Thursday, August 12, 2004

I haven't closely followed the ongoing Poetics thread on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I was moved by this rare display of reasonableness from Richard J. Newman. In these times I question whether the resistance to the excesses of Enlightenment that are found in modernism were really such a good idea (even prior to those poetries that degenerated into fascist propaganda). We need rather more Vernunft these days, not less. Though the problem of "learning about and accepting the Other" that Newman refers to is certainly as much a problem of imagination as it is of reason.

Had an inconclusive discussion yesterday with a couple of poets, Jasper Bernes and Aaron Tieger (welcome to Ithaca, Aaron!) about "the banalization of the poetic good" that Steve Evans talks about in The Poker 4. We all found it hard to imagine a system of poetic value not grounded in scarcity; Jasper spoke up fairly eloquently on behalf of the exceptional, which he grounded in the inexhaustibility of a few (largely canonical) poets to whose work he continuously returned. Me, I find much to value in the stream (flood?) of new poetry, the more so now that my first indicator of a book's worth comes not from the author's name or from the back-cover blurbs but from the name of the press. If it's from Krupskaya, Spuyten Duyvil, Burning Deck, or nearly any of the presses hosted over at Duration Press, it's bound to be worth a look. The arbitership of taste in my case has shifted from the unconscious apperception of the large commercial press (for the only poets I knew about ten years ago were all published on Norton, Penguin, FSG, Knopf, or a large university press) through the search for heroes on the back cover (there were certain names that would induce me to open a book and others that induced me to put it back on the shelf; this is still somewhat true) to those editors or groups of editors who have put their money where their mouth is and done the difficult work of giving a new or neglected poet the opportunity to be read in quantity. (An aside on web publishing: I'm all for it, I'm excited about the proliferation of web journas, and I'm happy to find PDFs of things otherwise unavailable, like Code of Signals or The H.D. Book. But I find I can't read much poetry for very long on a screen. So I will continue with only small apology to read, collect, and fetishize books and hardcopy.) Now this of course does not relieve me of the obligation to read and judge the value of a given poetic project for myself. But some kind of filter is urgently needed; as Steve points out, "there is much more poetry released into the circulatory systems of the commercial and gift economies than any one non-bedridden person can hope to read even once with care."

Of course the other mode of judgment we bring to a poet is political; do we seek to be comforted and assured in our beliefs (whether that means a Garrison Keillor-style liberalism or the clubbiness of armchair radicalism) or are we looking for the negative, the destruction of reified habits of meaning and doing? (Where is the positive in this? This is yet another approach, for me, to the question of pastoral. The utopian, in the sense promulgated by the Frankfurt School, is largely a negativity: a cancellation of what is. Pastoral, on the other hand, is a particular image of a particular should-be. It's prone to sentimental reification, but I cling to the idea, without yet being able to argue for it, that this positive image has some value in a critical, avant-garde context. In other words, if affirmation corresponds to the beautiful and negativity to the sublime, is it yet possible to imagine a critical or progressive beauty?)

Certainly the prize system is an inadequate and "alienated" means of establishing poetic values; it's treated me pretty well, but I know lots of poets whose manuscripts urgently deserve to see print that aren't crossing that particular arbitrary finish line. As Steve astutely remarks, "Strangers to poetry, college deans, family members: I can understand their bein impressed by a prize, for it serves their interest—which is precisely not to have to read and determine for themselves the value of a poem or book of poems—but those who read the stuff and know its history?" The prizes and fellowships I've won are going to help me get a job, no question about it—because they constitute indispensable labor-saving devices for overextended search committees. But they ought to entitle me to exactly nothing at all in the arena of serious reading. I certainly have no problem dismissing the work of any number of prizewinning poets, let alone those rarer poets who have found the acclamation of some sort of market. Of course one can go too far and automatically dismiss the prizewinners, and there one is bound to do poetry a disservice. Steve is quite right to point out the "genuine" pleasures of the work of his archetypal prizewinner, Frank Bidart; just as he is right to point out that it is impossible to conceive of a real justification for Bidart, no better or worse a writer than dozens of poets of his generation, to have accumulated so many dollars in prize money.

Still no takers to read in Ithaca? C'mon down!

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