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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Serious question

Do we think the value of poetry consists of bringing us into contact with someone of specially privileged subjectivity? That would explain a lot.

11 comments:

Thomas said...
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Thomas said...

This is why Flarf is so important. It offers what is clearly a poetic (and valuable) experience that simply cannot possibly be explained as "contact with someone of especially privileged subjectivity".

If you read Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures alongside his Leaving the Atocha Station you get a similar experience: the former can easily be imagined as having been written by the narrator of the latter. (Of course Adam is not actually Ben, but there's nothing implausible about thinking of Adam as the author of the Figures.)

Vance Maverick said...

Without any ill-will toward Flarf, that point should already have been well made by the centuries of pre- or non-Romantic poetry. Including "lyric" in the simple sense of song -- are Campion or Walther von der Vogelweide sharing their souls?

Andrew Shields said...

A poet as someone with "specially privileged subjectivity" is certainly a relatively common popular understanding of poets. But we don't need flarf to see that poets have been skeptical about the idea for a long time.

Eliot: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

Vance Maverick said...

As a teenaged romantic, I definitely thought art was about subjectivity. I saw the artist's privilege or distinction not precisely in his/her own subjectivity, but in the expression. We could all, in this view, aspire to commune with the most extravagant sensibility, if not necessarily to express it so well ourselves. But even this mysticized variant of the doctrine is ruled out by Eliot's famous lines.

Thomas said...

I agree that Flarf was not the first to make the point. But few innovations in poetry, to my mind, have ever made the point so forcefully. It has always been possible to (mis)read a poem as the expression of an especially valuable form of subjectivity. I'm sure there are readers who sigh in profound empathy with "voice" they hear as they read the Waste Land.

Like I say, the importance of Flarf lies in the impossibility of that kind of empathy.

Jonathan said...

Well the whole language poetry movement did a lot in this direction, and in the decades immediately preceding flarf.

You could still attribute a privileged sensibility to the poet behind the flarf text: he or she is knowing, superior to the material of the poem, showing his or her privileged vision of contemporary reality... You just don't attribute that knowledge to the speaker(s) of the poem.

Thomas said...

I want to say that some poems are more resistant to the attribution than others.

It's relatively easy to attribute it to Barrett Watten's Progress, for example. (It's wrong but possible. In fact, I suspect even Watten makes the attribution on some days.)

It's almost impossible with Lerner's Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan.

It's (almost) absolutely impossible with Mohammad's Mars Needs Terrorists.

I mean, you could do it. But you'd have nothing to attach the attribution to it. You'd just be trying to make it stick.

Thomas said...

As to the poet/speaker distinction: I think that problem will always remain. I mean, if you see a well-made chair you might admire the craftsmanship and, by extension, the craftsman. If the poem is good there'll always be that kind of subjectivity.

I suppose you're right in that sense, actually: there's a tendency to think that the competent craftsman is also a "better person".

Okay, still thinking....

Maybe mastery of the craft of "writing emotions down" does actually imply, at some level, a "privileged vision of contemporary reality". Dwelling on it, I suspect, still interferes with an accurate perception of the poem as poem. But I guess it's possible that you need a special kind of subjectivity to make a poem, so success in the making of a poem demonstrates that you have that kind of subjectivity.

Jonathan said...

How about reactions to "Chicks Dig War" (Drew Gardner)? There people read the poem as being sexist, and thus attributed the language of the poem to a sexist speaker / poet. This could be seen either as violation of sensitive poet code or as violation of taking responsibility for one's words code. Either way, people tend to read lyric poetry as embodiment of a poetic subjectivity. To read it as an anti-war poem I have to assume a certain subjectivity that would echo bellicose language in order to make fun of it.

Thomas said...

Okay, I have to admit: When I read Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot", I said to myself, "Here is one of the best minds of my generation." I suppose that's like saying, "This poem brings me into contact with someone of specially privileged subjectivity." ("I saw the most privileged subjectivities of my generation, starving hysterical naked...") But the reason I thought that was precisely that the poem seemed to extricate itself perfectly from the subjectivity of the emotion it was presenting and the primary emotion it presents, it seemed to me, is the desire to be thus extricated.

I think Andrew is right to cite Eliot. I've always said that Flarf should be seen as a perfect expression of Eliot's criteria, a poetry that radically satisfies New Criticism (and therefore forces us beyond that kind of reading). But I guess that means that such poems will always be written by "those who have personality and emotions" and therefore "know what it means to want to escape from these things."