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On Fictional Poetry
Lately, everything I write refutes something I wrote earlier — even when the work remains unpublished, dying peacefully. This makes my logic so circular, so directed at myself (rather than the nonexistent reader of the earlier argument with myself), that it’s hard to know where to begin.
While I write for Harriet this month, I’ll do my best to find a path out of this loop, but I’m sorry to say I’m starting somewhere in the middle of it.
A few years ago, I was trying to write an essay on what “postconceptual writing” might be. This term’s been thrown around a lot, if less frequently than its visual art counterpart — in Anywhere or Not at All, Peter Osborne argues that post-conceptuality “defines the state of visual art today.” Felix Bernstein uses “postconceptual” the most ridiculously; for him, it seems to offer an umbrella term for the small group of writers at whom he doesn’t want to throw incomprehensible shade. For others, it’s used to promise a writer doesn’t share Conceptual Writing’s dumb, offensive longing for some erasure of subjectivity — the ‘post’ is a refusal. Some are just trying to periodize, I guess.
I wrote that essay, but I don’t want to put it here. I wrote it just like a grad student: block quotes from some philosophers, abstractions pitched as calls-to-action, reflections on the “ineliminabilty of aesthetics,” you get it — that’ll happen again here, as academia fucked up my style.
I start with it, though, because the arguments I tried to make there led me to their opposites. I drew on an earlier claim I made in The Believer that Josef Kaplan’s Democracy Is Not for the People shouldn’t be read as making actual political claims because, I thought, poetry doesn’t make arguments (later this month, I’ll post an essay about poetry’s arguments). Meanwhile, Kaplan’s poem obviously was arguing, in some way, against the safety of the wealthy:
If poets and artists were willing to corner, beat and mug rich people, take their money away, then poets and artists would no longer appear to the wealthy as a worthwhile investment strategy. (103)
I’m not saying, in total contradiction to my earlier claim, that Kaplan was directly suggesting a socio-political solution with that poem. But I was hung up on an incredibly limited sense of what constituted a “literary purpose,” when I reviewed that book, whereas trying to account for the daily violence of real estate trends is a relatively good purpose for a poem.
Along the way, I realized I had never been writing about “postconceptual poetry” at all, but about something I started to call “Fictional Poetry” — i.e., poetry that uses the style, plot, characterization, or forms of fiction. This overlap between fiction and poetry will be the focus of my posts this month, and I want to introduce what I mean here:
To be clear, I’m just using the word as a description, a way to think through one thing that happens to poetry, not as an Actual Existing Real World Category, and certainly not as a new school.
Key to this sense of the “fictional” is a quality of aboutness that prevents overemphasis on form — and on the repetition of the forms that often characterizes the appearance of schools — and especially resists the belief that the shape a poem takes, rather than its “topic,” is always the source of its politics / interestingness / literariness / purpose. Instead, the books I want to write about don’t mind being about things: about love, about childbirth, about state violence, about war, about sex, about gossip.
Other writing is about things, too. But a lot of contemporary poetry does not deal very directly with its “content;” or rather, it seems contentless. Most things that pass for poems today are list poems without knowing it: by trying to focus on the lyrical image’s mediation of reference, they become mere collections of images that pride themselves on their irrelevance.
This is one reason for the term “Fictional” — no one is surprised that fiction is about things.
But another is the sense of the lie: the old utility of making-something-up to say something “true.” To whatever extent Elena Ferrante overlaps with Elena in the Neopolitan novels, the books’ ability to unite the “novel about the woman broken by love” with the “novel in which an individual stands in for the nation’s political upheaval” with the “novel about the way becoming a writer requires, for most people, becoming an unforgivable class traitor” — sets off a lot of fictional truths. We hold novelists accountable for the worlds they construct, we look for where they account for themselves in that world, we’re critical about what does and does not get represented, and in how much detail, but we’re also a lot better at helping them maintain their contradictions.
One contradiction novels and their readers have been pretty good at maintaining is that between conflicting voices. I’ll end this introduction with this, since it was the opposition between “monologic” and “dialogic” writing that initially motivated me to think about fiction in contemporary poetry. My interest in what might be fictional in a poem comes from Mikhail Bakhtin, for whom the ability to balance various voices — the incorporation of what seems like someone’s speech other than the narrator’s — is the defining characteristic of the style of novelistic discourse: “social heteroglossia and the variety of individual voices in it” are not exceptions to a stylistic rule, but the mark of “authentic novelistic prose” (288).
