Saturday, December 31, 2005

I am not quite sure how I managed to miss Scoplaw, but his post responding to Seth (which in turn triggered another post from Seth, The Sociology of Poetry Part II: Toward a Lexicon, in which he attempts a schema somewhat similar (but more nuanced) to the distinction I once tried to draw between Careerists and Professionals) has put him on my personal blogosphere map. I think his dissection of the difficulties with the "School of Quietude" moniker is pretty good (and parallels what Robert Archambeau has recently had to say about it). What I most appreciate about the post is less its "sociology" dimension but his sensitive and acute description of Language poetry, the claims it seems to make, and why he finds it to be an inadequate and unsatisfying aesthetic—his criticisms are intelligent and, nearly as important, couched respectfully. I don't fully agree with him, of course, since I am dedicated to the idea that one of the functions of poetry is to be writing that does not condescend to the reader; so when Scoplaw writes that "you need an advanced aesthetic training to parse and judge" a Language poem, my first response is, Not necessarily, and my second response is, What if one of such a poem's functions were to inspire some readers to seek out such training? I think of a remark Pound made about The Cantos: "I admit there are a couple of Greek quotes, one along in 39 that can't be understood without Greek, but if I can drive the reader to learning at least that much Greek, she or he will indubitably be filled with durable gratitude. And if not, what harm? I can't conceal the fact that the Greek language existed." Hubris, maybe; elitism, certainly—but far less insulting to me as a reader than the notion that all I can tolerate is the already-familiar. One could construct a kind of hierarchy of tolerances, I suppose: familiar content in familiar forms; unfamiliar content in familiar forms; unfamiliar content in unfamiliar forms. (I'm not sure I believe that familiar content in unfamiliar forms is actually possible.) The real trouble with Language poetry may not be with the hapless common reader but with its initiates: inevitably if you spend enough time with the stuff you end up find a given poem's forms and strategies to be more or less familiar. That's the dead end of the avant-garde as I understand it: the shock of the new wears off and the alienation effect does not lead to discovery on the part of audiences but translates into a very literal alienation of the artist from the audiences he might otherwise expect (in the case of poetry, all the highly literate folks who either don't read poetry at all or who stay safely within the orbit of the major publishers—readers of the various book reviews with "New York" in their titles).

But of course this is why hardly anyone is now writing what I'd recognize as "straight" language poetry and why Ron has coined the term "post-avant." At the moment I tend to think of the value of a strong poetics/aesthetics as acting like a kind of gravity well, which may itself have all kinds of interesting characteristics (a planet with life on it), or may radiate a powerful and singular energy (a sun), or may be some kind of untranslatable personal mythos of the unconscious (a black hole), or may be something that was once alive but is now dead (a white dwarf). Purists lob their verbal objects straight int their wells with nary a tremor in their trajectories (or at least such appears to be their goal; I don't think it's actually possible—but they try to correct the flights of their poems through a sort of body english, the profuse production of writings on poetics that can remind me of a bowler trying to turn a gutterball into a strike by twisting and gesturing). Most poets end up with orbits of one kind or another (and an orbit is nothing more than the arc assumed by a body that misses the target it's attracted to); the most interesting of them are slingshotting poems in wide parabolas as they test the limitations of their hard-won poetics. (Poets who can't or won't articulate a poetics are either being sly, which is sometimes necessary, or naive in a way that is bound to make their writing uninteresting in the long run.) To put it in Lacanian terms, a poetics is like one's Thing, and you derive jouissance (your poem derives energy) based on the distance or orbit that your desire assumes in relation to it. For many of the writers I find most interesting, the politico-aesthetic complex called "Language poetry" is a significant component of their Thing—but none of them are pitching their desires in straight lines at it.

None of this has much to do with the sociology of poetry, but it probably says something about what my values are and what I think building a "career" is all about. Not very different in substance, I think, from "You write the best fucking poems you can."

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