Monday, July 07, 2008

Nuisance Value and Slow Poetry

I love this post at Poetix, which presents one of the more compelling recent versions of the claim that poetry operates via a negative principle of built-in inefficiency / irrelevance.

Interesting to compare this to Dale Smith's recent remarks on "Slow Poetry" at Possum Ego (here, to begin with, and in several subsequent posts). I'm all for loafing, so I'm sympathetic to a lot of what Dale says. I like his idea of a move towards a translocal (my term, not his) mode of poetic address based on commonality rather than a totalizing global one based on (largely ineffective) resistance. I wonder, however, whether there aren't some missing moments of exposition in his account, and whether slowness as such is really the most useful framework.

Dale writes:
By turning away from innovations that increase the speed of production, poets could rediscover valuable skills from older methods. Pace in this slow poetry sense becomes a greater concern. Value could be placed on the withholding of vital details and the slow release of vivid particulars within rhetorical situations driven by a desire to disclose new knowledge.

Dale starts to lose me at "turning away from innovations that increase the speed of production." Which innovations, exactly? In what way has the process of poetic production been affected by them? Is composition, on the whole, really "faster" now than at any other point in history? I don't think Dale means anything as trivial as that, for instance, we should write using pens instead of keyboards. So what does he mean, exactly?

Thesis (not quite a counterthesis): all poetry is slow poetry, practically by definition. Shklovsky's criterion of attenuation (and tortuousness too, really) as a key element of defamiliarization seems relevant here, and entirely in keeping with Dale's description of "the withholding of vital details and the slow release of vivid particulars." It's almost a commonplace that poetry by its nature is something read (and written) against the grain of more efficient, "practical," streamlined applications of language. Even some of the more souped-up recent examples of conceptual and pop-culture-tinged poetry are, at their base, ways of slowing down "fast," dominant-system-supporting language use and poking at it with a stick, no?

As for turning to technologies like letterpress and xerox, well ... isn't that already happening, and hasn't it been for a long time? Dale acknowledges as much, but then says that "these relatively inexpensive printing costs have produced a glut in term of over-production of work with an under-production of relative value." But doesn't the point then have to do not so much with speed as with economy and/or degree of circulation? And what is the point, exactly? That many poets write substandard work? Well, certainly. But when has this not been the case? And are there really detrimental consequences, in the larger scheme of things, to there being too much bad poetry?

I guess I'm not entirely seeing how SloPo defines anything fundamentally different from the actual current state of material poetic culture at the level of production and distribution. Even at the "corporate," "mainstream," "establishment" level, the circulation of poetry remains largely an archaic affair, rooted in pretty typesetting and anachronistic humanist rhetoric.


mark wallace said...

I see in Dale's comments some commonality with Nick Piombino's ideas on the importance of being able to reflect, and the effect of living in a society in which there is increasingly no time for reflecting on the things we do. That strikes me as worthwhile.

On the other hand, I see in it some commonality with the long running middle class rhetoric of cutting out the fast pace, moving to the country, buying a farm perhaps and learning woodcutting and getting to know the locals, a stance that runs back at least as far as the Luddites, right? Certainly one sees it in, say, some John Cheever characters of the 50s, or how many other films poems etc about getting back to the land and restoring real value to our meaningless lives. This strikes me as more questionable. My guess is that, like rhetoric about the immorality and ignorance of the younger generation, rhetoric about life "moving too fast" probably appears very early in human history.

It's a question I suppose of how to frame the issue without questionable nostalgia for a lost real.

Chris said...

Is composition, on the whole, really "faster" now than at any other point in history?

Well, yes (says the person who trains computers to write poems for him).

jane said...

This may seem a side issue, but it's one of my little missions to attend to the Luddites. They were not, repeat not, anti-change propagandists for some woolly ideal about technology's incursions on the good life, "old-fashioned ways" in the abstract, rural values, etc. They were explicit labor activists — textile artisans, specifically — who felt that spinning jennies were going to be part of an massive unemployment/deskilling of the workforce and corresponding intensification of exploitation that would starve their families. They struck directly and openly at the means of production.

The lazy annexing of their radical position to bourgeois daydreams contra technology (which more accurately resemble vinyl fetishism) should be confronted at every turn.

