COMMENTS AND ADDITIONAL POSTINGS WELCOME. IF I'VE SET THIS UP CORRECTLY,
IT CAN SERVE AS AN ENTIRELY PUBLIC SITE FOR CONFERENCE TEXTS AND POST-CONFERENCE CONVERSATION.
(All panel participants have been invited to "collaborate" on this site.
If you know of attendees who might like to participate, ask them to email email@example.com I'll add them as "collaborators.")
I've set up this admittedly rather primitive forum because it's concerned me that an all-plenary conference has dispersed among private and semi-private sites.
I've posted my conference remarks with post-conference additions in brackets. JR
RETHINKING POETICS LOG
(That’s “Log” without a B)
1-a) Report of system failure: I tried to begin with an apocalyptic thought experiment: Imagine all traces of poetry deleted from world history, including the fore, mid, and hind brains of all extant populations. What would that world be like? Would homo sapiens have survived? Would it be thriving? Would economics be the only field of study? Would life be nasty, brutish, and interminable? Would a story told by an odd foreigner about ways to make words into forms that [give pleasure and] impede business as usual meet with interest? In fact, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine a world with language, without poetry.
Self analysis: my apocalyptic vision may have had at least two motivations: To begin at Euclidean Fig.1 in order to ask why, really, do we (our species) NEED poetry? If, in fact, we do. Closely followed by second question: if we do, then what kinds of poetry do we need? The thought experiment served also to briefly eradicate a world in which I often think there’s too much poetry, demanding too much attention, for too many ego-strategic and careerist reasons. The failure to achieve even Fig.1 startled me into a realization: that I value poeia-diversity almost as much as bio-diversity (they must be intimately related) although both mean living among virulent pathogens and pests. Or, less dramatically, from anyone’s point of view much of the poetry that surrounds us is as annoying as ants in the kitchen. One doesn’t want to eradicate all ants. A lot depends on ants. Does the analogy work? In our socio-linguistic ecosystem, does a lot depend on all that annoying poetry? (I don’t, by the way, exclude my own from this category.)
Hence, I seem to be giving some kind of informed consent to the world of poetry as I find it. The alternative would require serious pest control, aka hard hitting criticism of a sort [like a can of Raid ®] I don’t have much stomach for. I’m an essayist, not a critic.
1-b) To respond directly to the organizers’ provocation, What about “poetics” demands continuing interest?: The term “poetics” [and what it points to] is indispensable. Everything composed of words has a discernible poetics (making of the material—language—into form). That poetics—the nature of the form—has consequences.
2. To mimic forms that have been successful in the poetic marketplace; to say what has already been said with just the right slight twist is to present the welcome familiar to [undergraduate faculty,] graduate schools, editors, series curators, awards and residency panelists. Those who are good at this—and many are—may jump-start a career. What could, or should, be more oxymoronic than a career as a poet? [This rhetorical question concerns the role of poetries in a society chiefly given over to careers that equal success in dedicated marketplaces where questions of value can be seen as nothing more than a nuisance by the institutional habitus.]
[Consider distinctions among usages of the words, career, profession, occupation, job, work, employment, position, business, line of business, vocation, calling, livelihood, trade, craft, art, labor. Or, more to the point, the implications of an aspirational pursuit of the writing of poetry characterized by any of these words. These raise questions not of why one might need poetry (e.g., “I have nothing to say…and I am saying it…and that is poetry…as I need it”—John Cage), but of what one is hoping to accomplish in one’s advance as “poet” by writing in the way one is writing, i.e., a question of poethics. I remain committed to poetry as improbable wager, disturbing alternative to institutional business models. This means that it’s important to have other ways of making a living—ways that don’t require institutional approval of one’s poetics.]
[Anecdote: I once attended a demonstration-talk by a materpotter. In the course of her remarks, she said that in her years of teaching she had come to notice most of her students falling into one of two categories as they began classes. There were those who got the knack and were making presentable pots pretty quickly. Others were, for a painfully long time, making a mess. She came to expect that in this latter group would be many who had no talent at all for working with clay. But among those “slow” ones would also be some who were intentionally exploring the materials in order to find out for themselves what could be done, rather than trying to imitate successful models. A few of them, if they persisted, might eventually produce surprisingly interesting work.]
