Tuesday, September 18, 2007

neither us nor them

I've re-read an essay John Yau published in American Poetry Review back in 1994 (vol. 23, no. 2, p. 45). He begins by quoting and playing off of someone else's assertion that we are all of us "an us of others." It is a claim that Yau finds "deeply disturbing," a claim about what he calls this "utopian vision"--that we're all on the outside. He discerns this mode--really an aesthetic-rhetorical trick, a having of cake and eating it--as Poundian and it for him is the key to what's wrong with Poundian critics.

Let me explain.

The critic Yau quoted--Eliot Weinberger, whom Yau otherwise admires--had been writing about the modernist interest in Chinese poetry. From this interest modernism got its preoccupation "with the detailed observation of the world around: an epic of particulars." And once Weinberger uses the phrase "an epic of particulars," most readers familiar with modern poetry will know he is thinking about Ezra Pound's poetry especially.

This leads Yau to Pound's Chinese-influenced book of poems, Cathay, and much of the rest of Yau's essay for APR is implicitly a criticism of Pound's orientalist premises and practice. Here is his point in a nutshell: "Pound's aesthetics are based on the idea that anything and anyone can be appropriated."

Now at the time of Yau's essay Weinberger had edited and published an anthology of American poetry since 1950, with a subtitle "Innovators & Outsiders." Yau is very critical of its contents. He lists, for example, a great many poets born between 1943 and January 1946 who should have been included. Yau is blunt. Of the 35 poets in all, five are women and two are African American. "As to other Others," Yau says, "forget it." "The demographic complexity of the United States," Weinberger had written, "is reflected in the work itself, rather than the police-blotter profiles of the poets." To which Yau acidly replies: "I suppose 'police-blotter' is supposed to throw a scare into anyone who might wish to look deeper."

The main causes of Weinberger's blindness are indeed the nexus of assumptions that form the Pound-Williams-H.D. critical tradition, and this takes us back to the problems Yau sees in the Poundian appropriative mode of Cathay which he sees Poundian critics like Weinberger--among others--have adopted, to some extent unconsciously. "The Other, it seems, has not become enough like Us (Weinberger and his compatriots) to be acceptable."

In short, Pound's brash orientalism has become an anthologist's manner.

What's interesting, too, is that this is not a Left-Right argument, nor is it a Modernist-Antimodernist argument. While this debate took place during, or to be precise just after, the PC or "culture" wars, it is not quite part of that contentiousness either, although perhaps at moments Yau's counterdicta resemble the multi-culturalist rejoinder to the Right in that fracas. One might say that this fight is being waged at or for the heart of modernism's liberalism.

The rest of Yau's essay is a (pretty thoroughly negative) review of Weinberger's anthology, but what interests me is this framing idea--that Pound's chinoiserie is itself a model for the critical method advocates of Poundian modernism have used to desire and claim poetic Others while at the same time being blind to their existence.

I should note that Marjorie Perloff has written about the Yau-Weinberger disagreement in her "Whose New American Poetry?" in Diacritics 26, 3/4, 1996, p. 109.