Participants in the "What Is a Poet?" symposium at the University of Alabama, October 1984. L-R: Bernstein, Vendler, Jay, Perloff, Altieri, Stern, Ignatow, Simpson, Lazer, Levertov, Burke. Photo by Gay Chow.

No, no, don't expect an answer from me; I'm just using my Harriet soapbox here to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a unique event in American poetry. In October of 1984, my friend and colleague Hank Lazer gathered together here in Tuscaloosa a sparkling group of poetry and poetics all-stars (Charles Altieri, Charles Bernstein, Kenneth Burke, Donald Hall, David Ignatow, Denise Levertov, Marjorie Perloff, Louis Simpson, Gerald Stern, and Helen Vendler) for three days of conversations and lectures concerning the aforementioned question. (The lasting result of this meeting was a terrific collection of essays with the same title as this post.) As you might expect, there were disagreements among the symposium participants regarding the nature and function of the poetic act.

That's putting it gently, actually; it's my understanding that people stormed out of rooms! But, as Hank writes here, looking back, at least this disparate group came together to argue face to face. It does seem like now, these years later, most writers of poems--not all; most--don't even bother to argue with those whose poetics they find alien or alienating. It's much less threatening, after all, to simply seek the friends, blogs, readings, ancestors, journals, and presses with which one feels an affinity, and ignore the rest. So here are three cheers for "What Is a Poet?", one of poetry's great brawls. You can find a complete transcript of the contentious panel discussion which concluded the symposium at that same link I gave above.

Originally Published: July 21st, 2009

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...

  1. July 21, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Interesting subject for a post, Joel. Nostalgia for the brawling days seems rather evident in this remark of Hank's on the page you link:\r

    "While today it might be more common to assume that we live in an era of happy hybridity – a sort of post-polarized poetry world, in which students are free and encouraged to try any form of writing – that claim belies the fact that there still are walls and differing assumptions about how to proceed as poets. It would be intriguing to have another symposium – again, with the deliberate intention of having poets and critics of differing perspectives (and beliefs) present to articulate and discuss those differences (and commonalities). What made the 1984 symposium unusual, and perhaps historic, is that just such a conversation took place. –Hank Lazer, July 2009"\r

    Some expected such a conversation to materialize a few months before Hank wrote that post, at the "Multiformalisms" panel on which Hank and I both participated, with Kasey Silem Mohammed, at the 2009 AWP in Chicago. The panel was moderated by Susan Schultz and centered on the eclectic essay anthology of the same title (Multiformalisms: Postmodern Poetics of Form, from Wordtech). The room was packed not only with people but also, it seemed, with a near-tangible anticipation of a brawl between postmodern formalists and "traditional" formalists. But that was not the point of the book. Susan and I, as editors, had sought to mark out some common ground, and that's what many, especially the younger folks, it seemed, in the room turned out to be most interested in. Which I think is a good thing.\r

    Still, I agree that a really focused conversation on some of these issues would be bracing and probably good for poetry.\r
    But key would be the articulation of accurate points of difference. For example, for all the surface lip service paid to the idea that formalism and experimental poetics are at opposing ends of a spectrum, the reality seems quite different (formalism might even belong in the middle, between narrative free verse on the one end, and experimental poetics on the other). As Keith Tuma remarked once, the more real and interesting difference may lie not between ideas about form, but between ideas about the role of coherence in syntax.

  2. July 21, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Hear hear on all counts, Annie. I was in that audience for your multiformalisms panel and enjoyed it very much.

  3. July 21, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    You know, Joel, I've ventured to "argue with those whose poetics [I] find alien or alienating," but I wonder if it does or can really matter. Take, for example, a recent exchange of comments on my blog . It is quite typical: the person I contended with has utterly different–from my point of view, utterly absurd–beliefs about the value of writing and the forms that value takes. Unless one of us is going to give up some core convictions, the dialogue is going to remain little more than a talking-past one another. The only virtue I can see in it is that the positions get articulated, which may help those who haven't thought much about such issues ponder and evaluate them. I'm dubious as to whether it's worth the expenditure of energy and the all too frequent creation of bad feelings.