3. If one’s work is not an exploration driven by an irresistible [curiosity and] love of the medium (words), by a need to try to understand their action in a world much larger than the musing self, much larger than the language or even multiple languages in which one operates, lured by some deliciously perverse investigative zeal; if, that is, it’s not an improbable wager directed toward scintillating unknowns, then why is one doing it? What is the honest pleasure in it? [Or, as Gertrude Stein put it, “Why do something if it can be done?”]
4. Alright, you heard it, the normative adjective—“honest.” I’ll take that swerve. Every age and culture has defined chaos—the relationship between order and disorder, the terrifying and the reassuring. Likewise, virtue—a word I use in the ancient Greek sense of excellent exercise (and adventure!) of the full capacities of one’s nature—for better or for worse. Everybody knows that virtue can be catastrophic. There are traditions of tribal virtue; there is spiritual virtue, e.g., Buddhist, Judeo-Christian, Judaic, Christian, Islamic; there is eco-animistic virtue….. Any of these notions/practices might send one astray. It’s interesting, however, that in all the concept of courage is central. It’s hard to conceive of striving toward the kinds of virtue we so desperately need—toward empathy, compassion, generosity, wide-ranging curiosity, a piquant sense of reciprocal alterity, dedication to recognizing complexity—i.e., any pragmatic, internalized practice of considered ethical response, without courage. I want to think about poetry as a form of courage. Using courage in accord with its simplest definition in my Mac dictionary: “the ability to do something that frightens one.” Courage, by this definition, is ethically neutral.
5. I’ve been thinking a lot about having the courage to do what, after complex consideration (in contrast to impulse), one determines needs to be done. John Cage in his essay “History of Experimental Music in the United States” * stressed that in the midst of “History”—always a hellishly thickened plot—each one of us must figure out and do what in our informed opinion needs to be done. Why, Cage asked, if everything seems to be possible in an age of advanced technologies, “do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time)?” He goes on, “One does not…make just any experiment but does what must be done…By this I mean one does not seek…to arrive at money…fame (success)…to provide pleasure…(beauty)…to arrive at the establishing of a school (truth)…” This view, this “credo” has had consequences, for better and for worse.
As have the views of Gertrude Stein, who believed that it is the business of every artist to live as a conscious part of their contemporary moment and to know that the living we are doing in the compositions we are making form the experiences of that contemporary. She didn’t use the then non-existent word “ecology”, but both she and Cage believed that the micro-climates of our lives and work affect the larger cultural climates of our times and vice versa. Not, I think, an empty metaphor. It does appear that patterns of socio-political history work according to the same chaotic principles of meteorology: pattern bounded indeterminacy where everything that happens affects everything else in dynamic interactions of order and disorder. The orders and the disorders can be equally wondrous, and hellish.
6. (I skipped this section during my panel to keep to my time allotment.) My immediate family has tended to do things that are obviously useful. One grandfather owned a small mattress factory; another built boats and fished. There have been dairy farmers, and plumbers. An Eastern Orthodox priest who, after emigrating from the Ukraine with poor English, became an elevator operator. My mother was—among other things—a librarian who drove a bookmobile to tiny hamlets in the S.C. low country. My father, an electrical engineer at Bell Labs, worked during world war II on the transmitter that finally got intelligence past the Germans to the allies. Others are research scientists working on the neuroscience of schizophrenia, the evolutionary biology of infectious diseases and cancer. There are civil rights lawyer-activists in the American south, human rights activists, physicians, a psychoanalyst. No one would call any of this work (except perhaps psychoanalysis—which I value) useless. What the hell am I doing as a poet in the midst of these latest installments of hellish history?
