Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

"Paratextual communities" by Susan Vanderborg (Southern Illinois University, 2001)

Avant-garde poets do sometimes try to explain their works, but only so far. By paratext this book's author means the "highly creative essays, notes, prefaces, and source documents that [American avant-garde poets] provide with their experimental poetry" which are "complex enough to be analyzed as artistic experiments in their own right". Olson, Spicer, Howe, Bernstein, Lorenzo and the Drukers feature.

Some poets' poems already had essay elements (sometimes within parentheses). But this wasn't enough - "The heightened anxiety over how to define a public space for experimental poetry, to move beyond a small circle of fellow poets ... led to many of the postwar ... avant-garde poets to create their text-paratext dialogues" (p.18). The combination came in different forms - "contrast between the page layouts of poetry versus poetic essay, in a divided page of poem and notes, or in the palimpsestic superimposition of one author's writing upon another's" (p.22). These texts were often "far closer to the manifesto form than to a conventional essay". Sometimes a text "responds to, rather than glosses, the original passage"

They're not always an easy read - "many [recent American avant-garde poets] have adapted [Spicer's] tropes of ghostly palimpsests, misdirections, and mistranslations in their own paratexts, trying to create a broader cultural context for poems without sacrificing what Spicer described at the poetry's 'uncomfortable music', the gaps and disjunctions meant to astonish readers into redefining their narratives of literary frontiers" (p.61).

My guess, from the few examples I've seen, is that these texts tend to start at the difficult work and then extend towards the mainstream reader, rather than beginning with what the mainstream reader might be expected to understand and creating a route towards the difficult work. I think Bernstein tries the hardest but at the expense of apparent consistency. He wrote that "[I]t's very hard for us, for me, to get over the desire for this elegant, seamless, logical discourse when writing criticism, because for one thing it has real power. People all of a sudden start to listen to what you say". As a result, according to Vanderborg he "creates essays that are simultaneously more straightforward and less trustworthy than those of Olson or Howe" (p.102).

I read some details about Olson that I was unaware of

  • Olson's "narrators associate a flat, statistical style of documentation that forecloses interpretation with a bureaucratic pendant for dehumanizing persons as enemies or casualties" (p.25)
  • in 1942-44 he worked at the "Office of War Information drafting creative propaganda to persuade newly neuturalised citizens to support the war effort" (p.23)
  • "women ... remain little more than archetypal fertility figures or malign sorcesses in both his poetry and paratexts" (p.41)

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