Friday, December 08, 2006

Some Like It Hot

I’ve been interested in the discussion among Mark, Eric, Josh and others about immersive vs. anti-absorptive literature. I think those terms originated in Charles Bernstein’s essay “Artifice of Absorption,” where he defines the terms this way:

By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie,
attention intensification, rhapsodic, spellbinding,
mesmerizing, hypnotic, total, riveting,
enthralling: belief, conviction, silence.

Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,

In other words, “absorptive” literature values all those qualities “prized” in “mainstream” “art”: “What a spellbinding novel!” As Susan Schultz says in her essay “Postmodern Promos,” “one cannot ‘get lost’ in a Language poem the way one can get lost in a Harlequin romance.”

The terms immersive and anti-absorptive capture just what I’ve been trying to articulate in a couple of earlier posts here, e.g., “I think there’s a difference between poetry that makes the commitment of entering its own world—whatever that world may be—and poetry that keeps its distance.” Obviously I have a different perspective, though, as I am praising the very immersion that others criticize. Of course it’s easy to see the point of the criticism, the value of writing that forces us out of our comfort zone (as opposed to a mystery or romance we immerse ourselves in like a warm bath). And yet, and yet … I can’t help feeling that criticism of immersion conceals a fear of immersing oneself in life itself, a fear of commitment. Not to mention fear of sexuality, fear of eros, fear of romance, Harlequin or not. Sure, when you take your kids to the park to play on the swings, it’s good to be meta-aware of all the sociological and class implications of what you’re doing. On the other hand, at a certain point doesn’t all that awareness become an excuse to maintain a safe and ironic distance from your own children?

The distinction between immersive and anti-absorptive may be post-postmodern, but it goes back all the way to Plato, the sort of smugness Plato seemed to have—all the time he was praising Socrates he was quietly arguing the superiority of his writing to Socrates’ speaking, the superiority of written literature to oral poetry, for precisely the reasons that writers now criticize immersive work: it encourages the listener to be passively entertained rather than an active and critical participant in the work.

Mark et al. talk about Roland Barthes’ distinction between the “readerly” and the “writerly,” and that seems exactly to the point: immersive literature is readerly and anti-absorptive is writerly. I wish I could remember what poet I was reading recently who talked about the crucial turning point in his writing that came when he realized he was not even writing the sort of poems he wanted to read. Isn't there something very curious about this fear of the terrible bourgeois corruption that will result if the writer ever dares to get into bed with the reader and share some pleasure? It seems to hide a writer’s contempt for the reader within himself, or within herself, as well as for the readers in the world.


Diane K. Martin said...

Oh, God, I read this post earlier this afternoon, then I left to go work out. While I was working out I thought of all the things I wanted to -- needed to -- say. And then I drove back in the dark and fed the pooch and fed myself -- and can I rethink my way through this again?

I should start by saying that for the most part I like the same poems Robert does, or at least there's a middle ground we both strongly agree on. I also have a distaste for all the rhetoric on the Lang-Po side -- its holier-than-thouness, its cliquishness, its pseudo intellectuality. But (you knew there would be a but), I think this immersion argument is flawed.

It's flawed, IMHO, for two reasons, one is its logic, and the other is its result. As to logic, well, it doesn't make any sense to compare a poem to a novel (I know you didn't start that, Robert.) With very few exceptions, poems don't have the length of the novel -- or even, usually, the short story. For that kind of immersive depth, you need length. So the poem is, instead of the bath or the hot tub, a shower. Having the length to work with, the novel creates characters we can identiry with, puts them in situations we can relate to. The poem, even the narrative poem, even the long narrative poem work on that kind of canvas.

And then I worry too about the effect of choosing readerly over writerly. I know, Robert, you didn't mean simply choosing simple over difficult, but that could be the result of that decision. As a freshman in college, I was asked to choose between Frost and Eliot on the final exam in my Modern Poetry class. I chose Frost and got a D, and deserved a D because I chose out of fear and laziness. There's nothing wrong with preferring Frost (well, maybe) but it would be wrong to not experience Eliot because he is difficult.

However, I draw the line at ... okay, I won't go there tonight.

Diane K. Martin said...

I meant "The poem, even the narrative poem, even the long narrative poem don'twork on that kind of canvas (of course).

Robert said...

I would disagree about length, Diane. When Emily Dickinson says "I heard a fly buzz when I died," we are immersed in that deathbed room despite the brevity of the poem.

I guess I would disagree about Eliot and Frost, too! Part of what makes the Modernists great (and difficult) is that we are immersed in Joyce's Dublin and Eliot's London. You could even say that Eliot's Waste Land immerses us in King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail. The Modernists and Postmodernists are both challenging reading, but the issue of immersion may be what distinguishes them.

I came to Frost, I think, by the road less traveled. I more or less grew up reading Joyce and Pound and Eliot because I was just too cool to read Frost. I only read poems like Frost's "Home Burial" many years later and belatedly realized, Damn, this is good shit!

Beverly said...

I did my M.A. in Lit during the New Criticism regime also and also strongly preferred Eliot (did my thesis on Eliot as a matter of fact, "Burnt Norton"). I wonder about these distinctions though--and again why be insistent on making things either or?

You can like both Frost and Eliot--the two of you do! You can become immersed in something that is initially difficult to enter. Learning how to enter is what comes with more reading. You can come to love best the literature that excels in being both writerly and readerly simultaneously if you have loosened those barriers enough.

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, I don't want to belabor the point, but, as I said to Robert offline, "I think that the difference between the modernists and post-modernists in that area is one of degree. And I think prose and poetry by nature require different kinds of involvement." Different kinds of immersion.

But, if you're saying that the poet has to make the reader care, I can't agree with you more. Now that's a matter of degree too! I want to seduce the reader in, but I'll only go so far ...

Anonymous said...

"You can become immersed in something that is initially difficult to enter. Learning how to enter is what comes with more reading. You can come to love best the literature that excels in being both writerly and readerly simultaneously if you have loosened those barriers enough."

That is very well put. All I ask of the "difficult" work is that it provide *some* entrance for me, whether it be sarcasm, prosody, or beauty, or some undefinable thing. To pick up on Diane K. Martin's metaphor, if the text wants to seduce me, it has to offer me *something* that will get me interested in responding. If it just sits at the bar and nurses its difficult beer, I won't even notice that seduction is what it's after.

Robert said...

I agree about wanting both the readerly and the writerly simultaneously. Does it sound as if I want everyone to write Gone With the Wind in verse? I hope not! My point was that the contrasts between readerly and writerly, and between immersive and anti-absorptive, seem a whole lot more useful (and less biased--think "School of Quietude"!) than most other terms I've heard. At the same time, most people who use these terms do seem to want a poetry that is pure, purged of any taint of the readerly (though they may be more tolerant of fiction and film), so I thought maybe someone should defend the value of immersion for a change.