Saturday, November 11, 2023

From a Poetics Journal 2023: notes on two critical volumes: Betteridge and Kaufmann

 Notes on two critical volumes

Joel Betteridge’s Avant-Garde Pieties: Aesthetics, Race and the Renewal of Innovative Poetics. Oxford and London: Routledge, 2018; and

Reading Uncreative Writing: Conceptualism, Expression and the Lyric by David Kaufmann. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017; 

and touching very briefly on Oren Izenburg’s Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011.

I have been trying for an age to finish reading Joel Betteridge’s Avant-Garde Pieties (2018) and I’ve finally done it. (And I've taken even longer to get this post up and online.) I’ve been simultaneously re-reading Reading Uncreative Writing by David Kaufmann (2017). Both books are rocked, I think it is fair to say, by the affront of – intended – and the affront caused – probably unintended – by Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ (2015, well that's the date of its single performance anyway). Never has a text been so central and absent to literary debate (since Goldsmith withdrew the work and replaced it with a self-justifying Facebook post). With one enclosure does Goldsmith refute his often quoted assertion that you don’t need to read his work. In this case we do, but we can't. But, then, we should be wary of Goldsmith’s pronouncements (I suppose we should call it ‘poetics’, but it appears too finished to fulfil my definitions of it. See Pages: Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 1: The Identification of Poetics) His whole book Uncreative Writing (saintly white cover), like its critical shadow, Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius – brilliant and persuasive books both! – his book (as I say in my book The Meaning of Form: see Pages: Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry PUBLISHED) offers a teleology that fashions all of avant-garde or modernist history into a precursor of uncreative writing or, rather, to himself. I criticised this, rightly, but what I failed to see was that his critics have also taken him at his word. So that when the disgusting and ill-judged presentation (and subtle rearrangements, or forming in my terms) of ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ was attacked so comprehensively, some commentators used the opportunity to dismiss all avant-garde art... particularly as racist. Where this gets us – suddenly everything I've ever written is automatically racist! – is unclear – but where it leaves Baraka or Mackey (etc… a long list in Betteridge and Kaufmann) is much clearer: they stand as refutations of this simplistic charge, by dazzling us, by simply existing. As I say, these critics (who have an aesthetic agenda (mainstream writers) or a political one (they want directly political work; what would they make of my sonnets? nothing, of course, the focus is purely American, a blindness unaddressed…) These critics are only following Kenneth Goldsmith’s teleology. We all go down for his crime, in the worst form of joint enterprise.

The year 2015 is an interesting one for the wheels to fall off the conceptualist wagon. (Vanessa Place was also playing with fire by retweeting Gone with the Wind at this time, and Kaufmann itemises the creative blindness of the gesture, and the critical blindness of the response.) Somewhere I noted that I thought conceptual writing would last until about 2015. (I wished I'd expressed that publicly; I didn't, probably because I've been so wrong with predictions before! Examples omitted.) If you believe Kenneth Goldsmith's self-serving teleology, then all avant-garde work died in 2015. (With him.) It's not what he intended, but that's the result of his argument.

Goldsmith's intentions are of interest in this moment. Betteridge argues convincingly that his justification of ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ – I feel like I'm re-inscribing the pain, and ‘anti-elegy’ with each reiteration of his name in this context – betrays most of the tenets of conceptual writing, largely through a very traditional plea to ‘Truth’. It's like he's claiming to be some kind of documentary poet (like Mark Novak for example, or Juliana Spahr, about whom Betteridge writes so eloquently). But maybe Kenneth Goldsmith would sell his own skin to save his body.

If you don't believe Kenneth Goldsmith's self-serving teleology then avant-garde work didn't die in 2015, not all forms led to Goldsmith. Indeed at that moment I was working on The Meaning of Form, attempting to prove, in part, that conceptual writing’s disavowal of form was not evidenced by the form, forms and acts of forming involved in producing the works themselves. (See Pages: Robert Sheppard The Trace of Poetry: Notes on Conceptual Writing and Form) One of the problems with Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Body’ is that he does reform the work – ‘translating’  medical terms, it's a re-forming of an autopsy report, a transposition of its restricted code (and quite unlike Goldsmith's American Disasters which uses PUBLIC language) another of Kenneth Goldsmith’s self-justifications that deny and defy the evidence is to suggest ‘The Body’ is an extra chapter of American Disasters. Kaufmann's thesis – in brief –is a parallel one to mine. Where I find form where it's been liquidated by the theory, he finds affect, ‘subjectivity’, a ‘trans-subjectivity’ belonging to a mass of quoted people, and ‘expression’ in Adorno’s sense, i.e. it's not self-expression. 

