Wednesday, September 30, 2009

our evolving crystalline structures and our awakening as multi-dimensional poets

Yes, I copied that text off the Tarot card packaging. But it's not Flarf, OK?

Last week at the Fall for the Book Festival Ron Silliman gave a talk on literary blogging. He opened the discussion with how he started blogging and gave some history of poetry movements and publishing in the US. If you follow his blog, you are already familiar with that part of his talk.

I asked him why he thought so many younger poets rejected his labeling a wide, varied group of poets as "School of Quietude" and why many rejected all labels for themselves and their poetry. I labeled anyone under 50 to be "younger," which he called me on -- so let's just say the two or three generations of poets after him. I'm am not desperately holding onto my youth. I embrace my middle-agedness.

It's been a week since he gave the talk and I'm School-of-I-don't-take-notes, but what I understood Ron to be saying was that he thought poets (and people in general) today view themselves more as individuals, but in doing so we're not accepting our social responsibility of considering the impact of our poems and the legacy we leave behind. He said that he thought labels were good and that if we didn't label ourselves, we could expect our "enemies" to do it for us (he listed some examples, for instance how the Beats were named by an unsympathetic critic).

I didn't take his use of the term "enemies" to be literal, but I bristled at both that and the idea being especially concerned with our legacies. Not that I don't think we're not responsible for our poems, I certainly do believe we are responsible. I just think there are different (better?) ways to be socially responsible than by attaching oneself to a group or drawing lines in the sand, viewing differing poetics and poets as opposition. That doesn't mean one can't acknowledge differences or conflicts in differing poetics. We're not all the same. Describing or even labeling differences isn't what bothers me. It's the us and them part. I don't see that as being socially responsible. I don't see that benefiting poetry or poets, not the art, the community or the individuals. I see that as funneling a lot of energy into distinguishing hair-splitting differences and defending a platform one may not entirely agree with for consistency sake or staying within a group. It strikes me as rather limiting.

Ron also said that many poets today are taking a little from here and a little from there instead of studying any one type of poetry or its history in great depth. He's probably right. That would certainly describe me. Why not do that? Why not educate oneself broadly instead of narrowly specializing? Or why not start out broad and focus in depth once feels confidence in one's own artistic identity? Why not grow organically as a poet and just see where that takes you? Why not be a blended poet? In a time when fewer people identify with a sole identity, why would we be expected to identify with one style of poetics? 30 (20?) years ago, bi-racial people were labeled as one race (usually not by their own choice, but by the culture they lived in). The same went for people's cultures, religions, politics, national identity, sexual orientation, career, family, etc. For most people, there were a set number of slots and they had to fit into one. Now that we're starting to move away from those kinds of ideas, isn't it natural that we'd begin to view other things, like poetry, as more multi-faceted?

Isn't the refusal to align oneself with one poetic an evolution of poetry? Could it be that poets are not necessarily any more self-centered or any less socially concerned than poets 50 years ago, but instead rejecting structures that are becoming less applicable and useful today? Could it be that poets are being offered opportunities at greater personal power and are using those opportunities to carve a poetic landscape better suited for poetry, themselves and yes, for future generations to modify and build on. Isn't that a way of considering one's legacy? I don't want future poets to feel constrained by a handful of categories or feel required to create one themselves?

Can't we maintain a personal poetics AND be contributing members to poetry communities and our communities-at-large? I don't need to be a Boy Scout to help a little old lady cross the street. I don't need to be a member of a congregation to donate time or money to worthy causes. I don't need to be a member of a political party to vote.

That's how I see it, anyway.

While Ron was here he went to dinner with my family. A good portion of the conversation revolved around computers and his and Chris' money jobs. Afterwards Chris made an astute observation. Ron does the same in both his money job and on his poetry blog. He identifies and analyzes trends to predict what's coming around the bend. It's an interesting, dare I say individual, way to approach poetry. Who says poets don't have marketable skills?


  1. Nice post, Reb. I think that there is also another element to the 'schools' issue, at least with regard to 'quietude' (which I have problems with): whether or not the Beats were named by an unfriendly critic, Jack Kerouac did speak of 'beatific' and 'beatitudes' and certainly many of them did at one point refer to themselves as Beats (or at least as disembodied poetics!) My problem with 'quietude' is that it seems pejorative, and dismissive, a little condescending and hipper-than-thou (did I leave anything out?) – and who wants all those things in their school of poetry (or to have that sense of themselves due to the inference?)

