Harriet

Categories

Follow Harriet on Twitter

About Harriet

Blogroll

Poets: Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know.

By Kenneth Goldsmith

bok2

The following words are from Christian Bök, responding during a Q&A session  at Kelly Writers House, UPenn, November 18, 2009:

“I think that my poetics makes it viable for me to excuse a whole variety of obsessive compulsive disorders. It’s not Asperger syndrome; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Half the battle of being a poet is trying to transform what would otherwise be dismissed as a weakness into a strength, trying to find ways in which something that should fail under other circumstances finds an ecology within which it can succeed. I think that the more mechanistic and regimented aspects of my work constitute a kind of intellectual crutch used to evaluate the merits of the work upon its completion — at the very least I know when it’s done — and I can see the outcome of the experiment and be relatively satisfied that it fulfills the constraints of this procedural program, this set of algorithms that I’ve established in advance. I’ve put the constraints in place in part to conduct a kind of scientific experiment; I want to be surprised in a relatively rigorous way by the work that I do. I think it’s almost impossible to surprise yourself because of course you’re supposed to know everything about yourself in advance. But by adopting a series of otherwise programmatic constraints, you create a hypothetical set of controlled conditions under which an experiment can be quite literally conducted and the outcome has the potential to be surprising. In effect, it has the potential to produce information.”

“The more delicate components of the work pay attention to craft. I’m probably technically oriented and it seems to me that among the poets that I know, many are very lazy and very dumb. I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know. They became poets in part because they were demoted to that job, right? You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that disciple actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel. I find this very distressing that the challenge of being a poet in effect to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself, that we tend to think that because we’re conditioned to use language every day as part of a social contract, we should all be incipient poets, when in fact people have actually dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice in order to become adept at it and I think that craft and technique are part of that. If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course. I joke with my students again that if it was simply a matter of saying, “You known you’ve written a good poem just because; you’ll know it was a good poem when it happens.” To me, that’s tantamount to telling your students that “You should just use the force, Luke” in order to write a poem. I don’t think it’s very helpful. But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.” I think it’s important that students are at least reassured that there are some technical aptitudes that they can adopt.

So I think that there’s two competing coincident strains to the work: on the one hand, I rely on this kind of regimentation so that I can evaluate the merits of my own work after the fact and I probably rely on a lot of technical rigor just so that I can feel what I do is actually justifiable, that it actually constitutes something of athletic or virtuoso merit.”

Comments (67)

  • On December 5, 2009 at 8:14 am pyrit wrote:

    Ha! Very good! I enjoyed that very much!

  • On December 5, 2009 at 9:43 am Carolyn Cochran wrote:

    Christian Bök’s remarks are insightful. It is hard to describe the creative process. We cannot dole out recipes to students and expect them to follow the recipe and produce a masterpiece. We can expect an interested cook to follow a recipe and thereby produce a delicious dish.

    Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Would Not Paint a Picture, I’d Rather Be One,” to me dramatizes the creative process when she speaks of the canvas receiving lightning bolts of melody.

    Not all poems are melodious. Therefore this analogy has its limitations. I find my poems are an emotional release and allow me to relate better with my family and friends. This too is not necessarily a laudable goal. I honor people’s attempts to express themselves in whatever manner suits them. We bury our most challenging thoughts just as dogs bury bones in the ground. I am happy that this magazine gives a voice to poets.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 10:33 am LH wrote:

    Christian makes great headlines, but he also makes great points.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 12:39 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Where Christian goes off the track is the assurance that the blind rules of thumb will always produce something of merit. But sometimes you gotta follow the rules of thumb blindly until you learn to see.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    One of the problems with teaching poetry writing is that the standards constituting excellence are not only fuzzy in and of themselves, but are split into different categories that don’t necessarily have anything directly to do with each other. Excellence in any one of these categories by itself is not generally sufficient to justify the practice of poetry as a respectable occupation one can claim for oneself without appearing to be merely “lazy” and/or “stupid.”

    As Christian points out, one strategy is to focus on rules one can follow (anything from traditional meter to elaborate aleatory procedures) so as to be guaranteed of a result that is in some way self-justificatory. One may not always produce great, or even very interesting art in this way, but if one adheres to the prescribed rules, one can at least assert that one has applied a measurable degree of skill, which lends some “legitimacy” to the work. What’s not clear here is how someone who has this skill is really any different from someone who happens to be good at crosswords, chess, talking really fast, etc.–the question of what is essentially “poetic” in the ability is unresolved.

