Writing and Failure (Part 3)
I appreciate your responses to my thinking out loud, and I might stress that, for me, literary history does not consist of a "straight line" with one improvement succeeding another according to a model of dynastic progress—but unlike almost every other current artform, where avant-garde innovation sets the standards for future labour in whatever rhizomatic directions the artform might care to explore, modern poetry has all but foresworn any will to make such epistemological contributions to its own discipline. Only a handful of avant-garde poets might care to do so, and their consignment to the margins of the academy (along with most other poets) only testifies to the fact that, despite the efforts of such writers to "make a difference in their field," poetry has so far failed to thrive, atrophying into an antiquary, artisanal skill to be preserved, like an endangered albatross, living at the threshold of extinction, but protected in quarantine at a zoological exhibition….
Critics, for example, cannot often tell the difference between the incompetence of an old poetics and the virtuosities of a new poetics. Since the avant-garde relies upon subversive strategies of asyntactic, if not asemantic, expression, such writing often seems to resemble the nonsense produced by either the unskilled or the illiterate, camouflaging itself in the lousy style of the ingénue in order to showcase the creative potential of a technique that less liberal critics might otherwise dismiss as a fatal error—a flaw that, at the outset, discounts the work from any further reading because it has already forfeited the values of both official grammar and sensible meaning. Even though such critics refuse to see the merits of, what must appear to be, a completely capricious act of wilfull failure, the avant-garde nevertheless insists that, by abusing the most fashionable instruments of great style, the poet can in turn highlight a new set of virtuosities that have, so far, gone unconsidered, if not unappreciated. When a student painter at an easel misloads the brush with paint and thus causes the colour to drip upon the canvas, smearing the imagery beneath, such a painter exhibits a lack of formal talent by failing to make the runny fluid defy gravity—but this typical mistake, eliminated through discipline, has nevertheless come to constitute the basis for a much more variegated repertoire of aptitudes, like the ones seen, for example, in the abstract pictures of expressionism. What constitutes the precondition for failure in one style now becomes the prerequisite for success in another style. What we define as a mistake to be avoided is almost always the foresworn direction for some other more revolutionary investigation.
Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...