Art is not entertainment, and it is not decor. It is one of the rude fallacies of our time to want to reduce all art forms, and in particular literary arts, to their most facile and elemental role, and so deny their potential to awaken, provoke and elicit our glee at being agents in the construction of meaning. As Martha Nussbaum points out, "We are accustomed by now to think of literature as optional: as great, valuable, entertaining, excellent, but something that exists off to one side of political and economic and legal thought, in another university department, ancillary rather than competitive." We have, she adds, "narrowly hedonistic theories of literary value." Our world---late twentieth century America --- is relentless in its desire to dictate to us what we desire; it wants to assign and to determine how we construct and construe meaning in our lives, it wants to tell us from where our pleasures come. It wants us to believe that only Wealth, Fame and Power (WFP), in some combination or another, are worthwhile goals, because only WFP can confer ---what?--- celebrity.

Celebrity: the modern, secular form of martyrdom, where individuals are cast into the riotous blast of an eviscerating, obliterating light. How many personal disasters of every conceivable kind --- suicide, homicide, divorce, addiction --- before it is understood that celebrities are victims? "Their divorce was more predictable than their marriage."

6. Penance
With the insistent picturing and telling of Celebrity, it is of course not uninteresting to be a poet. John Ashbery once remarked, "To be famous, and to be a famous poet are not the same thing," by which he simply wanted to point out that the world of poetry is not included in celebrity picturing and storytelling. Why is this? Because the economy of being a poet subverts the received relationship between ambition, money, and success. Poets must acknowledge this fact a priori, at the outset; must, in a sense, agree to it. Many persons in many fields have an increasingly hard time making a living, and endemic poverty caused by social oppression is not something to be lightly set aside. To be poor in this culture carries all kinds of stigmas, and invites all kinds of rhetorical evocations of the American Dream, which holds that the pursuit of happiness is necessarily tied to the capacity to earn a living. (What constitutes a "living wage" in a culture driven by WFP is worth a pause, as we witness the slow but certain shrinkage of the middle class and the institutions of social transformation --- schools, libraries, museums, newspapers, research universities, concert halls, and so forth --- in which it has traditionally invested.)

A living wage: that which allows a person sufficient freedom to feel she/he has some control over her/his destiny; an alignment of capacity to activity which leads to a sense of sufficiency.

Nonetheless, persons who wish to become poets in this culture must make a kind of promise or vow, like St. Francis, in which they agree to a kind of economic obscurity, at least in relation to the writing of poems. The history of the embedded relation between poverty and poetry is not just a romance but is linked to the history of spiritual resistance, a resistance which characterized the initial founding of America, sometimes with dire consequences, and which finds its greatest secular expression in Emerson's Self-Reliance. People are disturbed when poets make a decent living as professors; they think it is a sort of bad joke (but of course newsworthy) when Allen Ginsberg sells his archive to a major university for big bucks, as if some breach of decorum had been committed. They are not equally bemused when movie stars, baseball players or television news commentators get millions upon millions for acting a part, playing ball, or reading aloud the news in front of a camera.

When poets make Money something is askew. As if, for every celebrity---say Michael Jackson or Madonna or --- exploding in the firmament like giant stars, there needs to be a shadow figure, an obscure Other toiling away in the dimmest corner, lost in the dark matter of the universe, never to be found by the searching lenses of far-reaching cameras. Poets must hold down this invisible portion of the universe, the part that we never see but guess at, lest the whole thing fly apart in a final radiance of destruction, on the incendiary flames of outrageous (mis)fortune.

Off-camera and out of earshot, watching the night snow fall, noticing that snow contains myriad nows.

There must be some remnant habit of willed obscurity, of volunteer poverty for an acceptance of an inequity, a gap, between work and recompense, in which some vague need is met, a sort of spiritual critique, an antithetical motion, however far-off, however imperceptible, of the equation of happiness with the capacity to buy things, many things, more things than one could ever possibly need. As if, on the Day of Judgment, poets will step forward out of the crevices --- the tiny rooms, the smoky bars --- by the hundreds and thousands wearing dark glasses, like a great witnessing Chorus, to proclaim the faith of little children, the hope of the excluded, and the charity of the hard moments.
(She catches sight of herself in the mirror. Go in fear of hyperbole.)

[From The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Viking, 2005)]

Originally Published: January 17th, 2009

Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...

  1. January 17, 2009
     Brian Salchert

    This makes it all too easy for me to lapse into the extremely personal.
    But no: just this: 17 is the number for this century--at least for me it is.