    Perhaps even more importantly: can their be a school of poetry that only includes unwitting or involuntary membership? As far as know, Billy Collins, for example, doesn't say he is a ... well, whatever it is called.

    Beyond that particular school, though, I agree that there are fewer and fewer such, and perhaps your reason is a good one for that – faster movement, more diversity, more mixing, more exposure to more, etc. I think that people do not tend to hold onto (or cling?) to things as much as they once did, and beyond that, there is an ever diminishing line between audience and performer. Identities are are either evolving or disappearing, depending upon, I suppose, how gloomy you feel about the subject.

    Speaking of not-gloomy – did you happen to read some of the Joe Brainard poems uploaded recently?

    I love them

  2. I said it on Facebook and now I'm gonna say it here: This is an excellent and balanced appraisal, and I both agree with you heartily and applaud you for articulating this perspective so well.

  3. I like what you've said here. I guess I would say that I can identify a bunch of poetic traditions or practices (not sure what may be the best word) that I've tried to learn from, in shaping my ideas and intentions with my own poems.

    For instance, 20th century poetry in Spanish, Chinese poetry of various periods prior to the 20th century, poetry of the sort associated with Robert Bly and James Wright and their cohorts (without trying here to give it a name), Japanese poetry of various periods, militantly left-wing political poetry of (in particular) the 20th century; and so on. These examples just to give maybe a sense of what I mean by traditions and practices.

    Certainly there are also other poets whose work I've tried to learn from, who don't necessarily identify themselves with particular traditions or practices or whatever other terms to use.

    Several years back, Diane DiPrima did a reading here -- it was shortly after a memoir book of hers had come out, and she read mostly from it, at the Walker Art Center, a large auditorium, a large audience, a packed room. After reading she took questions, and someone in the audience started to ask something about the Beat movement, and DiPrima immediately shook her head No, and said, "No, no, there wasn't any Beat movement. It was just a bunch of us who knew each other, and we would get together and read our poems to each other, and we would publish each other and organize readings together."

    She added that it should be possible for, say, five people to start a poetic "movement" by just meeting regularly, and publishing a photocopied magazine of poems, and doing readings at whatever local venues would have them, start a blog or website to connect with other like-minded people, etc.

    In a similar vein, when Ferlinghetti was here some years ago, and someone asked him a question about the San Francisco Renaissance, he said flatly, "There was no San Francisco Renaissance. We were all carpetbaggers from New York. I was from New York."

    It's my understanding (I've seen references to this many places, though can't quote one offhand) that it was Kerouac who, in effect, named the Beat movement (he said something somewhere to the effect, "We are a beat generation," with the various connections of beatific, beatitudes, also being "beat" i.e. tired out). Though it was apparently a reporter for, I think it was, Life magazine (I might have the magazine wrong) who was said to have applied the name Beatnik, sometime in the late fifties, as a glib and patronizing attempt to suggest some sort of subversive or Soviet influence (this was around the time of Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite)
    among people who were trying to create living culture amid the sleeping sickness of Cold War mindlessness. That anyway was Ginsberg's take on where "beatnik" came from, in a film interview I saw years ago. That may be what Mr. Silliman was thinking of regarding who named the Beats.

    Thanks for posting this.

  4. I agree with you, Reb.
    You know, it occurs to me that gen-Xers (that's us - how's that for a label we didn't pick for ourselves) are known to be resistant to advertising, for example, and resist anything that smacks of being "joiners" - whereas Ron's generation of baby boomers was all about doing things in big groups.
    And also, "School of Quietude" is misleading and not accurate enough to be useful to anyone. There, I said it.

  5. Hey everyone, thanks for commenting. I agree that part of the differing viewpoints is a generational divide.

    Arthur, thanks for sharing that link. I hadn't seen it before.

  6. I've recently come to the slow realization that I am a member of Generation Y, after many years of thinking I was always on the tail end of X.

    I think you're right on that we have become less likely to affiliate ourselves with established groups or schools or movements, and that we have come to see ourselves as complex, mutifaceted snowflakes. We live in the era of personalization, where everything from my Scion to my iPod reflects my inner specialness.

