Golias – Tradition and the Contemporary


Some preliminary considerations regarding our editorial orientation.


Tradition and the Contemporary
Golias, 2017

Golias Books seeks to promote and circulate poetry that avails itself of a more diverse array of registers, modes, genres, and formal possibilities--poetry that traffics in the remoter realms of what has traditionally been called poetics. We are interested in longer poems that develop more extended narrative or discursive arcs than that of the dilatory epiphany, in poetry as argument or architecture or assemblage, in poetry that means and does rather than poetry that expresses. At the same time, while the lessons of the previous few generations' emphasis on experimentation are well taken, we seek to explore an intuition that something of value may have been lost along with the earlier humanisms' concern with ethical, political, and aesthetic judgment; therefore, while abjuring reactionary or conservative atavisms, we are interested in revitalizing historical poetic forms that may help us expand the narrow demesne within which contemporary poetry largely confines itself.

Golias Books, then, is a small press concerned with contemporary poetry and poetics, and yet even from this modest embarkation the notion of the contemporary must initially be bracketed--for the contemporary as such may only recognize itself in relation to a larger historical field and, even then, only as it stands (somehow) apart. And so we therefore begin with a definition by negation: against the "ruthless forgetting" that Paul de Man located as modernity's passion, we will attempt a ruthless renovation, as yet with no pretensions to know what such a thing might be. We only follow the intuition that a contemporary position must somehow involve a disposition towards the past and future, towards tradition.

Tradition, as we understand it, is not the fragmentary remainder of a golden age in need of restoration, nor a fixed and incorruptible origin to which we ought with unwavering fidelity to return. Even less is it the idea of a tradition, as if by dispensing with it in the singular we were freed from charges of conformism, vulgar conservatism, or historical collusion with domination. The avant-garde movements of the twentieth century availed themselves of such “tradition lite,” whether adopting non-Western traditions or the “other traditions” of language and conceptual writing; our concern is not with lineages and family resemblances but with the very notion that tradition confers value at all. Tradition is not an inheritance, but the problematic of inheritance, of our relationship to the past and the future. It simply is. "To know a tradition," Thomas Pfau writes, "is to acknowledge one’s hermeneutic entanglement in it as an ontological fact and, indeed, as an enabling condition” [1]. For better and worse, we find ourselves thrown inexorably into tradition; modernity's grand myth of individual self-authorship is in this regard founded upon fallacy. This is a first thesis: there is no such thing as not participating in tradition: to paraphrase the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, the only alternative to tradition is bad tradition.

So what might good tradition mean, and how would such a thing hail us? What would we do with it? We say that we approach past works in a renovative spirit, according to our best lights. To renovate: to retain, to remember, while making new again, re-newing; to seek what is valuable but has been occluded, lost, or defeated; to rehabilitate what was undertaken in a misguided spirit; to be guided by our limited and idiosyncratic needs and values, and yet to be taken beyond ourselves by what is not us. And yet, and this is a second thesis: tradition itself is inescapably shot through with failure, injustice, evil, oppression. There is no position of purity, and to be hailed by tradition is to submit--despite our effort and intentions--to becoming part of that: in striving to inevitably fail, and yet in becoming complicit to leave the record of an attempt in good faith. If in one sense the intent to engage in the renovation of tradition is ambitious, it is also finally for these reasons fatalistic, or perhaps tautological, for in the end how could it be otherwise? As Alice Fulton staidly inveighs against the modernist project, "It will be new / / whether you make it new / or not." This essay addresses two constitutive impossibilities, then, or two humilities: that although we participate in tradition, we cannot know it; and that although we transform tradition according to our needs and values, we cannot transcend its failures.