It is absolutely important to recognize the kernel of truth in contemporary complaints about technology, speed of life, etc; they are a shrouded way of recognizing capital's logic of "progress," and our alienation from the processes controlling our lives, and that's something. But people (I don't mean you) who liken themselves to Luddites because they would rather have a country house or not learn html have a special place reserved for them.

brian salchert said...

Since part of Dale's idea is
writing/ fewer poems, what Mark
notes about "reflecting" is

Beyond that--and I could be wrong--
my intuition is that Dale's SloPo vision
arose out of economic concerns. Am fairly certain you are aware
some of us have been posting about
peak oil (Dale Smith),
too late late capitalism
(Linh Dinh),
the implosion of this civilization (Angela Genusa),
US imperialism: the whole of which
raises the questions of how to prepare
and what to do poetically and otherwise
if the worst happens, or even if
another great depression occurs.

If you haven't read Genusa's Implosion piece,
do an Angela Genusa Implosion
search. Perhaps you will think
she's just playing, but I think
she is being serious.

mark wallace said...

Hi Jane:

I hear you, but I feel like it's the slippage between the two possibilities in contemporary American life that Dale is failing to address. Believing that the radical social positioning of certain labor discourses and the fantasies of bourgeois returns to nature are disconnected seems a problem to me. Indeed that's a huge pitfall; when well connected, socially sophisticated intellectuals argue for such a thing, I remain uncertain as to whether they represent the radical alternative or just a continuation of a sixties (and pre-sixties obviously) fantasy that is well documented in the pop culture of its era. I mean, you write plenty about pop culture, yes? How many of those 60s film characters are urban semi-intellectuals seeking greater authenticity and a connection to (ideas about) unalienated labor? And which of us is really sure that we're more like the fantasy or the radical alternative? Are you?

Piombino of course fleshes out his ideas about reflection more than I do here, and he includes a lot of the issues you raise at more length than I mention. My apologies for responding more briefly than I should have. I do know about the history of the Luddites, and I worry about evoking of them as some kind of antidote for contemporary writers who live in a world that's profoundly different, despite some surface similarities.

With all best wishes--

jane said...

it's a fair point, and an important thing to think about. At the same time: yes, I do think there are telling distinctions. Yes, I do think that having an analysis of labor conditions is different from not having one, whether or not that results is some radical change this week or decade. Yes, I do think that insisting that there are places where change happens in the social structure, and places where it doesn't, is significant. And no, I don't casually dismiss utopians, especially against the contemptible pragmatism currently on offer. But worry not: I wouldn't evoke the Luddites as any kind of present model. I only wish to preserve their actuality against the all-too-familiar secreting away of the knowledge that people have acted directly on their lives throughout history, and still might. To you, j

Dale said...

Mark, I can't stand 60s idealism. My inspiration and much of the vocabulary is coming from finance, oil markets, military analysts, etc. My focus is on resources and their potential scarcity. I'm trying to rethink what poetry is going to look like in a world that is currently beginning a phase of contraction unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime. I don't advocate going back to the farm. I don't advocate much of anything. I think I've been trying to imagine a world for poetry under a new context of increasing global scarcity.... Quick first-thought-best-thought response here....

mark wallace said...

Jane, I agree with you that there are differences between the two possibilities, and I would never suggest that there aren't. But, as I'm sure you would agree, I don't think they're merely a matter of argumentative assertion, nor are they mutually exclusive. Isn't it possible to both have an analysis of labor relations and to live an economically successful (in some degree or other) life involved in, rather than outside, the life of large scale social institutions? I'm not simply harping here on the problem of, say, the independently wealthy Marxist, although I've had to deal with more than one or two of them, but suggesting that the binary between having an analysis of labor relations and having none doesn't often happen quite so simply. That's not automatically a bad thing. But it does mean that there are lots of gradations between fighting the good fight and being a corrupt bourgeois asshole. What I worry about relative to ideas like SloPo has to do with the fantasy of being outside, of imagining that there is some pure non-alienating fight for good waiting for any of us, and that a labor movement, or a kind of poetry, or our own argumentative consistency, are going to get us there. To be successful, labor movements usually become institutions also, and because of that, people involved in them have to work with all the gray areas that institutions create. I suppose it would be easy if, in anybody's job, the difference between the enlightened and the corrupt was clear. Usually though they're just people, informed about some things, shortsighted about others, and not always clear on the difference between self-interest and large scale social change. Not to say that there aren't a fair share of assholes, especially in positions of big institutional power (don't worry; I know who runs this country), although it's a real shocker when some assholes actually seem to share your ideology.

