Monday, October 8, 2012

Clearing the field: some notes on recent poetic theory

Sproxton, Birk (ed.) From: Trace: Prairie Writers on writing. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1986. Clearing the Field: Some notes on recent poetic theory George Amabile

Art is an open concept.
Why does a poem have to mean anything? Why can’t it just be a beautiful thing I’ve made out of words?
The Democratization of Poetry, Direct Speech, The Prairie Voice, Mythologizing the Past, Avant Garde, Experimental, Open Form, Modernist and Post Modernist. For the past decade or so, these cultural passwords have been invoked with increasing frequency. (Like theology, poetic theory tends to harden into belief, then crystallize into dogma, while the poem itself gets strangled by the source.) More often than not, they are used to forestall critical discussion, rally support, define allegiances, and so on. They have the force of a shorthand expression of unassailable consensus, which of course, does not exist. Thus, they inhibit thought and perpetuate a number of unproductive illusions about poetry and its relationship to the world. Instead of discussing the merits of shortcomings of individual poems, we tend to talk literary politics, to categorize, define trends and movements, or invent rationales.  
There are reasons for this. Poetry (in Manitoba, Canada, the USA, England, and much of Europe) has had to live with a rapidly shrinking audience. And yet, the number of serious and accomplished practitioners has increased sharply. As a result, poets find themselves competing more and more intensively for a diminishing “general readership,” for magazine space, book publication, reviews, Arts Council and Canada Council grants, for the critical attention of universities and scholarly journals, for inclusion in important anthologies, for readings, residences in libraries and colleges, for Artists in the Schools programs, and other kind of recognition. Such “professional” competition tends to change the character of poetic theory. Instead of an open-ended exploration, it becomes a kind of sophisticated sales-talk, attempting to validate one literary manner at the expense of all others. Under such conditions, serious discussion disintegrates into polemics, rhetorical stands, dead (or dying) metaphor, exaggerated claims, and a compulsive adherence to this or that poetic mode. The brief commentaries I offer below represent my own attempts to re-subtilize part of our theoretical vocabulary.
The Democratization of Poetry. This phrase is often invoked to validate a variety of poetry practices, including “the poetry of prose,” direct speech, and poetry written in “the vernacular.” The rhetorical strategy is succinct and effective. A powerful political buzz-word is (mis)applied within a literary context. Given our infinitesimal, mostly well-educated audience, however, such a term, grandly egalitarian though it is, can only refer to a shift in fashion among a very minute elite which includes poets and aspiring poets, academics who get paid (as I do) for (among other things) explaining poetry or coaching its production, students who must endure at least one English course in order to pursue their careers, and a few unusual people who include poetry in their lifestyle. Poetry in Canada (and elsewhere) is not only an elitist activity (like almost every other activity in our fragmented, nearly granulated culture), it is also a privileged one, protected from the rigours of the marketplace by government subsidy. And yet, though it is grossly inaccurate (in any populist or grass roots sense), this pseudo-political buzz-phrase continues to operate as an effective bit of sales-talk because of its hidden persuaders: If you don’t write like us, it says, then you are: 1. Elitist, 2. Right Wing, Conservative, Reactionary, Fascist, and 3. Out of touch with “the people” and the times. Of course, “the people” couldn’t care less, and those who most often invoke the phrase are usually thoroughly repulsed by Kilmer, Prather, McKuen, and the endless anonymous authors of greeting cards and golden moment memento books whose junk is grotesquely “traditional,” clich├ęd, gives poetry a bad name and sells like hell. 
Nevertheless, in another sense, within the very small world it has become, poetry is more democratic. Not because it has reached a “common level” of language, not through plainness, ordinariness, everyday reality, or any other homogenized concept of “the people,” but rather, through a rich diversity of individual achievement. What we need now, and what we are beginning to get, is a climate of clear, open-minded attention to new work apart from the regimentation of literary cliques and camps. I think Canadian poetry, with its vast multicultural frame of reference, is at the threshold of a new era which will see the development of a truly planetary sensibility. I think we will continue to move away from the concept of the “great poet” who speaks for everyone, and toward a pluralistic reality in which most serious poets will produce a few “great” poems within the context of a small but uniquely constituted audience.  
