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Postmodernist Poetry's "Blue Period".

Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work

by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. 302 pages

If one wanted to make such distinctions in the face of a collection that flaunts its cross-generic status, one might note that Rachel Blau DuPlessis has distinguished herself in at least three types of writing. She is a celebrated academic literary scholar, author of Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers; H.D.:The Career of That Struggle; and Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry. She is an innovative poet working in a postmodernist idiom, her most notable work surely the ongoing serial poem Drafts, three volumes of which are now in print: Drafts 1 - 38, Toll; Drafts. Drafts 39- 57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Precis; and Torque: Drafts 58 - 76. And she has written many pieces that she calls essays, nonfictional critical and analytical writings that incorporate the formal strategies of her poetry, and in which she never shies away from the first person. The oft-cited "For the Etruscans," a breakthrough text for DuPlessis, is the best known of these essays, first collected in 1990 in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. Blue Studios, then, is a sequel to The Pink Guitar, a new collection of essays in the etymological sense of forays or attempts--twelve attempts at definition and clarification that themselves resist any definitional or pigeonholing impulses the reader might bring to them.

The University of Alabama Press, in conjunction with the publication of Blue Studios, has reissued The Pink Guitar as well. Both books are included in the press's Modern and Contemporary Poetics series, which in the 10 years since its inception in 1998 has issued works of conventional literary criticism and scholarship as well as the collected occasional prose of such poets as Rosmarie Waldrop, Lorenzo Thomas, and Jerome Rothenberg, anthologies of avant-garde Southern and African American poetry, and a wide range of writing that falls under the rubric of poetics. Save for the anthology, there's a little bit of each of these genres in Blue Studios. The pieces are grouped into four sections: "Attitudes and Practices" (three pieces on the genre of the essay itself and its place in DuPlessis's feminist writing practice); "Marble Paper" (three on literary history, broadly defined); "Urrealism" (three detailed readings of individual poets); and "Migrated Into" (three reflections on the poetics and progress of Drafts).
 "Blue Studio," DuPlessis explains at the outset,
   is a pensive work site where a new world is hoped and an old can
   interrupt this hope. Thus it is a place of conflict and cross
   motives. Blue Studio is particularly a metaphor for working through
   negativity, an idea that threads through this book.

Blue is at once the Utopian poetic azure of Mallarme and a dreary, defeated state of mind--the blues. These layered cultural associations of the word, for DuPlessis, are full of private associations in addition to implications about gender:
  I began blue--as a Blau. This onomastic word offered me a talismanic
  color, and insofar as adults have such colors, it remains one. These
  essays negotiate a border between patriarchal culture and
  postpatriarchal culture--a Utopian blueness in which the "blue"
  that is for "boys" crosses with my family name of origin. (1)

While many academic writers allow themselves autobiographical flourishes like this in introductions to their books (or, more often, in prefaces), DuPlessis maintains this mixture of registers throughout Blue Studios. Her style is personal, always self-reflexively grounded in her experience of reading and thinking. She does not shy away from playfulness in the form of puns and etymological games or from formal extravagances such as passages of lineated verse; and she offers both theoretical sophistication and a hard-nosed critical edge. She is, in short, doubly committed to complex formal analysis and ideological assessment. It's an all-too-rare combination to find in the writings of a literary scholar, and almost as rare to find in an essayist.

The informal essay holds a tenuous place among academic discourses. Its exploratory nature, refusal to structure itself around clear-cut theses, and open embrace of the first person--the essayist's voice--have largely made it suspect in a discipline that spent much of the last century trying to establish itself as objective. Nonetheless, critics and theorists inspired by such writers as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Edward Said, and Theodor Adorno continue to explore the essay form. The latest attempt to cordon off the energies of the essay has been through the establishment of creative nonfiction tracks in creative writing programs. Here the essay has all too often been tamed into a personal rumination or memoir. What is lost to literary studies when the essay is thus dismissed is any clear sense of the analytical power of the form, the way the explicitly declared first person can serve as a powerful fulcrum for untangling the relationships among social structures, personal histories, and aesthetic achievements.