Dale, your comments make a lot of sense to me. It could be more that the faddishness of the term SloPo bothers me more than the ideas you're trying to bring together. Isn't Slow Foods already a Whole Foods option? I don't mind that so much as long as one retains a sense of irony about it. Certainly one crisis that we're all facing, and not only in the U.S. obviously, is the degree to which contemporary living conditions entirely rely on the idea that cars and gas will be available. A lot of the people in places that really rely on cars are screwed right now.

Dale said...

Mark, thanks for your comments. I've been trying to generate an argument on behalf of SloPo that stresses de-centralization.

I remember going to the first Whole Foods in Austin years ago and buying my crunchy snacks there. I guess, over time, to compete in the 1980s to present marketplace, they opted for the centralized thing--probably a smart move. But I shop at our local food co-op now.

Point is--you can make the association between slopo and whole foods, but the posts I've developed so far won't support that analogy. But this helps me think more clearly about what my (non)collective needs to continue a discussion of its growing sense of mission....

jane said...

Mark, much to agree on, of real importance. That there's no clear and easy split between "inside" and "outside": yeah, that's important and obvious and still needs saying. That some folks imagine themselves outside or oppositional while being deeply tied up in it all, and even propagating the structures they hope to oppose: absolutely. We are seeing that problematic more dramatically in eco-discourses these days than in poor ol' Marxism.

However, recognizing these issues can spill all too easily over into equally or more troubling responses. I'd still rather an illusory schematic of inside/outside than a slippery-slopism which finally equates all positions and doesn't have basic demands about necessary and sufficient change.

Moreover, I take it as a structural feature of This American Life that everyone's a hypocrite, that there's no outside. Sooner or later you'll be very thirsty and there'll be no fountain and you'll buy a Coke. Sooner or later you'll have medical insurance or a retirement account that makes you part of the "ownership society." And I think this dynamic which folds everyone in is explicitly designed, among other things, so that everyone can be reminded of their complicity, threatened with the emerald H of hypocrisy, and told to shut up. I think giving in to that, in our present situation, is taking the side of power.

You write, "To be successful, labor movements usually become institutions also, and because of that, people involved in them have to work with all the gray areas that institutions create." I actually think that if we look at the moments of systemic change in modern history, that's not a terribly accurate description. It's an accurate description of First World unions in the last 70 years, but that may be more about them than about the possible.

a boyer said...


"Sooner or later you'll have medical insurance or a retirement account that makes you part of the ownership society."

Is this for everyone? I can't wait!!!


mark wallace said...

Ah, here come some pesky pragmatists, and angry women pragmatists with good points and daily life concerns to boot. I'm not sure I've got any good answers for them either. Took me twenty years to get my half decent, you actually have to pay when it counts medical insurance, and I'm not giving it up. I wish I even had good job advice, but all I know how to say is work hard, keep your eye out for any chances, and then just maybe you'll get lucky. Oh, and how about supporting universal health care? I dread knowing what that would actually look like in the U.S., were we ever to have it, but most likely it'll be somewhat better than what we've got now.

Jane, I do appreciate your support for utopian communities and your broad global, historical vision of labor unions. I know that you're right that there are other models out there, and I've love to know if those models can be useful in the First World present. But of course First World institutions, unions or otherwise, are the ones I have to deal with. And I understand your contempt for certain mainstream notions of pragmatism while thinking we're not going to be able to do without some vision of pragmatism sometimes. Actually a writer whose work I've always liked on this subject in Doug Henwood, who in Wall Street and elsewhere argues for trying to change the structures of ownership in large scale financial and public institutions, rather than thinking one can destroy or discard them. Pipe dream? Yeah, probably. More of a pipe dream than creating alternative and non-capitalist social communities that have large scale effects on human life? I don't know. I'd be happy to see either one, I guess. Usually I'm just an old-fashioned socialist who thinks that the world would be better if we had more safety nets for the failing, and more ways of giving them genuine opportunities for work that's worth doing. I mean, it's not everything, but it's something.

