Poetry | Books & Ideas

Nearly Baroque

April 11, 2014

"It's the opposite of / Baroque, so I want / none of it,” Angie Estes declares in a poem called “Sans Serif,” from Chez Nous (2004). That brisk and irregularly rhymed poem announces Estes’s opposition not only to the form-follows-function, no-frills side of modernism, but also to any attempt to make poems resemble spontaneous, unornamented speech. Her poem now looks like a manifesto for a set of contemporary poets and poems. Call them nearly Baroque, or else almost rococo. (We probably need both terms—I will say why below.) Their poetry seeks the opposite of simplicity, preferring the elaborate, the contrived, taking toward sound play and simile the attitude of King Lear: “O, reason not the need!”

But it can seem just simple enough in its goals. The twenty-first-century poets of the nearly Baroque want art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first. It is art that cannot be reduced to its own explanation, that shows off its material textures, its artificiality, its descent from prior art, its location in history. These poets want an art that can always give, or could always show, more.

How could you identify a nearly Baroque poem if you saw one? Nearly Baroque poems exhibit elaborate syntax and sonic patterning, without adopting pre-modernist forms (they never look or sound like Richard Wilbur). If they derive technique from a modernist poet, it is always Marianne Moore. The poems have subjects—things and characters in a preexisting, historical world—and often include proper nouns. But they rarely focus on one subject; instead, they weave together several topics or scenes in sinuously complicated, multiply subordinated sentences. They may compare their own intricacies to other intricately made things: textiles, jewelry, household machines, braids, spiral staircases, DNA. The nearly Baroque is also a femme aesthetic, and all its practitioners know it; almost all are women, and some of them turn their ornaments into feminist ripostes against sexist assumptions about what is important, why poetry might or might not matter, what poems can do.

Some poets have pursued a nearly Baroque aesthetic for almost the whole of their careers. Angie Estes and Robyn Schiff seem to me the most important among these poets, and my sense of the nearly Baroque comes first from what they create. It is a term that, if it works properly, ought to show why these two poets, in particular, reward all the scrutiny that we can spare. Other poets, such as Hailey Leithauser and Marsha Pomerantz, adopt the aesthetic in their recent first books, and others still—among them Nada Gordon, Lucie Brock-Broido, Ange Mlinko, Kiki Petrosino, and Geoffrey Nutter—have come to a similar stance more recently, or made it just one part of their present-day style.

All these poets defend traditionally feminine ideas of beauty and extravagance against the macho or butch insistence on practicality, on political utility, on philosophical novelty, or on efficiency that has characterized other trends and schools from modernism to conceptualism and beyond. At the same time, these poets tend to note—they may even sound guilty about—the serious effort and energy devoted to making such complicated, luxurious, or apparently useless things as contemporary literary poems. Their authors might be called innovative in spite of themselves: their works, despite divergent backgrounds, resemble one another in ways that they resemble nothing else, today or from the past, and together they can help us think about why we want, or need, any art at all.

• • •

“Baroque” in its usual sense denotes art, literature, and music from approximately the last two-thirds of the seventeenth century, such as the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Luis de Góngora, distinguished by some combination of complexity, virtuosic technique, asymmetry, grandeur, theatricality, and violence. “Baroque artists do not stage the natural or the realistic,” writes the art historian Roy Eriksen, but instead “produce marvel and even shock.” Rococo style, the eighteenth-century successor to the Baroque in at least some of the arts in at least some of Western Europe, substituted decoration for grandeur, flirtation for violence, the pastoral for the sublime, pre-Revolutionary Paris for Rome, but it remained elaborately theatrical, serving up, as critic the William Park puts it, “masterfully rendered natural objects that insist upon their artifice.” Art historians disagree as to whether the rococo is the late Baroque, or the antithesis of the Baroque, or somehow both.

Most of these qualities recur in the poetry that Estes has published since the turn of the millennium, especially since her fourth book, Chez Nous. The poems say as much, too, describing and even naming—as well as demonstrating—the nearly Baroque in simile after simile. Take the first lines in the first poem in her new book, Enchantée, “Per Your Request” (the title runs into the poem):

gilded bronze rosettes once pressed
through the Pantheon’s dome like stars
 
filling the coffers of the sky,
and history posed especially
for you, its spree become
repose.

We live in history, like it or not (these Roman sights say); we were never here first. The poem concludes with riffs on the sounds in “crow” before it returns to “rose,” “pose,” “request”:

You always loved
 
the way a crow’s
caw caw caw hangs
 
in the sky like a claw,
a crowbar that pries open
 
the day: a posse of roses coming
to possess you.

