Saturday, October 18, 2003
Last night, 30 of us – 17 men & 13 women – sat in a circle & read our poems to one another. It’s great to see some people who are very dear to me, like Erica Hunt & James Sherry, as well as to meet others, such as John Koethe, for the very first time. Today is the main day of the retreat itself. Here is the last of the six questions we were given to contemplate:
Can poetry challenge militarized language and propaganda? Are textual critique, parody, and satire adequate responses or do they reify these abuses?
Let’s think about this:
¨ No one has spoken or written with more passion & commitment to the concept of a “man standing by his word” than has Ezra Pound, a fascist paranoid schizophrenic.
¨ The term avant-garde, the 200-year-old literary tradition with which many of this blog’s readers have some identification, has its origins in military strategy.
¨ A substantial portion of Americans still believe that
§ Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were in cahoots with one another
Can my linebreak here or a little heightened irony there undo the damage of the entire military-industrial complex, the concentration of news sources into the hands of a few giant rapacious corporations & the world domination politik of the Bush regime? What’s wrong with this picture?
In fact, poetry can function – indeed it does function – as an underground railroad of the mind, a mechanism for opening up critical thought concerning all kinds of issues, “militarized language and propaganda” included. Poetry does experientially what something like George Lakoff’s reframing project does critically & both are certainly needed in today’s world.
Even more important are the ways in which the arts figure change & transformation, dynamics that might be applied more broadly social.
None of these, however, is sufficient. There is no way to halt the depredation of the Bush regime without, in fact, taking the presidency away from the Republican party. Given that this party will stop at nothing to seize power – rig a Supreme Court vote, recall a newly elected governor, redraw congressional districts well outside of the normal guidelines – this will not be an easy task. But it is one that can be accomplished. However, this will not occur through improved tropes nor higher caliber flarf, even in the New York Times, but solely through political action.
written before – and I will reiterate the point here – that I don’t think that
a member of Congress, including a senator, can ever beat a sitting president –
the U.S. has only had one senator directly elected to the presidency in its
entire history*, though senators traditionally clog the nomination process. For
the Democrats in the
I point this out to note that the way to challenge & defeat “militarized language & propaganda” is not through poetry, but through same political action a steelworker or waitress might take. The idea that poetry is in this sense a different practice strikes me as a genre-based mode of megalomania. If poets are serious about taking on the forces of darkness, the avenues for action are plentiful.
* JFK in
1960, with no incumbent and against VP Richard Nixon, in an election that
depended on fraud in the city of
** Tho it is worth noting here that the ideal ticket may be Dean-Clark.
Labels: Poetry and Empire
Friday, October 17, 2003
This next-to-last question for the Poetry & Empire retreat is unique in that it has literary implications:
genre models (lyric, pastoral) and other established modes of practice need to be
re-articulated in light of changing modes of dissemination and the new dynamics
of global/transpersonal culture and economy?
yesterday that the dramatic monolog – one of the three innovations of 19th
century poetry, alongside the prose poem & free verse – was generated in a
world that lacked both electricity & indoor plumbing. Generally speaking, I
think you can hear that in all three. The shift towards a poetics of
polyvocality & palimpsest, which in the 20th century can be
found in Pound, Joyce, Williams, Stein, & so many others, itself becomes
widely used as a writing strategy in a world in which the so-called Great War
is in everybody’s mind. Even the new sentence can be traced back to the days of
So where is the poetics of the Justin Timberlake generation?
I know that’s cruel, but the point I want to use it to make is that certain parallel cultural institutions may well be in far worse shape than contemporary poetry when it comes to their ability to comment on & intervene in the real world. Capital concentrates & art forms that depend on it have generally seen that consolidating effect. Poetry to some degree has been buffered precisely by its economic marginality. That remains an important asset which we would all be advised to preserve.