That question is much harder to answer than the question of what I’ve been doing that has earned my living: teaching in, and directing, intensively interdisciplinary undergraduate programs (e.g., Language & Thinking, Bard College) that emphasize the need to include the sciences among the humanities, to become scientifically, mathematically, historically, philosophically….. literate as well as literate in many literatures, languages, and other arts. Most of all, to be able to hold multiples of very different kinds in conversation with one another, and with other persons of very different kinds. I think of poetry as the heart of the Language & Thinking Program; poets have always been essential members of the faculty. This has meant incorporating poetry that brings a broadly informed poetics to the program; poets who are broadly and richly curious and knowledgeable. [The MFA degree is neither a necessary nor a sufficient credential in decisions to hire poets for the Language & Thinking faculty. It can indicate a narrow purview untroubled by the pursuit of broad knowledge or social concerns. The person with the MFA, on the other hand, may have maintained a broad purview throughout, may have been inspired by teachers who do that themselves. The question of the standard MFA curriculum in its various permutations is another matter, and needs to be examined. What are students being prepared for?
Thought Experiment #2: Supposing the curricula of MFA programs in poetry/poetics became practice-based interdisciplinary investigations, focused on complexity studies with respect to things like forms in/of globalism, polylingualism, world ecologies, digital rhetorics and poetics, bringing sciences and medicine into humanistic conversations, etc. Operated in the low-residency model with the requirement that students find ways to make a living that intersects with their academic investigations and their interests as poets. This would make the MFA (probably requiring a new acronym) a vocational school of a new kind. What would happen?
7. Those of us who were movement activists in the sixties—doing civil rights, anti-war, feminist work—and who still care about what’s happening in the world, have had to figure out ways to be poets, not of revolution, but of not-revolution. That may be harder. (It seemed that everything had to happen in the poetics.) Either way, the ethos of the poetry resembles the ethos of the poet.
8. The case of Lynne Stewart: In 2006, The artist Paul Chan made a piece entitled “Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, The Law and Poetry.”* At the time, Stewart, a famous/infamous—depending on your point of view—radical human rights lawyer, was awaiting an appeals decision on her conviction for allegedly aiding Islamic terrorism in collusion with her client Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. At the age of seventy, she was facing the possibility of disbarment and a 30-year jail sentence. Paul Chan’s epigraph for the video is from Langston Hughes’ 1950 poem, Evil:
Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you—
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy too.
During her conversation with Chan, Lynne Stewart talks about the importance of poetry in her life and law practice. “Fear is a definite reality,” she says, “People are afraid and they’re so afraid that they surrender to the government” even when they know the government is wrong. (The charges against Stewart were brought by John Ashcroft of the post-9/11 Bush Administration.) “Poetry reinstills the sense of courage,” says Stewart, “…I would be willing to die for [what I believe]…I’m not willing to disengage.” One’s choices can’t be about being afraid. “It’s not about being afraid…”
The sample we get from the range of poems that give Lynne Stewart a sense of courage is interesting: It includes John Ashbery, William Blake, Evan Boland, Bertolt Brecht. “I use poetry in my work in thinking things through,” she says, and she reads poetry to the jury….”poetry makes others feel.” Stewart picks up Blake’s On Another’s Sorrow: “Can I see another’s woe / And not be in sorrow too?” And then Ashbery’s The Absence of a Noble Presence: “If it was treason, it was so well handled that it became unimaginable….There is dreaminess and infection in the sum.” Holland Cotter, in his review of Paul Chan’s video, writes that when we hear Stewart reading Blake and Ashbery we’re hearing the music of words charged with the “activism of the soul that poetry is.”
9. Chan’s video of Lynne Stewart is not about which school of poetry is legitimate at this moment in history, it’s about what she needs as a reader of poetry, given who she is, what she does, for better or for worse. It’s about what the poets needed to write, and it’s about courage. When the mind that practices pragmatic compassion recognizes the other of Sheik Omar as the other that is oneself, as the other that is the mind of a poet vitalized by the chaos to conduct a wager with words that improbably transmit the courage, all are in search of not radical, but reciprocal alterity.
[10. All this leads to what are for me difficult questions: What does the action of poetry as poethical wager (see, if you like, my essay “The Poethical Wager” * ) in pursuit of the courage to understand one’s times (which includes history) and to be an active participant by means of what one does with language, and where—what does any of this have to do with poetry workshops, undergraduate creative writing concentrations, MFA programs, PhDs in creative writing as they are currently operated? Particularly if these endeavors are pursued in narrow ways (not necessary but not infrequent) in lieu of learning as much as possible about the world we’re living in. Ecopoetics, for instance, is one among others that obviously demand knowledge and experience and a quest for understanding far beyond familiarity with some past and many contemporary poets’ work and a toolbox of skills.
