Date: Tue, 11 May 1999
Subject: Questions on a HOW-TO [value]

John Lowther's past three posts, in response to Standard Schaefer's
essay, raises many unanswered questions. (Many, many questions.)
One vein in that inquiry I read as about value, criteria, and standards.

> where are we to locate these 'formal criteria'
* > does experimental writing lack formal criteria ?
> or can we say 'this IS a poem' about anything we wish?
> in calling out for standards with which to judge are we not calling out
for some authority?
> art wherein there are no standards of this sort and no communal
> aren't there folks who wd like to say that there are standards and
ways to say what is or is not valid as literary or artistic practice?

The next question that comes out of all these (like hydra heads!), for me,
is: why do we need to keep returning to a practice of "literary value,"
criteria and standards? Clearly, work has become widespread in the
past quarter century, if not earlier, which puts into question
("problematizes") or renders useless earlier criteria of judgment:
"good"/"better"/"best", "like"/"dislike", "masterpiece"/"genius".
Post-modernism has set into play a body of works where not only is it
tenuous how to value one over another, but how to distinguish within a
poem itself what portions might "succeed" and which "fail" according to
any casual standards of criticism. (Hence, the shift in editorial practices,
which are now as a rule a flat acceptance/rejection-- since how else to
arbitrate between one line and the next?) And yet, the question ("does
experimental writing lack formal criteria ?") keeps coming up, as though
there were too strong a nostalgic attachment to a criterion-view of art for
even the initiated to part with such (Solomonic) judgments.

I find it helpful to contextualize the anxiety over value, by placing it
against the very much value-producing society that wants to think that
way, namely, for want of a better word, our "capitalist" world ("free
market") where the assigning of value -- literalized into value-as-price --
is the very essence of exchange. Then, the value and "criteria" we fret
over not having for art becomes a metaphoric sublimation for the more
decisive matter of price. What is "really" being asked is: what price am
I to assign to this art, this poem, that poem? Then, what happens to this
all-important compulsion to judge and value, when the work no longer
bears easy markers for such a judgment-game.

It may be a weakness of mine to draw in visual artworks as analogies,
which (like the Robert Morris) people then don't know how to take, but
there sometimes seems something self-evident about the visual arts
which, if it can be grasped, brings the same point, more elusive in
literature, to the surface. This time I'd bring in Warhol's silkscreen and
Duchamp's readymades as comparison. Once silkscreens entered into
fine arts as a "means of production" (sorry), their labor-efficiency greatly
jeopardized the earlier value-criteria of labor intensivenesss and time
("Can you imagine how long it took to paint that Wyeth!?"). That the
market actually did absorb Warhols side by side with traditional,
brushstroke paintings is remarkable: the Trojan Horse had then gotten
within the gates; the computer virus has entered the system. -- The
same crisis of value erupts around a Duchamp readymade, where there
is virtually no conventional criterion of workmanship or virtuosity. But
for Warhols and Duchamps to be weighed in alongside, say, a Monet or a
pre-modernist, an Ingres, on the same equalizing scales of price and
value meant that the value-game itself had fallen open into a gaping,
undetected contradiction.

Now, just such a contradiction has entered into the body of
contemporary literature, with poetries such as aleatory works,
"concrete" or found poetry, the a-syntactical, etc. It makes perfect
sense that a book like The Tennis Court Oath continues to take such a
drubbing from the forces of "conservatism," because The Tennis Court
has not merely done badly what other poetries have done
"better"; it has sidestepped, or transcended the very basis of production,
of writing that was taken for granted: that a poet "think up" on his own all
the words and word-orders within a poem. (Why don't we just continue
to use qull pens and inkwells, the way Robert Graves did?) It isn't just
that if we give it the old college try once more we can come up with
new criteria and standards, the ghosts of obsolete criteria, a rigor mortis
of value, and relax again into our tranquilizing, habitual need to dispense
value. Irreconciliabilities have, surreptitiously, entered into "The System"
of literature and canon,--- that are as incongruent with the "traditional" as
an attempt by a capitalist/free market economy to communicate with a
monastic or vow-of-poverty economy (thus, a digression: the persistent,
odd leverage a Vatican can exert against First and Second Worlds,
consistently advocating in favor of Third or Fourth Worlds that share
with it an immunity or exclusion from standard financial profit). Free
verse alone represented a serious anomaly that a Princeton
Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
scrambled preposterously to
rationalize (invoking spurious precedents like the quasi-metered
cadences of Hebrew psalmody, as justification).

For, without these systematized prestidigitations of criteria, the burden
of a reader's experience falls back upon very different guideposts,--
such as the analysis of power relations ("What partisan interests benefit
from this work?"), "taste," nepotisms of who-knows-who, etc., that
makes the lingering compulsion for value break down, unveiled, into a
much more gritty host of determinisms. With "taste," do I even have a
choice to like or dislike, or hasn't my allegiance of approval to an earlier
work predetermined my obligation to "like" similar later works?

Along these lines, when Marjorie Perloff -- is it fair to mention her name?
(hi, Marjorie) -- at the Barnard conference dropped the petite scandale of
publicly asking what anybody sees in the poetry of Jorie Graham
(invoking criteria such as "rhythm"! as though anyone in the room could
still scan a Sapphic from an ithyphallic), I thought that a lost opportunity, .
. . whereas had the question been re-framed as, say, "Given that, with a
popular and reputable figure like Jorie Graham, I can't see anything in her
work and I trust three-quarters of you can't either, what are the
of career-building, marketing, or the production of hype
that could have so ignored the obvious?" that would have, in turn,
provided a link back to the same mechanisms that advanced the
reputations of the other seven readers, and the entire phenomenon of
Language/lyric poetry. In other words, once the nebulousness of "taste"
is put aside, what critique is forced to fall back upon are all the very
real agencies of publicity, the prestige of select publishing venues,
croneyism, whatever, but real.

It becomes not a question of "How was it?" but "What was it?"

That's where the equal sign in "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" becomes
emblematic. One way a spectre of this may have entered into earlier
discussions was in the misunderstanding that Language Poetry could
"mean anything" . . . as if people were correct in sensing that there might
be some equivalence at play somewhere, but were off-the-mark in
placing it at the semantic, instead of at the level of value. But the original,
macrocosmic crisis of value is taking place around us all the time, in the
fatuous equivalencies that capital, that the dollar can establish between
complete incompatibles! I don't know if we should hope to be liberated,
or exonerated, from a crisis of value in poetry/art at the microcosmic
level. The discomfort that results from these aesthetic equivalencies or
undecideabilities may be an aperture through which the art-consumer
can reach a broader understanding of the criterion-lessness at play in
the culture at large. We may just be becoming un-deluded in
literary/poetic spheres, about what still passes for unquestionable
around us.