Monday, January 8, 2007

Which Side Are You On, Boy, Which Side Are You On?

Seth Abramson has sent another very eloquent response, this one to some of the issues my forthcoming book of essays will address, as well as to my post regarding the pseudo-politicization of poetry. I am unfortunately all too familiar with the tendency to divide up the poetry world into Us (repository of all virtues poetic and political, which are apparently one and the same) and Them, "The School of Quietude" (monolithic and monolithically both evil and pathetic, poetically and politically).

In one post on his blog (again, I don't recall the exact date), Silliman wrote that soi-disant "School of Quietude" poets read avant-garde poets, but not vice versa. His point was that only he and his friends wrote poetry worth reading, but what came across most strongly was a smug insularity and provincialism, the assurance that of course there couldn't be anything of interest in those so-called SoQ folks (and of course a School of Quietude poet is anyone he decides is one), so why bother even looking at their work? What a sad admission of narrow-mindedness. It seems that Silliman has always already read every poem he encounters: he knows what he thinks of any given poem, or of any given poet, because he knows what he thinks of where it came from, or rather, where he has decided it came from.

This reflexive dichotomizing among what poet Ron Slate calls the avant-gardeners (a great phrase) between avant-garde work (too often and easily equated with real poetry) and soi-disant "School of Quietude" poetry (i.e., everyone and anyone who's not in my club and doesn't wear my uniform) is very disturbing. So often work is not judged on its own merits (and the possibility that different kinds of poetry might be doing different and equally worthwhile kinds of things is not even considered), but preemptively dismissed or lauded in terms of the author's presumed affiliations: text is erased by context. Given the avant-garde's supposed commitment to the exploration of the unknown, such prejudgments are particularly problematic. After all, when Prufrock says that he has known them all already, known them all, it's a lament, not a boast.

What gets lost in all this territorialization is actual poems. But then, Silliman has written that he's interested in poetry but not in poems. Unfortunately, it shows. I am sometimes hard pressed to tell the difference between the poems that he praises and those that he dismisses. But then, I frequently see little difference between work labeled avant-garde and work labeled "mainstream" or "School of Quietude"—too often it's just a matter of who one's friends are.

In response to some other things in Seth's comments, sometimes poems take us to new places we discover that we've been all along, finally making us see them. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." Sometimes poems take us to places we've never dreamed of going, of whose existence we had no suspicion. Sometimes a single poem does both things. Helen Vendler cites Bishop's "Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!" as her paradigm of the journey on which a poem takes us; Charles Bernstein retorts with, "Hell, I don't know this place at all." (I may be taking some liberties with the exact phrasing.) I would like to think that there is a place for both possibilities in poetry, that there is room for both consolation and estrangement, and that poetry can indeed be the meeting place of otherness and brotherhood, a conjunction I tried to embody in the title of my fourth book, Otherhood.

(Note: This post contains elements from my essay "One State of the Art," which has just appeared in the first 2007 issue of Pleiades.)

And here at last is Seth's response to my previous posts.


The book sounds to me like a must-read; I was particularly intrigued by your willingness to note (as so few seem to do!) that there is a place for the "familiar" and "brotherhood" in poetry also--that, in fact, these two concepts are actually one-half of the bipolar construction which has made verse so resistant, as an art-form, to historical upheavals. The world does indeed require poetry, I think, has required it and has allowed it to thrive for scores of generations, and while the more esoteric aims of poetry are often advanced in times of tranquility and communal stability by investigating the "strange" and concepts of "otherness," during periods of conflict I have always suspected it was its essential humanity which pulled it (and, in some instances, us) through. I know this is a horrifying hypothesis in the eyes of many post-avants, but in response I'd echo your comment, from below, about Ron Silliman:

...[he] is after all trying to undermine the capitalist economy of reference as a commodity delivered to the reader as consumer...


...Silliman frequently engages in such pseudo-politicization of poetry. In an earlier post on Mayakovsky (I don't recall the exact date), he wrote that Joseph Brodsky, who "abstained from collaborating with the aesthetic bureaucrats of his time, easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west," which shows no sense of proportion whatsoever and is just offensive to those who actually suffered under Soviet repression....[t]o claim that any American cultural powers--editors, curators, publishers, etc.--have that kind of power is to lose all sense of proportion, engaging in the worst kind of melodrama to inflate one's own sense of victimhood...

