by Mark Kerstetter
Art critic and novelist Michael Welzenbach wrote in his wonderful book Conversations with a Clown that, of all of the arts, painting is the most complex. It got me to thinking that the claim is more suited to the language arts. One might begin by saying,
The unique complexity of language arts is rooted to a blindness of their aesthetics due to the commonness of language. We use language in speech and in all kinds of written discourses to convey all kinds of information, but also to make art and essays about all kinds of art. The unique complexity of language arts comes out of the medium’s existence as at once mundane and unimaginably flexible.
So connected in the mind is the relationship of language to context-dependent meaning, to the conveying of information, that a work of language art that does not do this is treated with a deeper more disquieting suspicion than unconventional art in other media. Indeed, it is almost nonsensical today to use the phrase “unconventional art” except as applied to language arts. It has long been the case that people expect the visual arts to be weird. We are far from the days of scandal and protest. Even so dismissals such as “my kid could do that!” or “that’s not art!” persist. Some still manage to be offended by free improvisational music. But if the former are often made out of amusement, and the latter annoyance (“It’s just noise!”) the suspicions leveled against weird language art are something else. This is a suspicion of something which is possibly threatening, possibly subversive. It is one thing to make sounds which skirt all known boundaries of melody and rhythm. It is quite another thing to disregard the conventions of language. Is the person even speaking? Are they thinking? Are they sane?
We associate proper language with rationality. Therefore non-rational language art can simply be dismissed as “nonsense”. But if we are asked to take it seriously what do we say of it? To write an essay about a work of non-rational language art is to use the same medium as the artist. Yes, one reminds one’s self that the use of art and the use of essay are two distinct uses of the medium, but those reminders creep in and get entangled, threatening to pull the wise essayist into the wild deep. Yes, that poem is a mighty fish, taking the poor critic for a ride. The fact is, the essayist may not simply remind himself in silence, or even once, but this reminding—that the poem and its analysis are two distinct uses of language—underlies the whole endeavor like a shadow. And what does one say about a text which combines normative with weird language? Art threatens the essay the way madness threatens reason. Why else is the most common stance of the essayist to play master, to be the one in control, the one who explains, who shines a light into the artist’s blind spots? Because to not do so already looks like concession, a relinquishment, to some degree, of the normative use of language and thus of the possibility of making one’s self understood.
Nothing is more dismissive of weird language art than the designation “experimental writing”. By labeling the text at hand as such one renders it harmless before one has said another word about it. And any positive value that the text might have is only that which is restored to it by the authority of the critic. The very power of the phrase is seen in the offhand manner with which it is thrown around. The function of the word “experimental” is to render the unwieldy and weird text inert and impotent, like a lab specimen, to stifle the mode of inquiry that the text gives rise to. Its effect is to shut the text down, like turning a machine off. The beast is only safe with a spear through its heart. Since it is not turned on, not moving, it is not doing what it is supposed to do, and the reader has no more sense of it than a visitor has a sense of a great stuffed grizzly frozen behind plexiglass. This inert thing sure looks puzzling. Guess who holds the key? In consequence a daunting new difficulty is added to a text that by its very nature challenges the reader. Well, you see, he is told, it’s experimental.
But all works of art are experiments if they are seen as lines of inquiry or as particular responses to problems posed by society and by other works. A novel is the elaboration of an experimental self: such a character will respond in such a way to such a set of problems. A fiction is a hypothetical life, a novel is a rehearsal for an imagined state of affairs. This situation does not exist, but it could; the “could” places it in the realm of the experimental. What the critic does when she singles out a given work as “experimental” is two-fold: first, she ignores the fact that all literary works are experiments. Second, she casts the integrity of the work in question by saying, in effect, it is that much more an experiment than other works, that much more capable of failure. In fact the designation “experimental” almost assumes an aspect of failure.
