Saturday, January 2, 2010

An _impossible_ community: poetry and the private sphere in Daniel Tiffany and Claudia Rankine

About a week ago, I posted an entry about the alphabet as a marker of what is most public (knowledge) and most private (when used as a poetic device, a code with no key). As I wrote there, I've long been curious about the ways in which the private is rendered public in poetry, but also (and more radically) how the private nature of our public experiences gets invoked in poems.

So along comes a free moment to read Daniel Tiffany's new critical book, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (U of Chicago, 2009), which moves away from "imagined communities" posited by Benedict Anderson, communities born of newspapers and other media culture, and into the realm of "impossible" ones. "The community established (or preestablished) by poetry depends neither on meaningfulness nor on external relations--indeed," Tiffany writes, "it may be described as an impossible community" (150). He begins from the notion of "vernacular obscurity," which he finds in the canting songs of beggars and thieves, the riddles of Old English and Mother Goose rhymes, reaches into jargons (which come from bird song) and Pidgins, and comes out the other end into the strange land of avant-garde Modernism. His equation has a beautiful counter-intuitive feel to it, until you begin to hear echoes of "He Do the Police in Different Voices" in your ears. Or until you read his chapter on Mallarme and Mother Goose. "Mallarme and Mother Goose" is one of Tiffany's own riddles, which he teases out over the space of a chapter late in the book, as he shows us how Mallarme taught English to his pupils through the aid of nonsense. Tiffany's central argument--there are many that orbit around it--is that vernacular and high art are similar in their reliance on communities of people who share their obscurities only with themselves. Hence the unlikely link of, say, Ezra Pound with an 18th century purveyor of rhyming slang on London's streets. What he calls "the radiant properties of obscurity" (232) are part of a larger linguistic continuum, not an escape from it. T.S. Eliot might call one form of poetry "personality," the other "impersonal." Tiffany writes that, "acknowledging the priority of expression redraws the map of obscurity, expanding its territorial reach beyond the literary sites of virtuosity and experimentation, thereby blurring divisions (based solely on the criterion of obscurity) between literary and vernacular poetries" (232).

In the end, Tiffany's book calls for a return to anonymity as a literary and a cultural marker. He has taught us already that "anonymity" began its career as a literary term and only later became associated with modern notions of angst. And so he takes the term back, but with a difference, quoting Hannah Arendt at the end of his book about "a flight from the world to concealment, from public life to anonymity" in dark times (234). Not that this anonymity is mere escape for Tiffany, mind you, rather it involves connections between "solipsism and connectedness," "secrecy and expressiveness" (234). The turning in that Tiffany advocates is not so much away from the world as away from its counterfeit realities. Back perhaps toward what Schlegel describes as "the thinking of thinking" (which is a quotation of a quotation on page 92). That meditative poetry is a tradition rarely advertised as transparent, clear, open, glassy, helps to make this point for Tiffany. Poets' thinking is rarely less (or more) than what we term "obscure," even as we value it for its in-sights. Poetry has no outsights to offer us. Thinking is the most inward of acts; to put it on paper hardly makes it less so, though it may share some of that inwardness with its community of readers.

[Editor's note: Daniel Tiffany adds this:
"I do have one thought in response to your comment about a putative call for a retreat from "counterfeit realities" in the name of obscurity, In fact, as the book's Afterword confusedly urges, I'm suggesting a turn TOWARDS inauthenticity (the unavoidable condition now of the vernacular, I think), towards kitsch, as a way of reigniting sentimentality in some atavistic sense--of reclaiming the dialectical substance (the halo) of the commodity for poetry. It's a risk worth taking, I think. Fakery and obscurity become entwined in a brand new way!"]

The other book that launches me from one "low, dishonest decade" into this next (if you think the decade has, in fact, ended) is Claudia Rankine's DON'T LET ME BE LONELY. While the book was published in 2004 (by Graywolf), it reads as an elegy to the aughts, whose tone was set early. Y2K was the false, comedic crisis that 9/11 became, and 9/11 has stayed with us for a long decade. Rankine's "lyric" is, in fact, a book of prose. The back cover calls it "lyric essay/poetry," which reminds me how much I prefer the term "meditation." "Lyric essay" seems another marker of the selling of genres as teachable units; it's a subset of "creative non-fiction," after all. But that's enough complaining. Rankine's work is forensic, getting at our most public moments by way of her most private ones. Not only does she share family stories with her reader, some of them tragic, but she also examines the effects of American life on the inner organs--the brain, the breast, the liver. Medicine is part of this narrative, though any link between medicine and healing is not as neat as one might hope (against hope). The link between human value and that assigned by the insurance industry is even more troubling. The book is held together by the ever-symbolic television screen, that place where our private and public lives most often meet, as we sit (mostly) passively to receive them. Our passivity is what makes us most ill. To meditate upon the public event and the poet's private (very physical) reponses to it is to re-take some notion of agency (though that word loses agency as I type).

DON'T LET ME BE LONELY appears as a billboard in a field of sunflowers on the cover of Rankine's book. It's an unlikely billboard, this private call of anguish set beside a main road (which is empty, save for a thicket of signs.) There's a sense of public obscurity about the clear, private anguish that is the book's subject. While Rankine quotes Levinas on "being for the other," she frames that quotation with assertions of loneliness. And so, on page 120, she begins, "Then all life is a form of waiting, but it is the waiting of loneliness. One waits to recognize the other, to see the other as one sees the self." Then, she quotes the other, Levinas:

"The subject who speaks is situated in relation to the other. This privilege of the other ceases to be incomprehensible once we admit that the first fact of existence is neither being in itself nor being for itself but being for the other, in other words, that human existence is a creature. By offering a word, the subject putting himself forward lays himself open and, in a sense, prays." (120)

I am reminded just now of the hilltops of Rwanda in the mid-90s, during the genocide, when thousands of people milled about, stunned, hungry, and the eye of the media turned itself on them. There was a correspondent for ABC news whose face was narrow, hair gray, voice melancholy. I sat and cried at the images as he spoke into the camera's eye, which mediated between me and him, him and the story he was paid to tell us. Over the course of days, weeks, the correspondent's face fell, his voice began to quiver. I don't remember which gave way first, the correspondent's psyche or the short attention span of the media. But one day they were both gone from my screen. I was alone again, without him, without them. Levinas is surely right about self and other, the word, the prayer that links us. But what if we are all behind television (or computer) screens and our words are spoken only to ourselves? That kind of privacy is hellish. [I google Rwanda and eventually come up with the name of that correspondent, Jim Wooten.]

But Rankine turns away from the screen to face an audience of readers. That act of turning towards us, whoever we may be, does not close the loop that makes her body suffer, but it does invite in the "impossible community" of readers and writers. Our relation may not be "lyrical," but it can be close-knit, our own secret incantatory (from "cant," surely) calling out. That, in any case, is how I want to begin the 2010s, with that hope. And then action?

My first post on Tinfish Editor's Blog was last January 4. I wrote it after making a rare new year's resolution. That one was to write more about Tinfish and all it signifies to me. I wanted to move outside the "invisible handedness" of my position as editor and into "handedness." For Tinfish is an organizing principle that works well beyond the small press publishing world: it organizes my thinking in the classroom, and increasingly becomes the material for my arguments about literature and about the places (real and imagined) that I inhabit. While the blog has taken away energies from "creative" work, I have enjoyed the deadlines it imposes on me, the goad to thinking things through in print. So I will aim to continue the blog for at least another year. We'll see. A very Happy New Year to all of you who get this far!

No comments: