Baroque Nation

Poetry is nation-building by other means, a shadow government that arises wherever a people is denied access to its own institutions, cut off from its own powers, its very language de-authorized. Yeats and his compatriots in Ireland before (and perhaps even more crucially, after) independence; Akhmatova in the Soviet Union quietly defying Stalin; the vast and complex tradition of poetry and anti-poetry in Latin America that has led to the murder and disappearance of poets who dared to represent the people against the power of the state. In this country poetry on the page hasn't often played this role, but rap and spoken word has. Chuck D called rap "CNN for black people" and an album like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly lives up beautifully and painfully to this charge. Look at the cover, in which one of the most marginal and vulnerable groups in America--young black men--have taken over the White House lawn with fistfuls of Franklins, while a John Roberts-type lies cartoonishly KO'ed in the foreground and the White House--whose black occupant just owned his "anger translator" in front of the largely white audience that can't or won't hear that anger, that reduces the burning of Baltimore to the action of "thugs" and not the predictable response to the slow violence that has been grinding Baltimore's poor black population down for the past fifty years. 

The album itself is angrily, emphatically, gloriously baroque: excessive, combinatory, enfolding layer upon layer of black musical history in every groove, talking back to it, culminating in a quasi-imaginary interview between Lamar and his hero Tupac. And it meats the Yeatsian standard for poetry: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Lamar's album has hit me hard, as few albums do, because of that dialogic, self-confronting quality that I associate with the strongest lyric poetry, going back at least as far as the English Metaphysicals--that is to say, poets of the Baroque period as it expressed itself in England: Herbert, Marvell, Donne. It rewards re-listening. I'm listening to it right now.

The Baroque is in the air. Eight years ago I wrote a little essay called "Notes Toward the Postmodern Baroque" in which I explored the Baroque's art-historical origins as a kind of propaganda effort of the Counter-Reformation that, by its excess, tends to subvert the very ideology that sponsors it, the ideology that the art is supposed to legitimate. I go on to say that, now that the legitimation function has been detached from poetry, we have gone beyond a Habermasian "legitimation crisis" into a crisis of legitimation itself. Here's the central paragraph:

Today we are living through another legitimation crisis, or to speak more accurately, a crisis of legitimation. The right-wing reaction to the liberation movements of the 1960s has pulsed like a shockwave through our society, opening an unprecedented rift between politics and culture that continues to widen. As Andrew Joron has remarked, “Here in America... ‘culture’ has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media. Any ‘legitimation function’ would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace” (Fathom 18). Increasingly, it seems that the forces of capitalism no longer even need the carapace of politics, let alone culture.  For confirmation of this we need only glance at the Riefenstahlian spectacle of George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, which the speed of events transformed almost overnight into a dialectical image of the man’s hubris and haplessness. And yet the war machine marches on unfazed, sustained as it is by a subtly self-distributed myth of accumulation and enclosure that retains all the mystification of myth while discarding its traditional forms. 

Look at that album cover again: a "riot" or should I say a mattering of black male bodies (#BlackLivesMatter) almost obscuring the symbol of legitimate democratic government, a symbol (and a government) that has been badly undermined by relentless racist opposition to its lawfully elected occupant, Barack Obama. It's a dialectical image, representing the greatest fears of white supremacists but also calling into question the adequacy of our existing institutions when confronted with the structural violence and rapacity of our society. Can poetry--written poetry, poetry on the page--ever top this? Should it even try?

Last year, Steve Burt wrote a review-essay in Boston Review called "Nearly Baroque," which was then critiqued by various posters on the Montevidayo blog, partly for its provincialism (Lucas de Lima takes Burt to task for participating in "the dislocating flows of neoliberal global capital and its digitalized erosion of nationhood and national literature") and partly for his vaguely Protestant emphasis on the values of rigor and restraint (Johannes Göransson asks bluntly, "Is the 'Baroque' Tasteless?"). The constellation of neo-Baroque poets invoked by the Montevidayans is certainly more diverse and cosmopolitan than the American-only list of poets that Burt treats in his essay, and I think they are also right to question how Burt's "nearly baroque" evades the role of kitsch and camp in this poetry. But I do love how he applies the label "femme" to this poetry in remarking its ornamental qualities, its celebration of artifice, and some of the poets he mentions, especially Geoffrey Nutter and Robyn Schiff, are among my favorites working today. Probably the last paragraph of his piece is most relevant to what I'm trying to feel out here, and I'm going to go ahead and quote it:

I have been trying to recommend these poets: I admire them very much. Yet I have also been laying out, almost despite myself, a way to read them skeptically, as symptoms of a literary culture that has lasted too long, stayed too late. Engagé readers might say that the nearly Baroque celebrates, and invites us to critique, a kind of last-gasp, absurdist humanism. We value what has no immediate use in order to avoid becoming machine parts, or illustrations for radical arguments, or pawns for something larger, whether it is existing institutions or a notional revolution. And we must keep moving, keep making discoveries, as the scenes and lines and similes of the nearly Baroque poem keep moving, because if we stop we will see how bad—how intellectually untenable, how selfish, or how pointless—our position really is. The same suspicious readers might say that these nearly Baroque poems bring to the surface questions about all elite or non-commercial or extravagant art: Is it a waste? What does it waste? Can it ever get away from the violence required, if not to produce it, then to produce the society—yours and mine—prepared to enjoy it? The rococo is the art of an ancien régime: it may be that the nearly Baroque poetry of our own day calls our regime ancien as well. It does not pretend to predict what could replace it.

