You are not a member of this wiki.
Pages and Files
Articles, Essays, and Papers
Member Works and Actions
The Dea(r)th of Poetry
THE DEA(R)TH OF POETRY
It is one of the most difficult things about our time that so many are falling away from the word – from their own as easily as from the one spoken to them.
– Paul Celan, July 1, 1960 letter to Nelly Sachs
Poetry is suffering from looking at itself with too much self-satisfaction and too little critical acumen. It has signed a pact with the academy to produce what the latter wants to teach in exchange for being taught and for having poets taught by and then enfolded by that academy. It’s too slick.
I have a friend (Nick Piombino) who has more than once advised me to not write a book review unless I have good things to say about the book. Nick himself doesn’t write book reviews / which might be an indication of how many books of poetry he’s found to be worth reviewing (?!).
I have a friend (Brenda Iijima) who has to date not reported on having met or read a poet whose work is worth anything less than a host of superlatives. Returning from a trip or acknowledging having been at a reading she always describes the poets with a flurry of accolades which makes them sound like they’re worth at least as much attention as the young Leopardi. This kind of report has never been of any use to me – it’s much like the boy who cried wolf / if the event keeps repeating itself the report is eventually untrustworthy. If this friend were to one day tell me that she’s read someone whose work is a god-awful mess in more ways than one I’d rush to read the work – truly / something must be going on there.
And then there are places like Poets House that insist on being so ecumenical that they betray no sense (no sense) of what poetry is (no sense of what poetry is) whatsoever. They contribute to the bland landscape of poetry as it appears to the public (the potential public) rather than helping to define (by redefining) what poetry is.
I happened to encounter three young poet friends (Miles Champion / Erika Kaufman / Geoffrey Olsen) in St. Mark’s Bookshop. They fell to discussing Joan Retallack’s work – each of them was familiar enough with her work to have their own favorite book (the one that they thought was best) / and each gave reasons for their choice. I had just finished rereading La Vita Nuova / had been studying Horace for a couple of years (albeit in English) / and had once again been going through the work of some of the seventh century Chinese poets. I couldn’t help but wonder what is underpinning the thinking of some of our best younger poets today / and what that is likely to do for the work being produced.
I have (or at least had) another friend (Christina Strong) who a number of times told me that she felt like writing something that would let a number of her poet peers know exactly what she thought about their work / and it was obvious that it was not likely to be a charitable assessment. Christina has not done that (except verbally a couple of times to poets gathered after a reading) and is not likely to do it (she lacks the industry) – but her intention stuck with me / and influenced some of how I have been thinking of these issues of late.
Another friend of many years (Eileen Myles) just had published in The Brooklyn Rail (July/August 2009) a full-page interview (with a portrait by the magazine’s publisher) in which she talks almost exclusively about her taste in clothing / how she likes to see herself presented (clothed) to the world.
Not long after glancing at that page / I received an announcement for a reading at Unnameable Books that claimed – “Eileen Myles is a rockstar and you don't want to miss this.”
These two acts of publicity seemed to be saying much the same thing.
But / isn’t the whole rock star image something that we as poets would want to at least deconstruct and (more positively) to do away with entirely? How can it do anything other than detract from our work? – how can we hope to be taken seriously if we make claims to being something that we most manifestly are not? And if we’re seen engaging in a lengthy discussion about what our fashion preferences are / how will people look at what we write as anything other than a footnote to that public posturing?
If we don’t think (seriously) about how we present ourselves to the world / about how we look to the world / we can stop expecting the world to look back at us with anything approaching comprehension (and it is we who will have been responsible for that misprision).
Critical writing (and that includes (so-called) negative criticism) / is the essential anti-body in the poetic corpus. Without it the poetic body cannot fight disease – it sickens and weakens. When it sickens it becomes subject to even the slightest form of aggression from without (like being ignored by the populace / not valued / not paid for). It stops paying much attention to what’s going on around it / and starts paying more and more attention to itself (a trend that peaked with Language Poetry and has now entered a decline into further failure with poetries such as those being done under the rubric of Flarf and some of the conceptual poetries which are far more self centered than they are anything else).
Some (George Steiner, Real Presences, Faber and Faber, 1989, p94-9) have heralded (if one can do this in retrospect) the period around 1900 as the beginning of a transformative new age culturally and humanly. He sees in “Mallarmé’s disjunction of language from external reference and in Rimbaud’s deconstruction of the first person singular” by his “Je est un autre
a tremendously significant break with the past in terms of how we use our language(s) and how we conceive of our selves. [ Writing in direct opposition to that opinion see eg Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, Harvard University Press, 1998, especially “Movements and Campaigns” where he heaps scorn on the reality of any sort of art movement (let alone one of the cataclysmic scope Steiner promulgated). ] I have no doubt that that was a significant moment in time (at least for the Western world) / marking as it did the advent of the bloodiest century in human history (with perhaps one hundred million dead (or one million per year (or two thousand seven hundred and forty people per day)) from human genocides). In the realm of poetry and the arts some very enticing things happened during that period of time – but I fear that they served (and were geared to serve) more as diversionary simulacra to keep those of us addicted to art more-or-less contented while other things were going on / elsewhere (in an adjacent “elsewhere” / if not in the “elsewhere” that we were ourselves inhabiting).
It is my impression that the language (and the uses made of it in the arts) has weakened over that period of time / that we have become content with sloppier and sloppier products of human thought and feeling / and that that has left us with very little to stand on as we face an increasingly uncertain future.
Art products are becoming increasingly decadent – they are more likely to be diverting copies of objects in the (allegedly) real world (Jeff Koons (Koons’ art hovers between capitulation and recapitulation)) or pretty reminders of what we already like to look at (Lisa Yuskavage / John Curran (their art is eye candy sweetened with saccharin)). Flarf (for example) reproduces (in a slightly digested form (although form is certainly not its strong suit) words that are taken (often somewhat-haphazardly) from the Internet). Few any more are straining at the confines of art / they are rather content to reap the rewards of a well-trained art market (ie one that will adapt to constant flux as the norm / always willing to buy something as long as they’ve been told that it’s the-latest-thing). More-and-more books of fiction are being written that reference the name of a famous author in their title (A Year of Reading Proust / Kafka’s Curse / Kafka On the Shore / Confession of a Jane Austen Addict) as if culture can now only make itself real by referencing (and re-referencing) itself. This activity (if it qualifies as such) is paralleled in a way by the academy’s preference for secondary and tertiary works over the primary works that fueled our thoughts (and – our feelings / our decision-making / our values) in some past times.
Literature has been increasingly divorced from the real human intercourse that (in some ways) still surrounds it (the interchanges that constitute human life). Those of us who make literature have tended to blame “the culture” for having-done-this-to-us. But the culture was undoubtedly responding (in some ways) to what we were doing (that is how the culture works / that is how it moves / in an at-least-somewhat dialectical fashion). And what we were doing was folding the language more-and-more into and over itself / so that what it was once about (a relationship now considered (at least) somewhat passé) has become increasingly hard to detect under and within it.
Brian Gyson said that “Writing is fifty years behind painting.” (“Cut-ups Self-Explained” in Brian Gyson and William S. Burroughs, The Third Mind, Viking Press, 1978). At the time that he said that it might have been true. Now that distance has widened enormously – there’s good evidence that we’re just now scratching at the surface (a kind of sgraffito) of what the abstract expressionists were doing. At least / people seem to keep finding new ways (or (at least) additional ways) of creating a kind of all-over surface in their texts (the word text was introduced to cover that kind of writing) where sense is pretty much completely subservient to sensibility (and where sensibility seems to be an insistence on as much inversion as possible).