Crows seek carrion; posses arrive to arrest and confine, as the grave confines its dead, and so the elaboration ends in a warning, a memento mori. Estes’s roses are omens: Enchantée sounds a lot like Chez Nous, and like Estes’s Tryst (2009), but it differs from them in its concentration of elegies. In “I Want to Talk About You,” “Fifty flocks of fifteen to twenty starlings . . . suddenly rise” in “a reveling that molts sorrows to roost // rows, roost rows to sorrows as they soar.” These starlings mourn, too, shifting in flight as anagrams shift: “grass lint, snarl gist, gnarls / sit. Art slings them this way, last grins.” Again Estes summons the Baroque by name, in a poem entitled "Ars Poetica”:

I once dreamed a word entirely
Baroque: a serpentine line of letters leaning
with the flourish of each touching the shoulder
of another so that one breath at the word’s
beginning made them all collapse.

This word could stand for any of Estes’s poems. In them, as in much Baroque and rococo art, motion is life: nothing will stand still, and nothing stands up on its own. (“The S-curve, the serpentine line,” Park writes, is “universally acknowledged as one of the defining features of the rococo . . . . Such curves are commonly thought to be feminine.”) Estes’s imagined motions, the serpentine curves of her irregular lines, take her not only from artwork to artwork but also from place to place, stitching together in her imagination, within a single poem, “the chasm of the Siq, the city of Petra / carved in its side” in present-day Jordan, “the unclaimed / cremated remains of those known as / the incurably insane at Oregon State Hospital,” and “the lapis lazuli seas of Hokusai seen / from outer space.” Her poem “History” starts with Mallarmé and Loie Fuller, brings in William James and Joseph Conrad, and explains how

Leonardo’s double-helix
staircase at Chateau Chambord wraps
              its arms around its own quiet
center, makes sure that the person going
              up and the one coming down
              never meet.

Estes’s spiraling lines make staircase shapes too, though she does want the people in her poems, as well as their topics, to meet. She writes “on behalf of life, its befogged aioli / logic, its belief a-go-go.” For her, complexity, asymmetry, sensory delight, and ornament are life: they are signs and reasons for it. Simplicity, on the other hand—reductiveness, single answers, plainness—is death; it is what we get when we stop asking for more.

She is not alone in her thinking. Gilles Deleuze defined the Baroque not as a period but as “an operative function,” a way of thinking, acting, or being that “endlessly produces folds” and according to which “unfolding is thus not the contrary of folding, but follows the fold up to the following fold.” In this definition—derived from Deleuze’s interpretations of G. W. Leibniz—everything is connected to everything, but nothing is wholly identified with anything else (the Baroque is for splitters, not lumpers), nothing moves in a straight line, and anything that looks like a whole is a part: “what is folded . . . exists only in an envelope, in something that envelops it.” These models of folds within folds represent the interdependence, but also the distinction, between body and soul.

We can find these ideas—the inevitability of metaphor, the enfolding of matter and spirit, the strange isolation of souls—all over contemporary poetry. But the nearly Baroque poem pursues them also as a matter of style: to read such a poem is to follow involutions, unfolding and re-foldings, re-linkings whose analogies do not end but double back into what Mlinko calls “A Not Unruffled Surface” marked by trouvailles. Its poets seem uncommonly fond not only of long, complex sentences, but of simile, in part because similes can form braids: A is like B is like C, which resembles both A and D.

• • •

The first American book to be nearly Baroque, if it is not Estes’s 2002 collection Voice-Over, might be Robyn Schiff’s Worth, from the same year. There, most of the poems take their titles either from species of finches or from houses of fashion. Some of them read as if Schiff had immersed herself in Deleuze: “House of Dior,” for example, begins, “Now we are on the chapter of pleats. / The impatience to fold, the joys of having folded, / the pleasures of folding them again.” One of her figures for poetry itself, from Revolver (2008), is “de la Rue’s Envelope Machine,” “with output of twenty-seven hundred / envelopes an hour.” The mass production of envelopes—Schiff’s syllabic stanzas say—is a “paper-folding mystery” involving “the instantaneous / transformation of / matter,” almost like the placement of souls within bodies, or the making of words into poems. All these processes might harbor a dangerous secret:

Friend, don’t
unbend, to see what’s written, even one wing of
the paper crane the king’s master
folder made of the document you’re
 
transporting. Your inability to
fold it back will be
cited by the
master unfolder at your brief
treason hearing.

The sentences fold and unfold, concealing internal rhyme (“friend,” “unbend”), and they suggest that poems encode sentiments that, put into plain text, could kill the bearer.

Schiff gets her ideas from all over, but her reticulated style from Marianne Moore—Schiff has said that reading Moore “gave me permission . . . to become the poet I wanted to become.” Yet the traits Moore reserves for villains—showiness, boastfulness, conscious striving for effect—are everywhere evident in Schiff: everything marvelous has to be both good and bad, both ingenious and dangerous (much of Revolver concerns the fabrication of weapons). Elaborate language and rococo detail-work can show that we live in an ancien régime, where “the future is a Louis XVI teacup / saving itself for you.”

