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Beyond Careerism? (Redistributing Poetic Effort)

By Thom Donovan

This past week at Poetry Foundation Jim Behrle published a talk he’d given at St. Mark’s Poetry Project last month (and which apparently first appeared at one of his blogs some time back) called “24/7 Relentless Careerism.” Behrle’s talk is a hilarious rant against the career motives and moves of contemporary poets. One would have to have a heart of stone not to read Behrle’s piece and laugh aloud. And one would have to be seriously naive not to believe that much of what Behrle describes goes on to various extents.

That said, I cannot help but see the situation from a different perspective than Behrle (or at least the Behrle of “24/7 Relentless Careerism”; Behrle is, after all, a poet, as well a tireless community organizer and activist for poetry within the community around the St. Mark’s Poetry Project). Often, I feel frustrated by all that one cannot do as a poet, what one seemingly gives up through one’s devotion to poetry. And how far short of reality—of exigent political and social conditions—poetry would often seem to fall. Likewise, it is frustrating to feel as though one is at the mercy of an apparatus of contests, and editors, and prestigious academic appointments in order to be appreciated for one’s work. What Behrle expresses eloquently is a cynical perspective I have no doubt is shared by many. That one can only follow one road now, and that that road is paved by mediocrity and meticulous calculation.

When I went to Buffalo for graduate school in 2000, I was fresh out of college (I deferred for a year between college and graduate school). When I applied to Buffalo, I didn’t apply anywhere else. It was Buffalo or bust. I wanted to go because I admired Charles Bernstein’s and Susan Howe’s work and had grown up on the poetry of Robert Creeley and the poets of Creeley’s generation. Having met Howe when I was a college freshman, I had no doubt that Buffalo was a place where I could learn to be a poet. That’s all I wanted. And, if nothing else, that’s what I got from Buffalo. A practice as a poet. Common ground among other poets whose work I admired.

I am still grateful for this. Looking back on my time at Buffalo (Bernstein had three years left, Creeley would pass away in four, Howe was preparing to retire), it seems like a miracle I got there when I did. To work with Howe and Bernstein, and also with Myung Mi Kim and Tony Conrad at Buffalo has instilled me with an enormous sense of good fortune.

My decision to apply to Buffalo was a fairly hapless one. It was motivated by eagerness, and interest, and desire. When I attended Creeley’s memorial service at Buffalo I remember Robert J. Bertholf (at the time the curator of Poetry / Rare books at the university) thanking Creeley for inviting him to “come along for the ride.” When I get to host a reading, or correspond with a contemporary, or I am invited to give a reading I have a similar feeling of gratitude to simply be part of the conversation. If I become critical of something, I think it is in relation to and out of respect for this sense of conversation. Many of the poets who I feel closest to feel burdened by a sense of privilege and would try to conduct themselves counter to this privilege. Among these poets there is an ethical commitment to poetry—the writing of poetry as not just counter to “official verse culture” (which it is obviously always in relation to), but as the principal expression of the poet’s desire to be and act in specific ways within the world.

At its best, I think that poetry can make things seem possible again. Possible worlds, possible sensations, possible ideas, possible ways of being, possible relationships. I also think that poetry has its limits, and that a major limit of poetry (or most modes of aesthetic production for that matter) lies in its inability to effect immediately practical changes in reality. As Tillie Olsen reveals through her book Silences, there are “natural” hiatuses which occur throughout a writer’s life, and then, more often than not, there are hiatuses which occur as a result of economic and/or socio-political violence. For women and minorities such imposed hiatuses have obviously occurred more frequently than for any one else. There is also a hiatus that I believe occurs out of a sense that poetry does not suffice in the face of strife or emergency occurring in the world. George Oppen’s twenty-five year hiatus during which time the poet fought in World War II and organized for the Communist Party is a famous example of such a hiatus. Similarly, there is Robert Duncan’s hiatus during the 1970s during which time the poet did not write or publish. Laura Riding Jackson gave up poetry because she did not feel that it could represent “the real,” and spent the rest of her life writing text books which, in prose, extend many of the preoccupations of her renounced poetic practice. There is also the legendary case of Rimbaud, who became an arms trader; an act which Mallarmé likened to amputating one’s arm while still conscious.

