The Future of Poetry
Great. Now it comes to this.
For the past three or four years, I've been walking around engaged in a mostly interior dialog whose chief preoccupation has been whether or not to use the word "poetry" when talking or thinking about writing in its various (dis)guises. The dialog has come to nothing, first of all, so there’s no reason to reconstruct it here.
Besides, Yepez has done his usual great job of pointing out what might be wrong with a trajectory like "poetry”—and in the rejection of line, of the whole prose-line debate, of poetry’s history and fetishization, there’s a lot of wisdom.
Still, I have a friend who doesn’t “read poetry anymore,” and my first question on hearing that was how would you know it if you saw it?
I have other friends for whom poetry is nothing but “voice” and performance and even “witness,” and still other friends who think web-based video games are poetry, and others who make poetry out of magazine pictures and doodles and their very own arms and legs.
It’s true that “poets” are those who are convinced they do and must write poetry. But that may misrepresent not only the poetry but the poets themselves, who in many cases are after something otherwise denied, and whose projects are therefore laudable as strides toward anything other than the vacuous gestures of, among other things, advertising and State of the Union speeches.
I say let poets have their poems, their lines, their prose, their voices, their books, their history, their open-mics, and their “poetry.” In the practical maneuvering that comes with being a poet there is also the social maneuvering that aspires to a kind of activism in itself.
At least, it’s very clear that poetry has less to do with an ontological given than a pragmatic claim to poetry making, and that I think is the true charm of it, and why efforts to go “beyond” it—as line or prose or text or dance—get stuck before they get started.
I like the play that the term “avant-garde” gets as an epistemological category. That it gets talked about so much—in the abstract and in relation to other things—is probably the best indication that there isn’t one around today and really can’t be.
It’s a truly Modern phenomenon—in the sense that liberal humanism and representative government are Modern ideals (and pretty much in the tank these days, obviously)—so to bring up the subject of a potentially post-Modern avant-garde is like trying to make cheese more bread-like.
There’s no apt metaphor, really, so let’s put it this way: The “avant” of avant-garde assumes an “après,” an after-garde whose dilemma is one of absorption, inertia, and momentum in relation to a past fashioned in a likeness that really serves and supports the push for something “new” (and its institutionalization) rather than, as some might think, providing it with a bastion of influence against which the younger and peppier must wage their wars.
Read Montaigne, for example, a 16th century language poet who was so “before” the Modern (officially) that he is now a lot of people’s favorite post-Modern.
Really, the machinations of literary avant-gardism are ludicrous umbral cloaking devices out of which artists and writers and even “poets” today must seek a clearer vision (and visibility). UNCLOAK your avant-garde for what it is—the packaging flavors of an après driven to claim its own brand of sweetness, its own kind of decay.
By way of a modern (contemporary) example—and this is only an example—the kind of “anxiety” some people are seeing in R. Silliman’s response to B.K. Stefans’s response to K. Silem Mohammad's response to Stefans (debt to origin is the first sign of a true Modernist) is not only the anxiety of influence gone haywire in a rather twisted retro-proactive attempt to assert prescriptive presence (and deny preemptive access), but also the turgid under-flow of a self-conceptualized avant having it out with its respective après, and vice versa.
(All three are aware of this problem, of course. I’m just trying to “make it new” in this context.)
There must be the game of Modernism, in other words, before the various posts can grab their respective joy sticks, and frankly it’s a game I’m getting sick of.
“Poetry” I think died with the invention of scare quotes, so what’s left is, as HY blogs, a need to “address how writing is going to become a more direct political activist force.”
And not just “writing”—for to fetishize that activity is equally problematic.
But this general impulse to “address how" is not, I don’t think, an agenda for a self-appointed avant-garde, or an other-appointed post-LangPo, or, most of all, an anxiety-ridden après niggling over who gets what tree to piss on.
And make no mistake (Mr. President), I like the trees for what they are, both in their current/historical grandeur and in their stately post-greenhouse demise. But there are worthier fights—especially now, for writers—than how best to claim the “beyond” of “poetry” or whatever string of syllables forces a wedge between “ & ” .
Fellow FS architect J. Kuszai was recently in Louisville to discuss, with others, the institutionalization of Language Poetry. I don’t know the arguments too well, but that there is a place for those arguments on a stage in Louisville is proof enough for me. The most outspoken critics of licensing and licensing agents in American Poetry have earned their much-needed licenses. This isn’t bitterness. I’d rather have LangPo taught in first-year writing courses than how to summarize an authoritative source and make it “your own.”
But here is the “avant-garde” according to Daniel Kane’s What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde: Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Fanny Howe, Lisa Jarnot, Kenneth Koch, Ann Lauterbach, Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Michael Palmer, Lewis Warsh, Marjorie Welish.
Half of these people count among my favorite writers (or poets). That all of them are important writers is beside the point. What bugs me is that a book like this is clearly invested not only in “the minds of some of our foremost experimental poets” (from the blurb) but also in the cash-value of the “avant-garde” and its prevailing sentiment. Even more, when a younger, perhaps peppier, set of experimental writers get a whiff of this, the first thought is indeed how to “separate” oneself from a pack of avants who now dominate the après scene in the guise of experimental “minds.”
Why play that game at all? Is there really a past that can be delivered wholesale into its grave via some calculated maneuver toward the future and its potential “beyond”? In separating oneself from a given history, how is the vacuum thereby artificially generated any different, any less laden, than the plenum of literary baggage assumed in claiming lineage to LangPos, VisPos, EthnoPos, or GardenPos?
I still like Wm. James’s idea that “we live prospectively as well as retrospectively,” that life is as much ‘of’ the past as ‘of’ the future. Worrying the “beyond” of poetry or writing I think misses the point of transition, of burning lines in the “dry autumnal field.”
“Experimental minds” know that well, I think. And know that writing is as much in the alignment as in the allies. By which I mean to say: I’m all for a “post-American writing era,” even though I wouldn’t scramble after separations, even a violent one (much as I’d like to see it!). Habits of turning-away have the unwanted effect of turning-one-into.
I for one think poetry—in lines, prose, voices, or pixels—is best understood as a potential component of a much broader transition. I see that as true for LangPos as much as for their post-garde equivalents. But I leave that notion—something like ‘composition by component’—unmarked for now. My fights are currently elsewhere.
In the meantime, let’s get away from the “new” and back to the news. Writing happens there more than anywhere, especially nowadays.