Elaboration can also become a protest against any demand that our work must turn a profit or show a heteronomous use. Perhaps poetry needs no use at all; or perhaps it should do many things, all of them mysterious and beautiful and inefficient, like Schiff’s “Eighty-Blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rodgers and Sons”:

I once
mailed myself my sportsman’s knife in
a box sealed so tight I could not open
it without what was inside and my heart flipped
the various blades open
in silence inside the closed box.

Schiff’s newest work emphasizes the dangers and bad faith of artifice—of the illimitable associations and likenesses poetic language (or perhaps any language, any human action) contains. Much of it also addresses motherhood. In “Nursery Furniture,” Schiff helps install a rocking chair for her new baby, and its imperfect complications—themselves pursued in spiraling syllabics—remind her of the tangled-up lines in nature connecting everything dangerous to everything else: “I held the ideal steel coil to the / light and saw the spiral / staircase out of the machine / the clematis in my yard / unwinds up along its own concertina / wire, wheeling soft turbines up the / porch screen.”

So apprehensive about the powers in its elaborately crafted things (knives, viral DNA, hunters’ calls, bourgeois humanism), Schiff’s poetry can seem extraordinarily conscious of neo-avant-garde attacks on beauty, craft, and workmanship—on what Marcel Duchamp called “retinal art”—even as it exemplifies the versions of craft it attacks.

Nearly Baroque poets want art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first.

But can the nearly Baroque be post-avant-garde? Can a poet whose craft, whose sense of line and sense of audience, emerged from meta- or anti-art movements, from attempts to challenge art as a category, embrace the ornamented pro-art stance that is nearly Baroque? The answer, heavily qualified, seems to be yes: that poet is Nada Gordon, who emerged from the sarcastic bad-is-good, publicity-is-better early 2000s school called Flarf. Gordon’s Vile Lilt defends ornament through advice that verges on parody:

Wear your costumes with conviction—by which
we mean decide which picture you will make of yourself,
make it and then enjoy it! It is only by letting
your personality animate your costume
that you make yourself superior to the lay figure
or the sawdust doll. Swathe it in clouds of fake smoke,
snake oil, blue taupe silk, a tangle of vines.
I hover as a fever, I serve as a hot welt.

Gordon’s hot words sound like familiar defenses of (inter alia) drag queens, whose lives are as authentic as anyone else’s, though their wigs and scarves are longer. She goes on to align herself with such aesthetes as Oscar Wilde and J. K. Huysmans’s des Esseintes, declaring, “Flowers are nature’s readymades. The words of ‘others’ / are warm salt blossoms.” Gordon’s copious poem (she calls it a “torrid cornucopia”) goes on to recommend “Proper regard / for the ‘intimate little feminine things’—that is the secret / of charming individuality. Gathered rosebuds, re-strewn.”

Between her dense description and her incorporated clichés, Gordon sounds partly, but only partly, sarcastic. We should be able to define ourselves through charm, through miniature detail, especially if we are women (these poems imply), but we should never be required to do so. “Can one possibly escape / our theme—Woman as Decoration?” Gordon asks. “No, for she is carved in wood and stone. . . . She gleams in the jeweled windows of the monitor.” This iconic, historically durable Woman is the muse of Gordon’s poetry now, and also the muse of the decorative arts, including dress (“One sets out gaily to study costume”). Geoffrey Nutter also wonders whether his poetry comes close, or too close, or just close enough, to the arts of decoration, to what entertains us because it has never been needed: to fireworks, for example, with their “lavender // globes of obsolescence,” their “floating / tactile globes of opalescence,” or to a dessert, “sweet and useless ball of sugar icing.” Estes’s Chez Nous, for its part, likens poetry to dessert, to “l’opera cake,” to “icing,” to an eclair, to an amuse-bouche.

Like the rest of these books, Vile Lilt defends (sometimes ambivalently, or guiltily) the arts of decoration. More than the rest of them, it sets out to attack, or mock, some political radicals' overambitious goals. Gordon's exultant, funny prose poem "Poets Must Be Millners" substitutes, almost systematically, words about girly decorative arts for words about politics and revolution from a rather macho manifesto, "Poetry and Militancy,” by Brian Ang. Gordon’s prose turns militants into milliners, and converts Ang’s urge for “calls to action, didacticism, rhetoric, and statements of ideological contestation” into a request for a “Charming Poetics,” with “Deliciousness of calls to idleness, dawdling, prettiness, and statements of idiosyncratic constellations.” She also offers a jittery verse manifesto, “Poetry is Junk”:

Heavy with terms like a cop’s belt, we melt
into our styles. Love
is all around, a minty concept
on a pendunculate sphere. Let’s say
we understand things only by analogy:
where does that leave us
—my darlings—
in the ocean of original things?