My poet peers seem in their writing to be less-and-less engaged with the real world. Of course the notion of a real world has been becoming increasingly suspect (while all the rest of these events have been happening) / and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be questioned as diligently as possible – I myself rather doubt that there’s anything here at all. But still / whatever it is we experience is what we have first-and-foremost to deal with – and poets seem often to be dealing with it not at all.
Most people don’t like to be told that they’re living in decadent times – this is especially true of the creators of the current art (because in their case it has to be acknowledged that they’re contributing to it).
A major feature of decadence is that it is characterized by and/or it appeals to self-indulgence. I submit that the extent to which poetry has gotten in bed with the academy is a sign of that self-indulgence (on a cultural scale). I submit that the extent to which poetry has turned toward its own language and away from the world in which that language has its place is a sign of self-indulgence. I submit that a literary movement that relies on the computer for the majority of its phrases is participating in a trope of self-indulgence. I submit that a poetry that has increasingly to nurture itself in isolation is participating in self-indulgence (on a culture-wide scale).
The way that education functions in society now is very much like a religion / and political correctness is its code / and Politically Correct is its name. It’s as fundamentalist as are the (Christian or the Moslem) fundamentalists – its function is to train the priesthood of tomorrow to train the priesthood of tomorrow to train the priesthood of tomorrow (and so on). The liberal arts are now (in the use the academy makes of them) largely material for the liturgy – and the name of that liturgy at present is critical theory / and it is not so much sung as enforced.
The fact that experimental work is accepted as art is a sign of decadence.
When I did experimental work as a youthful poet I did so with the clear understanding that I was doing it to learn something and (with a little luck) to sharpen my poetic tools for future use. If I showed that work to friends it was with that understanding in mind.
Nowadays people in the arts (including most of the poets I know) pride themselves on being in the avant-garde / forgetting to think that that places them away from the majority of the people – and it is not so much the work’s being avant-garde as it is that distance that has worked to separate poetry from the main streams of life in this country.
The job of the anti-body is to identify and neutralize diseased bits where they exist in the body / and to arrange to have them escorted out of it.
William Burroughs said that the language itself is a virus / meaning that the language (in this trope of mine) is one of the conceiving-horizons that anti-bodies would deal with. And / in that I am saying that anti-bodies are the self-critical language-use of the body of poetry / I think that this makes sense as a way of identifying the problem of the paucity of language anti-bodies and to begin to do something about it.
Disease (then) is language that is disastrous to the body of poetry (and other arts) and (by extension) to the body of the political organism (its people). Examples of diseased language include – newspeak (academic or political / philosophical or religious) / government- and non-government-corporate spin / duplicity / false statements / unclear pronouncements / consistently one-sided points-of-view / any kind of obfuscation / obliqueness for the sake of obliqueness / vagueness / and so on.
Critical language functions to surround these and to isolate them and to get rid of them / when there are no critical anti-bodies these forms of deadly language proliferate (killing poetry / people / the healthy aspects of the political / honesty / values / clear thinking (which relies on healthy language) / and more).
To not speak all that we have to say (the “negative” as well as the “positive”) is to live in fear. If that’s what we’re doing then that fear comes out of us somewhere else (as subjugation in our writing for example) / and it doesn’t go away. Further / it fuels the lack of respect acceded to poets and to their project. And further than that / it inculcates the fear into which the nation is being increasingly plunged (rather than seeking to eradicate it). We give up power when we don’t speak (and write) thoroughly and openly.
To speak the negative as well as the positive may be (for some) also to live in fear / but it is only the fear that accompanies change.
There is nothing more wonderful than to read a work by someone who has a lot to say / and who (while saying it) is actively searching for more to say (and maybe already saying some of that) – and who (at the same time) shows resolute and rich mastery of the language as it exists at that time / and who has something unique to contribute to it (to the language) as well.
If we use the most direct route between our thought and its expression / we will find that we need to add very little to what has already been invented – all we need then is to have something to say.
Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” is simply the obverse of the conservative edict that things should best stay more-or-less as they are. The area in between these two extremes is occupied (perhaps rather too fully) by the liberal’s thinking that things are pretty much ok the way that they are / that perhaps we could change this-or-that a little bit by voting or by doing nothing or by whatever / but that whatever happens things will end up being more-or-less ok. What is needed is an entirely new approach / and if it doesn’t begin with a thorough and multivalent examination of our own processes and products / it will not begin at all.
It is my contention that new ways of thinking (and whatever they produce) will only come about through greater (and more varied) honesties than those we are used to eliciting / but that if we do begin a more fearless examination of our language-baggage (and all that entails) the forms of our thought will (continue to be best when they) arise with the material of that thought.
Simplicity should be the guide to all our utterances / as it should be to all of our actions.
We must look at all sides of a thing (any thought / concept / way-of-being / way-of-thinking / set-of-words / language / epistemology / ontology / feeling) if we are to approach anything like wisdom.
Otherwise we remain in the realm of knowledge / where everyone is relatively blind.
We must strive to see even those sides of a thing that are unavailable to us – that is what our critical tools are for.
The usual comment from people after I’ve given a poetry reading has for a long time been “Is that new work?” – being confronted with this inanity has consistently deprived me of words. People have sometimes had kind words to say about the work / that it has inspired them / or that they enjoyed the reading (whatever that means) / or other words to that effect. I can’t honestly recall ever having gotten any kind of honest critique / or a response that required thought. I would much rather have someone tell me that the work was uninteresting and these are the reasons why etc / than to continue to have to bear up under the feeling that they think I have just gotten my driver’s license or bought a new pair of shoes.
Who among us will begin to speak honestly? / and not only honestly but candidly? I will try.
Brenda encouraged me to include the iteration of the following event as part of this essay.
In the 1980s I gave a reading and a talk in San Francisco. In the course of the talk I spoke about perfection / or at least about perfectibility / as a goal toward which we could strive in our writing. After the talk / this point in particular was attacked by more than one member of the audience.
I later came to realize that they were right / that it was a ridiculous idea / and that in reality (as a writer) I had no use for it. To this day / I value the forthrightness and articulation of their very live critique.
People need to have something to say / and a unique language with which to say it. Just making something out of words is not enough.
Most of us are not used to having our work looked at against the background of the literary tradition / we’re not used to having it critiqued in that context.
When a comparison is made it’s usually made to the work of a peer or to that of someone who wrote recently and who is being seen as an influence – making this kind of relationship apparent is little more than gossip / a whisper in a conspicuously empty room. Occasionally reference might be made to the body of literary history – when it is it hangs in the text of critical prose like a metaphor.
Our writing is seen almost always (when it is seen at all) in the context of the recent milieu / as if poetry began the day before yesterday (usually believed to have occurred in about 1900) / and as if it is from that vantage point that we have made use of it.
We need to begin to look at each new work in the context of the entire body of literary production – that means (for one thing) that we have to familiarize (or re-familiarize) ourselves with what that body contains. If we don’t our work will exist in relation to that body more as a parasite or virus would / rather than as the exercise of that body toward healthy production and change. What we are writing now is the current life (the living life / the life living) of the body of literature – we must pursue it with the kind of diligence with which we strive to keep ourselves alive.
When those of us who think don’t say what we think we are effectively censoring ourselves. And if you think censorship is disgusting what does that say of self-censorship (self- (self-censorship))? And why should we so readily play into the hands of those who would want us to be silenced?
How far is our intellectual freedom here still ours, only because, as a matter of fact, we are too discrete to exercise it?
– H G Wells, Star Begotten
You can’t tell-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth-so-help-me-god – it’s just not possible.
There isn’t time. It takes so much longer to tell something than it does to live it – and to tell it thoroughly (thoroughly (to tell it thoroughly)) – you’d be trying to grab hold of your first memories with words / while something was barely (but barely) catching your attention on one of the currently available horizons.