[I will now interpollate some earlier notes I made on this use of ‘expression’: First he redefines ‘expression’:

The truth of dissonance is expression.

‘Expression renders audible differentiated state or mood... Expression... marks the critical function of art and its concomitant utopian hope.’ (Kaufmann 2017: 7)

My language. Expression is not self-expression. Indeed, in The Meaning of Form I say something like this: Pages: Robert Sheppard: A Note on Self-Expression and Conceptual Wriitng]

The rejection of lyric subjectivity is not as absolute as it might be for Marjorie Perloff.

‘A critique of actually existing “official verse culture” is not a criticism of lyricism tout court. It is a critique of the current state of play,’ (Kaufmann 2017: 9) the ‘workshop poem’, for example. Thus he can say of Emily Dickinson: ‘a determinate negation of the lyric of her time, not the blanket negation of the lyric, as such.’ (Kaufmann 2017: 10.) (Such negations are part of its history.)

A turning from that lyric, not from the long tradition. Or returning from it, within the tradition.

Kaufmann has serious wonders on the way, but by page 125, we're back to Adorno’s  ‘expression’ that is not self-expression: ‘Artworks bear expression not when they communicate the subject, but rather where they reverberate with the proto history of subjectivity’... Expression ‘approaches the trans-subjective.’ (Kaufmann 2017: 125))

I'll leave his thoughts about lyric to one side for now. [Actually, these notes do not return to the subject.] The more satisfactory conceptual work for Kaufman is that of Robert Fitterman and it is interesting (to me, anyway), that James (Byrne) and I should have selected his work for Atlantic Drift. (See Pages: Atlantic Drift launch in London: 5th February 2018 (some photos and a few comments) ( The language of affect, argues Kaufmann, saturates conceptual writing when it shouldn't. The ‘shouldn't’ only works if you exchange the flexibility and developmental gymnastics of poetics for the sclerotic diktats of a manifesto – but that's exactly what conceptual writing did in its (or Kenneth Goldsmith's) attempt to be the only avant-garde practice in town.

It's not. It can't be, given continual avant-garde poetics and practice, of course.

And it isn't, if we are looking at the other writers Betteridge treats (chiefly Spahr and Buuck, Kaia Sand, Peter O’Leary, and Clauda Rankine (another inclusion in Atlantic Drift)), and the scope can be widened to include many many other writers, as ever when one writes a critical work).

‘Race’ in Bettridge’s subtitle ‘Aesthetics, Race and the Renewal of Innovative Poetics’ is a live issue, in a particular, global way, post-Black Lives Matter (his book is pre-BLM, of course, given the delays of book publication). It's never been a not-live issue for Poets and People of Colour, and - without sounding like Kenneth Goldsmith and his self-justifications, I'm pleased with the diversity of coverage in Atlantic Drift though that's probably more James Byrne’s doing than mine.

No, it's racism that's the issue here. Betteridge puts up an argument against directly activist poetry that isn't worth repeating here, since I'm more interested in his ‘renewal of innovative poetics’.

Because a poem doesn't mention race it doesn't mean it's racist. (That should be obvious, but it's not.) If a person doesn't mention race that doesn't mean it's not racist; obviously, to be overtly racist (rather than institutionally racist) you'd probably need to mention race, possibly obsessively so. Of course, my use of ‘mention’ is playing into certain presumptions about the referentiality of poetry - it's not helpful…

One of the things Betteridge touches upon at the beginning is dealt with precisely by the rest of the book: the notion that some ‘avant-garde’ gestures (I'm using his terms but ‘formally innovative’ might do just as well) – some such named gestures just aren't. I came up with the aphorism: ‘A writer (an artist) must both derive and dérive –  and both must be unruly,’ after reading Betteridge (on Robert Duncan, as it happens). I do see surrealist writing, Oulipo techniques applied on far from the fruit fly material Queneau stipulated, decorative concrete poetry, ineffectual erasure, pointless cut up, etc… etc…  but to note that is only, really, to notice that being derivative is not the same as deriving the work – Bettridge has no problem with an avant-garde tradition – so long as one does something with it, ‘working the work’ as I've long said: ‘derive and dérive’ seems to me an epithet-prophylactic for that problem. It's a minor point and it doesn't need returning to. (I take it up in a piece of poetics intended for publication, called (at the moment) ‘My Own Crisis’. Really!) ‘Right imitation’ is no longer part of our poetics, but neither is wild novelty. It is part of good aesthetic judgement to deal with it. It is partly poetics’ task to derive and to suggest the dérive. (Oh no, not another definition of poetics!)