    Another legitimization strategy involves the acquiring of mastery of the external facts and discourses surrounding poetry–knowledge about historical texts, contemporary movements, theoretical principles, and so forth. This, of course, is a skill set that is completely borrowed from the field of literary study, and also carries no guarantee that it will make someone a good poet per se.

    As I said, these strategies are not interdependent: one can sometimes get away with not knowing a lot about Homer or John Ruskin or Black Mountain or whatever if one has some elaborate and demanding set of formal operations one can carry out in an acrobatic and confident fashion, and one can get away with not having much of a rationale as to how one puts any two words together if one is able to demonstrate how steeped one is in various traditions. Obviously, the more any one poet can exhibit prowess in both these areas, the more impressive one’s total “cred,” but a greater amount of competence in one area can to some extent make up for a deficit in the other.

    In contrast to these rigor-based social performances of poetic self-justification, there are performances based on “sensitivity”–performances that stress the “wondrous” or “uncanny,” as Christian says. Here the supposition is that the poet is uniquely and mysteriously sensitive either to the world and the feelings it produces, so that he/she cannot help but describe things in a way that evinces this “genius,” or to the subtle aesthetic qualities of language itself, and its capacity to produce powerful feelings in us. This is, of course, the hardest kind of expertise to teach, and the effort to do so often invites a good deal of pseudo-shamanistic vagueness about “finding one’s voice,” or “having a good ear,” or “tapping into a flow.”

    So all of this is really just to echo Christian’s point that the basic problem of poetic “knowledge” has been vexed at least since Plato’s Ion: what we call poetic knowledge ends up being either knowledge about other, extra-poetic subjects like military strategy or botany or literary study, or not knowledge at all but some mysterious “gift” of inspiration bestowed by Olympus. In order to codify and commodify the idea of a unified field of poetic knowledge that can be advertised as an academic discipline, we have to conflate a bunch of different things that don’t always fit together smoothly, and pretend that they make up a coherent whole.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 5:24 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Both C. Bok & KS Mohammad make some thoughtful points, but in my view they leave out the most important dimension, without which poetry would be what it often seems to be, a trivial game of technical display or academic sophistry.

    Poetry happens to be the most vivid and powerful mode of human linguistic representation, or mimesis. It is a kind of weapon of expression; but without a necessary motive, without a need to actually say something, we might as well leave it where it often is, in its professional hamster cage or cold storage room.

    It might be useful to go back to an older cultural sense of the poet, as a sort of spokesperson for a people, a narrator, an assimilator & synthesizer of the experience & moral history of a whole society. Thus all the technical skills & aesthetic taste of talented poets result mostly in various forms of intellectual masturbation, unless they are actually inspired by a theme or an argument or a story or a melody or a harmony which the people as a whole somehow obscurely REQUIRE in order to go on.

    The social role of the poet remains an open question : but it gives a purpose to the disjointed or scattered elements of the process which CB & KSM seem to take for the whole situation.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 6:23 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Kasey Mohammad wrote:

    >In order to codify and commodify the idea of a unified field of poetic knowledge that can be advertised as an academic discipline, we have to conflate a bunch of different things that don’t always fit together smoothly, and pretend that they make up a coherent whole.

    Indeed. And in this, our current “avant-garde” seems to be doing just fine, generally speaking.

    But as the institutional situation of poetry deepens and “codifies,” there is, naturally, pressure to do more. I strongly suspect that from the bourgeoning technical-hip formation represented by Bok and Mohammad (and both of them very brilliant, to be sure) a more elevated measure of professional status for the poetic vocation will come, via ever more sharply defined knowledge-sets and rigorously applied instrumental techniques. And the bonus will be that such systematizing of method and purpose will nearly always fit together smoothly (to use Mohammad’s phrase) with institutional systems, methods, and purposes that grant disciplinary identity.

    We already have our Neo-Vanderbilts, here and there. The New Kenyons are on the way, it’s safe to bet. Culture recycles in its interesting ways.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 11:51 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    >Culture recycles in its interesting ways.

    Same old ziggurat, though.

    Inimical to poet & poetry.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 11:11 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Henry wrote, in response to my remark, “Culture recycles in its interesting ways”:
    >Same old ziggurat, though. Inimical to poet & poetry.

    Well, Henry, as Bourdieu would have it, Neo-Platonist appeals to purity and autonomy are themselves well-rehearsed moves within the larger game! See his study of 19th century French literature, in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field– his discussions around Gautier and the Parnassians, for instance. You know, I’ve been thinking of you for a while, actually (with respect, if strong disagreement), as the Leconte de Lisle of the poetry blogosphere…

    On the topic of Bourdieu and “cultural recycling,” here is some reflection on a portion of the poetry field– one that Mohammad, Bok, Goldsmith, and I, among hundreds of others (including you, in fact, anachronistically enough) actively do our utmost to stake positions within. Posted day before yesterday:
    http://isola-di-rifiuti.blogspot.com/

    Kent

  • On December 6, 2009 at 11:58 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    By the way, sorry for this, but can’t get over the curiosity: Is that really Christian Bok, or is it a Photoshop with a younger Nick Nolte’s head?

  • On December 6, 2009 at 12:50 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I don’t really think anyone has really gotten the point of Mr. Goldsmith’s post.

    The title of the post is: ‘Poets: Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know.’

    And then the entire post is a simple cut and paste of someone else’s words.

    ‘Day’, anyone?

    The only thing I know for sure is that there is no poetry on Harriet.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 1:21 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Really.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 1:32 pm ruth lepson wrote:

    depressing but mostly the case

  • On December 6, 2009 at 4:29 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Kent,
    “Neo-Platonist appeals to purity and autonomy”? Not sure what this characterization of me(?) has to do with KG’s post or this comment thread. But the outlines of a brave new world of professional poetry technicians, which you extrapolate from the Bok quote – well, this seems more like a pure autonomous platonic fantasy than anything I suggested above.

    I was trying to suggest, in my original comment above, something different. The poet’s role as narrator & mirror-maker – the channel of a culture’s values & history – shifts the center of gravity away from the poet as autonomous technician, and more toward the sense of poet as conduit – a medium for the spirit of the larger culture. This gets messy, especially when the poet seems to tap into deep currents which the culture wants to deny. I tried to get into some of this in the mini-essay over at Digital Emunction blog – the concept (out of Auerbach) of the “humble sublime” as a literary means of breaking through the crust of social habits & conventions, by way of an intense, passionate conjunction of the “high” & “low” (cf. Berryman, Gudding…).

    This is not something you can learn in school. It is not a “technique” – or at least not MERELY a technique, or a methodology.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 4:51 pm Don wrote:

    you can substitute “painting” “music” “sculpture” “dance” “architecture” for “poetry” in Bok’s piece and in each response and it’s the same. Bok & Mohammad are eloquent and entertaining but not particularly original–the mainstream (Donald Hall–Billy Collins) have been whipping creative writing for exactly these reasons for years, now, I guess it’s the other side’s turn.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 10:48 pm Doodle wrote:

    … As if art’s own nature were the only thing with which art were ever occupied. Then a proper self-attention becomes solipsism and self-regard, and poems are held to have no other subject than their own poemness. (C. Ricks)

  • On December 6, 2009 at 10:50 pm EC wrote:

    “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.”

    “Emotion recollected in tranquility” – not!

  • On December 7, 2009 at 8:37 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I didn’t intend for that post to sound to snarky. Just taking a pot shot at the flarfists and copycatters or, as I like to call them, the ‘antipoets’. :-D

  • On December 7, 2009 at 10:04 am Jordan wrote:

    I was wondering why Kenny was illustrating a post about Christian with a picture of Brian Williams.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 10:28 am Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote:

    Because Bok seems to think he has nothing to say or has a very low opinion of his thoughts, he needs an “objective” procedure to justify his existence as a poet. Since I do not share his feelings about the quality of my own thoughts or activities as a poet, I do not share his need for an “objective” standard either.

    Except for a statement at the very beginning, I think Bok argument is perverse and completely wrong headed. At the beginning he says: “Half the battle of being a poet is trying to transform what would otherwise be dismissed as a weakness into a strength, trying to find ways in which something that should fail under other circumstances finds an ecology within which it can succeed.” While this statement can be read as one of poetic assertion -implying that poetry involves the creation of new value- the rest of his talk denies, goes radically against what this passege is asserting. Bok’s main argument is that the poet should cede his/her identity to an outside “objectivity,” in that way, basically going against his/her grain. I find this proposal ridiculous. If the poet gives up his/her essence, the animus, why is he or she writing then (unless of course one is lazy and stupid). There are easier ways to make a living.

