**I'll be updating this and posting it at the top of the blog as I go - please look below it for new posts.
I’m tempted to respond to Seth’s lengthy post on poetry and sociology (or the sociology of poetry) with something equally as broad; there are so many interesting topics there that I’m afraid we’d be up into the thirty page range for a comprehensive engagement. Ron Silliman made an initial response here. The long and short of it is that I don’t agree with Seth. I think you *can* meaningfully analyze the contemporary poetry landscape – and that there are clearly discernible aesthetic patterns and small communities of poets. I think I should do this in parts, but I’m not sure if I should begin with a thumbnail survey of Contemporary American Poetry as I see it, or what makes “a poet.” The two are, of course, intertwined. I'll try to keep this at a level that might appeal to the casual reader.
Poets Make Poetry, Poetry Makes Poets
Well, I’ll begin with what a poem is and what a poet is. I think most authorities worth listening to (Milton, Emerson, to tap two) have made an effort to distinguish Poetry from verse, and, in a way, Poets from those who can occasionally pen a poem.
Since there are a number of contradictory cultural assumptions about poets, I’ll immediately launch into a metaphor in hopes of gaining some distance while more clearly sketching the structural forces at work here. For example, I don’t think anyone would argue that merely being able to carry a tune makes you “a musician” – there’s a kind of professionalism that’s implicit in “musician.” Similarly, while one can easily and validly say that barely in-tune whistling is “music,” I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s quite the same thing as being able to compose (or play) a complex song requiring multiple instruments. (Although here we see the metaphor break down, for musicians can “merely” play another’s music, where poets must compose and perform their own work.) But as far as it goes, rhyme alone does not make a poem, and penning the odd piece of verse does not make you a poet.
Poets should have a broad competence in the field of poetry – again, let’s turn to the music analogy. To be a good violinist, you probably ought to know the major violinists, both of your era, and earlier eras. You probably also want to have a good idea of the different theories of playing, and the different styles that are possible. You should be able to categorically analyze your own playing and to push it in different directions. You (ideally) ought to be able to see the strengths of every approach, but at the same time be able to dismiss some approaches (both by individuals and schools) as fundamentally uninteresting to you, given your evolving aesthetic core. That sounds pretty reasonable (as a fuzzy analogy), yes? So too with poets.
Now there is the pervasive myth of divine inspiration/the self-taught poet/the “native” poet. I think that this strand arises from a concern with Subject rather than Form. For if poetry is both Sound and Sense, then there is something to be said for the “return” to a primordial perspective, or a transcendent/ecstatic vision as pushing at the frontiers the Sense/Experience/Subject spectrum. Meaning that we, as humans, want to hear what the unsocialized (ha!) poet thinks, or the ecstatic poet feels; they both stand outside the normal run of our perceptions and have encoded their Sense in some kind of Form or Sound. Coleridge, Rumi, Li Po; these poets were praised for their “channeling” of visions, their “ease” in artistic production. For the aspiring poet, this is enticing. Do enough drugs, get “in touch” enough with your inner being/the cosmos, and you’re bound to produce good poetry, yes? However, when one peels back the myth, one often finds that the ecstatic poets, no matter how rebellious their Sense or Form (Hopkins, Whitman), possess a strong and systematized understanding of both their poetics, and the aesthetic environment that their poetics exist in. Sorry to dash the very 19th century idea (or Brave New World idea) of getting the educated-enough savage to tell us something about ourselves.
I don’t want to suggest my prior paragraph is there to strip the spiritual or the inspired out of poetry – rather, I wish to acknowledge it as *an* element, one as necessary as formal mastery.
So – thusfar, we have a professional-level (or journeyman-level) knowledge of the scope of the craft both in a how-to sense and an academic/analytical sense (systematized knowledge). I'm sorry, but you don't get to pick up the pen and write, any more than you get to simply pick up the guitar and play (unless you're a guitarist.)
How the poet acquires such skills and knowledge might be interesting to consider. It is possible to simply read deeply and widely, to absorb the dialogs on poetry, and to practice (under an older poet’s guidance or no) writing until one develops as a poet and begins to produce a poetry that is not merely derivative, but distinct to that poet. At that point the poet should also be able to hold their own in many poetic conversations, perhaps teach a bit to those who have not make their particular kind of study. As with most human endeavors, it’s useful to have the feedback of other people who love what you both do; and it’s very useful to have a strong mentor who won’t warp your development by narrowing your horizons unduly. So you can get groups of poets working together (Riding and Graves’ set/Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth), or schools of poets who are not quite bosom buddies, but who exchange ideas or develop an aesthetic that moves beyond an immediate circle – say the Images school, or the Language Poets. In all these cases, you have the poets (on some level) assessing the other types and schools of poetry that are out there and consciously trying to define themselves in relation to that broad field. In fact, it’s rather rare to have a poet “develop” in isolation from other poets. Writing poetry, for all that’s it’s a solitary activity, tends to draw other poets in – there’s a fertile (or hostile!) exchange of ideas. A recent development is the MFA program, which is kind of a codified school or gathering of poets along broad aesthetic lines. The MFA program is much vilified, or praised, depending. Not to beat a dead horse, I’m content with noting for the moment that it brings experienced poets together with younger developing poets in a formalized setting that is nominally designed to impart both compositional skills and a poetic literacy.
I think the above works well enough as a sketch; the poet, at the end of the day, is an artist who knows something significant about many (the majority?) aspects of both the craft and the history of the craft; an artist that is capable of consistently (as opposed to accidental) unique expression within the form. The ways to reach this point are multiple, but usually involve other poets. We ought to leave it at that.
So, what ought our non-poets (or poets) out there, know about the current state of American Poetry?
1. There is no single overarching aesthetic in Contemporary American Poetry and many of our current poets embrace theories which categorically exclude or devalue other types of poetry.
1a. There is no single “conversation” about CAP. Instead, you have multiple conversations based on completely different paradigms.
2. The serious audience for contemporary poetry is very limited as compared to novel or play or film.
2a. The subset of this audience that will spend cash to acquire poetry books or CDs is smaller still.
3. Given that there’s not a ready market for exclusive poetic production (assume a living wage of 30K, assume book profits of $3 (per hardcover) book, sales would have to be 10K units a year, which, my friends, does not happen for the rank and file) and that poet’s actual writing time can be stretched by a) supplemental grants, or b) teaching with summers off, and that these two resources are scarce, then you have an easy explanation for the academic and critical dogfights among the various schools - limited resources.
With that in mind, to launch into Seth’s rant:
I think the idea of “career” in poetry is misplaced (see point number 3). Certainly the idea that every poet can or should follow the “academic” path of many of the 60-80 year old poets is simply misplaced.
On one level, a career in poetry is dead simple – you write the best fucking poems you can. Sorry if that does not sound mystic. But there it is. You have humility before the craft (if no one else) and you work to grow within it and feel and labor your ideas and patterns into something that’s *infused* language. You’ll disagree with other poets as to how you can best do that, but you do it none-the-less. You write the best fucking poems you can.
The hard fact of the matter is that publication has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Mere publication (of any sort) does not validate what you’re doing. (I distinguish that from having a poet/editor that you know and trust appraise your work and decide to invest in it by endorsing it.) In fact, writing *for* publication might be a detriment. I also think that you should, if given the chance by god or the devil, opt for writing something beautiful and praiseworthy at a high level, even if no one will read it or appreciate it; the opposite choice, writing shallow tripe but being publicly lauded (Maya Angelou) is something that indicates that the person really isn’t aiming at poetry as their primary end, that poetry is a mere vehicle for some kind of validation.
Posted on 12/28/05
Airy Poetica - or Gewin ta Skewl (Part Two)
To continue on, Seth basically asks, Who/What is Ron Silliman, and Why should we care? Seth’s been clear that he is using Silliman as a foil, but I think that can only go so far. Given that there’s a goodly number of conflicting contemporary schools of poetry (noted in part one) and that many poets stay within the critical and aesthetics orbits of their schools, one valid way of responding to some of Seth’s concerns is to take Franz Wright’s basic tack (but less harshly) and simply say, “Silliman is a Language Poet. The end.” (Personal kudos to Silliman for putting up Franz’s letter on his blog – I admire that.)
Once we understand “where Silliman is coming from,” I think a lot of his ideas and the place he occupies on the blogosphere become more easily recognized and understood. This is, in some ways, the beginnings of a sociology of poetry.
The study of sociology is the study of how groups of people operate and, to a lesser extent, how individuals operate upon and are operated upon by the systems in which they move.
I was serious when I said I wanted to take a look at the sociology of poetry, though I'm not sure folks reading the post are taking that intention precisely the way it was articulated, or in the technical sense I had envisioned it. Simply put, when you look at the sociology of a system, you are by the very nature of that inquiry going to focus on the people and the institutions and the assumptions which govern the system in which those people operate. So this was never going to be even primarily a post about what Art is, though I think the matter of what Art is certainly informs many of the patterns commented upon above.
And I think poets self-identifying with the various strands/schools of poetical thought and theory is one of the most fruitful ways of beginning to look at this question. Leaving aside the question of how the “school consciousness” sets certain limits on our conception of the landscape of contemporary American poetry, labeling Silliman in such a way should tell you a lot about Silliman’s aesthetics, critical concerns and politics. It’s crucial that we be able to understand on some level what Silliman thinks Art is (insofar as he critically expresses his thoughts on Art/Poetry, and insofar as we can characterize what Silliman produces as Art/Poetry from both his perspective and the perspective of other schools/institutions/individuals.) Silliman’s identification as a Language poet should tell you (roughly) what he thinks poetry is and how he views the poetic landscape (as well as how certain other points in that landscape view him). Further, for this level of discussion, I think it’s pretty fair to put Silliman within the Langpo orbit, given his self-identification with the school and the bulk of his previous production.
So, what is Language Poetry, as I see it? A rough thumbnail sketch of Langpo; it consciously subverted the expected narrative expectations in poetry by foregrounding the language itself in an effort to create a mode of expression which by its very nature would critique the conventions of bourgeois society, rather than using the traditional poetic modes to mobilize various substantive arguments against elements of that society. More broadly, such writings were seen as challenging and undermining the traditional western conception of communication as a speaker communicating an (often written) message to a listener through a neutral and apolitical medium (language); the language poets would argue that in actuality a large number of assumptions and social conventions entered into the process to shape our understanding. By consciously undermining these assumptions, Langpo was thought subvert the hierarchy of the (meaning controlling) writer and the passive (influenced) reader, not through a metaphysical act of “making the poem/communicating a message/destroying meaning”, but by challenging/frustrating the reader’s assumptions about how language and narrative works, how meaning is generated.)
Two quick caveats:
I don’t think that I understand all the nuances of Language poetry (and I enjoy discussing them), but I think I know enough to be able to determine that it’s not a fruitful enough road for me to walk down, either as a committed reader of the school, or a practicing poet within it.
I’d also like to make clear that I don’t personally dislike language poets (I have the greatest personal admiration for some) – and I often take exception to ridiculous critiques or responses to language poetry. Despite my reservations regarding the efficacy of Language poetry, I think it ought to be discussed, and that the terms under which it is produced ought to be critiqued, not merely shifted.
So, back to Silliman, the Language Poet.
There was a time when I was introduced to Silliman’s work by Forest Gander, who was very enthusiastic about it. As an impressionable college sophomore, I spent a good deal of time (3 years) with Silliman’s work (and other language poets) before deciding that it was bound by certain conventions that I just didn’t agree with. Within those bounds, he’s a good poet.
Silliman is far from a king-maker (if, indeed, anyone is a king-maker) rather, Silliman is just there in the blogging landscape. He makes his statements and people respond. (More on the sociology of the poetry blogging community as opposed to other poetic communities, later?) As to whether those statements have much interest or value. . .well, I think they do, insofar as we remember where Silliman is coming from – the basic perspective of a language poet.
Take, for example, “The School of Quietude.” That’s a phrase that I first encountered on-line. It popped up on blogs here and there, and I figured it was some kind of recent label for “mainstream” poetry – a label applied in the hopes of somehow shifting the aesthetic baseline so that one would view “mainstream” poetry not as a kind of naturally occurring centerpoint in a spectrum of poetics, but rather a somewhat arbitrary set of characteristics subject to critique.
Now, that’s not a bad strategy – and I’m all for looking hard at *what we’re actually doing.* However, as a serious critical proposition it’s pretty lame. It's hard not to agree with Franz's impulse to simply dismiss it, as one wants to have the impulse simply to dismiss many of the flawed arguments/lies that come out of the Bush camp; this is because merely *engaging* the idea validates it to some degree (though I hasten to note the Langpo camp has always been far left, not far right). However, I think that the process of rational discussion is a good and thus I'll take a quick trot trough this idea and try to relate it to Language poetry in general to show that there is not "chaos" out there, but an idea advanced from an individual within a school that lies within that schools poetical orbit and both furthers the prestige of the school by association and provides a critiquing/exclusion tool for poets who do not subscribe to that group's idea. Think of nation-states or tribes or political parties and you're on the right track.
If you’re curious about Silliman’s idea of the SoQ it’s here:
To strip the idea of its form in the post, the School of Quitetude: “could be said to be any poetry that looks to the establishmentarian traditions mostly in the U.K., but also on the continent, for validation, and who seek an American verse that largely is clone of European sophistication.”
