dagZine: Notes Towards an Oppositional Poetics
(from dagZine, 2005. As I revise notes from six years ago, in an attempt to work back into what I was mired in before coming to Korea, I’ve come across this desire to dwell in the possibilities for an oppositional poetics. Writing about such things can appear corny at times because you have to permit an earnestness with intent that few critics permit and/or take seriously. I quite enjoy it.)
As many of you know, I take seriously the task of cultivating, empowering, and expanding a community devoted to exploring the possibilities for a significant poetics that can cut into and shape American discourse. And much of what I read you doing explores answering for what purpose we write, for what purpose we read, for what purpose we talk about doing both.
This might explain my tendency to get involved with debates about “poetry and the market” and “poetry and politics.” Though I am open to the divergent possibilities/directions poetics takes (that word needs unpacking,) I do think we tend to limit poetics to a narrow project that increasingly dissembles its ability to reach vital resources socially and politically. The requirements for poetry to adhere to a look or to function as a gaze conceal its revelatory potential to shape social character and habit. Reasons for dissembling are often valid as poets attempt to answer for their own satisfaction important questions: How do I survive as a poet? Who am I willing to associate myself with? Where can I write from? I write more prose than poetry, but I think of prose as a poetic project, not subordinate to poetics but informing language with it. Mainstream prose practice hurts the practice of poetics; we should look at this; we should expect much more from our writers; we shouldn’t hoard the pleasures in poetics.
Poetry has a unique relationship to specific landscapes—geography influences the poet’s thought, landscape versifies geography (like poetry versifies prose,) language shapes thought and through that unique relationship a topography for doing poetry develops, maintains, influences, constructs, and renovates. This list is important.
Renovate is a better word than restore. Renovate offers a means rather than an end. The poetic function of language is not restricted to poetry. This may be the only norm I am willing to accept right now. For if I am willing to find a vocation in poetry, then poetry needs to be vital for others (other than poets) and other vocations. Indeed, the poetic function of language must be a vital and accessible part of everyday language. In other words, poets cannot own the function as if it is there to be used to manufacture a commodity called a poem to be used in exchange for something, in turn, more valuable. On the other hand, poets should own the burden of poetic work. I often read poet-critics who harmfully insist young writers and non-poets should bear the burden of poetic work in order to prove something like allegiance or worth. They treat poetics as a training ground, a form of boot camp. Poetry and Poetics belongs to nobody, and is worthless if limited to a privilege few.
I use to renovate, then, because we write poetry to develop a poetic function in language and to better represent thought as it is in-formed by poetic language; and to learn how to bear this with others. We find others writing poetry. Only after we figure (this word is important) a method to maintain the writing itself—in its time, in its place, in its form—can we begin to influence other writers to pick up our tools—belonging to me, to us, to them before they recognize them as tools and pick them up—to further shape the craft. Thus, influence leads to construction. As more writers learn to master craft and a community develops, craft can be renovated as it is constructed, practiced, and discussed. The renovating itself restores to an earlier condition not the poetic product but the poetic function: to develop a means to do poetry as poetry.
Yet, poets, to distinguish themselves over against others, tend to move beyond this primary process, this vital means mechanism—developing, maintaining, influencing, constructing, and renovating—to a secondary end. The move from a means to invigorate poetic discourse through renovating poetic function is a desire to achieve a more comfortable and convenient end in self-promotion. (I am not at all making the claim that success in the market is convenient, simply that it is encouraged to seek this end, and through such encouragement it is ready-at-hand, probably because it serves both the market and the individual.) Self-promotion refers to the poet who enters the market primarily to sell poems. Call it poetry-as-business. Such writers have as their goal a long term investment in maximizing their value by selling goods (poems) and services (appearances & lectures). Such poets must self-promote. I am not criticizing the move as much as illustrating the results.
If a poet’s vocation is an important question a poetics community should consider through its discourse, we must recognize poets choose how to participate in a (the) poetic process. Can I shape my celebrity and still attend to the community? I’ve heard this from certain colleagues. I am glad they suffer the possible answers. The question is not meant to limit a poet, or to offer a backhanded insult to poet-celebrity (wouldn’t it be nice); the question illustrates the problem. I do not like either/or scenarios. Regardless, the market sorts issues through a mechanism that distinguishes between wants and needs. We often choose between meeting the demands of our wants or of our needs. The former allows us a bit more privacy because the latter requires us to consider others.
EITHER, in the form of a question:
Should a poet self-promote and choose a vocation that must primarily meet market demands based on the scarcity of specific kinds of popular poetic forms?