  2. January 17, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Enough of this romantic horsesh*t. The rhetoric of Lauterbach turns my stomach. And I find the religious overtones horrifying and chastising, I mean, St. Francis? "spiritual resistance"? Day of Judgement???? Give me a break.
    And it's hypocritical. Anne Lauterbach certainly has power as Chair of the MFA Poetry program at Bard. And I'd imagine that she makes a nice living from it. And being published by Penguin or having won a half-million dollar MacArthur certainly doesn't imply monkish poverty or meekness. I don't begrudge her accomplishments, but for someone in her position to be making such remarks is completely sickening.
    No one in their right mind chooses poetry to become Britney Spears. But there are other types of rewards around money, power and fame that very much come into play in the game of poetry. Linh, you have a very powerful pulpit here on Harriet, something that (according to Ron Silliman) 9,999 other poets don't have. That, my friend, is power. You were paid to blog here, perhaps not a lot, but in my book, any money at all one earns outside one's day job(s) is big money, regardless of the amount. And as a result of your blowing loudly on this blog, I'd say you have a pretty large profile in the poetry world, amounting to a modicum of fame. And all that's from being prominent enough to be asked and paid to blog on the Poetry Foundation. (I, of course, can make the same claims for myself).
    We're not talking zillion dollar successes, paparazzi, or red carpet success, but every time someone pays me to read my poetry, flies me abroad to be in a poetry festival, pays my hotel bill and feeds me, that is money, power and fame as I need it. It may not be much, but every bit equals a blow against the empire of the alienated labor of day jobs. Every time I am invited to read, I feel that this endeavor, crazy as it might be, is a success.
    So, you see, it is about money, power and fame. It's not everything. But it certainly is a big part of things. Get over it.

  3. January 17, 2009
     Henry Gould

    In a funny way (very funny) Ken Goldsmith seconds the motion of Ann Lauterbach. It's a kind of double one-upmanship. 1) Her notions of spiritual poverty are ridiculous; 2) she is a hypocrite for not living up to her ideals; 3) Linh Dinh shares her hypocrisy; 4) so do I (K. Goldsmith). It's a sort of comedic reductio ad absurdum (ancient form of comedy, I guess).
    I like it.
    All I want to say is that there seems to me a grain fo truth in everything A. Lauterbach says here.
    There is the story in the Gospels about the Tower of Siloam, which crashed down & killed scores of people in a horrible ancient news item. Jesus tells his disciples, "unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish."
    What does he mean? "Fast & pray." What does he mean?
    Language is one of those things by means of which human beings find common ground - share - expereince mutual delight, enlightenment. In this sense it is a moral responsibility, place on the shoulders of the poet.
    Poetry is too important for ambition & self-seeking.
    Poetry is not ONLY a game.
    Poetry is only the verbal extrapolation of something much more basic, simple, human, elemental, universal, necessary. Stevens' "poetry of life". Virgil's "tears of things". The 23rd Psalm.

  4. January 18, 2009

    Dear Kenny,
    Fair enough, but would you explain how what you wrote above squares with what you wrote here, when you said:

    Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish.

    I'm not trying to be an ass here, I really am curious.
    All best,

  5. January 18, 2009
     Lanny Quarles

    Everything human is an entertainment, precisely because there is no known purpose for intelligence
    in the universe. There can never be any purpose for it, other than to sustain itself like any other parasitic telos or 'beauty'.. It's rarity seems to be the only reason to sustain it at all, but its own maintenance is eroding the substrate which supports it. Literature and art, as well as politics and the sciences are all patently jokes in the face of space and time. I hate to break this to you, but it is the positively hilarious truth!

  6. January 18, 2009
     John Bloomberg-Rissman

    This whole discussion puts me in mind of that old notion: Romanticism is not dead, and won't be as long as we live under capitalism.
    Lanny, don't sell entertainment short. Or jokes. Or hilarious truths. It's possible to argue, from your exact assumptions, that everything matters, everything is important, everything is crucial. Whether or not it's hilarious.

  7. January 18, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    I, for one, am glad that Linh posts here as much as he does. He helps ratchet discussion up and in sometimes rather thrilling ways.
    But in this case, I'm not sure I see how Lauterbach's belletristic comments (frankly, like KG, if I'm reading him right, I find them cloying to the point of hilarity) have much to do with the matter of what an "avant-garde" is, or is presently not, or might become. Which is where the discussion started down below.
    Well, anyway.

  8. January 18, 2009
     Ann Lauterbach

    Dear Kenny:
    I am sorry my words made you sick. And I am also sorry that you think I am a hypocrite. And I am sorry that the mention of Saint Francis is obnoxious to you. I wrote that piece some years ago, before I worked at Bard. When I got the MacArthur, in 1993, it wasnt a half million dollars. For many years, until I was over forty, I had very little money. The section from the Night Sky was meant as a kind of fantasy about balance in the world, and wasnt meant as a real description of me or anyone else.

