I’m am neither in academe nor will I ever be; although I do write poetry, or at the very least, like to think I try. I work in mortgage banking as a profession. I am familiar, to a certain extent, with Language Poets and am strangely intrigued by their approach to writing, what constitutes poetry, aesthetics, etc. I’ve read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus multiple times, as well as other texts that may or may not (depending on who you’re talking to) be important to Language Poets. But when I read Language poetry I feel slightly confused. I wonder where the poetry begins and the philosophy ends or vice versa. Call me naïve, and I admit, my question is rather categorical and thus, not leaving much room for the liquidity of Language poetry. Another question I have is, how would a Language Poet (or someone with a more theoretical bent, like yourself) explain poetry to a non-academic who is interested in poetry, but has no interest in writing poetry? Is it important that they (i.e., the non-academic) understand? And if not, how does that effect the purpose and aim or the “theoretical poet”?This has me thinking about "theoretical poetry" or perhaps "conceptual poetry" (the one term leans more toward literary theory, the other more toward the art world) as perhaps a more useful term for the specific strain of contemporary poetry sometimes referred to as "post-Language poetry" or more broadly and notoriously, the "post-avant." (Though the latter might be more accurately called "post-New American" since it includes the nth generations of the categories Allen devised for his anthology: the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and miscellaneous fellow travelers.) "Theoretical poetry" is as nearly oxymoronic a term as "philosophical poetry" (thinking here of the classical opposition between philosophy and poetry that goes back to Plato and which a great deal of now itself classic literary theory devotes itself to thinking about) and invites attack from those who object to the muddying of the division of labor the term implies. Some of this is plain laziness, I think, or else a sentimental denial of the reality of intellectual labor, driven by nostalgia for the artisanship and unalienated labor (said nostalgia being as it were auratically embodied in the workshop term "craft"not to mention "workshop"). But savvier anti-theoretical poets may actually be responding to the intensification of the dis-integrating effect of the division of labor that theory makes visible: they object, with some justice, to the imperative to become a specialist with a specialized vocabulary, bringing about a process precisely opposite to the word made flesh: the word that abstracts its writer from world and self. From fear of this it's a short leap to fear of irrelevance, fear of the walls of the ivory tower that these critics believe they can breach or render transparent through appeals to the authenticity of their identity or their affect or "their" literary tradition. To critics like D.W. Fenza, theory is parasitic monster that threatens to eat all of these things, having already devoured the vocabularies of diverse intellectual disciplines (psychoanalysis, economics, sociology, ecology, feminist theory, etc., etc.).
Speaking for myself, I'm attracted to theoretical poetry because of the tension that it articulates between reflective discourse and a discourse that claims to somehow exceed, subvert, undermine, or transcend discourse itself: the word made flesh, or to use a more Jewish metaphor, the word as maker (the kabbalistic power of the letter). Many if not most poets cling to the possibility of a "pure" poetry: language that transforms itself into a kernel of reality, sheerly through the agency of the poet and/or reader's faith in that transformation. If you like, that's the Christian-Protestant notion of poetry: through faith alone in the Word shall I/my poem be saved. Theoretical poets are more like Jews, who believe in the literal unspeakability of the Word (YHVH), and whose horizon of redemption is determined by a messiah who will always only arrive "next year." At the same time, the Word (the discourse that is more than discourse, more than just words) is written into the very fabric of reality, and to employ discourses critically and musically (the emphasis on intellection vs. music as the means of reflection signals one's basic aesthetic orientation: to cite the names of a few well-known theoretical poets, I'd propose this continuum: Watten-Scalapino-Hejinian-Silliman-Armantrout-Palmer-Harryette Mullen) is a means of creating force fields of resonance between discourse and reality: reality becomes visible as the negative space around reflective linguistic artifacts. Of course most theoretical poets conceive of this (directly) unrepresentable Real as social, whereas non-theoretical poets tend to be more openly theological about their quest for contact with the ineffable. Readers may here recognize what I previously categorized as poetries "A" and "C" hereand maybe Fenza adopts something like the "B" position by advocating for the "accurate description of reality," as though description alone can do anything other than reify what's already there, and already ideological. At least the "C" poets believe in some sort of beyond, which opens the possibility for a second-order reflection: in Aodrnian terms, the world revealed as ruined through apprehension of the messianic light. But "C" wants the light to be positive, which looks hopelessly naive from the "A" position.Bad theoretical poetry lets the poetry be swallowed by the theory (though this should not be confused with the poetry that most militantly refuses representation of language's non-discursive possibilitiessuch sheer negativity is rare and can actually compel through the intensity of its Bartlebyan affect), while the reverse situation leads to grumbling about how theory is just being used as a kind of prestigious spice to flavor the same-old same-old.
I am afraid this is not likely to be very illuminating for Snapshot, who quite reasonably asks for some kind of user-friendly introduction to theoretical poetry, while at the same time recognizing that such user-friendliness might be entirely beside the point. (Joshua Clover's Fence article, The Rose of the Name, also declines to be such an introduction, but it's fun to read and provides a number of resources for further investigation.) As for the question of theoretical poetry's relationship to the non-academic, well, as Kent Johnson insists, one need not be an academic to study or write poetry. But it definitely demands a degree of intellectual labor that most readers are simply not willing to peform: most people instinctively reject the theoretical poet's claim to make the reader an equal or at least junior partner in meaning-generation (in Zukofsky's terms, to become "subject of the poem's energy"). This may have something to do with the internalization of the division of labor: a poet is supposed to reveal some aspect of the (domestic or emotional or religious) Realthe someone-supposed-to-know, to toss in another Lacanian term. And yet: a great deal of theoretical poetry offers musical or affective pleasures that can be enjoyed for their own sake, and which ideally serve to seduce the reader into a reflective position. So the best answer to Snapshot might be to point him or her toward theoretical poets on the more overtly playful and musical end of the scale: I've already mentioned Harryette Mullen, and I'm guessing some of my readers might be willing to name more names in the comment boxes below. As Pound said, "Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man." The theoretical poetry I value most proceeds by gladness and delight to produce reflections of what might indeed appear very gloomybut to seize and win reality, even a dark reality, with that energy seems preferable to me to wearing blinders.