Mainly, I want to suggest that there are counter-actions to the kind of careerism Behrle skillfully describes in his essay. And one is to imagine the poet acting beyond the boundaries of poetry both as a literary genre/medium and as it is embedded within a set of institutional practices and cultural locations. What happens when a poet works without words, in mediums not their ‘own’ (as so many poets have done)? What happens when a practicing poet produces something outside a culture or context of poets/poetry (as so many poets also have done)?

Thinking about poetry as a labor and a field of production is crucial here. Because I believe that part of the difficulty with contemporary poetry is that poetry, for many, has seemingly ossified as a field of production and now seeks its revivification in other cultural activities. Off-page poetries—performance and somatic poetry, conceptualist poetries, ecopoetries, and other poetries which redistribute themselves across multiple fields of production—are therefore of the hour. While many poets obviously still do write poetry for the page (and I am someone who personally believes in the power and potential of page poetry, not to mention poetries traditionally identified as ‘lyrical’ ones) many others are writing across disciplines, genres, and modes/fields of production. So while many of us are still wrapping our heads around late-modernist appropriation practices, we also have yet to adequately address the more complex problem of how off-page poetries redistribute poetic effort within a more expansive and extended field of cultural production.

Following Paolo Virno’s book, A Grammar of the Multitude, I would also like to take poetry, at bottom, as a labor. While this labor may not be easily quantifiable, there is nevertheless a finite energy that one can put towards the generation, distribution, and/or critical reflection upon/of poetry (what, traditionally, has been considered the ‘work’ of poets to a large extent). What, I often wonder, if this effort was to be radically redistributed? If the poet is also defined by their having a practice of using language in ways considered to be poetic, what would it mean for those practices to be displaced and put to uses other than they were intended? What, in other words, if one was to voluntarily and tactically use the labor power they would normally afford to the writing, distribution, and/or critical reflection upon/of poetry towards another kind of labor? What if such a hiatus were organized? What would this experiment result in?….

Comments (33)

  • On March 13, 2010 at 8:29 am Joelle Biele wrote:

    Thanks so much for this, Thom–

  • On March 13, 2010 at 8:28 pm Amber DiPietra wrote:

    Oh wow, thank you Thom.

    This is what I most needed to read today—more than anything.

    It breathes new energy into all of the following:

    The “on the page” collaborative piece Denise Leto and I are working on, ‘suspension’ as we think of it, a poetic experiment around letting all the “hiatuses” as you refer to them into our process, a process which is constantly suspended/on hiatus/interwoven with our disabilities/chronic illness/how those cause all other daily labors to take so much time….

    And the imrpov/performanc piece I am about to do with Denise and Petra and Eleni — which I am quite terrified of because it does not allow me to be poised and positioned as the page would, which is entirely the point…..

    That fake-poet guilt I get about how I cannot afford to spend enough time sitting at the desk writing/sending work out/etc when the body necessitates so much else…

    And all the time it took me today to get out of bed and how much extra time the laundry takes when the body doing it is not very agile, feeling so defeated by the late hour and having just sat down at my desk now to work……

    And a strong desire lately to never again write a poem alone, in my bedroom, for myself again, but try and figure out how I can do poetry with patients in hospitals, hospices, rehab centers, etc….

  • On March 13, 2010 at 9:52 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    People want to pretend there’s an alternative to careerism. Would it were so. But as long as existent socioeconomic conditions obtain, there ain’t. It would clear a lot of cant if everyone writing about this topic would read Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production before suggesting ways to get outside the structural laws that govern the field, Baron von Munchausen-style.

  • On March 14, 2010 at 1:06 pm Matt wrote:

    i haven’t done any careering. it’s not that hard.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 3:21 am Bobby wrote:

    Every time someone like Thom says something like this, I have to force myself to remember a terrific passage that John Wilkinson wrote in an essay on Andrea Brady:

    The more art’s uselessness has figured as an exalted reduction, the more lyric poetry has been drawn towards prosodic movement as primary, with analysis and argument conducted under the aegis of this last-ditch spirit–spirit now lodged in the ruts of lineation and the angles of enjambement. For uselessness is merely a status, while spirit is its working afflatus. About the spiritual mist, the dawn horizon trembles and shines, or as Allen Grossman has put it: “In the outlook of the lyric person the horizon has ceased to be a precinct and has become a vortex.” Uselessness gives rise to spirit and spirit to the tentative sublime.