This brings me to another minor point. Betteridge occasionally gestures towards the religious and, even if his suggestion that the language poets’ commitment to language is not unlike a sect’s commitment to its principles (I always think of the Muggletonians!) I would want to steer away from that, and stay secular and linguistically materialist.

That said, his account of the ‘pieties’ of the avant-garde suggest ways towards ‘renewal of innovative poetics’. Another way of saying this, is to say that I want to re- read his book – or parts of it – as poetics. Or rather, to read the parts which are poetics. Betteridge is a poet, after all. That demands a different way of reading parts of the book, for example, his discussion of Claudia Rankine which includes the words ‘the book’s form of politics – its avant-garde belief that aesthetics are political. The avant-garde values of multiple genres, use of sources, etc…’ (passages on page 29 and 151-200 for those who have access to the book)...

[These notes become more notelike from here on, as I ran out of energy. I’ve also not taken up the suggestion to re-read parts, but I suspect I will. In the meantime I have been writing (as I said) ‘My Own Crisis’, which overlaps with some of this, BUT began life as a writing-through of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. I got halfway, and then wrote through my own notes backwards. It has the virtue of compression which these notes don’t. MY OWN CRISIS may be read here:]

Betteridge tells us that Rankine takes elements of a ‘racist violent culture’ and ‘redirects that culture by means of the poem’s friendship’. (Betteridge 151). This use of ‘friendship’ derives from readings of Stanley Cavill, (but I believe the modes of ‘hospitality’ Derek Attridge writes of (in writers and readers) serves just as well; see Pages: Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form and Derek Attridge’s The Work of Literature). (304) Betteridge talks of ‘its avant-garde belief that aesthetics are political. The avant-garde values of multiple genres, use of sources, and commitment to a form of literary poetics... They ‘simultaneously illuminate the problem of American culture and produce a solution to it.’ (151) 

He calls it an ‘impossible avant-garde politics’ as I think it might be for me!

‘A multiform tradition’ (163) ‘multiform avant-garde tradition’ (165-6) The danger he calls ‘moralising’. It destroys the multiformity of the avant-garde (171)

Wendy Brown. We must develop a ‘vision about the common’ (‘what I want for us’) ‘because it aims to create a collective future by transforming where one lives out of love, and it takes political acting and conversation as the means of such correction’. (73) We mustn't ‘abandon … the sheerly political domain in favour of moral judgement and identity … particularly injured identities.’ (174) Identity + Ressentiment = Moralism (which cuts us off from anything that offends us).  Isn't this obvious? Perhaps it is, but this ‘conclusion’ does provide some terms to use, a few useful quotes for critical writing and – more importantly – poetics.

Here's a particularly useful passage: ‘Just because lyric poets and their apologists find the avant-garde tired, annoying, and out of fashion does not mean that it is; it just means that those writers bent on realism and representation can't read the avant-garde in the required spirit.’ Says Bettridge (197). And even better:

‘We have no idea which poem will be the catalyst for which particular readers and keeping this fact of reading alive and vital for specific readers is what a multiform avant-garde permits.’ (195) (Could equally argue that of the mainstream, of course, that that would be less multiform.)

The rousing chorus of the avant-garde seems more like a single strained note, or a breathy obviousness. Let's end this (failed?) summary with a quote from a different book: ‘Radical poetics... is not radical for its political commitments but for its pre political or ontological commitments.’ (Isenberg 35), a book I'm slowly rereading at the moment.

Later: I haven't returned to these thoughts – perhaps they are finished, what they are, and are destined to remain where they are, informing practice, as poetics is meant to do, according to me!

The Tesco delivery has arrived so I shall stop my dictation from my poetics journal and engage (briefly) with capitalism.

A previous set of journal ‘notes’ from my reading of critical works may be read here: Pages: Re:Pulse – on pulse and Richard Andrews’ A Prosody of Free Verse: Explorations in Rhythm ( and also (further back in time) these thoughts on postmodernism came from my poetics journal: Pages: Robert Sheppard: Supplanting the Postmodern (notes).



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