  9. January 18, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    The "avant-garde" discussion seems to have moved up here under the last few posts, though it also seems to be drifting away from some of the issues initially broached. With no expectation of response from the people it attempts to engage --one becomes accustomed to these things, it's part of the meaning of the "field"-- I thought I'd post this little essay I wrote some months back, which appeared at Simon DeDeo's Absent Magazine. (By the way, do people know that DeDeo is a practicing astrophysicist specializing in neutron stars? I always thought that was interesting.) It's a brief reflection on the U.S. "avant-garde" and linguistics, and I think it has relevance to the discussion, inasmuch as the broad reduction of the post-avant to an "agonistic" academic formation, whose poetic politics are largely delimited by formalist concerns, is of a piece with the outmoded, simplistic views of language that, in the main, continue to inform its "radical" pretensions.
    Well, that's a mouthful. The reference made below to Kasey Silem Mohammad relates to an early version of this posted as comment on his blog, shortly before he banned me from it. Here's the essay.
    Competence, linguistics, politics & post-avant matters
    I've noticed for some time, and commented, on a few occasions, that there seems to be a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) traditional prosody amongst a good segment of the "post-avant" community. The same goes for grammar and linguistics. Truth is, the rare times I've seen post-avant critics make use of grammatical analysis, I've noticed that the result is usually quite pedestrian and gratuitous (prepositions! direct objects! noun clauses!) Often, the result is preposterously wrong.
    Thus, here I offer something that may have some productive relation to issues of poetic competence. Let's see...
    I recently read the very interesting interviews conducted by Aryanil Mukherjee with Charles Bernstein and Mark Wallace, at the superb Bengali on-line magazine Kaurab.
    In their interviews, Bernstein and Wallace are asked about Language and "post-language" poetry in relation to "grammar," and each poet responds, in rather unambiguous register, to the effect that power relations of the dominant social order are reflected in grammar's conventional, basic structures. Bernstein, for example [more on his specific list of categories below], says the following:
    AM: You and other Language Poets have professed that grammar structures tend to support the power structures of Western societies. Could you explain that with an example?
    CB: Grammar, vocabulary, diction, form, and style reflect the power relations in a society. You can't change the society by changing your grammar[,] but any radical social, economic, or cultural change must necessarily come to terms with its rhetorics and its metaphors. [nota bene: No example, as requested, is forthcoming from Bernstein. KJ]
    And Wallace, within a long answer on Language poetry and its relationship to younger post-language poets, makes the following echoing (and in context, approving) remark:
    "In particular, many language poets have noted the way [sic] in which grammar structures tend to support the power structures of western societies."
    I was surprised to read these comments. Such claims of insidious correspondence between normative grammatical relations and false ideological effects were, of course, a staple of early Language poetry politics. But I hadn't seen the "grammar principle" repeated anywhere for a long time, and I assumed it had more or less been abandoned as a naive, quasi-Skinnerian or Tel Quelian holdover from the late-60s, when Langpo theory was taking its baby steps. After all, other hyperbolic notions from Langpo's utopian phase (ending ca. first Gulf War) that made claims for linguistic structures reflecting and reproducing "capitalist" categories (e.g., the equivalence between "reference" and "commodity fetishism") have pretty much been left behind in a quiet that would make a Quietude poet blush. Even as the poetry, in its generic contours, has remained little changed, and even as the scorn for poems written in "the language of social and linguistic norms" has gone on... [1]
    In any case (and not as any kind of linguist), I'd assumed some kind of unstated, humble assent had developed amongst post-avant poets: an assent around the notion that fundamental linguistic structures -- following long-accepted research in the field -- are *not* "socially" generated at their core, but are, rather, a deep function of mind, part of the genetic endowment of the species. Or are, at least, an expression of subconscious cognitive operations that by and large subtend social/political domains... I'd assumed, in other words, there had been an at least grudging recognition that Chomsky's dominant theory of Universal Grammar -- or else more recent research from Cognitive Linguistics on governing semantic frames that are largely shaped in childhood -- made any "Marxist" proposals about *grammar and syntax proper* as some kind of ideologic superstructural effect a problematic wager, at a minimum.
