Our toddler invented this spring, and still occasionally uses, the made-up and entirely apropos word "No-yes": he uses it when he's feeling independent, when we ask him whether he wants to do something (eat a banana, put on his shoes), and when his first instinct is to resist our suggestion, but his second-- once he realizes what he's being asked to do-- is to accept it, since it's something (banana, shoe-wearing) he actually wants and likes.
I thought of No-yes when I received, this week, the new issue of No: a Journal of the Arts, not only because I enjoy saying yes to No (it's a journal I've enjoyed since issue one) but because its centerpiece, for this sixth issue, is the long text of the very contrarian-- really, overtly hostile-- final film by the Situationist thinker Guy Debord, whose instinct is to say "No" to everything, who wanted a "revolution of everyday life" (see Lipstick Traces for the proto-punk rock details) that would set aside all the regularities and deferred gratifications by which people in bourgeois society take care of one another, learn professions, enrich corporations, plan their lives, and learn their crafts-- including, it may be, the craft of writing poems....

The new No also contains some neat poems, among them brief lyric work by Allen Grossman, surprisingly transparent verse-comment from Miles Champion, and a longish poem by Evan S. Connell, who is still best known as the author of a novel of bourgeois life. Connell's long poems are sometimes aggregations of data, with beautifully observed lines and verse-paragraphs and a relative lack of connection between them. This midlength poem, "Ancient Musick," is a kind of collection of wonders from the ancient world, presented as if it were (I do not think it is) a translation from the medieval Latin. (It could well be a cento, suitably chopped and altered, from Burton; I think, though I haven't done the research to check, that it is not quotation but skillful pastiche.) The last, and one of the strongest, segments says (in part):
Human affairs hold their track. Ancient and terrible
pieties linger.
Now have I read myself near to sicknesse
with Mathematick, Classick, Medicine, Divinity,
Astrology, Geography, and much else I forget,
often leavened by profanity of bargemen
at the dock. Therefore, I pray you,
tell me how I could be other than I am,
stepchild of a stupendous dream.
The catalog form and the plethora of examples suggest both a wealth of knowledge and a late impatience with the skill that would be required to get beyond that knowledge, to rearrange what this speaker knows into forms that would make things new: in this sense Connell's exhaustion and Debord's anger both set themselves against anything so bourgeois as an ideal of craft.
Which makes these late-career works oddly like the very-early-career, or anti-career, ideal I encountered in the fluffy parts of the Paper of Record yesterday, where I see that a Canadian named Sean Aiken has set out to work a new job every week for a year. It's a great idea for a young person who wants variety (especially if the gig ends up causing the companies that hire him to give money to a charity, as seems to be the case). And (this is why the Paper of Record glommed onto it) it seems to take to an extreme the idea that today's young people don't want to settle down until they have to do so-- which may never occur. This unsettledness seems a logical reaction, not just in lives but in artistic styles, to a sense of belatedness, a sense that there is no new terrain to stake out, just topoi among which poets can hop.
That sense of belatedness in a crowded field, with its consequent desire never to belong to one school, may work helpfully against the careerist drive for poets to develop Their Own Style, to learn to do one thing over and over and over. Most of the first books I see that don't s*ck but aren't great sink under the weight of their poems' accumulated sameness, rather than being derailed by variety. Most of my favorite modern novelists, too, tried hard not to write the same novel over and over, even when those attempts led them outside the novel altogether. The desire to travel light, applied to art, may also help explain why, as Alicia noted, nobody wants to belong to a staid old supposed school.
And yet I wonder whether some poets-- myself very much included-- haven't suffered, also, from the drive for variety, from the drive to do something new every time. How would it feel, I wonder, to write almost the same poem for several years, to prepare successive drafts of the same ground, to adopt one style deliberately and try to perfect it, for at least a book at a time?

Originally Published: November 30th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. December 2, 2007
     bill knott

    ". . . the drive for variety"––
    as opposed to "adopt[ing] one style deliberately and try[ing] to perfect it" . . . like Karen Volkman's book of sonnets (not yet published, is it?)––
    (surely the most successful poets (Creeley and Mary Oliver, to name two examples) are those who have presented a coherent brand-name poetic personality over the course of their careers . . .?)––
    Is the desire for variety inherent in English:
    Michael Drayton, in the introductory sonnet to his sonnet sequence Ideas Mirrour. Amours in quatorzains (first edition, 1594; revised in subsequent editions of 1599, 1600, 1602, 1605 and 1619):
    A Libertine, fantastickly I sing:
    My Verse is the true image of my Mind,
    Ever in motion, still desiring change;
    And as thus to Varietie inclin'd,
    So in all Humours sportively I range:
    My Muse is rightly of the English straine,
    That cannot long one Fashion entertaine.
    ("Drayton was an inveterate reviser . . . . He was also extremely sensitive to criticism and to changes in poetic fashion." –Roy Booth, notes to "Elizabethan Sonnets," 1994)––
    –Is "Varietie" the true English straine?