You can tell Gordon came from downtown, from a world where Flarf versus conceptualism has been the match of the day. But you can also tell where she is going: toward Marianne Moore. Gordon’s poem called “Poetry,” like Moore’s poem of the same name, begins “I, too, dislike it.” Gordon then goes her own way: “there are things I dislike / even more: toe rings, avocado, gold jewelry, sweetened muesli, / tattoos.” It can be hard to know when Gordon is kidding, but it can also be all too easy to tell. There is something too shallowly comic, too Sarah Silverman, in a poem that ends “Vagina Smelling / Like A Flower. // Like a flower-jeweled egg.” But there is also something seriously corrective in the project for which “Poetry Is Junk” serves as direction, and the vagina-flower a reductive extreme. Like the poets recently dubbed the Gurlesque—all of them rawer, less elaborate, less attached to older art than the poets named here— and like the poet-critics who write for the terrific Web site Delirious Hem, Gordon is taking images and effects long degraded or derided as girly, as costumey, as excessive, as femme, and amping them up to the point where we might ask ourselves why they were mocked before, and what our urge to mock—or embrace—them reveals.

• • •

Ange Mlinko, like Gordon, began as a very different kind of poet, one whose improvised fragmentation came partly from indie rock and partly from the New York School. But she too has now incorporated the devices, the concerns, of the nearly Baroque. Mlinko’s new work keeps asking whether art in general and her art in particular is overelaborate, useless, decadent, like the “eggshell balcony railings” in seaside suburbs, “green-grape sunlight spilling on the metallurgical / sound of the waves—more like staves— / collapsing, / and so collapsing every riff into one note.” Perhaps poems are like the doomed textiles of Arachne, or the unraveled thread of Ariadne (“I mix up Arachne with Ariadne: / similar name, similar gesture”). But perhaps the thread of Mlinko’s own art maintains its claims on us after all: perhaps it can rescue us from feeling insignificant, or overwhelmed. Mlinko’s “Cantata for Lynette Roberts,” named for a form whose origins are Baroque, takes up arts marked as feminine in Mlinko’s suburban existence (sewing, home gardening), and it asks how Mlinko, like the Welsh modernist poet Roberts, could make an art at once modern, individual, complicated, connected to women’s experience, and neither warlike nor “hard”:

“I was rendering a ‘whipping’ stitch,” Lynette wrote, on a silk-and-georgette petticoat, the utility of which would be tested in Dover, where Keidrych had been called up to man the antiaircraft guns. . . .
Insofar as Croton is rank with cotyledons, insofar as weeding is gleeful, insofar as the seedcase still caps their tips, I am revising the look of spring on the face of the village. . . .
Lynette, if you were here, I’d ask you the one salient question for a woman at the midpoint of life:
How not to harden?

The nearly Baroque also turns up in mid-career poets with more conventional narrative goals. Estes is one; another is Sandra Meek, whose Road Scatter (2012) plays the involuted syntax and the catenas of similes in her poems against the harshness of what they describe—bodies ripped open in motor vehicle accidents, slow death from cancer:

visiting my mother these terminal days mostly means following
      her shifting commandments how to best rearrange
contents of pink vomit tubs she stacks
      on her hospital bed, fallow ones holding
her smallest belongings: pencil and cracker packets and tiny
      spiral notebooks spooling memos she
 
increasingly dictates, like the one demanding
      her right to vanilla ice cream and chocolate
ice cream and by god chocolate-
      vanilla-swirl ice cream, composed when she woke
from five days maximum-dosing morphine.

Why save such things? Why demand, not just ice cream, but swirled, braided, folded, elaborate ice cream? Reason not the need: the collections of packets (in vomit tubs) are like the apparently useless collocations of words poets arrange into poems. Meek, like the other poets I have quoted, shows what the media critic Angela Ndalianis calls a “central characteristic of the baroque,” a “lack of respect for the limits of the frame.” Her sentences—like Mlinko’s, Schiff’s, and Estes’s—run from scene to scene, from point to point, from enjambed line to enjambed line. Meek can suffer from too-simple notions of beauty, seeking not jeweled words but words for jewels (“diaphanous / sapphire globes,” “a cell tower / star-pulsed”). Yet her simile-driven, multiply subordinated sentences also show how “there are no clean lines / to the heart.”

We can also find the nearly Baroque in some recent first books. Erica Bernheim, who studied alongside Schiff at Iowa, specializes in the almost-adult, not-quite-committed love poem: “Roll over and tell me you’re a sofa, / backboned by an old quilt, tied to the notion / of design.” Her lovers communicate through their collections; without their nearly Baroque storms of flying objects, they could not escape to where they belong, in ridiculous escapades made possible only by a deliberately unrealistic imagination:

It is so nice to think of you, rappelling with bed sheets,
or without, tied around your middle and tied to one end
of a bed framed with photos of barbells from the days
of great holy mastiffs, along with wallets, soup cans, ribbons
 
from fashion girls in the eighties, sported, braided three times
around one common frame.

