Showing posts with label tribalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tribalism. Show all posts

Can There Be Poem Criticism Without PoBiz Criticism? (Matt Koeske)

This post grew out of the conversation in the Comments section of the post "Thread: Writing Forum Survey" . . . and is oriented especially as a response to Monday Love's comment (#13). As the scope of Monday Love's (and the below post's) topic is much larger than any response to the survey, I thought it would benefit from having a topic of its own.

I'm inclined to take a small (?) detour from the insightful and compelling argument of Monday Love (regarding the dynamic of polarized insider/outsider coteries in the poetry world today and the relation of this dynamic to the functional criticism of poems themselves) posted in the comment section of the post: "Thread: Writing Forum Survey". I'm not so certain that discussion of poetry can or should stand in the place of a discussion about the current social and psychological behaviors and attitudes of poets or of the PoBiz (if that is was Monday was implying). I tend to see it the other way around, i.e., no functional discussion of poetry can take place without first "deconstructing" (and more importantly, understanding) the platforms from which those discussing speak . . . and perceive. My feeling is that this blockage is due to a "tribalization" inherent to the PoBiz organizational dynamic. In other words, various splinter schools of thought in poetry do not have any successful interactions or relationships with one another (no cross-pollination . . . they don't even have an abstracted symbiotic relationship in the same ecosystem).

Take the various tribes that seem to cluster around poststructuralist, academic notions of language, the "post-avant" or those influenced by language poetry and by postmodern, culture-theory-laden, literary criticism and philosophy. They come up with new names for their tribes pretty frequently. They are fashion horses for the clothing of names ("signifiers"), but the mindsets and core beliefs don't change (nor does the love of naming things for the sake of naming things). From what I've seen, the various splinter tribes that could be categorized by these things do not very often self-criticize the writing within the tribe, but often write scathingly about more "mainstream" poetic styles, using intellectually derogatory terms like "quietude" to issue a merely tribalistic or prejudicial rejection of those poets who don't belong to the "post-avant" tribe.

At the same time, those poets who identify strongly with the mainstream, "workshop-bred" writing that most classrooms and poetry journals are devoted to, respond to the "post-avants" with general ignorance. It seems to me that any discussion of poetry and poetics between these two groups is essentially pointless, because tribal prejudices eclipse any functional reflection on the poetry itself. One might as well listen to the politician's campaign ad slam of his or her opponent in the hope of getting a fair, critical assessment of that opposing candidate. If we are to provide useful critiques and reflections on the poetry coming out of these two (perhaps the largest two?) camps, we must write from a perspective that transcends or avoids the tribalistic, Us vs. Them warfare. This doesn't require poetic knowledge or "good taste" or critical expertise so much as it requires a psychological and sociological understanding of group behavior (especially, in my opinion, of tribalistic group behavior . . . which is the conventional social structure of academia, precisely where today's poets inherited it . . . with a surprising eagerness to join and partake of the empowerment of "professionalization", and with a distinct lack of reflection, I might add).

Equally, the understanding of how contemporary poetry publication impacts what kind of poetry is published, taught, and celebrated cannot be derived entirely from an examination of the poems (and the complimentary ignorance of those poems that are generally not getting published). We would need to understand the dynamics of the market, how and why it buys and sells what it does . . . how money comes into the publication system and who is giving and receiving and channeling this money. That seems especially important to me because the two largest sources of funding for poetry today are (I believe) contest submission fees and grants (from government and other organizations). It is hard to calculate another channel of funding, which comes from the tuition of the many thousands of undergraduate and MFA students who are paying universities to make them into poets and/or help give them access to publication venues. Only people as starry-eyed and detached as academic poets could ignore the realities of market systems and economics in this capitalistic day and age . . . divorcing themselves both from modern reality and from the scope of thought beyond their specialized field (as a creationist might ignore evolutionary biology's ideas and research).