  4. July 23, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Things have gotten a little, um, how to say...weird around here lately. Just a tad too antagonistic and bellicose, I think. So, to head off the wolves, please allow me to preface the following with notice that it is intended light-heartedly.\r

    What is a Poet?\r

    Is it just simple coincidence \r
    or maliciously designed irony \r
    that National Poetry Month \r
    begins on April Fool’s Day? \r
    For as all of us know, \r
    though dread to acknowledge, \r
    poetry is but a fool’s game. \r
    Of what use being quickly forgotten\r
    to those who obtain glory today?\r
    And, if remembered at all,\r
    of what use laurels and honor\r
    to those who lie in the grave?\r

    Gary B. Fitzgerald, 2008

  5. July 23, 2009

    "the person I contended with has utterly different–from my point of view, utterly absurd–beliefs"\r

    This sounds like something someone who doesn't want to give up any core convictions would say.\r

    What makes you so sure you're right? Couldn't your adversary say the same thing about you? Is it not at all possible that your own beliefs are "utterly absurd"? I'm not saying they are, I'm just saying, why is the burden on him to "give up core convictions"? Why don't you have to as well?

  6. July 23, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Well, now. A negative vote. Now tell me, what does this mean:\r

    A) I hate the poem?\r

    B) I hate you?\r

    C) I hate the poem's insertion in and relevance to the topic?\r

    D) I just hate everything!?\r

    Pursuant to the discussion on another thread, do you see why this just doesn't work?

  7. July 25, 2009

    Joseph doesn't place the burden of giving up one's convictions on his interlocutor. He expects that neither of them will, and he acknowledges that his interlocutor appears absurd specifically from his own, Joseph's, point of view, which implies an acknowledgment that he, Joseph, might look equally absurd from the interlocutor's P.O.V.\r

    It's been a while since I've perused the book, but I remember loving Kenneth Burke's brief statements in "What Is A Poet?"\r

    The 1984 symposium took place the same year as the first poetry slam. The turfs claimed by Lazer' panelists 25 years ago don't seem to have shifted much. Some stylistic shifts (and new schools) within the turfs, and some good ecumenical theoretical work done by Annie Finch and others, but it seems to me that the emergence of the slam movement is the most significant change in the landscape.

  8. July 26, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Not sure if this is kosher or not, but I've learned that the University of Alabama Press is holding a recession special; you can get "What Is a Poet?" at deep discount here:

  9. July 26, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Thanks for your comment, Joseph. To be frank, I think that in poetry, as in many other spheres of activity which depend upon imagination and innovation (e.g., statecraft; landscape architecture; cake decoration) there are a handful of polemicists (it sounds like you may be one of these) who fiercely advocate a particular position based on certain "core convictions" (e.g., the supremacy of the executive branch; exclusive use of indigenous flora; never ever doing this), but the vast majority of people in the sphere are more fluid in their allegiances, or at least a whole lot less intensely committed to one position or another.\r

    Polemicists can lead us to believe that it is not possible or permissible, for example, to enjoy both Scalapino and oh, I don't know, for rhyme's sake let's say Longfellow. That's the bad thing about polemicists, because of course such is perfectly p and p. The good thing, though, is that polemicists' provocations keep those of us who love poetry but aren't dogmatists about any particular flavor of it--the Mutable Majority!--on our mental toes, by challenging our assumptions and driving us to better articulate why and how we like what we like and dislike what we don't. \r

    I would never want, or be able, to participate in a conference like the "What Is a Poet?" gathering, because I don't have a clear answer for the question and don't want to. I do value gatherings like these, though; from them I take a dram of this and a dram of that to add to my own continually bubbling private impure mess. It tastes a little different every day which is (for me) delicious.

  10. July 26, 2009
     michael robbins

    Yes, but then there are polemicists–I am one of these–who argue fiercely against people like Joseph. If you can't enjoy both Lisa Robertson & Robert Lowell (or choose yr own pairing), fine. But if you believe that one is not simply not to yr liking, or even bad, but hopelessly wrong, not even poetry, then you've mistaken one possible set of poetic practices for poetry itself. You've fallen in love with a certitude you possess only because it allows you to love yrself.

  11. July 26, 2009
     Don Share

    Well said, Joel - reminds me of the way Samuel Johnson generously tempered his criticism of the "metaphysical" poets with the remark, "Yet to write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think."

