Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Increasingly




I'm increasingly ambivalent, even apathetic, toward much of contemporary poetry. My interest seems to be narrowing, along lines that are perhaps predictable to anyone familiar with the general direction my work and that of my most immediate community has taken in the past few years.

At the same time, I feel that I've increasingly relaxed my attitudes toward a larger set of poetic practices and styles for which I once expressed disdain. I no longer find it very useful to maintain an us/them distinction along "experimental" vs. "mainstream" lines.

Increasingly, there is simply poetry I find interesting and poetry I don't. And the latter category, as I've said, is growing.

I find it increasingly difficult to become invested in work that takes either a "traditional" approach to form, tone, theme, imagery, voice, etc., or a traditionally "avant-garde" approach to the same. There are exceptions, of course. But for the most part, if it looks like poetry as such, I'm bored with it. (Note that I'm talking here about contemporary poetry; I still, for whatever reasons, hold most of the same opinions now about poetry up to, oh, 1990 or so, that I've held pretty consistently all along.)

Increasingly, most of the poetry that affects me (I said this would be predictable) is poetry that is in some way conspicuously "unpoetic," a description that no longer has any real meaning in relation to most work which announces itself as experimental, avant-garde, procedural, etc. Stein's famous remark about outlaw and classic literature still holds; there is simply not much that is "outlaw" about a great deal of the current writing that sees itself as following in that tradition.

As MFA programs increasingly refashion themselves to accommodate newer, "edgier" styles, including styles that signal a clear debt to Language and other fairly recent historical movements, the gestures associated with those styles lose their meanings, even when the writers in question perform them in good political conscience (interpret that however you like).

I'm increasingly uncomfortable when my own students find out about my work on the internet and turn in "flarfy" poetry. Not that there's anything wrong with it in and of itself--much of it is quite inventive and funny. But part of me thinks that classroom activity should remain distinct from living practice, that students' time in a workshop is better spent learning to write in meter, for example, or imitating Dickinson/Pound/Coleridge, than in making sestinas out of porn spam. This is partly because I still believe somewhat in the conservative old saw that one should learn figure drawing or whatever before one is qualified to paint abstractly, and partly because when flarf simply becomes another item on the craft-based academic menu (this actually seems to be happening in some places), it loses a large part of its reason for existing.

Academia per se, I maintain, is not the problem. Academia is good. It teaches people stuff. The problem is the unholy alliance between academic creative writing programs and the publishing/arts-funding mafia(s). To the extent that programs offer students palpable knowledge and skills, they are good. To the extent that they are used to groom them for advancement in a spurious hierarchical network of career insiders, they are bad. One might reasonably object that few people would be likely to enroll in any academic program that didn't offer at least the possibility of getting a job out of it. Got a point there.

But back to the unpoetic. What does this term mean? For me it means in part a willingness to fly in the face not so much of general notions of poetic tradition, which are safely petrified anyway, but to resist the stifling influence of self-appointed Guardians of the Ideological Purity of the Experimental Contemporary. An irony here is that those stiflers are usually not, as one might expect, members of a senior avant-garde, such as the Language Poets, but instead, their frustrated generational would-be successors. Or maybe this isn't an irony at all: these are often the same persons who resent the Language Poets' primacy of influence, and who therefore reject outright certain modes and techniques they associate with the Langpos (disjunction, collage, non-referentiality, etc.). As if modes and techniques in themselves could be tethered unproblematically to a single movement or aesthetic.

Since few people besides poets read contemporary poetry, it stands to reason that the readers you are most likely to piss off are other poets. You can't piss off anyone else, because they just don't care: they already hate all poetry in the first place, or they assume that whatever you're doing must be just great because what do they know about it? Furthermore, the gesture of pissing off "mainstream" poets is pretty much exhausted. Most mainstream poets have either provisionally embraced certain aspects of postmodernism, or are so cranky and retrograde that no one takes them seriously anymore. What this all ought to amount to is a sense of complete freedom for poets to write whatever they want; what's surprising is how few poets seem interesting in taking this freedom.

10 comments:

Ryan W. said...

re: your last sentence about taking the complete freedom, that strikes me as an important point... and while I agree with everything in your post on the level of emotion, and always love to see people write things like this post you've written, I feel like there are indeed examples of people who are either (a) consciously desirous of exercising complete freedom and able to talk about that desire, (b) doing it already. The doing it part is, uhhh, difficult, or not difficult, depending on if you're having a fabulous writer-day or not.

