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The End of History
Patricia says “I want to be a major poet!” I do too. What does ambition mean in this field, arguably a field of diminishing returns?
One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was sitting in an old friend’s $25 million dollar apartment on Park Avenue, sipping a fabulous single malt. He’s perhaps the biggest art collector in New York. He made is fortune on Wall Street and he collects amazing stuff and has an equally amazing place to store it all. Plastered on the walls and scattered across the marble floors everywhere were Gerhard Richters, Ed Ruschas, Louise Bourgeois, Yves Klein, Maurizio Cattelans, Tom Freidmans… you get the point.
After a few scotches, Glenn said to me, “So, Kenny. I used to love the works you showed when you were in the art world. Tell me, why did you leave to become a poet?” It was a good question and one which I asked myself many times. From 1987 until the mid-90s, I had a very good gallery career and could be considered by all measures a successful artist. I showed with a top gallery, made a handsome living from my work and regularly visited the types of apartments that I was sitting in at that moment. After some thought, I said, “Glenn, while I was a successful artist, I knew in my heart that I’d never be an important artist; I knew that, judging by the trajectory my career was taking, I’d never be able to change the history of the field. While other factors intervened — mainly the fact that I was simply dying to write — I was in poetry the chance to truly make a difference in the historical discourse. While the work itself was the determining factor — again, I needed to write and nothing was going to stop me — in art I saw career; in poetry I saw possibility.” His face was blank and as he lifted his glass to his lips, he said incredulously, “So you went for history rather than money?” “Yeah,” I responded. “I think that if you ask any artist, they’ll tell you that a primary motivator to their becoming an artist would be to make history, not money. If one happens to make money along the way — as many artists do — all the better, but I think for many, the chance to change a field outweighs material gain.” Really, he just couldn’t understand what I was saying.
So, we find ourselves here in poetry, at the epicenter of nonmaterial gain. I think for some poets (and artists — though from this point forth I’ll be speaking on to the direct concerns of poetry), history isn’t of major concern. Kwame recalled a few posts back a dear friend of his who wrote for herself without any ambition; while he expressed his respect for her practice, he couldn’t conceive for himself an ambitionless practice. Kwame has thrown his hat into the ring of history. And judging by his career, he’s got a damn good shot at being a part of that narrative.
So how do we determine if what we’re doing has any historical impact at all? I think this all depends on how we define the poetry world(s) that we choose to inhabit. Speaking for myself, I see that in the segment of innovative (or experimental) poetry, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done. Surveying the field, it appears to me to be wide open. Compared to the art world where, after Duchamp, anything can be art, there’s a sense that in poetry world — even within more innovative camps — that certain things are poetry and that certain things are not. Coming from the art world, this strikes me as an untenable & unsustainable stance, both aesthetically and historically and one that is bound to implode any moment.
What’s at stake here? I have a very close friend who has been called the most radical of the first generation Language Poets and we’ve had an ongoing discourse for the past fifteen years. It seems that when we get to talking, we always end up splitting on certain issues. No matter how “radical” you might have thought Language Poetry was, this friend of mine keeps clinging to the concept of “poetry” as validating concept. He can’t consider anything that doesn’t look like “poetry” to be “poetry.” Beyond that, he’s deeply opposed to my generation’s idea of the unedited text. He feels that if it’s not edited carefully, he’s not able to consider it as “poetry.” In addition, if a piece of writing is not readable word-to-word, then it’s not “poetry.” Again, such qualities are all tropes of the next generation’s writing, conceptual writing, where the accumulation is more important than word-for-word content; where close reading is abandoned in favor of distant reading; where editing is anathema to language management; a concept where all words are weighed by the pound, rather than by their intellectual or literary merit. In short, it turns out that my Language Poet pal has some very conventional ideas about poetry.
Now, it’s always been my feeling that Language Poetry put the period on the end of the modernist sentence. If you’re playing an innovative game, after Language Poetry, there’s no more deconstructive work to do. That project has finished. The next step then becomes a reconstructive project that sees language as a whole again — moving information — but, like certain strains of postmoderism, acknowledges the cracks in the newly reformed linguistic vessel. To put it in art world terms, Language Poetry is akin to Abstract Expressionism and we, the next generation finds themselves in, metaphorically, 1961 with the reconstructive idea of Pop Art as the next logical move. Extending the metaphor, historically the possibilities of the 1960s lay before us.
So, history. Is there work to be done? Indeed. I often use Brion Gysin’s quote from 1959 that poetry is 50 years behind painting. And if we take that to be true and our ambitions steer us in this direction, then the possibilities of changing / impacting this field at this moment are absolutely staggering.