    But since I seem to have been mistaken, I want to ask, with Chomskian theory primarily in mind, first: In what sense, exactly, as Bernstein and Wallace have it, would underlying structures of grammar mirror and reinforce existing social orders? Does grammar do this at phonological, morphological, and syntactical levels? If so, how is linguistic phenomena in these areas -- the most traditional areas of grammatical study -- shaped by ideological forces? What, precisely, is the ideological source and register of such shaping? What would be a standard, reified syntactic structure, for example (to re-enter Aryanil Mukherjee's query), that could be seen as instantiating some collective expression of "false consciousness"? These would be questions that are begged by Bernstein and Wallace's apparent assumptions.
    Or, second, assuming that many post-avant poets may now be basing their case on Cognitive Linguistic ideas, the main offshoot and challenge to Universal Grammar since the 1980s, I would ask: In what sense (following CL) would grammar, as the subconscious mapping of temporal and spatial frames that govern speaking and understanding, represent ideational refractions of this or that set of power relations? Is it that these mental processes are primarily enacted, at depth, by sociological stuff? How so, if so? These, also, would be questions that are begged.
    Social relations and their effects on discourse and communication are, of course, very real and of obvious import to poets. But that these are set within and deeply graphed across foundational psychological matrices (if linguistic science is to be believed) is also very real and of obvious import to poets, too -- particularly, perhaps, to those still tendering simplistic and supercilious polemics contra "the language of...linguistic norms" (whatever, exactly, that might mean).
    The study of language is a pretty precise and rigorous science, so facile pronouncements about its operations made by poets, especially when these get proffered as key elements of a poetic politics, should be explained more specifically and at some length. (It's possible that Bernstein and Wallace are using the term "grammar" somewhat loosely and confusedly, and that they mean something like discourse analysis, or something in relation to the sub-area of pragmatics. Or perhaps, since the term appears in passing, they are talking about "metaphors," in the sense of George Lakoff's recent popular writings -- though one wonders [a central bemusement] how disjunctive techniques in service of textual opacity are at all required to expose the often-harmful uses of metaphors... Whatever the case might be, a bit more rigor in explanation would be helpful.)
    In the meantime, social-constructivist critic/poets of the by-now-official "avant garde" might do well to ask themselves the following, ever more enmeshed as their practices are with the prescriptive rules of academic careerism and the standard syntaxes of authorial position-taking: To what extent -- to reorient Bernstein's remark -- might "grammar, vocabulary, diction, form, and style" within the post-avant subculture more directly and relevantly reflect a range of power relations at work in the literary field itself? And what complicity might "avant" poets share in maintaining and extending such relations? These matters, I'd argue, are much more immediately critical to politically minded poets than any purported homologies between grammatical conventions and cultural hegemonies.
    Getting back, though, to my above-mentioned surprise at all this, perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised at all. Because if one asks what there is in Langpo and its "post" literature that takes stock of key findings in linguistics over the past five decades and really attempts to deal with these in relation to the reflectionist schemas of the group's heroic stage (a stage perhaps still more extant than realized!), well, what one realizes is that there is little to nothing available at all.
    And one must ask how it is that the epistemic revolution initiated by Chomsky in language science seems to be, even now, of decidedly minor importance to the Language group and its progeny. [2]
    Could it be there's been a tacit awareness that tenets of that revolution are at potential variance with certain post-avant dogmas regarding the political implications of "radical" formalist poetry? Or might it more simply and banally be that there generally exists -- to use Kasey Mohammad's phrasing from his original post -- little else in avant poetry than a "bare sufficiency of competence" when it comes to linguistics? Which may be, possibly (I suggest this sincerely), a good enough reason to drop the term "Language" until the situation changes?
    I'd propose that some of the elementary issues touched on here have imperative weight for poets of the innovative sphere; indeed, the problems that are posed centrally pertain to the very ontological roots and formal practices of the milieu. I'd suggest, in fact (knowing I'm hardly alone in feeling so), that should these problems not be soon engaged with a strong measure of candor and care, a sagging theoretical habitus is in stress of coming down, and not too distantly, in a heap of semi-theological straw.
    [1] Bernstein's phrase from his 2003 parsonical speech "Enough," a barely veiled attack on the Poets Against the War project. My response to his comments can be found here.
    [2] In fact, in a recent e-mail to me, Ron Silliman states categorically that Chomsky's work holds very little of interest to poets. Silliman, one of those post-avant writers who have offered decidedly banal and sometimes inept sentence-parsing reads, would argue that Saussure, Jakobson, or the later Wittgenstein, say, are of greater worth. Which is fine, in a quaintly atmospheric sort of way, but it leaves a yawning area of major questions awkwardly waiting...

