San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Post-Poetry Poetics
[enough is enough]

Ethnography offers one way of talking about data collection, analysis, and interpretation as authoring activities. Poets make good ethnographers (and sometimes vice versa), trained as they are implicitly in the art of authoring data.

Poets should therefore be good activists, too, if it is granted that the new activism requires good skills in data collection, data recovery, interpretation, and maybe a kind of well-principled (responsible?) distribution.

An account like this of potential writing activities for 21st-century participants, while admittedly suspect and empirically untested, nonetheless helps me, at least, make better sense of gigs like B.K. Stefan’s Circulars and other blog-bodies pushing the respective envelopes of writing (poetry?), editing, and politics.

Reading Bernstein’s “Enough!” address on Circulars a few days back, I didn’t understand at first what he was getting at. I think I was too caught up initially in trying to understand more generally what it means to have a “Bernstein” in the first place making claims about poetry and politics.

Yépez likes to argue that there are no politically efficacious poet intellectuals in the U.S. (except maybe Eminem). Yépez, from his perspective in TJ as the ever-committed new-world modernist, can only be right in arguing points like that (and why his writing works so well!), and there is indeed in the character of Bernstein the embodied frustration of the poet-as-public-figure nonetheless not commonly recognized as speaking to or for a political front or faction. To make a case for his legitimacy or efficacy in this regard would be to invite laughter, maybe ridicule. For better or worse, poetry in the U.S. doesn’t work that way.

So Bernstein’s impassioned call for poets to stick to their poetic guns should perhaps be understood as just the latest installment of the ever recursive patterns of U.S. ‘avant-garde’ poetry. As poets in this country, we can do nothing but “pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response,” offering “alternative ways not only to think, but also to imagine and indeed to resist.” That’s the extent of it, in fact. We can do nothing else, can go no further—that’s the way poetry works around here.

And because we all know those workings so well (embedded via years of invisible labor, deliberate cloaking, and silent consent), we can come together and (almost) celebrate the figure of the “poet” (handler of an “aesthetic probe”) as a tragicomic repercussion of the historical denigration of the poet’s “role” in U.S. society. The figure of the poet, in other words, claims its true efficacy in calling for what it otherwise cannot manage effectively. Poetry, as “aesthetic probe,” might also be a dud warhead.

To “draw away from our poetics” is indeed to deprive ourselves of all we have left. But it remains to be seen whether what we have left is, after all, enough.

Escaping poetry is not a rejection of the claims poets might make (on behalf of poetry) for greater, more sustained, and ideally more relevant political involvement. Rather the escape implicit to arguing out of poetry is tantamount to seeking elsewhere the manner and means of poetic activity, to issuing a public and personal cry of ‘enough’ (small ‘e’) not only to the architects of war and global domination but also to the tantalizing appeals of poets guarding poetic purpose and legitimacy in the guise of “alternative ways.”

To escape poetry is to model one’s daily life on different patterns—of recovery, distribution, and circulation—rather than perpetuate the exhausted urgency of “our own poetics.” True, art is a “necessary response to crisis,” and the relevance of today’s writers (as bloggers, list-servants, site custodians, whatever) may turn on the same claims (and calls) made by poets in defense of aesthetic and political relevance.

But what poets and anti- or post-poets might share these days is a mutual commitment to action and relevance that really has little to do, finally, with poetry or poetics, at all. The social truth of ‘poetic thinking,’ in other words, resides in consequences no longer reducible to language games and resistant formalism, however well such games and forms might manage the real in relation to even the woolliest political propaganda (e.g., Controlling Interest vs. the Bush-Fox News Machine).

Poetic activity has achieved movement status lately not in the pursuit of “forms” of response, but in the networking of groups and individuals beyond traditional categories of genre, place, time, nation, and, in some cases, language. Blogs, for one, are residual exemplars of that momentum, that movement.

Thus the true poet these days writes little (poetry), communicates much (data, interpretation), and trades in the urgency of formal accountability (“aesthetic probing”) for the network-force of recovery and circulation.

I love the way poetry encodes its own escape routes, and following them (paths of resistance, circulation) means giving up poetry along the way.

There are probably ways in which poetry can recoup itself as a kind of service or component part in the broader public engagement with language—but probably not. And anyway, writing of poetry (as here) as a failed or strategically weakened mode is symptomatic of habitual rejection, which paradoxically masks a kind of acceptance or tolerance. Best to back off on that altogether.

And better to let poetry find its own level, its own terminus. Meanwhile, poets should spend more time organizing over fields of data, ever vigilant, ever recovering. Perhaps this is the basic message of a post-poetry poetics.

[If this isn't "enough," see Kent Johnson and Heriberto Yépez for more.]


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