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Writing and Failure (Part 7)
Ange Mlinko has suggested in her recent post that the avant-garde avoids an engagment with the sensuality of experience, when in fact nearly every variety of avant-garde practice takes delight in the material pleasure of language itself—the jouissance of its phonemes and textures, often freed from the arduousness of sense. Ange admits to disliking discursive, essayistic language in poetry (and I totally agree that such anecdotal reportage is almost always tiresome), but I am not so sure that the cited poets, whom she dislikes, actually make a habit of indulging in such asensual, abstract writing at all. Ange dismisses both the Black Mountain poets and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets out of hand and then goes on to celebrate, as exemplary, a work by Basil Bunting—but ironically, Bunting has written a poem in the tone of a short essay, subordinating the concrete, material language of “seafoam” to a lot of abstract claptrap: “its restless immobility infects the soul”; or “its indifference haunts us to suicide”; or “strong memories…exasperate impatience” (to cite but three of many examples in the work). I think that, in this poem at least, abstract nouns outnumber concrete nouns to such a degree that, if submitted by one of my young poets in class, such a poem might actually “foment” some very discouraging commentaries about essayistic meditation, in the hope that the sensual appeals of the “real foam” in the poem might otherwise prevail….
Poetry not only fosters, but also endures, extreme degrees of incompetence, the likes of which other artistic practices see fit to weed out through the intense discipline of their school, through the drastic costliness of their medium, or through the protean evaluation of their market. Of all the artforms, poetry now requires only the most picayunish investment of time, cash, and work, for practitioners to declare themselves competent enough to meet the requisite standards for acceptance by other peers in the field—and as a result, poetry has become the artform to which middling artisans can find themselves happily demoted after they have failed in harder fields of expertise. Do not ask poets “to write what they know,” because they know very little of anything. If such poets know something of epistemological significance, they have much more lucrative incentive to become experts in physics or history, biology or finance, where they might reap the rewards of their epiphanic discovery—but because “math is hard,” such intellectuals have little choice but to become poets in the hope that they might increase our sociocultural understanding of language itself. No other artform, however, has set both its standards and its ambitions so low that it now no longer feels obliged to redress even its own sociocultural inconsequence. No other artform has managed to produce bourgeois audiences so apathetic that everyone who attends a reading politely applauds even when the poet performs with a forthright deficiency so egregious that, if committed by a musician, such inadequacy must nevertheless result in the immediate dismissal of the offender from the stage under a hail of booing catcalls and rotten tomatoes.