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This underwriting fatalism tells us that to insist too soon upon "renovation" is to succumb to a desire for exoneration and sublimation bought too cheaply; such desire participates too closely in narratives of progress and utopia, turns too quickly from the claims of alterity to their supposed vindication on other terms. We are yet responsible to the past, to those we can only inadequately recover and who didn’t have us in mind when they wrote the works we can never repeat but cannot shake. We are equally responsible to those whom we anticipate, who our works in part address, who have yet to be and whom we will never meet. There is an ethical preeminence of the past and the future that hollows out our claim on the present. Tradition, the past we inherit as well as the past we bequeath, demands that we relinquish any hope of mastery, especially the kind of self-possession which would allow us to distance ourselves from a history that we can access only as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” at our feet. We do not distance ourselves but are blown back, like the Angelus Novus, by a storm blowing from a paradise that is at once ahead and behind. We call that storm ‘tradition.'

As much forfeit as bestowal, then, tradition's recalcitrance shapes the indeterminacy of the present. Gerald Bruns writes that, “what comes down to us from the past says ‘no’ to us.” Instead of providing a solid grounding in a perfectly completed past, tradition removes all guarantees. Tradition, Bruns writes,

is not obsolete but refractory and resistant, excessive with respect to interpretation, satirical with respect to our allegories, and so it will not serve as foundation and testimony, background or thesis; indeed it will not serve at all except to draw us out of ourselves, leaving us, Oedipus-like, exposed and possibly horrified at our own image. [2]

Though a locus of human effort, tradition remains somehow uncanny, independent of our needs; superhuman, or inhumane.

By complicating our understanding of the present, tradition serves as a bulwark against a vulgar historicism, which “posits that to ‘know’ is not to participate in meanings but, rather, to quarantine them as mere past ‘context’ or pre-history,” and insists on “the inherent superiority of the present as the moment when the past has been definitively overcome in the guise of objective, empirical knowledge" [2]. By furiously contextualizing past poetic movements, the historicist in us tries desperately to keep from participating and perhaps becoming the dupes of history’s cunning, but by doing so we forfeit the chance to live historically.

To live historically is not to live in a past valorized over a "fallen" present, but to live in a present that is not simply a way-point on a wide and solitary path to an already existent future. As in Benjamin’s materialist historiography, we feel that history is made “posthumously”--that the present is the time of a past that is never over.  In other words "history," rather than naming a chronicle of past events, instead describes a present comprising all that is not given regarding the future; the “present,” likewise, is neither the inevitable outcome of nor the absolute transcendence of past events. To live historically is therefore to be present, in the sense that the present comprises a constellation of past moments in which the blinding shine of inevitability was dulled, in which the future had become evitable and undecidable, and in which--more often than not--a mythic violence had to be deployed to silence the “messianic cessation of happening." As readers and editors we seek out writing that--against such violence--sifts the past for these moments of continuing import, that shocks history along these charged lines and in doing so denigrates the present’s claim to permanence--writing which blasts the present out of the “homogeneous course of history.” The writing that excites us shatters the present against a history that is not inexorable but rather indeterminate, a shattering that performs the necessary task of sounding history—which would otherwise arrive in silence, unquestioned. Such writing is constructed by being itself out of joint with its own time, through an untimeliness that it attains through an attentiveness to tradition.  

To say that as a small press we are interested in “revitalizing historical poetic forms,” then, is not to encourage an arid or scholastic mannerism, nor to recklessly valorize a body of knowledge whose transmission has historically been bound to elitism and structural inequality. It is simply to enter knowingly into a bustling lyceum and to remark the results—the collisions, refractions, blind spots, resonances, and unforeseen outcomes. To first consider the more recent conventions governing the gnomic short lyric in their contingency, and then to take seriously the different set of human needs, impulses, and structures of thought that once gave form to, say, the Victorian ekphrastic or 18th-century georgic, and to confront what those at once alien and yet in many ways familiar inducements might mean or might do in a new and irrevocably altered context. Novelty, entropy, contrast, and disjunction—these provide for themselves. Recognition, continuity, and the struggle to wrest development from bare seriality require an energeia, which is also to say that they are vital and necessary but never decisive.