OR, in the form of a question:
Should a poet eschew market demands in pursuit of a poet’s vocation culled from other liminal resources.
While both questions require an ethical response that will force an author, program, and community to consider many important norms, only this choice of questions allows poets to consider something like the role of an “oppositional” poetics.
I think “liminal” is a significant word: I use it for its reference to a threshold. To eschew market concerns is to allow a poet to choose to cross a threshold or to recognize the choice not to cross a threshold. Crossing a threshold allows a poet to reach the initial stage of an important process in poetics. That initial stage, I claim, is to renovate. A poet must work towards the capacity to renovate. Each engaged poet should be recognized as possessing the potential renovative energy to develop to maintain to influence to construct to further renovate.
Our arguments about the market may never extend beyond our drive to achieve a relatively comfortable material existence. In other words, when we foreground market concerns and background all others, we consider creature comforts and weigh such comforts against our physical needs and, if we are lucky, our communities’ needs. I need to eat, I need to work, I need to dress. However, our market is necessarily insensitive to our shared values based in such needs. Our market is want-regarding: I want an IPod, I want a Saturn, I want a new pen, I want candied almonds, I want to lose weight. We sell ideas and images as wants: I want to be X and I want to know Y. You can attend the school of your choice and pay for the privilege of association. I don’t really want to participate in a poetics based on a want-regarding market. I certainly do not know of any poets writing poems as a result of consumer demand. I do not foresee Poetry Package Stores in our future. “I’ll take a pack of Pall Mall Lights, a Snickers, and that new Jennifer Moxley over there.”
Poetry is needed. Not like junk, mind you, or alcohol, but like language needs a sound, jazz an improvisation. How do we remind citizens they need poetry? We might begin by reminding poets they need a living poetics—one in which they are educated, in which they know form, in which they are encouraged to project, in which they actively revise, in which they renovate the form they know, in order to further project. The word innovate is wonderful, too. But we don’t teach writers that way. “Hey, you know, innovate.” “Go out there and do some creating.” That is like giving a sixteen-year-old a brick to teach civil disobedience. “Go out there, kiddo, and let them know what you think.” We cannot just invoke the word “create.” We need to imbue our discourse with the will to revise and to renovate.
I titled this post “Oppositional Poetics” after Anne Waldman’s essay. (Is a list of questions an essay? Maybe “inquiry” is more accurate?) Her work is currently anthologized in Vow to Poetry, a collection of her “Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos.” I just received a copy in the mail, from CoffeHouse Press (2001). Waldman begins “Oppositional Poetics” with Holderlin’s famous question from “Bread & Wine”: “What is the use of poets in a bereft time?” She shapes the question, it irrupts into contemporary cultural discourse; she asks a list of questions shaping its scope to a decidedly political end. She begins with “How do we navigate a new chaos of possibility?” She mentions Turtle Island, holocausts, spiritual poetics, planetary infinitude, sickness, starvation, Crips, Bloods, her niece’s run-in with the right wing. She asks, “As writers what’s the task?” Her answer: You must go against the grain for the benefit of others. After her answer, she recounts the Muse to Hilda Doolittle, “Write, write, or die.”
Nevermind the explicit threat. I could never produce under that kind of pressure or do I only produce under that kind of pressure? Maybe more on this later…
I want to address the translation of Holderlin for moment. In German, the line is “wozu Dichter in durftiger Zeit?” Not that I disagree with the translation; it is a simple question. I wonder about the sense (mood?) of durftiger. Bereft means to be robbed of, to be deprived of; rarely, it refers to bereavement. The useful sense is a removal from. In other words, to be bereft is to be left impoverished, to be made a pauper, or to be left to live poorly in the absence of that place, entity, or thing that made one rich/healthy. (Werner Herzog’s The Heart of Glass is a fine example of durftiger Zeit.)
Poetry in this sense isn’t what we have lost or are losing but that thing which we should use in this bereft time. How should we use poetry? Waldman offers a possible solution. Her search for the possibility of an oppositional poetics is an attempt to urge a transformation and so to create space for utility to be fashioned out of opposition to those oppressive forces that cause our bereavement. But are we to act, as Lytton writes, as “shepherds to thy bereaven flock”?
In leadership roles we always oppose when we direct, no matter what form our discourse takes. But do we do it for them or with them? I am affirmed in my convictions: I will do it with them. I may live as an example at best, but I listen and live with them better. I cannot know my benefit for others.
