“Extending the Document: The Twenty-First Century Long Poem and the Archive”


My dissertation, “Extending the Document: The Twenty-First Century Long Poem and the Archive,” was accepted by the graduate school this month.

Here’s an abstract:

The shifting field of contemporary North American poetry is witnessing a dramatic efflorescence of the long poem. After a decade that intensely questioned the use and value of poetry, contemporary poets are now asserting their work’s social and cultural necessity through sprawling structures and expansive forms. Changing conditions and conceptions of the archive, as well as the urgency of a post-9/11 political milieu, have pressured writers of long poems to radically redefine poetic competence and, by extension, the role of the poet. I argue that the unorthodox practices of the contemporary long poem, which repurpose found materials and documentary evidence through non-literary and interdisciplinary skills, represent a profound critique of archival control and form the basis for a new oppositional politics.

The ambition of what I call the “archival long poem” is not to “include history” in the totalizing manner of Pound’s Cantos but to recover micro-histories that require either focused, documentary research or non-archival sources of remembering. If the ultimate horizon of the modernist and late-modernist long poem—from Louis Zukofsky’s “A” to Ronald Johnson’s Ark—was the breadth of the comprehensive collection, then the contemporary archival long poem aspires to the depth of the specialized monograph. And whereas modernism provided compositional strategies to consolidate a cultural heritage in an age of textual excess, contemporary poetic practice generates new representational values from such excess of proliferating documentation as well as from archival omissions that represent undocumented heritages. Departing from post-Romantic and modernist techniques, writers of contemporary long poems embrace extreme, non-normative, or deliberately anti-poetic aesthetics. They aim not to control the archive through aesthetic mastery but to relinquish control so as to highlight the refractoriness and alterity of archival materials. Their poems daringly put poetry—as a stable, recognizable category—at risk in a gamble for cultural meaningfulness. Such poems, then, should not be evaluated solely by criteria based on rhetorical control, figuration, lyric expressivity, and musicality. Rather, we should understand skills such as copying, transcription, and appropriation as responses to the new ways we are storing, managing, and accessing information in a digital age.

My first chapter discusses Amiri Baraka’s inflammatory poem “Somebody Blew Up America” and R.B. Kitaj’s Second Diasporist Manifesto: A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses, two texts that profoundly register the urgency of writing after 9/11. If both Baraka and Kitaj exemplify a Derridean “archive fever,” that is, a burning search for historical causes and explanations, they also expose the limitations of the archive’s explanatory and institutive powers. I posit that the anaphoric questioning of “Somebody Blew Up America” constitutes an inventory to an archive that doesn’t yet exist, pointing to numerous gaps in the historical record. By performing the paranoia of conspiracy theory, Baraka’s poem is a powerful, if at times repulsively polemical, critique of archival positivism. If Baraka highlights the need for new documentary information, Kitaj wishes to keep the materials that he accumulates in perpetual process. He imagines his loose and prosaic collection of quotations and images as a registry—a utopian locus in which knowledge and information constantly circulate in service of building a new Jewish art. I argue that “Somebody Blew Up America” and Second Diasporist Manifesto—which have been dismissed and disparaged by critics on literary grounds—should be evaluated as poetry by the way they challenge our management of collective memories and propose the creation of new ones.

My second chapter analyzes the use of found materials in Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poem Day and Mark Nowak’s photo-documentary series “Hoyt Lakes / Shut Down.” Goldsmith and Nowak recycle the outdated material of old newspapers in order to redefine literary and writerly competence. Day, a transcription of an entire issue of the New York Times, perversely monumentalizes the ephemerality of yesterday’s news. Goldsmith, who alternately retyped and scanned the obsolete document, provocatively links the work of the poet with the work of the journalist, copyist, and secretary. Nowak’s “Hoyt Lakes / Shut Down,” on the other hand, records job loss and economic hardship throughout the Minnesota iron range. Through amateur photography and the appropriation of local newspaper articles, Nowak recovers the stories of “obsolete” workers whose words threaten to get swept aside by the meta-narrative thrust of deindustrialization. Goldsmith’s uncreative plagiarism and Nowak’s DJ-like sampling in the service of a new labor journalism offer alternatives to a poetry of fine art that has rigidified into a predictable professionalism.

While the poems I examine in chapter two were interested in reframing large swaths of textual material produced in our age of information overload, the long poems I study in chapter three explore the flipside of such archival superabundance. We are, in fact, living in an age when there is both too much and not enough archive, and poets Brenda Coultas and C.D. Wright employ field work to document historical and social issues that are in desperate need of archivization. For Coultas and Wright, on-site presence is equally as important as the writing itself. Coultas’ “The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of my County)” investigates that which eludes the physical archive: it is a poem based on explorations of remaining sites of underground railroad activity in Indiana. While not able to recover any physical evidence, Coultas documents her own fieldwork as a conceptual performance, transmitting cultural knowledge and identity through a non-object-based epistemology. Wright’s One Big Self documents the lives of men and women incarcerated in three Louisiana prisons; her poem is at once an effort to archive “the real feel of hard time” as well as to raise awareness about populations who have been filed away to lower hierarchies of social memory.

My fourth chapter focuses on Anna Rabinowitz’s Darkling, a poetic engagement with the Holocaust, and M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!, a tale “that can’t be told” about the horrors of transatlantic slavery. Both poets employ unconventional formal constraints in bearing witness to what Giorgio Agamben calls “the unforgettable.” Darkling, an 80-page acrostic poem which spells out Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” along its left-hand margin, draws on family letters and photographs to narrate the fragmented story of two families that suffered dire losses during World War II. Powerfully responding to Adorno’s misunderstood dictum that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, Rabinowitz fills the interstices of Hardy’s poem with lyric fragments of epic weight. Also a work based on radical constraint, Philip’s Zong! is a nearly 200-page poem based on rearrangements of a 500-word legal decision (the decision of the notorious “Zong” case determined who was financially liable for the cost of 150 forcibly drowned slaves). Philip’s poem dramatically brushes a document of barbarism against the grain in order to speak for those whose lives weren’t deemed fit for archivization. Through procedural and processual methods of composition, Rabinowitz and Philip stage the breakdown and transformation of form in an effort to honor unsayable testimony.

If we accept Muriel Rukeyser’s claim that “poetry can extend the document”—that is, that poems can both productively re-circulate existing cultural materials within their aesthetic structures and extend our awareness to undocumented subjects—then the long poems that I study also extend their documentary work across disciplinary lines. “Extending the Document” begins to answer crucial questions of how to evaluate poetry and contemporary art in an age when what exactly constitutes artisanal skill and competence is frustratingly but also refreshingly unsettled.

A big thanks goes to my committee: Harriet Davidson, Brent Edwards, Evie Shockley, and Dee Morris.

~ by Michael Leong on November 23, 2012.

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