Amy King and the incomplete death of poetry

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?

5 responses to “Amy King and the incomplete death of poetry

  1. Is the Washington Post article you’ve referred to that of 2013/01/22/is-poetry-dead/? The crux of that article seems to revolve around the assertion slash question:

    “You can tell that a medium is still vital [not dead] by posing the question: Can it change anything?

    “Can a poem still change anything?

    Assuming it is that particular article, I would say a good part of the vagueness and obliqueness of Amy’s blog post stems from the unfortunate fact that she doesn’t provide that reference, or any other, to inform her readers about where “the latest rash of pronouncements about poetry’s death” that are begging her attention are coming from, or what form those pronouncements have taken.

    Nevertheless, one of the great things about the interweb is that we can locate the references autonomously (or via a helpful pointer from someone like yourself who is clearly in touch with and across the information). I suppose even if they’re not the same ones Amy was assuming would be understood, they’ll do the trick so long as they’re sourced and applied accordingly with the principle of charity.

    So let’s say Amy is responding directly to the assertion slash question quoted in my opening above that Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post puts/makes. Then let Amy’s immediate response be:

    “Poetry is unto death: both simply are.”


    “We desperately need our deaths to keep us from the pitfall of our permanency,…”

    I’m thinking everything else that Amy is saying is a creative way of objecting to the idea that there’s something inherently negative about a poetry, regardless of it’s hat or stripe, that is in the throes of death.

    Death is incomplete. Poetry adds something to it.

    Well, that’s my charitable reading of it. Not sure I agree. Part of me wishes Amy had spoken more clearly, but then I’d probably not have felt compelled to say anything more.

    Thank you, John.

    • Brad,

      Thank you for your much more generous perspective, I think I started out with a more balanced account in mind but I seem to get more and more cross as I wrote. I kept thinking of the ‘ordinary’ reader who is more likely to be deterred than inspired by this kind of approach- but then again I clearly don’t share either ‘view’.

  2. Just wondering if the problem with poetry might be structural rather than artistic. It’s not the poems that are necessarily too serious, it’s the validators, the gatekeepers, who scratch their chins and then give assent as to what assemblage of words passes the cut. That’s one part of it. The other is the distribution issues involved where substantial bodies of works (not samples in magazines) are still restricted to the physical artefact of the book with all the attendant problems of distribution and (dare I say) marketing.

    I understand all the opposition of poetry to capitalism, but getting poetry ‘out there’ doesn’t have to be about making a profit. The otherworldly attitude of some poets to their prospective audiences is hardly conducive to helping the artform to flourish.

    This is why we set up – not to make a profit (we won’t) but to provide a contemporary digital platform that recognizes that a poem fits on a smartphone perfectly and that the digital distribution of poetry represents an opportunity rather than a threat.

    It is our conviction that poetry is very much alive and well and that the same quality issues that have affected poetry since Homer are not going to go away. However, rather than knocking back those who don’t ‘qualify’ we welcome everyone, confident that the best poets in the world didn’t start out that way. If we were engaged in a sporting endeavour we’d talk the metaphors of ‘grass roots’ sport leading to the development of elite poets who compete for their country. But poetry is not a sport and the anti-competitive nature of poetry is a refreshing change to the misery of striving always to be first and mostly failing.

    (note – I’m not here referring to poetry competitions which seem mostly to be insidious means of making money)

    I do hope you don’t mind me mentioning what we’re doing on your blog, but it seemed relevant as it allows a reframing of the questions under discussion. I’m going to see Amin Haddad at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 25th August. Haddad’s poetry was taken up in the chants in Tahir square in Egypt as part of that revolution. Clearly, outside the particularity of the Western tradition poetry can still help to change things. We’re just finishing off an interview with a BBC journalist who uses poetry as a means of therapy for the PTSD he developed in response to watching children being killed in Iraq where he was the bureau chief.

    Poetry cannot die because Poetry was never alive in the first place, it is the poets who live and die inside or outside the serious frowns of the gatekeepers. And if we all agreed to lighten up then I’d raise your Lacan with a Derrida and throw in a few framing texts from the margins for free.

    Great blog!
    Best regards,
    Richard Saville-Smith

    • Richard,

      Thank you for shameless piece of self-promotion, I’ve now had a look at your venture and am intrigued as to where you might be going with this. I don’t have a problem with the digital distribution of poetry, nor do I take issue with the narrow confines of what passes for gatekeeping. I don’t however share your view that getting into digital print is the equivalent of playing in a lower division in order to hone one’s skills which inevitably improve because they don’t. In fact the majority of the poetry discourse in the UK seems to revolve around a level of self-perpetuating mediocrity that your venture may inadvertently encourage.

      Like you, I have little interest in the health of the thing that we call ‘Poetry’ but I would raise your Derrida with some of Blanchot’s more disastrous movies.


  3. On reflection, I see that I might have entrapped my own argument in the sporting metaphor which I obviously failed to (adequately) deconstruct. I resile from the inference that there is an ineluctable development from a lower division to a higher division.

    A better analogy would be YouTube where people can find talking dogs or videos of Derrida talking about Blanchot and they know the difference.


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