  10. January 18, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Interesting, Kent. Worth mentioning, perhaps, that Oren Izenberg, in his essay "Language Poetry & Collective Life," published some years back in Critical Inquiry, posits that the Lanugage writers are misdescribing their own practice in their defensive refusal to acknowledge the influence of Chomsky's notion of competence, which contrasts "acceptable" sentences with ones that conform to innate abstract mental rules that constrain possible grammars. In the years since, I have yet to see a Language poet undertake to describe anything at all without misdescribing it, so the thesis strikes me as ever more plausible.

  11. January 18, 2009
     unreliable narrator

    I love the part at the end where the writer admits an ironic distance, undercuts herself: "(She catches sight of herself in the mirror. Go in fear of hyperbole.)"
    I also nodded violently at the writer's definition of "living wage," and her idea that a poet's life is a vowed one, anyway in our inherited cultural tradition (for as CD Wright said to a group of us once, "A poet's life can be a difficult one; but at least it's a chosen life. You can't say that for most of them." And, call me belletristic, the part about the shadowy other. I liked that too.
    Harriet will now probably eat this comment for being irreverent and/or irrelevant, but: I have therefore decided that, this year, I'm going to replace all my online instances of "WTF?!" with "WFP?!" instead.

  12. January 18, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    “No one in their right mind chooses poetry to become Britney Spears.”
    Mr. Goldsmith:
    One no more “chooses” to become a poet than one chooses to become a man or a woman, African or Chinese. Genuine poets are born, not made. Who taught Mozart music? Who taught Einstein physics? Who taught Whitman?
    “But there are other types of rewards around money, power and fame that very much come into play in the game of poetry.”
    Poetry is not a game, son. That’s the whole problem, isn’t it? This sentiment may say a lot about poets, and poetry, today.

  13. January 19, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Just a note to say I regret my characterization of Ann Lauterbach's short essay. I was speaking strictly about the text Linh posted, which indeed is not my cup of tea, but still, the dismissal was unfair and unnecessarily harsh. Lauterbach is obviously a very gifted writer, regardless of my opinion of that particular piece. Apologies.

  14. January 19, 2009
     Manoel Cartola

    There is a stylistic bent to this whole conversation: Nobody cares about these infantile solipsisms we call contemporary poems and which are nurtured (ie babied) in the MFA day-cares. You wanted the poet fame- that specific fame that goes with being a poet: you want to be that rare gem, that "sought-out" obscurity, those book-flap B&W's of you staring off pensively-- it is like those pictures of monks at prayer: they aren't really praying but they want to be "pictured as if they were in prayer." St. Francis also ran through the streets at night and rung all the bells, talked to the animals. I think you are all confusing St.John of the Cross with him.
    Manoel Cartola

  15. January 19, 2009
     Michael Robbins


  16. January 19, 2009
     Ann Lauterbach

    It's a risky business, this blogosphere, isn't it? Zounds! It occurs to me that it might be a good idea to begin to separate the money power fame fatal triangle into its parts, and focus, for example, on power. When I was much younger, I thought that I could somehow have some power if I were close to it, slept with those who had it. That's about as basic as you can get. But the power I was after had something to do with a politics of efficacy in the world; I wanted to be useful, and I wanted to try to figure out if or how art/poetry could be useful in the deepest sense of making a difference, making change -- what does not change is the will, etc. . (It is really past time for people to stop bashing poets for teaching, btw: honestly, you would think we had sold our souls to Larry Gagosian!)
    On the eve of this astonishing inaugural, it seems important to think about the new President's interest in language as a site for making trans/forrmation possible. One does not have to evoke transcendence to be aligned to this particular mode of American pragmatism, in which truth turns out to be, as William James wrote, "what happens to an idea". This happening is, for me, a germ or crux of a poetics. Now I know that the serious cynics among us will not like this vision any more than they liked the evocation of Saint Francis, but hey, I am reading "Dreams From my Father" along with Jennifer Moxley's "The MIddle Room" and, once again, Cavell's "Philosophical Passages". Onward!

  17. January 20, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Also, though I suppose it is only tangentially linked to the topic-- well, maybe more than tangentially, I don't know...
    I just saw, through Kasey Mohammad's blog, a blog post by Anne Boyer titled "Why I Don't Play with Harriet." In it, she offers her reasons, none of which I find at all convincing or logical. In fact, the post, I'd say, is fairly incoherent. Kasey Mohammad, in his approving comment and link to Boyer's post, describes most commentary here at Harriet as "dribble drivel." A host of Flarfist poets join in the comments stream, approving, at both his blog and Boyer's.
    It's really quite amazing the tortuous contortions people will undertake to justify their unwillingness to join in discussion and debate. Often, as in the case of the Flarf poets, they will simply ban people from their blogs who are capable of debating or satirizing them. Now, when people are taking up their work and discussing it critically in a widely read space they can't control (Harriet), they offer "explanations" for their failure to engage: that there is something socially contaminated and unworthy about that space, that a man named "Barr" is associated with it, that it's all "drivel," etc. Thus, they say, they won't "play."
    But the real reason is patently plain: They are afraid to discuss and debate. Covetous of the little poetic capital they have garnered and wish to keep building, they fear that getting their hats handed to them in a public forum will hurt the reputation, tarnish the carefully tended sheen. (Give Kenny Goldsmith some credit-- he, at least, is putting his stuff on the line.)
    It's as simple as that. And as embarrassing.
    But hilarious, too. Go see:

  18. January 20, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    KG sed "Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish."
    What I'm referring to here, of course, is the actual product (or lack thereof), the poem. Charles Bernstein has a great line that goes, "A piece of paper is worth less with a poem on it than left blank." While many bemoan this, I think it gives a our art form a great deal of freedom that's lacking in those other worlds. As such, since there is really nothing to lose in terms of economics, varying strains of prestige, etc., poetry is more obligated than other forms to take chances; that is our freedom. Hence my sadness regarding poetry that feels the need to play within the rules. What a waste of a great opportunity.
    Now, the product is one thing, the career is another. And though there is no value in what we do, as with every human endeavor, there is a power structure and many peripheral rewards to be had (see my post above), all of which are well worth pursuing.
    It's a contradiction, but a beautiful contradiction specific to our art form. Let's embrace it.