Kasey, sorry for mugging your blog here. I hope you'll chime in if that's a problem.

jane said...


bet on it. Those blips they take out of your pay at that art school for art school kids you teach at? That coverage you had while you were a grad student getting an MFA program? It's already started. As some guy said, One more try if you want to be excluded!

a boyer said...

We didn't have any health coverage at Wichita State, and I don't have any benefits where I work. I can't imagine I am alone in this?


jane said...

you have medicare access, and there is a small payment removed from your pay — no? And at Wichita State, as far as I can tell, grad students have student health.

I'm not saying that everyone has equal access to benefits; I do believe that would be actual socialism (as opposed to what Mark describes as "old-fashioned socialism," which resembles Social Democracy); I'm saying that even folks with terrible access are still compelled to perform as if they had a "stake" in national economies. This is what's meant by the disingenuous claim that there's a huge middle class. But if you gain from not seeing yourself in that, despite teaching at college level and having an advanced degree — if a different accounting helps you keep being angrily politicized and oppositional — then I say yeay! Go dog go!

a boyer said...

Yes, Kansas has a Medicaid program for families living in poverty. This does not come from employers. This comes from filling out forms and going to the welfare office.

I didn't have health care when I was in school in the mid 1990s, though it is very good news if there is health care for graduate students now.

To presume that those who live in poverty and those who do not are both "middle class" is really confusing. But July is the month of filling out forms, and if it comforts you to pretend that the material circumstances we face are equal, (if this imaginary accounting keeps you angrily oppositional, or at least somewhat emotionally comforted) I'll just forward you the forms so that you can fill them out while I write some slooooow poetry.


jane said...

"To presume that those who live in poverty and those who do not are both "middle class" is really confusing." Didn't say that. Said opposite. If you ain't gonna read what I write, should I read what you write?

a boyer said...


"one more try if you want to be excluded"

excluded from what then, dear? Is it too terribly difficult to imagine that one's "stake" in the economic system varies with one's income and social position, and that a person living in poverty has a different relationship to the system than the middle class professor?

Your "there is no outside" looks like wishful thinking from the welfare office.

Unfortunately not only did I read what you wrote, I also understood its implications.


Jeremy James Thompson said...

The phenomenological possibilities of Slow Poetry (calling it SloPo almost seems ironic) is what interests me.

I'm a printer by trade, with poetry as an academic background. In the last year of my MFA at Mills College, I spent most of my time in the print shop, setting type and other objects, and generally experimenting with the tactile. My entire written thesis changed as I began to work with lead type, polymer plates, slabs of wood. I began to refer to poetry as typography, and then to my own hybrid term, Autotypography. Without going to far into that, I want to suggest that it was the actual experience of handling the alphabet, feeling the weight of the letter E in one's hand, recognizing the popularity and or necessity of certain letters over others. The weight of a word is the culmination of the weight of each its letters. Heavier if capitalized.

These may seem like analogies, which I suppose is all any phenomenology is when referred to outside of its immediate practice. But the act of printing, cutting, binding, typesetting, and even the stain of ink & burn of solvents, rearranged my conception of the page, poetics, space, arrangement, & other less involved composition practices (word documents etc). I stopped writing on standard page formats, I stopped considering text as freestanding (as it is most often considered in a classroom workshop environment), and I began studying other layout forms (the TV guide, magazines, religious texts, comics, brochures, etc). For a time, I was teaching workshops wherein the students would practice composing text while standing over the press, a case of type behind them, encouraging new relationships with word and letter objects.

I continue to print, primarily as a form of collaboration with poets. This also slows things down. Collaboration slows things down. Most of this collaborating takes place over the phone or via email, but eventually it finds its way into the print shop, where the technologies, and their effects on me, collide. The product is always artifact, witness to these collisions, not ART.

My diatribe has become somewhat serpentine & now I fear the head may no longer find the tail. I'd simply hoped my limited experience with necessarily slower techniques might bring another value to the conversation.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Mark -- I read your ideas most always with much interest & respect, but I gotta say, I find your phrase "angry women" really offensive and sexist.

