Joshua Clover and Chris Nealon / Letter Six: on Value and Poetry

Chris Nealon

Dear Joshua,

Thank you for your postcard. I would have liked to be in this village you describe, in a café with free coffee for the regulars and “Bittersweet Symphony” wafting through the room. There was a time when San Francisco must have felt like that, or neighborhoods there, the Polk, the Castro, the Mission – migration-destinations, exile-termini, experiments in freedom … even when I arrived, in the late 1990s, I felt I could still live off the history that had been built up here.

That sounds parasitic, though, or nostalgic – but I didn’t feel belated, or sheepish. I was glad to be here, to live in a queer urban world, to have a faux-millenial Long Boom to laugh at.

I’m thinking about San Francisco partly because I’m soon to make my seasonal migration back to Washington DC, but also because I think about its specialness as a kind of obverse of the specialness you describe in the village. What I liked about your description was how it highlighted the quotidian aspects of the chosenness there, the way small gestures, quiet commitments, could build up around the abstractions that led people there, and dislodge or outmaneuver those abstractions. I’m sitting in a very avant-hip café in the Mission, and thinking about the ferocity of the collective fetishization of SF, about how minutely the environment of the café is curated, from the polished concrete floors to the open-plan arrangement, the roaster visible in back, by which the coffee, so obviously industrial, is insisted-on as artisanal. I guess that’s the key fantasy of production in the bay area, isn’t it, the willful misreading of industry for artisanality, which feels akin to the third-way cyber-liberalism of the region … both the fantasy of artisanal labor and the dream of the internet involve a wish for a world that could change radically without anybody getting hurt. The fierceness of this very understandable desire, to which I intermittently succumb, goes a long way toward explaining the equal fierceness of liberal hatred of left radicalism, since that radicalism seems to endanger everything liberals would like to preserve – beautiful life, under ugly conditions.

So I look around me at the beautiful people in this room, most of them young, and I can feel in the back of my mind the algorithm running, the where-would-you-stand-come-revolution algorithm, and I’m surprised as ever to find that my own enduring fantasy is that, however festooned these kids all are with the right bags and the right shoes and the right computer, and the right music in their ears – just like me – they could toss it. I know – I know! – you do not feel this way at all, and I think you’re probably right to reject, and I’m wrong to have, this fantasy. Even if it turned out to be a good guess about the ability of this class of young people to un-curate their lives, to give up the high cost of their privileges, it would still be a guess about a class whose actions in the scene of revolution would only be part of the story. Would the millennial hipster-kids, with the promise of their dominance dwindling before them, ally themselves with the global underclass long enough to survive the blandishments of the plutocrats, designed to lure them out of it? Will the global poor be left holding the bag, again? Will 2026 look like 1848?

No one knows. So I try to think local. The guy sketching on the cover of the voluminous book he brought here to read, the high-five the two girls on the sidewalk give each other as they unlock their bikes and go, the sexy attention to detail on the transman’s stubble … which way will all this tilt, someday? Well – maybe it’s wrong to think of “somedays.” Maybe “meanwhiles?” I like that better, because it’s the best way I know to think about the relationship between poetry and history. Meanwhile, poetry was being written …

Anyway I don’t want to finish replying to you without at least suggesting why, this summer, worn down by academic responsibilities and unable to write a single poem, I’ve nonetheless come around to a refreshed desire for the medium, a reactivated sense that there’s something special, not only about the work of the poets I admire, but about poetry. I generally cringe when I read categorical or definitional statements about poetry and its supposed powers, but I read a wonderful book this summer that helped me think I could keep working towards an account of poetry-qua-poetry whose descriptive force was historical, not categorical. The book is called Knowing Poetry, and it’s co-authored by two medievalists, Sarah Kay and Adrian Armstrong. Briefly: Kay and Armstrong argue that in 13th-century France, as prose begins to arrogate to itself the prestige of facts, poetry, no longer able to claim persuasively that it’s the obvious place to go for factual knowledge of the world, turns to other kinds of knowledge, backs off from its earlier prestige-claims (like the ones made on Homer’s behalf: that poets knew about everything, from shipbuilding to costume design, because isn’t it all in The Odyssey?), and gains a kind of slightly melancholic aura-status as a result, much like the way (Kay and Armstrong suggest) that black and white photography, in the era of the rise of color, doesn’t disappear or become irrelevant, so much as become auratic, less “technological” and more …

More what? Well, in the medieval cases that Kay and Armstrong outline, more esoteric – and capable of tilting in comic or melancholic directions, depending on which earlier textual tradition a given poem might be leaning on: a wistful Boethian one, say, or an erotically-charged Ovidian one.

I mention all this because I came to appreciate the way Kay and Armstrong describe how the esoteric knowledges they suggest accrue to the idea of “poetry” involve an argument that we may not have a factual knowledge (as opposed to, say, a dialectical one) about the totality of human experience, now or ever, regardless of what the masters of prose might want us to believe. I can’t help finding this version of “poetry” appealingly scrappy, even given the semi-courtly context of poetic production Kay and Armstrong describe. What I’m trying to say is that their book has helped me see why, in totality-circa-2011, poetry feels like a good medium in which to take the temperature, or judge the velocity, of whatever in us is making and being made by history, and to hear in that imaginary “us” something humble and ferocious.

I don’t mean to be mystical, or to suggest that the best thing about poetry is how it can make itself into a word-cloud of unknowing. Indeed I’m trying hard not to read our correspondence through a melancholy framework in which what we most share is our forlornness about the absence of a revolution. I’ve tried to write against that. And in a great conversation with Aaron Vidaver the other night in Berkeley, he shook me clear of this habit of mine by casually distinguishing between movements – someday, at last — and struggles, right here and now. He did this in a way that made me feel sheepish for thinking as much as I do about revolution. Or for thinking about it the way I sometimes do, Adornian-ly, wistfully.

That doesn’t seem, finally, like a great way to think about poetry either, however well the European poetic tradition has facilitated a link between poetry and melancholy (more on that another day, on the lovely troubadour allure of erotic “hopelessness,” and how it becomes a poetic metaphor for the unlikeliness of political liberation, cf Jeremy Prynne). I’ve been going on so long because I mean to tell you that absent my contact with intentional communities of any scale, poetry is proving my best tool, still, for mocking-up guesses about people’s capacity to wriggle free of wrong life. This makes me feel less lonely.

Speaking of which, I missed you while you were gone. And soon we’ll be on opposite coasts, again, while the school-year kicks into gear. Is loyalty to friends afar like hewing to the possibility for collective life, however implausible? There may be none, ever. But that’s where the fierceness comes in: this meanwhile, this friendship, needs no possible future.

OK, take care,






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