the virtual" (28).

This is the same Birkerts, incidentally, who attacked John Ashbery's Selected Poems at "that forlorn codex, garden of branching paths, termite tree of the late Millennium" (142). As admirers of Ashbery's poetry, we may have reason to doubt Birkerts's judgments about history, for he can apparently locate the real only by narrative means. "I have moved my eyes and felt the slow dispersion of my sense of self," Birkerts wrote in his review. "I have been Bung back into the boredom and rage of childhood, and the whole world seemed to rear up against me, not to be had or understood" (142). It must be a powerful poetry indeed to alter the reader's identity.

Nevertheless, Birkerts's use of the word "slippery" is accurate. By means of the remote control device and computer mouse, we can slip into virtual worlds with ease and escape them with difficulty. In the realm of the erotic, we are strongly aware of the physical reality of Besh. But the slipperiness of media is enthralling. It allows us to imagine other realities and to assume powers that are natural only to desire. In a recent case, the Supreme Court judged that limits can indeed be placed on computer software, since one program provides for the head of some child of your acquaintance to be scanned onto the body of a child porn actor, who is then ordered to have relations with another virtual figure. A San Francisco man twice convicted of tax evasion and fraud has established a virtual country, Melchizedek, with its own citizens, laws, and privileges. A strip of coastal land surrounding a green harbor, Melchizedek's unreal estate can be viewed on-line. Presumably citizens of this new country will not have to pay taxes.

The easy relation of language and desire derives from their virtuality. When desire inhabits and activates the "empty" symbolic system of language, sovereign states of meaning come into existence, each with a green harbor, gardens, a citizenry, and a tyrant. Virtuality has always been with us in the form of myth and Action, for literature offers both representative experiences and words as experience. The real includes the virtual. Under the postmodern aegis, reality is shifting and multiple in perspective. Birkerts however seems to rely on an Edenic concept of experience, which any removal or distance betrays. Yet poetry by its nature is intimacy at a distance, as Ashbery's poetry reveals. Walter Benjamin writes of art, "The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.... The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical-and, of course, not only technical-reproducibility" (220). Thus when art meets with mechanical reproduction, which began with Gutenberg, the "aura" of the work of art "withers." Benjamin sees the work of art as inhabiting a shell, which may be pried open, thus destroying its aura. As things lose their aura, all objects are equal. In reading Ashbery, Birkerts is in horror of this perceived loss of aura, which seems to prize the contingent and the arbitrary. Worse yet for Birkerts, Ashbery has a genuine affection for simulacra. In his embrace of the contingent and the "false," he achieves some of his finest lyricism: "Yet I cannot escape the picture / Of my small self in that bank of Bowers: / My head among the blazing phlox / Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus. / I had a hard stare, accepting / Everything, taking nothing, / As though the rolled-up future might stink / As loud as stood the sick moment / The shutter clicked" (Ashbery, 28-29). In Ashbery as in most avant-garde poetry, traditional values such as lyricism often lie in hiding, to be unveiled by further reading or changes in literary fashion. But when Ashbery blushes, as he often does, its force can knock you down.

Gertrude Stein commented, "After all, to me one human being is as important as another human being, and you might say that the landscape has the same values, a blade of grass has the same value as a tree. Because the realism of the people who did realism before was a realism of trying to make people real. I was not interested in making the people real but in the essence or, as a painter would call it, value" (Haas, 16). Stein recognized what Benjamin calls "the universal equality of things" at the level of the word. As the material fact of language, words are given to artistic use. Of her method, she said, "I began to play with words then. I was a little obsessed by words of equal value.... You had to recognize words had lost their value in the Nineteenth Century, they had lost much of their variety, and I felt that I could not go on, that I had to recapture the value of the individual word [my italics], And out what it meant and act within it.... I began then to want to make a more complete picture of each word.... I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word, and at this same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense" (Haas, 17-18). This "recreation of the word" was a radical move, creating a new realism based on the material fact of words rather than rhetorical unities. The literary work is based therefore on surface relation rather than psychological depth or the transcendental signified.


Excerpted from Fables of Representation by Paul Hoover Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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