This stresses a need for intelligent and felt selection. People need to be disabused of ideas / but which ones? – the ones that hurt them (certainly) / the ones that hurt others / the ones that cause them to think rather more slowly than quickly / the ones that cause them not to care / the ones that cause them to not be there / the ones that contradict the other ones (if the other ones promote) / the ones that fail to engender / and the ones with gender
Philosophy lends at least some of its methods to the rest of critical discourse. For that reason (as well as for others) it is worth noting how it functions in relation to (its) language(s).
Philosophy is bound by the fact that it has to use some version of our daily language in order to speak (and (indeed) in order to think (to think (in order to think))) about itself. This means that for the meta-discourse that’s needed / there is no meta-discourse – it has to invent its language if it wishes to speak it (to think it (to think itself)). Whether or not this is a hindrance or something of an asset (or something of both) is something we could debate / but we would have to use the language which philosophy uses (while stepping outside of it) in order to think it (it (in order to think it)). I suppose it would be possible to see ways in which other discourses can be (and have been) used to think as (or of) philosophy – the greater likelihood of this being done would seem to fall upon poetry (and perhaps the other arts) / ((certainly) arguments could be made)). And perhaps this has some bearing upon why poetry (of all the other disciplines of arts and sciences) is often allied (and mentioned in connection) with philosophy / both use the language(s) of the day to think their way outside of it (them).
It is because of this constraint that philosophy has to think of ways to out-think itself – it has to create a meta-language from a language that is not one / in order to think creatively about that language. (I take it as a given that philosophy has (and has from the beginning) been about the matter of the definition of words / and that it has proceeded largely by redefining its own terms (and by justifying those redefinitions) – that (in a very real sense) is what philosophy is.) I think it is interesting to note that philosophy seems to have found two primary avenues for this work – either it has striven to think much more clearly than language is usually used to do (Heraclitus / Schopenhauer / Nietzsche / Wittgenstein / Irigaray) / or it finds itself thinking in ways much more complicated than usual (Kant / Heidegger / Derrida). It is obvious I think that the language-avenue taken says a lot about how these people thought / and about what they had to say (about what they were able to say / about what they found themselves able to say).
In many countries other than the United States journalism is practiced as a civilized (and civilizing) form of writing (or expression). In many countries other than the United States journalism can (can (journalism can)) be so practiced. If that were the case here we would be more in the habit of listening-to and learning-from what others have to say about us and our work (if we do any) – instead we are more likely to turn-the-other-cheek long before we have felt anything on the first one / thereby avoiding not only serious (diligent and deep) thought about our own work / but much other thought (thought that would be strengthening) as well.
Some of my peers are so focused on getting their products into the canon (even though to do so might be a sure sign of the works failure) / that they have long failed to do any really new thinking about their work (contenting themselves instead with doing pretty-much-the-same-thing over-and-over-again (and again)).
We live at a time when –
– the largest schools of fish have been all but depleted from the oceans
– there are thousands of square miles in both the Atlantic and the Pacific that do not have enough oxygen to support any form of life
– there is a hole in the ozone that is letting the arctic ice melt at a rate that has already destroyed many life forms / and that threatens terrestrial life as we know it
– the United States (and (but only when necessary (ie only when permitted)) its allies) has long attacked any country with whose people it thinks it disagrees / and any country harboring anything it wants
– we’ve gotten so used to these and other versions of the-what-is that we’ve already forgotten (ie grown comfortable with) some of the ones on this partial list
– so we live in a country that takes what it wants / kills whom it wishes / practices torture unapologetically / employs huge mercenary companies that it calls contractors – and doesn’t have a fucking clue why anybody could possibly have anything against it / and even less of a clue why some few individuals might get together to do anything about it
– when terrorism (whether it was indigenous (ie local and from the top down) or otherwise (ie imported and from the bottom up) we may never know) destroyed a couple of buildings in Manhattan / the populace professed even more amazement than anger – (The only reasonable reply to unreasonable compulsion is sabotage. – H G Wells, Star Begotten, 1937)
– we have just survived (sic) the deadliest century in earth’s history / with mankind killing mankind at the rate of approximately a million people a year
– capitalism continues to separate the increasingly-wealthy from the increasingly-poor / and to use children and others to the point of early deaths so that others of us can wear the (brand of) sneakers we want
– nuclear war (and nuclear waste) still threatens / whether ignited by terrorism or decay
– we’ve gotten so used to these sorts of things that we’ve already forgotten (ie grown comfortable with) many of the ones on this partial list
– the citizens of this country in which I live (The United States of America) have been cowed into accepting their own obligatory forgetfulness of what-happened-and-what-is-happening in most cases now long before they even happen
– we’re living in the wreckage of the future / but (hey) that’s ok! / we’ve already forgotten it
And in the midst of this (in the midst (in the midst of this)) we find one form of idiocy writing out (as if this time it were a book) another copy of one day’s New York Times / another form of idiocy writing the same sentence over-and-over again / another form of idiocy filling slightly various molds with the same form of only-very-slightly-inflamed discourse / another form of idiocy recreating the poetic forms of centuries ago and filling them with nothing-new / and another form of idiocy / and another / and on / and on – and almost no one saying a goddamned thing about it (why? – see the note above about forgetting the bad shit even before it happens (that way we won’t have to deal with it (at all (at all (at all))) / see?).
I have long taken spirit to be life source / and soul to be life energy.
Writing that cannot (that does not) create life is not worth reading / let alone writing.
The creator of the plastic arts / and the creator (who is often a creator-performer) of the temporal arts / is often paid handsomely (and sometimes exorbitantly) by the collector-consumer.
For the creator of the written arts (and especially those who write (well) outside of the current norm) / this is seldom the case. Why?
In some ways writing is perhaps closest to music in that it is written down and then later performed (eg read) / and yet compensation for musicians outperforms that of writers all the way from Michael Jackson vs Allen Ginsberg to the Metropolitan Opera vs all-the-small-presses-combined.
Writing is a product of the body (the whole body / entire). This means that the whole body lives it / that it is the void of the whole body.
So the whole body must be inculcated in an understanding of (of (in an understanding of)) it – that way it lives as the whole body lives (no better / no worse (if (indeed) better-and-worse exist for the body)).
Nothing can be left out / or the body fails (it dies). Death from lack of acute insight / death from lack of acute critique – it happens all the time. It is one of the places where bad poetry most manifestly comes from – and it is for that reason that it is in the interest of bad poetry to keep it that way.
The language that we use all the time (for poetry as for everything else) is inadequate to the task / is inaccurate.
You will see that this raises the question whether we think exclusively in the language(s) we have been taught. I think not – too often have I found language incapable of expressing what I am thinking or feeling (and that is one of the reasons why I turned early to poetry (to be able to say more (more (to be able to say more)))) – and I don’t think that that inability stems from the fact that I have forgotten the words I need / or that I never learned them / or that I am speaking in English when I should be speaking in German / or that I am writing in English when I should be writing in music notation – I think that the language is an abused mess / and that we’re lucky to be able to say as much as we do with it.
This insufficiency of the language is one of the most compelling reasons why we must critique what is made out of it. We need to ask (among so many other questions) how language reflects that insufficiency / how it deals with it. In fact / to ask about the relationship between the made object and the available materials will tell us much about the value of that object (how it sits in the world / the chances that it has to change that world / for examples).
Is anybody ready to act?
[Literature] is the formal freedom conceded to those who cannot accommodate themselves to the nothingness of their real freedom. … The operation can be summarized like this: an entity in its death throes sacrifices itself as a content in order to survive as a form.
– The Invisible Committee, author of The Coming Insurrection
We are permitted to digress / but not to transgress.
We are permitted to digress / so that we will not transgress.
