Poetry and the Price of Milk

Jennifer Ashton discusses Dana Ward's 'Things the Baby Liked, A-Z' on NonSite.org

Literary scholar Jennifer Ashton – author of the canonical study From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century – has published a very interesting critical appraisal of metamodern poetry and the work of Dana Ward over at NonSite.

In his poem ‘Things the Baby Liked, A-Z’, Ward invokes the figure of Bertolt Brecht, noting that “people don’t talk much about him anymore is there some idea that his work is too didactic or plain in its political motivations to satisfy certain contemporary sensibilities”. He then continues to seemingly effortlessly reimagine Brecht first on a cosy fishing trip with Walter Benjamin and later as a macho Snoop Dogg avant-la-lettre, depoliticizing and recontextualising him in order to repopularize him.  In her essay ‘Poetry and the Price of Milk’, Ashton argues that the constant repositioning that characterises Ward’s poetry, moving smoothly from the modernist political Brecht to the unpopular, apolitical postmodernist Brecht to the current alterpolitical Brecht, is less about creating a new critical idiom towards capitalism, i.e. demonstrating that there are alternative models to think about the world than the rigid systems available to us afford, than it is about producing the flexible cultural conditions in which it can thrive. The metamodernism of Ward, she suggests, with its “infinite array of attitudes and affective poles from which to swing, an A-Z of ever new (and old) things to “like”” (as the poem’s title suggests) succeeds in “turning beliefs (political and aesthetic alike) into something more like attitudes or inclinations”. Liberating as this may feel, in control as it may make us seem, it also, Ashton warns, “is nothing if not capitalism’s fantasy of the market, one in which what we “like” can also masquerade as a politics”.

You can read the whole essay here. We’re very keen to hear your thoughts. If you’d like to join the discussion, get in touch via the comments section, email, facebook or twitter.


There are 5 comments

  1. Seth Abramson

    I admire this article in many respects, but I do disagree somewhat with Jennifer Ashton’s reading of metamodernism here, particularly metamodernistic conceptualism in contemporary verse.

    I think that much postmodernist critical theory implicitly discourages the ambition of “wholeness,” associated as it has been with collective rather than individual endeavors of a destructive sort (e.g., Pound’s aesthetic and political fascism); meanwhile the same theories often fetishize commitment as the most honorable endgame of the contemporary poet. The problem, I think, is that deemphasizing the wholeness of individuals while encouraging those same individuals to perform various commitments in verse leads to ineffective advocacy–as, I’d argue, we’ve seen in American poetry since 1970.

    As I’ve written elsewhere, contemporary “pure conceptualism” aims to redress an information technology problem that today’s younger writers and readers don’t actually wrestle with, partly because such conceptualism misreads the stage of capitalism’s evolution we’re currently laboring under. The predictable result: Work that’s ineffective as to its commitments because it has no constituency and no relevant program to offer.

    To me, metamodernism in verse is a “pre-commitment” poetics–with “pre-” denoting here “preliminary” or “preparatory” rather than merely ex ante–inasmuch as it treats with language as blocks of data that compose the self but are as often false positives as contextually “true.” It’s in this way that metamodernism honors both modernism’s yearning for sense and postmodernism’s acknowledgment that language does not ultimately cohere; moreover, it’s in this way that metamodernism does work which (for instance) “pure conceptualism” does not do in preparing the subject for commitments in a third-stage capitalist economy. So where Ashton sees the project of poets like Ward as political commitment as such, and therefore reads vacillation in the work as indifference or a dedication to the apolitical or an unwillingness to discern, I see metamodernism in verse as an expressive tendency with a utilitarian aim: the reconstitution of the self amidst those ravages of capitalism that subdivide the self interminably and thereby prevent effective commitment. To reconstitute the self one must first acknowledge that the contemporary subject is as much comprised of false data as true, and find a way to engender a commitment-ready self despite that circumstance.

    I haven’t read Ward’s book yet, but I can say that what Ashton is describing above is the process of subject creation in situ, and a process meaningfully targeted toward future commitments, and not in itself a mode of commitment or a political praxis. That reading is, I think, too indebted to certain first tenets of postmodernism that are differentially operative in metamodernism. My hope is that those interested in metamodernism will read this burgeoning tendency on its own terms, and not with the presumptions and first principles of a worldview it is indebted to but not the mirror of. That in the Internet Age Brecht and his work are open to misunderstanding and reconstitution and misstatement and misrepresentation and other data-gathering and data-processing infelicities is more an analogic function relating to the contemporary self (particularly the Gen Y self) than it is a scholarly reconfiguring of the man or his legacy.


  2. stephen knudsen

    Comment on Jennifer Ashton’s Essay:

    You are clearly a studied and enthusiastic Brecht scholar and I so enjoyed your excellent and creative account of Brecht and his unwavering program (depersonalization, alienation effect, the epic, etc.) in service of intended sociopolitical effect. I have never before had Brecht so clearly and memorably situated in my understanding. Thank you.

    However, the means that you used to get us there (forgive me) has me perplexed.

    So Dana Ward made a very small remark in one of his poems about his conflicted feelings on Brecht, a poet that Ward clearly likes. Or perhaps Ward is stating a problem of contemporary perception concerning Brecht and then re- marketing Brecht’s didactic-ism and depersonalization as cool cigar- smoking and “manly insouciance”. Either way my gut feeling is that you have pounded only a phantom of metamodernism with an academic sledgehammer. Ward simply gives us a snip of personal feeling on what is certainly one of his favorite poets and perhaps poems. Saying that Brecht is didactic and political in one breath and, then in another, Snoop Doggy Cool in the B.B. poem, is a very hard sell as a metamodern exercise. And I doubt that Ward would agree that this was his intention.

    Metamodernism, as much as I like to see it inserted into critical discourse , is so much more than what it is asking to be in this essay. Robin and Tim have written in depth on it and have given just exceptional examples of the right kind of gravity. I have tried to write elsewhere about the topic as well.

    But I find your unusual way into Brecht (taking on 4 lines in a poem as though it were an academic paper) as completely forgivable and perhaps even admirable in a way. The problem with most academic papers is how completely forgettable most of them are. I will not forget yours and I will not forget your lovely blow by blow analysis of Brecht.

    You did make me go searching for the poem Ward mentions and I do not mind that because I found treasures along the way. I could see why Ward basically called Brecht Snoop Dog-cool here :

    Concerning Poor B. B. By Brecht
    There shall remain of these cities but the wind that blew through them! The house maketh the feaster merry: it is emptied out.
 We know that we are makeshift
 And after us will come -practically naught.
    In the earthquakes to come it is to be hoped 
I shan’t allow bitterness to quench my cigar’s glow, I, Bertolt Brecht, astray in cement cities
 Brought from the woods in my mother long ago.

    For me this is one other poem where Brecht is “strictly personal”; not “silent about himself.” So in this Brecht poem, this exception to the Brechtian rule,Ward, I think, is finding an inspirational background for his own excellent poetry…inspiration that goes beyond just his latest book. But that is for another essay, one someone should write. Thanks again! ….. Stephen Knudsen

  3. Dana Ward

    Hi y’all,

    Jennifer, thanks for writing this piece. I learned from it, & I’m really grateful for that. I guess I just wanna say maybe something like what Stephen is saying? In the sense that I was referring to that particular poem of BB’s, & in no way meant to characterize his entire body of writing, or the complex, demanding & crucial ways in which he addressed himself to the production of a Marxist aesthetic. It’s an early poem of his, & has a kind of swagger, & suavity & humor that put me in the mind of Snoop Dogg, who I also admire.