    Ciao,

    Murat

  • On December 7, 2009 at 10:30 am Henry Gould wrote:

    p.s. I have misgivings about my own argument, in comments above. Is poetry necessary, or supremely gratuitous? Is the poet essentially a free maker, or a servant of some “larger” idea or impulse?

    Maybe the real poetry is both, somehow. & maybe the most serious scandal of poetry’s social role is that it blurs the distinction between work & play, engagement & games.

    Ironically, if there’s no taste of iron, no whiff of necessity, the games soon devolve into a sort of hectic tedium.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 11:02 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    ‘so’ snarky, I meant. Jeez, I hate typos. You know, on a side note, I have finally figured out why there are so many typos on internet blogs. It’s not that we’re all bad typists at all. It’s because the electrons get all tangled up during transmission and reconstitute incorrectly at their destination. Remember the teleporter in that old movie ‘The Fly’? Same thing.

    I know this to be true because my father once owned a typewriter that couldn’t spell.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 11:38 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Face it, Murat. Turkish poets are stupid and lazy, too.

    Thank goodness for the conceptually advanced West, no? One day, maybe you people will get with it, surrender to procedural constraints, and become truly avant-garde.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 2:07 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Never forget that if you serve up enough hectic tedium you get tenure, which is the real objective of the game.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 3:02 pm Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote:

    Kent, but stupid and lazy is good in Turkey. It goes with baklava and Turkish delight and odalisques and decadence and all the other undeveloped activities.

    yes poetry is play, at its best, supremely un-productive, devoid of productivity increases, as the repeated words in this post seem to imply.

    lazyly yours (can’t spell either it seems)
    murat

  • On December 7, 2009 at 4:20 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Neither simply work or play, it eludes our categories. Great living lasting poetry – & it’s not all at that level – is like architecture, maybe. Both a beautiful thought from nowhere, & a necessary shelter. Like that dome in Istanbul, that seems to be “descended from heaven by a golden chain”.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 4:23 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    p.s. Awkward phrasing. Should have been “seems to HAVE descended…”. Or “seems to be suspended”. Or something better, you tell me.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 4:26 pm Stephen Russell wrote:

    maybe it’s all a creed/craft thing, a laura riding thing. maybe it’s a holiday thing, a santa thing. or a creative writhing thing. or…

  • On December 7, 2009 at 4:31 pm Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote:

    Henry, which one? Many seem “to be descended from heaven with golden chains.”
    Ciao,
    Murat

  • On December 7, 2009 at 4:50 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Murat,
    An old Byzantine writer whose name I don’t remember – or maybe it was a visitor from the West back then – described Hagia Sophia as such. (Mandelstam alludes to the phrase in his poem “Hagia Sophia”.)
    - Excelsior, H.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 4:57 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Procopius was his name.

  • On December 7, 2009 at 8:29 pm Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote:

    Henry,

    it is an incredible structure, I think, the greatest volume of interior space ever built. In the last thirty years or so, there has been a continuous restoration activity going on to reveal the mosaics which were whitewashed when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 (the Islam does not believe in pictures).As a result of the restoration, the space is partly occupied with scaffolding which reaches almost to the ceiling. In my twenties I saw the place without scaffolding, the memory of which still sticks on my mind.

    Very little damaged was done to Hagia Sophia except for the white washing, covering the mosaics with Islamic writing and some arabesques. The Ottomans added four minarets to the basilica and turned it into a mosque. Because of this stylistic incongruity from the outside Hagia Sophia looks like a beached whale, belying its sublime -absolutely sublime- interior, despite the scaffolding. To me, inside, Hagia Sophia looks like a “space ship” arriving from God (a touch of Jack Spicer here).

    Ottoman architects, particularly Sinan, were deeply influenced by Hagia Sophia. It is said that the Blue Mosque, built just next to it,tries to outdo the size of Hagia Sophia’s dome; but because The Blue Mosque is a single space, devoid of the lunging arms that a basilica has, it does not quite match the awesomeness of Haghia Sophia.

    Ciao,

    Murat

  • On December 8, 2009 at 4:42 am john wrote:

    Bok’s approach is mandarin, mannerist, formalist, and the stuff of his I’ve seen has struck me as ingenious, charming, and delightful.

    Henry seems to be pulling for a Hegelian conception of the poet as mouthpiece of the world-spirit as-it-exists at-the-moment. It seems to me that there is precedent for mandarin, mannerist, formalist approaches in times of declining empire; in other words, Bok’s approach must reveal something of our time, of our particular (corner-of-the-)-world-spirit.

    Bok’s formulation for poetry, “to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself,” is intriguing; and I would follow him completely up to the severe limitation — the mandarin, mannerist, formalist limitation — signified by the phrase that begins with the word “about.” I crave poetry that showcases something wondrous, uncanny, and sublime about a wide swath of life, including but not limited to language.

    Thanks for the post, Kenneth, and thanks, Mr. Bok, for stating your case. Stimulating stuff.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 9:00 am Conrad DiDiodato wrote:

    Bok shouldn’t be insulting the people who make it possible for him to draw a salary, firstly (unless this is part of a crafted ‘bad boy’ avant garde image he seems to be cultivating these days)

    Avant-garde?

    Bök’s very glib, just too self-assured for my liking, and that comes from a notoriety and acclaim too easily won.

    Real avant-gardists have always repulsed the bourgeois mainstream world, never really tasting victory til years after their death. And (as Peter Burger’s argued in his seminal 1984 book) the true test of avant-garde lies in its ‘social & ideological critique structure. Bök’s ridden on the coattails of experimentalists before him (Cage, Schwitter, the Oulipo poets in France), and has even adopted a fairly technical (geneticist) language lately to create a new type of poem that really isn’t a poem at all. Reducing a potential readership to “1″. And he’s calling poets “lazy and stupid”!

    Bök works to draw attention mainly to himself, making the most outrageous claims for “experimentalism” that are susupiciously similar to what’s been said and done before. And when Governor-General awards aren’t forthcoming he cries like a baby. I can’t imagine Duchamp, Tzara,Apollinaire and even Breton carrying on like this. Were they comfortable academic poets who won instant acclaim in their own day and age? Did any of them win a $50 000 prize for scoping out a dictionary five times cataloguing every single univowel word in the English language? Most died unknown and unappreciated.

    The true avant-gard works from the periphery, throwing barbs at the comfortable mainstream world of art and writing that really hurt and offend!Always reviled, shunned by publishers and most readers, leaving it to a few enlightened disciples to carry their work after them. And insulting the next generation of readers won’t certainly make that happen. Bök is kitschy and cute, already: commoditized already in a world where everything’s judged by ‘sale’ value.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 9:27 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Enjoyed this, Murat, merci! Hope to see HS & Istanbul someday.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 10:57 am LH wrote:

    I’m not sure people are reading beyond the headline, or the photo, which for people who purport to work with words and ideas, is a little worrying.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 11:03 am Bill Deng wrote:

    Why isn’t it also lazy and/or stupid to be disinterested in and dismissive of poetry’s past traditions?

  • On December 8, 2009 at 11:05 am LH wrote:

    I’m not sure where you are getting that, Bill. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Bok says here, or anywhere.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 11:19 am Bill Deng wrote:

    Sonnets. They always trot out the bit about sonnets.

    http://vimeo.com/7963755

  • On December 8, 2009 at 11:35 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Good & true points, John. But I didn’t mean simply to contrast the Bok/Mohammad game-playing technician with the inspired vatic mouthpiece of the zeitgeist. My original comment was mainly a response to KSM : poetry is only a jumble of teachable trivia until it’s magnetized (like EP’s “rose in the steel dust”) by a powerful theme, a necessity. Maybe it’s a purely aesthetic necessity : a force working through the poet or the form of the art-work itself : but at least it compels & is compelling as such. To respond to the “form & pressure” of the time, to give a reflective poetic shape to the actual historical problems facing a culture, this is not a passive magic exercise; rather it requires skills & gifts on an order of magnitude beyond those discussed by CB or KSM.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 11:38 am LH wrote:

    Ah, I thought we were discussing the above, but no, we have veered into the Cage Match.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 12:40 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    …where CB repeated, nearly verbatim (!) his petit bon mot about lazy stupid poets. Should a discussion of a poet’s poetics and more reactionary views be limited to one out-of-context quotation? He said something at one point in the “cage match” about “lace doilies.” Does anyone else find that implicitly sexist? Not to mention ironically dismissive of a highly technical, constraint-governed craft activity (i.e., exactly how he conceives of poetry itself)?

  • On December 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm john wrote:

    Thanks, Henry. I’m with you on the magnetization tip. A powerful theme, a necessity, yes; which, as you say, can be a strictly aesthetic necessity, or an inspired idea, such as CB’s “Eunoia,” which sports a skillfully, energetically execution of its inspired idea.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm LH wrote:

    Do check out the match referenced above. I think it speaks for itself, though if you have been watching poetry at all in the last decade you’ll notice it doesn’t add anything new to the discussion.

    And yes, both participants are very much on point. A slightly more generous description than we’ve seen.
    http://vimeo.com/7963755

    My question is why these either/or discussions? I am a big fan of Christian Bok, but I see him as one voice of many. One way of doing poetry. Why all these entrenched responses? It’s such a primitive, divide and conquer stance. I think there are many ways in to poetry and I do look forward to discussing ways in which those poetics intersect.

    Happy holidays all.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 2:43 pm ZZZZ wrote:

    I believe that your vitriol is misplaced, though expected. Bok doesn’t seem to identify the above statement as having a bearing on the avant-garde. Certainly not the avant-garde as you have narrowly (perhaps inaccurately) described. If we are to accept your definition of the avant-garde (as being that which sets out to be reviled and to offend), then Bok seems to consciously and directly avoid such a move, making his work accessible, whimsical, and entertaining. His practiced performance style further works against any attempt to claim (under your definiton) that Bok is actually attempting to enact an avant-garde maneuver.

    As such, the problem in this seems to be in your definition of the avant-garde, which becomes problematic as it is looked at more closely. How do avant-gardists manage to hurt and offend if they are ignored by publishers and readers? What distinguishes their “enlightened disciples” from the mainstream, particularly when you seem to indicate that there is an explicit goal of eventual acceptance? Bok, by “insulting the next generation of readers” (if that is indeed what he’s done), would seem to be following your definition to the letter.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 6:30 pm Stephen Russell wrote:

    because i tend towards the lazy/glib side of those discussions which suggest ideal constraints, especially concerning poetry, i’ll simply suggest one thing: read. The good student will discover that what seemed easy at one time may offer challenges he/she hadn’t anticipated. Jackson Pollock was quick to note the number of young painters dashing off their versions of a POLLOCK. Because, well, it couldn’t be that hard, right?

    lots of people consider haiku easy. yeah, they’re right. but a memorable haiku…

    follow this procedure and one is more likely to produce something worthwhile — perhaps, but one may miss the quirky stuff that could become more striking and not merely novel.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 6:54 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    I agree, the either/or dichotomizing is rather tedious. Such as CB’s assertion that you either get with the program of–with apologies to the ghost of Conrade–The Emissaries of Light, or you’re a recidivist doily-hooker. LH is right: the video does indeed speak for itself, tho I don’t think it says–with apologies to S. Morgenstern–quite what she thinks it says. CS’s rhetoric was, and long has been, far more diversity-embracing, conciliatory and humble than CB’s with-us-or-retarded boilerplate.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 6:55 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    That should, of course, be Conrad. Well, really, it should be Konrad, but who’s counting.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 1:56 am Brian Palmu wrote:

    “So I think that there’s two competing coincident strains to the work: on the one hand, I rely on this kind of regimentation so that I can evaluate the merits of my own work after the fact and I probably rely on a lot of technical rigor just so that I can feel what I do is actually justifiable, that it actually constitutes something of athletic or virtuoso merit.”(Bok)

    Poetry is aleatory. I agree that a lot of poets are lazy (though not stupid), but Bok can place his nose to the stone forever and still not end up with a “justifiable” work (as in Eunoia).

    Henry Gould has the right idea. So did Stanley Kunitz. Technical ability is important, even indispensable. But without the deeper, more abiding (and now unfashionable) qualities of comprehensive vision and intuitive trope structuring, poetry is only a higher form of linguistic hopscotch (as in Eunoia).