  12. July 26, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Ah, um, well, yes Michael, I was hesitant to mention this in my comment above, but the truth is that while I find the polemicists (occasionally) useful, I also pity them a little bit. OK, a lot. I like sausages. Just had a really good one. Glad I don't have to eat nothing but.

  13. July 26, 2009
     michael robbins

    "But Robert Lowell valorizes the autonomous bourgeois ego!"\r

    "But Lisa Robertson doesn't even make sense!"\r

    After one of my arguments with a "polemicist" (though I still think that's the wrong word), she wrote the following:\r

    When I hear that I should be more tolerant, that everyone likes something different in poetry, and to each his own and so forth, I imagine it's how a scientist must feel when they are exhorted to be more open-minded about UFOs or Creationism. It's not a question of taste. It's not a question of open-mindedness. There's a fundamental disagreement re: what constitutes reason, even reality. Yes, the situation is not good. One might even call it dire.\r

    This was Joan Houlihan–whom I like very much as a, you know, human being–responding to my reading of a Clark Coolidge poem. What's most telling about it is that my position (Coolidge's poem is a poem, worthy of consideration as such, amenable to analysis) is reduced to a set of liberal platitudes, as if I had been urging the relativist line "to each his own."\r

    I'm a vegetarian, but I remember how good sausage is. In poetry I'm an omnivore, & I think more folks should be.

  14. July 26, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Deep travel is a good remedy for our parochial polemics. When I was in Buenos Aires the Argentine poetry scene was fiercely divided between the Neorrománticos – lyric, gothic, vampire sexuality, never use one adjective when three will do – and the Objectivistas – no ideas but in verifiable facts: "I see the lights of the motel. I light a cigarette." They couldn't read each other; each had some very fine poets at the top of their totem pole – Olga Orozco and Juan Gelman, respectively – and when they asked me which one I was I had to laugh. I thought if you put the two of them together – which history has a way of doing, the process is called the dialectic – you might get a pretty decent poetics.

  15. July 26, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Well, now. A positive vote. Now tell me, what does this mean:\r

    A) I like the poem?\r

    B) I like you?\r

    C) I like the poem’s insertion in and relevance to the topic?\r

    D) I just like everything!?\r

    Pursuant to the discussion on another thread, do you see why this just doesn’t work?

  16. July 27, 2009
     thomas brady

    The transcript of this panel discussion reads like an Ionesco farce.\r

    If anyone’s interested in producing, I’ll be willing to direct the script--without altering a line. \r

    An absurdist farce would be far more germane than its ostensible subject: poetry and criticism.\r

    Every character on the panel panders to glib, clichéd positions too shallowly discussed to be anything but childish grabs at the Establishment pie, a pie baked by their immediate predecessors, i.e., the Pound/Williams clique centered around the Dial magazine 1920-9. One of the panel members, Kenneth Burke, belonged to the club; Burke published in the Dial and won the annual Dial prize in 1928 (other winners were Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore and Cummings); Burke was also a friend of Allen Tate, leader of the Fugitive, New Critic American wing of Pound’s European Modernism club.\r

    I appreciate being able to read the transcript, Joel and thanks very much for bringing it to our attention!\r

    The most radical member of the panel, 'outsider’ Charles Bernstein boldly raised the issue of establishment poets who control the prize/jobs/publishing strings (an “institutional group” he calls it); Gerald Stern cries out for “names,” calling Bernstein a McCarthyist, and in the midst of a general outcry of indignant shouting-down by other panelists, Bernstein, attempting to make “history,” manages to get a “name” out... \r

    T.S. Eliot, a figure 20 years dead, Bernstein, complains, was unkind to another dead poet, William Carlos Williams. (!) \r

    So the most radical gesture possible turns out to 'reveal' nothing but a dead, trumped-up, intra-coterie gesture between Pound’s mutual friends, Williams and Eliot, (and fellow Dial Prize winners, along with panelist Kenneth Burke) whose minor tiff did nothing more than bolster Williams’ U.S.A! U.S.A.! creds. \r

    Burke, who knew these people, made no comment. (Probably asleep–Ionesco would have him so, anyway)\r

    Simpson, the most out-spoken old-fashioned voice on the panel, sidestepped the whole issue raise by Bernstein by countering Bernstein’s assertion that it was poets who were “policemen of official verse culture,” not just critics, by pointing out that it was in fact a critic, not a poet, who was current top cop: Harold Bloom. \r

