Friday, January 12, 2007

More on Taking Sides

I was struck that two of the comments to my postings on the compulsive and compulsory categorizing of poets engaged in further such categorization, as if my main point had been missed altogether. Simon DeDeo seemed disappointed that I didn't take sides sufficiently, although my argument was precisely that there is something diminishing of mind and spirit in the incessant side-taking.

In a comment on Jasper Bernes's web log, Simon says (sorry, I couldn't resist) that my post "To Clarify" could have been called "I Like All Good Poetry." I wonder what is wrong with that. In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1988, John Ashbery wrote that "even the most literate of readers of American poetry tend to confine themselves to a narrow segment of it....the landscape of American poetry is strangely fragmented and gerrymandered; its partisans frequently blinkered.... Instead of congratulating ourselves on so much diversity we tend, as so often in America, to choose up sides and ignore anyone not our team.... I like things that seem to me good of their kind, and don't especially care what the kind is."

I am hardly as catholic in my tastes as Ashbery--there are many kinds of poetry that leave me cold--but I do think that it is at least a laudable ideal to first approach work for itself and in its own terms, to see how well it fulfills the tasks it sets itself. If one doesn't understand the terms within which a poem operates and the things it is trying to do, one cannot reach any judgment about either the value of those terms or whether it is trying to do something worth doing. But terms like "School of Quietude," or even "post-avant," especially as they are thrown around in the online poetry world, constitute a rush to judgment that not only obviates the need to read and evaluate actual poems but eliminates the possibility of doing so. I would like to like all good poetry, though I don't think that I do. That such a statement should be considered pejorative is very sad.


John Gallaher said...

Well said. It seems to me that labels are created in order to endorse or dismiss poems and poets. Art production has nothing to do with labels. A label before the fact of the poem, makes the poem into little more than a box cake recipe.

Anonymous said...

I think it's possible to take a focus on "the poem" too far. Poets write within a context defined by both the history of their own work, the work of sympathetic friends, and larger more nebulous goals.

What I take issue with is the denial of these larger contexts and the claim that individual poems can be taken out of context and evaluated on their merits. Of course I do this all the time on rhubarb, but I think the question is a difficult one and not as easily resolved as you claim.

There is a feeling among a certain kind of writer/critic that these more nebulous goals are amenable to a purely psychoanalytic analysis. People write a certain way because they feel a certain way. I think this is wrong.

As for your main point being "against" categorization, I find this hard to believe. You've consistently proved yourself very capable of categorizing poets into "experimental" and "not-experimental", and while your categories don't agree with Ron's in terminology or content, it's clear that you find them a useful point of departure.

To reduce categories to "side-taking" seems to be a rhetorical elision that is really not very helpful.

As for your response to my review -- it is a bit too vague for me to really get a handle on. But maybe we should let that drop.

John Gallaher said...

I prefer looking at poems in the context of me looking at poems. Any other context gets too abstract to envision.

Seth Abramson said...


I think I take a more pragmatic view of tribalism in the CAP community: actually, by analogy at least, a Marxist view, though I'm not a Marxist. Just as Marx was, in a sense, not entirely hostile to capitalism because his theory presumed capitalism was a necessary stage in the progression that ended with [what we now call] Marxism, a part of me thinks it's not unreasonable to accept, rather than deny, the existence of factions in the CAP community and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Look at it this way: if we hope to end tribalism in the Art, we fail, as too many people have too much invested in conjoining a self-image of open-mindedness with an external projection of extremism. But if we stop buying into anyone's professions of aesthetic disinterest--in the same way politicos and political enthusiasts should stop indulging the notion that Fox News "commentator" Bill O'Reilly is an "independent"--we all win, because we can redefine our discourses accordingly. I'm convinced that, while it's true many so-called SoQ poets and enthusiasts are dogmatic, it's just as true that so-called "post-avant" poets are dogmatic.

Frankly, I'm sick of discussions of poetry which all too much resemble a high-stakes game of "chicken": the aim being, of course, to appear magnanimous and catholic in one's tastes while secretly sticking a rhetorical shiv in the other guy's back. How many times can you hear a LangPo practitioner opine, in effect, "No, I'm open-minded!" before you realize that, well, none of us are, as Ashbery says we all have our intractable biases, and we need to somehow move beyond that circumstance.

Moving beyond doesn't mean moving past: the biases are always there, and will always be there, the question then is how we talk around them coherently and good-naturedly. I have to say, it's scary to me to see that just a week into your blogging career, Reginald, the post-avant stormtroopers have already pegged you as being on the equivalent of the FBI's Most Wanted list. When people now talk about alleged SoQ-friendly militants, I'm now hearing your (Reginald's) name mentioned, which just goes to show that:

a) people don't read blog entries closely, just enough to be able to say, with a knowing, coy wink, "yes, I've read him";

b) people enjoy pigeon-holing one another far more than they care about engaging in intellectual debate (as the pigeon-holing largely allows us to side-step intellectual debate, creating a "template" for our rebuttals of one another [a far more efficient way of being dickheads to one another than otherwise]);

c) everyone just wants to feel "safe" where they are at right now in poetry, and part of feeling safe is overcoming that sneaking suspicion you're a dogmatic scoundrel and finding that cherub-invested happy-place where you've got the white hat on and the other guy's got a Tommy gun; and

d) you can tell everything about a blogger, most appear to believe, from his first five posts (God, how many times have I been deleted from a blog-roll because of a single post someone didn't like! This supposedly-erudite wing of blogosphere is perhaps its most brutal).

I wrote my Sociology of Poetry posts because I felt too much discourse in poetry was prompted by fear, and because I realized I was as or more guilty of this than anyone else. Those posts were partly written for me. I shouldn't be surprised that much of what I wrote was rejected as a consequence of the same fear of communal self-analysis which prompted the posts in the first place.

Elsewhere, Reginald, you are being called a "sexist" because you explicitly indicate that you don't intend to talk about what you had for breakfast or what music you listen to, which some have taken as an indictment of female bloggers. Remarkable, as that characterization of female bloggers--wholly inaccurate as it is--says more about anyone who subscribes to it than otherwise. While I hate the employment of anecdotal evidence in situations like these, right now that's what's being deployed against you, Reginald, so I'll help you by mentioning just a few of the many female bloggers whose blogs I don't understand a damn bit of because they're way, way over my head and have nothing to do with breakfast, CDs, crying children, or relationship problems:

* Anne Boyer
* Lorna Dee Cervantes
* Alison Croggon
* Jilly Dybka
* Christine Hamm
* Lyn Hejinian
* Cynthia Huntington
* Danielle Pafunda
* Jessica Smith
* Julianna Spahr
* Heidi Lynn Staples
* Elizabeth Treadwell

Meanwhile, I needn't list all the perfectly good blogs run by men which are often concerned with esoteric and/or domestic matters such as pictures of "food I like," discussions of music and television, descriptions of recent personal experiences, and so on (hey critics: I like these blogs, too, despite "being a man"!):

* Jeffery Bahr
* Paul Guest
* Charles Jensen
* Joe Massey
* R.J. McCaffery
* Steve Mueske
* Peter Pereira
* Tony Robinson
* Steven Schroeder
* C. Dale Young

Meanwhile, despite "being a man" (there's that quasi-sexist categorization again), I've been soft-banned from plenty of blogrolls (male and female alike) because I either didn't do what these self-same anti-sexism critics believe "a male poet should do" (continually pen "hard" intellectual analysis related to poetry) or did too much of what it's now being claimed (by these critics) "men like" (i.e., I wrote controversial things on my blog).

Either way, there isn't a whit of evidence you've done anything wrong, Reginald, or that you deserve any of the grief you've--in just a week--received, or that any of the clannish instincts of our peers will change anytime soon. So, like good Marxists, we should "move past" tribalism while not thinking we can, in any fashion, defeat it.


Anonymous said...

"I would like to like all good poetry, though I don't think that I do."

This statement puzzles me. How is it that you think certain poetry is good but at the same time you don't like it? Good quality usually makes me appreciate a poem which, in any case, leads to enjoyment and hence liking.

RL said...

Speaking of not reading blog posts closely (ahem, pot calling kettle), I'd prefer to back channel Reginald to clarify what's been misconstrued here by Seth, but I can't find Reginald's e-mail listed here . . .

I never, ever said or implied that anyone was a sexist for stating one's intentions for his blog were for not talking breakfast. One person commented in my blog post referred that such statements made on many many blogs evolve from an underlying sexism towards what's considered personal/domestic. I agree with that commenter's point. These are opinions offering a possible explanation to this frequent reaction. Anyone free of all and any sexism in their thoughtful little psyches (male or female) please step forward so I can call bullshit.

It was not an indictment of anyone, not an indictment of Reginald -- nobody is foaming at the mouth, branding the new blogger in town with a scarlett S. Just some folks talking about issues -- no need to make it personal, Seth. I know that's a challenge for you.

I used the breakfast comment because I found this blog last week, it was the first thing I read and yeah, it stuck out -- it was one more example in a long list of many. I see it's been removed. I think that's good because it was a turnoff and distraction to what is otherwise a thoughtful and smart blog.

The brief summation for anyone struggling to get through all that: Reb likey Reginald's blog.

Anonymous said...