Monday, April 25, 2011


Steve Burt laments, on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, that there's just too much happening in the wide world of poesy, that he can't keep up anymore, what with the distractions of a job, a family, a real life, etc. Once upon a time, when we were 25, we could feel reasonably au courant with poetry – in my case, I read Poetics Journal & Temblor & Acts and got all the new books from The Figures and Roof & browsed thru Poetry magazine and a bunch of the big-circulation journals every issue, & hung out with some cool people who told me things to read. And I felt reasonably up on things.

But now it's all different. As Steve puts it,
Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines...
Man do I sympathize. With the expansion of the internet as the primary medium of poetry, & of the endless chatter of poetry-promotion & poetry-discussion – of pobiz, in short – it feels like there's been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it. Ron Silliman, in various blog-posts, has celebrated the explosion of poetic activity; lots of curmudgeonly types have grumbled that the poetic world's going to hell in a handbasket, now that everybody's gotten into the game (paging Dr. Pope – an outbreak of Duncitis...).

My own sense is that something real is indeed happening, if not in terms of the proportion of the body politic writing poetry or maybe the raw numbers of poets active, but certainly in terms of the increased availability of poetry & the discourse surrounding it. There's clearly more out there to be read. But perhaps more importantly, the internet, & such devices as a poet-heavy Facebook friends list, work to give one the momentary illusion that if one had the time & energy, one could somehow get a handle on it all. One could, like Milton, read all the books that matter.

But that's never really been the case, at least not in our lifetimes. Every year, I discover poets who by rights I ought to have been reading back in the late '80s. When I'm reduced to madras shorts and a white patent leather belt (the local octagenarian uniform), I hope to be discovering poets of the 2000s & 2010s I'd somehow missed. And that's part of the process of one's reading life, I keep saying to myself, trying to muster a zen-like equanimity about my own absymal out-of-it-ness. The internet wants me to believe that I can have it all, right now. But the state of not being able to have it all, of having to pick and choose & have things picked & chosen for one, is in the end the human condition. Or at least my human condition.
On t'other hand, the irrepressible gadfly Kenneth Goldsmith would taunt us – or at least taunts Steve B. – with the prospect of a veritable tsunami of recycled, reframed, & regurgitated preexisting texts, repackaged & put on display by a new generation of "language hoarders" who have no interest in outmoded ideas of "originality" or "expression." "This ain’t E-poetry or Net Art: this is all about a basic change in the ways in which we use language," Kenny G. tells us with glee: "We will never write the same way again."

Don't get me wrong: I'm fascinated by projects like those of KG, or Vanessa Place, or Craig Dworkin, etc. I've screened "Sucking on Words," the Goldsmith documentary, for a half-dozen poetry classes, & have seen the best minds of my last undergraduate generation promptly set to work cannibalizing their Facebook feeds and text messages to reframe them as poetry. It's a little too early, however, to put to rest a several-millennia-long habit of making poems out of the air, stringing words together in combinations that strike one as new. The internet will probably have as deep an impact on human verbal sensibilities as the printing press or the codex did, but I suspect one impact it won't have is to wipe out the human tendency towards verbal creation, in favor of varieties of repackaging preexisting word-strings.

And anyway, it's too early to tell, innit? Part of me sees Kenny G's flood-tide of digital verbiage as a kind of cottage industry version of what late capitalism is already doing with language; part of me strives desperately to see some kind of subversive potential in the new conceptualism. But my hunch is that it's always going to be in coexistence with more or less old-fashioned compositional impulses.
My own gesture towards temporarily reefing sails in the face of the hurricane of poetry – as I think I've mentioned – has been, for the better part of the dire "National Poetry Month," instead of reading as I usually do a dozen or so newish slim volumes of contemporary verse, to read straight thru Christopher Ricks's Oxford Book of English Verse. Not the best anthology around, but by no means a bad one, & at the moment the handiest. Just finished it this morning; more on that later.


Norman Finkelstein said...

I rarely suffer from this particular sort of anxiety. A long time ago (long before the Internet), I realized that there was no way I could keep up with all the new developments in poetry. I had a small handful of favorite journals, I skimmed a few others, and when I was in a decent bookstore (you remember those, don't you?), I would treat myself to a couple of promising titles. More importantly, I relied on my friends to recommend the work they felt I could not afford to miss, and I would do the same for them. It worked out OK. Now, paddling in the electronic sea, I still steer my course in much the same way. If there's a really big to-do about a book or a poet, I figure I'll hear about it sooner or later. Meanwhile, there are just a few other books that I hope to read, even before they issue me those madras shorts.

Vance Maverick said...

Thanks for the reference to the Goldsmith video (it's on Ubuweb). Curious how he performs his poetry straightforwardly "well", with a coherent expressiveness, almost as if he were a singular author of the performance. (Not that the shadow of a smirk altogether evaporates.)

Anonymous said...

read the Goldsmith essay and though I am not a fan of his actually this is the first thing of his I've read I will offer:

no matter what the medium
garbage in
garbage out


that was the bottom-line conclusion that was prevalent in the early days of computers IBM 1401 s 7070 s

so all of your students say the 24 year old MFA s in Creative writing "will never write the same way again"

how can they develop their own voice if they are taught by you how to steal, sort-and-shuffle, mimic, and imitate
those who knew/know how to use a pen, or a typewriter.

I glanced at Tao Lin .. totally forgettable just like Dworkin and Goldsmith

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I agree with Anon

Poetry's become a fashionable language game:and the academics have killed it.

Too many experts, too many students, too many MFAs & not enough lyrical heart out there.

It really is depressing sometimes.

Vance Maverick said...

Yeah, since the last Georgian anthology it's been all downhill. Bet you never thought your blog would come to this, did you, Mark?

Nick Piombino said...

I liked your point about conceptual poetry as a "cottage industry." I've long felt that to be a poet in our time often awakens a desire to have one's productions be generated as quickly and as massively as technology appears to be able to do. "Get a horse" Goldsmith et. al. seem to be telling the rest of us, as they create works in seconds the equivalent of which used to be labored over for years. But while I watched Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" tonight I was reminded with a sense of wonder of just how old the human desire is to patiently trace by hand on some part of the outside world what is seen and experienced each and every day by the mind.