Coldness, Concept, & Convention: On Aaron Kunin’s ‘Cold Genius’

“Love poetry traditionally thrives on difficulty. Thomas Nashe summarized Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella in these words: ‘The argument, cruel chastity; the prologue, hope; the epilogue, despair.’ The perfection and coldness of Stella are productive; it would be a disaster for poetry if she returned Astrophel’s love.”

—Aaron Kunin, “Dialog on Love: Ben Lerner and Aaron Kunin in conversation”

One current, and especially heated, debate animating the contemporary poetry scene revolves around conceptual poetry’s polemic against Romantic expressivity. Such an argument can be neatly, if reductively, encapsulated by the key terms of two titles: witness Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2011 anthology Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing and Calvin Bedient’s 2013 response in kind, “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect.”

There is a similar rhetoric of “for” and “against” in another, much longer-running debate about the (de)merits of poetic difficulty. Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions (2011) refers to an avant-garde offensive — he calls it an “outbreak” — that began with modernism (“1912,” to be exact). Since then, defenders and detractors of difficult poetry have assumed a range of embattled and apologetic positions. “Experimental poetry has fallen on hard times,” begins Charles Altieri’s 2004 essay “On Difficulty in Contemporary American Poetry.”

“Poetry that makes its difficulty a basic means of accomplishing its ends seems now mostly a throwback, a fantasy that the excitements of modernist art can continue into the present.” A decade later, perhaps the pendulum has once again shifted. In “The Limits of Indeterminancy: A Defense of Less Difficult Poems,” recently published in the September 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Charles Harper Webb argues, “if there is a fight for dominance, the Difficult have grabbed the upper hand.” Whether this is true or not might be a matter of perspective. In any case, Harper Webb’s complaints are familiar and confused. For him, the will to difficulty is driven by “essentially nihilistic ideas” and “scientific/philosophical ideas that […] are partly or wholly untrue.” Difficult poets, Harper Webb complains, are “obfuscating” and fetishize novelty in the spirit of Pound’s injunction to “make it new.” They are, as a result, satisfied with a “limited” “emotional range.”

For the purpose of this piece, I’m not so much interested in defending difficult poetry, a poetry of affect, or conceptualism, although all three interest me. Rather, I’d like to examine practices that, in discussions of poetics, tend to garner less attention against a larger rhythmic backdrop of attack and defense, of “for” and “against.” This is the case even though such practices have much to contribute to discussions of poetic difficulty and/or conceptual poetry. Though largely criticized, Bedient’s “Against Conceptualism” makes an important and nonpolemical point about “a new hybridization […] among the various method poetries, making labeling debatable”; in discussing Caroline Bergvall’s contribution to I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (2012), he says, “[i]ts formula is affect + criticism + method, the method rendering the affect ‘cool.’ But there are too few of these pieces to predict the advent of an affect-accommodating mutation of method poetry.”

Aaron Kunin

I propose that there is now another significant piece of “affect-accommodating” method poetry: Aaron Kunin’s Cold Genius, a difficult but rewarding book which Fence released in 2014. In fact, the description of Kunin’s book from the Small Press Distribution website seems to make an explicit nod to Bedient’s proposed “formula”:

The figure of emotional temperature predominates. The formula: hot content, cold treatment. Three of these are spoken by Miss Chiquita. The United Fruit Company during the Cold War; two myths about the discovery of laughter. Tender love lyrics in a domestic setting; vows of love are exchanged. An extended verse essay on tickling. Like Antonin Scalia, this book believes in the devil. The human soul figures.

This précis will, no doubt, be befuddling, even irritating, to those of Harper Webb’s stripe: “When you can juxtapose anything with anything—and enlist randomness if you need help—newness is readily achieved.” Cold Genius’s content is a bizarre congeries, to be sure; it is a book, to quote Samuel Johnson on the metaphysicals, in which “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But “metaphysical” difficulty is exactly the point — not the least because love and the soul are staple topics of metaphysical lyricism.

