Jed Rasula with H.L. Hix

Jed Rasula photo
Jed Rasula
This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990 (National Council of Teachers of English, 1996).

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990 (National Council of Teachers of English, 1996).

H. L. Hix: One important aspect of your book, insofar as I have grasped its project, is to record the shrinking of the dominant lyric mode in America for the past 50+ years from pursuit of “representational accountability” adequate to “mass reality” (407).  Can the outlines of representational accountability be made out now, or is such accountability the sort of thing that we will recognize when it happens?  In other words, is there a prescription for such accountability, of the sort that the critic can describe it to the poet, or is such accountability something that critics will note when a poet achieves, or some poets achieve, it?

Jed Rasula: My book was an unintended swan song for a then rapidly vanishing era of print literacy, documenting the way power struggles and reputations were stage managed in the venues specific to that cultural formation. In the fifteen years since I wrote it everything has changed, probably more dramatically than I’d have thought likely at the time. What we now have, in the form of the internet— compounded by the profusion of messaging technologies that dominate everyday life—is a de facto representational grid, a kind of conceptual mainframe, into which we’re all helplessly plugged. The issue of “representational accountability” is now quite different than what I was referring to in the early 90s. At that point the heritage of print fixity still cast a large shadow over one’s approach to knowing anything, or finding out about anything. The ubiquity of data is now such that it’s much easier to “know” or “find out” things, but the sources of information are precarious and mutable. I don’t mean, by the way, that Wikipedia is “unreliable” or anything like that—if anything, it’s more serviceable in that its instability is on display, so there can be no mistaking it as the final authority. Rather, our search engines and data resources amount to a vast noetic mirror, reflecting with unsettling accuracy a state of affairs (call it “representational” and set aside the accountability for the moment) that is  collective, imposing, yet also momentary. The Marxist diagnosis of capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air,” simply gets more accurate all the time. But to extend the original metaphor, the air itself is becoming liquified.

So what does all this have to do with poetry? What impact does it have? My observation is that it’s created a vast echo chamber in which private psychodrama and the glut or refuse of public, collective semiotic systems speak together in tongues. Most of the poetry I see now—written, say, by thirty-somethings—is imaginatively and linguistically quite rich, but it also seems to be composed by a big trans-personal paintbrush. The fluidity and immediacy of the vernacular is now more invasive than it was in print-culture. So the 50s combat between orality and print now seems very remote. The new orality is identical with the transcription apparatus of cultural telepresence. People absorb slang and neologism as readily via print as by speech. I found it interesting recently hearing Richard Price respond to a question about the colorful patois in his novel of the Lower East Side, Lush Life. The interviewer wondered how Price could be on top of such lively street jargon, and he admitted it was impossible. So, he said, he just made everything up from scratch. And yet it sounds “real.” I guess you could say this proves Baudrillard’s point that simulacra have overtaken the real. In any case, what it means for poetry is that the old divide between actual speech and the jargon of print is obsolete (at least in the case of American English).

To address the “shrinking of the dominant lyric mode” as you put it, I’d add a cautionary observation that it hasn’t shrunk in the least: it’s just shifted venues.  One of the more striking phenomena I’ve observed about poetry consumption and marketing, demographically speaking, since I wrote Wax is that “poetry” has now become a sector of the self-help market. Think of all the anthologies geared toward making your day brighter, giving you uplift, maximizing a little daily pleasure, offering consolation, etc. It hardly matters whether it’s dished out by Garrison Keilor or Robert Pinsky, the lyric mode is thriving at least in this “niche” market which constitutes a bigger niche than that for so-called serious poetry. This is not new, it’s just more conspicuously promoted now. And I think Don Byrd’s observation from 1980 (!) quoted on page 4 of Wax still applies: “poetry is well on its way to ranking with tatting, restoring antiques, and pitching horseshoes as a harmless pastime.”

HH: Your book is a critique—not an instance—of the how-to, self-help approach, but does it also translate critique into a revised practice of reading and writing?  For instance, does your observation that “as long as we keep thinking of solutions as happening only once we perpetuate the trauma of our native insecurities” (361) recommend a principle of serial solution substitution, or is inferring a principle merely a repetition of native insecurities?