  19. January 21, 2009

    Dear Ann,
    I very much liked your piece (although if I were a monk, I'd probably let the bells ring all damn day just for the sound of them, so who I am to count myself among the competent to judge?). Anyway, in light of the ensuing discussion, I think I might tweak your categories slightly: poets as the "shadowy others" not of celebrities, but of critics rather. Reading the commentary on this blog (and others) I often come away positively dejected, less with my stomach turned than with the bottom dropped out, to consider how much a constant effort of critical justification can seem requisite to the making of art. I think I have always written poetry in order to justify, in some penumbral fashion, the inadequacy I have felt piling up in other parts of my life--or perhaps just the common insufficiency of my lot as a living thing--but if I were to try seriously to justify the insufficiency of my poetry, especially through an address to economic or political truth, I'm sure I wouldn't know where to begin...
    Incompetence (step-child of Iniquity)

  20. January 21, 2009
     Tom Harr

    Only among poets are there people who think it a great discovery and revelation that there exist such things as "power structures." Everybody in the world knows that there are, and there's nothing transgressive, innovative, revolutionary, or rule-changing about putting together a poem one way as opposed to another.
    I like this quote, posted on Lime Tree, about the jejune Boyer thread:
    "The democratising possibilities of the internet are in the process of speeding the degeneration of the public sphere into a proliferation of insular nodes, each fighting a war that can never be won. Battles cannot be won on the net nor can they be lost. What remains is a solipsistic politics of ME, ME, ME: my views, my truths, my facts, my pain, my anger. Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one's own perspective."
    - Keith Kahn-Harris & David Hayes
    Unless one's perspective is to take one's ball and go home, I guess.

  21. January 21, 2009

    Thank you for pointing readers to Kasey's blog. It's a good blog, isn't it. I've had the chance to read that post, the post it links to, and the comments, and I was struck by something the ubiquitous anonymous Doodle posted there:
    "The democratising possibilities of the internet are in the process of speeding the degeneration of the public sphere into a proliferation of insular nodes, each fighting a war that can never be won. Battles cannot be won on the net nor can they be lost. What remains is a solipsistic politics of ME, ME, ME: my views, my truths, my facts, my pain, my anger. Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one's own perspective."
    It reminded me (there's that pronoun again) of an excellent essay by Gabe Gudding. As he's removed it from his (rather good) blog, I'll have to link to the posting of it at the bottom of at this other page.
    I hope this finds you well. I look forward to meeting you at the upcoming conference in Chicago. With any luck, you'll get to meet my son, just as I've had the chance to meet yours.
    With sincere best wishes,

  22. January 21, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Hi Jordan,
    Yes, I know you've long been a fan of Gabe Gudding's essay there. You've linked to it multiple times over the years... I think it's pretty good, a bit of a position-taking classic. In its original form it set up Ginsberg, Olson, and Bernstein, I believe, as named targets. But it was really aimed at me, as you know (and Gabe admitted as much on the Lucipo list), in wake of some kind of meltdown that was going on. Gabe was tight with the Flarf circle back then, as I remember, though more lately he's gone on to attack you guys in rather visceral ways, too.
    But anyway, I do think his essay there is quite suggestive of a range of people, including, dare I say, your ubiquitous internet self and (not least) Gabe. Actually, I once raised the topic with someone who'd been closer to Gabe than anyone else for many years, and she told me, in a non-judgmental way, that she saw the piece as, at bottom, a gesture at self-analysis. I think Gabe deserves credit for that.
    However, on the quote you offer, which ends with this:
    "Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one's own perspective."
    Here I think you should reflect more. For it goes to the point about the Flarf circle declaring ("jejunely" as I think Tom puts it above) that they won't "play with Harriet." As I said in prior post, the stance (one your comment, in fact, is poignant example of) tries to hide a more simple and general truth-- one that is apparent to more people than you may think.
    In any case, and all that seriously aside, yes, I'd love to meet you and your son at AWP. I won't be at the conference itself, but I'm reading off-site with other people at the Chicago Cultural Center on Friday evening. I think it's at 9. If you can make that, please come up after the reading. Talking in person can often help people work through bad on-line feelings!

  23. January 21, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    I will be there too, & we can all have a group hug. Jordan, where's my copies of The Hat!

