In my last post I tried to draw an analogy between the evolution of the version of human known as homo sapiens and the development of poetries and poetics “beyond” humanism. Although pundits sometimes lay the “blame” for all this at the foot of academia, the truth is that cultural developments outside academia—like the Internet and desktop publishing—have had a greater effect on these changes than the “retreat” of poetry from public life. At the same time these “outsider” poetics also perceive academia as the center that must be marginalized vis-à-vis poetry and poetics.
Call it Occupation Everywhere. This might well describe the insurgency of outsider, experimental, innovative, spoken word, and other poetics against the perceived hegemony of a so-called “mainstream” dedicated to the traditions of narrative and the lyric poetries. However, in reclaiming or co-opting—and the word choice here would be a matter of rereading the contested history of poetics and poetries within, at the very least, the West—the term mainstream in his book of the same title, Michael Magee reminds us that all those poetic practices deemed marginal actually constitute the mainstream of poetics in the United States insofar as they have become a part of every facet of American culture. This is presumably a matter of actual numbers, a problem Seth Abramson and Stephen Burt, for instance, might pursue in their varying anxieties over tracking the “explosions” in the number of poets writing, if not reading, poetry in this country. But if we take what I consider to be Magee’s main point, that insofar as postmodern poetics permeate expressivity in general in this country, especially in advertising and popular culture, these practices (e.g., Flarf) assert a quantitative (if not qualitative) advantage over the outflanked but still entrenched minority of what has heretofore been known as the literary mainstream. Thus the question of the central v. the marginal, the mainstream v. the tributarial, is largely, if not only, a matter of institutional power. By institutional I mean not only the public and private educational system in general but also the bloc of media, libraries, bookstores (online and ground), mythologies and historiographies that constitute, transmit and reinforce the very concept of poetry. No doubt these remaining links, however tenuous, between the most outlandish writing and speaking experiments and the immense history of poetics and poetry is why many have abandoned the moniker “poetry” entirely.
For example, despite its name, Paul Hoover’s New American Writing almost always features what appear to be, at first glance (and often, on subsequent examinations), writings recognizable as poems. Of course, Hoover’s journal title is expressive of its editorial openness to any form of writing, even those not easily categorized according to traditional modes of poetry. The point here is that in choosing to publish “poems” under the general heading of “writing,” Hoover is signaling not only his openness to all modes of composition but also his recognition that generic writing remains a important resource for innovation. That many writers bristle when “poetry” is used to describe their language experiments is understandable even if their impatience with generic pigeon-holing may reflect either or both a determinate commitment to the mash-up and innovative as well as mere laziness and cultivated ignorance regarding the history of experimentation within the histories of poetry and poetics.
These scenarios and issues are probably all too familiar for those who have been paying scrupulous attention to the implications of the various poetry skirmishes and wars. I simply want to remember that the history of poetry is punctuated by those moments when poetry becomes almost other than what it has been. At those moments (really, decades, if not centuries) poetry imagines itself as a god or goddess refusing the solipsism of immortality for the ethical trappings of mortal responsibility. That’s one story (no one will remember today’s poems or poets). Another story, one more inclusive since there are still poets pursuing what they regard as “universal” themes and modes (e.g., the lyric), goes like this: collectively, poetry is some marine or landlocked behemoth moving “forward” or turning “back” to an amphibian existence. Poetry, taken as a whole, is a creature comfortable in the heavens and on earth, on land and at sea, a monstrosity that wants to claim and occupy everywhere as its home.
Thus, today, the Occupation Movements appear to be precisely what poetry longs for: a mashing together of the private and public, an existence out in the “street,” inhaling fresh air at last, among the “people.” Nothing new here, either, as our history tells us, yet each new iteration of this desire to close the chasm between the “poetic” and the “language of the street or people” takes on different historical formations, formations whose cultural efficacies writ large, however, are both directly and indirectly proportional to their institutionalization. This double, Janus-faced history and destiny of poetry in the United States, however oversimplified, is a reflection of the ambiguity of efficacy on general vis-à-vis an aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, practice. Note: I am not talking about our responsibilities as citizens, as political, cultural and social activists. Despite the example of George Oppen, poetry and political or social activism are not necessarily mutually exclusive practices. Yet, the anxiety over the relation between aesthetic and extra-aesthetic activity haunts certain sectors of American poetry. No doubt much of this hand wringing can be traced to that favorite whipping boy of American culture in general—the academy. It may be that the “lag" in the distributive effects of innovative writing vis-à-vis the visual and performance arts—a central tenet of Language Writing—was due as much to technology as the intrinsic conservatism of academicization. Whether or not the proportion of innovative writing practices in relation to generic writing practices has increased or decreased, there is no question that the internet and desktop publication have given all these practices—innovative and conservative—much greater visibility across the cultural landscape. One wonders, for example, what might the Black Arts Movement have been had it had the technological resources available to us today. I ask this question because of the expressly political and social impetus behind a great deal of the creative materials of that Movement. The fact is, we don’t know how to measure the effects—we don’t know what counts as efficacy—of either aesthetic or political practices. Yet insofar as this uncertainty is the very premise of any ethical practice—aesthetic or political, cultural or social—it is also the very ground of responsibility, not only to our histories but also to our present, when and wherever that is.