To my mind poets are so important to the health of our world (while war continues to be the health of the state), so critical to enactments of improbable courage, (the courage of the improbable) that we can’t allow ourselves—including our students—to be ignorant or narrow. For this reason, I think there is a need for the pedagogy of poets (much of which has nothing to do with the transmission of pantheons or stylistic resources) to be as challenging, if not more so, than that of physicists or historians or political scientists or biologists or anthropologists….because poets must figure out how to know enough about enough of these things to compose poetics inflected with the most important conversations of their times. I hope its clear that I’m not talking about a didactic poetics, but rather an informed poetics that can move toward humanistic enactments of reciprocal alterity. ]
* Silence, Wesleyan University Press, 1961
* "The Poethical Wager" is available on line at: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=kt0g50177j&chunk.id=ch02&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch02&brand=ucpress
COMMENTS AND ADDITIONAL POSTINGS
Columbia/Penn Conference 2010
Panel: The End Of Authentic Time
In Authentic Time
I was initially somewhat perplexed by the umbrella title “The End of Authentic Time,” since it seems to me that no poet, not even Plato, ever believed there was such a thing as authentic time. Blake’s archfoe Newton, who claimed there could be “absolute, true, and mathematical time,” nonetheless recognized that lived time is always perspectival. Perhaps duration is authentic time, as Bergson suggested. I note that a more proximate authority, Mr. Fitterman, in the introduction to his Rob the Plagiarist, places the word “authentic” in quotation marks, but does not do so with the word inauthenticity.
Diestime/Daytime. The title of Vanessa Place’s Dies simultaneously refers to the present tense of the verb “to die” as well as to the Latin for day. Thus Dies could be said to reference Kenny Goldsmith’s Day as well as his Soliloquy, since, as in Goldsmith’s weeklong monologue, the only words recorded are those of the narrator—in this case a dying soldier. In Place’s new new sentence novella, a single night is fitted into 117 pages. My calculations suggest the book would take just under six hours to read aloud at a normal pace. It seems unlikely, however, given the absence of quotation marks, that Dies is a spoken monologue. Rather it seems Dies is an extended interior narration, which Pam Ore describes as “one long bloody trench” (viii). Dies demonstrates Wittgenstein’s hypothesis in the Tractatus (which emerges from the same war’s trenches) that “Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through…. He lives eternally who lives in the present.” Place seizes the day and the sentence, allowing both to ward off death, albeit on borrowed time.
BlipSoakTime. The 11 minute 3 second preface to Tan Lin’s Blipsoak 01—that’s his measurement not mine—claims “Every moment deserves extension via something.” On the same page, Lin writes that “Like television, writing is a 30-second stopwatch whose purpose is to extend, attenuate and make more deeply relaxing the things we were/are already.” The blip, we can presume, is a near instantaneous sensory experience; the soak an extended experience in which one forgets one’s immersion. “Every minute [a poem like this one] could correspond to any other,” he writes. Ambient time is radically equivalent time—language and noise coalesce within a particular space. But perhaps it is not so particular—or so authentic. “The surface is beautiful because it can be forgotten one moment at a time.”
SprawlSpaceTime. Fitterman’s Metropolis XXXa and Chris Burnett’s SprawlCode both represent suburban sprawl by formal means, using the space of the page to suggest the overlay of homogeneity across the American landscape. In SprawlCode, an image selected from a visual index is superimposed upon each page of text. The photos are generally taken from a constrained sequence (in one chapter, portraits of real estate developers morph into ghostly white presences on the page). In Burnett’s own words, “Sprawl is really a reproduction principle that applies to both space and language. Places reproduce linguistically, and signs propagate in the environment. Especially with the Net, we are witnessing different languages emerging in parallel with new instrumentalities of land use. I hope to capture them in this book as various forms of sprawl-speak.” Francois le Lionnais calculated it would take 186,000 years to finish Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Billion Poems. I cannot calculate how long it would take to read Sprawlcode. As long as I live, no matter how much I admire this book, I will never read its every word.