In writing about the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, T.S. Eliot makes a famous call for a poetry of “sensibility” that fuses thought and feeling, a poetry in which “[i]deas are felt, and feelings are transformed by ideas.” For Eliot, the poet of sensibility is “constantly amalgamating disparate experience”: he “falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking [… but] in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Cold Genius is such a “new whole.” Kunin, after all, describes a range of experiences — “reading and / Puzzling over Adorno” or having “Afternoon snacks” while thinking of “Knowing [loving] what you love” as “gravitation” — all of this and more constellated together by a sharp, metaformalist wit.

If I am right about what I take to be Kunin’s modernist poetics of sensibility, perhaps Cold Genius can inform our recent conceptualist turn, which seems to dissociate intellect from feeling (Bedient asks early on in his essay, “How did we get to this place, where concept has trumped feeling?”) And perhaps Cold Genius can prove that difficult poetry is not solely a matter of philosophical posturing, references to Adorno notwithstanding. Harper Webb thinks that “Difficult poets […] see themselves as more philosophically ‘with it’ than the Less Difficult.” But, according to Eliot, philosophical pretension is irrelevant; in “The Metaphysical Poets,” he says, “It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject. We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.”

The complexity and variety of Kunin’s results inheres in the variety of his methods, some of which are quasi-conceptual or constraint-based. Kunin’s debut volume Folding Ruler Star (Fence, 2005) features a repeating three-line stanza of five syllable lines, and his Mauberley series, from The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010), draws on a deliberately spare 170-word lexicon. “If it is difficult,” writes John Steen of Kunin’s Cold Genius (The Physiocrats, 2009), the chapbook on which the beginning of Kunin’s latest Fence volume was based, “this owes mainly to its allegiance to a genealogy of experimental poetics that includes the French Oulipo.” But, as Ron Silliman observed in 2005, Kunin’s poetics shouldn’t be confused with “Oulipo on steroids.” It is more like Oulipo on opium: in a recent interview, Kunin has said, “[my] books have a fastidious sensibility, a circumscribed idiom […]. But I try to avoid indulging my fastidiousness too much. I try to give the poems a rougher surface, to introduce some element in tension with the strict control that was my original impulse. After finding a perfectly clean solution […] I go back and make it a little bit murky.”

Cold Genius draws on at least two predetermined formal principles, one regulating the syllabic length of his lines and the other regulating punctuation. Though both ostensibly grow out of an Oulipian impulse for “strict control,” the effect of both systems in combination is one of tension, the former tending toward polish and the latter tending toward murkiness.

Kunin explains his idiosyncratic typography in a prefatory note: “In standard usage, quotation marks indicate a conventional distance between speaker and utterance. […] The quotation marks in this book may retain some suggestion of distance or irony, but their usage follows a new rule. I am using them to track repeated words and phrases.” This tracking system disrupts the experience of reading, giving his language a halting and awkward quality, qualifying the quoted words with a disproportionate tonal emphasis. The poem “‘For’ ‘Shirley’” demonstrates how Kunin’s writing can be simultaneously awkward and precise:

The promise to love something is
Provisional. It “is” a kind
Of lawlessness. Thus “the” demand
For “love” also
“Is” unlawful since “it is” not

But surely there “is” no such poem?
“Is” so much cleverness ever
Truly wasted? “The” values “of”
Order, prudence
And art are “not” “unlawful” or

If there is a fastidiousness, a manicured quality to Kunin’s 8-8-8-4-8-4 syllabic sestets (even the first letters of each line are capitalized), his unconventional quotation system seems to disturb the neat isomorphism of his conventional stanzas: at first glance, the quotes resemble stray marks strewn across an otherwise ordered page.