Tradition is how we become historical, and to be historical means to be caught, to be something in between agent and observer: the past is not through with us. Coming to terms with this liminal disposition requires the realization that we are not free; or rather, if we are free we are powerless against the crush of history. And yet there is comfort to be found in the reflections on the stranger (xenos) in the early lines of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko's Xenia: "History begins / only when powerlessness is acknowledged." Tradition is the stranger that claims us, making us strangers to ourselves, and--to the extent that we accept this claim--we in turn renounce our claims upon our own works, relinquishing them to interpretation. This is the meaning of becoming historical: to suffer interpretation; to be without the comfort and consolation of a defensible position. If power writes itself as epic outside of time, history itself is a romance of inscrutable striving that to the bafflement of each generation continues to write itself endlessly, and in which errancy itself becomes the last, endlessly provisional bedrock from which meaningful experience can be salvaged.

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Golias Books takes its name in part from the Goliardic poets of the 12th and 13th centuries; excluded from political power by circumstance, temperament, or the logic of primogeniture, the Goliards appeared in history as skeptical scholasts and sociable itinerants, known primarily for the kinds of Latinate heretical satires and elaborate anti-authoritarian festival lyrics that survive in the Carmina Burana. In this sense Goliardic poetry models critique at once from without and within: Gerald Bruns writes that “satire is the discourse of the Other against the Same,” and for us the anonymous Bishop Golias stands in this regard as a figurehead of an Other tradition that exceeds our modern sensibility, our contemporary passion for civility, rationality, and appropriateness. Golias says, “no,” to the bosses and the bossy, to both police and polity; that tradition is at once a traduction, a position always compromised in advance.

In this way the Goliardic vision is comic: fatalistic and yet rooted in protest, dubious of progress but temperamentally intolerant of complacency. It emerged not within that contemporaneous consolidation of class power represented by chivalry—the recognition of salute—but from the geographic and discursive perambulations of the disaffected, the exchange of the toast. Dulce est desipere: the liberty of foolishness safeguards action. Action, and therefore appearance, and then once more the possibility of collective self-recognition. As a class the Goliards adumbrate an architecture in a deconstruction, a politics and a metaphysics in a celebration of carnality; they assure us that in Latin, too, one may suborn the feast days, and perhaps must.

It is our premise that in such subtly resistant structures of feeling there exist formations waiting to appear to themselves in history as social classes, and it is here that the question of the contemporary must return from its preliminary epoché. The most irreducible function of poetry is not mimesis, imagination, representation, expression, didacticism, or play, but phátos, the communication of bare contact. Functionally poetry demands both agent and interlocutor in an event defined by mutual appearance; by its nature it entails a kind of argument and augurs the possibility of recognition. In this there is sociability, perhaps even collectivity, even if among rascals and dissolute students, wandering in exilic ecstasy like drunks, clerici vagantes with a head full of Latin and a liver full of bile. Suffering, too, is a commonwealth. In founding a small poetry press and in attempting to cultivate a community around it, the merest possibility of mutual appearance represents the minimum and maximum utility of our ambition. The contemporary is a collective self-recognition, discourse become action and then discourse again and then back, and its argument is always on the brink of articulation.

The project of Golias Books is therefore one of an adventure of poetics, if adventure can be taken as a technical term in the etymological sense of something always about to arrive. As in A. N. Whitehead's usage, the adventure is two-fold with regard to the slow drift of emergent forms in history as well as the adventitious and speculative reconstruction of this first adventure on the part of the agent of desire. Tradition is the knotted, self-sufficient romance of ideas within which we strive to make necessity of errancy.

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[1] Pfau, Thomas. "Tradition: Newman and Some Contemporaries," 227. 

[2] Bruns, Gerald.  Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (New Haven: Yale, 1992), 211.

[3] Pfau, 221-4.


Golias. "Tradition and the Contemporary." Golias Research, Oct. 2017, www.goliasbooks.com/research/golias-tradition.