In fact though, rage and politics should never have been separated. Without the first, the second is lost in discourse; without the second the first exhausts itself in howls.
– The Invisible Committee, author of The Coming Insurrection
Rain Taxi is a magazine that publishes book reviews. Their Submission Guidelines begin with the following –
is dedicated to publishing unbiased, objective reviews. If you have a connection with the author or press, please disclose it upon submission. Not all relationships constitute conflicts of interest, but we respectfully request your candor regarding
relationships. If you are friends with an author and would like to highlight their work, please feel free to email us and suggest a review, or consider pitching an interview instead.
We discourage reviewers from having any direct contact with the author or publisher prior to submitting a review. If it is necessary to clarify facts, our editorial staff can handle that for you. If you must contact the author or publisher, please be careful to ask specific questions rather than sending them the entire review for approval, and please disclose the extent of your communications upon submission.
While we generally prefer to use our limited space for discussion of books that are worthwhile, negative reviews that engage larger issues are certainly welcome.
If submitting a review, send something approximately 500 words in length, and please indicate how you obtained the book you have selected.
The frigid environment that this details goes far beyond anything involving simple human decency / and (in fact) enforces a pervasive and deliberate censorship. The only thing that makes this censorship any different from some other types is that it is enforced in advance. In addition / it shows a complete lack of understanding of the environment in which much (especially new) writing is produced / which is one of frequent collaboration between writers and editors and publishers / friendships that cut across all of these (and other) boundaries / the formation of collaborative groups / and so on. A very large portion of the work that they review (in this stilted way) would never have been written were such conditions permitted to prevail – fortunately they do not. It should be noted that the friendships and cooperative relationships that frequently underlie the creation of writing are one of the pleasures that make an often-otherwise-thankless task worth doing and enjoyable.
A reading of Rain Taxi’s Submission Guidelines shows (and on the very surface of it / not at all hidden) an insistence on curtailment and self-censorship that can only blindly assist the immolation of creative literatures at this time.
At the same time / Rain Taxi is not at all above using the names of the famous and well-known on its cover (in the Summer 2009 issue – Ursula K. Le Guin / Mervyn Peake / Anne Waldman / Elaine Showalter) even though they are not writing for the issue (their work is merely under review) / in order to enhance distribution and boost sales. This kind of cultural theft should stop (unless (of course / following their own guidelines) the authors’ permissions have been secured).
Of what value is literature?
How is that value achieved?
Who is achieving it?
How is that value (how are those values) betrayed?
Who is betraying them?
Are they doing so consciously or unconsciously?
I was wondering if part of the problem of defining literary value lies in the fact that the unconventional literary text is always going to redefine literary value.
– Gary Day in Michael Payne and John Schad editors, life.after.theory (Continuum, 2003)
[ The remarks that follow in this section are gleaned from things I wrote in an email dialog with Brenda. I appreciate the additional motivation (to think). ]
To reiterate – what I am saying is why I think living-in-a-little-poetry-world-where-we-don't-totally-critically-evaluate-what-we're-doing means the death of poetry (and the state-of-demise in which it now exists).
Some people try to justify things-that-have-been-written by claiming that because they are part-of-what-is-happening (and are perhaps (also) a-response-to-other-things-that-are-happening) / they thereby qualify by virtue of being in some way a-bit-of-realism. Such a justification would really come down to saying that they’ve held their mirror up to the world / that they’ve caught a reflection / and they therefore they’re at-least-ok-as-writing. But if being an expression of what-is (of "the-times-as-they-are") is enough to validate writing then all writing is validated. The "realism" that is referred to (in this defense) is not (is not) realism (and it is certainly not realized / at least not fully so) simply because it resembles the world that it comes out of / and because it resembles it simply because it comes out of it. Realism is a specific way of seeing the world / and it is as specific as (say) surrealism or Christianity or rococo is / and it is a-way-of-seeing-the-world that is created (created (that is created) by someone).
Surely there are reasons why people do make mental judgments / and one of those would be to determine what is of value and what is not – so that even if we accept that being-an-indication-of-what's-happening is adequate to something (something) / there are still hosts of other questions that we would want to ask and hosts of other concerns that we would have to express before declaring a thing to be of value (or even of interest). Outright lies are a reflection of things-as-they-are (of the-world-as-it-is) / (this is unfortunately more-and-more-the-case) / but that doesn't validate them. Someone who appeals to realism in this way is making one of the absolutely lowest common denominators available a yardstick for acceptance – and I most adamantly would not.
We would want to begin to ask how (how) a thing relates to the world / and not satisfy ourselves with the finding that in some way it "fits" by simply being a part of the world in which it is created. And then we would want to continue to approach it critically / in order to determine what (if anything) it has accomplished. We might ask whether what it is offering is more in the manner of entertainment / or whether it dissects what-is in order to encourage us toward wisdom. We would want to spend a lot of time looking at how-it-does-what-it-does / and to not accept it merely because (because (merely because)) it does-what-it-does. I could go on (with recommending ways of looking at a work / and the reasons for doing so) but I think I have already made my point.
Yet another way of putting it (or some of it) – I started to see the many ways in which poetry (as distinct from some other forms) is weakened by our unwillingness as poets to say what we think (to say less than all of what we think is to not say what we think at all!).
Some readers may (especially initially) find themselves distracted by the tone of a review that is more aggressively persistent in what it asks for than what they are used to. But such distraction (or whatever it is) perhaps represents their own unwillingness (or inability) to confront the full range of available tones – and that is too bad / because it means that there are things of value being said that they can't/won't/don't hear.
If someone is uncertain (for any reason) about what they wish to say / if someone has more than one thing they wish to say and some difficulty discerning between them or selecting from among them / if someone is distracted when they are about to say what they have to say / and so on – then one might be satisfied in saying that "There are many ways we can say what we think." But if what we say has any immediacy and if we know where that immediacy comes from / then – There is only one way to say what we think.
There is only one way to say what we think.
There is only one way to say that we think.
In the work that I value / there is ample evidence that there has been only one way to have said what was thought.
I think this is a very important point / I could not stress it enough.
I have another poet friend (Tim Peterson) who has thus-far rated 142 books online at goodreads. He has given the highest rating (five stars) to 93% of those books / including every one of them written by a friend of his. Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged fell into the other 7% – I’m not going to judge the two novels (I haven’t read Lethem’s and I haven’t read Rand’s for decades) / but I think that it’s impossible to not see a critical imbalance of some sort here. This misfortune is exacerbated by the fact that Tim never reviews any of the books / he only stars them. Tim is getting a PhD in Cultural Theory / and I know from other evidence that he is capable of writing a review. But somehow I can’t help but see in this a dire image (and (sadly) more than a mere image) of what reading might already (for many at least) have become.
Fortunately this example can be countered with the postings at the same site by another friend (tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE) who has thus far weighed in on 859 books / with a broad variety of ratings (from 1 star to 5 stars) / and as far as I can tell he has taken the time to write something about virtually every one of them.
tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE’s record will be of some value (at the very minimum it has substance) both now / and over time – Tim’s will not.
[ I mention my friends by name because although they may not be direct collaborators in this piece of writing they are (they are) / and happily so for me / collaborators in the life that’s making it. I want you to know of whom I speak. I want you to know that the examples I give are founded in personal realities. And I want to credit them for their part in this. ]
I argued that one of the best senses of “reason” and “reasonableness” was openness to criticism—readiness to be criticized, and eagerness to criticize oneself; and I tried to argue that this critical attitude of reasonableness should be extended as far as possible.
– Karl Popper, Unended Quest
The rationality of man consists not in his being unquestioning in matters of principle but in never being unquestioning; not in cleaving to reputed axioms, but in taking nothing for granted.
