Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why is John Latta so bitter?

In fairness to John Latta's mad sloppy, carping critique/reading/commentary/review/whatever of Charles Bernstein's All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, it is "only" a blog post, which, according to Catherine Halley and Travis Nichols, is a dying medium (more on that later).

Of all the imaginable criticisms of Bernstein's poetry, I've never heard anyone say he "talks down to the reader". That is, however, what Latta seems intent on arguing in what seems immediately like a contrived insult perhaps intended to counter Bernstein's embracing of past criticisms that he is "too opaque" or "too difficult". Latta gives, first of all, Bernstein's "Thank You For Saying Thank You" as the primary example of this "talking down to the reader":

This is a totally
accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult
to understand.
All the words
are simple &
to the point.
There are no new
concepts, no
theories, no
ideas to confuse
you. This poem
has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
purely emotional.
So that's supposed to be talking down to the reader: this downright whimsical knitting together of the nonsensical prescriptivist imperatives that are often lobbed at certain poets? It's an application of The Treachery of Images to language itself, but it's also a joke that he does immediately allow the reader to be "in on".

The only way to read this as condescending is if you are the sort of person who has ever argued that all poetry needs to "accessible" or written in "plain language" (Something that I can't imagine Latta arguing). The poem contains many voices and can be read in a variety of tones. That you can read this poem in a condescending tone is an entirely uninteresting indictment of the poem unless, as in Latta's case, finding something to indict it for is the whole reason you are reading the poem.

And honestly, even if you're reading the poem as demeaning... If you've ever told someone their poems need to be more "simple" and "clear" because their work is too "theoretical", you deserve to be talked down to.

It just looks like Latta decided on what his argument "against" Bernstein was going to be before even opening the book. Finding snippets that actually supported his argument was apparently too laborious a task. Certainly, he's more focused on getting in all the right jabs than in giving a useful or even interestingly negative reading. Latta's whole tactic (besides combing his thesaurus for unique pejoratives -- which in fairness, at least I know the word "rodomontade" now) is dropping the names of poets he likes more than Bernstein and just telling us that Bernstein isn't as good: "Clumsy Ashbery." and "the poor man's Frank O'Hara". Which I take offense to, as I am the "poor man's Frank O'Hara", still stuck in Ypsi. (Quelle stase! De plus en plus!)


Latta attempts to chide and mock Bernstein for chiding and mocking a little too much for me to not mention how ridiculous it all makes him sound that, on top of all his noise, he can't actually find good examples of Bernstein's deep sin (he's like the Nancy Grace of criticism).

The guy is bizarrely sensitive about Bernstein's use of typographical errors, "ventriloquism and mimickry. Mock voicings" in his poems. I can only assume that he's the sort of person cries watching Sponge Bob. It's just so difficult to imagine anyone taking this pretend concern for whoever Bernstein is "victimizing" any kind of seriously.

And he wants it both ways: Latta admits he has no idea who Bernstein might be "mimicking", yet nonetheless, suggests that it is being done in bad faith. The root of this insult is never expanded or revealed to be more than what it is at first glance: that Latta doesn't like the effect. To continue more presumptuously, Latta doesn't like that these effects (typos, disjuncture, "mock voicings", etc.) aren't being used to pull the reader into the virtual reality of language (as with, in particular, Ashbery), but to guide her along its materiality. This bias always sound tired when articulated, but the haters won't let it go for some reason.

And subjective judgments on what is or isn't a condescending tone aside: demeaning your haters in your poems is a time honored poetry tradition (from Catullus to Jay-Z). I mean, truly, it just is. But somehow Latta is too delicate to handle it. Does he really believe that saying a poet has some vaguely belittling tones in his poems is in any way a legitimate criticism? Can we now go through poetry history and apply Latta's bizarre puritanical moralizing to the "Classics"?