Though they tend to roughen Kunin’s “neatness of finish” (to quote Marianne Moore, another fastidious practitioner of syllabics), his quotation marks formally reinforce the discursive unity of each poem. Kunin tells us, “sources are less clearly marked,” “references are always internal to the poems, and tracking begins anew in each poem.” So, unlike Moore’s use of quotation marks, Kunin’s “tracking” quotation marks emphasize, in an almost autistic manner, the individual poem’s own language — its internal distribution of repeated words — over and against the poem’s situatedness within a wider intertextual web. For example, the first line in the second stanza above, “But surely there ‘is’ no such poem?” perversely marks the copular “is” without quoting the phrase as a whole (which derives from the English critic William Empson).

The phrase, which is Cold Genius’s unattributed epigraph, comes from a well-known midcentury debate about metaphysical poetry in which Empson pokes fun at Renaissance scholar Rosemond Tuve for practicing a kind of slavish historicism that, in overestimating the import of a poem’s traditional features and generic precursors, devalues a poem’s uniqueness and particularity. Empson says, “I am reminded of an Emperor of China, who returned a poem to its author with a somewhat embarrassed air and said ‘But surely there is no such poem?’, meaning that he could not recall the classical poem which it must be presumed to imitate.”

Kunin’s objective, of course, is not merely to imitate convention but to defamiliarize his texts with the unconventional. Surely there are no such poems with his rules of punctuation. Kunin’s move to non-standard usage is an example of what Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky might call ostranenie, which is translated variously as “defamiliarization” or “estrangement.” (In fact, Kunin’s preface ends with a Shklovskian question: “Is all technique distance?”) According to Shklovsky’s important 1917 essay “Art as Technique,” “the language of poetry is […] a difficult, roughened, impeded language.” We might say, then, that Kunin translates a kind of speech impediment into his poetry, the quotation marks in Cold Genius being akin to a visual tremor or stammer.

Kunin, after all, has a penchant for disturbing the fluency of his writing with grammatical glitches, tics, and stutters. In Grace Period (Letter Machine Editions, 2013), which collects his notebooks from 1998-2007, one entry describes (while demonstrating) this very practice: “He puts the ums in in writing that he doesn’t put in in speaking.” Or better yet: perhaps Cold Genius’s quotation marks — in the spirit of the book’s title — are articulation marks (in the musical sense) to indicate shivering.

Cold Genius takes its name from a memorable figure in King Arthur, a late seventeenth-century opera written by Henry Purcell and John Dryden. In King Arthur’s celebrated “frost scene,” Cupid comes to a frozen isle to wake its genius loci and make him acknowledge love’s power. The Cold Genius responds in a stunning aria:

What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise, unwillingly, and slow,
From beds of everlasting snow?
See’st thou not how stiff and wond’rous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath?
Let me, let me, freeze again to death.

Written for bass, what is generally referred to as “The Cold Song” has been performed by noted countertenors Andreas Scholl and New Wave icon Klaus Nomi. Sung in tremolo, the aria movingly and stutteringly articulates the Cold Genius’s death drive, his thanatological opting out of the social world of love. The first three lines of the aria are printed on Cold Genius’s front French flap, announcing, as it were, Kunin’s genius libri, who is part Cold Genius and part Prufrock.

In the title poem, Kunin’s Cold Genius persona divulges that he is “acquainted with failed eloquence” and has “‘a’ / [p]ersonal stake ‘in’ awkwardness.” His speech is “difficult, roughened, [and] impeded” not only because it is “impossible [for him] to say just what [he] mean[s]” (to borrow from Eliot’s Prufrock) but because he feels such dis-ease with the conventions of social relations. The genius of Cold Genius is its provocative linking of poetic and social conventions, its insistence that systems, both cultural and literary, no matter how familiar to others can profoundly alienate us. Indeed, Kunin’s persona is an outsider, so frozen and apart that he resembles an object, a mere “extra item”:

We “could” go back “and” forth “a” few
Times insisting “we” are fine “and”
Inquiring, really? “And I,” an
“Extra item”
“With” my onlooker affect, lack
“Of” graciousness

“And” “the” unusually “cold”
Temper “of” “my” critique (because
Sianne said controversial
“Is” supposed “to” “be” hot, “hot” “to”
Trot, “but” this “is”

Remarkably “cold,” “a” frost-piece)
Now “I” “go” inside things “and” find
Their secrets accidently
“Extinguished.” “I”
Don’t need “more than” “the” space between
Your fingers. “Now”

“Go inside,” what “are” “you” going
As? “That thing you study”? “We” have
“Accidently extinguished”
“It.” “What” “was” “it”
“You” “said” “you” wanted? “To put power
Into the form.”

