Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Future of Time

Just back from another terrific reading, this time at Danny's Bar in Bucktown. It's curated by Joel Craig and celebrated its sixth anniversary tonight, which would mean that its genesis roughly coincided with what Peter O'Leary (who I met in the flesh for the first time this evening) suggests was the beginning of a Chicago poetry revival that has now reached its finest flourishing with the publication of Ray Bianchi and Bill Allegrezza's anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, which with its photos of the authors serves as a kind of convenient "phone book" for Chicago's poetryland. Tonight's reading was intended as a celebration of the anthology, and featured four of its contributors: Jennifer Karmin, Chuck Stebelton (first time I'm hearing of him but though he's now running Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee he's apparently a Chicago institution, and a very fine poet too: look for his book Circulation Flowers from Tougher Disguises), Robin Schiff, and Mark Tardi. All four poets were fierce, charismatic readers, leaning expertly into the mike and letting the little booklight attached cast shadows all around them like negative halos. It was a great audience, too—though I and pregnant Emily were dismayed to discover that you can still smoke in Chicago bars—the entire place was full and unlike most every other tavern reading I've attended, everyone was there for the poems. The sound system (inadequate ones are another common downfall of the bar reading) was excellent as well. Chicago is definitely putting its best foot forward as our first week here comes to a close.

The title of this post refers to an entry over at the Poetry Foundation's collective weblog Harriet, which came up in conversation tonight with Peter, Robin, and Nick Twemlow, who works there: Michael Marcinkowski's "What Are Some Creative Ways to Promote Poetry?. One apparently frequent topic of conversation in Chicago is the Poetry Foundation and the support, or lack thereof, that it offers to the local scene; last night someone suggested that it would have a much greater influence if it distributed its money in middling-sized amounts to small presses and magazines, as opposed to sponsoring white elephant awards. When I refloated this idea tonight Peter pointed out that this would probably only result in a number of organizations blowing all the money on one good book or issue, then folding; the superlean business models of small presses like Flood would find such a cash infusion superfluous to their operations. Instead, he said that the money would be better spent teaching middle school teachers how to teach poetry, and that this would have the ripple effect of spreading interest in poetry. He seemed to suggest that teachers needed to be taught how to teach others to break the poetry code: otherwise literate people open up contemporary poetry books and find them as incomprehensible as a Beethoven score is to someone who can't read music. This is a troubling model that I'll want to think about more, but it does accurately describe the reaction many intelligent people seem to have to the poems they happen to encounter.

Anyway, this is when Nick brought up Marcinowski's post (and this is also when we had to leave to escape the smoke, which is why I'm completing my thoughts here). Where others who were asked the vexing question about building audiences for poetry offered very reasonable responses (poetry in the schools programs, poetry in prisons, etc.), Lyn Hejinian said, "Poetry doesn't need promotion. People need time. A revolutionary way to promote poetry might be to criminalize capitalism's theft of people's time." This cuts the Gordian knot of the question and speaks to the critical potential that inheres in such a weak and marginal art as poetry, which so far in spite of the Lilly millions seems to resist the kind of cultural commodification and corporate sponsorship we associate with the other "high arts" for which there is no living market (classical music, for example). Put another way, to claim that people don't like poetry is to say that people don't have the time and mental space required, and that in fact very powerful forces are at work to prevent people from investing in the poetic mentality, the unplanned obsolescence and spectacular uselessness of which (because after all it is a kind of wildlife or wildmind preserve, necessarily distinct from the "irritable reaching" of productive thought) might lead people to question the very concept of "usefulness" (the quanta by which "time" receives its ultimate value) as it is manufactured for us.

It's true that poetry does run the risk of commodification as a luxury good, if that hasn't happened already: it's "slow food" and as such could develop a devoted following among the high bourgeoise. But even in this aspect it retains some critical force, because after all doesn't everyone deserve the "luxury" of food that is grown without biochemical alteration and actually tastes like something? If capitalism, in short, cannot manage to "afford" poetry, then so much the worse for capitalism. But the implications of Hejinian's statement are rather sobering ones for the well-meaning folks over at the Poetry Foundation, I think: it's the rejoinder of the revolutionary to the liberal ameliorator, and it's unanswerable save by such platitudes as "Well, we live in the real world." And we do, and I think it would be terrific if middle school teachers received proper training in the teaching of poetry, and it could eventually have profound implications for the art. But I also go back to Frank O'Hara: "if people don't need poetry, bully for them. I like the movies too." And that's where the contradiction lies exposed.

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