Poetry is the lipstick of noise. —Jean-Luc Nancy


Continuous Present: On Hearing Modernism in Contemporary Poetry

by Steve Evans

My typical American education made quite sure that I remained a nineteenth-century reader, to the extent that I was a reader at all, until I was nearly twenty. Notwithstanding the dose of dada that punk smuggled through in my teens, it was not until college that "the modern" was proposed as a serious possibility: sometime around my second year there I began to read Ulysses,with trepidation and a lively sense of my own inadequacy to the task; I also began reading—in a delighted burst that carried me with deceptive ease through the first thousand pages—Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

The remaining two thousand pages of Proust's text occupied my attention for the next fifteen years, only drawing to a close in fact two summers ago, when, as coincidence would have it, I'd also agreed to help a few interested undergraduates through a first reading of Ulysses. The juxtaposition of the two texts, each of which had made their way to me by means of a temporality proper to its scale and its style—Proust by an intermittently ongoing entwinement in my consciousness (and my unconscious) over the fifteen years time in which its completion was, as life to a Beckett character, ever "to come"; Joyce having worked itself by way of multiple readings between 1985 and 1988 so completely into my consciousness (and unconscious) that it felt as though I could afford to look away for a period lasting nearly fifteen years—the juxtaposition of these two texts in the relatively bounded moment of a summer two years ago led me to make the following, admittedly rather bare and perhaps also ultimately banal judgment: that Proust was better than Joyce and that both were better than anything else in their century.

This judgment surprised and unsettled me a bit, not least because I had always assumed that Ulysses would emerge from a rereading process conducted after the acquisition of a reasonable amount of literacy, literary history, and experience with demanding texts (all of which I spectacularly lacked the first time through), a still richer book than I had at first been in a position to appreciate. But in addition to forcing me to redistribute the spoils within my subjective pantheon, this judgment also disturbed a certain equanimity that I had only recently achieved with respect to my readings in contemporary poetry. Having more than a few times veered through bouts of over- and under-estimating the value of the many works being made in the present, I had come to what I hoped was the "mature" position that while bad and boring works undeniably (that is: by a statistically nearly sublime ratio) predominated, it was equally undeniable that the good books published in a given year exceeded the amount of time any even modestly occupied person had to read them in.

The effect of taking Proust's and Joyce's accomplishments as the context in which my reception of contemporary poetry—considered both in terms of individual works and in that more mysterious, and perhaps dubious, sense of "as a whole"—had to unfold was, as I say, initally rather lacerating: even the "good enough" books of my mature formulation (modeled on Fanon's good-enough ancestor, or Winnicott's good-enough mother) dwindled depressingly in this context. Fortunately the effect was temporary, and it was permitted to be so by the nature of reading itself, which, though subject to finitude, is not exactly the zero-sum phenomenon that critics so often make it out to be. To the extent that we have chosen "the meaning of being numerous," as George Oppen decisively put it, over and above our fidelity and devotion to any one book, there will always come a moment when our openness to the unfamiliar text will put our assumptions and prior judgments back in play and back at risk. The "contemporary" is precisely the space in which that openness is exercised.

My first encounters with modern literature were constrained to unfold in the "contemporary" environment of the Reaganite mid-1980s as lived in Southern California (a fact that I mention in order to underscore the generally sound axiom that contexts of reception cannot be foreseen from the standpoint of production/intention). If anything, the society around me was attempting to be either pre-modern (the moral elements of the Reagan agenda) or post-modern (the architecture of downtown San Diego's Horton Plaza is roughly contemporary to my first readings of Proust and Joyce). Within the weave of these plural and antagonistic temporalities, modernist textuality enticed my consciousness into taking it for contemporary.

Of course it has now been many generations (in literary terms, at least five) since modernist texts could be taken for contemporary in a way that the calendar would vouch for. Leaving aside for a moment Gertrude Stein's own useful distrust of her own contemporary's contemporaneity, what I would remark is the empirical fact that our experience of any modernist text is contemporary to all manner of cultural forms unforeseen by even the most presciently emergent (in the special sense given that word by Raymond Williams) of those texts themselves. One way to put this would be to say that we learn to listen to the modern within the contemporary first by acquiring the modern texts within contemporary contexts. But this in turn quickly modulates into another phenomenon, that of listening to the modern text within (as well as alongside of) the contemporary text. To the labor of overcoming historical distance in the acquisition of the modernist text corresponds the labor of overcoming the necessary conflation of present and past that occurs in the course of that very acquisition: both are partial negations destructive of the engulfing presentism of our day, but these labors of historical consciousness face, as it were, in different directions.