    I guess located around that is the way you read my remarks about Brecht & the dynamics that may (or may not) have been contributing factors to my sense of his neglect, which again, is rooted in my sense of his thrilling & necessary endeavors. I was gesturing, in that instance, at certain modernist/post-modernisty sensibilities that held in highest regard qualities such as allusiveness, fracture, fragment & so forth, qualities whose sway may have, for some reason, made Brecht’s determinations seem dated.

    The poem performs these speculations so lightly because I am, in fact, unsure about what I’m saying. In a larger sense, for me at least, in undertaking that poem I was curious about a few things, some of which you gesture toward in the essay.

    I’m curious, again I mean that honestly because I don’t quite know, but isn’t there a possible reading of that little part & the vocabulary it uses wherein one would not have to project advocacy for the reduction of Becht’s art & politics to mere matters of taste & ‘choice’ as defined by the hegemonic market? I can’t seem to settle on a sense of how yr leveraging those sentences.

    The one leap I can’t make though is this weird determinative jump from cultural delirium that then automates a political wash-out. The desire to be in relation to, study, & attend a whole host of productively contradictory & irreducible cultural particularities doesn’t, for me at least, occasion any kind of confusion about my political commitments, which are resolutely anti-capitalist, & always will be, until there ain’t no capitalism to be anti-, & toward those “authentic arrangements” as Fred Moten calls them–communism, anarchism, the ensemble, the choir, the new & productive & changing groups whose change would not refer to infinity of consumer worlds but to moment to moment alteration via the surprise of relation not leveraged by misery & money. Whatever sincerity is worth (not a word I much like) I am as sincere about that as I can possibly be. My writing tho, like me, can be kind of silly sometimes. I really regret if that somehow automates a relinquishment of these urgent & true & indispensable things.

    Well, there’s a lot more I’d like to say, too much really, so I guess I’ll stop here. “Metamodernism” huh? Is that a legit thing that people are doing? Huh.

    Ok! Hope y’alls day has been good.


  4. Jennifer Ashton

    Hi Seth, Hi Stephen, Hi Dana,

    Setting aside the question of whether “metamodernism in verse” is best described as having a “utilitarian aim,” I couldn’t agree more with Seth’s description of it as an “expressive tendency” that seeks “the reconstitution of the self amidst those ravages of capitalism that subdivide the self interminably and thereby prevent effective commitment.” Furthermore, also setting aside the questions of whether there’s such a thing as the subdivided self and whether any value, utilitarian or otherwise, is to be gained in attending to it, I see metamodernism’s focus on expressive tendencies as itself one of the ravages of capitalism that “prevent effective commitment.”

    According to Seth’s vision of the capitalism “we’re currently laboring under,” the “ravages” that it inflicts are primarily visited upon the self. In the face of a “multifaceted, Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential,” Seth tells us, “the challenge younger artists face is to find wholeness of being.”
    Not surprisingly, it’s an expressive attitude, “sincerity,” that emerges as the technique best suited to the pursuit of “wholeness.”

    The “metamodernism in verse” that Seth has in mind is still operating in the shadow of several decades’ worth of poetry committed to the idea that the subject of any speech act is inevitably fractured and decentered: think of Language poetry, to be sure, but also the subsequent generation’s “innovative” techniques designed to address the underrepresentation of women and minority subjects without risk of essentialism. Certainly as a challenge to the lingering power of those tendencies, “sincerity” “essence,” and “wholeness” look like nothing if not a counter movement.

    But as I’ve argued elsewhere, Language writing in the end just gave us another way of valuing the subject position – that of the reader over that of the writer — and it’s no mystery at all that Language techniques under the pressures of antidiscrimination proved so portable for recognizing oppressed and marginalized subjects. Seeking after “whole” subject positions now, far from being a radical alternative, is just to come full circle in what has been an ideology of identification and self-actualization all along, one that has not only coincided with the rise of neoliberalism but is deeply compatible with it.