Burt's argument for--and here, against--the "nearly Baroque" or "almost rococo" hinges on a conception of this elaborate and ornamental poetry as a conquest of the useless that paradoxically evades poetry's uselessness, or any notions of the useful, so we won't discover "how bad... our position really is." I'm not sure that's an adequate description of either Schiff's or Nutter's poetry: Schiff is not only formally inventive but concerned with the deep histories of objects in an at-least Benjaminian way, while the elegiac qualities of the Nutter poem that Burt quotes, "Purple Martin," are to my ear sharply and self-accusingly ironic, and smartly engaged with both the liberatory and fascist dimensions of Heidegger's philosophy.

But this may matter less than Burt's incisive question about "the violence required, if not to produce [this poetry], then to produce the society--yours and mine--prepared to enjoy it?" There is, first of all, a kind of violence done in postmodern Baroque poetry (I prefer this term, as hackneyed as it is, to Burt's overcute coinages "nearly Baroque" or "Baroque Baroque"), directed at the anti-eloquent plain speaking English that dogs and cats can read that in its hegemony over our culture wipes out nuance, difference, and the sites in which either historical memory or the genuinely new are most likely to emerge. That violence can be directed inside the poem, at the lyric self itself, as in the work of Finnish poet Tytti Heikkinen that Burt discusses in a more recent review-essay, "Poems About Poems," or in the work of poets associated with the Gurlesque--the violent femmes of the postmodern Baroque. It might also be a prophylactic violence, the both-ways violence Burt describes in the same essay when discussing Daniel Borzutzky's The Book of Interfering Bodies. But more disturbing is the implication that our enjoyment of the postmodern Baroque is an enjoyment of the very structural violence that this poetry seeks to take refuge from. The unappetizing alternatives appear to be a Baroque that renders violence spectacular and consumable (Caravaggio-style) or a Baroque conditioned by the violence it conceals and evades.

Discussing Borzutzky's work Burt soberly remarks that "We may want poetry to do what it cannot do, to perform a magic in which we no longer believe or a political efficacy that no longer makes sense," before going on to remark that in his poems, "we are brought up short and discover that poetry is the despised Other of more consequential textual forms such as the PowerPoint slideshow." More consequential, not more legitimate--PowerPoint is the language of power (I am reminded of articles in the New York Times a few years back about how the limitations of PowerPoint as a medium may have led to some of the costlier decisions made by the American military--I imagine each and every proposed drone strike is PowerPointed, so as to pre-empt every consideration of what might otherwise escape such euphemisms as "civilian casualties"). It seems to me that culture is not, in the end, separable from its legitimation function--for how else except through culture do we come to recognize or critique our own values?--and the crisis is indeed centered on the assumption that our institutions can somehow run on autopilot, no matter how obstructed (on the legislative level), or detached from everyday life (as in the farce of our presidential politics, parodied by non-events like Hillary Clinton's Chipotle visit), or deeply structured by repression (how can we "reform" the police when their actions merely express the consequences of the white majority's refusal to recognize the humanity of dark-skinned people?).

In its excesses the postmodern Baroque can theatricalize poetry's abjection, and help us to recognize our own abjection--as citizens, as marginalized bodies. It can also, in spite of everything, make a place for beauty--not a resigned, detached, or decadent beauty but a complex beauty that never says or celebrates anything without putting that thing, and the self's relation to it, into question. It is the other of power, but not of politics, because politics happens when people organize--on any level, including the level of language--and direct that organization--call it Blake's organized innocence--against the hollowness of power. If revealing the nakedness of the emperor does not, in this historical moment, diminish one whit the emperor's control of the war machine--and that is a terrifying and deeply uncomfortable truth--it is nevertheless necessary to the imagination of alternatives. Including, most simply and radically, the imagination of alternative relations to our own selves, as more complex, more thoughtful, more diverse, more perverse, more impoverished, and more capable of forging connections than we might otherwise ever have realized.

A much-bandied quote of the moment is Martin Luther King Jr.'s "A riot is the language of the unheard." We condemn riots for their violence, especially their violence to property, and yet a riot--or an uprising--has the potential, the barest potential to be heard (as opposed to processed as spectacle, which is what the mainstream networks have been busily doing, putting the riot's historical rootedness on mute). And that capacity to be heard is rooted in excess, in moments of beauty as in the image above, as well as in the more distasteful and horrifying moments that are inseparable from the beauty. The postmodern Baroque, in poetry and out of it, has the capacity for making these connections, rendering them legible, if not legitimate.