Bakhtin famously prioritizes this quality of the novel in opposition to poetry, which for him is essentially monologic. For Bakhtin, “style” in fiction is the way individual elements of a novel’s style are “subordinated to the higher stylistic unity of the work as a whole, a unity that cannot be identified with any single of the unities subordinated to it” (262). If this was not true for the poetry Bakhtin was reading (I’m not sure), many competing styles, schools, and forms in 20th- and 21st-century poetries — including the lyric tradition! — are aimed against poetry’s descent into monologue.
But more than lies, dialogue, content — you’ll note that this idea of “fiction” is incredibly broad, and that it could and does include movies, plays (anything where there’s A Fiction that comes together from a bunch of smaller fictions) — I mean, poems that tell stories.
I love a literal example. It spares criticism the need to operate by way of analogies or paranoid pattern-finding. One poem in Monica McClure’s Tender Data is literally titled “Bakhtin,” in which the speaker says:
I used to want to be safe but now
all I want is to be twirled in the palm
of a Victorian maître d’ at Marea
That is I want to be poured into a form
like a capitalist epic
taking place in the full light of the
historical novelistic day (33)
There’s not just one “I” here — or if there is, “All [her] feelings are / different and this one / is the most / of all,” as she chills in menstrual seclusion — but there is this sense that the book is always at risk of swallowing up its many “I”s into one girl, one speaker who could be summarized by a book jacket as a “poster-girl” who is “irreverent, well-read, sexy, even dirty, snarky, but ultimately fighting against reductiveness.” In these poems’ fiction, though, the speaker can escape even the reductiveness of this list, the tools women are permitted in the struggle to expand, rather than reduce. But if what makes a book of poetry fictional is not an individual instance of fiction, which would be “subordinated to the higher stylistic unity of the work,” but a broader sense of dialogism. McClure’s book is fictional because of its “Novelistic Discourse,” which is also, hey!, the title of its final section.
McClure’s “Novelistic Discourse” provides an example not necessarily of its title, but of a different kind of discourse often characteristic of the poetry I want to describe as “fictional.” This discourse is, at times, academic:
Forgive me, but all this time I have been addressing this audience in personal epiphanies, disfigured and alienated from social realities, that I disguise as theories or otherwise lazily put forth, intact and unwieldy, to be worked up on the for-granted Marxism of neoliberal children longing for a humanism for which they can provide dutifully (137)
But it’s a fictional academic voice, which is not to say that its intellect or grounding in actual institutions is not “true,” but that it creates the voice as much as it creates arguments with that voice.
I’ll admit that I was once put off by the proliferation of academic language in contemporary poetry, but now I feel like poetry provides a better context for the lie of academic certainty than does its unnatural habitat, the peer-reviewed article (and not least because the latter manages to be among the few forms less-likely-to-be-read than poetry).
The anger here, that is, is real, and it’s a sometimes academic anger: the speaker’s saying “fuck you” to her academic readers in their own tongue. But it also functions to offer lenses to the reader (that’s me), even while it takes them away: go ahead, it says, read this in terms of narrative discourse, tell me what I’m saying about the overlaps between class, race, gender, and the way the body presents all or none of these three, have fun quoting a line that is almost certainly contradicted somewhere on the next page:
Yes, I can easily say that as a white bourgeois presenting person who is not white bourgeois I can’t afford activism because I am too busy working, have no safety net, wouldn’t know how to go on were I usable to drive my uninsured trick to the nearest gas station to buy whatever beer is on sale, intimidate my children into silence, turn off every light in the house, crack one open and watch muscled pigs slaughter each other on the auction block of midlife. (138)
Where does the “fiction” start here? The poems in this book are often about reading-as-white, for example (“If I could be anything / I would be a rich white girl / and I am almost halfway there”), or about poor consumption, or about the bourgeois — but the voices have rarely seemed like those of a beer-drinking, middle-aged father, and this section has a habit of generating characters, even midsentence. It even revives them, as in the case of Emma, who shows up to complain about Flaubert: “A man wrote a story in which I am destroyed without taking into account that I might enjoy it. So here I am to enjoy it.”
Later in this poem, the speaker starts to claim that she “climbed the ranks of the patriarchy,” but stops herself: “No, actually, I didn’t. / But I did find an academic voice” (141-2). This isn’t a review of Tender Data, which deserves far more attention: it’s a request for a reading of the book to demonstrate some of what’s at play in the idea of a “fictional” poetry, and it’s a book that’s processing/making use of/referring to/writing about/fucking with far more history — personal, academic, literary, political — than any recent “school” of contemporary poetry could summarize.
McClure and I have talked about the way we both circle back to novels about the broken woman — De Beauvoir’s femme rompue, Ferrante’s poverella, Emma — and McClure’s speaker herself, who writes into this history of women’s narrative destruction. The destruction itself, though, isn’t so fictional.