Direct speech. In a utilitarian society, efficiency is greatly admired. But efficiency is not the only quality suggested by this phrase. Like its cousins, Plain Talk and Unpretentious Language, it implies honesty, modesty and thrift. Thus, conventional wisdom is brought in to validate a literary style which is often incredibly restricted in what it can say, evoke, or suggest, grounded as it is in a literal sense of language which is one of the central precepts (and practices) of industrial society: one word, one meaning. Language as abstract information. Facts. Linear thought. In this view of things, plain talk is true while subtle or complex talk is weak, feminine, deceptive. But these assembly line truisms can be deeply repressive because they reduce all the immediate particularity of experience, thought and feeling to a limited number of acceptable expressions and ideas. “Common” language is a symptom of the collectivization imposed by our system of State Capitalism through media, education and peer pressure. It is narrow, thoughtless, automatic, conformist and predictable. I am not interested in the way “everybody” talks, but rather the way individuals talk, their specific, pungent quirks of expression. Of course, simple language can support an enormously subtle and complex vision (Cavafy, Seferis, etc.). But that is another story. 
The Prairie Voice. As the infinitely resourceful “ground of being” keeps changing when we probe it in sub-atomic physics, so the single “voice” we strive to hear and establish on the page eludes us. I think we are deceived here, by a very attractive metaphor (By the mechanistic model which dominated physics until Einstein and Planck. As the Greeks were by the idea of an irreducible “atom”.) which takes the intensely regional nature of Canadian writing as an absolute. Without question, regionalism is a source of literary vitality and has produced truly distinguished work. But, in its passion for isolation and self-definition, it can become, like Nationalism, vehemently conformist and prescriptive, assuming, as it does, that there is already a fixed Prairie (or Canadian) style, and that the writer’s primary responsibility is to stray as little as possible from its imperatives. It is also inaccurate to assume, as we sometimes do, that literature is determined by landscape, as though we were all sedentary, 19th-century agrarians who rarely travelled further than the nearest town. Most of us are very mobile, and many of our best writers have lived elsewhere (Canada and the world) for years or decades. A purist definition of what does and does not constitute Prairie Literature or The Prairie Voice could easily, as it hardens in the minds of readers, writers and critics, destroy what it hopes to encourage.  
Mythologizing the past. This is an increasingly attractive poetic enterprise. It is looked upon with great favour by Ministries of Culture because it is easily justifiable to the public and to other government bureaucracies; and it gives the writer the rare pleasure of feeling that he or she is making an important contribution. Shaping the “received” identity of a nation (or part of a nation) is an exhilarating task but it is not without pitfalls. 
When I expressed, at a recent workshop, my lack of wholehearted reverence for the past, a colleague snapped back, “You’re so American.” A conventional, clever perception. But is it true? The fact is, there is no country on earth which makes so much of (and lies so much about) its past as the USA. But it was precisely my discovery of the actual, de-mythologized, brutal, greedy, class-ridden, racist and altogether inhuman history of that country which curtailed whatever sentiments I might have had about its statue or value. Better to dismiss the past altogether than invent some glib, cosy, self-aggrandizing substitute. But of course that can’t be done. History is very much with us and will not go away. Our stupid, vicious treatment of indigenous peoples and the environment continues to plague us, as it must, and I am wary of poems that are little more than fantasies of glory and conquest and pioneering and other heroics, which, at bottom, were often motivated by avarice and depended on various forms of slavery, violence or deceit for their success. If we are to have a mythologized past, and I think we should, I’d like to see one that doesn’t flinch and fake it. 
I am not against myth, nor do I wish to minimize the importance of the past. What I find troublesome is the way we attempt to “mythologize” a past which only goes back a few hundred years. We do not want to look beyond that, we do not include in our mythologizing the whole field of time, and so our “past” isolates us and sets us against the “pasts” of other cultures and nations. Time is not divided, except within “the psychosis which is human history” (Northrop Frye). It is precisely the addiction to aggressive, destructive, technologically justifiable “progress” which I find unacceptable in “historical consciousness” because it has proven itself hostile to creative intelligence.  
Avant Garde. More sales-talk. This time in the form of a quaint, traditional, military metaphor which invokes the masculine mystique, and attempts to validate certain works merely because they are unusual. Not that original, eccentric work should be discouraged. We need to continually try and fail and try and see. It’s part of the larger process of literary growth. What I object to is the way the term is used to confer (or co-opt) special status and to claim a spurious superiority. It is especially inappropriate when used by those who present themselves as radical, anti-establishment outlaws while sitting firmly and comfortably in the seats of power, holding national awards, residencies, professorships, and so on, having enjoyed, for years, the success they pretend to dismiss as indecent. Now that their once innovative poems and theories have become a tradition, the revolutionary rhetoric they used in order to win recognition is used again to maintain power and the status quo. Thus, young, talented and truly original writers who do not conform to established “avant garde” practice are attacked for their reactionary, modernist, and regressive tendencies. And that is how young turks become old farts.  