DuPlessis has done a good deal of thinking about the essay form and about her own particular variations on it. The introduction and first three chapters of Blue Studios ("Attitudes and Practices") present a number of explanations and manifesto-like justifications of her essay writing. "The post-patriarchal essay," she argues in the introduction,
  offers a method of thought and an ethical attitude, not simply a
  style or a rhetorical choice. It is a method of the passionate,
  curious, multiple-vectored, personable, and invested discussion, as
  if a person thinking were simply talking in the studio of
  speculation, grief, and Utopia. Essays can break the normalizing
  dichotomy between discursive and imaginative writing, between the
  analytic and the creative. (3)

In "Reader, I Married Me: Becoming a Feminist Critic," an exhilarating account of her own growing political awareness, DuPlessis describes the palimpsestic essay form in "For the Etruscans" as "sensuous theorizing":
  If I choose to create desire, attention, loose ends, and an endless
  intersubjectivity between others as equals (undoing "the" binary),
  then I am putting a little bit of Utopian change into writing. The
  essay is antipatriarchal writing as a method of investigation and
an instrument for change. (28)

According to DuPlessis, the essay should be able to avoid both the impersonality or spurious objectivity of conventional academic writing and self-centered monovocality, the empty valorization of personal voice:
  The essay expresses community, even when apparently singular,
  and hence allows us to apprehend communitarian yearnings via what
  seems to be a private play of thought. Far from being exercises in
  narcissism, in gaining a personal voice, essays are practices in
  multiplicity, in polyvocality, in other opinions intercutting, in
  heterogeneous, faceted perspectives. In short, essays are not a way
  of "gaining a voice" but of losing one in the largeness of something
  else. (42)

For DuPlessis, then, the essay is a fundamentally political writing, one that promotes "community" over the personal, "polyvocality" over the singular. But is there a necessary, an inherent connection between the forms taken by UuPlessis's nonfictional writings and her gendered political stance? Is such writing as "For the Etruscans" and the other essays gathered in The Pink Guitar and Blue Studios somehow inherently feminine, in the sense that term has accrued from French feminist thought? While DuPlessis always identifies herself as a feminist and presents her essays as part of a feminist counterhegemonic practice--"For Blue Studios there is no way to be 'postfeminist'" (7)--she is suspicious of the easy identification of her writing with an ecriture feminine, a feminine writing whose formal heterodoxy is inherently liberating:
  The reason it has been blinding to call a certain rhetoric "feminine"
  is that it seems to credit our gender (speaking as Herself) with a
  style disruptive of hegemony. Yet it is not impossible (and can be
  seen, for example, in some of Charles Olson's essays) that this
  radical, rousing style can be coupled with ancient, patriarchal
  gender tropes. Thus any call for the "feminine" in discourse is only
  interesting when crossed with a feminist, or otherwise liberatory,
  critical project; rhetorical choices are only part of a politics.

'"For the Etruscans' was widely taken to defend 'feminine language,'" DuPlessis writes, but "what I actually said is that all rhetorical choice was situational and that nonhegemonic rhetorical strategies are often grasped by groups (women as 'ambiguously non-hegemonic') in need of oppositional statement" (43).

DuPlessis's formulation of the relationship between feminism and aesthetics seems an eminently reasonable intervention into an issue that has bedeviled politically progressive writers and literary critics for three-quarters of a century, from the so-called Brecht-Lukacs debate down to the Language Poets: what is the relationship between avant-garde forms of writing (modernist and postmodernist) and progressive politics? Or as DuPlessis puts it, "How to calibrate the political meanings and contributions of creative practices?" (2). Is there, as Julia Kristeva argues in Revolution in Poetic Language, an inherently counterhegemonic charge to the disjunctive, nonlinear, or otherwise obdurately "difficult" texts of modernism, regardless of the political stance of the given writer? Or does such writing, as the examples of such modernists as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Ezra Pound,T. S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis would suggest, especially lend itself to culturally or politically retrograde projects?

The political implications of any particular specimen of modernist or postmodernist writing, DuPlessis argues, cannot be specified by an examination of the forms and rhetorics of that writing alone, but must be arrived at by studying the negotiations among the work's formal and rhetorical shape, its author's stated political stance, and the expectations of both a contemporaneous and a contemporary readership.

DuPlessis faults the poet Charles Olson (probably the first person to use the term postmodernist in a literary context) for his perpetuation of "ancient, patriarchal gender tropes." Even more troubling, obviously, is the case of Ezra Pound, the anti-Semitic fascist whose work has wielded an incalculable influence on postmodern poetry, and about whom DuPlessis wrote her doctoral dissertation. DuPlessis will not deny the importance of Pound's poetry for her own writing, and speaks eloquently of the initial sense the Poundian system gives one of having engaged in a collective enterprise of knowledge and social correction:
  who among us of our generation who thinks at all of the literary has
  not been hailed into Pound's secretum (or perhaps to Olson's)--that
  sense that you were one of the cultural elite of knowers? ... you
  could do what needed to be done; you could articulate values without
  dialogue, in cadres, not in communities. (250)

