Reading up on novelist Joanna Scott for an article, I came across the work of the novelist’s husband, James Longenbach, and his book of criticism, Modern Poetry After Modernism. It’s a great read. I bring this up because of posts around Blogland–here, here, and here, most notably–addressing schools, coteries, gangs of writers–poets in particular. It reminds me of the chapter “Ashbery and the Individual Talent,” in which he quotes Ashbery (he’s writing about visual art, I suppose, since it’s from his Reported Sightings), writing about the “loyalty oath mentality” that many of we artists have:
In both art and life today we are in danger of substituting one conformity for another … We feel in America that we have to join something, that our lives are directionless unless we are part of a group, a clan–an idea very different from the European one … Is there nothing then between the extremes of Levittown and Haight-Ashbury, between an avant-garde which has become a tradition and a tradition which is no longer one? In other words, has tradition finally managed to absorb the individual talent?
That Ashbery is writing this–actually, as I check my source, it’s a lecture he gave at the Yale Art School–in 1968 means a couple of things, not the least of which that these kinds of debates have gone on for a long time–say, since the beginning of the 20th Century. But it also means that this notion of collective and individual writers is, on a very basic level, an American one, one that involves words like power, cache, street cred, marketing angles, the poetics of disruption, New Sincerity, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, confessional, autocthonic song, the American Foot. All of these are ways to, depending on how you look at it, help the reader and the hapless and desperate scholar, or consolidate the kind of groupthink one only associates in disciplines and arts where there is absolutely nothing at stake, save ridicule and bragging rights.
This also reminds me of the great story from John Cage’s Indeterminancy, in which he describes a couple other fields with low stakes; I quote it here without the Cagean formatting:
Once when I was in Ann Arbor with Alexander Smith, I said that one of the things I liked about botany was that it was free of the jealousies and selfish feelings that plague the arts, that I would for that reason, if for no other, given my life to live over again, be a botanist rather than a musician. He said, “That shows how little you know about botany.” Later in the conversation I happened to mention the name of a mycologist associated with another Midwestern university. Incisively, Smith said, “Don’t mention that man’s name in my house.”