  24. January 21, 2009

    I guess I just don't see a contradiction there, just as I don't agree that "the product is one thing, the career is another." I mean, I agree that poets have a limited amount of freedom in formal terms--what's written on the page--that owes to the fact that most people don't feel comfortable judging poetry (or don't know how to). For most people, It's much easier to judge a poet than it is to judge her poetry: just count her publications, look at her CV, ask other poets.
    But that doesn't mean that there's no connection between poems and career, or even an attenuated one. Someone, somewhere--let's hope--is reading her poetry. Sure, a blank piece of paper may be worth more than a page with one of Bernstein's poems, but under the right circumstances the same thing could be said of a dollar bill. That's just a way of saying that it's hard, possibly impossible, to find inherent value in anything. Bernstein's poems have value because there are people around to recognize value in them, and that recognition has everything to do with his career. Without the poems, there's no career, at least not the career he's had. (And vice versa, of course: without the career he's had, the poems wouldn't be read the same way.)
    This isn't controversial, is it? I can't imagine it would be, but then again, I can't remember the last time Harriet found anything uncontroversial...
    All best,

  25. January 21, 2009

    Kent -
    Can't do that off-site. Maybe another time.
    I don't see what you're getting at as regards a point about a Flarf circle, but maybe we were taught geometry differently. At any rate, several writers on the table of contents of the forthcoming flarf anthology have commented here in the past. As for tortuous efforts to avoid discussion and debate, you're the best, we're all just learning from you.
    On beyond discussing facts, there is a real question that isn't being asked: what exactly do you want these comment fields and discussions to do? Or, what is the subject of the debate, and what rules can we agree to respect?
    The impression I've gotten from your notes lo these ten years is that there is an in-group, an academicized, government-colluding faux avant-garde, that consistently rejects you, just as you, a college teacher, anthologist, and translator of international underground poetries, reject it.
    I also get the impression you read to perceive slights and score points. (Before you even type a keystroke, I'll say it -- mon semblable.)
    But -- and I hesitate to begin a sentence with but, that’s your trope, and I don’t dare invite comparisons of my prose to yours -- I really don't get why, what motivates you, at least not in this case. I mean, nobody involved in flarf was even on the Leningrad trip. True, Aerial published some of the Yasusada texts, and Combo brought out the Ten Thousand Swords -- but these kindnesses are hardly in proportion to the response.
    Surely you're not just doing it for the lulz.

  26. January 21, 2009

    "Unless one's perspective is to take one's ball and go home, I guess."
    Tom Harr, to "take one's ball and go home" implies that one wanted to play in the first place. Boyer didn't and doesn't. Scolding her for that is like a schoolyard bully telling another kid, "Come here! Why don't you come here so I can beat you up? I can't beat you up if you won't come outside and stand here! That's not fair!"

  27. January 21, 2009
     Tom Harr

    Matt, if she didn't want to "play" why did she blog publicly about not wanting to do so? I'm just saying that what she did was a little disingenous - was she not being a scold, herself? To continue your schoolyard analogy, she was talking behind the backs of people who comment and blog here, that's all.

  28. January 21, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Sorry, Tom, I thought you were Tom as in Raworth! Apologies.
    Good arguments, there.
    And Jordan. You score and win! Enough said. I'm sorry you can't come to the reading. Another time, perhaps.

  29. January 21, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I can't figure out Kenneth Goldsmith's comments here. Am I just being obtuse, or what?
    I can't tell if he's being tongue-in-cheek or not. Is this simply a KG mask : the persona of the literary sell-out, taken to its comic Machiavellian limit?
    Or does he "really mean it"?
    It's an interesting plan : to borrow the (Bernsteinian?) notion that the value of poetry per se (in terms of both economics or social prestige) is absoutely nil - and to conclude therefore that we can & should strictly divide poetry per se from the professional perks of the literary chicken farm, such as it is - & pursue the latter with gusto & relish.
    One could view this (Ponzi-esque) scheme as a bitter burlesque on a perceived actual state of affairs, in which the gamesmanship of careerism exists in a strict ratio with the immeasurable valuelessness of the products (the chips, the counters) of the game.
    But as I say, I can't tell if Goldsmith is being ironic in this way, or straightforwardly crass. Maybe that's the genius of his performance. It's a choice between simple cynicism on the one hand, or simple opportunism on the other. I guess. I'm confused!
    To answer my own confusion, then - it SEEMS to me that Kenneth's inability, or lack of faith in his ability, to actually MAKE poems which harbor some minimal degree of aesthetic or social value, lead him 1) to devalue, in turn - with a sort of absurdist bravado - the value of any and all contemporary poetry, and 2) to justify to himself, as a result, the happy (& amoral) acquisition of all the little perks of the literary-poetry life, such as they are, which he can obtain... ?
    As I say, it's funny... one has to admire the vaguely Soviet-era expressiveness of this kind of bleak gesture....
    Or am I getting it all wrong, Kenneth?

