Writing and Failure (Part 8)
Readers of these posts about failure are offering lots of excellent responses to my provocations, and I am grateful for the interest. Some of you have suggested that the avant-garde indulges in asensual, abstract writing that disowns "figural" devices rooted in our "experience" of the world. I have tried to suggest, however, that (on the contrary) much of the avant-garde concerns itself with an unmediated experience of material language itself—a language full of empirical sensation free from essayistic abstraction. The Black Mountain poets, for example, deploy concrete language in order to transcribe the act of paying attention to the "proprioception" of the body during the act of thinking; moreover, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets go on to deploy concrete language in order to display the material texture of words themselves, doing so in order to subvert the exchanges that (for the sake of abstract meanings) otherwise suppress our direct, "opaque" experience of such overloaded signifiers. I believe that, far from failing because such poetry is simply "too conceptual," both movements (and other flavours of the avant-garde) succeed because of their passionate commitment to the creation of "sensational" experiences made out of nothing but words. I am hoping that, by offering these concluding sentiments, I might close the topic of "failure" for now, in the interest of opening up a newer topic for discussion….
Beckett recognizes that, ironically, the success of poetics in the modern milieu must predicate itself upon a poetic desire to “fail better.” The avant-garde argues that, because modern poetry has become complacent, reiterating its own outworn formula for success, thereby reassuring us rather than disturbing us, any future, poetic endeavour must foreswear the success of this formula for the sake of revolutionary investigation. The avant-garde does not abide by any official standard of success, and thus its practice presumes its own failure, betting itself upon its own forthcoming exoneration; moreover, the avant-garde recognizes that, in its attempt to redress the failure of poetics in the modern milieu, such a doomed labour risks compounding one failure with yet another failure. The worst of our poets can exploit such an untenable situation, because it grants them permission to succumb, with no incentives to prevail. Who needs to succeed, when failure is considered both inevitable and acceptable? We blame the declining literacy, if not the expanding banality, of our culture for the fact that poetry is losing its marketshare to online nudity—but in fact we have no one to blame, but ourselves, for the absence of our success in the face of such a decline. We can, if we want, write poems that compete favourably with the best work in other media, but we lack the ambitiousness of such entrepreneurial experimentation, which (as a matter of course) puts itself at risk for the sake of newness and anomaly. If we want to succeed in the future, we may need to range outside the catechism of our training in order to write poems more addictive than any neurotoxin, more seductive than any centerfold, and more infective than any retrovirus.
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...