    It reminds me that what’s true of art might be true of artists too, in which case there’d be something to admire in those poets who, like out of willed or naïve self-deception, do not accept that uselessness is merely a status, those poets who, however materialist their professed convictions, get themselves giddy on huffs of the working afflatus while insisting that their indolence and failure in the face of “exigent social and political conditions” is the surest sign of their sanctity.

    And yet still it boggles the brain that someone can join Behrle in mocking the bad road “paved by mediocrity and meticulous calculation,” while at the same time celebrating the benevolent “eagerness, interest, and desire” that just happened to lead to the door of the University of Buffalo, where three—no, you’re right, let’s call it two—of the most important and interesting American poets of the last fifty years just happened to be assembled. (Must have been some amazing soup they served in the dining hall there.)

    But then I guess it’s no more surprising than the proposition that conceptual poetry, which (at least in the practice of its primary instigator) can be defined precisely as an art played out in the medium of po-biz careerism, is some how a trapdoor out of the world of hierarchy and value.

    Well, here’s a little secret I’ve learned during my many years at elite institutions: that’s the game *they* play, too, the privileged careerists you despise. They climb the rungs of power, and when someone asks them how they got all the way up there they tell them it must have been luck, or talent, or chance, or nature–anything but the actual social mechanisms that helped and help keep them keep them in their place.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 9:05 am Jordan wrote:

    There are ten tags to this post. I like tags.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 9:13 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    When I decided to devote myself to poetry (and it’s a vow I have to continually renew) I also understood that this meant I might not ever be read.

    So far I have been lucky, but the external can’t be what poetry is about. Not if it is to sustain one.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 9:41 am Jordan wrote:

    Let’s leave one out of it. You’ve been lucky and also good. That’s the combination devoutly to be wished.

    So anyway: The external is at least half of what poetry is about.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 9:53 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Here’s a good place, poets under 40, to start a career:

    http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/

  • On March 15, 2010 at 10:05 am Bobby wrote:

    So far I have been lucky
    You’ve been lucky and also good.

    This is just what I’m talking about. You’ve been lucky and good, absolutely, but you’ve also done a number of the things that a person who wants to be read should do (put out a book with a serious publisher, edited an anthology, started a blog and invited other poets to participate, blogged for the Poetry Foundation). None of these latter, I hasten to add, are bad things, but why this felt need to deny the role they play in one’s career life as a poet?

    I think I’ll start a Facebook group for poets of honest ambition; I sort of doubt it’ll get more members than that pickle.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 10:10 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    O, whenever I hear the flatulent word “afflatus,” I pine for sublime early morns, by plant gates of Milwaukee, fifteen below with the West Wind blow, a 4th International pamphletus held out in the icy silence of a living hand…

  • On March 15, 2010 at 10:43 am Jordan wrote:

    Career, life — it comes to the same thing.

    It takes about twenty years to become a poet.

    It can go faster if you don’t have to work, but not always.

    “To become a poet” — to know exactly how much you’re never going to know.

    It’s amazing that people can get jobs having to do with poetry.

    Poets exist mainly to keep other poets from writing.

    This includes poets who teach.

    In this function poets resemble time itself.

    Think of it as a service to humanity.

    Think of the poetry that makes it through as an ornament to civilization.

    Stop putting the science news and jokes into your poems if you can help it.

    If you can’t help it, show me your poems.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 10:58 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    One is certainly part of the problem, Jordan.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 11:01 am Henry Gould wrote:

    This post is interesting, & covers a lot of ground… for me, however, the answer to some of these problems of careerism & vocational uncertainty does not lie in shifting the definition of poetry, either toward political activism or toward hybrid modes of art production.

    I tend to go in the opposite direction… aside from writing poetry itself, for me the most interesting idea is to develop a sense of poetry & its reception which creates conditions for independent, disinterested appreciation & judgement. Because I think poetry itself contains its own structures of value & integrity, & has for a long time; it’s more a matter of asking how we as individuals or as a culture learn how to read & understand & respond to what is already there.