  30. January 21, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Gee, Jordan, that NY Times article sure seems to describe Kent, doesn't it? I mean, think of all the irreparable harm Kent has caused over the years! Oh, wait, the only thing Kent has ever harmed is egos. My bad. Or yours?
    I've said before that there is a huge distinction to be made here, & that the weirdly sensitive representatives of Flarf & like technologies are out of their minds to believe that their overreactions to a bit of online rib-poking are in any meaningful sense commensurate to the harmless satire Kent engages in. Kent writes witty aperçus intended to puncture a few overinflated egos, & those egos respond with threats of litigation, bans, mean-spirited diatribes, condescension, passive-aggressiveness -- anything except a sense of humor. Which is rather hilarious, given Flarf's raison d'être.
    Perhaps the folks over on that side of the fence could stop taking themselves so seriously. This might enable them to see, at long last, that the fence is in their minds.

  31. January 21, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Very well put, Mr. Gould. In fact, I find it unusual that I actually agree with you. I want to make clear that I have never read Mr. Goldsmith's poetry so I don't want to imply any judgement of his work, but I basically agree with your point of view and philosophy here.
    Since I have you on the line, though, I wanted to make an observation pertinent to an earlier, now defunct, post. What the hell...this thread is more like Myspace that a poetry blog, anyway (I forgot...what time was I supposed to meet you at the reading in Chicago?). I forget...what was the topic? :-)
    At any rate, I just wanted to note that in Gaza there are close to 400 children who won't be around anymore and so not have the opportunity to enjoy your glorious words.

  32. January 22, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Thanks, Gary.
    I'm sorry if I sounded heartless in the debate about Gaza, on Linh Dinh's previous post here. I have complete respect for anyone's desire to speak out, on any matter of conscience & politics. It's a basic right, obviously. What bothers me is when I hear only one side of a many-sided debate.

  33. January 22, 2009
     Don Share

    "I hate the critics of poetry when they are themselves the brutal policemen of what they think is a game."
    -- David Shapiro, from Kent Johnson's forthcoming interview with him

  34. January 23, 2009
     Steve Tills

    Kent wrote:
    was surprised to read these comments. Such claims of insidious correspondence between normative grammatical relations and false ideological effects were, of course, a staple of early Language poetry politics. But I hadn't seen the "grammar principle" repeated anywhere for a long time, and I assumed it had more or less been abandoned as a naive, quasi-Skinnerian or Tel Quelian holdover from the late-60s, when Langpo theory was taking its baby steps. After all, other hyperbolic notions from Langpo's utopian phase (ending ca. first Gulf War) that made claims for linguistic structures reflecting and reproducing "capitalist" categories (e.g., the equivalence between "reference" and "commodity fetishism") have pretty much been left behind in a quiet that would make a Quietude poet blush. Even as the poetry, in its generic contours, has remained little changed, and even as the scorn for poems written in "the language of social and linguistic norms" has gone on... [1]
    I agree that there is really no true "equivalence between 'reference' and 'commodity fetishism,'" though anybody can say adherents to conventional and strictly unself-conscious grammar and reference DO surely tend to produce more "commodity fetish" quietudinienoidate poming, and I am sure that we could prove this to be a statistical fact. (And shoot, it goes to reason that if yer paying close and serious attention to the particulars of form, then yer probably also getting a little deeper and more serious in yer particulars of content, too.) AND I also believe that the most radical SUBSTANCE and radically change-producing poming of the future could easily come from a poming that does not break new and groovy form at all (I'm not going to bet on that happening, but I firmly believe it's possible). AND, finally, I also believe that another incredible "commodity fetish" is that which takes shape in pure, unadulterated, utterly vapid "formal innovation."
    It's still, I think, an eternally on-going process of stretching into new territories of either FORMAL or MATERIAL relevance and depth and salience. One day it's new "formal" that's needed and another day it's new "material" that's needed (by any given cultural/historical moment/people requiring what they eternally require from lanuage use, or poetry). The terms "formal" and
    "material" are, of course, Michael Palmer's. I think that it could be argued that the BM poets and the Beats, AND maybe even the NY School poets brought into being essentially a new MATERIAL, albeit by unshackling form from meter and giving into a greater fluidity of Process, instanter and instanter, to a jazz beat, and going on nerve, etc. I think that the Lang Po's went further in the other new directions that then developed (it may be "a cyclical thing," this general re-directing between the extremes of/from the "material" to the "formal"), namely a greater exploration they believed needed in the "formal" directions, down to the actual media of language and "grammars," themselves. I believe both extremes are sometimes worthless when pursued too earnestly and naively and fanatically and narcissistically.
    I believe a lot of different things, and hopefully I'll believe a whole bunch of new things tomorrow and some of the same things I believed yesterday. I.e., just joining in the discussion with some humble bs and modest comments... Blah blah...

  35. January 26, 2009
     Rosalind Vanderpeas

    Since when did they remove cafeteria debates to the world wide web?
    You poets, damn you! Get a change of atmosphere, go outside!