Joshua -- same goes for your "...helps you keep being angrily politicized and oppositional." It's sexist. Check yourself. And besides, I mean cough cough cough, "angrily politicized & oppositional" -- have you not looked in the mirror lately?

mark wallace said...

I'm sorry you feel that way about it, Annandale, and my apologies if it offended you. In the context of the conversation, I was trying to use the phrase somewhat humorously. Don't know if it came across that way. But of course also they were angry, and I speak often about angry men too. My last blog post was mainly about male anger.

a boyer said...

I've become convinced that any time a woman enters one of these male-only comment box streams (or other, non-institutional realms of intellectual debate) anything she contributes will be perceived as "emotional" and not "intellectual", not so much because of the actual content of what she writes, or the tone she employs, but because of the general anxiety on the part of the men that she has interrupted their "game" by speaking at all, and the psycho-sexual issues men seem to have with engaging in intellectual discourse with women, esp. (but not solely) on the internet.

For example, the men among you might consider that above statement "emotional," while I consider it "accurate," or if not some truth, a hypothesis or claim to tested. If I were to tell you my emotional response to this state of things, however (which isn't so much anger, as I specialize in other affects), or if I were to say "I am so pissed off that . . ." or "It frustrates me that . . ." or "I fucking hate it when . . .", then it would be justifiable to be call me "angry."

I've also been advised that anyone harmed by social conditions pointing out unfair social conditions is going to be perceived as an act of an "angry" person:
that this is a structural problem, and that no actual change of tone or content on our part can control this perception. This is one of the ways that those in power can keep their power, claiming that they alone have the right or "natural" ability to participate somewhat neutrally in "rational" discourse, and immediately pointing out (accurately or not) the "emotion" of the other party.

In my experience, women often try to soften this reaction to their participation by using many "feeling" words, qualifiers, and empathetic statements in their contributions to debates.

I hate that. And it doesn't work.

But really, just because I sometimes enter these conversations, and just because I do not attempt to soothe the anxiety of the men as I do so, it does not mean I am "angrier" than my friend Joshua here. And I certainly much less angry than the classic angry poet men of the internet, who actually DO USE emotionally loaded language and ad hominem attacks, etc.

I like both Mark and Joshua, and I know they are sensitive intelligent people, and that they didn't intend to draw on the stereotype of the "emotional" or "angry" woman to alter the debate. Still, I guess it is fair to point this stuff out, probably more fair when one knows the other parties are well-intentioned and wouldn't mind hearing how it is received.


mark wallace said...

I like a lot of your points, Anne, and I certainly agree that male anger is all over the internet. I even blogged about it this week.

That said, I wouldn't call your first paragraph in this last comment "angry," myself. it doesn't read that way to me. But I still do think that your original entry into this conversation sounded angry, or at least sarcastic (not that I don't think you have a right to be), so if you'll look back at it and tell me whether that thought of mine was way off base, I'd appreciate it. I believe it was Angela G who entered the conversation by saying that she was "venting her spleen," a direct reference to feelings of anger or at least frustration. It's possible that I collapsed the tone of your and her responses too definitively, but I'm not sure of it yet. But I can certainly say that I was attempting to read your tone and not some generalized feeling on my part about women, although I can see that my language was not precise enough. People are usually not angry as such, even when they often express anger.

As for soothing the anxieties of others, male or female, I probably differ from you on that. Whether I know them well or not, I think there's something important about trying to make people feel less anxious, since people who feel anxious can't always work very well together.

a boyer said...


I just can't agree that "Is this for everyone. I can't wait!!" is an angry statement. I merely was pointing out a weakness in Clover's argument, albeit in brief and while attempting to be a little spunky/ funny about it. I still think it is a little funny, at least in the sense that it is funny-ironic that J-clo is speaking of something like access to health care as negative when so many people don't have it. But it just doesn't compute at all that I pointed this out in an angry way, or at any other point in this comment box used "angry" words, etc.

It is possible that you are conflating me with Angela here, as "the women."