    So, do I think my poems fit into a lump category? No. I'm reluctant to say so. But, as your anecdotes about the Beats and the SF Ren point out, it's probably not my responsibility to sign up for a group. I will probably be put into one by others. I would love that person to be a critic, because it will have meant that someone who is a critic read my work and thought about it.

    But I also have my personalized little group of poets (mentors and peers) who I would consider part of my movement. But I don't think our poetic product shares much in common. I think it's our relationship to the art and to the artist community that is similar.

  7. Yeah, I have several personalized little groups too -- and our poems and poetics are different, sometimes a lot different. Now that you bring it up, my communities are based on a shared relationship to the art and community as well. Maybe that's becoming more common for our generation.

  8. Great post, Reb. It's felt like an "us vs. them" kinda thing since I seriously got into the po'biz back in 2002 with the first book. Although I'd been published often in the 90s in small journals and mags, I was blissfully unaware of the egos and attitudes that prevail. It used to keep me up nights until I realized I was never going to be the kind of poet that most other poets respect or read. I was going to do my own thing, find my own audience and if the "schools" didn't like it, well, fuck 'em.

  9. Reb, There are definitely 2 schools or movements in poetry. What I like and what I don't like.

    The Other Rebecca

  10. I wish I'd been there to say, YEA REB! The term poet is in itself restrictive enough without dividing us up into little groups that sound like high school cliques. Maybe the conversation your husband had with Ron Silliman explains why these categories are useful for him. I buy that. Not everyone learns in the same way. But a we/they mentality is against everything I believe in. Like you, I try to learn a bit here and a bit there. There is no need to form sides and fight. Few enough people read poetry as is. Helen Losse

  11. Yes, I'll echo the thanks of others, I appreciate your report here.

    I'll add a thought about the last thing you write about, where you mention Chris's (yr husband's (?)) comment that Ron does the same thing in the day job as on his blog, and then add your own rhetorical question, "who sez poets don't have marketable skills?"

    So far as Ron S. is concerned, I'd wager several books of poetry that while his day-job market analyses and forecasts no doubt share many characteristics of some of his blog posts (e.g., heavy on context and sharp insight), there isn't much of ANYTHING at all about his day job writing that is similar to his POETRY.

    See what I mean? I'd agree with your comment, in other words, if you changed "poetry" to "literary blogging." It's the latter skills that Ron can make some money with the day job. Some of the blogging skills show up in the poetry, yes, but really the POETRY (capitals used for emphasis here) is mostly a whole other approach, style, mode of thinking, and writing than what he produces at the day-job.

    Or do you think those clients pay huge bucks to get something back like Ketjak, or any number of parts of the Alphabet?

  12. I'm new to your blog, Reb, but I love your dreams.
    I, too despise labels, especially generational ones, seeing as I'm on the end of the baby boomer generation.
    Best we all keep trying to talk to one another irrespective of age, gender, culture and race. That's where poetry comes in. It transcends these divides. It unites.

  13. 'I'm am not desperately holding onto my youth.'

    You're not? Girl, I sure as hell am.

    Good post, Reb.

  14. Steve, I agree that it's not so likely that his job is much like his poetry. I meant his literary blogging-his approach to categorizing and presenting poetry. That's not a criticism, just an observation by my husband. I thought it was interesting and perceptive.

    Suzanne, nope, I'm enjoying getting older and entering middle age. I've never felt stronger.

    Elisabeth, thanks for dropping by. Hopefully I'll have some interesting dreams to post in the not too distant future.

    And thanks to everyone else for taking the time to leave a comment.

  15. Reb, hi! What a happy accident to stumble upon your blog and this perfect post as I sit munching a burrito in Wegmans, in the middle of a submission frenzy, searching for e-journal homes for my (often wildly different from one another) poems. Thank you for articulating this so thoughtfully. I couldn't agree more.

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  17. AWESOME. Reb! I had forgotten he had said that stuff about how poets only read and little from here and a little from there, but that had unsettled me... I love what you say about it! YEAH! There are so many poets and "schools" (if you're into those labels) and communities nowadays, why WOULDN'T you specialize? LUCY