    The more you enhance the ability of readers to recognize inherent values & strengths in poems themselves, the more you DISempower those dimensions (of careerism, P.R. & money) which tend to obscure actual literary & artistic values. It’s a matter of fostering educated readers & literary taste – which requires an early encouragement (in childhood) to readers & reading. When readers learn to sense & recognize really excellent poems, the less indulgent they will be toward either complacent mediocrity or puffed-up reputations.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 11:45 am Bobby wrote:

    I realize my vituperation probably seems out of place, but I write as a person who bit hard on the purity-of-artistic-vocation line when young and only belatedly realized that almost all of the people who profess it did so in either conscious or unconscious bad faith. Believe me, I recognize the allure (and even the utility) of the mythology, but it does no service to anyone–in fact it is the opposite of a service–to pretend that the art world is free of the social constraints that bind every other human endeavor.

    Of course this does not mean that all of art is a scam, or that the people at the top are all talentless hacks. One of the many graces of art is that it remains a realm in which real talent is, usually, appreciated. It is also a place where fleeting purities of motivation, mood, and inspiration can be found and, with hard work, cultivated into some lasting form.

    This is why I thought it was so charming, so utterly refreshing, to read Justin Taylor deep in the comments section of an HTMLGiant post a few weeks ago admitting that all he really wanted on that particular day was to make the New York Times bestseller list. For a moment all of the rebarbative indie posturing fell to the side, and the still small voice of ambition was allowed to speak. It was, in its way, a beautiful thing.

    But really, folks: there’s nothing shameful in wanting to be read! There’s nothing shameful in doing the kinds of things that will help you get read! The shame arrives, or should, when the time spent on PR work outgrows some proportional relation to the time spent on actual work–1:20, 1:10, who knows–or when the two become so confused that one can no longer tell which is which.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 11:56 am Jordan wrote:

    Justin is interesting. I liked his story “Weekend Away” a lot. Looking forward to seeing what he does next.

    Also, isn’t everybody who really protests about something a suspect in re whatever they protest?

    For example: I’m totally guilty of recursion.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Bobby, all this great, and it’s good you’ve broached the matter. But you know, you aren’t the first to bring up the messy and impolite topic! Why, some people have even started writing poetry (the impure kind) with these issues as starting point…

  • On March 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm Bobby wrote:

    Also, isn’t everybody who really protests about something a suspect in re whatever they protest?

    Of course. I mean, it’s Jim Behrle, for chrissake. But his satire seemed more self-aware and -critical than the solemn expressions of approval that followed in its wake.

    you aren’t the first to bring up the messy and impolite topic!

    Oh I know, Kent. But the realization brought me to your work, rather than the other way round. Still, I agree, this flower blooms in your garden.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    >Still, I agree, this flower blooms in your garden.

    What’s the scent out of that flower, I guess.

    Thank you, Sr. BB. But really in my mind was someone like Stephen Rodefer, as well. And a few others, beginning now in that vein. Satire is overdue, in our day.

    On Rodefer: Wasn’t that special issue of the Chicago Review the last one you edited? Good one.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm Bobby wrote:

    Him too, obvs. I was around for the “AGE in its CAGE” essay but out the door by the time the special issue came to pass.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    As usual, all these women going on about their careers.

    Satire. Who needs it?

  • On March 15, 2010 at 1:40 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Couldn’t resist, lads.

    As you were Ladettes.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 1:47 pm Bobby wrote:

    Hey, all’s fair. After all, there are poetry conferences that need attending.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 2:40 pm Jim wrote:

    I still don’t get why people think it was satire.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm Boyd Nielson wrote:

    >Well, here’s a little secret I’ve learned during my many years at elite institutions: that’s the game *they* play, too, the privileged careerists you despise. They climb the rungs of power, and when someone asks them how they got all the way up there they tell them it must have been luck, or talent, or chance, or nature–anything but the actual social mechanisms that helped and help keep them keep them in their place.

    That sounds accurate to my ears. And to extend Bobby’s point, no one in those elite institutions would say the playing field is level. That is one of the reasons they’re OK with privilege, not because they are in favor of unfair social mechanisms but because it is pretty silly to complain about privilege or hierarchy that comes from luck, or chance, or talent, or nature, and so on.

    At the same time, oddly enough, they, like Thom, praise the power of voluntarism above all else. The fantasy—or “experiment,” whatever you want to call it—of poets just voluntarily using their labor power as an antidote to status and careerism is not too far from the fantasy of rich people, through charity, donations, etc. using their money for absolute social improvement. It might even be easier to conceive rich people who can give up their money without having to give up their money (because they don’t give it all up–they are still undeniably rich) than it is to conceive poets who can just give up their status and work and still be respected, or even recognized, as poets (especially if they don’t have much status or career to take a hiatus from in the first place).

  • On March 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Speaking of “beyond careerism,” or of the poetry “career” beyond the usual, there is this conversation I just finished with Bob Arnold, poet and (with his companion Susan) editor of Longhouse Publications, one of the longest-running and most prolific fine presses (the hand-done kind) in the land. Their book productions, from large to tiny, are simply beautiful. He and Susan are among the poetic heroes still breathing.

    Bob is a builder, stoneworker, and treecutter (not sure if there’s a hyphen there), who’s lived in the outback of Vermont for decades. He’s also the literary executor of both Cid Corman and Lorine Niedecker.
    http://jacketmagazine.com/39/iv-arnold-ivb-johnson.shtml

  • On March 15, 2010 at 5:31 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Just to be sure! When I wrote “(with his companion Susan),” I probably should have inserted a comma after ‘companion.’

    Bob lives in the mountains on a self-constructed four-wooden-building compound, yes, but Susan is his *only companion*!!!

    :~)

  • On March 15, 2010 at 6:42 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    For some reason, whenever you or [name your 50 other poets] or anybody mentions Bourdieu & his “structural laws” of the literary economy, & how airtight & perfect they are, & how there’s no escaping them… I just want to laugh.

    I don’t think poetry is governed by these laws. & those litterateurs who act as though these laws determined their activities, well, no matter how refined & tasteful & intelligent & educated they are, have somehow lost touch with the actual thing itself (poetry). I’m not sure how this happens. Maybe they are trying too hard.

    Poetry, I think, is about, among other things, the scandal of a failure to obey the laws of this world – the scandal of failure itself.

    & it seems as if for the last 25 years or so I’ve been (willy-nilly, unbeknownst to myself) developing an alternative economy of literature based on this idea.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 8:40 pm thom donovan wrote:

    thanks for making this connection between hiatus of effort and somatic hiatus Amber. the urgency of your life and work does not cease to move me. & what you and Robert and Eleni are doing is definitely redistributing poetic effort in all the ways I would want…
    fondly, Thom

  • On March 15, 2010 at 11:17 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I’m sure it was good, Jim.

    Poetry is for losers.

  • On March 20, 2010 at 2:28 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    You wanna talk about what makes one laugh, let’s talk about know-nothingism, the incurable anti-intellectual belief that you can dispose of structural laws just cuz they strike you as silly. I’m also a big fan of those who are certain that some theorist (Bourdieu, say) must be wrong, even though they’ve not bothered to read any of his work. Well, good luck w/ that. If there were no structural laws, you can bet there’d be no structure. It’s highly amusing for me to hear a librarian at Brown University talk about how he has formed an alternative literary economy, or a guy who haunts every poetry website declare that he’s done “no careering.” Obtaining a readership is a one-way street & if you wanna pretend that that street’s name is “luck” or “talent,” then you’re delusional, but, hey, there are worse things to be.

  • On March 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “Obtaining a readership is a one-way street & if you wanna pretend that that street’s name is “luck” or “talent,” then you’re delusional, but, hey, there are worse things to be.”

    Well put, Mr. Robbins! Very well put.

    Pure bullshit, but, very well put.

  • On March 20, 2010 at 8:58 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    That is to say that the main street through town is ‘Talent Street’. Unfortunately, it has a lot of lights and is slow going. If you’re lucky you might get on the ‘Luck Freeway’ that bypasses the Business Route and gets you to your destination much faster.

    But if, as you recommend, you take the “one-way street” of (con)temporary success and popularity, then you will discover that you are not only going the wrong way on that one-way street, but that the Authorities will stop you every two blocks for a bribe in lieu of a ticket and, eventually, that you also went West instead of East and ended up in the wrong town anyway.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, March 12th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.