    Another way to put this is to say that the way we feel about ourselves or our doubts about our ability to experience or express our subjectivity are the least of capitalism’s ravages.

    Here are some of capitalism’s other recent ravages: Emmanual Piketty and Thomas Saez released new date earlier this year showing that starting in 1993 with the so-called “Clinton Expansion” (also, as it happens, the year of Doggystyle’s release) the top 1% have received 68% of the total income growth (the bottom 99% got 6.6%). Since the recovery, starting in 2009, the share of the 1% has grown to 95% (the bottom 99% got .4%).

    Clinton may have been a virtuoso at feeling our pain, but his administration hardly invented the exploitation that causes it. Brecht understood the tendency to exploit perfectly when he wrote “A Bed for the Night,” depicting the disconnect between affective attitudes toward the poverty of the homeless on the one hand, and a structural condition of capitalism, on the other: the need to extract surplus value from labor, and the standing army of unemployed that is required to keep wages low. For Brecht such understanding could not be communicated through a personal poetry. And pace Stephen, even Hannah Arendt didn’t think “Of Poor B.B.” counted as a personal poem, for precisely the same reasons that “A Bed for the Night” doesn’t count. In other words, self-reference and a first-person point-of-view don’t automatically entail that a poem is personal or self-expressive.

    The poetry of Tao Lin and Michael Fried are clear examples in our current moment of how a style of self-expression or a strategic deployment of ostensibly autobiographical content can be used to mark off the separation between the expression of affective states and a structural or formal register that is categorically distinct from it. (I elaborate this argument and make a larger case about lyric’s function in the service of [neo]liberalism in the last chapter of The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945 [Cambridge UP 2013].)

    I wish I had more time at the moment to address in detail Dana’s poetry, whose syntactical and descriptive bravado I respect tremendously. Dana hits the nail on the head in pointing to the “cultural delirium” that so much of The Crisis of Infinite Worlds depicts with such admirable precision. I count your work among that of several poets – including Jennifer Moxley, Ben Lerner, and Timothy Donnelly – who have pushed the limits of syntactical formations within verse. But insofar as the precision of Infinite Worlds revolves around shifting subjective attitudes and inclnations toward what is and isn’t loved and liked (I challenge anyone to find a poem in the volume that isn’t steeped in this exercise), the work does look just like metamodernism as Tim, Robin, and Seth have all portrayed it, and it never really escapes the register of the personal; the personal is instead mimetic of the structural.

    So, Dana, I don’t for a second doubt either your honesty or sincerity when you say that your interest in “the new & productive & changing groups” and in “moment to moment alteration via the surprise of relation” is “resolutely anti-capitalist” But those admirable personal traits are precisely beside the point; the fact that you’re sincere in your belief doesn’t make the belief itself true. To me at least, the search for ever-new “authentic arrangements” sounds, even if it’s “not leveraged by…money,” like another form of shopping. Which many of us (even us anti-capitalists) love to do, but which doesn’t count as a left politics (any more than refusing to shop would count as a left politics.

    Thus despite Dana’s skepticism about metamodernism – “Is that a legit thing people are doing?” – his own interest in “particularities” and “authentic arrangements” won’t help us answer the question, unless the answer is a matter of market share.

    Clearly I have my own skepticisms about metamodernism — from both an aesthetic and a political standpoint – but I’m extremely grateful to Notes on Metamodernism, and to Seth, Stephen and Dana, for creating this valuable occasion for exchange.


  5. Seth Abramson

    Hi Jennifer,

    I recently received your response to my comment, and hopefully it will appear here shortly! One clarification I’d like to make is about my use of the term “sincerity,” which you say is, in my view, “the technique best suited” to achieving “wholeness.” I didn’t mention sincerity in my response to your article on Notes on Metamodernism, so I think you may be referring to my August review of Andrew Mister’s Liner Notes in The Huffington Post. There, I noted the utility of a “reflexive sincerity” that, unlike our conventional use of the term, suggests a tendency that “accept[s] what it sees, including…multiple selves and multiple realities…as ineluctable, true, and essential.” I also noted that “reflexive sincerity,” because of its embrace of many of the first principles of postmodern critical theory, “over-leaps the sincerity-irony spectrum” as previous generations of creative writers have imagined it.