Latta goes on to lazily accuse Bernstein's "This poem intentionally left blank"-poem of being a rip-off of Tom Raworth's "this poem has been removed for further study”. To be fair, this is an extremely common mistake anyone with Latta's particular brand of nostalgia for whatever it is they feel poetry has always been about: judging a poem that shares a couple aesthetic similarities to another as a rip-off. It's a bizarre post-Modern conceit that ultimately derives from a (likely purposeful) misapplication of Pound's mantra: "make it new". Suddenly, post-Modern poems that display some similarity to other poems (whether in form, voice, content, gesture...) can be neatly dismissed as not being "new enough"... whereas before, we called that shit "influence". God forbid poets explore similar concepts in a similar way. Latta and others don't, of course, apply this argument to the poems that they put on pedestals, because, ultimately, they know it's a dumbass point. It's just a sloppy disingenuous way to dismiss poets you don't like.

An approximation of Bernstein's print-specific poem appears below (the original appears as the only text on the page):


And Raworth's,

This poem has been removed for further study

That these poems are similar is obvious. They are both short, and they are both self-referential. But that is merely the form that these poems take. To suggest that they're the same is like saying any two sonnets are the same. Now, I couldn't blame someone who doesn't actually read poems for thinking that they are getting at the same thing. But anyone who professes to love poetry, and actually stands behind the statement (which, we should remember, Latta may not) that Bernstein's poem is a rip-off of Raworth's should lose more than a little credibility.

Raworth's poem is sinister (in my reading), mocking the double-speak of censorship. Sous rature is the subject matter here. It refers to a "missing" poem. Some of the questions we might be meant to ask: Who removed the poem? What content could a poem possibly have that would warrant its censorship? [my answer would be: no content, honestly, that Raworth (or Bernstein for that matter) would ever put in a poem]. The "missing" poem, though, (and I'm just guessing here) is probably non-existent, and certainly not "removed" by anyone other than Raworth. We are merely meant to entertain the reality of it's simulated censorship.

Bernstein's poem is a reference to the printing practice of printing "THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK" at the top of blank pages. A practice with "purposes ranging from place-holding to space-filling and content separation". It's a Mcluhanite gesture, highlighting the extra-authorial influences involved in poem-making.

Censorship is not a subject of Bernstein's poem. It has more in common with Cage's "4'33" than with Raworth's poem; More Rauschenberg's White Paintings than his Erased De Kooning. Worth noting is that there's no immediate necessity for an "intentionally blank" poem to take up an entire page, especially if it were representing a "missing" poem as does Raworth's. The "blank" page is the poem. It encourages us to see a "blank" page, not in terms of what is absent, but as a presence all itself: a presence that moves and shapes everything around it.

The page, however, is not blank, nor is the poem. Bernstein's poem is a blatant lie. It calls to attention the reality gap that text (and language itself) often asks us to ignore. Rather than encourage us to indulge in the virtual reality of language (as Raworth's poem does), Bernstein asks us to step out of it with a message (poem-as-artifact) from the poet-as-printer.

Raworth's poem asks us to question an outside "authority". Bernstein's poem asks us to question the poet himself.

Just to be clear, I love Raworth's poetry. I just want to defend Bernstein's poem as being very distinct from Raworth's in this particular case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This review that purports to review John Latta is just bitter shite recycled from oddbins of poetry wars. I hope he is bitter, why not be. But to strike down his crit by suggesting it's built on this bitter attitude is indeed shallow. He is a reprehensible person as all people are to some extent, this proven by our lack of careful stewardship of the planet and relentless other sins. However, his carping about the poetry of Charlse Bernstein brings new life to dead scrolls. Becoming highly employable is often a sign of useless digression. Yet, I hold, there may yet be Bernstein texts of some value. The conceit that Latta's lack of commercial sustenance can be used against him if he carps about someone's writing is just cliche. It would have been educational had you included the whole of his review of Bernstein's book, which is actually a good review. Afterall, it inspired your carping about Latta.