Having said that, I want to be clear that as a poet my interests are
Those poets whose solution to literary development is to shift away from the
terrain of poetry altogether, whether to intermedia, vizpo, flash programming
and the like seem to me not to be addressing the issue, but rather sidestepping
it altogether. That really seems no different from
poets picking up electric guitars thirty years ago – thank you Jim Carroll,
Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Jessica Hagedorn, David Meltzer et al – or
perhaps somebody a generation earlier reading aloud to a saxophone or
keyboards. It’s not an attempt to innovate through
language, but alongside language, using language as a supplement to
Nick & Lewis entertain the idea that blogging itself may represent such an
innovation of form, that the blog has at least the
potential to function as a genre. Obviously, betwixt, say, I and
More serious examples of the kinds of change we need to heed & explore further, it would seem, would be genres like flarf – the deliberately disposable poem, written to identify an intuitive sense of badness – and devices like Google sculpting (Magee’s project is exemplary). Why these developments now is an important question. And if I were teaching writing, I’d probably focus more on these than on, say, the villanelle. I’ll go further and argue that were I a student, I would distrust a teacher who didn’t include them on the syllabus.** This doesn’t mean necessarily that I want to use either myself for my own poetry – tho it also doesn’t preclude it -- but I do think I need to operate in a world that recognizes their implications both for poetry & for history.
* Even more
to the point, language poetry could never have occurred without the war in
** Students should always distrust their teachers.
Labels: Poetry and Empire
Thursday, October 16, 2003
If you have read the questions for the Poetry & Empire retreat from the past three days, this one should not surprise you:
To what degree do our local actions as poets and teachers affect larger contexts, including national and international ones?
I have no question whatsoever that both teaching & writing poetry creates something akin to an underground railroad of the mind, enabling other people down the line, whether our students or readers or students & readers not yet born, to think critically. That and 37 cents will enable me to post a letter.
The much more important question to my mind – and I’m beginning to understand that I what I think needs to be done with these questions is not to reiterate the platitudes of the past but rather to turn these questions inside out, the way one might a t-shirt – would seem to me to be what is the impact of larger context on our actions as poets & teachers.
Let me state this another way. Capitalism, for better or worse, is grounded upon the instability of markets, let alone individual institutions & products. IBM in the year 2100 will be as utterly different from what it is today as this same corporation is from the Tabulating Machine Company, manufacturer of the Hollerith punch card, of 1900. The same holds true of Microsoft, GE, any corporation you care to name. Further, the acceleration of change at the level of a commercial institution has been going on for some time. The wild west character of the dot com boom of the 1990s was not an aberration – indeed, even its short-lived nature underscores the direction of historic particulars.
Yet most forms of the anti-globalization movement, to cite a countervailing effort, are predicated on preserving certain relationships in a steady state or even returning them to a prior one. There is an almost 100 percent predictable outcome with that kind of strategy, insofar as it has prevailed not once over the past 200 years. I’m not just making the point here that the dramatic monolog, that great 19th century innovation, is a form that was generated by a world that did not yet have electricity or indoor plumbing – tho that’s certainly true also – but rather that the left within which many poets seek to work continues to organize around forms that are very nearly as retro. The result, predictable enough, is increasing marginalization as both the nation & the world system move ever rightward.
It is in this sense that I sometimes think that the most outré genres & the most out-there genres often offer the greatest value – they simply offer alternative modes of reality as possible, as options. This may be why I am particularly disturbed at the recent trend among the cyberpunk novelists to look backwards, to write about World War 2, 19th century British science & similar historical contexts. It is as if they are announcing that we cannot change the future unless & until we change a past that has already escaped us. That’s a grim prospect.
There is organization against capitalism as a force, and there is organization against capitalism’s anti-democratic tendencies. These strike me as two very different projects. The first is not at all unlike organizing against gravity as a force. The great problem that the communist movement never could overcome was that it was predicated on a particular mode of capital organization, the industrial factory, while in fact capital is not organized on any given state of production, but rather on the constant destruction of whatever the existing state happens to be in order to replace it with one that is, in capitalist terms, more efficient. Whatever success the forces for democracy, peace & justice might have cannot come through attempting to halt such forces, but rather to use them, to direct to whatever degree possible the evolution of this engine of innovation.