– Gilbert Ryle, from a review of Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies, quoted in Unended Quest
Maybe serious criticism would be easier to find in a country other than the United States. Pascal got down to criticisms of Montaigne near the beginning of the Pensées – Proust began with criticisms of Saint-Beuve – French television seems to encourage debate rather than mere passive acceptance. In the United States criticism is often seen as little-more-than mud-slinging (and here perhaps it most often is / where politicians so often substitute it (mud-slinging that is) for any of the forms of thought). Christians are prone to turn-the-other-cheek long before they register in any sensible way what it was that happened to the first one.
Scientific work advances by criticizing the prevailing theories (which are inevitably the theories of somebodies) – this is how scientific knowledge is gained (gained / tested / gained / tested / and gained).
Philosophers build upon the work of those who went before them / and by criticizing the work of their peers as well. Epictetus made fun of the skeptics by way of criticizing them / philosophy has been done in that sort of way (at least in some part) ever since. Richard Rorty criticizes George Steiner / many find themselves none-too-sure-about Derrida / Popper criticizes Wittgenstein and is quite sure he’s done away with all of the positivists / and so on.
We poets need to begin to see critique as part of what advances knowledge and understanding / as part of what keeps us whole – we must most certainly learn to stop fearing it.
Pound’s “Make it new!” has continued to hold sway. That is what we have tended to use to validate work. Pound may actually have been a little late with his pronouncement – the idea of newness (at least as we have inherited it) probably began in the arts some time around 1900 – certainly both Mallarmé and Rimbaud had something to do with it. (The avant-garde as a term came into use about 1910.) It would seem that for many it has been a-relatively-unquestioned-value ever since.
Of course this valuation has held only for those of us who have identified as (and with) the avant-garde.
Perhaps the avant-garde is something that happens fairly constantly / but off-to-the-side – certainly there have always been cultural workers producing things that were recognizably not part of the main stream. But I think that the notion of the avant-garde is quite new / and it has often then been the avant-garde that has looked back and co-opted those more exceptional creators for their own (much as the Language poets took Jackson Mac Low and Hannah Weiner and the earlier works of Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge to have been a significant part of their own heritage).
Perhaps the avant-garde is just what the status quo pushes in front of it. Like the froth before the wave.
The idea of the avant-garde is now dissolving in the face of internationalism / which shows it to have been very spottily regional at best. Globalization (internationalism's dark side) has no use for anything so ephemeral. Those who benefited from the idea did so self-servingly – "I am a member of the avant-garde!" (In advance (therefore) of the rest (of all of the rest)!) The appellation self-served also the consumers (readers & auditors & viewers & collectors & critics & sellers & owners & museums &) who proclaimed themselves to also be members (members!) and who also went along for the anticipated benefits.
What would it take to get rid of terms like experimental poetry and the avant-garde? (Perhaps we could speak of works being unconventional or (more accurately) less-conventional) – we might then engage in very useful discussions about whether that was actually something to be valued / and (if so) to what extent and in what ways relative to other perceived and posited values. This whole (notion of the) avant-garde is essentially reactionary / fundamentalism (in reverse?). But in the service of what (really)?
The will of the avant-garde is essentially masochistic – to want to be part of a movement just-large-enough-to-get-noticed (even if only by those few others in it) / but at the same time sufficiently marginalized (to say the least) to put one in a position where it seems more-than-justified to bitch-and-whine-about-being-there – quite possibly the first (and most hopefully the only) art movement to thrive on such a passive/aggressive posture (posturing).
A thing of value does not need to state its value. Its value is lessened if it states it. A thing that takes a position will gain (value) by doing so / but a thing that posits itself as being in that position will not. Similarly / it lessens its value (and its credibility) if it states in any way its “newness” or its “avant-garde status”.
What is of value in a work of art?
What is (is (what is)) of value (what is of value) in a work of art?
This is (in some ways) a difficult question to approach / because questions of ethics (and even of morality) begin to impinge when questions of aesthetics are raised / and that is especially so when the aesthetic question has to do with value.
As in the fine arts the cult of the new in intellectual matters is now the compulsory, the
thing, and perhaps it needs to be a little blackened by a devil’s advocate, for the same reason that in an earlier generation it was intellectual conservatism which needed to be rebuked and reversed.
– Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors
We have been witnessing the false equation of the new with the better (of the “new” with the “better”).
Confusing the new with the good is not only a result of market capitalism / it is one of its principle aims. Advertising is propaganda ((incidentally) against the intellect) and one of its main tasks/strategies is the reiteration of this confusion. This is where that idea comes from.
If we were in Milan / and we saw on the fashion runway floor-length dresses over seven petticoats and with a bustle behind and a-collar-to-be-sure-to-cover-the-neck / we would know that we were looking at something from about 1890 / and (further) we would know what it was – an anachronism.
And yet people write poetry the verbal equivalent of that to this day and (what is more peculiar) there are people who read it / thinking that it is “the real thing”. Why can this happen in poetry but not in fashion? – I believe it is because we do not (and have not) sufficiently disturbed the realms of discourse that surround our craft (our art) / and I believe that to do that (to begin to do that) with sufficient vigor we will have to disturb much that we have passively let lie fallow for-the-most-part until-now (we will have to be less agreeable (because by being agreeable we are agreeing to the trampling of the-realm-of-our-work under the feet of calumny and disregard).
Perhaps we are too wed to an art that critiques its own values.
Perhaps we are too wed to an art that critiques its own values / before they can transpire.
Perhaps we are too wed to an art that critiques its own values / before they can come to life and transpire.
Perhaps we are too wed to an art that critiques its own values / before they can come to life and then transpire.
I admit that I am finding it difficult to write about values / and about how they relate to art. The reason for this is that value is a whole that is composed of many parts / and like any whole it is constantly fluctuating and changing (changing places / changing its relationship to time / changing what it is). And value is largely subjective / although in any instance or in any area of concern values can be shared.
Our sense of value can be composed of such things as – our stylistic preferences / our beliefs / our religion and our political ideals / our sense of justice / how we see history / our prejudices / the things that we hold to be true and the things that we hold to be untrue / our aspirations / our education / how we ourselves like to be seen / our relationships with others / our experiences / our economic situation / how we relate to our family (or families) and what we learned from them / what we think ourselves to be / and what we think we ought to be / our age / what we own and what we would like to own / where we live / and where we have lived / how we arrived at the specific question of value at hand / how much time we have available in which to contemplate it / who we’re with / and who we’d like to be with – you get the idea.
This means that any particular value has many components / and at the same time it has many facets by which it itself is seen – so that how we relate to the process(es) of valuation also becomes a factor determining how (and what) we value.
I think it’s an unfortunate fact of recent times that value has been replaced by taste. This might be in part because of the difficulties of complexity mentioned in the paragraphs above – it is easier to justify our taste than our values / indeed taste need only be claimed (“Well / that’s what I like.”) / whereas values seem always to have to be underpinned by other values (so that the processes of their existence can seem dizzyingly self-supporting (and self-justifying) at times).
It is also much easier to market taste than values. It is easier to get people to change their taste than it is to get them to change their values. And it is what is marketable that consumes this culture of consumption. Our taste controls what we buy / which is the concern of capitalist society – our values control how we live / and that is likely to be the concern only of a few teachers and a religious leader and maybe one or two of our friends. Taste is the way our values look when they’re being sold to us – watered down / anaesthetized / pre-selected / lessened / inevitable / and oh-so-affordable.
The writer must have something to say / not merely something to do.
I realize as I think about it that the values that I look forward to in poetry are not that different from the values that I hold in a more general sense / that the poetic values that I would want to hold to are perhaps just more specific senses of those more general (life-wide) ones.
I hold compassion to be the greatest value. Through all that I have lived thus far I have found nothing that makes any more sense than to say that we are here and that we might as well make it as pleasant and livable for ourselves and for others as we can.