But Pound's particular modernism offered an ideological dead end: "Who has not been hailed into the band of knowers of Pound only to find that one was actually unable to read but only to parrot versions of Pound's unforgiving binaries?" (250)

DuPlessis asserts that she composed her own long poem Drafts--quite consciously composed in Canto-length segments, and with a projected overall scale comparable to that of The Cantos--not so much in imitation as in an act of "critical resistance":
  I wanted to make an alternative Cantos, a counter-Cantos. This is
  not so much a fantasy of Oedipal replacement (well, you tell me!)
  as it is a desire to place a counterweight inside culture and
  history, a poem with parallel ambition that comes to thoroughly
  different conclusions by different literary means. (250)

DuPlessis may exaggerate the extent to which her work employs "different literary means" from Pound's, in light of the fact that there are strikingly Cantos-like moments throughout Drafts. What's more, her ambition to produce a "counter- Cantos" is an honorable but rather familiar one: William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Olson's The Maximus Poems, and Louis Zukofsky's "A" can all be read as self-conscious (if ideologically divergent) responses to Pound's long poem. What is striking, indeed, is the very extent to which these works, along with DuPlessis's Drafts, resemble The Cantos, even as they work to overturn Pound's most basic ideological assumptions and assertions.

What this does is to underscore the ideological situationality of forms, the way idioms pioneered by the modernists may be either radical or reactionary, depending on the political stance of the writer. The true heroes of the literary history DuPlessis gestures toward in Blue Studios are poets who consciously subvert conventional expectations. DuPlessis is at her best when considering the achievements and ideologies of particular writers, as in "Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre, and Resistances," where she analyzes Niedecker's subversive reinvention of the nursery rhyme and the folk ballad, or in "The Gendered Marvelous: Barbara Guest, Surrealism, and Feminist Reception," which considers Guest's reinterpretation of the relationship between painter and model, and of the surrealist movement in particular.

Most moving by far is DuPlessis's reading of George Oppen, '"Uncannily in the Open': In Light of Oppen." Oppen was a member of the short-lived Objectivist movement of the early 1930s, but would abandon poetry for a quarter century to devote himself to leftist political organizing. When he returned to writing in the late 1950s, DuPlessis argues, he did so with no diminution of his egalitarian political commitments. Oppen was a major influence on DuPlessis's writing, in many ways her mentor (she has edited an excellent Selected Letters of Oppen's), and her reading of how his late work instantiates a new" epistemology" is striking indeed:
  The strained, open, gnomic, and aphoristic line of his later poetry
  gives to him, but with a different ethics, a different epistemology,
  what surrealism gives to others: an investigatory tool to explore how
  the world may be put together differently by setting certain
  materials in combination. (201)

This "different epistemology," in DuPlessis's account, is a Utopian project, an ongoing existential and social critique of the world in which we live and an attempt at imagining a better one. I find DuPlessis's juxtaposition of Oppen's verse to Benjamin's Arcades Project and Adorno's Aesthetic Theory both apt and suggestive, though I hankered for more detailed readings of Oppen's "gnomic and aphoristic" lines. While I think an extended reading of Oppen's poetry certainly bears out DuPlessis's description of his project, her all-too-brief analyses of passages from his poems--almost nods toward them--might leave a skeptical reader questioning whether her overall presentation of Oppen's work might not be merely a hopeful reconception of an exceedingly challenging and sometimes quite oblique body of writing.

DuPlessis's description of Oppen's poetics--"an investigatory tool to explore how the world may be put together differently by setting certain materials in juxtaposition"--may equally serve as a description of her own essayistic practice. It yields rich results in Blue Studios, whether she is considering the possibility of a feminist literary history ("Marble Paper: Toward a Feminist 'History of Poetry,'" in which Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" is the primary object of analysis) or whether she is pondering the role of the muse figure in contemporary poetic manifestos by Allen Grossman and Charles Olson ("Manifests").

Once we have experienced the nonlinear progressions and exciting jumps of diction and register in DuPlessis's essays, more conventional academic writing may seem somewhat wan and bloodless. "Propounding Modernist Maleness: How Pound Managed a Muse"--a contextualizing reading of Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" in light of the poem's "model" Florence Farr--is an excellent example of her illuminating work on the historical development of modernism. But it is also the least engaging piece in Blue Studios, largely because of its conformity to the impersonal strictures of academic writing. I don't hear DuPlessis in this one, and it's her voice--witty, grave, chatty, winkingly stuffy, punning, layered, and inherently polyvocal--that makes this collection the stunning success it is.
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Title Annotation:Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work
Author:Scroggins, Mark
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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