Threat Level: Poetry
I. A PRIMER FOR POETRY’S AILMENTS
We are human and know so little. We get anxious in the face of our limitations. Some of us ferret into and mine the unknown, while others struggle against it. The desperate beings who claim Poetry is dying because nothing new can be said are grappling for some semblance of control. Their anxieties reach an apex via treatises that strive to master what mercurially ignores such authoritarian muscle. Poetry is untamed in its potential and various permutations, and the cages of these naysayers are poised. The stakes are high; they are motivated by their need to affix poetry’s position in a material culture for personal gain or career acclaim. But poetry forever fails the marketplace with its messy complex tissues of connectivity and exploratory bravado, bringing together what shouldn’t be, conceiving that which hasn’t been, and undoing the certainties we’ve built lives on. It is complex and strange, despite our hope for simplicity and security via epiphanies or aphorisms that make us last forever. It is no accident that a common response to poetry is “I don’t understand.” We have yet to understand the depths and realize fully the edges of ourselves.
In line with the usual spate of critics declaring poetry’s demise and imminent death, people like Mark Edmundson (Harpers, “Poetry Slam”), Dwight Longenecker, (“Why You Need Poetry”) and some Conceptual writers have lately been pushing for a narrowing down and systemization of poetry, which is really a call for the depersonalization of poetry (i.e. strict appropriation, plagiarism cut-ups, sole use of form, etc.). These calls have come from conservative, mainstream, and avant-garde positions with uncanny similarities. The problem with such prescriptions is that they prioritize process over person, whereas poetry is process, process by person. Person can never truly be eliminated from the poetic equation. Systematization is meant to remove subjectivity, which is dismissed as “bias” or the unpredictability of individual human impulses. The author has often seemed an unruly, morphing entity. Yet poetry’s unpredictability, which surpasses rote forms or recycling methods, leads us to the unexpected. Poets continue to locate new angles to look from and language to look through; we are still actively surprising ourselves and others.
The impulse behind these critiques seems to be a desire to narrow, conquer, and harness poetry as a means to establish footholds in a marketplace that disavows the necessity of poetry; poetry is useless as a monetary and status measure, and that is also its ultimate power. These critiques have forgone the complex personhood of poetry, the one that goes on intuition, lives on emotional intellect, and senses the spiritual that even a few lines of Whitman or Dickinson evoke. They suppress and resist the development of capabilities people are endowed with.
. . . and the poem, like music, refuses to remain silent on the printed page—without the intrusion of the rational mind decreeing sense or a critical intelligence attempting explication . . . The erotic sounds and movements, as in Wagner’s music, evoke birth, love, loss, and death. —Edwin H. Miller on Whitman
Poetry offers unharnessed power and motion. It is not a weakening storm or Frankenstein’s monster on the brink of capture, regardless of measures to prescribe poetry’s next move.
II. THE MONSTER GONE ROGUE
Poetry is dead by capitalism’s standards—it is not an obvious moneymaking venture, despite traceable employment and readings’ payoffs via the academy—and that emboldens some folks limited by capitalist blinders to herald poetry’s last breath. If Conceptual poets can sensationally spin this mythology and position themselves as the left arm of the avant-garde, then like the phoenix from ashes, they can symbolically claim to revive and make popular a supposedly dying art. But these mythologizers think through their wallets with an eye for mass attention as a measure of their own and poetry’s value.
The naysayers of poetry’s vastness seem to be primarily fueled by declaring poetry’s defeat or impotence instead of engaging in the more difficult work of creating beyond what they know. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is not Wittgenstein’s defeatist end; it is his challenge to set out boldly and with curiosity to expand and explore through the language we think through. He didn’t stop with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where that statement appeared; it was his first of many books, such as the Philosophical Investigations, that explicated his theory of “language-games” and complexly broadened his considerations of language use overall.What a lazy, pretentious approach to think we’ve located our limits and can now only recycle and shuffle what’s been said before as cut-and-paste, as the Conceptual poets would have it, or by squeezing words into forms without any sense of language’s expansiveness or trust in the person using it, as traditional formalists would claim. It is far simpler, and nullifying, to call to order poets who don’t adhere to the latest prescriptions in the name of saving or reviving poetry. Note how these doomsday proselytizers use insult to promote their poetics: today’s poets are “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn” (“Poetry Slam”). “It is the easiest thing in the world to write free verse. Seventh grade girls do it all the time.” (“Why You Need Poetry”) “Are you not all walking citations? To the extent you see yourself and your Duracell soul as snowflakes, crystalline, fragile and exquisitely and individually wrought, recall that snowflakes seem quite different shoveled en mass on the sidewalk…” (“I”). Putting down a fantasy of sensitive individuality is a misguided attempt to shame poets who explore and expand notions of self beyond appropriative and formalist methods. It also reveals a limited view of the variety of poetries at work right now in order to promote a handful of techniques and forms already in use by numerous poets.
Further, the writers of poetry’s obituaries are aligning themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default: it is more beneficial to divide and conquer or imperialistically claim, in sound-byte fashion, than to identify and envision beyond perceived limitations or some institutionalized formulaic trend. They are instead keen to mythologize the immaturity of ‘seventh grade girls’ and ‘snowflake’ poets trapped by their own ‘painful self questioning’ and lack of popularity. This presumed impotence needs a hero, a liberator. But the savior complex hides another facet—an inability to imagine beyond the culture these writers choose merely to mirror, simply acquiescing to the power structures we inherit. Frankenstein’s monster is off in the darkness needing capture and taming, and the darkness, to them, is neither navigable nor perceptible – it is their end. It is safer sticking to the capitalist monolith we know; the returns, they hope, can be counted with measures we’re accustomed to: jobs, money, fame. Poetry cannot be harnessed by such straightjackets (hence the oft-heard refrain that “poets starve”); it is not accountable to those values. That is the real radical worth engaging. In an increasingly dimmer Conceptual age, poetry is the punk that limns the dark.