(Which is not a bad idea, presuming:
1. there are easily identifiable establishmentarian traditions
2. these traditions are somehow isolate in that they’re not drawn so broadly to be useless
3. we can accurately identify which poets/poems “look to” these traditions in the sense that they significantly ape and/or echo them.
Silliman's examples of the SoQ: Jones Verys, Robert Silliman Hillyers, The Knickerbockers, Louis Simpson, Norman Podhoretz, ML Rosenthal, Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Roethke, James Tate, New Formalism, Dana Gioia, Wendell Berry, Phil Levine, Marilyn Hacker, Franz Wright.
(We should already be seeing a problem from this list, and the next will prove more suspect.)
Silliman's examples of Non-SoQers: Edgar Allen Poe, Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, Melville, Basil Bunting, Tom Raworth, Douglas Oliver, Most of the French poets of the past half century, The earlier experimental tradition in Russia, The Young Americans, Whitman, Pound, Stein, Williams & all the Objectivists, Modernism in general, Jack Kerouac & the Beats, Ginsberg, Pierre Joris, Bly, Merwin, Wright, Rich, Hall, Ron Padgett, Shakespeare
So – from a sociological perspective we might want to ask just who is Silliman aligning himself and the other language poets with (as "desirable"), and just who is he excluding (as "undesirable")? No, let’s ask it another way – what does the “bad” school look like? To me, it looks like a bunch of dead academic names, conservative for their time, and a bunch of contemporaries that lie outside Silliman’s orbit. On the other hand we have poets which, in some cases, were radical for their day, but in many cases, form part of the closed tradition. There does not seem to be a strong connection within his lists between anti-establishmentarianism (Wordsworth and Eliot weren’t “establishment”? Cripes, one was the PL, the other controlled most of the critical direction in the academy and in English poetry publishing for over a decade) and radical expression within acknowledged formal convention (Poe was very formal in convention, for all he was not establishment – as was Plath.) Let’s leave aside the logical question of how “most” of the French poets of the last half century, or Modernism, can be said to *not* be an establishmentarian tradition. Further, if I had a quarter for every wanna-be Beat poet that I’ve run across. . .
But basically, what we have here is a typical Langpo way of looking at things: school conception, ignoring the outliers, fuzzy quasi-Marxian meta-analysis, focus on social acceptance/power which begs certain questions, etc. It’s also one of those typical “survey” revisions, not limited to Langpo, where the contemporary poet/school tries to pull in all the poets they admire into a school or a tradition or whatnot, in an attempt to validate the current project via association. (“Shakespeare wasn’t SoQ, Ron isn’t SoQ, but Franz Wright IS! Bad Franz, especially because your dad defected out of the SoQ.”) As an aside, I’m not saying that Ron can’t validly critique Wright’s work on a number of levels, but the creation of the SoQ as a negative label is both pretty intellectually lame and unsurprisingly provocative. It's also not surprising (again from a tribal-validation perspective) that every significant dead poet somehow aligns with Langpo/Experimental writing (the "living heirs" who correctly understand/embody the tradition), while the non-Langpo/Experimental living poets are made to align with completely fringe and marginal literary figures that compose a shadowy "establishment." That's the basic message here.
So, take it for what it is. SoQ is not a useful or meaningful literary distinction to make. It may get us talking about who controls the resources, which is a good thing. It may get us talking about which aesthetics are paired with those resources and how far those aesthetics diverge from (running ahead of?) the main contemporary readership of the times. However, it's not something poets should take *seriously* (and that should be obvious just from the lists he's drawn and the susupect divisions he's leaning on). In some ways it's just a rehash of the Avant (the one thing that never changes) trying to rope off everything else and thus increase their own importance in an Us v. Them argument. (As opposed to being only one of many schools with different ideas.)
But, back to the idea of the SoQ in the context of Langpo: Silliman seems to want to separate form and context – he writes “Thus Phil Levine writes of workers & Marilyn Hacker is an articulate feminist, tho both produce work that reinforces the most conservative literary traditions in America,” and this type of separation is, basically, the problem with the language poets in a nutshell. They have (generally, IMOP) admirable politics – however they confuse the efficacy of new writing (form) which lies outside the established literary tradition, with the efficacy of saying something contemporarily pertinent within the established literary tradition. Basically, they view that tradition as a millstone the society drags about with it.
However, by choosing to disregard those conventions in such a radical way (producing language poems) what Langpo has practically done is to create a small intellectual cadre of poets who write in a privileged language – one which you need an advanced aesthetic training to parse and judge. Now the theory that one must merely be exposed to the presence of language poetry is rather similar to that of the symbolist poets – and like the symbolists, language poetry often simply produces confusion in the reader, not enlightenment.