This is a dense series of stanzas with a great deal of emotional complexity; they present (to quote Dryden on John Donne) “deep thoughts in common language, though rough cadence.” They also abound with wide-ranging references from King Arthur to Sianne Ngai’s recent study Our Aesthetic Categories to John Ruskin’s “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” which Kunin draws on for his poem’s last two lines.

In defending the imperfection of “hand-work,” or craftsmanship, against the exactitude of machine-work, Ruskin argues,

[…]so long as men work as men, putting their heart into what they do, and doing their best, it matters not how bad workmen they may be […] I cannot too often repeat, it is not coarse cutting, it is not blunt cutting, that is necessarily bad; but it is cold cutting—the look of equal trouble everywhere—the smooth, diffused tranquillity of heartless pains—the regularity of a plough in a level field. The chill is more likely, indeed, to show itself in finished work than in any other—men cool and tire as they complete: and if completeness is thought to be vested in polish, and to be attainable by help of sand paper, we may as well give the work to the engine-lathe at once. […] The sculptor must paint with his chisel: half his touches are not to realize, but to put power into, the form.

If one common complaint against Oulipo-inspired work is that it is too cold, too mechanistic, that, as Sol LeWitt observed in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” then Kunin tries to avoid what may be perceived as a mere “cold cutting” of language by roughening the surface of his syllabics. It is as if the “hot content” momentarily breaks through its “cold treatment.” In a playful register, Kunin might insert extra syllables through bracketed words or phrases (“[…]‘Brothers!’ we ‘are’ missing ‘a’ / Unit that ‘is’ called ‘a’ [syllable] ‘Brothers!’ ”); in a less humorous register, he might subtract a syllable, such as in the fourth line of “More Tortured Surfaces”:

Did you open your mouth to put
Something in or extract “something”?
It seems I can’t remember. Hands
Shaking he is unable “to”
Close his fingers[…]

In short, Kunin takes pains to put a non-mechanistic power into the form, the word “pains” here having the meaning that Ruskin intended above, “trouble taken in accomplishing or attempting something.”

We can say that Kunin takes pains in his articulation of pain — that is, he is methodical in his expression of “the state or condition of consciousness arising from mental or physical suffering” — as Cold Genius is a book filled with pains in both senses of the term. One poem from the beginning states, “Nothing pains me / ‘So much’ ‘as’ ‘my’ fabrications.” And in another towards the end: “‘Pain’ ‘is’ private / Impossible / ‘To’ communicate ‘the’ ‘pain’ that / You are feeling // But more intimate than romance.” There is something in those lines of Emily Dickinson, perhaps one of the most metaphysical poets in the American tradition. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –,” she says. If, as Harper Webb claims, “the emotional range of Difficult poetry […] seems limited,” it can, nevertheless, be an emotional range of considerable intensity. To ignore this fact would be to ignore a significant history of Western lyricism. Dickinson’s poem, difficult as it may be, expresses powerful feeling recollected in icy tranquility: “This is the Hour of Lead – / Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – / First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –.”

Kunin’s frost-pieces might not be able to fully or fluently “communicate,” but they are not products, as Ruskin says, of “heartless pains”: they, in fact, reveal the heart’s extreme vulnerability (Kunin says, “Gelid / ‘The’ heart, wrapped ‘in’ ‘a’ plastic sheet / Acknowledges / ‘The’ power ‘and’ extent ‘of love’”), its capacity to endure great pain. The poems of Cold Genius demonstrate the possibility of a formula, however unlikely, in which concept and affect, difficulty and emotion, and tradition and novelty can all coincide.

Cold Genius (2014) is published by Fence Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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