What is the use of poetry in a bereft time? Time-being how? Time-bereft of what? Waldman’s list of questions compose a time in abundance of life and death. Her list offers readers plenty to consider, not any sign of a bereft time. This is not a disagreement with nor a complaint. Her list’s abundance illustrates how, when we face loss (of freedom, of humanity, of life, of wealth,) we face each other. When we face ourselves alone, we may feel bereft of others (places, things, and entities; other alternatives, other choices, other opportunities.) We must learn to ask each other questions, which is a form of going against the grain because it moves discourse outside of the marketplace. And this move is for the benefit of others. But she has done nothing for others. We must face her and return her gesture in kind. Instead of stepping-up, she steps-down. Her stepping-down encourages others to participate in kind. Her stepping-down is not a vertical descent, it is a horizontal dissent that moves her more in media res than decreases her legitimacy.
I quite like this.
So, the Muse whispers, “Write, write or die.” HD’s writing is not associated with my death. Her life and death are bound together inseparably. She equates writing and life. Here, going against the grain means going somewhere between life and death. I don’t know if the Muse cares for others. If we all write or die, we do write alongside the other.
Consider Thoreau. We may write to become the other. We may write to observe the other. We may go against the grain as others go with the flow. But always with, never for, the benefit of others in mind. We often forget Thoreau’s confession: how he ended up in the woods. He did not fit in, he lost his job, he was not allowed to practice what he had chosen to practice. He was (“felt” at least) outside of society. Going against the grain led him to work with others, in nature, his brute neighbors, his imaginary friends, the loons, and moved him into the midst of things. Unlike Emerson, who insists that the poet is like an angel who fixes our broken image of the world, Thoreau through his act of leaving in order to show by example did not end up circumferencing society to show us who we really are. He stepped further into the middle of things.
How do I “go against the grain for others” and get them to come with me, get them to understand what I understand, get them to see what I see, and challenge the status quo that nourishes a bereft time? When it comes to public discourse, I wholeheartedly disagree with anybody doing anything for me. I always want to work with you. Social welfare may be a necessity in terms of food, clothing, shelter, and material community needs. Communities need to care for those in need for their own selfish survival if for no other reason. At any rate, we typically care for one another because we feel it is the thing to do. We need to. I need to do things for others who cannot do things for themselves because their health is my health. On the other hand, I cannot educate any student. They must learn. I cannot participate in democracy with others by doing for them.
The prepositional choices are important: to, for, with, against. First, I am not so sure I am willing to assume I know the benefit for others in any (never mind every) circumstance. (Close readers will recognize I am not endorsing cultural relativism.) Second, when I do anything for others, I simply instruct at/to/against them and may act only on my own in front of them. Unfortunately, I limit my engagement with a community to performing examples in front of them. Think of a reader who is unaware of his or her audience. The freedom it possesses after the (f)act is the freedom to choose to attempt to act after my fashion.
If we go against the grain with others, we lose the need to conceptualize the benefit itself. This is a valuable revision because the benefit signifies enlightenment and power. Benefits often only mask oppressive ideological apparatus with a tingling menthylatum. People settle for benefits. “Well, we may be losing valuable forest but the benefit is more employment.” Or, “We may not be able to reach those kids, but at least they read Pound.” Feels like something is working, but the problem still persists long after the tingling feeling ends. In this manner, benefits often repress the actual problem by illustrating a spectacular distraction. “Never forget!” Great, but can we work together to do something about genocide? Let’s protest “the war.” Great, but can we change the culture that inevitably returns to war to solve its social and economic problems? We have Poetry as therapy; Poetry as radical politics; Poetry as social critique. Where is poetry? And not an ideal form, just poetry that is doing poetry.
Presently, such work is criticized as too-complex, meaningless, self-involved, and formless. Or, it is backward-looking, it is criticized as High Modern or irrelevant, or simply past its prime. I do this injustice by limiting the critiques to a narrow list. They do outnumber even the viable works. They are their own industry and often self-replicate.
HD’s line, “Write, Write or die,” says what it means. Write or die. If we read the line with its comma and period, it revises a significant and simple mantra. Write, she writes. She revises her initial urge to write limiting the for. Write. Comma [What for?]. Write or die. Well, I am no longer going to ask what for. Her what for is certainly significant for me and you, for us all; yet it doesn’t extend to me or my community any benefits that I should expect in the same manner a warranty extends benefits for my participation in an exchange.
What purpose does an oppositional poetics serve? Does it keep death removed? No. Write or Die? No. Write (for others) or (our democracy will) die? Such a limit to poetics changes poetry. What is poetry? It isn’t the thing we can point at. It isn’t what that poet is doing at her desk over there. It is that thing we do with one another between writing a poem and reading poems. Is it ever oppositional?