Note the braids.

Even the clearest love poems in the nearly Baroque mode involve some artifice. The lovers in Bernheim’s “Dialogue for Robots” cram the poem with rococo, not to say trompe l’oeil, paraphernalia:

Our hairplates gleam like roaches in this just-born light.
In front of our eyes are too many ways to breathe.
 
We wish to be admired for our glossolalia and our knowledge of foreign architecture.
We are aware of erotica and its place next to the hearth.
 
One thing we want still is a dainty pitcher shaped like one of our babies.
The last thing we touched abandoned its shape betwixt our mighty fingers.

These robots aspire to a lighter touch, and poets do not come much lighter than Hailey Leithauser, whose first book is nearly Baroque—and more nearly rococo—in its playfulness, its confections of wordplay. Her title, swoop (2013), is “dooms,” upside-down and reversed. In a thin poem called “Loneliness,” an “arrogant inmate”

keeps the rare,
seeded sweet for his mouse,
while the eremite high
on his pillar
pretties his eyebrows, plucks
at his scabs.

Even supposed ascetics seek beauty, Leithauser’s lines aver: we require the aesthetic, or even the cosmetic, almost as much as we require food. Leithauser’s favorite symbols for the artificial, the extra, the “sweet,” are puns and off-rhymes, along with the palindromes she compares to a “Grandiloquent Dictionary”: a sonnet about lust concludes, “Niagara, O roar again!” The wordplay of “Inspiration” conceals a counsel of despair:

Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy
as religion, this is, with its chronic
 
key-and-padlock, hit-and-missy-cerebellum,
its sturm and drangish, bum-
 
rushed, all-thumbed cockalorum.

Leithauser, like Estes, announces with some irony her commitment to plenitude: the first lines in swoop read “If it could speak it would offer / you excess; it would // offer you more.” But the poem is called, and the speaker is a, “Scythe.” Only about half of Leithauser’s book belongs to the aesthetic of the nearly Baroque. The other half, though delightful, belongs almost wholly to the aesthetic of Kay Ryan, whose sharp wit and offhand, confident rhymes are too compact, too practical, too epigrammatic, to belong here.

Marsha Pomerantz, like Bernheim and Leithauser, writes poems that prefer elaboration and indirection to full frontal anything: in “Slut,” from The Illustrated Edge (2011), “it is the almost and the after I // am after,” “the angled glance / off the edge of an eyeful.” Pomerantz has just retired as managing editor at the Harvard Art Museums; her art-historical interest informs “Turner II,” the second of two poems about the same painting. The poem appears as double-spaced lines, shot through with repeated phrases, in what reads as prose:

Life I find don’t you is full of interruption. The clothes out of a dryer and where to fold them and how long do they hold their warmth. For The Burning of the Houses of Parliament Turner reversed the direction of the wind so that flames went toward the Thames, maximizing reflection. In life I like to maximize reflection don’t you. . . . Nanny said mais non non non Eloise and best in the book was the uncombable hair. Life I find is largely uncombable don’t you. That warm towels would be so reassuring in this day and age when attacks in the desert follow fighting between north and south so I’ve stopped reading the news. The gas dryer is controlled wind and fire so who can blame Turner for his lie.

Art must let itself reverse direction, must permit folds, interruptions, even falsifications, must juxtapose the pretty, or the girly, with the unruly and the bloody, in order to represent anything like sense in an otherwise “uncombable” life.

Baroque-era poetry in Spanish and Portuguese, Ndalianis notes, sometimes used visual elements to create “the form of the multicursal labryinth,” with lines that could be read in several directions and “played” like mazes or game boards. One Spanish poem was “constructed like a chessboard, with text included in alternate squares.” Pomerantz has taken up this technique in a poem, called “Potsy with Patty in the Driveway,” arranged in sets of hopscotch squares.