In other words--if I read you correctly--one might wonder just what sort of political activism is being offered up by the leaders of the post-avant movement, when their political sensibilities are only so finely honed as to allow them to see Communists and the major-press editors who won't publish them quite as frequently as they'd like as one and the same. Again, as I noted myself below, these altogether tepid powers of distinction, applied in another context, might cause one to equate apples and fire engines on the grounds that both are, on occasion at least, red.

Your book should be uniquely relevant in my/Ginger's household, as Ginger is an enormous fan of Jorie Graham, and I'm in fact viscerally skeptical of how politics interacts with poetry--I'm fascinated by questions of medium; why, I wonder, is poetry the best forum for political revolution in the view of poets--is it because they have a limited faith in their aptitude for non-literary pursuits, or because their civic-minded beliefs are not so weighty as their habitual self-absorption, or because they truly think if Utopia is to be had, it will be had by/through/because of poetry? Finally, I think you'll find--if you haven't already--that the blogosphere is currently rife with absurd feudalist squabbles between the fiefdom of post-avant verse and the [supposed] fiefdom of "School of Quietude" verse, which, roughly defined, is "everything else" (in much the same way that the clinically-paranoid Richard Nixon had a small cadre of loyal political allies, and the rest were, in his view, "bastards all"). Never before have those with an axe to grind had such a whetstone as the internet upon which to grind it.

Your book will be a welcome addition to the conversation, I'm thinking.



Anonymous said...

I think it's not entirely fair to say that the terms SoQ and PA are arbitrary labels whose sole function is to divide and demean. I think Ron's most salient point on this matter -- and I have previously taken issue with the labels myself -- is that the School of Quietude is the only school that pretends it's not a school.

I think, in other words, that while "post-avant" writers may dislike and criticise the SoQ, they don't deny it the legitimacy to exist. While on the other hand, the loudest SoQ critics (I think Dana Gioia counts here) have taken the very upsetting tack of denying the avant-garde a right to exist.

Under Gioia's vision, being experimental or avant garde -- and the necessary self-consciousness that comes with it -- is an automatic disqualifier for the personal authenticity and respect for tradition required to write "true poetry." This kind of writing I think is damaging.

I don't want to defend Ron's criticism, which I think is often blurbish and bullying. But I think the other extreme -- saying that it is impossible to distinguish SoQ from PA writing whatsoever -- I think is not correct either.

There are limit cases, of course. Seamus Heaney is most definitely SoQ. But his descendent Paul Muldoon is much harder to place, I think.

Andrew Shields said...

If Seamus Heaney is part of the "School of Quietude," then the school is misnamed.

Splabman said...


I saw your name on Silliman's blog and came to your blog and found the tone clear and salient. I find Ron to be a little too obsessed with schools of poetry, but I think his blog is a great service to the literary community and the School of Queitude nomer is relevant and helpful.

He says that the term originates with Poe and that it suggests the stream in North American poetry that extends the British Literature tradition, rather than the one which heads in the direction of open form, as say in the vein of Whitman. (The 20TH c split between WCW and Eliot and their corresponding schools exemplifies this division.)

I have come to poetry late (1994) but have not been inspired by the SoQ poets, but by Open Form ( Projective in Olson's view, Composition by Field in Olson and Duncan's other phrase for it, or Organic as Duncan and Levertov called it.)

In 1990 I began hosting and producing a public affairs interview program and quickly entered into a study of holistic approaches to issues. In 1993 I created a non-profit organization Global Voices Radio to continue to delve into the organismic world-view and to create projects that would make the theory experiential. One of those projects was SPLAB!, the Northwest SPokenword LAB in Auburn, Washington, a traditional town 30 mi. south of Seattle.

In my work I have come to understand why the Organic resonates deeply with me and that is the world-view on which it is based is an Organismic one. I had a feeling that might be the case when in 1995 I first read Projective Verse and how Charles Olson refered to ...that stance toward reality which brings such verse into being... Eleven years later I see that Robin Blaser says ...the real business of poetry is cosmology... and I concur.

We can write anti-war poems, but if we do it with a cosmology (conscious or not) of competition and domination (mechanistic paradigm) it still emits a field of competition rather than interdependence. Several essays I have written seek to illuminate aspects of this stance-toward-poem-making and are at: but the ones most relevant have just been published in Fulcrum V: Dualism and Olson's Antidote and Organic Poetry

I'd welcome feedback or comments on this.

Paul Nelson