Rachel Zucker’s April 1st post asking fellow Harrietiers (and others) if they wanted their poetry to be timely or timeless generated a number of interesting responses. Most seem to want to be at least partly on the side of timely. (One result of 9/11 is that it rendered the last of the timeless poets obsolete.) More precisely, most respondents hoped their writing would combine the two, but what would a timely poetry actually look like? I think of Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, and more specifically his use of Facebook to publicize mining deaths around the world, though I’m not sure the latter approach constitutes poetry (and I don’t think Mark would either). Or maybe Flarf is timely with its omnivorous trawling of the internet and references to mass culture and politics. Yet as I’ve written elsewhere, the now isn’t necessarily synonymous with the present. For all of its avant-garde and au courant currency, Conceptual Writing’s near Kantian obsession with a priori processes seems far from timely in Zucker’s sense of the word.

Maybe timely is future oriented. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to respond to Kwame Dawes’s beautiful tribute to Toni Cade Bambara. Unlike Dawes, I never met her and can’t claim any expert knowledge of her work other than having read as much of it as possible, so perhaps the best thing I can do here is simply pause and nod to his post. And I’m not much of a pause-and-nodder. (Or maybe I am occasionally, but not to things literary—I was brought up on Einstürzende Neubauten and the Butthole Surfers.) One of the most striking aspects of Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters is how it locates a specific group of women in a particular time and place while opening out to future healing and reconciliation. Is that the timely and timeless? To me it feels like time and more time added to it. Or to cast this in terms of the past: Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus (née Klee) is timeless; Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child is quite literally a burial in time.

When I was in my early twenties, I read lots of Friedrich Hölderlin, Yves Bonnefoy, and Paul Celan, and I wanted my poetry to be timeless. Then I came to distrust any poet afraid to use the word McDonald’s in a poem. Simultaneously, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses and realized that this “timeless” “classic” was the most “timely”—again, in Zucker’s sense of the word—book I had ever read. Now I’m simply unconvinced by anything that attempts to appear “natural.” There’s a reason why environmentalism is the #1 political message in children’s films, something I’ve yet to see ecopoetics really come to terms with (with a few exceptions). The battlefield in Over the Hedge may have been a rich person’s lawn, but the film’s antagonism revolves around the ownership of sugar-packed consumer products. Commodity fetishism, as Marx knew so well, partakes in the timeless, while the system that produces it does not. The same could be said of poetry. A poem may be a fetishized thing, but poetry isn't.

Originally Published: April 20th, 2011

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...