Daphne Merkin’s review of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband reveals a prejudice for normative language in poetry. She flatly asserts that “the enterprise of poetry has become almost willfully insular” and that Carson “sometimes seems lost in an enterprise of her own devising.” That sounds like saying Carson is lost in her own mind, which sounds like a description of madness. Carson will write a poem as if it were an essay, an essay as if it were a poem; she weaves Dickinson and Saint Augustine together into a single text; she places a poem that is suggestive, visionary, enigmatic, next to one that is analytical; she sketches great narratives with a few lines, and she reveals the way in which a poet, writing over a thousand years ago, is a contemporary radical. She makes the old appear new and the new appear classical. What, today, seems more new? At one time Emily Dickinson seemed new. When her poems were presented to the world a little over one hundred years ago, her friends and editors were sure to caution the reader that they were not written with publication in mind. Had they been they would not have “inevitably forfeit[ed] whatever advantage lies in the discipline of public criticism and the enforced conformity to accepted ways.” 1 Comparing her work to some of her contemporaries, Mabel Loomis Todd wrote, “Like impressionist pictures, or Wagner’s rugged music, the very absence of conventional form challenges attention.” 2 In the edition from 1948, Carl Van Doren reminds the reader again that Dickinson “did not round them out into accepted forms of verse.” 3 Today such comments are historical anecdotes. Dickinson has become classic. Yet to those, like Carson, who know how to read, Dickinson is still a wild beast. Indeed, Dickinson’s poems, exactly the way she wrote them, do not seem to be the versions most commonly read today.
Making it new is one of the things we expect of artists and by responding in hypothetical ways to contemporary challenges, how can writers fail to be experimenters? Must the twentieth century battles of the avant-gardes be fought and re-fought, then fought again? Haven’t the achievements of the modern era permitted Anne Carson to adopt a variety of styles, forms and voices without anyone raising an eyebrow? Hasn’t all this been settled? Alas, no.
I do not propose the question to diminish the challenges that writers such as Carson offer. It is asked in the same spirit that Milan Kundera said that Diderot and Sterne
were the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel….When I hear learned arguments that the novel has exhausted its possibilities, I have precisely the opposite feeling: In the course of its history the novel missed many of its possibilities. 4
—remembering that the “greatest experimenters” were two founders of the novel. Isn’t it curious that Anne Carson can be perceived as insular when one of her most dramatic effects is to present the new moment of today’s poem as, not merely equivalent, but as essentially the same moment as that of an ancient poem, a classical poem? This experience helps sweep the table clean of the last crumbs of oppressive notions of the avant-garde; it is a new concept of the new.
If we follow this new feeling, and ask in a broad kind of way why the possibilities that Kundera cites have been missed, one answer that offers itself is the blindness to the aesthetic potentials of language due to a prejudice for its normative uses.
The bias is easy to understand. So much so that it is a little odd to even acknowledge it, but acknowledge it we must, since a receptivity to the aesthetic potentials of language requires one to look at language as if it were a weird thing, an untamed beast. From this perspective, the purest form of language art is indeed outside the norm. No full and rich sense of language as art is possible without an open mind to this art. Why then the resistance, even amongst writers, who should know better?
Perhaps part of the answer can be glimpsed by taking a look at Kurt Schwitters. In 1920 he wrote, “I pity nonsense because it has been so neglected.” 5 It is fair to say that by now quite a bit of attention has been paid to it so that one feels that a good deal of sense is welcome. But if some of Schwitters’ texts fizzled out in weak frivolity—too much nonsense—much of today’s poetry and fiction limps along with cumbersome textual attachments designed to make sure that the norms of language are given their proper due. It’s a dull-sounding truism to say that weird language art is meaningless without normative language as a contrast. But it would be a mistake not to recognize that normative language is dead without the life-force of its opposite to infuse it with the energy of new ideas. A conversation between the two is vital. The great writers of today are those, like Carson, who can combine the two primary forms of language into a single text. They are the great experimenters.
1. T. W. Higginson, Editor of Emily Dickinson Poems (The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1948), 23
2. Ibid. 125
3. Ibid 16
4. Milan Kundera, Afterword to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Penguin Books, 1981), 231. See also Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Grove Press, New York, 1986) 15
5. Kurt Schwitters, PPPPPP (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993) 215.
Mark Kerstetter is restoring a house in Florida, where he writes poetry, fiction and essays and makes art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites.