Brueghel - Children's Games (1560)
On a recent trip abroad to visit my parents I developed a case of hives. It started in the early hours of the 17th of June, 2006. I woke up with itchy feet at about four in the morning. The next night the same thing happened, though now it had spread to the palms of my hands. Within a week I would begin to wake up covered with welts. The attacks extended to my waking hours. At any given moment a kind of virile punctuation would spread over my body and my face would explode in a hot red flush, like an over-ripe strawberry left behind on a picnic table in the middle of a summer afternoon. Job came to mind. But, whereas Job’s only conceptual outlet was metaphysical, the wrath of God, I had a gamut of competing scenarios, all of which quickly overwhelmed me. The Internet, where I daily (no, hourly) went to confirm my latest hypothesis, only aggravated the hives. After an hour of virtually surging liver enzymes, soaring lymphocytes and hypothalamic concussions, I would scratch my way out of the upstairs office in my parent’s seaside cottage and throw myself into the open air in an attempt to escape my own skin.

Before I realized that my affliction was a cathartic reaction and that, unlike Job, my skin was crawling with surplus information my body wanted to be rid of, I did my best -- by immersing myself in the very allergen that was provoking the outbreaks -- to discover an organic (read “literal”) agent.
American life is, after all, the most literal of all lives. The bible is literal. Evil is literal. Hum-mers, the largest sports utility vehicles on the planet, are immensely literal. While the Europeans have Nietzsche, our most emblematic philosopher of post-metaphysical modernity is Dewey. We are awhirl, in facts, factoids and factlets, which appear and disappear like welts on the surface of consciousness. One of those welts, I thought, should be susceptible to biopsy, a process which would in turn reveal a name: “bilary cirrhosis”, “lymphoma”, “gallbladder disease”, or “pancreatitis”. The graver the disease, the sharper the word; a word whittled by death; a word which refused the relativity of those vaguely medieval notions like “stressed”, “neurosthenic”, or “melancholic”, with its etymological echo of black bile (melas, melan- ‘black’ + khole ‘bile.”)
I discovered more about the pathology of disease, more about my body, more about the bodies of others, more, indeed, about the world than I could reasonably assimilate. Self-diagnosis on the Internet quickly reduces the human brain to a state of entropy -- we reach a point when the information we take on causes other information to silt out of the solution. It literally leaks from the mind, like the leakage of histamines, bradykinim, kalhkrein and other vasoactive substances from mast cells suspended in the fabric of capillaries that irrigate our largest organ: the skin. Once loosed, these chemicals write their version of the world on the page of the body. After a careful reading of my Jobish affliction, I began to suspect that the lack of a barrier between the information about my disease and the manifestation of the disease itself was paradigmatic (the more I researched, the more I itched).
Like any other social category, the culture of disease has spawned its own media: its representation outside the body, where we can see it. Unlike in the case of Job, whose only reasonable recourse was colloquy with a fickle god (via his browser of received faith), the modern mimesis of illness is manifold and constantly proliferating: the more knowledge we take on, the less we know, the less we know, the more we need to learn. As with opiates, whisky and tobacco, infor-mation tolerance sets in after heavy and prolonged use. Our chemistry -- which is the new word for “soul” -- adapts to the unrelenting presence of a pathogen. It begins to rewrite the dictates of the day so that they conform to a given need. The addict, as William Burroughs said, needs more and more junk to maintain a human form.
The media mimics disease. Its model follows that of any other pathology: replication, coloniza-tion and the gradual conversion of the hosting organism, into itself. “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent”. We in the secular West, in the post-Wasteland world of kacotopia and gated enclaves, have even more to fear than Job, since the arbitrariness of our mechanistic God of information is garrulous compared with his Old Testament counterpart; the mediatic deity is, if anything, over-communicative, the big brother that never shuts up, drowning out any of the feeble piping we might muster. Even if our lack of existential control and the haplessness of our questioning have not changed all that much, the paradigm of the deity has been utterly inverted. Instead of the exacerbated remoteness of the Old Testament God, we have a kind of disembodied Dr. Ruth on anabolic steroids who suffers from general situation rage. We are no longer made in his image, he/she is made, and remade and made again, in ours. We are adrift, without consensus, without rudder. Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, et al, initiated a series of philosophical strategies to justify a Godless and arbitrary universe. But because the media is both theological and technological, both personal and impersonal, both highly present and invisible, because of its “insidious” capacity to overlap other systems, to project them even as it replaces them, because it cannot be avoided, because its infiltration has replaced ideology, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, et al have been rendered merely “literary” finger food for students and specialists. Most of us just don’t have the time to stop long enough to take them seriously.
All systems, including the Arts, have had to adapt, have had to rewrite their basic algorithms, perhaps streamlining their lexicons, removing the grace notes and placing statement in the foreground. The prominence of conceptual art today, which puts the caboose before the engine, is typical of periods in which the criticism of the arts dominates the arts themselves. One of Dr Johnson’s many definitions of poetry serves well here: "Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason." Poetry for Johnson becomes the handmaiden of reason.
And yet, of all the arts, poetry has failed most profoundly in this contemporary adventure of ad-aptation, and not for want of trying. Yet the most “advanced” poetry places statement in the background, or leaves it out altogether. It removes discernment (even in the Christian sense of perception in the absence of judgment, which translates into the dynamic of deferral in lyric poetry). In the Darwinian scheme of things (of bifurcated cows and gorgeously constructed mechanical simulators of haute-bourgeois scatology) poetry is a dying discourse, a species of speech that no longer has the equipment to respond to a general audience, or to counter the predacity of the media. Charles Bernstein is probably the American poet who most explicitly theorized this problem: that, like Asian and West Indian cricketers in relation to their colonizing sportsmen, the media has co-opted and outperformed poetry at its own game of figurative language, metaphor, metonym, synecdoche (that famous pair of “ragged claws”) and rhetorical figures in general, all of which were traditionally used by poetry both to clarify and vivify what might otherwise have seemed banal and to transport the reader into a new relationship with the ordinary and its spiritual underpinning. Bernstein’s demonstrably Dadaist praxis (and one of the central pillars of the Language ideology) was to use poetry to alienate rather than attract or transport the reader. And that is what it did, setting poetry even lower on the survival/relevance curve and creating one of the most academic poetics of all time.
Yet, Language poetry, during the last two decades of the last century, was just the sharp end of a wider poetic flight, as American poets of all persuasions began to mass behind the University ramparts. It is curious how this migration coincided with the rise of globalized, real-time, mass media and its gradual transformation into the so-called “new media”, whose first flourishing occurred in the years between two signal events, the fall of the wall, and the fall of the twin towers. Twelve rapid, and from our perspective today, innocent years – the Clinton interregnum – during which, somehow, the way we communicated with each other changed forever.
Poetry, like other peripheral discourses (including the dangerous ones) has managed to resurrect itself online. The Net (bless its terrifying heart!) has been a boon for the non-profiting, under-profiting, marketplace alienated, subsidy skimmers which make up the majority of working po-ets. We are, as a group, indebted to technologies that, if not wisely negotiated, will kill us. We are like a team of synchronic swimmers performing in a pool full of sharks. We have become beholden to a form of Boolean package delivery that costs the average cheater absolutely nothing, at least in the moment of transaction.
Under these conditions, the publication of poetry in actual print resides in a kind of karmic niche, a good (read moral) thing for the large houses to continue doing, and the only thing for a bevy of small and independent presses to survive by, via subsidies and other forms of patronage, most of it meant to prop up in Arnoldian fashion (that is, as a social instrument) what’s left of high literary culture. Unlike fiction, nonfiction, history, the new American poetry is virtually unknown outside a small cohort, an archipelago of the embattled spread across the United States. And there is certainly no interest abroad among general readers, who are hardly interested in their own “national” poetries. But even in European academic circles, there is little real understanding of what is happening in America, though there are “events” which celebrate it. Some European poets seem to get it, but they get it like the get Coca-Cola and Levi’s. There is very little organic basis behind their enthusiasms for experimental poetry from the States. Language barriers often get in the way, but cultural history is even more of an impediment. Have you ever tried to listen to hip-hop in German?
But the failure, in Europe at least (and I would suggest in America as well) to properly construe the tenor of post-modern American poetry stems from a deeper misalliance within contemporary American poetry itself: there is a the gap between the political and ideological agenda of today’s avant-garde and the means by which this agenda is expressed in practice. The agenda itself (a seemingly noble undertaking): to undermine power structures, to undermine canonical assumptions and the anti-democratic elitism of a codified system of evaluative criticism, to readjust the horribly maladjusted relations between genders, between races, between the poor and the well-off, between the singers and the moaners, and finally to broadcast, in the original sense of the word - scattering seeds by hand instead of placing them in drills or rows - a kind of poetry that would embody the most basic of all cultivating procedures: to engage and liberate the masses (which unfortunately don’t, as a collective literacy, actually exist)… all of this runs awry of their highly problematical aesthetic procedure of deconstructing traditional discourse, of trying to fashion, as some sort of poetical analogy of “direct action”, a praxis based on willfully obscuritanist styles. This is not the famous “difficulty” of modernist poets and their legatees; it is more nihilistic, more anarchistic, less interested in maintaining a link with some imagined public. What their political agenda really wants is the plain language of the pamphlet; they should have taken Brecht or Hikmet, or even Robert Frost as models. On the contrary, what their aesthetic wants is to defeat, replace, transform and often mutilate sense-making, as though this were a way to change the world. But rather than changing anything, their relationship with traditional literary elitism is maintained.
This dissonance between a means and an end is part of a larger dissonance within contemporary poetry in an age that, for all intents and purposes, is driven by post-literate forms of communication, in the arts and otherwise. All poets, from the avant-garde to the neo-formalists, from the traditional deep imagists, to the poets of narrative and description, from the uptown poets to the downtown poets, need to rethink their relationship to their audience.
Poetry makes nothing happen. Have we have forgotten Auden’s injunction?
On a previous note, my hives, much to my chagrin, refused to behave like a metaphor. It took almost two years, with the help of my psychiatrist, Dr Neary, a wizard of psychopharmacology, for me to overcome them. The secret lay in a drug called Blusterwonder, an antihistamine, but one used to treat the “melancholic” and the “hysterical”. I know they’re still there, my hives, waiting just beneath the skin to breakout once again. Robert Burton would have loved my dilemma. He would have laughed out loud. And you should too.

Originally Published: February 27th, 2009

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...

  1. February 27, 2009
     Luther Wilcoxe

    Wow! This is a treatise. Thank you.

  2. February 27, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    I came for the hives (I've been battling my own symptomatic skin condition) and stayed for the poetry. My question is, if we take your argument to be true, that contemporary American poetry is ailing and failing to adapt to the current mediascape, how do we cure that ill? Does the development of a discourse (like this one) around the failings serve as salve? I'd argue not. I'm thinking of the general audience for this site, and how they might react to your erudition. You offer a way in--skin dis-ease is something we can relate to--but I imagine general readers getting itchy a few paragraphs in, and well, leaving. I don't think that means we shouldn't talk like this. In fact, by Dr. Johnson's definition--"Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason."--this blog entry does the work of poetry. But if you had to state a solution in one sentence, to say how contemporary poets might rethink their relationship to audience, could you do it? I ask because I care, and I want to know. For a marginal character like me, a relative outsider, this is the million dollar question.

  3. February 27, 2009
     Don Share

    I figure it's ok to dilate a little here, hence a lengthy complaint about the phrase, "poetry makes nothing happen" being trotted out over and over (tho' I'm not objecting in particular to Martin's deployment of it!), attributed to Auden as some sort of evidence for the reductiveness and hermetic inutility of poetry.
    The phrase occurs, after all in a poem eulogizing a poet who made things happen (being a politician as well as a writer), W.B. Yeats. And in context - only part of that context, since I can't legally quote the entire poem, and that context is absolutely enormous - the poem actually says:
    For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth.
    I'm not doing lit crit here, just reading what it says on the page: poetry is a way of happening, a mouth. Even if, as some argue, by the time of the poem's publication Auden had lost his belief in poetry as an agent of political change, he would not, as Jon Stallworthy says, have dared say the words "poetry makes nothing happen" to the living Yeats.
    As it happens, the origin of the phrase is Auden's earlier essay, "The Public v. the Late Mr William Butler Yeats" (1939), in which he imagines putting Yeats on trial for his belief in fairies and other "mumbo-jumbo." As the British poet Angela Leighton puts it, "in the imaginary court case to which he brings the poet, the defence lights on a phrase which will yield its own poetic riches: 'the fallacious belief [of Yeats] that art ever makes anything happen.'"
    When this gets reworked into the famous "makes nothing happen" bit, Leighton points out, the phrase "turns, by a tiny inflection, a redistribution of its stresses, into its opposite: 'poetry makes nothing HAPPEN.' By this accentual difference, 'nothing' shades into a subject, and happens. This is an event, and its 'happening' sums up the ways of poetry. Intransitive and tautological, nothing is neither a thing, nor no thing, but a continuous event." (Leighton, On Form, 145)
    Poetry, that is, survives / in the valley of its making....
    This is not inutility. The supposed virtue of the supposed inadequacy of language is merely a disguise for other inadequacies. In my opinion! OK, I'm done bloviating...

  4. February 27, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    Cathy, I don't think Martin's intention is to give us the answer. I imagine he has a hint or two of an answer for himself, but the fact is that each poet needs to create his or her own way forward. Our economic crisis has forced these issues to the fore, and many poets out there are thinking about them (see Adam Fieled's recent posts at Stoning the Devil and my own here). I'm not looking to anyone else for "an answer," and if one were offered I'd probably reject it out of sheer cussedness.
    And Don, you're right to focus on what Auden actually wrote, but you can't redeem it. Auden was wrong and Yeats was right. It's the fatuous reduction of poetry to something that merely survives – and not in the larger world, but "in the valley of its making"–that has resulted in the problem Martin so eloquently addresses.

  5. February 27, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    Hi Joseph-
    You're right--if Martin had an answer, I'd likely reject it too. I actually love Martin's post and how he comes at the problem somatically. It is a sort of answer. I guess I am just wondering out loud what I can do to help, and fretting that the answer might be a resounding: nothing.

  6. February 27, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Why should poetry make anything happen?
    It has a big enough job just offering an inkling of an evocation of what has ALREADY happened. In doing so, it possibly gets a little closer to a verbal approximation of what IS.
    If you are determined to leave the world a better place than it was when you arrived, it helps to have a clear-eyed look at it.
    That's a tall order in itself.
    Not to mention the idea that perhaps something has already happened to make the world beautiful in itself (if we could only see it). & the childish playful poetic imagination's unaccountable free trajectories (in poems) also render an image - by analogy - of that better world under our (runny) noses.
    "31 And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation? and to what are they like? 32 They are like to children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped to you, and you have not danced; we have mourned to you, and you have not wept. 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and you say, He has a devil. 34 The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and you say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners! 35 But wisdom is justified of all her children." - Gospel of Luke, ch. 7

  7. February 27, 2009

    "Bernstein’s demonstrably Dadaist praxis (and one of the central pillars of the Language ideology) was to use poetry to alienate rather than attract or transport the reader."
    Well that's, like, your opinion, man.
    I get very annoyed when people try to tell me my reaction to a kind of poetry is incorrect. I don't feel alienated by language poetry at all. It's fine if you do, whatever, but stop trying to pass your own opinion off as settled fact.

  8. February 27, 2009
     liz booker

    Dear Martin,
    There are a very few poets addressing the political. Or rather meshing poetry and politics. But it is true you have to search them out. The one that comes to mind best, for me, is Mark Yakich. Take a look at his latest book, THE IMPORTANCE OF PEELING POTATOES IN UKRAINE (Penguin 2008).

  9. February 27, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    Henry! I hope you'd agree that significant poetry (as opposed to greeting card verse, let's say) contributes to changes in awareness. That's making something happen. It's the reason the Israeli government doesn't allow the poems of Darwish to be read in their schools, for example, and why Bangladeshi poet Taslima Nasrin has been repeatedly threatened with death by Muslim extremists, and why Ginsberg's Howl has been banned from libraries across America. Poetry may not change administrations or foreign policies, but it certainly changes consciousness, as the proponents of unconsciousness clearly understand.

  10. February 27, 2009
     Henry Gould

    depends on your definition of "change".
    I think of poets as normative. They remind us what it is to be human. Various anxious agents of various governments feel the need to organize thinking.... hence they punish poets for just saying.
    I don't think of poets as divine saviors of human consciousness, lightning-bolt superheroes of the masses, changers of consciousness. In fact I think this idea of Poet as Superhero, the Poet as Mighty Brain, as Artistic Giant, feeding the Dumb Masses, has often aligned with theories of Government as Superhero (see, there goes D'Annunzio, in his fighter plane...). I think it GETS IN THE WAY of true awareness.
    A poem reflects. That's plenty.

  11. February 28, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    No greater advice could any poet receive
    than that of Polonius to his son Laertes.

  12. February 28, 2009

    Bertstein’s “anti-absorptive” strategies and their connection to what is known as the “alienation effect” in Brecht is well documented and certainly has nothing to do with my opinion. Here is an excellent review of Bernstein’s newest book by Tim Peterson, published on the electronicbookreview. Just follow this link:
    Here’s a citation from the review. This will fill in a lot of the background to my statement in the post and provide you with further leads to Bernstein’s poetics. I would suggest you start with (if you haven’t already read it), his A Poetics (Harvard, 1992) a book length essay in verse.
    From Peterson’s review:
    “The key work for establishing a connection between the alienation effect and Bernstein's anti-absorptive techniques would be The Threepenny Opera, Brecht's musical which presents a multi-voiced, shifting collage of emotional and ideological perspectives while adopting a gleefully critical attitude towards all of them. The theme of Brechtian critique first coalesced as an overtly stated poetic strategy for Bernstein's readers with the publication of his essay "The Artifice of Absorption," which drew explicit connections between the antiabsorptive and Brechtian devices in the writing:
    Brecht figures prominently in my verse essay "Artifice of Absorption" because I am interested in the dynamic of both being absorbed in the textual "action" and at the same time remaining aware of the structures producing the effect. Like the Russian futurist's idea of ostranenie (making strange), Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt is a crucial model for breaking the empathic connection between reader and poem, where one reads through the words to get to the idea of content "in the other side." ("An Interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke," My Way, 68)”

  13. February 28, 2009

    Martin, regarding your response to Matt,
    You're either willfully obscuring or inexcusably ignorant of Bernstein's motives in using these techniques. Since you claim to have read A Poetics, I'll assume it's the former. If you want to make a serious argument against the language poets, you'll have to avoid setting up your own strawman version of their intents. Bernstein seeks to create a more democratic reading process than he sees as otherwise available through so-called "absorptive" techniques. He sees the absorptive as coercing the reader rather than engaging or enabling him. He actually wants to create an affect that is more truly absorptive for the reader.
    You can argue against the results all you want, but as an academic you have an obligation to at least accurately represent the intents of Bernstein's text to people who may not have access to it.

  14. February 28, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    What you say about academia and avant poetry, along with other things in your post, is nicely put and thought-provoking.
    But Brecht has little to do with "Dadaist praxis."
    (Which is not to say that Language poetry really has much to do with Brecht!)

  15. February 28, 2009
     thomas brady

    In defending Matt against Martin, Iain writes:
    "Bernstein seeks to create a more democratic reading process than he sees as otherwise available through so-called "absorptive" techniques. He sees the absorptive as coercing the reader rather than engaging or enabling him. He actually wants to create an affect that is more truly absorptive for the reader."
    But absorptive techniques ARE democratic, because that's how you reach large audiences, and secondly, all sorts of non-absorptive techniques which 'engage or enable' readers can exist within the absorptive, such as in Plato's dramatic dialogues, Shakespeare's play-within-a-play, Poe's "The Purloined Letter," etc.
    I was in a production of "Three Penny Opera" and I can tell you that work appealed to its audience in an 'absorptive' fashion. What democratic art does not?
    Bernstein can "seek to create a more democratic reading process than he sees as otherwise available through so-called 'absorptive' techniques" all he "actually wants," but I'll bet you anything he will remain boring and obscure doing so.

  16. March 1, 2009

    Thanks for the comment. Just to set things back on track, I never mention Charles Bernstein’s “motives”, nor do I question his democratic credentials. I have followed his work since first meeting him nearly thirty years ago, but have never bought into his theory of the 'Artifice of Absorption’ and have gone public with this on many occasions. The notion that we are being coerced when read poetry has always seemed exaggerated to me and, besides, shows a lack of perspective vis-à-vis real coercion in the world today: the abuse of children, the trafficking of women from Eastern Europe to stock the brothels of Western European cities, the creation of armies of child-soldiers, and the torture of prisoners of war – the list goes on. We are not forced to read poetry and we are not coerced when we do so.
    I would add that I am not responsible for “accurately” representing Charles Bernstein for those who may not have access to his work, something I find highly implausible, since his work is easily accessible, in print and on line. My job it to be opinionated, not to be a spokesperson for the people I write about.
    One other thing, I am not an academic, and I have no affiliation with any academic institution.

  17. March 1, 2009

    My apologies for thinking you were an academic.
    Perhaps you don't have an obligation to accurately represent Bernstein, but it would make a genuine discussion easier if we at least tried not to misrepresent positions we're attacking.
    I commented earlier on your post, but it wasn't published for one reason or another. There's one thing specifically I would like to address: your claim that language poetry is "one of the most academic poetics of all time", and that it shuns its audience by being too difficult. My challenge is not whether or not the argument can be made on paper (it clearly can be). My challenge is whether or not this the assertion holds up in practice.
    You say that poetry needs to rethink its relationship to its audience. This seems like you're accusing language poetry of being unapproachable to the average reader, which is simply not true (I'll get to this). As an aside, you hardly seem like the sort of person that would be arguing that poetry shouldn't challenge its audience too much. If you think all poetry needs to be as audience-appeasing as much of Hollywood cinema then I should stop right here, but I'm pretty sure you don't actually think that.
    Just a few of the things that came to mind when reading the "most academic", and the rethinking-the-relationship-with-the-audience comment:
    -Ron Silliman, one exception to the "academic" accusation, though nonetheless prominently associated with the language school, is a good example of a poet whose work gets associated with "difficulty" merely because people repeat the saying (much like the big lie of the "liberal media", which is not a conspiracy, just carelessness). In practice, Silliman's work is remarkably simple. Most of his work can be easily approached by anyone after a very short explanation, which is hardly the majority of poetry that the "average" reader reads.
    -Lyn Hejinian's poem My Life is another example of a work that is quite easily approachable without rigorous academic study. Reading it produces the intended effect as long as you possess the ability to read. The poem imitates, very accurately and beautifully, the effect of recalling memories from one's life, and is hardly out of any reader's reach when it comes to the ability to appreciate it.
    -Some of Bernstein's work does pose more difficulty for the reader than the others I've mentioned. However, in practice, Bernstein's work isn't actually impenetrable at all. It's often quite fun, and very rewarding to read (whether or not the reader "gets" everything).
    -(and this is kind of a cliche thing to mention, but...) Shakespeare's work is hardly easily approachable. Most people cringe when they're first forced to read him. Rigorous academic study is mostly necessary to be able to "fully" approach his work. However, this is not how most people who love Shakespeare experience him. There's plenty to delight in without "fully" understanding the plays. This is true of a good amount of language poetry as well (I'd say particularly Bernstein). I'm wondering how the hordes of "academic" and difficult poets you probably love fit into your comments.
    -Berrett Watten is probably the poet who best fits your assertions.
    -Also, Hip-hip is arguably the most successful poetry movement of the 20th century (particularly in terms of audience), while still remaining, to many many people, "inaccessible".
    -The market is flooded with "nice" "accessible" poetry. I think, if anything, today's poetry reader is not being challenged enough. If anything, not enough poetry deals with the chaotic language experience of contemporary life in the way that language poetry, flarf, conceptual poetry, and many others have begun to do.

  18. March 1, 2009
     thomas brady

    That's a flood red herrings.
    Hejinian's poem 'My Life' simply mirrors life and therefore is simple and accessible.
    Bernstein, too, is "simple."
    Yet then you say poetry needs to "challenge" us more.
    Which is it?
    I don't expect you to be pinned down, of course, since your game is to claim Language Poetry is accessible on one front, and, on the other, just in case, oh yes, Language Poetry is not accessible, well that's good, isn't it, because we need to be "challenged," after all?
    Shakespeare is not accessible, and therefore Language Poetry which is not accessible is just as good, or something like that.
    Then you say Hip-Hop is popular but not "accessible" to a lot of people. And this proves that democracy and accessibility have nothing to do with each other.
    Beautiful. You've covered all your bases and proved to your satisfaction that Language Poetry is beyond criticism.
    But it is a truism that Language Poetry is pathologically inaccessible.
    A tape recording of a random conversation at a party could be, to many people, "accessible." But as poetry, the tape recording is inaccessible. The tape recording does not lead to anything further. It has no art. Shakespeare, on the other hand, as any educated person knows, if somewhat inaccessible at first, will lead to something worthwhile, for it has art. It will prove accessible, as art, in the end. As coy as your being, I know you know this.
    Hip hop is not inaccessible to many people. The many people who don't like Hip Hop do not find it inaccessible. They find it all too accessible. They simply find it banal.
    Finally, you say there is a lot of 'nice' and 'accessible' poetry out there. I hope you are including the Language poets, for, as you yourself pointed out, they are often 'accessible,' and certainly much of Language poetry is 'nice,' since you have not defined 'nice' in any way for us, really, except to say it is--accessible.

  19. March 2, 2009

    My point was to show that words like "accessible" and "difficult" have no consistent meanings that can be usefully employed to talk about poetry. Difficult to whom? Accessible to whom? These are the important questions. Any poem is difficult to one person, and accessible to another.
    Language poetry is not beyond criticism. I have many criticisms of the movement. However, "language poetry" encompasses far too diverse an amount of tenancies for one to pretend to be able to describe with reifying terms like "academic" or "difficult". Some language poetry is difficult, some language poetry is very simple and approachable.
    I'm afraid if you find all hip-hip to be "banal" then it is "inaccessible" to you. Because if you find all of it banal, you're very much missing something.

  20. March 2, 2009

    "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world." - Helen Vendler

  21. March 2, 2009
     Bill Knott

    i hesitate to mention TAPP
    –The American Poetry Public–
    : you know, TAPP: the people who buy those books on the poetry bestseller list updated regularly on this site?–
    the last time i mentioned TAPP in one of these threads, the respondent sidestepped any considerations re TAPP and accused me of nominating Danielle Steel for a Nobel––
    you may hate TAPP (which most of this site's frequenters do, judging by their comments here),
    or you may pretend that TAPP doesn't exist,
    or that if TAPP does exist it is intellectually indistinguishable from the readers of vampire novels,
    but it seems to me that TAPP is the ghost presence in many discussions here . . .
    surely the answer to the question that "Iain" above asks:
    "accessible to whom?"
    is: TAPP.

  22. March 2, 2009
     Don Share

    Anyone read Adam Bradley's Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop yet? Bradley (who got his Ph.D. in English from Harvard!), argues that "Rap is poetry, but its popularity relies in part on people not recognizing it as such," and that unlike much of what we call poetry, "Rap never ignores its listeners." And: "Thanks to the engines of global commerce, rap is now the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world."

  23. March 2, 2009

    I'm not sure where you're going with that, but I'd say that, sure, TAPP exists. However, I cannot believe that the tastes of TAPP as an entity is in any way a reflection of the tastes of the individuals that make it up. No one likes everything that's on the radio, and no one likes all the most watched movies, and no one likes all the books on best-sellers lists.
    If TAPP is the audience that Martin has in mind when he says that poets "need to rethink their relationship to their audience", then I even more whole-heartedly reject the idea. I think the reason the notion bothers me in general is that the context the question is in presents this Poet-as-King/Audience-as-Subjects model which I have (as a poet) rethought, and completely abandoned. The audience needs to rethink its relationship to poetry (and I say that as a reader). In fact, I prefer to think of my poetry as coming from the "audience" side more than the "poet" side. Which is not to say that I claim to represent the audience who "unfortunately don't [to quote Martin's post], as a collective literacy, actually exist."
    Also, the entity that's being completely left out in this silly Poet/Audience dichotomy is the Teachers, who should be everyone to some extent. If poems are too "difficult", this is a problem for Teachers (all of us) to correct, not for the poet to rethink (read: "dumb down") her work.

  24. March 2, 2009
     Bill Knott

    here you are, Iain:
    The market is flooded with "nice" "accessible" poetry. I think, if anything, today's poetry reader is not being challenged enough. If anything, not enough poetry deals with the chaotic language experience of contemporary life in the way that language poetry, flarf, conceptual poetry, and many others have begun to do.
    "Market" i assume indicates the poetry bestseller list featured on this site–
    and that "nice accessible poetry" that's flooding it is written by, to name as example just two prominent stars of the latest list, Nikki Giovanni and Mary Oliver–
    I'm terming TAPP what you call "today's poetry reader":
    you're saying that Giovanni and Oliver don't challenge TAPP,
    and that Giovanni and Oliver fail to deal "with the chaotic language experience of contemporary life"
    in their poems, because . . . well, because they're "silly" to use your word for them:
    they're silly because they choose to write poems addressed to a wider audience than "language poetry, flarf, conceptual poetry" does––
    The great thing about your team is that they always win this argument; you always prove your point, you can't be refuted–and
    when you shout "Give it up! I was the captain of the debating team at Mineola Prep!"
    I retreat in defeat . . .
    But unfortunately for you, and for your cohorts of the question,
    TAPP doesn't care!
    TAPP doesn't care that you can prove beyond any doubt of reason that they are silly morons for preferring Nikki Giovanni and Mary Oliver
    to your crew of chaoticists,
    and that your contempt for them
    (and for poets like Giovanni/Oliver, whom you abhor because they, to use your term, "dumb down" their verse)
    is the main tenet underlying your thesis––
    your disdain can crush me, you can bully your cause by calling me silly and dumb, your superior condescension can leave me spinning and flailing,
    but so what? Forget me––
    TAPP, TAPP, TAPP: that's your audience knocking out there, Iain,
    won't you open the door for their "access"? If you wait around for the "Teachers" to do it, hey good luck on that––
    TAPP, TAPP, TAPP: they're nailing your coffin, language poetry, flarf, conceptual poetry––

  25. March 2, 2009

    Your response to my comments is very strange.
    You're throwing me in with arguments that I never made just because I happen to be defending poetry that is "post-avant". I wish I would have talked more about hip-hip earlier, because I'd say that Flarf and hip-hop are the poetries most dealing with what I called today's "chaotic language experience". Hip-hop has an enormously larger audience than any poet being read by "TAPP", so I'm not sure how that fits into your bizarre accusations of me.
    My comments were made as a reader of poetry, a member of the "audience", so that means, to you, I'm talking as a member of TAPP. Can't I do that?
    The biggest problem with your formation of "TAPP" is that it doesn't include hip-hop. Why not? If it did, Giovanni and Oliver wouldn't be near the top at all. I wonder if you'd have a problem with that, and if so, why? If the poet with the biggest audience is the best, as you seem to suggest by mentioning TAPP, then Billy Collins can't touch Kanye West, which is generally true which ever way you look at it.

  26. March 2, 2009
     Bill Knott

    it's interesting how some poets like "Iain" (if that's his real name)
    have this problem with poets like Nikki Giovanni and Mary Oliver
    whose poetry is, in his words, "flooding" the marketplace . . .
    flooding, overflowing, inundating–his metaphor for their poetic prowess is indicative, no?
    It's evident that his (and his cronies') hatred contempt disdain
    for TAPP
    is less than his hatred contempt disdain for Giovanni and Oliver,
    because, to him (and his kindred) the latter are traitors–
    by "dumbing down" their verse, by striving to make their poems accessible and readable,
    Giovanni and Oliver (I'm using them as exemplars)
    are betraying, in the eyes of Iain and his sect,
    the sacred art of poetry––
    indeed, TAPP is less to be blamed than these quisling poets are,
    because, as he implies above with his remark about "Teachers",
    TAPP has been mistaught, misinstructed, misled––
    and so their refusal to buy the books of Iain's cult
    is understandable to some degree––they simply need to be re-indoctrinated, rounded up and sent to re-education camps––
    Iain and his claque can never let themselves believe that TAPP
    might be composed of adults
    with the intelligence and taste to make their own decisions about the poetry books they buy,
    no, he insists, they are silly dumbed down fools
    who need to have their heads forcefed
    with the Smartened Up work of "language poetry, flarf, conceptual poetry" . . .

  27. March 2, 2009

    Thanks to you and Luther Wilcoxe, this thread started out on a really positive note. I’ve been puzzling over your question: “But if you had to state a solution in one sentence, to say how contemporary poets might rethink their relationship to audience, could you do it?”
    In fact, this question ended up informing, in some way or another, all of the comments that have come in, right up to Bill’s TAPP comment this afternoon.
    (He’s a great one for respecting the nutshell – historically one of the poet’s most important civic duties.)
    Do I have a one-sentence response?
    Sure I do.
    Stop writing and start reading.
    Unlike novelists, non-fiction writers, journalists and historians, poets have somehow been excused from the pressure of knowing (or even considering) their readership. This happens for two reasons. 1, because they speak only to their coreligionists; and 2, because their work is largely subsidized, or paid for via the various connivances of the prize-awarding system. For them, the notion of the marketplace (which for most professional writers is necessarily formed around a strategic awareness of audience) need not be considered. In certain respects, they have become like the scholarly class, who write for a captive audience of apprentice scholars. Most of their thought is constructed around the citation of previous thought and very little of their production ever leaves the village. This kind of cloistering is important for scholarship. It always has been. But with poetry it leads to all sorts of troubles: inbreeding, pettiness, the inability to find new forms for new realities, provinciality and high-mindedness. Poets bathe too often in their own certainties. Instead of worrying about the decline of a general readership, they should stop writing poetry and start reading it. They should become the general reader that they have systematically neglected.
    Let’s keep this question on the table.

  28. March 2, 2009

    You're trying to start a fight, whereas I was hoping to provoke, possibly, some serious responses to some of the challenges I was making. The idea that I have "cronies" is so ridiculous, I wish I really could prove to you who I am. I don't even know a single person who reads poetry. You're acting like you're intimidated by me, as if I were speaking from some elite academic position. I have nothing (I'm stealing wireless as I write this). I don't even have a GED, I'm just trying to talk about poetry. If I was aggressive earlier, it is because I am passionate about these topics. I don't mind at all that you're being aggressive towards me, but it would be nice if you addressed the points I'm actually making, rather than the ones you imagine I might make.
    If you want to make poetry about who sells the most, don't talk to me about Giovanni and Oliver. Talk to me about Kanye West and Lil Wayne. If you really believe that the size of the audience is indicative of "poetic prowess", then the top print poets are complete nobodies next to any Hip-Hop artist. Tell me Bill, why aren't people who listen to hip-hop allowed in TAPP?

  29. March 2, 2009
     thomas brady

    This is really bizarre.
    Why does Kayne West get to be poetry? Why not Britney Spears? Irving Berlin? Beck? Paul McCartney? John Grisham? Conan O'Brien? Clint Eastwood? Chris Rock?
    Hip Hop relies on spoken attitude and a musical accompaniment with a very pronounced beat. Poetry is not its appeal.
    To imitate something in a clumsy manner is a form of insult. Cartoonish representation which distorts what is being represented can please, but the pleasure feeds on, it does not partake of, the thing represented.
    This point is crucial to understanding the current discussion.
    Hip Hop could be said to cultivate anti-poetry. Any thing that violates the spirit of poetry, but is close enough to it superficially, to pass for it in the eyes of crass intellectualization, is poetry's worst enemy.
    Hip Hop is not poetry anymore than tin pan alley was, or the Beatles or Dylan was, or Paul McCartney still is. Song lyrics do share some of poetry's attributes, and can even exceed written poetry in bringing about a certain poetic effect, but so can classical music, with no words at all. So can the drama, and so can certain emotions invoked by certain real life situations.
    The poetry of words which can invoke powerful feelings and give delight without musical or obvious dramatic accompaniment is valuable for doing so, simply because it isolates a means to an end, with its means bereft of the usual baggage necessary for that same end, and is wonderful for that very reason.
    Genre-blurring will always exist, but shall we allow mere blending to turn us into utterly ignorant wretches in the process?

  30. March 2, 2009

    I hope that just because I responded to Bill Knott (a mistake, I admit) that this hasn't excluded me from being responded to. I'm basically the only person who has seriously challenged anything you've said here, and I hope I won't be ignored just because I mistook you for an "academic".

  31. March 3, 2009
     thomas brady

    Hey, Bill's OK. It wasn't a "mistake" to respond to him. It takes all kinds to make an interesting debate.
    Look, I'm sure, to Bill, your opinion matters a lot more because you are NOT an academic elite,
    It sounds like you're one of the Hip Hop masses, as well as TAPP. That actually makes you the most important person here.
    Dude, please stick around!

  32. March 3, 2009

    Not only is Hip-Hop the poetry that most engages with the contemporary, it is also the poetry that most resembles poetry's roots. "Genre-bending"? Really?
    Poetry with a pronounced beat is excluded from being "pure" poetry? What? So anything in iambics is out then?
    If anything, Hip-Hop is poetry first and pop music second. All of the other things you mentioned are pop music first and poetry second (if at all).
    I only mentioned Kanye and Weezy because Bill wanted to talk about the best sellers in poetry, which was certainly not anyone he was talking about. Hip-Hop is way beyond what you hear on the radio. Hip-Hop happens all the time without any "accompaniment", and not in the same way someone might have a Beatles song caught in their head. I don't hear Beatles lyrics being recited to wholly metrics, mixed with Dylan lyrics and improvisations and used to accost passersby on the street. This happens with Hip-Hop where I live (not frequently, but it's certainly recurring).
    Citing pop lyrics as poetry might be an example of genre-bending (as if the very existence of "genres" weren't the result of "bending"), but not so much Hip-Hop, unless you are excluding any kind of spoken poetry from being "pure" (which would be a very strange definition of poetry).
    Sure, "Hip-Hop" is also used to describe things that aren't poetry, but it still very much "means" poetry. If poetry is used to create a vibrant participatory culture, it's not "pure" poetry to you? It's "genre-bending"? Oh, that more poetry could bend us!

  33. March 3, 2009

    I appreciate your last comment. Thank you.
    It's frustrating to me that I get thrown into the "academic" category for defending langpo, flarf, conceptual poetry, etc. (as if that were a good reason to discount me anyway). I really don't think that the assertion that these poetries are "academic" or "inaccessible" holds up to any scrutiny (something I'm still hoping Martin will respond to). Honestly, langpo makes more "sense" to me than Billy Collins. When I try to get people into poetry here in Ypsilanti, I have much more success with Flarf or Kenny Goldsmith's work than I do with so-called "accessible" poetries. When I've shown my poetry (which can be "difficult") to academics, they're usually lost and don't know what to say, but when I show it to people with no literary background whatsoever, they often love it.
    Again, thanks for your comment, and thanks for actually engaging with some of the things I've said.

  34. March 3, 2009

    And I appreciate the challenge and your attention to the substance of my post. (It's being commented on from all different kinds of perspectives.) I've read your large comment a few times now and have kind of half formulated a response, but I lost the index card (for the moment) that contained those formulations. But I plan to get back to you, hopefully tonight. I'm working under deadline this week so it's been a bit difficult to keep up.
    And I don't think it's ever a mistake to respond to Bill. He one of our greatest poets, and I - for one - have learned a lot from him over the years.
    Anyway, thanks for nudging me.

  35. March 3, 2009

    I don’t even know if this is legal, but I’ll risk it. Here’s a 2008 comment you made on Quill & Quire, with a poem from Mark Yakich’s book, The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Penguin, 2008). I take the liberty because of what you said on my thread. Can you fill us in on the poet and the translator? On the basis of this one poem, I’m extremely curious.
    August 1, 2008 | 10:22 pm Elizabth Booker says:
    Dear Mr Weller:
    If you would like a precise and unusual take on poetry and suicide bomber, try this poem below from Mark Yakich’s new book, The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Penguin, 2008).
    Sincerely,Elizabeth Booker
    For a Suicide Bomber
    If you stare right between your thighs
    You will find that one of the many beauties
    Of poetry is that you can go from a sedentary
    Lump all the way to a lean, self-righteous
    Hard-on without touching nostalgia. I
    Have seen people exaggerate the flower
    Of poetry. For example, it can make you have
    Longer, more distinguished orgasms; it can
    Make you fall in love with your worst enemy;
    It can placate crotch odor. I have known men
    And women who deliberately crap their own
    Pockets and leotards trying to suffer the same
    Misery of Buddha, Dante, Dickinson, and Li Po
    It's time to put the big myth about these
    Pilots to bed. By definition their crying is
    A low-intensity way to burn calories and their
    Tears are a low-down way to get someone
    Into the sack. Even so, I have worked with
    Many people who felt they were climbing
    Everest as they struggled through their first
    Twenty-minute crying jag. Remember,
    You have thought your whole life about how
    Wonderful fame would be. Let your
    Hand form a loose fist around my trigger
    Point. The rules for success are clear: you
    Must never give candy to a dandy; and
    You must learn to die, like the Moors
    On a Spanish galleon, in five-minute shifts.

  36. March 3, 2009
     thomas brady

    You are not the first person I have heard say this: "Hip-Hop is way beyond what you hear on the radio. Hip-Hop happens all the time without any accompaniment."
    But doesn't all the chart-topping Hip Hop/Rap have that booming bass line as its signature, as well as other sorts of musical elements? It depends on music, really, just as much as any pop music form.
    Hip Hop without any accompaniment is something I'm also familiar with, but it doesn't sell like the musical kind does.
    I grant that a recognizable beat in words signals 'poetry' to most people, but I was trying to make a distinction between1) word-arrangement which creates its own unique rhythm v. a 2) rhythm that is first established and then words are made to fit that pre-established rhythm.
    The two are often confused, but I think it's an important distinction. Song, as well as poetry, can use both methods, but the former method above--where the words themselves create the rhythm, instead of the rhythm holding up the words--is the one I prefer.

  37. March 3, 2009

    Just checked, No translator involved...all the better!

  38. March 3, 2009

    In Hip-Hop, the lyrics drive the rhythm as often (or at least nearly as often) as the rhythm drives the words. There are many points in Lil Wayne's new album where an irregularity in meter will be reflected by an irregularity in the song's beat. Also, Hip-Hop albums frequently feature songs with no music or beat in the background. Either way though, much historical poetry (most really) features words driven by a beat (any metrical poetry). In fact, for the most part, in Hip-Hop, the beat doesn't actually provide the rhythm for the words as much as it provides a frame-work for the words to happen in.
    The most interesting thing about Hip-Hop to me is that it explores how language reacts to its environment. This happens on many different levels, from Black Vernacular's response to an oppressive environment to how the words in the songs themselves form around a beat. As I said before, the beat provides a framework, but words are stuffed in, slurred, elongated, the regional accent shifted, etc. It is about conquering and overcoming the beat, subverting it, as much as "following" it. The lyrics are not merely recited later by the listener (as with pop lyrics, for the most part), but placed into a new environment, reinterpreted, and improvised upon.
    Hip-Hop doesn't need to rely on technology as much as poetry on the page. For poetry on the page, if you take away the press, the paper, the writing instruments, whatever, the poetry is gone. Whereas with Hip-Hop, as much as it uses and responds to technology, if you take the technology away, Hip-Hop remains, reacting organically to any environment it's placed in. And this is very much what the poetry of Hip-Hop is "about". Hip-Hop seems very capitalist in our country because that is the environment, but Hip-Hop thrives in Cuba too, and takes very different forms.

  39. March 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    Fascinating stuff. I wish we had examples.
    Cheerleader chants, Army marching chants, the prose of technical manuals, doggerel, all these things have rhythm, and often quite complex rhythms.
    We can point out that something is 'poetry' or that something is 'popular,' or that something has complex rhythms, but we're not really saying much at all. Such formulas are too easy to make.
    This is why I am not quite ready to concede your point.
    It is also doesn't matter, to me, really, how much technology an art needs or does not need. Or whether it's done in Radio City Music Hall, or the slums of Havana.
    None of these things matter to me, really.
    What matters to me is 'the Good.'
    What matters to me is: What does poetry, as we define it, do better than anything else? Not, what makes it valuable, not, what makes it unique, but what makes it valuable AND unique at the same time?
    As for the issue of what makes the rhythm, the words, or the music, I think the key to poetry is that it must SEEM that the words are making the music, the music is not selecting the words, for isn't the latter what we call (pejoratively) doggerel?
    As soon as "The Raven" by Poe was parodied, the spell was broken; we realized Poe's words were not making that rhythm, for any number of words (meanings) could be used with that rhythm.
    "The Raven" has been parodied many, many times.
    But I don't believe this has ever been parodied:
    "DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."
    This, too, has a rhythm. But it would be far more difficult to parody the first sentence of 'The House of Usher' than 'The Raven.'
    Anyway, I think the idea of parody may hold the secret to what we are both trying to explain.

  40. March 4, 2009
     louise waller

    i think martin has raised the most important issue with his comment 'stop writing and read' and to that comment i would expand - start living your life, stop writing for a while and start observing, read more and then read more and then write something that you would read, that you would value, that you would want to be the author of. it (poetry/writing) isn't about mass markets, academic creds, showmanship, cadres, movements, or it sn't just about those things.
    it is usually a solo art, writing. making language happen in ways that matter to the solo art.
    if other people get it, that's a good thing, good for them. but why write? because, (if you are interested), why not.
    the australian poet michael sharkey, in a poetry retreat/workshop in 2000 said he thought most (younger) poets should head out into the mulga (outback/bush/country/elsewhere) and live and write for a while before thinking about publishing anything, and o, yeah, he added they should probably read other peoples poetry for a while. it is very difficult to find poets here in australia and i'm guessing in the us/uk and europe who actually experience life, read a lot and then think about writing. most new writing seems to come straight out of 'school' creative writing / mfa / ma / programs. as a means to an end. the old fashioned idea of vocation may be pissed on by many, but, it is an art, and sometimes an artist is talented, interested, gifted, and enriched by training, not o yeah, maybe i'll do the writing program and publish something. sometimes creative talent is imbued within the complex cell splitting that happens in the womb.
    post avant/language/flarf/conceptual/hip-hop/lyric/new lyric - all the new forms and the old forms - usually a matter of taste. the best of the forms are not written by slavish rote followers of schools and movements. talented solo artists make it on their own terms.

  41. March 4, 2009

    “Earl's attitude toward language is further revealed for what it is in the comment section as, on a number of occasions, he ignores valid criticism only to correct the verb tenses of a quick typing commenter.”
    This is from a blog called PATHOLOGOS authored by “Iain”…is that your blog?
    If it is, I like what you say. And the style does seem to match the style of your comments on Harriet; you’re terse, to the point.
    But don’t your think that in the end grammar will prevail over ephemera, which is the stuff of the blog? And if you agree with me there, then bloggers should, and indeed, have a duty, to tip their hats in that direction once and a while, especially when there is nothing to respond to in a comment except to how badly it’s written.
    Anyway, to your present comment. I think it’s best to take it, more or less point by point, since the points are interesting beyond their immediate context.
    1. Do you really think that I am “trying” to misrepresent the positions I am “attacking”? That’s like accusing me of writing propaganda. I’m not Joseph Goebbels, the frustrated novelist.
    2. I think the term “academic” needs redefining for the present period. It has meant a lot of different things over the years: conservatism, a perceived tarnish through association with a university, the poetry of the establishment, etc. There’s a wonderful interview at Jerome Rothenberg’s blog, Poems and Poetics. It’s at the top of the scroll – very worthwhile. He takes up the subject of academic poetry in the historical context. My notion of what constitutes academic poetry today is simply based on who at the moment is controlling the institutional life of poetry via the MFA system, and as a consequence orienting the thousands of younger poets who enter these programs in a given year. They take up certain theoretical and ideological stances that wind up influencing their personal styles. The massification of such processes, in my opinion, leads to homogeneity, staleness and predictability. I don’t think it’s a question of difficulty, in the traditional sense.
    3. When I say “poetry” needs to rethink its relationship to its audience, I am speaking about poetry in general, not just “language” poetry, which, really, no one writes anymore, including Charles himself. In fact, I think there has been some confusion here. Whenever I speak about language poetry I am speaking about an already historical movement.
    4. As to Ron Silliman. His book Tjanting is one of my favorite books. I think, in terms of “difficulty”, I was distinguishing between difficulty and willful obscurity. Like you, I don’t consider language poetry (when it’s poetry) either inaccessible or difficult. Lyn Hejinian’s work, as you say, is an excellent example. Her difficulty is the genuine difficulty of first-rate poetry.
    5. I think that when Bernstein is more “difficult” it is when he’s riffing obscurely. Then he is not at his best. His great talent lies in satire, in my opinion.
    6. I can’t imagine cringing at Shakespeare. In this case we really must be of two different planets. I don’t care about “most people reading Shakespeare.” Let them cringe and eat their cakes. And I see no workable analogy between Shakespeare and language poetry. The “understanding”, as you say, is of a completely different order. If today’s poetry reader is not sufficiently challenged, I think she should read Chaucer instead of flarf.
    Thanks, Iain, for the energy and intelligence that you’ve brought to these threads…what about my discussion of contemporary media?

  42. March 5, 2009

    I do not think that grammar will prevail over ephemera, in fact I actively try to promote an ephemeral view of grammar (in the sense that it's always in flux). I also don't agree that "the stuff of the blog" is particularly more ephemeral than any other language act. For instance, if you delete your blogs at Harriet, they are still stored in my RSS reader (which is in turn backed up on my hard drive) for me to access any time I want. In fact, in that the blogs are easier to traverse (easier to find desired information), blogs are somewhat less ephemeral than books. Sure, my books are still there, but since I'm rarely at my apartment, it's as if I discard them for most of the day.
    When you say "ephemera" in the print world, you're talking about something that's very wasteful. Whereas on the Internet, it's just time/context specific material, which is the case with all language acts to a degree. I don't think there is anything about the blog (or rather the Internet) which hinders the creation of more "lasting" content. Rather than use the word "ephemera", I would, myself, describe the Internet as being geared toward "language-in-process". And while there are certain problems that arise from that, I see it as largely positive. Actually, I did want to say "positive", but I should just say exciting. I don't have a utopianist view of the Internet, but see it as just as dangerous to have a utopianist view of print (a view of print that I see as being fairly prevalent, especially among writers).
    That was, perhaps, too much attention to pay to an aside comment. Here are my thoughts on your more direct responses:
    1. No, I didn't really mean to accuse you of being a propagandist (or maybe I did at the time). Your posts tend to provoke knee-jerk responses in me, for which I apologize. Because I'm not familiar with your critical work before this blog, I tend to put some of the things you say in the context of things said on the Harriet blog in general, which is a mistake.
    2. I agree that the word "academic" is over used.
    3. I took the your comment about the poet needing to rethink his relationship to the audience to be directed specifically at language poetry because language poetry was the only specific example you gave. You say a lot about poetry in general, but language poetry is the only poetry that is mentioned that has specific problems. You may not have intended it this way, but the article seems to suggest that language poetry is somehow to blame for contemporary poetry's current pathologies, or that it was itself your metaphorical urticaria indicating the bigger problem. Neither of these things, I think, could be construed as the case. I understand that you didn't really say this, and that the pathology metaphor had more to do with the media issues. I didn't address the comments about contemporary media, because I wanted to be more specific. People want to paint "post-avant" writing with really broad strokes, and there's this tendency to accuse poets of "not caring about their audience", "being too academic", "obscuring their humanness", or anything else that gives an excuse to not have to acknowledge that there's a lot of excellent work being done there. You weren't trying to do this, which is more clear to me after your latest response.
    5. I don't think "riffing obscure", or even the word "obscure" in general, gives an accurate view of what Bernstein or any other language poet is/was doing. There's nothing that is being obscured, nothing that's being hidden. In fact, uses for words that we don't often see are being revealed. Bernstein often riffs on the semiotic values of words rather than purely their ability to convey a message. Language does lots of things. Using it only to convey a message equally "obscures" its other values. Saying "obscurantist" gives this picture of something sneaky, or coercive, and doesn't convey the deep and genuine love of words that is so present in Bernstein's work.
    6. I cringed at Shakespeare's work (probably because people around me did) before I was ever exposed to it, of course, never afterwards. The analogy I was trying to make between Shakespeare and language poetry was merely on the topic of "difficulty". Shakespeare is a very "difficult" writer, and yet remains one of the most read poets of all time. To me, Shakespeare is where arguments about "accessibility" and "inaccessibility" become blurred into nonsense.
    Martin, thank you for your kind words, and for taking me so seriously.

  43. March 7, 2009

    Thanks for commenting. I should have gotten back to you earlier, especially since your comments created the impetus I needed for next post (which I should be putting up today); the importance of reading, its connection with living, the solo art and its terms…and thanks for the word “mulga”. I definitely took all of this on board, and you’ll find your observations in a lot of what I have to say in my next post.
    Tell us more about Australia. Years ago I wrote a piece on Jacket Magazine for Web del Sol.
    I hope you’ll see this response on this now outdated thread. If you don’t I’ll bring it to your attention on the next one.
    Thanks again,