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.

Originally Published: September 16th, 2007

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...

  1. September 16, 2007

    Everything under the numeral 3, above, I can get behind. I like the analogy to abstract expressionism. Though this true aspect of innovation in the arts has allowed partisans of supposed innovation to make unanswerable claims: what looks to me like incompetence in an old style could be the start of something beautifully new, or it could be the start of something new but not especially interesting, or it could be a dead end. The only way to know is with a time machine (if then): for now, all I have is my response to what's in front of me, plus other people's attempts to get me to see or hear what I haven't already seen or heard in what's in front of me. Those attempts just are what criticism is. And not all fruitful investigations are revolutionary in any sense. I'm tempted to say that few are. (Then again, I don't want to live in a world where revolutions are taking place constantly. Do you?)

  2. September 17, 2007
     Don Share

    Steve asks whether we want to live in a world where revolutions are taking place constantly - but maybe we do. If you think of revolutions as being sudden and violent, well, I suppose we'd say no. But the most enduring revolutions take place gradually: his own examples of Niedecker and Clare are good ones of, precisely, this: their work is really just beginning to unfold in our own time. Dickinson, Blake, Whitman - these are revolutionaries whose work overthrew norms (and are still doing so) over long periods. Looking through old anthologies and things like the Objectivist issue of Poetry, one finds an incredible admixture and overlap of old and eventually-new styles that scarcely hint at what's to come. So one question is how critics can be prescient, as artists sometimes can be. (Bob Archambeau recently checked out "old lit crit" with facinating results on his Samizdat blog in the post called "Ashbery '67.")

  3. September 17, 2007

    As a reader, I sometimes wonder when poems seem off or odd or plain just wrong, if the poet is beyond (and starting anew) and I am merely stuck in the old curve? But then again, how do you see what you can't see? Or not suspect what appears to be a "third sex"?

  4. September 17, 2007
     Marty Elwell

    Some questions regarding Bök's posts:
    Is the purpose of poetry to obtain "cultural prestige", "weath", and "renown"? Has anything changed in contemporary poetry vs. the past 600 years with regard to the lives of the poets themselves, or is this a failure of perspective due to a modern definition of financial success and fame?
    There are at least as many "famous", "renown", or "great" poets from decades and centuries past who held day jobs; died young, poor, or unknown; or lived in exile/prison as there are poets who lived long, comfortable lives on the fruits of their writing.
    It's seems like Bök's posts equate immediate popularity and readership with greatness. Where in the equation does a poet's ability to write poem's with relavence that transcends time, technology, and politics get factored in? Can we judge the worth of contemporary poetry without following it through many generations of readers?
    This is similar to Don's point that we are still realizing the influences of poets like Whitman, Blake, and Dickinson, many of which the poets themselves likely never imagined.

  5. September 20, 2007
     Chris Piuma

    What does "failing to thrive" have to do with "making a difference in one's field"? "Thriving" would presumably involve making the field grow, I guess, or become more productive, or something, some economics metaphor or other. But "making a difference IN the field" seems to mean something else entirely, and could happen whether the field is "thriving" or not. The size of your family could be shrinking, but you could still be doing things to make a difference within your family.
    Although the idea that poetry isn't "thriving" right now seems counter-intuitive, considering the number of poets out there. But I live in a city where the poetry scene has been growing steadily in the eight years since I moved here. It is thriving for my purposes.
    And I'm curious what your purposes are. What, exactly, would poetry need to be "thriving"? What, to use a military metaphor, is the litmus test that lets us know we've won?
    Or is the sense of failure what motivates you, so that you will see it whether it's there or not? (To use a political metaphor.)

  6. September 21, 2007
     Bryan Markovitz

    Now that I am surrounded by avant-garde composers in New York, perhaps I should make an opera entirely out of press conferences.