The utopianism of some of the dot com futurists was over the top in its excessive optimism. But what that social tendency had right was its presumption that the most powerful force for directing society was not to halt change, but rather to take the reigns of production, precisely by redefining them. One won’t defeat for long something such as genetically modified foods through legislation, but one could do so through the creation of corporations that successfully outperform the biotech farming conglomerates.
of course, a variety of different ways one can define “successfully outperform”
as anyone who has read the work of the likes of Francis Moore Lappe or Walden Bello on the impact of western “aid” on Third World
agricultural production will be aware. But that is the nexus of where political
struggle can make some difference, in slowing down the devastation through
which the so-called developing world finds itself ever further behind the
developed one. Such organizing efforts, however, amount to band-aids on severed
arteries without the other side of the coin. The failure of the most recent WTO
Nowhere in this ensemble of forces is the coalition of capital more vulnerable than at its core, its own impulse to drive toward a steady state constructed around currently existing relationships of power – everyone presently in power would love for capitalism’s game of musical chairs to end right now – and that is its presumption that its own method of creating something such as food for profit cannot be trumped. Develop a process that brings food to market better, faster & cheaper and the entire system unravels.
This is true for virtually every issue in which capitalism plays some part, which means virtually every issue at all. The question that a progressive coalition has yet to address is how to beat capitalism at its own game, how to take charge of the kinds of innovation that make a difference. Mere Ben & Jerry capitalism is not enough. And I frankly don’t know if this is a challenge to which the progressive coalition as currently constituted is capable of addressing. But I do know that if it is not, then band-aids for severed arteries is the best we will ever have & no amount of holding hands & singing We Shall Overcome will make up the difference.
So I look to alternative realms – the arts in general are such – as models, even as laboratories for figuring new modes of action. Just as the history of literature is not the catalog of the best or most well written works but rather the history of literary change, I look at how the arts figure the struggles over change in their own dimensions. Do they demonstrate how dramatically a form can be & must be reconceived for every generation, are they a model for innovation predicated upon anything other than greed? There are artists & art forms & art movements for which I would in fact answer that affirmatively. Judy Grahn, whose work I invoked Monday, virtually invented the idea of a women’s audience as such. We see Grahn’s impact everywhere from the post-New Narrative ventures of a Kathy Lou Schultz to Oprah’s network of book clubs. Let me say this again in another way so that I won’t be misunderstood: the wealth & political power that are implicit in the Oprah Winfrey model of book clubs can at least in part be traced back directly to Edward the Dyke. People have been awarded the Nobel Prize for a lot less.
So, yes, absolutely, our actions as poets have impact. None more important than our relationship to change.
Labels: Poetry and Empire
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?
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,
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
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.
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
* 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.
Labels: Poetry and Empire
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
A second question those of us participating in the retreat have been asked to consider is the following:
What underlying ethical, social,
and political values inform our practices as poets and poetry teachers? How can
we pursue our knowledge of such values?
How to make sense of an art form that encompasses not only the politics of Pablo Neruda & Ho Chi Minh, but Ezra Pound? That was in many respects the first medium, the first profession, to embrace the lives of gays & lesbians, from Sappho to Whitman to Stein & yet also included a professional homophobe like Eli Siegel? The current head of the NEA is a poet, a registered Republican, who just in the past week talked to Terry Gross on Fresh Air of the importance of bringing art to the masses in a way that does not condescend to them while at the same time promoting a massive tour of plays by a British writer of 400 years ago in what must be the most condescending spoon feeding of Kulchur in the 37-year history of that agency, funded by no less than the Defense Department. William Logan, the closest thing there is to a house poet & poet-critic at The New Criterion, the most programmatically reactionary cultural magazine in the language, has work in the September 22nd issue of The Nation.
The form of a retreat itself, an internal discussion of peers behind closed doors, a mode most closely associated in 2003 with the World Trade Organization & parallel international organizations, is itself an interesting albeit problematic form through which to contemplate such things. Poets have been known to appreciate irony & I hope we appreciate that one.
But what really strikes me about these questions is the degree to which the one above could have been asked in exactly this format in 1970. It is perhaps the most depressing aspect – or should I say prospect – of this retreat. There is not one thing in this list of questions that could not have been asked as easily – indeed far more easily – 30+ years ago. More than anything this tells me (1) that either there are no good answers or, worse, (2) that whatever answers poets have given to date have been shown to be inadequate. Why else keep beating your forehead against the same brick wall?
I think it
is clear that poetic form is morally neutral – it is as available to the
communist George Oppen as it is to the British spy in
In that sense, it is impossible to imagine the trope of Logan’s mother “a brunette, hurried in her cloth coat / through postwar Sundays, which fell / as they were meant to fall, too slowly” as intending anything other than the guffaw it provokes, a Bulwer-Lyttonism of the spirit, as though film director Ed Wood had reincarnated as a poet. It’s funny precisely because it doesn’t mean to be.
