The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2009: 38.2
Ira Sadoff. History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2009. 230 pp. $39.95 (cloth).
by Diana Manister
At first glance, History Matters, Contemporary Poetry in the Margins seems to be a postmodern exercise. Author Ira Sadoff peppers the book with the names of major theorists and critics who rose to prominence after the hegemony of New Criticism collapsed: Mikhail Bakhtin, Homi Bhabha, Frederic Jameson, Julia Kristeva, Marjorie Perloff and even Language poets Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Sadoff however attempts to incorporate their ars poetica into his humanistic approach to the personal lyric, an exercise that requires him to de-radicalize postmodernism's attacks on selfhood, voice and narrative authority.
Being a little postmodern is in some sense like being a little pregnant. A clear difference separates the ideal of “genuine” individuality from a view of the self as a quick-change artist assuming and discarding personae as circumstances require. Individuation depends on the dichotomy of self/other, a dualism undermined by theories that establish speech itself as the active agent and speakers as mouthpieces for discourses circulating in the culture. Sadoff attempts to apply ideas about self and language from theorists like Bakhtin and Derrida to a psychological approach to literature that they explicitly refute.
Sadoff describes his critical practice as “making use of but not being enslaved by new artistic movements” (History 3), a curious project considering that new theories and praxes differ so radically from his commitment to the personal lyric as to be incompatible. Postmodern critical theories dismantle and disperse the humanistic paradigm of selfhood so thoroughly that they cannot be applied to confessional or single-speaker poems of personal experience; Sadoff's hybrid results in a non-viable creation, the Frankenpoem, an attempt to graft postmodern poetics on an older style of I-centered narratives.
Frankly valorizing lyric poems that depict journeys of self-realization as “authentic,” (History 32, 65, 120, 189, 205) “genuine,” (History 122) and as evidence of the poet's “search for truthfulness.” (History 101), he measures a poem's success against a master narrative of individuation that postmodern theory has interrogated and found fictive.
In his effort to appear simultaneously avant and traditional, Sadoff produces texts that consistently deconstruct themselves. In his earlier book, An Ira Sadoff Reader he condemned “a nostalgia for an essentialist, universal vision” as “comfortably bourgeois” (Reader 194), yet he criticized Carolyn Forché's poetry for being “insufficiently individuated” (Reader 196), as if individuation were not essentialist. His criticism-as-armchair-psychoanalysis is clearly displayed in his pronouncement of John Berryman's The Dream Songs as “his most original contribution to American poetry” because of
Here Sadoff follows Peter Brooks, Harold Bloom and Ernest Bloch, who developed psychoanalytically-informed interpretations of works of literature and of writers themselves. But Sadoff takes Freudian hermeneutics in another direction by asserting a transcendental signifier from which a poem's meaning emanates: “Here Berryman's quest for faith, for some experience of the spiritual sublime, grows out of his admission of helplessness, his inability to change or to experience sustained love or meaning in the world” (Reader 227).
Rather than orthodox Freudian theory, in both his Reader and in History Matters Sadoff employs the epistemic discourse of humanistic psychology, which apotheosizes the ego. Popularized in the 1960s and 70s by Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and others, ego psychology was charged by philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan with having distorted the meaning of Freud's dictum “Where Id was, there let Ego be.” By privileging ego-consciousness over the unknowable and often terrifying unconscious, this school of psychology uses a vision of the mind comparable to Dante's Commedia without the Inferno . Further, it constitutes an interpretive community with its own ideological discourse, one that Sadoff apparently assumes is universally applicable to poetry.
In Sartrean existentialism “authenticity” is synonymous with ethical commitment, and a similar moral attitude colors Sadoff's approach. Poems that do not conform to his masterplot he finds aesthetically and ethically inferior, as his condemnation in the Reader of Berryman's Sonnets to Chris illustrates: “it ultimately fails as a poem” Sadoff writes “because of its literariness” and “reprehensible misunderstanding of women as an object of his need” (Reader 228).
If authenticity is a criterion for poetic quality, genuine misogyny should work in the poet's favor, but Sadoff is inconsistent; rather than the expression of genuine feelings, his Ruskinian emphasis on art as moral edification requires Berryman's poem to provide a happy ending by virtue of the narrator's personal enlightenment.
