against strong emotion…

September 30, 2016

track

The under-examined bone of contention in today’s poetry is the value of affect in art. More and more poets are suspicious of lyrical expression and devote themselves to emotionally neutral methods. The representation of affects—feelings that are often either transports or afflictions—has been increasingly muted in American and European art since the 1960s. Vehemence of feeling nonplusses the modern personality, a hostage to ambiguity and irony.

This turn against strong emotion leaves much at stake. Writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan — thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself—neglect life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats. The new cerebral writing implies that the conceiving head is superior to the intuitive heart, to use the old words. It reinstates the ages-long assumption of the supremacy of culture over biology, the scheme that modern art and thought, as José Ortega y Gasset argued in The Modern Theme (1931), set out to overturn with pagan gusto.

But this cerebral poetry does its work in a period when the old assumption that culture could be progressive is dead. It is thus devoted to ruins. It is reactionary at the same time that its alliance with digital technologies—technologies that facilitate copying, sampling, and remixing; that “float” documents and make them seem up for grabs—gives it the lure of being very “now.” As an effort to form an avant-garde, “head” poetry thus diverges sharply from the disruptive-to-revolutionary aesthetic and political aims that characterized the early 20th century avant-gardes.

Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favour of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.

Calvin Bedient

Against Conceptualism
Defending the Poetry of Affect

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