ONE MORE LOOK AT ALABAMA

“Stars fell on Alabama”   –Old song

As promised, here’s the Final Part 5 report on the Alabama ‘What Is Poetry?‘ conference which took place 25 years ago in October.  

What happened at that October 1984  conference, exactly? 

The old guard– Ignatow, Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler–won the battle, but lost the war.

The Language Poetry team, led by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff,  scored almost no rhetorical points, and were even humiliated several times in the final group panel discussion.

Charles Bernstein was asked to “name names” of “policemen-poets” running “official verse culture” and could only sheepishly come up with one: T.S. Eliot.  Denise Levertov, with political guns blazing, said Bernstein’s concern for “official verse culture” was parochial and small-minded.  Unable to specify what made her outsider position important or unique, Marjorie Perloff was painted into a corner by Louis Simpson.  At one point Vendler said, to applause, “If you look at the statistics of dissertations done and M.A. theses done all across the face of America today, you will find that overwhelmingly they are done in twentieth-century studies, and the past is in danger of being forgotten altogether by the English departments.”

However, just sharing the stage with the status quo helped Bernstein and Perloff.   In a major capitulation to the barbarians, Helen Vendler conceded a huge point to Bernstein, explicitly agreeing with him that poetry makes language “opaque” and “problematic.” 

Well.

Poetry does not make language “problematic.” 

Poetry does the reverse; poetry overcomes the “problematic” aspect of language—this is why it is poetry! 

But don’t tell that to Vendler or Bernstein, champions of Art’s for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry, respectively.  

Art for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry would seem to be miles apart, but they’re not, actually.  

Both schools are more concerned with “How poetry tells us” than “What poetry tells us.” 

Vendler’s modernism really has little trouble fitting into Bernstein’s post-modernism.  

Erudition for its own sake will suffer from pedantry. 

But even worse than the old-fashioned pedantry—which once characterized the absent-minded English professor of old–is the erudition which attaches itself to a program, to a theoretical framework.  Free and open inquiry may thrive in a pedantic morass, but it never thrives when ideology stacks the deck.  Ideology turns erudition into a monster.

No one can accuse Vendler of being ideological—and this is precisely why her surrender to Bernstein is so harmful.  She did not surrender to his ideology, per se.  She generously and unconsciously abetted post-modernism because she found it intellectually pleasing to find how easily her modernism fit into Bernstein’s post-modernism.

Modernism decided to make poetry “problematic” or “difficult” (T.S. Eliot first ascribed the term “difficult” to modern poetry) in response to all sorts of issues, which, looking back, seem manufactured in light of a certain pessimism bearing down on the age, a heady manifesto-ism in general, and Eliot’s intuitive push towards the erudite and learned.  It was natural for this journey down “Problematic Lane” to lead from the opaque coyness of Wallace Stevens to the utter madness of LANGUAGE poetry.  

Bernstein’s intellectual legacy traces through Stanley Cavell, who was Bernstein’s mentor at Harvard, to J.L. Austin, a member of British Intelligence, who was Cavell’s Harvard professor.

Austin was a Moral Philosopher at Oxford who specialized in language, coining the term “speech acts” to describe speech as action–as opposed to speech as a mere passive agent of description.  Already we can see that—for this school of analytic philosophy—there is no speech which is not opaque and problematic—all speech is shot through with motive and desire, not just poetry.  Vendler, therefore, by conceding that poetry’s role was to “problematize language” was coming over to Bernstein’s turf and surrendering to him without a fight.

‘French theory’ did not only come from France.  It came from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It came from Bloomsbury. (See G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.)  Modernism and post-modernism have the same parent and are the same age.  Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein are puppies of the same litter.

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