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Thursday, December 12, 2019

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ABOUTISM

The Short Version
An ABC’s book-in-progress

…Perhaps my ABC’s are instead of: instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir. Each of the individuals [and places] remembered here sets into motion a network of mutual allusions and interdependencies linked to the facts of my century. In the final analysis, I do not regret that I have dropped names so cavalierly (or so it must seem), or that I have made a virtue of my casual way.
–Czeslaw Milosz
Milosz’s ABC’s

A

Aboutism

Sometime around the beginning of the new millennium, the poet George Stanley half-jokingly invented the idea of “aboutism.” Among other things, aboutism proposes that a poem is or should be, after all, about something, as contrasted to the contemporary poetries of linguistic abstractionism or anecdotal significances framed in verse. In his book At Andy’s (New Star, 2000), Stanley’s poems are described (on a back cover blurb) as being “about movies, ballparks, hockey, dogs, sex, aging, trips to Calgary and Veracruz, Ireland and Scotland, his return to Terrace, B.C., where he lived for fifteen years…”

And so they are. But when you read one of his poems that is, say, ostensibly about a few half-stoned men watching hockey on TV, or about the comings-and-goings of a small town in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, it turns out that the poem is also about television, capitalism, the phenomenological events in the poet’s mind, advertising (“the car drives into your head & is wedged there, & the beer pours through your veins–“), the nature of language, one’s decentred location in the cosmos, writing, ruthless mortality and “the huge surrounding fucked reality.” The poems are not only about something, they’re also almost always about everything.

Aboutism is, therefore, a reminder that art is, finally, about the world. Yet aboutism is also both a game and a parody of literary movements. In fact, were it not saved by its playful aspects, aboutism would be a slightly reactionary doctrine–though not actively retrograde, like the so-called New Formalism in poetry. But aboutism is reactive in the sense that it rejects a lot of the outcomes of Language Poetry, if not its intent. That is, aboutism doesn’t object to Language Poetry’s proposal for a “self-critical poetry, minus the short-circuiting rhetoric of vatic privilege” that “might dissolve the antinomies of marginality,” but rather to the often irreferential results of its program to break “the automatism of the poetic ‘I’.” (See Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry, Princeton, 1996).

In the mornings, at the college where I work, Ryan Knighton, Reg Johansen, and I imagine aboutism before we go off to teach our 8:30 classes to sleepy-headed students. Ryan and Reg are the next generation of writers and teachers at the college, while George Stanley and I, in our sixties, are just about to be put out to pasture. Reg, though not an Aboutist, is willing to humour Ryan and me. He or Ryan, conjuring up the yet-to-be-written Aboutist Manifesto, quotes the movement’s first axiom: “Theory guards us from error. We are for error.”

Ryan insists that the name of the doctrine be pronounced in the French manner–“a-boo-tisme.” Its practitioners can then be known as “Aboutistas” (the illogical shift from French to Spanish is a comical way of celebrating the current Mexican Zapatista political movement). Ten years from now this semantic fooling around, which enlivens our mornings (and which gives us courage to talk to the students), will no doubt be forgotten. I imagine a history of lost literary jokes.

Just before we leave, I suddenly cry out from my flimsy-walled office cubicle in imitation of the strangled voices of dinosaurs that I heard in “prehistoric” movie melodramas when I was a teenager. The movies had names like 100 Million B.C., and though they were far less “realistic” than contemporary digitalized dinosaur movies, they were much more scary. My high-pitched wail–a sort of “Wrrraghurrooaa”–echoes down the fibreboard corridor of the Humanities Division to Ryan’s office at the far end. Though my unpremeditated outburst is just a goofy, unprofessorial mockery of us academics studiously preparing our lesson plans before class, there’s something under it from childhood. Maybe those movies gave me my first sense that, as George Stanley puts it in another poem, “Things cry out, against each other– / the world, the image / I have of it, whirled back / in time, into nothing–” (“Things Cry Out,” from Opening Day, Oolichan, 1983.)

The sounds of professors in their cages, I say, but think: “We cry out.” I can hear Reg, in a similar cubbyhole across the hall, chuckling at my send-up of classroom “preparation” (an activity solemnly invoked in union contracts between the college and the teachers). Perhaps I’m hinting that these days professors have been reduced to the evolutionary obsolescence of dinosaurs, but the immediate point of making fun of preparation is that there’s no way to be prepared for anything. Then we head off to our classes, perfectly unprepared Aboutistas, energetically ready to talk about the world.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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