I think that what happens all too often in the poetry world today is that the poets are not really analyzing and questioning the system in which they strive to create and find identity and audience. They are not asking how the system affects poetry, defines poetry, determines poetry in America. Poets are not looking at the systemic level, at complexity and interrelation. They are looking only at the short term and only through the lens of abstract ideologies that falsely present contained sets of conditions, as if poetry today existed only in its own little Petri dish. They are thinking in terms of "How can I get published/find an audience/gain status (and maybe a career teaching)?" They are not considering externalities or consequences of the system. They are not asking whether the system commodifies poetry or how that commodification affects what poetry is or how it is defined (by the PoBiz system).

Poets feel their world and their ambitions are so small that there could not possibly be such externalities . . . but if poets were 1/10th as well-read in the psychology of groups and crowds (and tribes) or in the study of complex systems, they might be more inclined to understand how cause and effect occur in such a system. The naive faith that many poets share regarding the "smallness" of the poetry world is effectively negated by the lack of adequate diversity in that world. I mean the lack of poetic diversity, the lack of a diversity of attitudes toward poetry, poetic status, and publication. When the vast majority of the agents (an anthropology term denoting individual volition and some degree of self-interest, not meant to imply anything like "agent provocateur" to the more paranoid readers out there) in this social system are doing and wanting the same things, the system does not benefit from the counterbalances (i.e., "self-regulations") greater diversity could provide.

Another common belief among poets is that anything that benefits the increased publication of poetry is an absolute good. This belief is the typical reaction of poets to the recognition that poetry is not widely read or paid attention to in America. Therefore (they conclude), it requires some kind of "affirmative action". There is no contemplation among most poets of how this "affirmative action at any cost" might negatively affect the system and the poetry it produces. There is also little to no reflection on the fact that boosting poetry book and journal sales with grant and contest money does nothing to encourage non-poetry readers to start reading contemporary poetry. The audience for poetry is an audience of poets, almost entirely. Another fact that is not often noted is that there are more poetry books published each year in contemporary America than there every were in previous (less-academic) eras. Some poets who have recognized this flaw in the notion that poetry publication requires social welfare subsidization have hailed this as a golden age in poetry publication. But again, this glut of poetry publication is funded largely by aspiring poets paying contest fees on the gamble that they, too, can be published poets, poets of status. The sales of contemporary poetry books to non-poets or those who do not aspire to become poets is dismal (as most would expect).

I think it is essential that we look at facts like these and contemplate the effect they could have on the character and quality of American poetry. And this, I think, should be done before any aesthetic discussion of published poetry can be entirely valid. In other words, I suspect that there is a very strong effect on the character and quality of poetry based on a simple observation of the current publication system.

And I mean with this that we should go back to fundamentals in the criticism and study of poetry. We should be asking all over again, "What is a poem? What defines poetry? What defines a poet?" When I read contemporary poetry, one of the primary questions I ask of the poem and poet is "What are you doing to make sure this poem is not a commodity of the PoBiz marketplace? What and where is the individual (unaffiliated) vision behind this poem." Almost every contemporary poem I have read fails this personal criterion, because the poem and its author seem to lack the awareness that poetry is even in danger of commodification. The great disease of today's poetry is a lack of awareness of the larger world, of humanity as a species in its modern predicament. Today's poetry mostly looks academically specialized and small-minded to me in the same way that most academic writing has no appeal or meaning to non-academic readers, readers who are not professionals in the specific field being written about. From my perspective, most of today's poetry looks exactly like it was written within an academic market system like the PoBiz offers . . . and without any awareness of the compromises and dangers such a system presents to art and to the evolution and adaptivity of language itself.