Apparently on a mission to protect the poem of self-revelation against all challenges, Sadoff reacts with righteous indignation to its detractors. In the Reader he sounds off about James Merrill's praise for George Bradley's non-confessional poetry:
Affective fallacy or not, this ars poetica is the basis for Sadoff's elevation of poetry of quasi-religious Romantic subjectivism, a literary mode that the postmodern theorists he names have thoroughly deconstructed.
As the hegemony of American confessional poetry gave way in the mid 1980s, other poetic styles rose to prominence. Sadoff devotes an entire chapter in both the Reader and History Matters to an attack on one of those movements, The New Formalism, which advocated a return to metrical and rhymed verse. He travels well-worn ruts as he mounts a defense of free verse, though it hasn't needed one since T.S. Eliot's essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” explained why it isn't as free as its critics think it is. Sadoff not only associates New Formalists with radical right-wing politics and politically incorrect positions in matters of race, class and feminism, he says their chosen style of writing “disguises their fear of and disdain for the intimate” (Reader 192).
Sadoff hoists himself on his own petard when he stereotypes neoformalists by categorically prejudging their motives, politics and emotional health, painting them with the same broad brush dipped in bile. “Neoformalism Revisited” displays in spades two main weaknesses of History Matters ; it deconstructs itself with contradictions, and it distorts fashionable literary theories to fit them to Sadoff's individualistic and monologic poetics.
Midway through the chapter, Sadoff conducts a lengthy discussion of Mikhail Bakhtin, the leading light of Russian Formalism. Sadoff de-radicalizes Bakhtin's ideas about dialogic voices in novelistic fiction by blurring the meaning of one of his key concepts, heteroglossia, which taken in its full force completely undermines the lyric monologue Sadoff favors.
In his essay “Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics” Bakhtin developed a dialogic approach to voice in literature, citing Dostoevsky's ability to create textual spaces in which several voices maintain equal dominance, comprising “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices” in stark contrast to “the monologism of traditional authorial discourse.”
As its roots imply, heteroglossia is “other-speech.” Sadoff however, completely reverses Bakhtin's polyphonic dialogism by pretending it means monologism. To support this distortion, he substitutes for Bakhtin's definition of polyphony another by Linda Park-Fuller: “Polyphony refers not literally to a number of voices, but to the collective quality of an individual utterance; that is, the capacity of my utterance to embody someone else's utterance even while it is mine” (History 46).
For Bakhtin's dialogic “plurality of unmerged voices” Sadoff substitutes Park-Fuller's inflected monologue. This is a clear example of how Sadoff borrows postmodern éclat while shying away from its blunt contradictions of his hermeneutic.
Sadoff misuses Bakhtin's dialogism when he interprets multiple voices in a poem like Louise Glück's “Wild Iris” as the speaker's univocal ventriloquism. “Part of my labor,” Sadoff writes, “is to attend to, to hear and express, a range of voices that reflect the incongruities of a single identity” (History 47).
So committed is he to the lyric's single subject position that he interprets poems as having been written monologically when in fact they comprise multiple dialogic subjectivities. In Jean Day's brilliant and humorous poem “Narratives from the Crib,” for example, a baby metaphysician addresses the issue of binaries: “Quiet and commotion, energy and rest. It looks simple, doesn't it? It's not.” Sadoff however ignores the infant's non-dualistic dasein , situated in pre-verbal unity with phenomena, before language creates the “I.”
“So this poem's inside/outside negotiates the ‘field' of nature at the same time the poem decodes it,” he writes. (History 38) Whatever this sentence may mean, Sadoff's inside/outside distinction imposes on the poem the very Cartesian paradigm it brilliantly collapses.
Postmodern theory replaces the human subject with language as an agent in its own right, speaking through its speakers, thinking their thoughts. This is not a recent insight; Bertrand Russell for example, taking exception to Descartes declaration “I think, therefore I am,” toppled the assumption that thinking requires the agency of a self with two words: “Thoughts occurred.” A Bakhtinian version would read: “Speech occurred.”