JR: I appreciate your alert reading, in that you recognize I was making a recommendation about “solutions.” But note the context in which I raised the issue, which had to do with the chimera of a cultural center—a center presumed, for instance, in Helen Vendler’s way of talking about “we” and “our” poetry. That site is always refreshed, in (or on surreptitious behalf of) the public perception of poetry as a succession of “advances” or what I ended /up calling solutions. This assumption doesn’t require close analysis; it works by way of all the ambient cultural Darwinist flotsam at hand, the assumption being that succession entails progress and improvement. This is an issue I’ve long been fascinated by, insofar as it transposes to (and imposes on) the arts a model from science and technology. It’s most evident in the art world, in which “problems” are identified (Renaissance perspective; plein air color in Impressionism; Cubist refraction) and lineages adumbrated on the basis of who solved the problem, and then who improved the solution, etc. The peculiarity is that critics and historians are forced not only to retain the artists whose “problems” have been solved by others, but to continue to appraise their “ground breaking” innovations. Even after Picasso, in other words, Cézanne still seems worthwhile. My take on this whole syndrome is that it attributes a different order of causality to artistic creation than is warranted. For the most part, the logic of improvement carries with it the sense of being done on behalf of, or for the benefit of, a larger community. But this rarely applies to actual practicing artists, who are indeed solving “problems” but strictly for themselves. The artist just wants to paint, and the poet to write a poem, in a gesture that is fundamentally existential, not social. (I don’t mean to deny social efficacy, or even a social intent, where that is the case—but I think it’s rare.) So to bring this all back to poetry, I’d rephrase my recommendation from Wax as follows: every poem is the solution to a problem, but no poem can borrow its solution from another solution (however much it can poach on preceding problems).

HH: Allen Tate’s serving as “an object lesson… in the hazard of dreaming that the utopia one imagines will take a form other than that prepared for it in advance by the institutions one happens to inhabit” (122), juxtaposed with your stated purpose of “reckoning the social costs of predictable responses” (339), seems to present a catch-22: the poet is obliged not to make predictable responses, but also unable not to make predictable responses.  Is there a way out of this dilemma?  Or a way to resist it, that is to any degree effective?

JR: First, to emphasize again the context you quote from: my note on page 339 is a summary of Keith Tuma’s position. He noted the fact that advocates of the vanguard were as likely to stigmatize mainstream poets as the other way around. And one thing I definitely wanted to do with The American Poetry Wax Museum was to de-villainize the New Critics, even as I held them accountable for perpetrating the institutional constraints I documented—and that’s where the reference to Allen Tate comes in. I think you’re right to notice a link between the two passages (122 and 339), but I don’t get where you see a catch-22 coming into play. That is, where do I seem to suggest the poet is “unable not to make predictable responses” as you put it? My guess is that you’ve inferred this from the coercive environment of institutions, which do force one’s hand and compel responses that are certainly predictable, but they’re predictable only insofar as they come from an institution. It’s rarely the case, however, that a poet would become so identified with an institution as to seem identical with its “predictable” responses. My point about Tate is more along the lines of the old bit of advice about being careful what you wish for. Tate—and New Criticism, Inc.—started from the classic Socratic position of gadflies, outsiders strategizing irritating raids on an insurmountable foe. Their sallies ended up being a bit unusual in that they actually prevailed. And the weak point (which most of the original New Critics recognized, and were alarmed by) of this success is that the real strength of their original positions had to do with their idiosyncrasies, not with the collective dicta and pledges of faith that their followers adhered to. So it becomes the classic dilemma of authority: how does one preach the gospel, from a position of authority, “Don’t be like me”! Now that’s a real catch-22.


Jed Rasula’s most recent book is the anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity, co-edited with Tim Conley (Burning Books 2012). He has recently finished two books on modernism, The History of a Shiver, and Relentless Metabolism, and is currently writing a book on Dada for Basic Books. Rasula is the Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia.

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