Malltime. The Whitney Biennial (which closed several weeks ago) included a film by the German artist Josephine Meckseper titled Mall of America. Composed of handheld video shot at the Minneapolis mall in question, Meckseper’s film arguably plagiarizes its central conceit from Metropolis XXX and XXXa. The mall directory, like an old-fashioned paper TV guide, is radically combinatory: each store or program is carefully located within a familiar pattern designed to increase time spent viewing. The directory should in fact obfuscate rather than direct—in order to maximize time given over to flanerie. The archaeologist of the future could do no better than to arrive at this ultimate macromicrocosm. Videoing a video game over the shoulder of an eager Midwestern gamer transports us instantly to Iraq, faster than we can say cheese.
Spamtime. Graham Parker’s Fair Use: Notes from Spam comprises five booklets housed in a small box. Parker intersperses photographs of actual locations with found text. One booklet, 419 (occasional 420) Reston, Virginia & Lagos, Nigeria explores connections between email scammers and potential scammees. As of 2005, Reston, Virginia was home to one of the largest server farms in the U.S. By logging Google alerts for “419 scam” and “occasional 420,” Parker is able to explore the information trafficked between seemingly unrelated places and phenomena. The “real” artist is able to manipulate the Nigerian scam artist into producing art for him—by, for instance, having the scam artist (or one of his gang) send a photograph of himself holding authentic documents so as to verify his claims. Too long of a delay in responding would arouse suspicion—but instantaneous contact too would arouse suspicion. Videochat killed the spam star.
Breatholotime. A recent study conducted by the University of Adelaide concluded that breathalyzing pedestrians was the most effective means to prevent drunk walking, apparently “a serious problem in Australia.” The breathalyzer was introduced in 1954 as a replacement for the more cumbersome and less felicitiously named “Drunkometer.” K. Silem Mohammed’s 2008 collection Breathalyzer effectively puts the test to Charles Olson’s ghostly anima. Olson not surprisingly fails—just as he likely would have during his legendary all-night teaching marathons at Black Mountain College. But before we charge Officer Mohammed with violating Olson’s rights as a poetic shaman, we might consider that K. Silem, with his “M.A. in Dumbshit Studies” (48) is a proud student of failure, and of Olson’s failure in particular. “It is Nietzsche’s failure that provides the matter of my work” (36), Silem, or someone, writes. Anyone can breathe; it takes talent to beat the breathalyzer. “Reification won’t get you out of the parking lot”—and neither will the coin in your mouth.
Adjunctime. “In linguistics, an Adjunct is an optional, or structurally dispensable, part of a sentence that, when removed, will not affect the remainder of the sentence” (Wikipedia). Samuel Beckett wrote in defense of James Joyce that “Literary criticism is not book-keeping.” Peter Manson’s Adjunct, an Undigest responds, “Actually, literary criticism is book-keeping” (94). If you want to know what the book sounds like, take it from Manson himself: “Sounds like Bruce Andrews” (17). Adjunct was written over a seven-year period from 1993-2000, but its contents are randomly rearranged, or undigested, at the level of the sentence or fragment. One of the great pleasures of the book is its index, which tempts readers to reconstruct passages based on names. There is also an online Adjunct Travesty Generator that allows the reader to introduce three algorithmic variables into a recomposed version of the text. The reader can: select a garbledness level; choose the length of the text in characters; and/or introduce text of their own. Authorial labor is minimized, there is no new sentence left to parse. The output is called a Travesty Travesty.