I’d argue this is because the linguistic understanding that the language poets rely on is flawed – that instead of the reader reacting along (thumbnail) Marxist lines and questioning the departure from traditional forms of expression, then applying that gap to their own lives to critique how language and culture and cultural expression both define and restrain their actions (aesthetic and political), the reader is simply confused. The reader attempts to apply those traditional types of understanding which have served them in the past. They look at the disjointed poem and say, “Ha, I like that third image, the one with the guy doing X; I often do X and the poem caught that really well.” But for the reader to actually begin the critique which the language poets would have them begin, that reader must possess (pre formed) a critical vocabulary and understanding which lies outside of the poem. That’s a very important point. For the poems themselves are then not capable of liberating the individual reader – they only serve as examples for what the reader *already* understands (or rejects) on a theoretical level. At best, Language poetry might be able to produce *random* understandings (much like surrealism) – and while I appreciate that, it seems too little a gain, a gain easily made elsewhere, already made elsewhere.
So the question is whether the track the language poets have consciously chosen goes anywhere – does it, in fact, *work* as the language poets though it would work?
I think the short answer is “no.”
Which is kind of tragic – you get very bright articulate poets essentially “checking out” in the sense that they’ll never dip into the mainstream, never win a mind, never open a heart. Instead, they refine students (mostly) who are already on the left. Which isn’t a bad thing. But it could be much more *presuming* the desire to write language poetry is grounded in a desire to, in the words of their own project, resist the conservative literary tradition and not a desire to merely join a small freehold of intellectuals speaking their own particular cant.
Some of this begs the question of what the poet (or artist, to make this a broader problem) ought to be doing. And it may initially sound somewhat chickenshit that my poetics is simply to write the best poems I can. But let’s look a bit deeper at that idea.
It rests with my conception of the human person, society and language. Like the language poets, I believe that art can be transformative – that it can shape individuals (individuals are not static.) Poetry is not exclusively a reflection of what we have previously thought (which, I’d argue, language poetry is, hence the irony) yet there are recurring emotional themes and questions that humans have dealt with since the dawn of time. A most basic survey of these would include – Who am I?, Why do I feel the way I do?, How should I treat my child/parents/lovers?, What happens after death?. In essence, the sex/death (or life/death) spectrum which makes for the old joke of poetry only having two subjects. I think poetry ought to explore these questions from a contemporary perspective – that each generation needs to make its own sense of these fundamental questions. This invites a a struggle between timelessness and contemporariness. How new ought those bottles to be, how old must the wine be? I’m not for an exclusively contemporary poetry, in the sense that the poems would fade as quickly as presidencies, nor am I for a poetry that does not examine anything closer to us than the 1960s.
How do to this? That’s the trickier part. I think you have to write the best damn poems you can. That means being greedy – putting aside time to read and write and apply what you’ve read and written. It means experimental writing in the true sense – that you try different things (pursuing an idea) then *examine* how those attempts succeed or fail for the purpose of *applying* the results of those experiments to future writing. While we all do this on some level (certainly the level of learned skills, if not the level of psychological understanding) I think the practicing poet ought to do it more consciously than most. The standard I propose is a relative one. Necessarily. I'm not proscriptively assessing how poetry ought to look - rather I have a functional approach centered on how a poetry can most effectively communicate its thematic concerns given its structural concerns (which are most easily described as "sound" - but that stands in for a host of language patterning that also produces effects in the readers.)
Poetry is also, often, quite socially radicalizing in that to respond to these deep questions of who we are and how we ought to live, it takes a good hard look at how things are. It may be that writing your poetry causes you to abandon ideas you once held (that the US is a meritocratically run society) or that your own conduct ought to be changed (you must let person X pass out of your live as your love for them is purely selfish.) It may be that foreign policies which secure manufacturing jobs ought to be abandoned, for those jobs are not worth the cost in human suffering. It may be that people should be healthily fed and given medicines, if our society can do so. The rich can still go scuba-diving somewhere, should they need to feel different.
So, as the above probably makes clear, I believe in a humanistic poetry that examines, at some small and easily bridgeable (artistic) level of formal and metaphorical remove, those kinds of timeless questions. Now, I don’t mean to suggest this ought to be the *exclusive* aim of all poetry, nor do I mean to suggest it’s *my* exclusive aim (for I am as weak and fickle as the next poet), but I consider it my touchstone.
More, again, later.