Let me put this more concretely, even though in doing so I'll again be testing the reader's patience with the contingencies of my own formation. I can still recall with what labor I struggled to acquire a consciousness that reached as far back as Flaubert, whom I was taught while an undergraduate to consider as the first modernist by writers like Hugh Kenner and Jonathon Culler. (I was reminded of this effort several weeks ago, while listening to Clayton Eshleman discourse on paleolithic cave markings that date back more than 35,000 years—a duration that gives my mind the kind of vertigo that a century's span used to do.)

In retrospect, I believe I was helped to make the imaginative-reconstructive leap to Flaubert—and all the cognate leaps it implied and indeed demanded (those of linguistic and national boundaries not least)—by the presence and activity of the contemporary writers around me. Just as I acquired Joyce prior to—and to this day much more thoroughly than—Homer, so I heard Ron Silliman pastiche the opening lines to Pound's Cantos either just before or not long after having read the "original" (a complicated thing to say about these lines after all). Lorine Niedecker I first heard with and in Rae Armantrout; William Carlos Williams was audible with and in Robert Creeley, who in turn could be heard amidst the other voices that populated Michael Palmer's texts; I was given Marcel Duchamp simultaneously with Bob Grenier (even if I had to miss the latter's reading in order to attend a seminar on the former); André Breton more or less at the same time as Barrett Watten; Velemir Khlebnikov (in Peter Sellar's Los Angeles staging of Zangezi) not long after Steve McCaffery and the Four Horsemen; Georges Bataille with and through Bruce Boone (who was translating him); Gertrude Stein in and with Leslie Scalapino and Lyn Hejinian and Jackson Mac Low; Dada in and with Jerome Rothenberg (whose performance of That Dada Strain to bass accompaniment stands as my first poetry reading). While the academy debated Pound versus Stevens, it was Stein and Louis Zukofsky whose names seemed to be on everyone else's lips, along with H.D. and Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes and Laura Riding, all of whom were at that moment being rediscovered singly and as an ensemble within the larger perspective of the feminist modernism championed most ably and persistently by How(ever), sometimes in dialog with, sometimes in considerable advance of, the scholarly community.

What I'd like the above paragraph to communicate is something of the reciprocal manner in which modern and contemporary texts supplied the conditions for one another's legibility (or to stay with the above figure: audibility) to a given reader in a particular social and institutional context and at a particular time. But the mutual disclosure (here used in neither a mystical nor metaphysical sense) worked by these texts upon one another—beyond giving me the welcome courage to mistrust some of the more stupidly exorbitant claims that traveled along with the concept of postmodernism then current—also set into motion a process of reading that extends into my experience of present-day poetic practice.

Walter Benjamin's remark that only a redeemed humanity would be permitted full access to its own history has always been moving to me—in part because I cannot altogether convince myself of its truth, in part because my desire to find it true seems always able to renew itself in the face of my skepticism. In any case, I believe the observation is valid (if verging on the overly obvious) in the more restricted permutation I would offer here: namely, that the broader one's acquaintance with the range and nuance of modernist textuality, the more numerous and acute one's perceptions of its presence within contemporary poetry will be. I remain here within what has been the standpoint of this essay from the start—that of the reader—and within the assumption that the most consequential engagements will be those in which reciprocal transformation occurs within and between two socio-semantic fields, here very broadly conceived of as "the modern" and "the contemporary."

I want to bring these reflections to a close with a very partial census of the moments, modes, and scales of interaction between these two fields as I've experienced them in recent reading. The moment that interests me the most, because at the time of this writing I know least what to make of it, is that of the microtonal concurrence of a modern poet and a contemporary poet at the phonemic or syllabic level. While reading Pam Rehm's second book, Gone to Earth, for instance, my attention was drawn to her handling of liquid phonemes at the ends of lines, something I had noticed also, just several years earlier in fact, while reading in H.D.'s late trilogy The Walls Do Not Fall. It may be that the presence of Susan Howe's and/or Robert Duncan's example mediates the perception, but it may also be that the phonemic parallel effectively renders contemporary these two writers, H.D. and Rehm, between whom one is then free to look for—or not to look for—parallels of a different, perhaps more systematic and thematic order.

Because I lack a deep acquaintance with the grain of H.D.'s voice—I have heard tape recordings, but not so frequently or recently as to permit me to "hear" her in Rehm's lines—the perception of phonemic recurrence is in this instance fairly abstract: I see it in the alphabetic characters and I hear it, to the extent that I do, in the voice (I hesitate to call it my own) that sounds in my head while I sit to all appearances "silently" reading.