Travesty Travesty. [on the least garbled setting, 1000 characters selected from above 1172 characters, with spaces]. Adjunct index, when remover then-year period from Manson remainder own. Adjunct a rear period fragmentence” (Wikipedia). Authoriable, take Bruct its contents allows to in choosed ver can: sentence then-yearrandomly reader to remaindex, when-yearranged, or from 1993-2000, but index, when rear period fragmenten rear period from Manson names Joyce tempts an optional, or introduce Adjunctime. “In literary criticism is allows the book is book sounds like Bructuallows to know when-symbolic variable, part of the length of the book-keeping.” Manson names. The recontentent. One Adjunctime. “In line Adjunct is introduce the sentence text of three also andomly dispensed online Andrews” (17). Adjunct pleasuresponds like is an Adjunct that their of ther can: sevel of the the book is are is are is an oved, will not a garbles based with, take it from Manson reat passages book-keeping. Authoriticism is book is algorial labor is based online of there randomly reat affect Travesty Generary crithmic varial
Ortime Lengthened is Overtime Lengthened is Overdetermined. The Noulipian Analects astutely kick off by invoking Sianne Ngai’s formula “& and.” The repetition suggests sequential equivalence. By contrast the repetition of an “or/o’er” logic suggests metonymic variation. Along such a radically synchronic axis, Simon Morris’ Rewriting Freud takes The Interpretation of Dreams, randomly reorders every word and then fits the entire work into the exact size and formatting of the original 1913 A.A. Brill translation. The postwar suspicion of the surrealist unconscious explodes on the scrambled pages of Freud’s mystic proto-iPad. “In the case of every dream which I have submitted to an analysis…I have invariably found these same fundamental principles confirmed: the elements of the dream are constructed out of the whole mass of dream-thoughts and each of these elements is shown to have been determined many times over” (318).
Xenotime. The immortal poem, it turns out, is made of the very stuff of life, not out of the stuff of the unconscious. The unconscious is us missing nine letters. Christian Bök’s Xenotext is us made foreign—both primeval and posthuman, literally in that the poem will likely outlive the human species. Bök proposes “to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA in order to implant it into a bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem.” Although others, such as Eduardo Kac and Pak Wong, have successfully encoded text into the DNA of microbes, Bök is the first to propose creating a microbial poem-writing machine. According to Wong, “organisms...on Earth for hundreds of millions of years represent excellent candidates for protecting critical information for future generations.” Hundreds of millions of years? Future generations? The alienation of time from time comes full circle. The critics and scientists are at last banished by the poets, eternal timekeepers of the word.
 http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/ May 10, 2010, 12:30 pm
Antagonism and Crisis, talk for Rethinking Poetics conference
June 11, 2010. Columbia University. This is an inexact version of what was presented somewhat conversationally, but the lineaments, relative weights of arguments, and most of the words are the same.
My goal is to present the least sophisticated talk at this conference. I seek only to antagonize.
I was invited here literally to complain — “what do you want to complain about in poetry” — and what I want to complain about, I mean rethink, is the hybrid. Specifically the “American Hybrid,” as it is currently being called. I want to unfold this problem dialectically, after a fashion. Or, I want to show how for me the problem — what needs to be rethought — itself unfolds dialectically. So I will begins where all dialectical thought begins — with Silliman’s Blog.
What’s most objectionable about Silliman’s Blog — and here I don’t speak for myself so much as summarize several lifetimes worth of commenters — is the well-remarked division of the world into the post-avant and School of Quietude. Legitimate concerns insist that this is a weak description of the field of Anglophone poetics; that it has no real methodological rigor attached to it, roving opportunistically among analyses of the works, social formation, and tautological retrofitting via reception. So stipulated.
And yet. Everyone wants to nuance it, everyone is subtler. Three, four, 31 categories. But what do we lose, in this nuancing? We lose too much. If we don’t lose much descriptively, we lose the one idea, the one real situation that the distinction has been trying to preserve: that there is a fundamental antagonism, that it has two sides, and that they are set against each other in a dynamic that is not eternal and abstract but concrete and historical. And the loss of this idea is unhappier for poetry than any happiness we might gain by doing away with the distinction. That’s dialectics in action, through the wrong end of the telescope.
I have no intention of calling for a restoration of these categories, Post-A and SoQ. What I want to do is turn to the matter of the hybrid. Again, I am going to avoid the sophistication of my colleagues. When I say “hybrid,” I do not refer to a theoretical category. In fact, I do not refer to any theory at all, especially any theory designed to show the insufficiency of all binary oppositions. I am talking about a specific and propagating usage, which is that of “The American Hybrid.”