To that end (and to others) a kind of attention to details seems important / a presentness to the occasion (to whatever it is that is happening).
This means also that the person would want to (would have to) maintain a centeredness – it is (perhaps) ironic in a way that this (particular) value is made possible by a grounding in some-set-of-stable-values-as-a-whole.
I find that if we are centered and clear about what is happening / then we will be compassionate as a natural instance of that.
I value tidiness and clarity – (I seem to think they go together).
I value honesty and (beyond it) I value candor – honesty can be the product of a rather-too-studied form of attention / it can be pre-thought – but candor is honesty in-and-of-the-moment. It is much more rare to say something of substance directly and straight-ahead than we think (and much more rare than it needs to be).
I value things that are shared / and I take the literary product to be exemplary of that in a primary way. The text may live in the mind of the author / it may live as it gets itself onto the page / it may live again as it goes into print / and on from there – but it really lives (it creates (creates (it creates)) life) when it is finally shared by a reader or auditor. To put it another way – the text is a gift – when it is read or heard it is not returned / it is shared.
I value the quest for those things that underlie the-more-apparent-things – I won’t speak of a search for truth / because I think that all truths are (in any event) made by us – but there are generalities that surround some groups of particulars in ways that make wisdom the possible outcome of mere knowledge and the quotidian. This quest is really one of sifting through the available (the accumulated) understandings – in that way it should be particularly dear to the writer / because those understandings have been recorded in languages.
I value the daily commerce of the word / not so much as a product of any particular mind (I use the word here in its broadest imaginable sense) / but as the original site of the writer’s materials (something to which we must (must (to which we must))) attend.
I value what is alive (with the understanding that everything is alive) / and I value any and all efforts to keep it so.
I value what brings persons together / and literature certainly does that (and can do so in ways that (seemingly) nothing else can).
For the most part I value (highly) things that have survived for a while – the classics / the thinking of the ancients / things from other languages that have deserved translation / questions that have been long pursued / questions that remain unanswered (the more so) / statements of value that continue to excite (and incite) the mind / forms that have long done service / arguments that go on-and-on / those very large forms whereby we live and think and do and die.
I value those things that might further change / where it will positively effect human life (human lives) / and I take positive effects to be those that increase happiness and kindness.
And there are (also) some things which I might say that I value / but which are not (for me) of the same order as those things mentioned above. It might be better to say that I appreciate them. I appreciate people (and this pertains to writers in a particular way) who go-against-the-grain / who do not go-along-with-the-crowd / who do not apply to and then (if accepted) join whatever is new in the world of writing. I appreciate (for example) Frances Ponge among the Surrealist-status-quo / and Artaud among the “insane”. I appreciate writers who stand out / who do not need to belie a presence in any group to account for their continuing fascination – Gerard De Nerval / Charles Baudelaire / Comte de Leautreamont / J K Huysmans / Constantin Cavafy / Karl Kraus / Gertrude Stein / Ronald Firbank / Mary Butts.
I value writers who have something to say / and who value what they have to say above (above) the ways-of-the-saying-of-it.
I value writers who have dedicated (who have given) themselves (and everything that is a part of those selves) to the saying of what they must say.
I value those for whom writing is the only available (the only durable) way of saying it – I value writers.
I appreciate the writer who looks for new ways of writing / who does so not for the sake of the new (in fact in some ways against that) / but because new ways of writing make it possible to say things that could not have been said before.
I value writers who work in a variety of modes / who do not write one poem their whole life / who demonstrate that they have more than one thing to say by showing us those things in a variety of ways-of-saying / who build style (or form) on top of (or next to) style (or form) so that the whole speaks to the magnitude of their understanding of things-as-they-are.
Good writing deals with issues / not with itself.
Worthwhile writing deals with issues / and not with itself alone.
Writing that is of value to human beings deals with matters that are of life-and-death import to them / and not with its own machinations.
Perhaps I should say in here somewhere that I believe that poetry changes events and lives / and that that (for me) constitutes (and defines / and modifies) its value.
My experience as a writer tells me that changing one word in a sentence / changing the line breaks in a poem / changing one piece of punctuation for another – all of these (and a host of others like them) will individually change the meaning of what is written. When the meaning changes the mind of the person experiencing the text will change with it – it might be hard to know in advance in exactly what ways that will happen / but it is (part of) the writer’s responsibility to try to find that out – every choice made in the process of writing something implies a moral value / (that is) it has a concomitant moral value / and with that moral value it will (in some ways) invest the world.
This sense of the-way-things-are is conveyed beautifully by an image from Hwa Yen Buddhism – the image of Indra’s net – we are asked to visualize something like a fishermen’s net with a diamond in each spot where the chords intersect / and then to imagine this as three-dimensional / and then to imagine it extending in all directions throughout all of space. Anything that exists / anything that occurs – is reflected in the diamonds nearest to it / and those diamonds are reflected in all the diamonds of this universe-extensive grid. This image exists to convey that everything is interconnected / that everything relates to everything else / that everything affects everything else. In the instance of this particular discussion / it serves to remind me that anything that happens (a piece of writing) affects everything else. I would reiterate here that this states a profound moral imperative implicit in all that we do / in all that we say / in all that we write – it does make a difference.
And I would say here also (as simply as I can) that writing in general (and certain writings in particular) have changed my life. On balance I would say that the changes have been mostly for the better – although there remain memorable instances of writings that affected me so adversely that I had a hard time recovering from them / and many other texts that simply (in their own way) bored me to death.
The above image of universe-extensive-diamonds-reflecting-all-and-each-other might also be put in a more down-to-earth way (and (at the same time) in a way that has some bearing on the writer/reader relationship) –
Although only the one sun appears in the sky above, its reflections are caught by water held by many different receptacles, so that each of those receptacles ‘contains a sun’ and every ‘sun’ is both complete in itself and yet identical with the sun in the sky. … Although every one of the suns manifested below is perfect and entire, the sun in the sky is not in the lease diminished by them. (Hui Hai, 8th century)
If you were walking down the street with someone and they were about to step in something wouldn’t you say LOOK OUT / DOG SHIT or something to that effect? And yet when it comes to what enters our minds (with what might take up more-or-less permanent residence there) we offer no words of warning or even caution.
What is of more value than the value of our attention? Not much.
And to claim that of another person / which a writer does of all those potential readers (all those potential listeners) / is a matter we should consider precisely when we put pen to paper to make the merest of any sort of mark at all. This (again) is a matter for moral evaluation / this again an indication of the moral imperative (of some sort) at work in the mind of the hand that writes. It couldn’t be otherwise.
Is it possible that bad poetry is good for the world?
Ezra Pound got recognition for Robert Frost.
Me personally? / I don’t think so. I believe that the language is (among other mind-sets) a filter through which we see the world / a way (thereby) in which the world gets made for us. Bad writing mucks up the language / and mucked up language mucks up how we see the world / and a mucked-up view of the world hinders us (sometimes tragically) as operators in and of it.
There are two main theories about the structure of languages. One sees languages as enormously diverse in terms of structure and use. The other sees in all languages the same underlying structures / differences being superficial. [ There is a somewhat exhausting (sic) treatment of this in George Steiner, “Wharf, Chomsky, and the Student of Literature,” On Difficulty, Oxford University Press, 1978 ]
These are of significance for those of us who write poetry. If languages are enormously diverse and share no networks of underlying structures / then translation from one language to another is virtually impossible. And (more significantly) the variety of relatively autonomous languages would shape vastly different world-views / and make even communication haphazard and less meaningful than we might otherwise be prone to (try to) experience it. On the other hand / deep underlying structures would make translation more profitable / and understanding more likely.