The nearly Baroque, the almost rococo, has neighbors, poets who are doing a similar (but not the same) thing, for (what might be) similar reasons, who started at (more or less) the same time. Some are best called nearly Southern Gothic. Though they too pursue asymmetries, chains of similes, ornamentation and elaboration, these writers, all from the American South—among them Jane Springer, Atsuro Riley, Anna Journey—sound less like Moore than like Gerard Manley Hopkins, if not like William Faulkner. Springer imagines “tendrils of incense allemanding through the first ambrosial jasmine, verdant & white-starflower spring,” her “hair of space parting to make way for the barge of my heart to move on past an outworn parchment.” Riley wedges intricate sound-play (often derived from the Anglo-Saxon) into dense descriptions; here he is about a bell: “The live heft-fact scorch skillet willow-strung low and hanging. / Her heaving shovel-hafts and oars to make it ring.” Journey can imagine her poems as self-conscious acts of hoarding and display, arrangements of things that have lost—or never had—a use: the “hoarder aunt” in Journey’s poem “Black Porcelain French Telephone” “took a truckload of angels / stone frogs, velvet chairs, even the ivory baby / grand piano . . . back to Sacramento for the memory.” Kiki Petrosino, another Iowa graduate, imagines a series of alter egos, some called “the Eater,” others referred to as sisters, who embody the aspects of the nearly Baroque: the character in “A Sister Is a Thought Curving Back on Herself” (note the S-curve again) “wears a skirt stitched from sparrows’ ribs & speaks a language dug from the hum of coal tar. . . . She hears not ginger or Beijinger, though I’ve transmitted these to her in dozens of pink nacelles. She moves in a wish world, pressing her glass cleats down into the mulch.”

Lucie Brock-Broido’s theatrically overextended sentences are—like those of Estes and Schiff—trying to use their attention to beauty, their attempt to make something overtly artificial, as a way to counteract entropy, practicality, time, and death. Much of the recent collection Stay, Illusion (2013) comprises elegies for Brock-Broido’s father: “If my own voice falters, tell them hubris was my way of adoring you, / The hollow of the hulk of you.” The same poem continues: “Will you be buried where; nowhere. // Your mouth a globe of gauze and glossolalia. / And opening, most delft of blue.” Hearing such oversaturated poems is like looking at Baroque ceilings that just barely resolve into scenes of gods and goddesses, or saints and miracles—were they more crowded they would make no sense at all.

Brock-Broido’s style owes little to Moore, and it predates those of the other poets here. I have described it in other terms elsewhere. Yet when read alongside Enchantée or Revolver, Petrosino or Nutter or Meek, Stay, Illusion can make it seem as if Brock-Broido had been waiting for other poets, readers of Moore, admirers of Bernini, to catch up. Her style now looks like what I am tempted to call—following the architectural historian Stephen Calloway—the Baroque Baroque, a mode of excess doubled and tripled, of decadence brought up to date without apology. One of Brock-Broido’s keywords is now “extravagance”: “extravagance of gesture”; “a basin of water, light, shuddering with its own / Extravagance, gone dull from keeping constant company with relentlessness.” That is Baroque indeed, as is the overextension of sentence and syntax beyond what modern expository prose permits. So is the frequent reference to art history. And so is the self-consciousness about frames and framing devices in poems that take their titles from the elements of a poetry book—“Selected Poem,” “Collected Poem,” “Contributor’s Note.”

• • •

All the poets of the nearly Baroque show off a complicated and unconventional technique (you might call them all show-offs). Most of them refer to religious art, religious architecture, or religious history. But none of them seriously proposes that their poems have spiritual or supernatural force. Even Brock-Broido, so drawn to iconography, frequently disclaims religious commitment, as in her poem “Physicism” from Trouble in Mind (2005). The death penalty is so emblematically wrong, for her as for Albert Camus, because this life is the only one we have: that is the sense behind Brock-Broido’s several elegies in Stay, Illusion for people put to death by the American criminal justice system, such as the reformed gang leader and author Tookie Williams. For him, Brock-Broido imagines, in characteristic multiply subordinated sentences, “A thousand inmates’ spoons for music / While the paper kite flies like a boy-weed caught // In wind from San Quentin to nestle in the next / Prison and the next.”

That sense of material life as the only life, of what is here as all we have, brings all these poets closer to rococo. The art critic Glenn Adamson explains, “The rococo dispensed with some features of the baroque (such as its pervasive religiosity) and exaggerated others (its ‘extravagant’ use of ornament),” so that “this seemingly most artificial of styles gave a special place to . . . ‘the real.’” In doing so, the rococo treated its material as an indispensable and irreplaceable occasion for the flourish of the maker’s hand. These poets treat their material—words—that way too. Nutter’s poem “Purple Martin” aligns itself decisively, and a bit sadly, with the rococo, as with other manifestations of decadence:

The absinthe
handlers and the water lobsters in the brine,
the foyer painted black with golden leaves
of rococo design; the lilies and the sea-waves
come; they come, they come to us, and we
have met them with the mystery of what they are.
Yes, Herr Rektor, Man is not a hammer
and the mind is no machine, and the scalloped
shapes of basins under fountains have no function.

Like much of Nutter’s new work, “Purple Martin” amounts to a verse essay in defense of the artifice it describes. Beauty is its own excuse for being, the poem announces, with Emerson, though it sounds anxious, as if it sought further excuses but found none. It might say instead, “reason not the need,” or, with Estes, “glamour is its own / allure.” Nutter warns in a recent interview against poets who “attack their own commitment to beauty for being indulgent and superfluous.” “Beauty is an ultimate good,” he continues, and “poetry . . . will not be made into a tool.”

