Saturday, December 24, 2005

Bah, Humbug Edition

Seth Abramson's cri de coeur, The Sociology of Poety: A Rant of Sorts has been partially answered by Ron Silliman, the poet most prominently featured in the "rant" portion of Abramson's post. Tremendous anxiety seems to exist about whether or not American poetry has a center—look at this Adam Kirsch piece about Poetry (Chicago) that proclaims, with an air of complacency that doesn't quite conceal the sense of relief, that "Poetry has done what long seemed impossible: It has reclaimed its place at the center of American poetry." To Kirsch, Seth, and, to a lesser extent Ron, I want to pose the question: why this almost metaphysical anxiety about a center, base, or foundation for the practice of poetry? I don't put Ron at the center of my inquiry because I see him as a kind of revisionist historian, actively promoting an alternative to the mainstream that, as he puts it, poses as the "unmarked case, as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo." I think Ron is often misread as wanting to turn the array off difference that the latter poets represent into the new mainstream of the "post-avant"—to be sure it is easy to misread him this way in large part because of the confidence, the white-maleness if you will, of his writing style (this seems to be the major component of Seth's unease: Silliman's tone causes him to imagine that Ron is setting imself up "at the center of American poetry" without authorization—maybe "professionalization" would be his preferred term). But I'm pretty sure Ron doesn't want a new center: he wants the word "poetry" always to carry an appropirate socio-historico-communitarian modifier, and if he took the time to distinguish more closely the various differences and strains within what he too often lumps together as a School of Quietude he might encounter a little less resistance to his project. (Not that such resistance seems to faze him even slightly.)

I see Ron as a counterforce, which suggests that those who don't see him this way either don't recognize the power of the forces Ron is attempting to counteract, or that they themselves are consciously or unconsciously aligned with those forces. I'm not sure where Seth falls on this continuum: he is bothered by what he perceives as a total lack of any sort of standards by which individual poems can be judged—that "beauty" may be a child of chaos and not truth and order, to use his rather romantic language. Now I'm not a student of sociology, but I imagine that the order to be found in any socius is more likely to take the form of flows and counterflows, with the stability of a given social body always likely to be more apparent than real. It doesn't seem impossible to me to track these flows with some specificity when confronted with, for example, a given magazine or anthology or MFA program (a part of Seth's rant is devoted to deploring the impossibility of judging the value/values of these entities). I can pick up almost any magazine off the rack at the Bookery or Barnes & Noble or the St. Mark's bookshop and immediately have a sense of what it values (what it considers a good poem, what social subfield it situates itself in) and its value in a number of fields (the effect a publication credit in that journal is likely to have to such diverse groups as, say, the audience at the Bowery Poetry Club and an audience of an academic hiring committee). In short, I see no chaos: just a diversity of flows and counterflows, individually quite legible, and often interacting to form at least partially legible patterns. The stock of the counterflow "language poetry," for example, has been rising for some years, and there are now practioners and fellow-travelers who seem to have as firm a claim to the thoroughly imaginary center as anyone—Ann Lauterbach, to take one example, has been publishing now with Penguin for many years; Bob Pereleman teaches at Penn; Lyn Hejinian has edited a BAP; etc., etc. But the center is imaginary, make no mistake about that. What often gets mistaken for the center is simply the power of institutions, which always have a substantive material base to accompany and bolster their cultural capital. Insofar as they have actual capital to spend they have actual power—the Lilly millions are only the most blatant example of this and it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Poetry (Chicago) has paid to be placed "at the center of American poetry." As for cultural capital, what unnerves many people nowadays is how uncertain its paths of accumulation and distribution have become—but I think that uncertainty is more apparent than real. Where does Ron Silliman get off setting himself up as a cultural capitalist? I hear people cry. Well, he's actually been slowly and patiently accumulating whatever capital he has by writing sometimes dull, sometimes glorious poetry for decades; by numerous affiliations, friendships, and editorships; by consciously mixing poetical and political activism; and so on. Ron didn't emerge full-blown with Santa beard and all from the head of the Internet. What the Internet has done has made it possible for him to convert the considerable capital he's accumulated over a long poetico-critical career into currency. And this understandably alarms those Scrooges whose capital is locked up in less liquid forms, and who if forced to make the conversion would reveal to us all that they have considerably less put by than they would like us to think.

Seth is not such a Scrooge: he's another young poet trying to figure out how (and whether) to make his way in the poetry world as he finds it. It seems to me he's doing a more than adequate job: he's writing poems, he's editing a magazine, and he's keeping a blog whose left-wng political commentary carries a refreshingly sharp edge. In the age of the Internet, one accumulates cultural capital in public—very poor taste to be sure, very nouveaux riche, and, even more damning, very democratic, very unrestricted by membership or lack thereof in feudal hierarchies, and highly corrosive of the old clothes paraded around as new by the Emperor of the Center. For a moment—who knows how much longer it will last—it's more obvious than ever that we all enjoy or ought to enjoy the "substantive and procedural flexibility" as readers and writers that Seth worries may only be the province of John Ashbery, aka "genius," aka those sitting upon a concealed iceberg of capital accumulated by winks and nods at the Harvard Club. Let's enjoy the ride, and think hard about ways we can organize ourselves so that this electronic avenue for counter-institutional forces and ideas can be preserved for the poets who come after us.

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