  • On December 9, 2009 at 5:17 am Mark Granier wrote:

    ‘But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.” I think it’s important that students are at least reassured that there are some technical aptitudes that they can adopt.’

    I’d be curious to see what Christian Bök considers ‘rules of thumb’. Does he set these out in the linked interview/discussion, or does one need to join one of his courses to find out? (sorry, but I’m presently too lazy and stupid to check for myself)

  • On December 9, 2009 at 8:50 am Conrad DiDiodato wrote:

    Good questions ZZZ!

    The avant-gardists were little appreciated and even less understood by the mainstream (bourgeoise) practitioners and theorists of their day. Check out Buck’s denunciation of Pound, to whom Pound refers to as “that idiot in Chicago”. Critics of Duchamp, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Cage, etc were also legion in their own day. It’s almost cliche to refer to the poor, penniless, unappreciated radical avant-gardist: right? Even Schwitter, the man Bok actively emulates, died penurious and really not that well known. It was a loyal following of appreciative followers who passed the torch to the next generation.

    If Bok is playing for laughs, speaking tongue-in-cheek, well that’s a different matter and I will mend my speech a little. But I think the man’s arrogance is genuine. I do appreciate, by the way, his anti-Canada Council views, and applaud him for it. Slaving over a dictionary for 7 years is admirable in itself,an impressive devotion to a completely unconventional view of poetry design & construction (but I wonder if it really is poetry, after all)

    But he isn’t the only one who’s spent years over his/her craft, and without the privilege of membership in an academic elite (actively buttressed by Canada Council and mainstream publishing)I doubt he would got the Griffen 50Gs. As I’ve said elsewhere I’d like to see poets from different walks of life (elementary school teachers, steelworkers, mutual funds administrators, etc) win the big prizes for their poetrywriting.

    Steelworkers? Timothy Russell, North America’s greatest haiku master, worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh before he retired.

    ZZZ, thanks for the opportunity to clarify some of what I’ve said.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 9:54 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Right. Whatever happened to negative capability? Behold the ghost of Keats, quaffing mead & getting a kick out of “procedures”.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 10:28 am john wrote:

    It’s too bad that CB doesn’t name names in his list of the lazy and stupid. But it’s shrewd. CB’s generalized formulation gives everybody leave to absent themselves from the attack, while still generating conflict, hype, notoriety — the provocateur’s hallmarks of success. Generalized provocation is easy, in itself silly and trivial, but sometimes capable of generating fertile discussion, as is the case here.

    The formulation, “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit,” is pure academicism. For decades, American schools of music composition told their students the same thing; they called the rules serialism. And the results rarely had merit to anybody outside the halls of master-disciple slavishness that can characterize any academy of arts.

    Here’s to Brian Palmu’s formulation, “comprehensive vision and intuitive trope structuring.” That’s the shizzle that can’t be taught.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 11:46 am Colin Ward wrote:

    Here’s to Brian Palmu’s formulation, “comprehensive vision and intuitive trope structuring.” That’s the shizzle that can’t be taught.

    Agreed, this being a good reason to concentrate on what can be taught.

    -o-

  • On December 9, 2009 at 1:42 pm Mark Granier wrote:

    “It’s too bad that CB doesn’t name names in his list of the lazy and stupid.”

    I presume he means everybody except (or possibly including) himself, so that would be a long list. Maybe something to make an epic poem out of.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 5:47 pm john wrote:

    Asking him to name names was a lame attempt to provoke him. I don’t really wish it.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 6:04 pm john wrote:

    What could be taught, isn’t, and should be, is rhetoric. Not just to poets, though poets would benefit mightily. I regret my vulgar ignorance in it.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 7:06 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    An excellent (& brief!) book on the subject : “Rhetoric”, by Renato Barilli.

  • On December 10, 2009 at 7:09 am M D wrote:

    These “rules of thumb” strike me as oriented to the poet and his search for achievement. These certain criteria have been met. I have achieved success. This creates a closed loop between poet and poem. Where does the reader fit in? Isn’t the reader the ultimate interrogator, so to speak, of the poem. Shouldn’t his values and judgements have a role? This seems a Poundian way of writing poetry. Elite symbols for elite readers. Won’t thinking like this keep poetry marginalized? I sometimes think there are poets uncocerned and even satisfied with this position.