    Bernstein said, yes, you’re right. \r

    No one disagreed.\r

    Pound is called the greatest critic by Marjorie Perloff; Perloff swoons over Laurie Anderson and brings up Aristotle at one point, but shows herself unable to discuss him. Pound is mentioned most by the panelists, and is clearly the ruling spirit of poetry in the minds of the participants.\r

    The panelists choice as the greatest living influence, poor Pound being dead by then, Harold Bloom, coincidentally, had just published, that previous week, (the panel took place in October, 1984) his infamous and wholesale attack on Edgar Poe in the NY Review of Books, an ostensible “review” of Poe’s 2 volume feast from the Library of America. In his NY Review piece, Bloom did not review the 2 volumes; he broadly questioned Poe’s inclusion in the canon and informed his readers again and again that Emerson was the far worthier author.\r

    Vendler defended criticism against reviewing, implying that reviewing was the source of Bernstein’s ill-will; Vendler made the point that reviewing, publishing, tenure, prize-winning, and such things, are mere lovers' quarrels, are only ephemera, while criticism of the dead is what is truly worthy. A noble sentiment, no doubt, but a tad too noble, perhaps, for what of Poe’s reviews that are more iconic than Vendler’s criticism? The fact is, ill-will can inform anything, not just reviews by Poe--or blogs; this October, 1984 panel discussion is as cut-throat as it gets, with swords and daggers prominently on display. Every gesture is driven by flattery or personal put-down. \r

    Vendler and Stern begin by flattering one another’s autobiographical approach and when Bernstein first speaks he says that as a critic he has no especial use for autobiography; a little later on Stern and Vendler revenge themselves: Stern accuses Bernstein of McCarthyism and Vendler pounces on Bernstein’s admission that he doesn’t read French (made while Bernstein attempted to one-up the others by describing his appreciation of 20th century French philosophy). \r

    With the right dramatic performance, the transcript of this panel discussion could be a wonderful play in the Ionesco tradition. \r

    Are there any theater people out there who would like to give it a try? I've done some Ionesco. This could be a lot of fun.

  17. July 27, 2009
     thomas brady

    The Panel Discussion cast:\r

    Audience (mostly hoots, laughs and claps) Suggested costumes: various animal suits.\r

    Hank Lazer, M.C. \r

    Helen Vendler, Queen of Third-Person, wears Wallace Stevens T-shirt\r

    Gerald Stern, Vendler’s First-Person Jester, wears Wordsworth T-shirt\r

    David Ignatow, First-Person Prince, wears Neruda T-shirt\r

    Louis Simpson, Professional Poet, suit and tie\r

    Charles Bernstein, Third-Person prince-in-waiting, wears Roland Barthes T-shirt\r

    Denise Levertov, Queen of First Person, wears Amiri Baraka T-shirt \r

    Marjorie Perloff, Third-Person princess-in-waiting, Ezra Pound T-shirt\r

    George Jay, academic-theory punk, John Ashbery T-shirt, reduced to tears because no one can understand that theorists like him are indeed passionate and live in the real world like everyone else. Very annoyed, for some reason, with Altieri.\r

    Charles Altieri, modern poetry scholar, wears Robert Creeley T-shirt, expressed the notion during the discussion of the “first-person poet and the third-person critic” but no one on the panel really ran with it.\r

    Further Director's notes--\r

    I suppose one could make the following chart based on Altieri's notion:\r

    Poem (first person)\r
    Review (first person) \r

    Modernist, Review-deflecting Poem (second person)\r
    Criticism (third person)\r
    Scholarly Philosophy (third person)\r
    DRAMA (series of first persons) = Symposium, Platonic \r
    Dialogue, Blog Site, Workshop Seminar, OCT 1984 PANEL DISCUSSION, Political Committee = Real Life Philosophy\r
    Ionesco Farce = inarticulate\r
    Platonic Dialogue = articulate\r
    October, 1984 Alabama panel discussion reveals the tragedy (comedy) of contemporary, solipsistic, poetry scholarship.\r
    Platonic Dialogue is comic, by contrast, since it contains happy, or Tragic (epic) insights.