San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego

12.07.2004

SAN-OAK-SAN: Poetry and Strategy

(rough draft of an introduction NOT read at the New Brutalist reading this past Sunday)

12.04
The longer the line, the shorter the wait [now boarding]. Should this be an introduction to a poetry of strategic intervention? Instead, I am here to use poetry strategically. Poetry is often at its best when strategic, and a poetics is a calibration of good strategies.

Note: one fine uni-ball is not so fine as another, and this requires some adjustment.

Something about the line as a measure of time, but not as a kind of waiting: airflight as nodal geometry.

To exit poetry and then turn back and face it, in retreat (that angel of history?) is to recast one's relation to poetry as a matter of strategy. This re/re/re gives writing a force not reducible to poetic effect, or mere effect (exercise, form). Poetic language as a conditioning, or repositioning, of social strategy.

Okay, not a singular, monolithic strategy but a range of strategies as motions in language -- "poetry as range of motions" as a first, orienting strategy. Here, issues of agency and objective: whose strategies, and to what end?

On board: reading a shiny poetry magazine makes me want to write some. I should resist this impulse, or at least make a game (or a joke) of giving in. Giving in, in this instance, would be strategic.

An approach to poetry as strategic use value forces corollary questions about the task of writing itself, in the literal sense of placing words in relation to a given stretch of time (the long rebuttal, the first citation). A body committed to strategy dies over and over again on this side of revolution. This is not necessarily cause for surrender but could, perhaps, motivate anew.

Strategies mount like bad art on coffeeshop walls. A new generation of writers boasts no spokesperson, and so all are speaking, each to the other and all to all, a cause to celebrate, and a suitable strategy. Here, in fact, the art comes down off the walls to be stacked and burned for warmth in the dead depths of a political winter. The walls, left bare, collapse under their own weight, and space means something again not reducible to nodal geometry.

12.05

"If the rules aren't right for me, I rewrite them" (Writer'sCorp / A Growing Community of Writers, writerscorp.org).

Strategies imply forethought, maybe a kind of "topsight" as in utopian visions of the networked community, but in the case of poetry, without the totalitarian flare of a "mirror world." Poetry used strategically does not mirror but mires the world in the fog, or miasma, of communication.

The most effective recent critic of media miasma is Ivan Illich who, "in the vineyard of the text," bemoans the slow replacement of alphabetic technique by techniques of hypermediation. His own worst enemy, Illich mires his critique in a hyper-real historical recounting of 12th century monastic reading practices as described by the medieval monk, Hugh of St. Victor, in his primer entitled Didascalicon. What's lost, according to Illich, in the modern use of indexical "techniques of ordering" (as in later 14th c. scholastic research and compilation strategies) is the meditative "glow" of the page brought forth in an earlier monastic communion with illuminated texts. The move from monastic meditation to scholastic indexing, in other words, lays the conditions for a later entrenchment of print and print-based techniques in the associated technologies of the printing press.

What Illich does not consider are the ways in which the glow of meditative reading (a monk's "remedy," Illich proposes elsewhere) survives in the West in the various waves of poetic technique that course through centuries of post-Gutenberg textual production. Today's "miasma of communication" (of media, of data) is nothing less than the residue of poetic technique, which does not mirror but mires the world.

To read and write poetry strategically is to engage, therefore, in a communitarian "topsight" that links today's "visible pages" with the glowing artifacts of 12th century monastic reading. Poetic topsight makes possible a strategic intervention whose purpose is social remedy, the curing of social ills, the warming of hands over the fires of a deep and cold political winter. Poetry warms the hands in this way, and so can be used strategically: bringing the page to glow in the spreading miasma of modern communication.

What are the techniques of ordering, then, that make poetic strategies both possible and effective?

12.06

Poetry reading (attended, not attended) as strategic use of poetry, but N.B.: a strategic use of poetry is not necessarily good for poetry. But we reject the inherent anthropomorphism here in adopting a theory of poetry as strategic intervention that takes as its second postulate (the first: poetry as range of motions) that the purpose of poetry is not, or never should be, poetry. Poetry is good for a lot of things, but it leads down a blind alley to talk about what's good for poetry.

Most of us take easily to the idea that the poetry reading is a formal structure that assumes many forms and to various ends. Many may also accept that the various rituals associated with poetry reading (and the poetry reading itself as ritual) are inherently social and socially driven (perhaps also pedagogical, theatrical, etc.). We don't seem so quick or ready, however, to discuss the poetry reading as inherently strategic.

We go for many reasons, among them to read, hear, see some poetry, to meet up with old friends or to make new ones, to see what a particular poet looks or sounds like, to get credit for an assignment, to check out a scene, to make a deal with collaborators, to get a glass of wine or make better use of free time, to get culture, to avoid a problem, to fill a space or fulfill a promise, to seek out evidence for a developing argument (about poetic strategy, for example), to compare oneself with others, to practice public speaking and/or listening, to visit a new town or quarter or street or space, to impress a date or a parent, and so on. These are all examples (among many) of how a poetry reading can be used strategically and, therefore, of how poetry has strategic use value.

Some will insist here on making a distinction, but that distinction too is evidence for the claim that poetry is first and foremost strategic. To make distinctions on behalf of poetry is strategic.

There are many many ways in which poetry can be used strategically, but the example of the poetry reading suits well for starters because it underscores the social nature of all poetic exchanges. But even where the exchange is not so obviously social (reading as public performance), poetry is still a matter of strategic intervention.

Or, put differently, imagine the possibilities for poetry once we accept and embrace the underlying strategic use value of poetic production. Production is key to a theory of poetic strategy.

Some may object that all of this business about strategy is either reductive (poetry is about many things, many more important things) or overblown (nothing changes when we talk about poetry as strategic intervention). In response I say that poetry is indeed about many things and that to argue in favor of using poetic "topsight" strategically toward social action is not to discount those things or reduce all to one thing. To the contrary, it seems clear that where poetry gets used (all the time) strategically, we accumulate or accrue entirely new possibilities, in particular toward the kind of political "hand-warming" discussed above. True, nothing changes necessarily (or little seems added) in theorizing a strategic use of poetry, but this argument all along has not been about reinventing poetics or adding a footnote to an existing poetics but rather about highlighting the strategic use value of poetry at a time when many question the social value of poetry in the first place.

But now the point comes full circle, begging its own question: in writing about strategy in the context of poetic production I obviously (and intentionally) move strategically over landscapes already well-pocked with the blast holes of earlier skirmishes. In other words, I act strategically, invoking along the way an economy of game play (if not warfare) without having spent much time setting up the rules of engagement, let alone clarifying the object of the game.

But this is what makes it fun to look at poetry as strategic intervention. Poetry is that dervish that unsettles and displaces, offending the establishment while inspiring the young. As such, poetry is always, first, a matter of and for social strategy, and so an earlier formula comes back revised: effective strategies for social action require a repositioning, and a reconditioning, of poetic language.

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