    You quote me as suggesting that “the ravages that [capitalism] inflicts are visited primarily upon the self,” which I don’t believe, so I went back to my comment to see what you might be responding to there. My references to the “ravages” of capitalism is one in which I note that the aim of metamodernism (in my own view) is “the reconstitution of the self amidst those ravages of capitalism that subdivide the self interminably and thereby prevent effective commitment.” I think this can be taken to mean that the “ravages” of capitalism–however inapt that choice of diction might be–take many forms, and some of these (which is quite different from saying they are the “primary” ones) “subdivide the self” and thereby “prevent effective commitment.” I agree in all respects with your claim that the most notable “ravages” of capitalism include, among their number, historic income inequality.

    The difference in our views is that whereas you equate “reflexive sincerity” with investigation of “the way we feel about ourselves or our doubts about our ability to experience or express our subjectivity,” I define it differently. My contention has long been that reflexive sincerity is “utilitarian” in the sense that it is aimed squarely at future commitment. Your definition of sincerity omits any mention of commitment and thereby, I feel, presumes its own conclusion ex ante: in other words, your contention seems to be that we know sincerity is irrelevant to commitment and focused only upon a squishy sort of subjectivity because you’ve defined it that way. Because I can’t agree with your definition, I also can’t agree with the conclusion that the upper limit of reflexive sincerity’s ambitions is resolution of “the way we feel about ourselves or…express our subjectivity,” unless by “feel about ourselves” you mean the real-time transformation of Gen Y readers and writers from self-absorbed expressives to political actors who struggle against entrenched income inequality when and where it lives, and unless by “express our subjectivity” you mean “enact political commitments in real terms.” I guess what I’m saying is that it feels as though your circumscription of what the word “expressive” connotes borrows from many decades of anti-expressive rhetoric that unreasonably equates expressivism to personal therapy. So while I don’t think I have (as you proposed I have) cast metamodernism as a radical break from the past–instead, I’ve positioned it as a tendency indebted substantially to both modernism and postmodernism–to the extent it reconfigures “expressivism” in political terms, an edit I think the dialogue on expressivism has long demanded, clearly that is a break from the anti-expressivist rhetoric we’ve seen in contemporary poetry studies since the 1970s.

    I agree wholeheartedly that metamodernism contends, if and as it does, in the shadow of “decades’ worth of poetry committed to the idea that the subject of any speech act is inevitably fractured and decentered” (though I feel you may underestimate the “risk of essentialism” that came with even the most “‘innovative’ techniques to address the underrepresentation of women and minorities” in verse). What metamodernism contends with that those decades’ worth of poetry did not is the Information Age–as if Kenneth Goldsmith’s peak language theory has any purchase, it is in its capacity for identifying how the very notion of “commitment” was necessarily transformed by the cultural throes of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which ensured the ubiquity of the Internet generally and social media specifically. So to put metamodernism in the shadow of other inclinations as a way of calling it a “counter movement” is to imply that the context in which poetry can perform commitments is unchanged, when that can only be so (ironically) if we define political commitment as a matter of linguistics rather than one involving (say) the logistics and socioeconomic structures of real-time income inequality. In other words, to dub metamodernism a “counter movement” to previous verse is to deny that not just methods and context but also the circumscription of the problem before us has changed dramatically.The income inequality you speak of was hardly visible at the dawn of the Black Arts Movement, nor was the Internet (let alone Facebook) a twinkle in anyone’s eye besides one or two bunkered three-star generals in the Defense Department.

