Here's a piece of another interesting e-mail from Reginald Shepherd and my response to it. I respond to some stuff from his e-mail that I haven't reproduced here; hope it's not too confusing.
I recently read Myung Mi Kim's Commons, which is an interesting book, rather severe and fractured (though rather conventionally syntactical for the most part) but with a strong lyrical strain running through it. I must say, though, that I'm beginning to think that fracture is too easy and even evasive, that rather than just cutting things up or claiming that they just _are_ cut up (a simplistic view of art as a reflection of the world which is shared by many soi disant avant garde writers, at least in America: didn't Picasso say that art is called art because it is not life?), it's much more difficult and interesting to put things together despite or in the face of fragmentation, not to create false whole or a false confidence in wholes, but to see and show that things _are_ related, how random and chaotic their surfaces and appearances may be. That randomness is an ideological illusion, and this response is as much the Marx in me as the John Crowe Ransom. Totalities may be (always are) contradictory, but they are totalities, and we live in, among, and with them. Part of the work of thought, and the work of poetry, is to trace out their lineaments-for me, poetry, language, and thought (to obliquely refer to your beloved Heidegger) are about relating things, about making the connections among disparate things often seen as disconnected or even opposed or contradictory, because contradiction is a relation too, as is opposition.
Sometimes I tire of experimentation for its own sake--it comes to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion, never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you're wearing next season's clothes. Those trendy outfits also bear a strong resemblance to the clothes they wore in the teens and twenties, which people too often forget. So many of the 'experiments' in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, et alia, long before any of us was born. There's nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there's something rather unseemly about claiming that you came up with them yesterday. The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound's injunction to "Make it new" contains two parts-they concentrate so much on
trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a
consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn't in fact available to all) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that
newness is not a value in itself (no human being is 'new,' though each is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously at least, of our experience of and in the world).
I envy, or think I envy, your attitude--I won't call it detachment--toward this dismal war. It seems like a healthy peasant's attitude, the attitude of someone who keeps doggedly plowing their field while the latest warlord, as in his father's father's time, conducts the latest bloody and meaningless war in which the peasant is too wise to let himself be conscripted. Of course wisdom in itself is no defense, and there is a narrow but deep generational
gap here. I inherited my parents' (really my mother's) skepticism about government more or less uncritically: Reagan was obviously and manifestly evil in her world and so in mine, which is why it puzzles me to this day to see how venerated he's become. I was a toddler when my parents watched Vietnam and Watergate on TV: my cynicism about that era is a hand-me down from their old satirical albums and Doonesbury comic books. The horror of the present is fresh and I feel implicated when I wake up to the news, and when I see a flag, and when I pay my taxes. The situation does make me feel more acutely every day the insufficiency of any poetic response and the lack
of any significant ethical privilege that could possibly be accorded toward avant garde forms. What an aesthete, what a formalist I am! Perhaps I simply find most conventional poetry boring because it's not formally interesting, and not because it reifies a dead, scabby language. Not that much experimental poetry isn't boring too: disjunction for disjunction's sake, as you point out. So I'm trying to get closer to your headspace: in Tom Waits' words, to get behind the mule and plow. Even though my blogging has slowed to a crawl I am at least writing poems, which perhaps share the same miniscule yet crucial value of any protest: a sign of life, a glimmer of the unadministered world.
...Your message has me thinking about the question of experimentation for experimentation's sake, and about the word "experimental" and how it's being loosely applied as a genre classification. I wonder if it would help if there were openly acknowledged genres of poetry--if there were signposts to direct the general reader. Would this be a meaningless exercise in subdivision that would only further insure that different camps can remain in happy ignorance of each other, or would it stimulate poets to try and work in genres whose existence they hadn't quite intuited before? We already have the strange division "Poetry" and "Popular Poetry" at Barnes & Noble: the latter's where you'll find books by Mattie Stepanek and Kahlil Gibran and the like, whereas the former somehow manages to encompass everything from Angelou to Zukofsky.
Perhaps we could avoid invidious subdivisions of "experimental" poetry and "formalism" by taking over the categories of genre fiction. What would "crime" poetry look like? "Thriller" poetry? "Romance"? "Fantasy"?
At any rate, while I appreciate your suspicion of the very real tendency some poets have to fetishize the new, and their tendency to forget the "it" in Pound's formula, I myself will not utter a discouraging word about formal experimentation. New forms are constantly being discovered, and 20th-century techniques like disjunction and the new sentence are already transforming themselves beyond prescription and mannerism and into the tradition: one more tool in the tool-box next to alliteration and enjambment. Perhaps the question is not where to draw the boundaries but rather how to teach young poets the uses of boundaries. How do you instill students with a desire for formal rigor--how do you get them to discover their own limitations so that they might eventually transgress them? This is not an idle question: I'll be teaching creative writing this fall for the first time in years and I want to empower and challenge my students in equal measure. I'm not going to pretend to be unbiased, but how can I create an atmosphere that encourages a student who does the kind of writing I find boring to at least articulate his or her assumptions and expectations? Is it enough to demand a statement of poetics from them after showing a few
examples? This is a wandering paragraph, but you can see why I'd move from the general question of experimentation to the question of teaching. I feel reasonably well-equipped as far as my own creative explorations go, but what are the best and most useful tools I can give to students? What's a creative writing classroom for, anyhow?