Frederick Turner and the Rebirth of Literaturernby Paul LakernThe breach that opened between the serious and popularrnarts during the earh’ ears of tliis century has so widenedrno’er subsequent decades that the current “postmodern” era isrncliaracterized by a kind of cultural schizophrenia. While visualrnimages bombard us through the media, the graphic arts havernincreasingly evaporated in performance and conceptual art.rnWhile recordings go platinum and rock and rap concerts drawhugernaudiences throughout the world, serious music hauntsrnuniersitv music departments like a guilty specter. While popularrnno’els sell b’ the millions and poetry is read on campusesrnand in coffee shops from Maine to California, serious literaturernis incrcasingh’ slighted by popular journals and ignored by thernpublic. Published in limited editions and rarely re’iewed, poetr-rnis all but dead as a cultural force.rnNot eoincidentalh’, it was during this period that the termrn”serious” art became s nonvmous with “avant-garde”; that T.S.rnEliot’s dictum that modern art should be difficult came to impl’rnthat art should be impenetrable to ordinary readers. Evenrnserious, ambitious works of art that lack a certain requisite levelrnof difficulty are accorded an ambiguous status in our culture, sornthat, for instance, novels by distinguished writers such as AlisonrnI ,urie and John Updike elicit guilt and embarrassment in sophisticatedrnreaders similar to that produced by movies and popularrnsongs. However much we enjoy them, we feel ashamed forrnsubmitting to the seductive pleasures of well-constructed plotsrnand for being drawn into the lives of well-drawn, middle-classrncharacters. Serious literature, we have been taught, is supposedrnto advance the technical experiments begun by Eliot, Woolf,rnJoee, and Stein in the heyday of Modernism. It is supposed tornbe hard and somewhat painful, like a visit to the dentist.rnThis mixture of guilt and embarrassment is one of the hallmarksrnof the postmodern era. Narrative, poetic meter, tonality,rnvisual representation—because they remind us of the crudernsmmetries of our vulgar mammalian bodies—appear in post-rnPaul Lake is a professor of English and Creative Writing atrnArkansas Teeh University and author, most recently, of thernsatirical thriller Among tlie Immortals (Story Line Press).rnmodern art, if at all, as parody or pastiche.rnAt the same time, the historical relation between art andrncriticism has been altered. Criticism—or critical theory, as wernhave learned to call it—is no longer ancillary to the arts, but arnvast, sophisticated mechanism of equal or greater prestige.rnCritical theory has even spawned a new species of writing asrnabstract and antiseptic as its own jargon—”language writing,”rnor “language poetry,” as it is called—writing so sterile andrnempty of human content that it can be said not to have readers,rnonly writers and critics.rnOne such critic, Marjorie Perlof f, in her book Radical Artificernhas championed avant-garde “language writing” preciselyrnbecause it refuses any concessions to the vulgar reader, settingrnitself up in opposition to the language of popular media.rnPerloff argues that in an age of ubiquitous electronic babble,rnlanguage writing replaces naive imitations of a debased naturalrnspeech with its own “radical artifice,” and that while suchrnwriting might initially repel the reader, its very difficulty andrnunpopularity are proof of its authenticity.rnFor readers unfamiliar with it, here is what one version ofrnlanguage writing looks like. I have chosen the lines at randomrnfrom a poem entitled “PCOET” by David Melnick, fromrnGeorge Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets:rnsetarncoleccrnpuilse, irncanoernits spear heieornas Rea, cinct pprnpools we sly drosprnGeiantorn(o sordea, oweedsca!)rnPoetry this disembodied could embarrass no one. Writtenrnnot so much to please a reader as to provide an academic criticrnwith an occasion for an essay, the poem might be said not fullyrnJUNE 1995/21rnrnrn