Wednesday, June 16, 2004

To go to the hot spot first: I do not claim that choosing to live on not much money in any way alters my fundamental class position. I was brought up an upper-middle class white Jewish boy in the Jersey suburbs and nothing will erase that, nor do I want to erase it. I have accrued tremendous advantages over most people in the same tax bracket thanks to that background; my position is a privileged one. And furthermore I do not live in anything even vaguely resembling real poverty, and I do plan to make a middle class living as a professor someday, though I don't ever expect to be rich. But I do think choosing to be a poet in this society means stepping, willingly or not, outside of normative systems of value that say how much you earn is how much you're worth. There are working-class poets for whom poetry, when practiced in academia, does represent upward mobility, but only a very intelligent moron would choose poetry as their ladder out of the ghetto. Saying "I am poor doing this!" may or may not be very attractive, but it's just the marker of privilege, not the privilege itself, which is a very rare one: to spend most of one's time reading and writing. Yet privilege is bad, isn't it? Would we even use words like "perk" or "privilege" if we thought they had been earned in some way? Privilege is one of the things that Gary seems to mean by "the given." His position seems Levinasian: you are called upon by the Other to yield up your privileges, your givens, whatever they may be. The poet who publishes a book is expected to act in humility because he simply occupies a position that might well have been occupied by someone else. This raises the Unreliable Other Variable or UOV factor well above the others; anyone can Work Hard (provided they've been given the tools to do the work; that's where class comes back into it) and scads of people have Talent. Maybe we need to do a better job of defining the UOV, because without that we aren't likely to come up with anything resembling an image of justice. Which seems to be the main thing on Gary's mind. How to increase participation to the maximum, indeed to an infinite (the only just) degree? How to end privilege by extending it to all? I need better tools than I've got right now to wrassle that question into a limited and therefore answerable form—that is, to confine the question to poets, readers, and the academy without worrying about the extension of the more fundamental privileges Gary brought up: a decent home, good work, plenty to eat.

As for confusing the "act of writing" (being a writer) with "writing," well, I think that sort of conversation is almost always a shorthand, sometimes a necessary shorthand, for things that can only be really well communicated by writing. I would take it further and say that most things worth talking about can only be casually discussed in reified, noun form. You can talk about being a rock climber, but rock climbing is another story. So you toss around the names of famous rock climbers and peaks they've scaled; maybe you talk about the gear they endorse; you talk trash about other rock climbers who haven't climbed as high. This kind of thing is annoying, sure, but I'm not convinced it injures the experience of actual climbing. And only sometimes can questions of personality or a writer's social position be divorced from the writing they do without injury to that writing; without blinding yourself to the context in which it was produced and in which you receive it, which is a part of the content (Gehalt) of the writing I tend to find most interesting. I want as much web of the world as a given poem, book, or node can draw along with itself. To adapt Heidegger's language, I'm mostly interested now in poetry of the world. A lot of what gets called School of Quietude poetry is poetry of the earth: poetry that attempts to make contact with a pre- or a-human experience of nature. Some of this poetry is magnificent and beautiful; some of it merely a diversion. But it's not where I'm at right now. If I'm drawn to pastoral—another way of referring to the poetry of the earth—it's because it's always a state of exception from the world. And it always returns you to the world, more or less prepared for historical work than when you departed. It's that "more" or "less" that most concerns me right now, with Pound, the modernists, and the poetry of the present—including, of course, my own.

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