    The paragraph that begins “I’ve argued elsewhere…” is one I really want to voice my agreement with, though I’d note that your description of the “circle” metamodernism closes only exists in the realm of critical theory; in creative writing, the years from 1970 to 2000 were nothing if not a consistent and even militant movement–on a straight line–away from the political pragmatism of the historical avant-garde, whose ambition to return art to the praxis of life was only realized in (at most) white papers rather than the American political scene from Nixon to Clinton. “Reflexive sincerity”–an expressive tendency that redirects its joint modernist-postmodernist inheritance in the direction of commitment–is, in actual rather than theoretical terms, more responsive to its context, and more well-tailored in its means, than any of the late 20th c. poetries to which you refer. It is no coincidence that Language poetry oversaw the death of results-oriented (activist) commitment in the American poetry community; with so much impressive theory seeming to prove that Language poems were politically committed, the absence of either any real-time political pragmatism–or actual results; or actual adherents within the rapidly expanding poetry community–was easy to miss. I just can’t agree that metamodernism, a poetics that seeks the return of art to the praxis of life, is merely concerned with “affective attitudes” when its primary preoccupations are formal and structural. It “expresses” only inasmuch as it underscores that the formal and the structural arise causally from the personal rather than standing apart from it. Fighting income inequality without reifying the person-to-person data-gathering and data transmission processes that undergird and encourage it seems like fighting global warming without the use of a thermometer. The contention, implicit in Brecht as you position him here, that we can speak, through the auspices of a presumptively transparent language, about “structural conditions of capitalism” seems to me its own closing of a circle, with a view of language and discourse that owes more to the early 19th century than postmodernism. Meanwhile, metamodernism applies the lessons of postmodernism via new means, in a new context, and under the sign of a new ambition: consequential rather than theoretical commitment. I consider Ron Silliman a living legend and a genius, yet Patricia Lockwood’s viral poem “Rape Joke” may have done more dialogic heavy lifting in real terms than anything Ron–a legitimate genius–has ever written. It’s for this reason that I’m suspicious of considering Brecht or his political commitments via the transparent language you seem to propose, as oppose to metamodernism’s equal commitment to false positives and actionable data; such poetry and prose is unlikely to find a willing audience, advocate, or student body when Gen Y has already consumed with its daily breakfast those first principles whose employment in metamodernism you’ve associated with merely a “counter movement.” When you speak of “a personal poetry,” I’m not certain what in metamodernism you are attaching that descriptor to; much metamodernistic conceptualism–my own included (whether it’s “White Privilege” or “James Franco By James Franco By Seth Abramson,” “The Date Report” or “Oh People”; I can’t speak to Dana Ward’s investment in metamodernism in the same way I can speak of and perform my own)–is as frequently non-perspectival as first-person, is almost never emotive or conventionally autobiographical, and is no more or less “personal” than Dada (indeed, it is arguably less so, as its performance of self-consumption is more committed–less merely gestural–than was seen with Dada).

    I look forward to seeing discussions of metamodernism continuing over the ensuing weeks and months! I think it’s a moving target with as yet only a very, very small number of self-described adherents (not the word I want, but it will do) in the United States. To calcify metamodernism by attaching it to the work of one poet–whether Dana Ward, who has said he’s little interested in metamodernism, or someone like me, who’s self-consciously been experimenting in that vein for some time now–is to draw the picture many months or years early. I think we’re still in the “what might it be in verse?” stage of metamodernistic conceptualism in America (and obviously I have my own developing opinion on that), rather than one in which we can lower the curtain on the concept’s intent and functionality. Indeed, I’d challenge anyone reading this thread to identify even one American poet self-consciously writing in (what s/he perceives as) the metamodernist vein besides the undersigned. I don’t think that speaks to the attractiveness of the concept–certainly not if my conversations with other poets are any indication–but rather just how early we are in what will likely be a very, very long process of development and exploration in metamodernism.

    Best wishes,

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