I just returned from the Rethinking Poetics conference held last weekend at Columbia University. I spent several days, both during and after the proceedings, engaged in sometimes heated discussion with people about the event's merits and shortcomings, and now several comment streams on Facebook continue to dispense the fallout.
I won't talk about the specifics of the panels or the particular issues that aroused the most controversy (or lack thereof?), except to say that as with any conference, there were some panels I found interesting and some I didn't. What I'm most struck by are what seem to be the two prevalent types of overall post-conference discontent as expressed by both those who were there and those who weren't. I think these reactions point up two very different desires/anxieties within the larger poetic community, one having to do with its design as a group event and one with its execution on the level of individual presentations.
1) That it was too exclusively academic, and "exclusive" also in that it was perceived as invitation-only (though I think this was more a factor of insufficient pre-publicity than of any exclusionary intent on the parts of the organizers)
2) That the talks were themselves unsatisfying in various ways, including that they were either too academic, or not rigorously academic enough; that they were either antagonistically wrongheaded in being over-committed to a narrow poetic vision, or too centered on broader things like ecology or sociology instead of "poetics per se"; that particular trends or concepts were under-represented, or that (often the same ones) were over-represented.
Some of these objections are inevitable with any conference, but I think this one, for some reason, touched a particular collective nerve. Based on my own and others' experiences of the event, I think the whole thing raises two crucial questions:
1) Is there a coherent or even usefully diffuse "we" within contemporary poetry? Should there be? Or has even experimental poetry splintered into different communities with aesthetics and objectives that are irrelevant or even antithetical to each other? Further, if the latter is the case, what are the divisions that mark these different communities? Are they academic/non-academic? generational? stylistic? something else?
2) If there is still something like a "we," what rudimentary definition of "poetics" would satisfy a significant percentage of its members, at least as a starting point for continued discussion? Is this even a desirable goal? Is the problem with "rethinking poetics," when "poetics" is posited as a concept across which multiple subcommunities are supposed to be able to hold some coherent conversation, that it hasn't been sufficiently thought in the first place?
One anecdote, I feel, demonstrates the difficulty in question. At one point during the conference, Marjorie Perloff admonished the organizers for not involving other representatives of poetry within the academy: namely, the creative writing community, for instance the Columbia MFA program, which, as she pointed out, was "right down the street." I sensed that the suggestion was widely perceived as ridiculous (partly, of course, because increasing the number of academically aligned participants hardly felt like the solution to the problem many sensed with the conference's makeup), and in fact, I admit that this was my own feeling at the time. What could someone like, say, Richard Howard possibly have to contribute to a meeting like this one? And why would he ever consider it? In fact, I still feel this way, but upon reflection, this feeling provokes uncomfortable further reflections. Yes, the values and priorities of the "mainstream" creative writing industry and those of the experimental community are so fundamentally at odds in so many ways that the thought of a room full of half one, half the other, all struggling just to figure out why they were even bothering to try connecting with each other in the face of their obvious antipathies, does seem absurd and gratuitously painful--or, alternately, in what might be a "best-case" scenario, like a recipe for the worst kind of compromise built on a platform of bland eclecticism or "hybridity" (which, based on several of the presentations at the conference, it seems clear "we" all oppose). But one could ask, as I guess I'm asking right now: how is that not already the case?
As far as I can see, the current experimental poetry community, as represented both by the participants in the Rethinking Poetics conference and by those who have been commenting on it before, during, and after its proceedings, is full of exactly the same kinds of prejudicial conflicts and bad-faith rapprochements (I was, two days ago, accused by someone, perhaps justly, of being myself an "accommodationist") as those that mark the mainstream/experimental schism. Sometimes the conflicts are dramatic and pronounced, sometimes they're sublimated, but we all know they're there.
And yet, of course there is still "community." Eco-poets and conceptual writers, abstract Marxists and Wittgensteinian neo-idealists, all often have perfectly satisfying friendships with each other, brought about by their mutual involvement in the poetry community, despite what is sometimes their complete lack of sympathy or even tolerance for each other's poetics. Sometimes, of course, they hate each other's guts, but that can also be said about members within a single movement. So my point is: maybe we shouldn't expect that "poetics" can be the coherent and cordial object of discussion across subcommunities which are, after all, often defined by the radical difference of their poetics from each other. Maybe the best we can hope for in the way of mass convocation--if we must have mass convocation--is a provisional and occasional space of conviviality in which we recognize each other as driven by a related passion (e.g., for "poetry" considered in the broadest sense), but make no attempt to reconcile, define, or even discuss our incompatible poetics. Something, that is, like the AWP.