Saturday, February 11, 2006

institutionalizing poetics

Damn the postal service. Our mailbox got whacked during Hurricane Wilma last October – I mean deeply whacked: buried under a stack of tree limbs, the metal post broken off level with the ground. As soon as our yard got cleared, I rescued the box itself, which now looked like Daffy Duck's head after one of those TNT-swallowing incidents, tried to restore it to something like usability (let's just say at one point I was inserting a tire jack into it in an attempt to uncrumple it), and duct-taped it to the top of a handy three-foot stump at the end of the driveway. And there it's been ever since, until the duct tape wore away a few weeks ago. Now it balances atop the stump, except when the letter carrier leans out of his/her jeep to stick mail into it (then it inevitably slides off, usually into a big puddle when it's been raining) or when a windy day tips it over. Anyway, the p.o. has now informed us by rude form note that our mailbox is inadequate: apparently they won't deliver mail to anything that requires the letter carrier having to (horribile dictu!) actually get out of the vehicle.
Sighted, a couple of displays of virtuosic snarkiness:

Michael Bérubé and the vile David Horowitz are at it again; Michael wins on points, because
a) Michael writes gracefully and makes good funnies (tho snarky funnies);
b) David knows neither how to punctuate (e.g., "Michael take note" needs a comma) nor how to insert accents into proper names (for "Berube" read "Bérubé");
c) Michael's right: David's a pathological liar and an evil dwarf.

On another front, Joshua Clover responds to Dan Hoy's rather weird essay on Flarf (should that be capitalized?) with some flashes of characteristic "more (cultural-)materialist than thou" snarkiness. But I'm taken with his final paragraphs:
If there's anything new-ish to the action, it's the presumption that poets should have theorized their own work explicitly and completely as a necessary supplement to the poetry, without which it can't be trusted or read as such (thanks to Tom Orange for the conversations regarding this topic). For this, Hoy can't be held entirely responsible; the relative success and insight of recent poetics in making theoretical accounts of itself that are at once persuasive, and relevant to poetics in general, has perhaps produced a certain set of expectations. Certainly there is a rise in general in the sense that poetry is well-accompanied by the author's "poetics," as seen in, for example, the collection edited by Spahr and Rankine (and the follow-up, Sewell and Rankine), or the increasing footage given over to critical writing by the poets in the back of the Norton Anthologies.

This issue — of how responsible poets are, especially those who make some claim on unfamiliarity, for theorizing their own practices — seems worth pondering further. This is true in part for exactly how historicizable an issue it might indeed be; it does seem inseparable from the endless parallel debates about the increasing academicization of poetry and the increasing centrality of the writing workshop.
So let's ponder it further. By "the relative success and insight of recent poetics in making theoretical accounts of itself that are at once persuasive, and relevant to poetics in general" I suspect Joshua means the array of theoretical and poetics-oriented writings produced within the general milieu of Language poetry. But I'm interested in how this has been institutionalized, how the writing of poetics – often quite apart from any engagement with "theory" in the sense that the term is most often used in the academy, but nonetheless drawing on the etymological sense of "theory," to look at with detachment – is being written into the requirements for creative writing programs. One can see this in the web pages of various CW programs around the country, which have begun requiring "theory" and "poetics" courses, and some sort of "poetics" component to their theses & dissertations. Even Our University has instituted a self-reflexive "poetics" moment into the requirements for the MFA.

All very different from when I did an MFA back in the day, where the very notion of an MFA student actually writing prose about what she/he was doing was seen as an idea landed straight from Saturn.* Without making any judgments about whether the general quality of work coming out of the poetry industry has gotten any better since management started requiring students to produce blueprints of their processes,** I'd agree with Joshua that this is straight-up "academicization," the final downfall of the old "workshop"/"atelier" model of teaching writing, which can now look only wistfully back on its origins as an artificial imitation of the buzzing café or the intense mardi, where the young gathered – voluntarily, with no grades assigned, no registrar involved – around the table or at the feet of the elder artist. What's at the root of it all, one suspects, is precisely how profitable creative writing programs are to universities.

*Read no nostalgia there.
**My sense is that it has, but I wouldn't hazard a causal relationship.

1 comment:

jane said...

Thanks for thinking through these things. For what it's worth, I'm not sure that I draw the same conclusions. I'm interested in the expectation that poets ought to have theorized their own work in certain ways -- and how that expectation might be historicized. I'm less interested in debating whether actually theorizing one's own work is good or bad, and am prepared to take that on a case by case basis.

Relatedly: from my own experience of writing programs, I would say that it's frustrating that "poetics" (et al) courses are expected in lieu of critical/analytic courses happpening down the hall in the English Department. I am not at all averse to the idea that writing program students ought be expected to labor over critical knowledge, and indeed, contra your history, fear that these poetics classes are disreputable not for being an unnecessary supplement, but rather an insufficinet one: a pale compensatory veil to cover over the absence of historical, aesthetic, and philosophical engagements that were once far more common among poets. When I hear "mardi," I think Mallarmé and Valery.