Tho it's complicated to cite examples even of "positive" things, I'll throw out some from my fairly recent reading: Tom Orange's recent wee chap, "A Day in Switzerland"; pretty much anything by Lorraine Graham; Chris Toll's "Love Everyone"; a few things or at least parts of things in the Maureen Thorson-edited Tinyside series (the complete freedom meme is in there somewhere); and yadda yadda I hate giving these examples because I don't want to exclude, namedrop etc. Oh yeah, me! I am free! Weeeeeeeeee! I don't mind giving that last example b/c I know how I feel about serving as one.

Anyhow, the meme is very much there. That doesn't mean that it's always very immediately apparent in the way something looks on the page, etc. All this, but I still like to see people complain about not seeing enough of it, the complete freedom. Oh yeah there's the whole complicatedness of using an absolute like "complete"... it invites "Are you sure?" but we sort of know what we mean by it... there's still the matter of what you do when you're feeling free...

Mr. Horton said...

Kasey,

The state of US contemporary poetry is not necesarily a bore, but most folks aren't grappling with the same issues that are evident outside the Bay or NY or what the folks in Buffalo are concerned about. Poetry is big. It actually matters in a lot of cultures around the world. People from other places are approaching poetry from amazing vantages. I know you know this, and recognize this as outside the scope of your fatigue, but Contemporary Poetry includes this world-wide praxis that most American poets don't recognize or pay attention to.

Best,

David

Todd Colby said...

as Michaux famously said: the mere intention to write THE POEM has killed many a poem.

Henry Gould said...

I know you probably think of me as one of the "stiflers", Kasey, but I agree with most of what you say here.

The business of America is business, and maybe what contributes to this ennui is the MFA business. Career-academic poetry puts too much pressure : IT TAKES THE FUN OUT OF WRITING.

When I was in high school, the "writers" knew they were doing something completely free & independent, separate from English class studies and "composition" assignments. It was exciting to read great poetry from various historical periods, and then go home or in some corner and WRITE YOUR OWN POETRY. You didn't need anyont to "teach" you this, because you already had good training in composition in English class. There was no one looking over your shoulder or competing with you.

Writing was an adventure, not a career or a business or a "discipline".

reader of depressing books said...

i think everyone writes what they want

everyone does what they want, there are no excuses

someone can't say 'i write what i didn't want to write' because then they wouldn't have wrote it

are you sure you don't mean something like 'no one is writing what i want to read?'

just because everyone is writing what they want doesn't mean it's all going to seem personal and original to you

that's like saying that everyone is interesting and great just by being themself, not true

Jack said...

In response to another of Kasey's wise post, titled "Increasingly," I want to examine for only a minute or two the fourth paragraph that begins with focused abandon, "Increasingly," and plays out as follows: [this is a blockquote] most of the poetry that affects me (I said this would be predictable) is poetry that is in some way conspicuously "unpoetic," a description that no longer has any real meaning in relation to most work which announces itself as experimental, avant-garde, procedural, etc. Stein's famous remark about outlaw and classic literature still holds; there is simply not much that is "outlaw" about a great deal of the current writing that sees itself as following in that tradition. [/blockquote] To turn to metaphor as a medium of abbreviation, the gold still in the hills, poetry "that is in some way conspicuously 'unpoetic,'" no longer has any real meaning -- tagged with that i.d., gold -- in relation to "most work which announces itself as" like-gold. Gold affects me, or to use another abbreviation, X affects me, but the term X (gold, unpoetic) doesn't mean anything to (most) entities that call themselves like-X (almost-X, near-X, fake-X, workshopped-X).

The questions that go begging are, What are the poems that affect you? What are their qualities other than the problematic "unpoetic" one? What would be good substitute terminology for "unpoetic," "outlaw," "avant-garde"?

A broader line of questions begins. Are you complaining about terminology, "unpoetic," for example? Or do you see what affects you no longer can be described sufficiently, forcefully as "unpoetic," because it is more that this or something else? And finally, for now, is there in the sum of contemporary poetry somehow less of what affects you, and does that dimuntion prompt your ambivalence and apathy?