  • On December 10, 2009 at 1:03 pm Jonathan Ball wrote:

    Zach, it’s a pretty far stretch to imply that the “doily” remark is somehow sexist. And I think Sina makes a good point — people need to stop knee-jerking their reactions and take the time to think and consider what’s being said. In any case, am I the only person completely disappointed by this “cage match”? Bok is recycling all his old sound-bites (much as I love some of them, as a friend of Bok I’ve heard them all before) and Starnino is more inarticulate than I’ve ever seen him. Neither really challenges or responds to the other. It’s the most bland, most boring cage match in history. The only reason to watch this “cage match” is for the two poems read at the start. Although already a great fan of Bok’s work, I found myself impressed with Starnino’s poem, impressed enough to consider buying his book, even if it ends up having a doily on its cover. Although I just blew my poetry budget on your book, so it’ll have to wait.

  • On December 10, 2009 at 9:23 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    Hi Jonathan,

    While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was intentionally sexist or that Bok is a secret sexist at heart, the trope is telling of a kind of reflexive metonymic dismissal of “women’s work.” Maybe he should start using marquetry instead of doilies. If, that is, the substitution doesn’t require a hard drive reformat.

    And yeah, I thought the whole thing quite an underwhelming barrage of dud ordnance. It would have been better, I think, had the moderator been more of an intrusive interviewer. I mean, really, a teleprompter could have taken his place and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Because the “discussion” turned into a sequence of soliloquies, it emphasized both the bored, over-rehearsed aspects of Bok’s delivery and the apparent stage-nerves of Carmine’s.

    And you should get Carmine’s book if you get some xmas money. It’s his best, overall. I think a lot of people who tended to dismiss his work as a poet have been revising their opinions. Even Stuart Ross was saying he really likes some stuff in it! Maybe you could review it for someone. I’d offer, but CNQ doesn’t review books written by its editors.

  • On December 11, 2009 at 9:02 am Jonathan Ball wrote:

    I don’t know if I want to step into the minefield of reviewing Starnino’s book, but I will check it out.

  • On December 11, 2009 at 6:11 pm Serkan ISIN wrote:

    Yeah Kent (and Murat?), stupid and lazy is actually good in Turkey, same as good as profiling and creating “opinions” from tired stereo types that goes around here since 1800s. We are a bunch of lazy “habibs” wondering, drooling about Western culture! As, very well documented in and Jackie Chan movie (80 Days Around The World) Istanbul is governed by Arnold and we dance, dance, dance!

    And Seyh Galip and Mevlana as Madonna showed you in your music videos, are some kind of Buddha’s with new and cool dance figures! Lennon and Beatles told that already in 1960s, but Mevlana says nothing more than “come together”. And you knew that already, thanks to Yoko!

    And our poetry is nothing but Farisi (persian) mumbling! We -who the hell are we?- some kind of barbarians still the time we crashed our heads to the walls of peacefull vienna!

    But even we, had some word for you two guys, a stereo type in our literature since 1890s: “zuppe” (in turkish) and you know that word from Homer Simpson maybe: “la di dah”

    Be a poet first in our terms, but around here we still love Pound!

  • On December 11, 2009 at 9:59 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Yeah, stereotypes… no fun. What do you like about Pound? He played a few stereotypes too… the guy with the little moustache….

  • On December 13, 2009 at 2:04 am Murat Ustubal wrote:

    I read all of your humoristic comments.. But “Facing it” without any finding,
    only with bias is not possible

    It’s a very easy way to say me that imagination
    in your own circ, circle and circumference is the laziest thing…

    On the other hand here in Turkey,
    we prefer making ‘gobek dance’ on the ‘corners’ of your cycles..

    However we know that, cycling is also a way of discovering another culture.
    You need to learn much than this about us.

    Thanks,

    Murat Ustubal, a stupid poet from the city of mystical poet Mevlana.

  • On December 13, 2009 at 2:07 pm Arthur Durkee wrote:

    It’s all well and good to be a technically adept poet, and focus on technique. After all, craft is the only thing you can teach in the classroom. You can’t teach hunger or inspiration.

    All the technical skill and craft in the world are useless if you really have nothing to say.

  • On December 16, 2009 at 7:21 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Bök!

    Humbug!

    Merry Christmas.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 4th, 2009 by Kenneth Goldsmith.