A fairly recent article in the Washington Post has examined the current state of poetry and found it to be either dead or terminally ill. Needless to say this has encouraged / inspired many poetry types to take up the pen. One of these is Amy King in a blog post in the Boston Review. I’ve written before with regard to Vanessa Price’s claim to have killed poetry and her video where she stabs poetry several times over and I really don’t want to re-visit that narrow end of the argument but I think we all should consider some of the points that King makes. This is the first:
So the latest rash of pronouncements about poetry’s death begs: why hostility for the impotent dead? Why boast a murderous view of poetry? If pages and readings of poetry are irrelevant, why are they so remarkable? Unlike movements purporting to produce nothing in opposition to the capitalist push, poetry’s refusal to turn pure product or to quantify services rendered is threatening. Poetry surfaces Nothing; it generates and compels. Those with superficial hungers hope to harness the beast for capital gain. “I have slain the thing, the blight that creates unquantifiably.” So goes the patriarchal-hand-in-hand-with-capitalism impulse to conquer, claim, and control anything of value. Poetry refuses the harness in ways philosophers are still trying to name.
Before I get into the above, there’s a couple of responses to this renewed debate that have come my way in recent weeks. The first is that, for all its many crises and sicknesses, poetry continues to thrive and the sad fact that most of it isn’t very good has remained a constant since Homer. The second strand is that there is a problem with the proliferation of creative writing courses and a self-perpetuating academy fuelled Poetry Machine that bombards us all with increasingly dismal/inept/drab material and all we need to do is to stop teaching writing as Something Than Can Be Taught. The third is that this is a non-debate, a completely irrelevant but seductive red herring in the current cultural / political battles and that (as true Gramscians) we should be really bothered with Other Things. I can seesomething of value in all of these positions and the variations therein but I do have a small howl of despair when someone as bright and talented as King mounts a defence couched in such quasi-mystical terms. The bebrowed position on poetry is that:
- it’s too poetic for its own good and;
- it takes itself far, far too seriously.
I’m happy to accept that others may have a different view but I simply don’t understand why a reasonably understandable and explicable mode of expression should still hang on to this nonsensical sense of its own privileged position in the scheme of things. I find this even more distressing when it is promulgated by poets and critics that I admire and are normally quite sensible. I like and respect King’s poetry and the work that she does which is probably why I feel the need to point out what might be wrong with the above. The first point is that it’s oblique in a way that seems to act as a cover for incoherence. We’ll start with the obvious – poetry isn’t a thing that can either refuse or accept. Poets make use of language as their basic ingredient and language is primarily the tool of the dominant ideologies and is thus an active and involved ‘player’. Poetry is never innocent just as poets are never pure chroniclers of the human condition. This absence of innocence, this inability to transcend is what has saved poetry from itself for the last three millennia.
Then there’s the rhetoric. The trick here is to be sparing but clear otherwise it just comes across as posture. “Poetry surfaces Nothing” is a prime example of how a flourish that falls flat on its face. First of all, I’m reasonably bright, reasonably accustomed to reading complex abstract stuff but I have no idea what this sentence might mean, secondly, I capitalise words in order to inject a degree of Modulated Self-Deprecation but the capitalisation of “nothing” is presented here as an indicator of enhanced meaning, of greater depth. Sigh.
What I like about King’s poetry is its excess of humanity, its ability to bring us (me) into a world that we can’t share but we, in spite of ourselves, become involved with. Hers is a special gift which is what makes the above paragraph so distressing.
Before I get on to my own “take” on the condition of poetry. I’d like to tackle this “refusing the harness” malarkey. Some people who make poems like to think that by being Poets they are somehow making a stand against oppression, free market capital and man’s general and routine inhumanity to man, that the making of a poem in itself refuses the harness. Some of our greatest poems in fact recommend the forceful application of a bigger and better harness. Poetry does what poets want it to and poets are no different or special or privileged than anyone else.
My other concern relates to the ‘space’ in which this debate appears to be occurring and that stuff like this may be read by people who are not immersed in poems and the making of poems. Many of these people may be deterred by the refined language that is used and especially by the use of a quote from Jacques Lacan:
The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom.
In the English-speaking world, to quote Lacan in any context is to nail one’s colours to a particular mast and to use him in the context of Poetry will serve to alienate and intimidate readers who are completely mystified by the Lacanian world view. The other problem is the vagueness of the claim- how exactly might poetry do this dismantling? In what way might wisdom be dismantled? What does ‘going to poetry’ involve? Is this ‘we’ everybody on the planet, all readers of poetry or a specific group of readers who are concerned with something called wisdom? I could go on but this kind of fatuous posturing is surely very big part of whatever the current problem might be.
For what it’s worth, my own view is that poetry is incapable of death but it does have a major image problem that isn’t helped by the use of rarefied language and exorbitant claims in its defence. I’m still of the view that practitioners should take themselves much, much less seriously as King’s stance only provides the detractors with more ammunition.
The strength of the backlash to this latest charge misses the opportunity that we have to think strategically about the relationship between what we do and the actually existing world. To respond with more of the same just misses the point. Doesn’t it?