Ryan W. said...

I kind of feel like Reader of Depressing Books has it, my preferred it, with "are you sure you don't mean something like 'no one is writing what i want to read?'"

my examples of "freedom" are likely to be examples of things I think are good... although maybe it's possible to look at something and say "that's really free but I don't like it." it initially seems obvious that that would be possible but actually I'm not sure that's possible, not sure I could really detect freedom in anything I don't have a lot of sympathy with.

there's the superficial free and the deep free. I tend to respond to what looks to me like the deep free. so, very likely, if I looked at something and said "that's free but I don't like it," a second later I would look at it and say "actually that's just superficial free, it's not deep free." "deep free", as a judgement I hand down for a particular work, could be difficult to separate from "I like it."

kasey, I sobered up just so you could briefly have some company. that could change any minute tho. sorry.

Jack said...

A P.S. of sorts. Kasey goes on to point to one aspect of the unpoetic -- a willingness "to resist the stifling influence of self-appointed Guardians of the Ideological Purity of the Experimental Contemporary." Both the influence and constituency of these Guardians are not yet clear. Kasey perhaps sees a linkage between Guardians and "publishing/arts-funding mafia(s)"; on the other hand he feels MFA programs, their staff, etc. are "not the problem. Academia is good." I'm wondering then how provisional that bifurcation is -- the divide between mafias and Academia -- and whether further elaboration of Guardianship, as it were, might reveal degrees of academic complicity.

A.S. Galvan said...

I meant to talk about this in your office but forgot.

"I'm increasingly uncomfortable when my own students find out about my work on the internet and turn in "flarfy" poetry...But part of me thinks that classroom activity should remain distinct from living practice, that students' time in a workshop is better spent learning to write in meter...because I still believe somewhat in the conservative old saw that one should learn figure drawing or whatever before one is qualified to paint abstractly..."

Other people on staff have this problem also, in that they will share their own work and the student will translate the work of the professor to be 'what they were looking for in the assignment' when in fact, you were not looking for flarf at all.

That being said, I don't think you should have to get to the point of sticking a disclaimer on your poetry blog for students who find it, and the idea that you may have to in the future is uncomfortable.

Angela

Kyle said...

Beware, honest and potentially offensive material ahead!!!

So, Kasey. Having leisurely chatted with you on such topics ranging from poetry to music to really bad movies, I've always noted that, yes, you're tastes are predictable. If it's "mainstream," you're likely not to like it.

I've also witnessed the flush of blogs from your SOU students, clearly influenced by the flarf style. And as I read their poems, I can't help but wonder how it makes you feel about the establishment of flarf as a "respectable" poetic form. Your post offers some insight into this query.

Psychologically, I wonder why you always prefer that which is "not." I've always liked the way you rattle people into asking serious questions, but I've also noticed you're a lot the kid who's done with his toy as soon as the kid next door gets one, too. Or try to point out why yours is different than the neighbor's.

Why is that? Why do you define poetry by it's opposite? Something has affected your tastes to such an extreme. Is it Ezra Pound's fault with his exclusivity? Or is it something from your childhood at work? Enough of the psychoanalysis, but it's worth looking into.

One of the greatest paradoxes about you that I didn't quite understand until you alluded to it in this post, is how a "great" flarf poet simultaneously teaches Shakespeare. Talk about petrified poetry. IMHO, you've created a rift, a split personality as it were, between the you that seeks uniquely non-poetic/poetic material and the teacher locked University canon-style into the Great Bard. This has got to create an insufferable inner conflict.

Ultimately, I think Henry Gould puts it perfectly: "Career-academic poetry puts too much pressure: IT TAKES THE FUN OUT OF WRITING."

I call this Academic Asbestos, asbestos that kills true creativity. Theory, although capable of expanding our understanding of styles, kills. It stifles.

Anytime a student or colleague begins to emulate a style, it only solidifies it's place in literary history. On top of that, you've been so entrenched in the world of poetry that you're not likely to find something new and exciting anytime soon. So, yeah, it's no wonder why you're feeling somewhat apathetic about the state of the poetic nation.

In our world where it seems as though everything's been said or done before, I think it's only natural that you would prefer works that are uniquely unpoetic. it's a natural reaction. Thus, the pendulum swings the other way.