Something different happened this past June while I was reading Geoffrey G. O'Brien's The Guns and Flags Project for the first time. In this instance I had the experience of actually hearing certain of O'Brien's lines in Wallace Steven's voice, known to me from listening repeatedly to a tape I've had for more than a decade. (I should note that I am here collapsing at least two distinct factors into the single term "voice": the physical character of the vocal apparatus and the habits of pacing and phrasing that are more intellectual than somatic—or, as it might be more accurate to say, are an individuating compromise between the intellectual and somatic.) I was a little startled, I admit, upon hearing not just the Stevensian cadence (which is not, in our Stevens appreciative era, all that rare) but very literally Stevens's voice—but I was also charmed and it made me wonder, idly perhaps, what O'Brien's experience of Stevens's voice is, and whether he finds in its intimacy with his own (on the page at least) a cause of comfort, anxiety, or simple matter-of-fact "thereness" (like the physiognomic traits recognized as the basis of one's resemblance to family members).

A last instance of this kind: in the poetic line employed in certain of Austalian poet Pam Brown's poems, soon to be collected under the title Dear Deliria and published by Salt Books, I very distinctly perceive the Williams of the shorter, descriptive poems: the one, for example, in which he records the precise footfalls of his cat as it moves deliberately through his office. The perception doesn't tempt me to view Brown as derivative of Williams (a temptation to which I frequently yield when reading others who have adopted some version of Williams's "easier" modes); rather, I feel as though elements of Williams's voice have been transposed into another register and equipped with another consciousness, one that is savvy, post-68ist, feminist, almost-post-colonial-in-that-Australian-way. As one sees what this new mind, working a familiar-seeming form, can turn up, any doubt that it might be reducible to precedent is quickly dispelled.

Phoneme, cadence, and line are not the only sources of the occasional coming to perception of the modern within the contemporary: sometimes it can occur on the scale of a writer's "stance toward the social" (to adopt a phrase from Olson's "Projective Verse"). Juliana Spahr proposes Stein as a context for her own work's reception through the act of writing intelligently and in a scholarly vein about her, but Charles Reznikoff is at least as audible as Stein in Spahr's earlier works (just as, in an odd way, Olson is coming to be more audible in her recent works interrogating localized knots of power and knowledge). Likewise, my sense of understanding Kevin Davies's first book, Pause Button, depended at least as much on an edition of Kenneth Fearing's works that came into my hands not long after reading Davies as it did upon being initiated into the vicissitudes of the Kootenay School of Writings and Davies's inhabitation of its "left-Spicerian" wing.

Remaining with the topic of poetic schools for a moment, it has been remarkable to witness in the past half decade or so the emergence (or resurgence, depending on how you historicize the region) of Northern Californian (by way of Iowa City) Surrealism in the pages of magazines like Brian Lucas's Angle and Jeff Clark's Faucheuse and first volumes like Clark's The Little Drawer Slides Back and The Garrett Caples Reader. The sifting of contemporary West Coast experience through the formal extravagances and convulsive beauties of first-wave European surrealism transforms reciprocally the meaning of both (even while leaving intact, it would seem on evidence to date, much of the programmatic sexism of the earlier grouping).

The dialectic proposed here—between the modern and the contemporary as horizons for one another's interpretation and evaluation—can open a process of reciprocal critique capable of valuably contributing to the ongoing, and to my mind indispensable, interrogation of what constitutes the radical in poetic practice. The regulative ideals, to speak like a Habermasian for a moment, of at least certain fractions of the various modernist and avant-gardist movements at the start of the last century still stand in a critically transcendent relationship to the conformist poetics that are best rewarded in the present day: for their anti-capitalism, for their critique of instrumental reason, for their attempts at inter- and para-nationalism, for their insistence upon embodiment and sensual enjoyment, for their imaginative combating of the racist and imperial imagination, those early radicals stand in as sharply critical a relationship to us as we—who might be said to be more genuinely egalitarian, less sexist and homophobic, with some progress, though not much, having been made in desegregating and decolonizing the mind, and also with the superiority of hindsight and in the tenuous possession of the fruits of other people's struggles—might stand toward them.

But it is not, finally, just the reciprocal action of modern and contemporary "regulative ideals" (which pertain to moral and political life much more directly than to aesthetic experience in any case) that concerns me here: it is the reciprocal, and often minute-seeming, transformations worked upon consciousness when one hears modern textuality within—that is: both with and in—the contemporary text. It isn't much, really, this hearing of one in the other. I can even imagine it being dismissively punted into the ether of "intertextuality." But in an society that is trapped in a cocoon of continuous presence and that envisions itself as happily post-literate, this rustling—not just of Pound's old men's voices, but of all the voices that discharged their messages into the conflictual space of modernist textuality—strikes me as worth listening to. The measure of our contemporary poetry is our modernist poetry; the measure of our modernist poetry is our contemporary poetry. What we settle for in either, we settle for in both—and what we demand in either, we'll get in both.

back to ensembleback to index