Literarisches Events (in and around Lawrence KS)

  • PATRICIA LOCKWOOD. Lawrence. Thursday, September 11, 7:00 p.m., Spooner Hall, KU Campus.
  • PATRICIA LOCKWOOD. Lawrence. Friday, September 19, 7:00 p.m. Lawrence Public Library. Sponsored by Raven Bookstore.
  • DENNIS ETZEL, JR. & RACHEL CROSS. Lawrence. Thursday, September 25, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.
  • TONY TRIGILIO. Lawrence. Thursday, Oct. 2, 4:00 p.m., English Room, Kansas Union, KU Campus. FREE.
  • CALEB PUCKETT & JUSTIN RUNGE. Lawrence. Thursday, October 16, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.
  • BEN LERNER. Kansas City, MO. Thursday, October 23, 7:00 p.m., Epperson Auditorium, Vanderslice Hall on the KCAI campus, 4415 Warwick Blvd.
  • KRISTIN LOCKRIDGE & ROBERT DAY. Lawrence. Thursday, December 4, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rethinking (Reality-checking) Poetics

I have been reading (w/some degree of amusement, I admit) the reports from last month’s “Rethinking Poetics” conference at Columbia University in NYC. All of the (first) name dropping and who-said-what makes it more entertaining than Rolling Stone and the E! network rolled into one. Ditto for the anti-academism coming from tenured academics (are we not supposed to notice? . . . ).

I especially liked John Keene’s fast-forward time-lapse quasi-versified précis of the whole thing – well worth reading through to the end. Frankly, it sounded like it was another (above-average) professional academic conference that went onto a lot of c.v.’s. Which is fine.

As I commented after that post, it also sounds to me like there was a lot of liberal hand-wringing going on – over the state of the world, and over poets’ inability to effect change qua poets (or qua academics). This is, of course, a very old sport, as any student of Anglophone poetry in the 1930s knows. The difference now, of course, is that there is not an over-arching, semi-numinous ideology to redeem it all – and no Uncle Joe to tell us we’re doing our part and it will all work out in the end. In fact, it’s looking less and less likely that it will all work out (has the bottom of the ocean dropped out yet?).

Those of us still clinging to (or dreaming of squeezing into) the comforts of lower-middle-class existence don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it and are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges. We want to fight the Man, but we want to do so by doing things that will also advance our careers (which involve working for the Man). One can retreat into the belief that cultural change will lead to political and economic change (“it may take a very long time, of course” . . . the problem is that there isn’t a long time. Read The Iron Heel, by Jack London, to see how discomfiting this time-scale can be).

Unfortunately, social movements require leadership, leadership requires enormous amounts of time and energy, and if one is leading a movement against People with Money, they don’t pay you for it (which, in the era of neoliberalism, means you don’t get paid) – until you get coopted or sell out, which requires you to work at it long enough and successfully enough (w/o money) to have something to sell. You have to eke out a living doing something tedious and exhausting, and then, “after hours,” do your organizing work (and there actually are people who do this). This is why poets generally aren’t organizers. They spend “after hours” writing poems and arguing with one another. Academics have to grade papers, prep class, do committee work, get published, etc.; we call this "burrowing from within."

It’s no wonder social movements are often composed of mostly young people w/o kids – they have the energy, resilience, lack of other commitments, and naivite necessary to achieve goals that are far short of what they had desired.

Rebecca Wolff wrote a pretty good piece on the relation of poetry to “social change.” She ends up sounding a bit like John Crowe Ransom (“Poetry butters no parsnips and delays the eating of them,” or something to that effect), with one big difference – Ransom thinks one shouldn’t write poetry that touches on political and social issues at all – which is true of some (unlikely) poet-critics today, as well. But Wolff doesn’t care about that, one way or the other. She does care about being dictated to, especially on the authority of grandiose and unfair claims for poetry. She gets exercised where I get amused.


Dale said...

Joe, I think maybe what's changing in today's socio-political context is that social movements, based on an exhausted liberalism, can't work. John Robb argues that instead of the movement what we have are "global guerrillas" and "resilient communities." His book "Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization" (New York: Wiley, 2007) looks at some of these possibilities.

The social movement today can't work for reasons that are obvious, as you describe. Foucault discusses the problem in terms of biopolitics--power controls our flesh. We want to critique the system but rely on it for survival. Deleuze calls it "control society." Capital is total. No way out, at least using models from a time period like the 30s or 60s or whatever, when "movements" made sense.

What almost everyone EXCEPT most poets are now discussing is how different kinds of social engagements CAN be used. But the goal is toward social production of relationships that foster survival, system disruption, critical awareness. Poets seem far behind the curve. They cry for social engagement through poetry then throw up their hands saying we can't do anything. Oh well. Back to vitae. I find it a great failure of imagination to take that stance. We can play goofy tricks with language forever. So what? Given what we're living in, adaptation to tools through stealth seem to work for others. It's time poetry thought about this too and looked outside their own concerns to investigate a little how others might use language, images, and performances to do things in the world.

Finally, just to bring it back down to the poetic/philosophical for a moment, Wittgenstein said something really interesting: “To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.” I guess if I were in the business of making bumper stickers or silkscreening shirts, I'd design this: "Forget the social movement, imagine forms of life."

Dale said...

Hey, Joe, I responded to this here:


Jim McCrary said...

Joe...good comments. i too enjoyed reading all the 'reports' from conference and responded to the Perloff incident at my blog:

Can't quite see the intrest ramp up for a poetics community response to the world if any of the arts have pushed society one way or other. Certainly very little examples of theatre, dance, music, scupture, painting, mime, puppets or hollywood/bollywood creating any social movement to create a better life out here. If I work to save a piece of working class history (Hobbs Park Memorial) and stick it in a park for people to look at...poetry has fuckall to do with it and could not help whatsovever.

Keep up your talking with Dale. Good to read.


Kris H. said...

Whatever change we may have a hand in making will be changed again in other hands in another time anyway. What I want to do is live. I would put that bumper sticker on my car, and then bury the car. :)

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

@ Jim - thanks. Seems like people who have done both poetry and organizing recognize the at-best-indirect relation between the two.

@ Kris - I love the idea for the pre-burial bumper-sticker. I want a bumper sticker that says: "Environmental bumper-stickers aren't."

Rachel Loden said...

Joe, thanks so much for this -- can you expand a little on your very interesting comment on The Iron Heel?

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

London's novel is written in the early twentieth century, about the late twentieth century (or was it twenty-first?), after a plutocratic oligarchy has assumed direct control of the US government and turned it into a militarist state. But the frame narrative takes place much later - the entire account is supposed to have been written millenia after that, when brotherhood and socialism have been around for quite a while. So, things only get better in the far, far, far distant future - when they can look back with pity on us poor slobs.

Trotsky said that London had anticipated fascism in The Iron Heel, though there is a kind of neo-feudal facade that rings true today. London obviously wasn't counting on any major near-term victories.

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

Oh - and of course, London didn't know about the impending ecological collapse the industrializing society around him was in the process of precipitating.

Rachel Loden said...

Fascinating (it's online). I read a bunch of London thousands of years ago but somehow missed this. Thanks.