There is of course a current anthology of that name. The first thing I should say is that I think there’s lots of good poetry in this collection and I count both editors as friends. The recent roots of the formulation probably begin around 1997, with the founding of the journal Fence, and the hypothesis laid out in the editor’s manifesto for the first issue about being unencamped and happily “on the fence” between mainstream and experimental and so on. They also have a recent anthology, two volumes, again with some good poetry; along with notes from the various editors, there’s an introduction by Stephen Burt, who is a significant figure in this history. His 1998 essay on “elliptical poetry” was also part of this formulation of the hybrid aesthetic, or what’s often called “Third Way” poetics, with little or no irony regarding Tony Blair, New Labor, and neoliberalism. I understand Steve has since disavowed that essay, but it matters that it was written then, in that moment. One could say, for an easy quip, that Third Way Poetry was neoliberalism writ — .
Anyway this Third Way, this American Hybrid, generally uses the language of “getting past” the fundamental antagonisms between the dominant-mainstream and the emergent-experimental (these terms are inexact, but fairly well-understood). The conception of the hybrid is that we can simply choose to leave the antagonism behind. We have a name for this. We call this “idealism.” As if the antagonisms were mere ideas that could be willed away, that is, not fundamental, not material.
To which I can only say: really?
There’s this powerful idea within poetry that, well, we’re all poets, abjected and underpaid and reviled. At the same time there’s this knowledge that we’re mostly privileged, buffered from daily material violence and fatal poverty. And so there’s this sense that we should all form a common front.
But If we agree there is a fundamental antagonism in the world —there may be four or five fundamental antagonisms in the world — why wouldn’t they return, no doubt mediated differently each time, at every level? Why wouldn’t they endure in poetry?
We have seen with inarguable detail that the complex of antagonisms called “sexism” recur within poetry; Juliana’s and Stephanie’s work has been particularly instructive for me in this regard. It’s a strange blind spot to miss, or wish away, other antagonisms, including the one most significant to me, that of class struggle. Why wouldn’t we expect to encounter forms of consciousness that depend from that larger antagonism, the division of labor and so forth? How could poetry be free from that? It strikes me that it's poetry's task instead to figure a disposition to that real antagonism.
Let us now name the absurdity of the American Hybrid, of Third Way Poetics. If we think of it as the considered admixture, a suturing, a “free” aggregation of poetics from the dominant mainstream mode and an emergent mode or set of modes...well, this is what the mainstream has always done: take what it likes from the challenges presented to it, spit out the rest, and move on. That’s the name of the mainstream.
So we can see that the failed description — a sign of contradiction — from Silliman’s Blog had not been resolved, but simply displaced to a higher conceptual level, after the fashion of dialectical motion. So our task, in rethinking, must be toward pursuing this contradiction, this antagonism, at the level of the hybrid. So my rethinking today is not toward better description. My rethinking is toward restoring the primacy of antagonism, but different.
The last wave of anatagonism in poetics dates to the early seventies; that’s significant. A signal crisis in the economic sphere. I think, as Alan suggested earlier, that we are in here in this room in part because we honor that moment of antagonism. We can now narrate that period, 1973-present, let’s say “the neoliberal era,” crisis to crisis, as follows: antagonism, Poetry Wars, hybrid.
We can also say that one thing that organizes this era intellectually, and which at different (or différant) levels, is shared by the initial antagonism and the hybrid, and that is exactly an anti-binarism. This ranges from the subtle post-structuralism that informs Language writing to the magical resolution of Third Way poetics. Here I turn to my one quotation:
“The only thought compatible with Empire—when it is not sanctioned as its official though—is deconstruction. Those who celebrated it as 'weak thought' were right on target. Deconstruction is a discursive practice guided by one unique goal: to dissolve and disqualify all intensity while never producing any itself."
So where is our rethought antagonism, our rethought intensity for this crisis, which is fundamentally a crisis of value rather than reification/commodification, a crisis of dispossession and imperial collapse?
This is not an answer — I offer it as a fundamental question. We are unlikely to resolve it this weekend. We can consider some simple propositions, however. It will concern itself with hegemony unraveling, inevitably. I suspect it will concern itself with what has become of class, as the American industrial proletariat is increasingly dematerialized and abstracted. It will not be found in the same location as the last crisis. It will not be located primarily at the level of form, the metalinguistic, treating language as its own sphere of intervention.
That is, “rethinking” is a question about mediation — about what the relationship between poetry and these matters will be, where we will direct our antagonism. If we are not finding and indeed pursuing antagonism within and without poetics, and trying to adequate the former to the latter, our thinking is already done.