Sadoff's attempt to update his psychological approach to poetry would benefit by including Lacan's revision of Freudian theory, as well as Michel Foucault's “new hermeneutic of the subject.” In the Écrits Lacan explains how and why the “I” is imaginary, sustaining its sense of singularity and autonomy by misprision of the actualities of its existence, which speak and think it. According to Lacan, no speaker can be adequately represented by the “I” since otherness exists within the subject as opaque alterities in the unconscious.
Further, Sadoff's attempt to rescue the monologic poem needs explicit defense in light of the work of Derrida and DeMan who, following Lacan's lead, ruthlessly ferreted out unintended meanings in texts that dismantle ostensible intentionality. The confessional or lyric poem denies the contrarian subject position of the unconscious, which undermines ostensible authorial intentions as it attempts, as in dreams, to both satisfy and disguise its unknowable desires.
Sadoff's critiques fail to acknowledge the monumental shift in literature brought about by literary theories now included in the curricula of most university English departments. Students of literature required to read texts like Wimsatt and Beardsley's “The Intentional Fallacy” as well as New-Historical, Post-Colonial, Queer, Feminist, Black, linguistic and philosophical literary theories learn to question the possibility of "genuine" confessional poetry since multiple and irreconcilable readings preclude “authentic” self-revelation.
Perhaps the strongest misreading in the book is Sadoff's attempt to interpret Anne Waldman's prose poem “Stereo” from her book Marriage: A Sentence as monologic, when the poem performatively deconstructs the notion of individuality: “You will hear everything twice, through your ears & the ears of the other. When you are married you can play play with names names & rename yourself if you like” (History 28).
Throughout the text Waldman employs the device of doubling a word to express a new subject position that conventional usage does not accommodate, a state of being she calls “twoness” and “both both.” Waldman, a student of Buddhism who studied with the Tibetan lama Trungpa Rinpoche, doubles her words to accommodate her vision of a double subject occupying a single subject position, despite grammatical requirements that work against such a project.
In his interpretation of the poem, Sadoff quotes from Laura Baldwell's article in Jacket magazine, “Anne Waldman's Both Both” in which Baldwell observes that Waldman's doubling “provides a means for looking at binaries, even the gender binary, as a non-hierarchal entity” (History 27), yet he completely misses Baldwell's main point, which is that Waldman's verbal doubling undermines the subject-object split as ideology . He sees the poem rather as reifying the very dualism Waldman dismantles.
Interpreting Waldman's line “You need need separate separate electronicmail accounts accounts,” Sadoff writes: “the individual is in danger of losing a sense of herself as an autonomous being” (History 29) when in fact the line performs marriage with words, as much as language allows. With this line Waldman anathematizes the social machinery that stamps out identities and tags them with unique social security, credit car, bank account and telephone numbers, reinforcing the fiction of the separate self. Her “both both” usage is an escape from what Frederic Jameson calls “the prison-house of language.” Waldman's title is instructive: Just as stereo sound occupies separate spatial locations yet is one listening experience, her poem “Stereo” represents her refusal to be limited by grammar to the fiction of a single subject position. Duplicating the noun denoting the subject is performative of its plural situatedness.
When Sadoff asserts that “history matters” he apparently means only the history of monologic poetry, as if literature that interrogates the possibility of selfhood did not have a long and respectable tradition of its own. Besides the famous impersonal theory of poetry in T.S. Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” plentiful evidence exists in the work of Joyce, Beckett and others of radicality with regard to plural and vacant subject positions, narrative agency, and the dialogism of heteroglossia. When he wrote “Je est un autre” Rimbaud anticipated the postmodernism dismantling of individuality that Sadoff ignores in his effort to maintain the viability of the monologic subject for contemporary poetry.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
--- The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Mariner Books, 1975.
Lacan, Jacques.Écrits, A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York, W.W. Norton, 1977.
Sadoff, Ira. History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture. Ames: U of Iowa P, 2009.
--- An Ira Sadoff Reader, Selected Poetry and Prose. Middlebury: Middlebury College Press, 1992..
Return to Table of Contents