There is an entire worldview tucked into a phrase like as they were meant to fall. Meaning is positioned, but agency is invisible. Right order is something that existed in the past. The narrative, by definition, must be one of decline.
the values in a specific act of writing? Is
My point is that any attempt to correlate poetry & value, especially political value, ethics, appears headed for a complete garble. We do the polis in diff’rent voices.
Labels: Poetry and Empire
Monday, October 13, 2003
weekend I will be participating in a retreat with some 34 other poets, having
conversations around a variety of topics in a setting freed of the performance
criteria of conferences & seminars. I have some experience with retreats,
having been to quite a few job-related ones over the decades, my favorite being
those at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a grad school in
This being poets, it promises to be a far tamer affair. Participants have been invited to address a series of six questions (some of which are in fact multiple questions). I’m not sure that I have any answers, but I thought I at least would pose them aloud here over the next few days & see what surfaces.
The first question or set of questions was given as follows:
What can a poem do? What is the sphere of consequence for poems today? Are those consequences limited to established community circuits? Is public poetic language an oxymoron?
Poems can do what poems do, as Gertrude Stein might put it. Which is to say that the one rule is that they each are responsible for their own rules. Or, to restore the myth of agency from the poem back to the poet, each poet with every text is responsible for its rules. And thereby any possible consequence.
There are many instances of poetry written in a consciously public language. I think you can find some exceptionally interesting examples in the work of two quite underrated poets, albeit underrated for somewhat different reasons, Allen Ginsberg & Judy Grahn. Interesting precisely because, as I read their work, their sense of what they were doing vis-à-vis public discourse shifts over the course of their careers, not always for the good.
At one level, Ginsberg & Grahn went through a parallel process of becoming, over a relatively short period of time, quite famous, going from being relative unknowns to being taken as oracles by their relative communities. In the process, the writing of each was transformed. The discursive mode of Allen Ginsberg, the unknown author of Howl, differs radically from that of Allen Ginsberg, the world famous author of Kaddish. In parallel fashion, the author of A Woman is Talking to Death or The Common Woman Poems is nowhere nearly as oracular as the writer of The Queen of Wands.
I have no doubt that fame must be experienced, at least at first, as stress. For a poet, there is a sudden recognition that one has many readers and that, unlike the vast majority of poets, one will know relatively few of these people even casually. Conversely, the “knowledge” of this new broad array of readers is quite different from that which a poet’s audience can be have within most poetry scenes or communities.
There were, and are, multiple important differences between the Ginsberg of Kaddish & the Grahn of The Queen of Wands. Perhaps the most visible is that Grahn was by 1982 a far more mature poet than the Ginsberg of the late 1950s. Ginsberg’s fame came at first less from the poem or collection Howl than it did from the trial over the book’s alleged obscenity. In short, Ginsberg became famous exceptionally quickly. Grahn, on the other hand, had been working for two decades to invent what amounted to a new mode of writing, explicitly by and for women.
way to see this, I think, is to contrast the language each poet uses in some of
their early work. If we might draw a connection between the use of parallel
constructions in the second “Moloch” section of Ginsberg’s Howl or the “I’m with you in
Kaddish can I think be read as an attempt to achieve something very similar, but to my mind it is not successful. Ginsberg deploys exactly the same devices he used previously in Howl to confront the many issues of his own mother’s troubled life. This is not to say that the work is not filled with compassion and some beautiful moments of writing, but it also reaches a level of overwriting, particularly in section IV, that makes me cringe. It’s the clearest example of using an inappropriate strategy in writing I can recall.
next two books identify travel as a key issue in their subtitles: Planet News: To Europe in Asia, and King of the May:
trace this dynamic out in the work of other poets from the same period – Olson,
for example, or Duncan in the antiwar sections of Passages. And while it may be a voice that is absent altogether
from some tendencies of the New American poetry, such as the
* Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman owes far more to her interest in the Beat scene & the work of Mary Sabina than in the work, say, of Ashbery or O’Hara.
Labels: Poetry and Empire
Sunday, October 12, 2003