I have called these poets nearly Baroque, not neo-Baroque, in part because they can get closer to rococo, and in part because “neo-Baroque” has a stack of liens on it: Latin American poets and fiction writers (Severo Sarduy, Jose Lezama Lima) have claimed it for themselves. Both Paul Nelson and Roberto Tejada recommend the Latin American neo-Baroque as a model for North American avant-gardes. Cultural theorists and film critics such as Omar Calabrese and Gregg Lambert label our whole era “neo-Baroque.” The history of “neo-Baroque”—the set of things given the label by some critics, somewhere—also includes twentieth-century couture: Ndalianis names Coco Chanel, Helena Rubinstein, and Elsa Schiaparelli, about whom both Schiff and Estes have written poems.

As I mentioned earlier, it is no coincidence that almost all the poets named here are women. The nearly Baroque aesthetic—like the rococo—lends itself easily to a defense of the feminine, or the femme, against sexist claims that poets must seek importance, contemporaneity, utility, what John Donne called “masculine persuasive force.” (“Feminine” is the opposite of “masculine”; “femme,” which is the opposite of  “butch,” implies either self-consciously chosen personal style, or queer identity, or—often—both.) The same elaborate ways of writing can also become a defense of something instead of nothing, a way out of nihilism. The British critic and poet Angela Leighton, in her important book On Form (2007), has argued that aestheticism is always close to nihilism, belief in form or beauty for its own sake close to belief in “nothing.” The nearly Baroque argues otherwise, making us, as the poet Marc McKee puts it, “celebrant[s] in the throes of nothing,” emphasizing delight in our alterable material world. Form, for these poets, grows out of and exceeds subject, matter, material, the weight of paint, the phonemes in words: form occurs not because we have nothing, but because we want more. And yet the poets are not all sublime celebration; they can sound sad about their inability—thanks to their own talents, or their own temperaments, or our unpropitious time—to make their poems more useful, or more durable, than they are. “Just as a toe makes a delicious curve // in the saturated sand,” McKee writes, “so we move in the air of this world / which will cover the dent we made when we leave.”

The nearly Baroque can even amount to a dare. Since contemporary poetry (at least, the kind that comes in printed books) feels like an ornament anyway—unnecessary, or self-indulgent, or obsolete for almost everyone in America, in a way that was not true in the days of Moore—why not ramp up the ornamental content? Why not, if you are already being treated as mere decoration, become as decorative as you can? “If rococo ornament was a triumph of craft,” Adamson writes, “a moment when workmanship took on the ambitions of complete control over materiality, its innovations were confined within the logic of the detail. They were only possible because they seemed to be trivial.” He might just as well be describing the aspirations, and the limits, of the contemporary lyric poem.

I have been trying to recommend these poets: I admire them very much. Yet I have also been laying out, almost despite myself, a way to read them skeptically, as symptoms of a literary culture that has lasted too long, stayed too late. Engagé readers might say that the nearly Baroque celebrates, and invites us to critique, a kind of last-gasp, absurdist humanism. We value what has no immediate use in order to avoid becoming machine parts, or illustrations for radical arguments, or pawns for something larger, whether it is existing institutions or a notional revolution. And we must keep moving, keep making discoveries, as the scenes and lines and similes of the nearly Baroque poem keep moving, because if we stop we will see how bad—how intellectually untenable, how selfish, or how pointless—our position really is. The same suspicious readers might say that these nearly Baroque poems bring to the surface questions about all elite or non-commercial or extravagant art: Is it a waste? What does it waste? Can it ever get away from the violence required, if not to produce it, then to produce the society—yours and mine—prepared to enjoy it? The rococo is the art of an ancien régime: it may be that the nearly Baroque poetry of our own day calls our regime ancien as well. It does not pretend to predict what could replace it.

Image: april-mo. Article updated April 21, 2014.

Comments

Is there a section missing in this? The reference made to Brian Ang's work is a fragmented sentence.

You're right! Thanks for pointing it out — section now restored. 

Hi Stephen,
I appreciate your attention to the baroque but think there's some crucial perspective missing here on the baroque's centrality in Latin America and what the emergence of this style in the US might mean.  
Since it seems like Montevidayo and the Gurlesque already inform your model, I wrote my thoughts over on the blog:  
http://www.montevidayo.com/provincialism-at-its-limits-on-stephen-burts-very-american-nearly-baroque/
Saludos y abraços,
Lucas

I like this historicist approach.  "Nearly Baroque" strikes me as unavoidibly ironic, but I don't find anything derogatory or even very equivocal in Burt's essay vis-a-vis the poets he analyses or the groups inw hich he places them.  Maybe it's just acknowledgemnt that there can be no second Baroque without the historical before-and-after; what we might call the "nearly Rennaissance" and whom to include boggles my mind anyway.  
I'm a bit miffed we didn't get to read Burt's ideas about Bach and Mozart to name only two.  Maybe Scarlatti and Vivaldi are more approapriate being all fluff and no wurst.  Burt does have the courage to ask some very portentious quations at the end, but for simple reasons of economy, I assume, can't answer them here.  I wish he had.  For example, what is the ancien régime du jour?  Historically speaking, some very difficult things happend post-Baroque, and even if the comparison is slant, analogue French Revolutions are pretty scary to think about. 

