Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Not Rethinking Poetics

This is a week I've devoted to the possibilities of prose, and I am animated and inspired by a diverse constellation of texts, including:
  • Ronald Sukenick's Narralogues: Truth in Fiction, acquired today, which in its introduction provides the most liberating theoretical approach to fiction that I've ever encountered, and which does a far better job of articulating my discontents and hopes than I have. Briefly, Sukenick argues for fiction as a mode of rhetoric rather than a mode of mimesis, a linguistically self-conscious investigation that seeks to persuade the reader of its truth. It's an inclusive and exciting definition that brings the work of fiction much closer to what I've always thought of as the work of poetry.
  • Jeremy M. Davies' novel Rose Alley. The prose is ferociously funny and alive. Check out this excerpt to see what I mean.
  • Two classic texts on the iPad: Ulysses, natch; in honor of Bloomsday I sat down this morning and reread most of the Lotos Eaters chapter. Charlotte Bronte's Villette has also been giving me a great deal of pleasure. Here's Lucy Snowe, the narrator, reflecting on her mental disposition: "I seemed to hold two lives--the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter." What is a writer but someone who insists on merging those lives?
  • Roberto Bolano's Antwerp. Yes, yes, I know, you've heard enough about Bolano. But this is an extraordinary book, just 78 pages long, the first fiction he ever wrote and therefore very close to poetry. Each chapter is just a page or two in length, consisting of highly paratactic sentences that gradually evolve a sinister narrative or narrative-feeling about sinister goings on at a low-rent resort in Spain. As a back page blurb has it, "Antwerp can be viewed as the Big Bang of Bolano's fictional universe: all the elements are here, highly compressed, at the moment that his talent explodes." Apparently Publisher's Weekly decried the book's publication as opportunistic dregs-digging, but I think it's a minor masterpiece, evocative of dread. In Sukenick's terms, it's a persuasive argument for Bolano's terrifying and elegiac vision of the dream that is literature. "Strange necromantic joys," indeed.
  • Bhanu Kapil's Incubation: A Space for Monsters. I've only just begun this but it looks to be another hallucinatory sui generis narrative that plays, with a high degree of lyric intelligence, with the ideas of the monstrous and the cyborg (a la Harraway) in particular relation to the fate of Laloo, an immigrant from Punjab/London/here/there. I might assign it for my fall Frankenstein course.
Even as I fall happily down the rabbit-hole of prose, finding it at once closer to poetry than I'd hoped and stranger and more diverse than I could have imagined, my attention is diverted by talk about the "Rethinking Poetics" conference just concluded at Columbia University. Much of this talk, alas, is happening on Facebook, which only serves to reinforce the urgency of the central question that the conference seems to have raised among participants and non-participants alike: who is the poetic "we"? (I can't help but be reminded of the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto surrounded by Comanches; the Masked Man says, "Looks like we're in big trouble," and Tonto replies, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?) Put another way, is there a usably coherent "we" that encompasses all the strains of contemporary innovative poetry, academic and non-, regional and conceptual, abstract lyric and flarf?

A number of conference attendees, and quite a few people who didn't attend, have complained about a sense of exclusion; I won't speak to that, since I wasn't there. (For the reports of some people who were there, see Kasey Mohammad's post-conference thoughts and John Keene's beautifully digressive "poem-report." Hopefully a few more reports will emerge from behind the Facebook firewall soon. ADDENDUM: Stephanie Young has posted a lengthy and heartfelt report that, among other things, takes on Facebook directly: REPOPORT.) But I am interested in this question of "we," especially given this week's experimental immersion in a prose reality that has created for me a temporary sense of distance of poetry and my identity as poet. I am here, really, to try and grow that identity, to make it unruly, so that "poet" and "writer" infect and inflect each other.

Sukenick, or one of his characters, makes the following claim:
"There is no outside any more. Electronics have done away with that kind of spatial metaphor, and even temporal conceptions essential to an avant-garde movement have been annulled in the electrosphere. On the Internet it doesn't matter where you are or when you are."
This is a little too simple--as noted, much of the conversation and complaint about the conference is happening on Facebook, within a virtual network that you have to be "inside" to even be aware of. But it does seem highly relevant to the anxiety that some of the conference's critics are expressing. There is still a lot of institutional energy and cultural capital concentrated in what we can't help but continue to call "the School of Quietude," but it's dissipating fast; a stream of that capital flows steadily into "our" coffers, and yet there's a sense many of us have that the whole game is up. Universities may not exist in their present form for much longer, and seem to be shedding their capacity for the accumulation and distribution of capital nearly as quickly as Big Publishing has. Ironically, the more corporate these institutions become, in a series of moves rationalized as essential for their survival, the less influence they have on our attentions and appetites. The "inside," in other words, is as archaic a category as "outside," though individual insiders and outsiders persist.

There is a fellowship of sorts among poets of the former outside (a phrase as empty and redolent as "post-avant), but is it a community? Individual friendships and affiliations are more persistent and powerful, it seems to me, than the "we" at present, and that may not be a bad thing. "We" has been defined, perhaps inadvertantly by the shutdown of the Poetry Foundation's blog, as something that happens on Facebook, where the pronoun becomes as wavery and false as the word "friend" once it's become a verb. I have Facebook "friends" who don't speak to each other, but who might nevertheless catch glimpses of each other's comments and activities through the medium of the virtual "me." This can be awkward at times but it's real as the social is real.

"Demented and sad, but social." The Facebook "We" of poetry is not, thank God, poetry. There are other forms and modes of filiation, and contra Sukenick, place and region are still important and vital. It is incumbent on me, I believe, to build stronger connections with my fellow Chicago poets, even as I remain part of a larger thing (cosa nostra?) without geographic boundaries and, hopefully, with ever-weakening boundaries as defined by class, ethnicity, education, etc. Readings and talks and panels, academic or non, continue to be crucial, though as Thalia Field suggested yesterday the truest companionship is in the work. And I can be friends with poets who don't share my particular poetics (hi, Chris!), and I can be socially awkward with poets I deeply admire. There are multiple strands and crossings, and arguing can or ought to be compatible with liking. Arguing and liking are both life, values, poetics.

Back to prose, for a few more days anyway. Let poetics take care of itself, and let poets take care.


Kent Johnson said...

I posted the below to Lime Tree earlier today, under Kasey Mohammad's "Rethinking Poetics" post. It showed for a while, but has now disappeared. I assumed the comment was harmless enough, even mildly suggestive of what I took as implied in Mohammad's musings. I seem to have been in error. Since Josh's post on the topic led me to Kasey's, I'm posting my light-hearted observation here (I mean truly now, vanguardistas, let us start to "rethink" the petty-fisted behaviors that all too often accompany our "poetics"):

The terribly flat conference title couldn't have helped. Might have been good to give it a bit more point:

"Dog Days in the Doldrums of Legitimation: Rethinking Poetics"

Or something of the sort.

John K said...

Dear Joshua Corey,

Thanks so much for hyperlinking to my piece, and for your thoughtful comments about the "Rethinking Poetics" conference in general.

I hope to me say hello in person one of these days soon when I'm back in Chicago.

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