Friday, October 27, 2006

Had an interesting conversation with one of my advisors, Jonathan Monroe, yesterday—about the Zukofsky chapter but more generally about the sometimes incommensurate demands of poetry and scholarship (or to put it a bit more finely, criticism). He reminded me that serious criticism of contemporary poetry, especially by poets, is quite rare, unless you are critiquing a poet from a different aesthetico-political "camp." Even dead poets are not exempt: Zukofsky, for instance, has been vigorously embraced by the Language poets and most of their writing about his work praises it or actively seeks to elevate and canonize it. On the other side you have more conservative poet-critics who simply dismiss Zukofsky as eccentric and irrelevant. There's very little genuinely dialectical criticism of his or any other experimental poet's work: criticism which accepts as given that a particular poet is important and worth critiquing, but which then goes on to discover ambiguities and contradictions in that work and in that work's reception. (One major exception that comes to mind is the work of our leading Zukofsky critic, Mark Scroggins, whose rigorous scholarship is backed up by a healthy, though never cynical, skepticism.)

Part of the problem is simple human craving for approval: we do not want to alienate other members of the community we see as ours. But there's another rift between poetry/poetics and criticism: as a poet, I am primarily interested in what enables my own work and the work of other poets I care about. When I read a poet like Zukofsky, I am looking for news I can use: techniques and themes and turns of phrase that Zukofsky made more possible. For me, one of poetry's primary functions is the generation of more poetry—reading is writing, or wreading in Jed Rasula's phrase. That's a fundamentally different attitude than that assumed by the critic, who reads in a more specifically interrogatory mode, and with a more or less specific ideological axe to grind. It's the old battle of Beauty vs. Truth, really. And the question for a poet-critic like myself has to be not, Whose side are you on?, but: How are these different modes of reading implicated in each other for me? Why am I hyphenated? How can this tension be productive for both kinds of work, both modes of questioning? Mark, you're a poet-critic. Care to address this question from your perspective?

Much to ponder. In the meantime, I'm on the road again: to western Massachusetts for the wedding of our friends Jen and Bronson at Gedney Farm. See you when I get back.

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