Stephen Burt must be the Jonathan Chait of poetry criticism  - these are all poets he admires, yet they are also to be read as rear-guard practitioners of a reactionary style, soon to be outmoded and forgotten? The problem with rounding up a bunch of poets you feel lukewarm about and then setting the label of a "movement" on them is that it is a self-serving exercise, especially if you are a poet yourself. All it does is differentiate that group from what you think ought to be, without rising to the very difficult task of defining what that is. It's clear from the numerous quotations provided in Burt's essay that these are all indeed pretty boring, middle-of-the-road workshop poets. But I guess I'm saying: What is even the point of expending so much analytical energy on a group of writers one believes to be already superceded by something we have yet to define? Is it merely an academic exercise? Call me a cynic, but I think most likely it is.

The poems, the explications thereof and the entire idea of a newfound interest in the Baroque and roccoco as "mining fields" somewhat akin to David and Charles Koch's implicit compulsion to blow-off the tops of mountains in order to get to the combustible material beneath no matter what cost to beauty and the imaginations of beauty are all admirable and even pretty as sentences wind serpentine and end-up byzantine in unexpected ways.  However, as one commenter cited, isn't moving backwards to sort through the junkpiles of history almost the antithesis of newness and the imaginary?  

Perhaps because I usher forth unto the academy from both the drug culture and an agreement with the political bents associated with Carolyn Forsche, I tend to find the necessity to allude, a sort of swirl in today's reliance on expertise and the critic in terms of what gets through the gate and what doesn't in the wide world of poetry, a little offputting.  Not that I have any realistic animosity for this dependence on movements and schools and packages, but seriously, in a world in which irritable grasping for something to which one must allude seems a little ridiculous, considering especially that--gasp!--there's a real world out there, a world of cracked old buildings, vacant lots and plenty of actual subject matter upon which to pin the unexpected, the imaginary and the unfamiliar without worrying whether or not it "fits" into one nook or pigeonhole or another.  While I do appreciate being led down these primrose paths, I tend to go the opposite direction in my tastes: back to simple plainsong, the kind of Acmeism that was Anna Akhmatova's stock-in-trade at a time when Stalin, Man of Steel, reigned roughshod over the arts due to his paranoia that, say, a Pasternak poem about lilacs was political and an affront to His Glorious Leadership.  

Reading a little Ahkmatova this morning (translated by D. M. Thomas!), I couldn't help but notice how plain, unassuming and almost simplistic her poetry seems on the surface, but then, when one digs a little deeper, a literal minefield of poetic Claymores emerges and we see that, even in terms of depth, Ahkmatova was one stubborn woman living in a brutal regime that didn't give a flip for the imagination or reality in general--even as it was advertising both a New Man and authentic economic and political realities.  She didn't care about passing through the gates of the ultra-critics of her time in Hell, and in fact, when all was said and done, we admire Ahkmatova for standing in the way so that no BS passed through.  

We live in an age in which the oracular nature of poetry--Shelley's unacknowledged legislators of the world--has been replaced by the likes of Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity and Karl Rove, and this was done so purposely, something we clearly see as Kansas schools close, the doors to higher education require true economic access and the only way for humans to be free is the financial way--or else.  That, my friends, is reason to NOT recoil into ancient fashions even if by doing so one is registering protest.  The ground of being is being transformed into a trap door even as I write this sentence.  And the more we rely on mere artifice, mere dependence on critique, mere kowtowing to various fashions and trends in the world of modern poetry, the more we are dying as a culture.  

The true trendsetters come from nowhere.   

Alice Fulton was nearly baroque long before the poets Burt mentioned, as was Heather McHugh. And what about Karl Kirchway? And what about Linda Gregerson? I have many other questions about his claims here-- but I will address those elsewhere.
I myself developed a "baroque" poetry as I was trying to describe some processes in nature--only by those layerings and complexities of syntax, language, and line could I get toward the "jocular procreations" of the dynamic, material processes I was describing. It may read to some as adornment, or "femme," but that's not what it is. To my mind, naming such a style in the ways Burt does presumes that work with language in poems must be very limited or else it is an affectation. Please, critics for the Boston Review, would you stop making your "femme" and "gurlesque" categorizations of wildly varied poetic voices?

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