Thus, the question here is the role, if any, of “poetry” and poets, writings and writers, in the context of these social eruptions widely remarked for their nonpartisan facades. As for poetry, does it serve? Should it serve? And if so, what kind of poetry best serves the collective desires of the movements? If we simply give in to difference, to the specificity of location, regional history and cultural temperament, these sundry Occupation Movements will devolve into a smattering of discrete blips on the cultural screen, more or less liberal, more or less radical and more or less conservative, according to their contexts. Can poetry or a poetics be the cultural glue that binds these movements together, and if so, again, what kind of poetry, what kind of poetics? It does not necessarily follow that the collective spoken word model, the so-called human microphone, that has thus far dominated the more “radical” movements can be retooled to do the political and cultural work that would represent a next “stage” of development since, to be blunt, we already have, for example, institutionalized soviets, otherwise known as art and literature committees impaneled by state and local art councils comprised, in part, of practicing artists, including poets. Thus the question is not about rescuing poetry or writing from institutionalization; it’s about the particular institutions that will need to be built or rehabilitated to house the kinds of poetries “we” desire. But who is this “we”? Defining the parameters of this “we” is absolutely pertinent to social and political activism, especially in the context of what I am calling Occupation Everywhere.
As I hinted at above, the heterogeneity of some Occupation Movements, a sign, it is said, of their nonpartisan origins and evolution, is inextricable from their paralysis vis-à-vis actual concrete demands and programs. I appreciate Thom Donovan’s response to that oft-repeated media question—what do they want?—but it hardly need be said that Thom’s encyclopedic list of demands and desires fall into two open categories—partisan agitprop and generic homilies. These remarks, I hope is obvious, do not constitute a criticism of Thom’s response to the media’s “what do they want,” but rather a gesture of recognition, for Thom’s list is generous and thus faithful to the heterogeneity of the New York Occupation Wall Street Movement. But for a very different response, a more aggressive gesture, to which, by the way, I am sympathetic to, let’s recall the Oakland Occupation Movement and its January 2012 confrontation with the Oakland police. It just so happened I was flying into San Francisco when the confrontation with the Oakland police began. If anyone watched, as I did, the live feeds as well as the mainstream media coverage of the confrontations, it resembled less other Occupation movements in New York, Detroit or Cincinnati than it did footage from the Sixties and Seventies when “counterculture forces” arrayed themselves against the Establishment—that is, a conflict that was largely, though not exclusively, generational. That generational divide was starkly drawn, and perhaps reinforced, the next day when, at a Small Press Traffic poetry reading, the events of the prior evening were both criticized by some poets of my generation and lauded by younger poets, though both had participated in prior Oakland Occupation demonstrations. I take all this as a good sign of the growing differences, necessary differences, between the various Occupation movements. But this democraticization, this acknowledgement that specific regional and local histories will shape the formation of any Occupation movement that arises from its context, undermines—if only momentarily—both the radical and conservative elements within the movement as a whole. That the same "state of affairs" exists for the various poetry communities and poetics is telling. Little wonder that poetry, as a whole, cannot compete against other modes of cultural and aesthetic affect. Yet would we, as poets, trade in our particular “turfs” for greater solidarity among poets as a whole and thus, perhaps (only perhaps), greater say-so in public life?
Poet Tyrone Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan and earned his BA, MA, and PhD at Wayne State University. He is the author of a number of chapbooks, including Convalescence (1987); Futures, Elections (2004); Musique Noir (2006); and Pink Tie (2011), among others. His full-length collections of poetry include c.c....