I don't think women soothing male anxieties about women participating in intellectual life is really that useful anymore, as it has been going on so in-effectively for so long. It is frustrating to see, for example at a conference, the women take 5 minutes of their 20 making conciliatory and apologetic gestures re their participation, while the men take their whole 20 (sometimes 25) and never once apologize for speaking. It is not up to women to be responsible for men's emotional lives, and n many ways, a dialectical approach to male psychosexual anxiety is useful in helping people break through some problems of inequality.


mark wallace said...

Fair enough, Anne. Of course my original use of "angry" was meant comically too, so I think maybe I was flippantly responding to the flippant/spunky/funny tone of yours and Angela's comments. Guess I didn't come across that way.

I see a little more clearly in this most recent comment the context in which you're using the word "soothing," and I think that makes sense. I certainly don't think anybody should be "soothed" for holding on to an untenable or unfair position. I'm not sure though what's necessarily the best way to break through various problems of inequality--it seems like a lot of different approaches have been tried so far, sometimes with success, sometimes not. Probably there's not one best way, but instead it's possible to use a variety of approaches, depending on the people and the situation. But I like your idea of the dialectical as being at the heart of it.

mark wallace said...

I think this last part has been about my emotions too, Angela, and how I perceive and misperceive things on the basis of them, and how those emotions are tied into male constructs that can reappear in my phrasing very easily at moments when I respond too casually on people's blogs and use the word "angry." The discussion also raises the issue of the differing connotations people hear in words, in that I don't think of "angry" as negative but can see here how it would be so. I've thought of anger as primarily positive since I was about fourteen. Probably too because I was blogging about anger this week, the word has been especially on my mind.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Anne -- "feeler words, qualifiers & empathetic statements" -- I don't think women should stop using them -- I think that men should use them more often. In really heated discussions I guess I agree with you in that it's best to use really neutral and flat language, but other than that, nah, feeler words are okay.

Henry Gould said...

Just want to point out that "anger", "humor" etc. in written discourse are simply examples of rhetorical display. & rhetoric can be slippery - we are sometimes convinced by effective, though false or illogical, rhetoric.

If you want to opt out of mind games, sexist or otherwise, in written discussion & debate, focus on the validity of your arguments : on their logic, on the evidence you provide, on the facts. If you get the argument right & can support it with facts, then a little humor or satire won't hurt either... but it's not the main thing.

& while I'm at it, I will offer this advice on political engagement (ie. NOTES TO MYSELF):

1) ignore the Presidential election; it's not that important.

2) ignore the ideologues of left & right; they are just blowhards whose main interest is in making you listen to them, & wasting your time.

3) educate yourself on a social problem which concerns you : become an expert; listen to all sides, try to get the facts. Poverty; hunger; education reform; health care; jobs & training; defense policy; foreign policy; campaign finance reform; etc. Do some homework.

4) Work with others toward your goals in that area. Go beyond chit-chat, venting, baroque, vain & impractical political ego-trips, & reading the news.

Henry Gould said...

Angela, I never had a rhetoric class, either. I was in the debate club in junior high. & my father is a lawyer. But I've never paid much attention to this issue. In fact there's a romantic strain in poetryland which opposes logic as "cold, instrumental rationalism", & I went through that phase too.

I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that, yes, emotion is of course an element in any dialogue, but if you focus too much on the emotional state of your interlocutor - which you can't control anyway - you go off on a tangent. We can't control other people's reactions to our statements. We can only try to keep our statements truthful, kind & fair. Logic & rhetoric are both in part about making effective arguments : that is, propositions or assertions which are relevant to the subject, consistent, non-contradictory, and supported by evidence.

Henry Gould said...

p.s. as Shakespeare put it, in one of the sonnets :

"'Fair, kind and true' is all my argument."

Ryan said...

The great thing about having too much bad poetry (on a computer) is that it's a) gone quickly or b) turned into something else, whether intentionally or otherwise.

Though...none of them are free health care, if that's what you mean.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for reading it, Angela. I've found your comments about the various ways men refuse to engage you in discussion very illuminating.

sandrasimonds said...

Y'all become union organizers and shut the hell up.

Angela G. said...

Yeah, peace y'all --

I just heard a gunshot down the street.

Now I am working on a poem and listening to Andy Williams (once married to Claudine Longette) sing "Where Do I Begin?" (from Kasey's link to the right).

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