The real question that shapes this debate is whether-or-not / and to what extent / and in what ways the language we use shapes our experience of our world. I don’t have an answer to this question / although I strongly suspect that we see the world through a network of languages / and that the ones we use largely determine what the world is for us. I believe that this question is one that we need to be considering as we write / and that we might look to our experience of writing for suggestions of an answer (of answers).
Yes / pay intimate attention to the language (itself) – but do so in order to write clearly and more.
My friend Drew Gardner pointed out that something which significantly separates poetry from the other arts is that for other art forms there is a class of reviewer who (often professional / often paid) stands apart from the creators of the art / while in the case of poetry it is we poets who tend to serve (usually in a non-professional capacity / almost always without remuneration) as the critics as well as the makers of our writings.
This would have the effect (among others) of making for a kind of ingrownness / a kind of self-incesting / that as such might well keep the writers wanting to shy away from their (potential) public / while making that public view with suspicion what would often appear to be little more than mutually-masturbatory-congratulations. At the same time / the poet-writers of book reviews might well feel timid about speaking in a strong voice about the writing of one of their peers / fearing that any so-called-negative criticism that goes-around might come-around rather too firmly and too quickly.
Information about the world (which might very well be (be) the world) is no longer consumed primarily through printed words. People don’t stand on the street corner to read a newssheet pasted to a building wall. The news is conveyed electronically (whether via cable / cell phone / iPod / computer) and less-and-less of it is committed to words. Images carry the day where the public consumption of news and information is concerned. Words are too slow – they require work.
This shift in the balance of how the world is conceived/received (at least in the developed and developing worlds (interesting choice of words (none-the-less)) is parallel to the favor with which the visual arts are received when compared with the limited conception of poetry and other printed texts. Will POD books change this? – no. Will an increase in the prevalence of electronic books change this? – we’ll know within a couple of years.
I decided to reread Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notes as they have been collected (by others) in Culture and Value (ed GH von Wright, tr Peter Winch, The University of Chicago Press, 1980) in an effort to further focus my attention on the matter of value within the cultural sphere. There was less there of pertinence to my topic than the title of the book seemed to promise / but I will quote those entries of Wittgenstein’s that seem to bear on the matter at hand (the state of the literary arts (particularly poetry) in the US of A and similar (are there any?!) places).
Our civilization is characterized by the word ‘progress’. Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves.
People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea
that these have something to teach them
– that does not occur to them.
A poet too has constantly to ask himself: ‘but is what I am writing really true?’ – and this does not necessarily mean: ‘is this how it happens in reality?’
In trying to come to terms with his own lapsed interest in reading / Arthur Krystal writes – Well the academy comes to mind, that confederation of professors and curricula which over the last three decades has reversed the respective status of criticism and belles letters, and in the process managed to drive a wedge between the intellectual and the literary life. (Closing the Books: A Devoted Writer Arrives at the End of the Story, Yale University Press, 2002)
There is always another (another (always another)) excuse for being nice.
That (that) in-and-of-itself should tell us something (that in and of itself should tell us something).
I was pleased to encounter Geoff Olsen and Tim Peterson at a poetry reading that Brenda Iijima gave together with Tao Lin at a new bookstore in Brooklyn.
We were speaking together before the reading when Geoff asked me what I’d been working on / and I gave a brief description of the direction that this essay is going in. I mentioned in particular a need for a willingness on the part of us reviewers to produce sharper criticism / to spark more heated debates / to question more.
Brenda said – But you’ll lose all your friends.
Tim said – But the opposite will end up happening (ie there’ll be a backlash and people will end up doing what they did before).
I won’t comment.
Drew also noted that a poetry reading consists of poets reading to an audience of poets.
This relates to (and in a way seconds) the other insularity that he’d spoken about / that of poets doing the job of being the critics (especially the reviewers) of the work of other poets. And as with this kind of insularity / that at the poetry reading is not the case in other art forms (the movie theater / the musical concert / the art gallery / the opera / the ballet / and others).
A poetry reading is (then) a lot like a quilting bee or a knitting circle / and I find that I have to decry the fact that they are often just about as interesting / and that they often fail to be that useful.
What is important is not that we agree / but that we understand one another.
More disagreement can only have the effect of making the poetry community healthier.
What is of value in writing exists between the text and the world.
Poets need to show that they can do more than write poems (poems that to many people are incomprehensible). They should begin to write more in other art forms (a novel / anyone? / a book of essays? / a play worthy of its name?) / and at the same time they could do more writing about (about) other art forms. In these ways they will be seen to have breadths that were (by many) unsuspected / and the interest of people once piqued in these other areas of the arts will draw them back to the poetry and engage them and help us move that forward under the eyes of more and more discerning readers.
It would not be at all a bad thing if poets refused to give a reading for less than $200 – if travel is required they should be paid for that as well. There might be a lull in readings for a while – not at all a bad thing / as serious poets would use the time to explore and become engaged with other art forms. It is (in any event) never bad for a movement of any sort to have a rest / to reassess its position and its direction / to do nothing for a while / and to then be able to return to the task with renewed vision and vigor.
We have entered a stage in our civilization where, as a result of overwhelming specialization, every real bit of progress in one field sets the individual back in all others. And so a good physicist or doctor cannot help being an ignoramus in matters of poetry. This is the real reason for incomprehensibility, which can only become more pervasive. Poets, that is real poets, in a few years will all either be locked up in hospitals as professional madmen, or they will win for poetry the same right to specialization as mathematics, for example, which, except for a few elementary areas, is accessible only to specialists.
– Aleksander Wat, “Lucifer Unemployed”, 1920s
A lot of what used to pass for poetry (some of it with even that modicum of success that got it there in the first place) no longer deserves to go by that name.
We should say so!
It’s not a matter of going forward ((“forward”) who’d decide which direction that is anyway?) / it’s just a matter of our being able to be going on getting anywhere at all (at all (at all (anywhere at all))) / with our work (that is) – and to that end a lot of the old crap needs to get cleared out of the way. As writers we do that anyway (after a fashion) by paying attention to that-of-what-came-before that’s of use to us / and by ignoring the rest. But I think we need to reshuffle and reevaluate the works of the past – we the poets / we the writers / need to do that.
It’s not a matter of controlling the canon.
There should be no canon!
For our own edification / for the edification of the younger writers / for the enlightenment of those who might be more prone to read our works if they woke up one day and saw what (and that) we’d actually been thinking (actually been thinking (saw what (and that) we’d actually been thinking)) about what came before and how (and if) it should be valued / and for the edification of workers in other art disciplines (so that when they look to where we’re working they’ll have some ready sense (too) of why). Edification is (too) a kind of instruction / and instruction a kind of edification.
The edifice should be taken down and rebuilt! – minutely (ie minute-by-minute).
We can do that.
So many people write because they lack the character not to.
– Karl Kraus
As poets there are characteristics that we have in common – a love of the language(s) that we use / a desire to communicate / a sense of pleasure when making something out of words / an urge to do something in relation to what has been done before (either to imitate it / or to do otherwise than it) / a desire to have our work read / the effort to be understood / perhaps a few other traits as well. These ways-of-being (at least for the most part) will tend to unite us.
There are also characteristics which we have in common / but that tend to divide us – an ego at work / a sense that our way (our way) of making the poem is the (is the) way of making the poem / a tendency to be cliquish with and among those with whom we think we share our particular (particular (our particular)) ways of making / a commitment to the idea that what we (we (what we)) make stands in the correct relation to the history of the poem (and (for some of us) to history more generally) / a desire to please / perhaps a few other traits as well.
All of these characteristics stand close to our sense of our existence-as-poets – we need to constantly be evaluating them in order to thwart their tendency to overwhelm us / a tendency which they do (do (which they do)) have / and one that can only leave us looking more-rather-than-less pathetic in the eyes of non-poets who have (and who need have) no sense of the little games with which we are too often prone to surround the-making-that-we-do.