As an additional minor note, although I don't deny that the dynamic Monday Love describes (in which an outsider/insider polarization exists) can potentially occur, I haven't personally seen any real evidence of this in today's poetry world. What I have seen is very few outsiders and poetry dissidents . . . a surprisingly tiny number, in fact, especially considering that I have also observed a great deal of dissatisfaction (even in academia) with the current state of poetry and its publication. Of the dissidents I've met, I've yet to meet one whose poetry (if I had the opportunity to see it) struck me as absolutely aesthetically defiant of PoBiz or contemporary academic conventions. Much, even the well-written and most interesting, was "regressive" and resembled the poetry of an earlier era. "Regressive" is not meant as a criticism here. It's merely meant to indicate that the poetry did not really directly challenge the PoBiz system in its conception or style . . . except in the sense that fundamentalisms always react against modernisms (i.e., not progressively). What I'm saying is that I have yet to read any contemporary poetry that really progressively transcended the inheritance and indoctrination of our PoBiz era.

Back in the days, I once questioned whether one could be a true "Poet" these days by writing poetry at all. Perhaps the qualities and voice that defined and/or should define a Poet (e.g., individual vision, functional innovation in thought and language, the desire and effort to speak to and for a large and diverse social collective, to articulate the thoughts, feelings, and voices this collective can't seem to put into words, etc.) have been barred from the language form published and labeled as poetry. Of course, most poets were and will be nonplussed by this proposition. But I still feel this notion is viable. And by "poetry" here I am not referring to poetic stylings, spoken word, rap, performance oration, etc. . . . but to what is defined (by the PoBiz) as poetry, what literary artifacts are deemed "poems" by the poetry establishment, what is published in "poetry journals" and in "poetry books".

In the very small, very underground, very disorganized resistance to the PoBiz, there is simply not enough mass and muscle to create the kind of self-defeating polarization with the "insiders" that Monday Love describes. As far as I have seen, outsider poetry of literary quality (not just adolescent, neo-Beat, rebellion poetry) has yet to be written in America. Or if it has been written, it has yet to find an audience or be disseminated or recognized . . . even by an underground of "Anti-Foets". I would even venture the guess that we, none of us, know what such poetry would even look like. It hasn't yet been conceived, because in order to conceive it, we would have to throw off the shackles of the PoBiz indoctrinations, monopolies, and colonizations that still imprison our thinking about poetry. I suspect that it is only after these shackles are slipped that we will be able to embark on the creation of such a poetry (or poetries, more likely). And that creation will not begin with a bang of genius, but with fumbling in the dark, wild misses at a glorified goal. Moreover, only when great critics discover, comprehend, and promote this poetry effectively would any sort of movement be able to start.

I think that there is some genuinely good and a great deal of well-written poetry coming out of the PoBiz publication factory . . . but any truly great and revolutionary poetry must, I feel, cut its umbilical cord to the PoBiz clean through and find a wholly new soil to stand on and cultivate in. This has, I believe, been the model of many if not all the major movements in poetry recognized today. Reinvention. Not an absolute reinvention (which is probably impossible), but a recognition and rejection of the element of contemporary poetry that makes it moribund. I believe that this moribund element of today's poetry is the PoBiz. And the PoBiz is a set of beliefs, ideologies, dogmas, habits, taboos, and totems (perpetuated and empowered by an indoctrinating, academic market system). The PoBiz is a culture unto itself, a mindset, a collective way of being a poet that is not only accessible for more aspiring poets than any previous forge of poet-making, but is actually a purchasable commodity. Poethood can be purchased today, and this purchase is significantly easier than earning poethood through the old-fashioned means, an individuating "trial by fire", an initiation not into the tribe, but into unaffiliated selfhood. The kind of selfhood that is not bolstered and comforted by a group of like-minded believers. This poetic selfhood is also every bit as much a strangerhood.

It is this strangerhood, in my opinion, that the PoBiz has emerged to protect aspiring (and practicing) poets against. The fear of individuated strangerhood is a great menace to poets and always has been, claiming many victims in every era of human life and creation. But I think we need to start seriously contemplating that, menace though it may be, such initiation into strangerhood could very well be the truly essential "education" one needs to become a Poet. Accepting and enduring this threshold of self-creation had always been the traditional and ritual poet-maker . . . until it was replaced by the model of purchasable poethood the PoBiz now mass-produces and sells. We must, at the bare minimum, ask of this transformation: what was lost and what was gained? And what is the value of each?

--Matt Koeske

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