Experimental. This time the metaphor taps the religion of Science. But scientific experimentation is a procedure which has specific, interrelated parts: data, hypothesis, experiment, control, and result. It is often inconclusive, and the actual experiment, the test set-up, is valueless by itself. “Experimental” poetry (and art of all kinds) is almost never accompanied by the aspects of scientific inquiry mentioned above, and so we are at a loss to know what is being tried, or what it is attempting to prove. In contemporary literature usage, “experimental” usually means, “I don’t know what I’m doing, do you? and why should it matter?” or “Don’t look too closely at this, I was just hacking around.” Actually, insomuch as they are the results of trial and error, most poems are the products of “experimentation.” To single out any one work or author as having special “experimental” status is pretentious and absurd.  
Open form. Honest, sincere. But also, that each work, like each person or blade of grass, has its own unique and unrepeatable form. So far so good. But it is not enough to simply spread words around on the page. That is only “symbolic” openness. What we need is to open the poem’s frame of reference, toward a planetary, cosmic, perhaps timeless, context for our personal, regional experience, so that what we can write can become resonant in the widest possible field of attention. Open form without open consciousness is nothing more than a superficial mannerism. Once we write it down and print it in a book, the “open” poem closes just as stubbornly as a sonnet or a sestina.  
Modernist. Postmodernist. Cops and Robbers. Niggers and White Folk. Nazis and Jews. But there are no good guys and bad guys in poetic theory. Or there shouldn’t be. These terms, aside from designating approximate periods of literary history, are worse than useless because they polarize and set into conflict diverse but valid approaches to the poem. As stylistic categories, as definitions of aesthetic or linguistic practice, they stink. That’s why, though I experienced a brief attack of dutiful solemnity, I was greatly relieved when Ed Dyck, at a recent conference (The Death of Realism, St. John’s College, University of Manitoba) told us the news. Postmodernist is dead. R. I. P. And may it soon be joined by all those other isms which continue to provoke us by trying to narrow our field of attention so as to satisfy their insatiable desire to categorize, diagnose and prognosticate. As a description of the poetic mode that has dominated Prairie Poetry for some time, I prefer the term Laurie Ricou used in his lecture at the same conference: The Poetry of Prose. I think this is a much more accurate way of conceptualizing the theoretical framework within which most Prairie (and Western?) poets have worked.  
But do we have to work within a theory in order to write good poems? Maybe not. The technology of poetry, unlike the technology of industry or medicine, does not replicate and is not transferable. What works for you probably doesn’t work for me. That’s why, when I am involved in the writing process, I need to clear my mind of principles, rationales, and justification. I want, more and more, to write from a state of absolute stillness and clarity, beyond will, or ego, or theoretical programs. That way, maybe each poem, each impulse, will find its unique resolution. I no longer see any point in trying to develop a neat, predictable signature style. Perhaps because it is extremely unlikely that any poet or group of poets will be able to speak, as Yeats did, for an entire society, I find myself more and more interested in the individual poem, rather than the poet or school it has come from. Maybe we should refuse to sign our little masterpiece, let them speak for themselves beyond favour or reputation, theory and rhetoric and hype. It might free us a little from the rigours of salesmanship, and remind us that, in a very real sense, we have come to the end of history. Now that Science has understood its limitations, and Nature is clearly an exhaustible resource, what I look for is a poetry, whatever its mode or theoretical persuasion, which will express and help us to participate in the wholeness of life. And I think we are beginning to get that in the work of many young writers, in Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies, in the modified ghazals of Patrick Lane’s new book, and elsewhere. Canadian poetry seems to be moving away from the projective (projectile?) verse of Charles Olson with its linear drive, its Post-War masculine ethic, and its fear (hatred, distrust?) of the “eternal present of the psyche” (Jung) or “the paradise of the archetypes” where time “is recorded biologically without being allowed to become history” (Eliade), and toward a more lucid awareness of “the unity of the experience” (Joseph Brown). I think this a part of a larger, and I hope inevitable, development in Canadian society toward a trans-cultural, planetary tradition which supersedes nations and even languages and has its roots in the vast psycho-genetic resources of the human species.  
I’ve also detected a climate of renewed mutual interest and support among poets here in Manitoba, and a softening of theoretical boundaries. After all, it’s the same no matter what theory you fly by: The enthusiastic mess. The confusion. The work. Not a mechanical application of principles and moves, like assembly-line work, but the slow, lively inter-play of meanings, shadings, rhythms, textures, balances – all under the temporary roof of a thing you think you’re saying or letting happen – the process, the continual adjustments, discoveries, rightnesses. The fact is, we all know how to write. But it takes time, and patience, and energy freed from public ambition for a while. So what if our grand quest for The Prairie Voice fails? If the shaman finally arrives in a suit of saran wrap? So what if our theories and movements and rationales are little more than throwaway shelters built out of buzzwords and dead metaphor? When the bandwagon crash and the structures totter around us, what we walk away with is the small excitement of some possible poem, and the quietness in which it might begin to breathe.

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