We need to speak less / not more – we need to write less / not more.
We live in an age of rampant self-publication. Gertrude Stein and Harry Crosby got nuthin on us! Almost everyone who wants one can have a blog and a web site and a few email addresses and various sorts of identities in various other online (offlife?) places. Print on demand brings the cost of getting a book (or at least the notion of a book) out in front of people within the range of more-and-more of us / and it makes for the publisher a financially easier time of it (literally – less of an investment).
Notions of democracy and self-sufficiency and all-people-are-equal and each-man-for-himself (and any of a host of other notions / often contradictory if not mutually-annihilative) would seem to support this as a good state-of-affairs. All that knowledge within reach of everybody! / Freedom of speech! / Equality! – all this shouts to the advantage of these modes of address.
But are we not simply in danger of smothering one another under our words? / are we not in danger of smothering under the plethora of our own words?
And the dream-of-the-future would seem to be a machine-or-something that can do much of our thinking for us / and get our thoughts out there before we’ve even had to bother to think them. We already know that we have no past / that it’s gone before we can live it / and that the press and what it purrs out is nothing more than the evidence of this trace of what-never-really-was.
We are in danger now of giving up the present. Maybe we’ve already done so.
The industrialization of popular culture has led to a situation in the richest countries where the cult of violence and
nostalgie de la boue
have become common property in every sense. The expression ‘avant-garde’ has acquired an ominous connotation that its spokesmen can hardly have thought possible. They surely can’t have imagined that hoards of deadbeat artists would take their élitist fantasies seriously and even put them into practice.
Vandalism is traded high even in the art market. The tautological squiggles of the graffiti scribblers roll uninterrupted into the galleries. The desire to shock is often on show in the art world. Naturally, we are dealing here with vicarious pleasures whose attraction owes everything to maintaining a safe distance from reality. It would be naïve to suggest a link of cause and effect when it is obvious that the artist who acts tough is simply attempting to curry favor.
– Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Civil Wars / From L.A. to Bosnia, The New Press, 1993
[ This brief quote is from a book in which Enzensberger tries to come to terms with the fact that we are constantly surrounded by a multitude of civil wars / that wars of external aggression are certainly not on the decline – he addresses also our options for realistically trying to deal with these conflicts / and with implications for us (as nations / as individuals) as we implement some form of intervention. It is in that overall context that he uses the term
a link of cause and effect
when saying a little bit about the possible complicity of art and artists in that world situation. ]
We need to distinguish between people-who-appear-to-be-poets and people-who-are-poets.
I realize that this suggestion will (at least at first) seem exclusionist and isolationist (two sides of the same state (more or less)) / and elitist / if not worse. I invite you to choose your own words / sit with it for a while / and get over it.
We don’t have a hard time distinguishing between people who make home movies / and people who make a career out of their films / people who are auteurs / people who live (who live) for celluloid. We know that large and incontrovertible passions produce more fulfilling experiences than do those feelings which might best survive closer to home.
We can feel (with all that we are) the difference between the Ring Cycle / and a concept album by anybody. We know the difference between dance that’s made and performed to express itself / and dance that we do for fun – and we also know the difference that the element of fun can make when the dance-that’s-made-and-performed-to-express-itself is infused with it. We know the difference between a phone call and a radio play. We know the difference between an argument at home and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
We also know how to make critical judgments about the relative values of things / and we seem to find it relatively easy to do so outside of our own art form. We know what we like when it comes to viewing films / what we want to see when we’re looking at art / what to read for-what-purpose or under-the-influence-of-what-feelings (etc) / and we usually know why – it is probably just the heightening of these sorts of sensibility that contribute to making us the (kind of) writers that we are.
So what will it take for us to begin to use more consistently / and regardless of what we imagine the consequences might be / those decision-making-apparatuses that we use all the rest of the time when confronting art? And sure / we’re not all going to come up with the same results about poets any more than we do about what movie it’s most important to go to see this week. But we will come up with results – and that (as they sort of say) will at least begin to make all the difference. We’ll think more / we’ll write more about the things that we’re thinking about / we’ll talk more with each other about these things – and (I think) gradually some various consensuses will begin to occur about what really sustains us / and what needs us to sustain it.
We’re dying because the language is sick. If the language was made more clear / the quality of our lives would improve greatly.
We are language.
I wonder if one problem / perhaps effecting more the ways in which we’re unable to think and unable to talk about the poetry that’s around us / more than it effects the writing of that poetry itself (although it might certainly be a problem there too) – is that there are too many words in our language now. This would be a kind of parallel to the population explosion (with the concomitant consumer glut / and the overproduction of consumable things) and perhaps in some way contingent upon it – people demand words (or at least they certainly seem to have done!). No one finds it difficult to reflect upon the almost unthinkable number of objects and technologies and disciplines-of-study and ways-of-thinking-about-things and interactions and intersections and (yes) evasions / the growth into additional areas-of-knowledge and spheres-of-action and ways-of-controlling-that-action / new media / new political strategies (or (at any event) old-ones-masquerading-as-new-ones and therefore requiring new names) / new forms-of-power and (more commonly) new-abuses-of-power also all requiring hosts of new words to bolster their plausibility and their implausibility and their ability to exist and to act at all / and the words required to fit all of this stuff together again (and again) and to make it somehow possible for us to navigate it (more-or-less) as if things were pretty much always this way.
It’s no wonder that deconstruction came into existence – people had to find some way to manage this language explosion / and the only seemingly-workable way of doing it was to take it apart / to give us a chance / maybe / of getting it all down into some kinds of basic units / some pieces that we could control and manage / or at least see in their relative isolation / so that we could (maybe (again maybe)) fit them back inside ourselves (where language comes from / or at least where it lives much of the time / where it passes (and passes) through) / to get all of this incredible mass of information-as-misinformation and misinformation-as-information back inside ourselves / to humanize it / to bring it back down to some kind of human scale where we could (maybe) begin to live with it (again) – where we wouldn’t (as (I’m afraid) we all too often do) know that it’s going on killing us (us (that it’s-going-on-killing-us)) while we’re going on using it (while we’re going on using it).
And notice this – if you took the irony out of continental philosophy it’d fall apart like a house of cards in a blizzard. This applies much less to those philosophies turned toward the social – but those that are turned toward themselves are often little more than a litany of ironies / appearing (ironically) to sustain themselves.
Maybe these too-many-words are a form of inflation – deconstruction is an effort at controlling their deflation – and we get to try to live in a world where neither feels right / where neither works / where we have no control / no choice / and where (finally) our own words are not our own.
So to whom do they belong?
And doesn’t it seem like a little bit too comfortable a fit (but not for us (not really)) that the fact of there being too many words suits the purposes just fine of those to whom they do really belong / those who have the power to control them (or to make it appear that they control them) / those who can manage a portfolio of that many words?
And these two mirrors that are facing each other – we could call them the obvious and the evident – the-fact-of-the-power and the-fact-of-the-appearance-of-power / looking at each other / always and everywhere / now (always and everywhere) / such that we can’t tell the difference between them / such that they can do what they want / such that they can make us do what they want / such that they-can-be-an-it and it-can-be-a-they – this is what it killing us / it’s killing us alive.
We poets and writers / we can do something about it / and the other artists too – these are the kinds of structural paradoxes and tricks (and the like) that our disciplines have trained us to see / that our disciplines have trained us to make (to make (that our disciplines have trained us to make)) / so that if anybody can understand them / if anybody can see through them / if anybody can take them apart – its us. And we can.
copyright © 2010 Alan Davies 22Feb10
help on how to format text
Turn off "Getting Started"