III. POETRY IS DEAD: LONG LIVE POETRY!
Guess what poets do. Whatever we want with language. Despite grammar and outlined traditions, there is no set-in-stone social contract that constricts poets. As long and as hard as some have written on what poetry has done, what it ought to do, what forecasts predict, no one has systematized what poets must do. Where scientists follow specific guidelines for conducting experiments and maintaining “controls,” poets can knock off into the wilderness without prescribed imperatives or outlined goals. We can look to many futures without imposed blinders. In fact, poetry can help us identify those blinders and avoid them. The impossible is ours to plunder – and make the most of.
Poetry is performative utterance. Poetry is kinesthetic language. It can startle in visceral ways and take the top of your head off in the process. Do we really grasp the magnitude of that potential? I can speak in the shape of a lilt. You can be the color of winter. I can look for you under my boot soles and conceive the complexities of that notion (“Song”). I can feel and explore what poetry evokes. Poetry tells me my emotions can be smart and discerning.
Ironically, some claim that there are more people writing poems now than ever before as if this is an argument against poetry. Those who warn that everything has already been said have fashioned gimmicky cautions of a glut of language premised on a western-split called “thinkership” where the intellect is split from and trumps feeling. If their aim is to broaden poetry’s reach or challenge its perceived limitations, surely there are better ways than to misleadingly boil the vastness of poetry down to a singular definition of the lyric, spin tales about its imminent demise, and repackage and sell poetic techniques already in use as their own liberating methods. These conceptual writers’ critiques parallel conservative ones—both writers define just how poetry should be written in order to save itself, much like the call for a return to form is a means to return to the power of poetry that once was. Add in their shared denigration of poets clumped together as “withdrawn” “snowflakes,” and an alignment of conservative and avant-garde positions appears. That both camps bolster themselves via cyclical group referencing does not negate the multiple ways poets explore through and with language. Mutiny will not capture the ship. They mistake the ship for tiny views.
Poetry is the water, the planetary pull, the sky’s embrace, and the song of oars; it is the potential of all that is human, which is comprised of atoms from farthest reaching stars, and will not cease until, perhaps, the last person no longer knows words, says the Romantic humanist in me. It is in the margins, the fray, and the common places too. Some poets may attempt to harness and use the “PoBiz” for personal or professional gain, but it is at their own expense that they fail to grasp that poetry’s power extends far beyond one’s career or notions of fame. Poetry has the potential to undo us. That is its promise and its threat too. Adhere to a western-minded safety, as if this or that prescribed poetry is the only way to art, and you will succumb to a futile capitalist caste system that has no terms for the value poetry offers. It does not recognize poetry’s value—poetry is off its charts.
Further, poets on the edge, the ones not gunning for academic standing via simulated avant-garde status, perform a kind of exercise in alchemical fecundity for which there is no precedent—they are not afraid of the impossible, bringing together and cobbling the unexpected. These moments either shock us into a new awareness or reveal something we’ve only glimpsed or felt was possible. You know that moment when an observer says, “That’s so poetic!” No guidelines or rules can dictate exactly when those moments occur, but you know them when you see them; it requires no training to know when your entire being has been surprised and moved.
Poetry is as large as language. Just as language pushes its limits, poets can make connections where connections are frowned upon. We might engage with our intuition or emotion or even that mysterious and popularly denounced “spiritual” part of ourselves. We can juxtapose the arbitrary with the arbitrary and invoke a maddening sense of the reality we’ve inherited. We can move from our depression or fleece a corrupt order with a vision of existence that incites responses varying from the call to question to the responsive insurrectionary. We can also highlight the beautiful-ugly among us that everyday language would insist is either one or the other.
Orderly minded folks may look askance at or denigrate poets who overlap incorrect things, unsanctioned, as if order is the rule of the day and sentiment cannot be turned out in any other way beyond the frivolous (i.e., the seventh-grade girl mentioned earlier writing free verse). If you didn’t arrive at that image or concept via a school of poetics from the industrial academic complex, then you may be in line to be named in the next “Why Poetry Is Failing” redux. You might be denounced as someone who plays in the lower realm of lyrical epiphanies, or as one ignorant of how language systems function. These are all coded ways of dismissing those poets who are changing—via slow burn—the landscape of thought and language in our current economy and cultural climate. Because many prophets of poetry’s death don’t render language beyond systematized methods, they feel comfortable insulting those who do as a way of jockeying for position in what they see as a marketplace poetics. If they insult the poets, they needn’t grapple with poetry’s particulars – or even read them.
Imagine if Walt Whitman, the journalist, steeped in reams of the printed word daily, told Walt Whitman, the poet, that there is too much, it has all been done, there is nothing new under the sun: now find a gimmick and ride that to the bank. American poetry would suffer from the absence of his work. He didn’t waste time denouncing the formulaic work going on around him; Whitman the poet-journalist wrote like no one had before, undaunted in the face of just how much work had preceded him. It is time to stop giving credence to competition and to poets who make spectacles that simply firm up the dominant order. Let’s look to poets who throw us off our game and make us think in unsafe ways, violations that enlarge us instead of parlor tricks of privilege that keep the disenfranchised invisible. Fear of the unknown is our greatest asset, not a cause for cutting other poets down or condemning their efforts. Noam Chomsky, known for observing that language has its limits, also famously notes, “What is mysterious to me is not an argument that it does not exist.” Cue the poets.