Wednesday, October 15, 2003


Here is the third question from the series given for the Poetry & Empire retreat:


How do the structures of poetic communities resist or reinforce existing categories of power and influence?


In “The Political Economy of Poetry,” which you can find in The New Sentence – still in print & available through SPD – I attempted to sketch out an idea that


the social organization of contemporary poetry occurs in two primary structures: the network and the scene. The scene is specific to a place. A network, by definition, is transgeographic. Neither mode ever exists in a pure form. Networks typically involve scene subgroupings, while many scenes (although not all) build toward network formations. Individuals may, and often do, belong to more than one of these informal organizations at a time. Both types are essentially fluid and fragile. . . .

          Critical to the distinction between these structures are the methods of communication available to their members. . . . Because capital, of which there is so little in poetry, is necessary for the elements of network formation, competition exists between networks and scenes. Underneath lies a hidden assumption of the hierarchical ordering of these groups, and the idea that one can be the dominant or hegemonic formation according to some definition, at least for a period of time. Definitions vary, but major components include monetary rewards, prestige (often called influence), and the capacity to have one’s work permanently in print and being taught.


In the 22 years since I first published those words simultaneously in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E & Open Letter, I have never had occasion to doubt the broader strokes of that very general description. One could take a look at a wide range of literary social phenomena under these terms. The New Brutalists, for example, could be viewed as a scene (younger post-avant poets in the Bay Area) with some network connections, especially to writers in Massachusetts, although I suppose one could take a much narrower genealogical view (former writing students from Mills) as well. Flarf, on the other hand, seems primarily a network phenomenon. As does poetry blogging. [Does poetry blogging have scene implications? It seems quite prevalent among younger writers in the Bay Area, Boston & New York, much less so here in Philly & less still in such locales as San Diego or DC.]


To the person who is certain to write & ask if the advent of the Internet has transformed or eliminated the need for capital as a prerequisite for a network, the answer is “only partly.” The number of the world’s people who have access to the web on a daily basis is still something like three percent. More common than the flarfer working a day job in a marketing agency in Manhattan is the central Asian nomad. So, yes, it is possible to establish a network of some sort at a far lower cost in 2003 than in 1981, but really only in the so-called First World. A far more important question – not one that I’m ready to handle in any depth here – is how the establishment of a network changes the formation itself. Of the 180 or so poets & poetry related blogs listed on my blogroll to the left, for example, there are exactly 28 by people* whom I either read previously or at least knew through their activity in some other poetry realm, such as a listserv. Which means that over 150 of these poetry bloggers, over 80 percent, are new to my experience within the last 15 months.


The question posed above for the retreat, however, isn’t one of how are communities structured, but rather one of how the structure of communities “resist or reinforce existing categories of power and influence.” And here I think the answer is obvious: structures don’t, but people might. The implication of the question is that possibly certain scenes have different rules of composition, but I frankly don’t see the evidence for this. The organizational structure of Official Verse Culture may have a lot of institutional resources, for example, but it is a network much like any other. They might as well write flarf (actually, they do, for the most part, but just don’t know it). The structure of the community itself is not what determines behavior, but rather how the individuals involved seek to obtain & use power. Power is something that people almost universally seek to obtain – it is as valuable as oxygen & for many of the same reasons. & yet power, as anyone who reads Foucault with a practical mind must realize, fulfills its potential only when you give it away.


Here one does see a difference between communities – some hoard power, while others don’t – but not necessarily between the internal structures of community as such. I’m not going reiterate here what has been documented repeatedly in Jed Rasula’s American Poetry Wax Museum, in Hank Lazar’s Opposing Poetries, elsewhere in my own writing & in that of Charles Bernstein. But much of what is done in literature to replicate the social struggles of the society as a whole are done not in the name of those struggles per se, but rather using a discourse of quality, combined with institutions that are themselves only coincidentally literary. The purpose of the National Book Critics Circle Award, to pick the most visibly egregious, is to propagate the idea that newspaper reviews, in particular, might identify and establish a basis for moving retail merchandise. Functionally, the purpose of the Pulitzer is no different – it gains whatever prestige it has not from the value of the selections, which for both fiction and poetry have more often been just silly than not, but from the fact that, since the Pulitzer’s particular heritage is as an award for newspapers & print journalists, it gets well covered by print media. The hundreds, if not thousands, of poets whose work appears in chapbooks and small press editions that lack the kind of advertising budgets the trade presses have thus are simply outside of the picture of such processes, unless of course one is brought into it as an explicit token of openness.








 * I know the folks responsible for a somewhat larger percentage of the non-poetry blogs listed, such as Michael Goldhaber who was writing about technology back when I edited the Socialist Review. His newsletter format then has transformed into a blog today.


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