Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What poetry can learn from Obama

I have been blogging for several years now. I have been reading other blogs, and despite my real discomfort with commenting, I have forced myself to do so on other blogs: BookNinja, That Shakespearian Rag, and CanCult here in Canada, Harriet, the massive blog of the Poetry Foundation, in the US. Without doing an official tally of all my comments, I would bet that many of them are in defense of "other poetries," other voices, other approaches to art, to thinking, to discussing issues in general. That has been what has driven me in any case. That and an insistence on a female voice in a largely male conversation a/ on Poetry Foundation and b/ publicly in the poetry world. I'm not saying my posts have been great, I'm sure they haven't: to comment is to risk tonal misreading, to over and/or under state, to react hotly, and so on. I'm simply clarifying my intention.

One thing I've noticed about the blog world though, is the sameness of voices in it. I always hope for opening up conversations and hearing from new people, but it seems to come back to the same people again and again. Perhaps the format is simply fraught? The other thing I've noticed is the tone of the comments. It's often quite hostile and/or indignant, and likely some of my replies have fallen prey to this as well, but again, not always inviting. Comments are sometimes wrapped in a gesture of satire or humour, but the tone is often unstable leaving readers with a sense of unease, and certainly making it difficult to jump into the discussion for fear of being scolded. That happens. There is often a sense of rallying too. One poet makes a statement and fairly predictably his--and usually it is a he--his posse gathers around him, in support of his opinion, often calling for more of the same! It's a little like watching a school yard brawl in which the bully has only one intention: clear the sandbox of the offending opinion. Sound like a place you want to be? You want poetry to be?

Sometimes actual discussions occur, but not often enough. I can't think of any memorable or favorable ones to include as evidence, sadly, though perhaps someone out there will (there was the avant lyric discussion of later December now that I think of it, and the quietly insistent diplomacy of Reginald Sheperd, greatly missed.). But the point of all this isn't really to critique but to ask what we are doing here? What do we want from this format? Is it serving us? Why do we bother reading and/or commenting? These are some of the questions I have been mulling over for some months now. Take a look at what is described as fresh air over at Poetry Foundation, for example. This post and comments come after months and months of back and forth about the avant garde vs. lyric. What do people mean when they say "a breath of fresh air"? I always think of that as adding something new to otherwise droll notes, not Someone speaking my language, thank god.

And though I have been wondering what the use of these discussions is, that exchange really clarified for me the stuckness of so many poetry conversations. After all these weeks, and months, and posts we still seem to arguing why lyric is better than avant garde, or vice versa. One might ask are those posting and replying over at Harriet truly interested in the poetry at the core of these disputes, or are they simply defending their position and view of the poetry world?

All of this has clarified something for me though, and for that I'm thankful. I am, as I said in my response, not interested in more of the same swing and defend mode of discussing poetry. Nor am I interested in continued debates about this poetry versus that poetry. Why is there a versus? I just don't accept that premise. And if I have in any way helped to create that divide, my apologies. I don't want to entrench that thinking in any way. And because I won't be going back and commenting on Harriet any time soon I want to be very clear about the fact that my silence isn't cowering. Not by a long shot. It's simply me deciding that I want a different kind of conversation. And if I don't find that some place else, I'll make my own conversation.

For the moment that is here, on this blog I suppose, though I am also questioning whether or not blogging is even useful. I don't simply want to make my own soapbox. But as I was reminded while listening to Obama yesterday, one can walk away from conversations that don't seem productive. One can move on from the voices that don't make one feel as though they are moving forward in postive ways. It isn't that one needs to be or hear positive all the time, it's that one needs at the core of a given exchange, a respect and a sense of being heard, even if what one is saying isn't what one wants or thinks they need to hear. One can make the conversations one wants.

So I'm going back to that until I figure out what next. There are many poets on both sides of the border with books that aren't being reviewed or discussed. There are so many more voices we never seem to hear from. Here's a short list in no particular order, of the poets I would love to hear from, or more from, and about, or more about, here or other places:

M. Nourbese Philip, Dennis Lee, David O'Meara, Don Coles, Kevin Connolly, Karen Solie, Ken Babstock, Sonnet L'Abbe, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Rachel Levitsky, Joan Retallack, Bernadette Myer, CA Conrad, Tim Bowling, Steven Price, Marcella Durand, Carol Mirakove, Shawna Lemay, Mary Dalton, Tim Lilburn, and some new poets with first and second books I would like to see introduced and discussed, Gabe Fried, Alessandro Porco, Asher Ghaffer, Dotty Lasky, Gillian Sze, Angela Carr, Sachiko Murakami, Kyle Buckley, Stan Apps, Jason Camlot, Chrisopher Patton, Julie Sheehan, Daisy Fried, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Christie, Rob Winger, Dawn Lundy Martin, Evie Shockley...and I'll add more to this list as the days wear on. Not to mention the discussion of conceptual poetry, sound poetry, visual poetry, nature poetry, contemporary syllabic poetry, poetry with meter...not from a defensive position but because really, I would like to hear people interact with this work and open it up for new audiences. So more about Heavy Industries, and what about these guys who sent me an incredible CD last week, or this upstart press by some Concordia students who are out there making books?

And then can we move around the world, and back through time? I would love to read different poets discussing The Prelude, or Keats, or Hölderlin, or Rilke, Sappho, Catullus, engaging, as Caroline Bergvall does, with Chaucer, and as K Silem Mohammad is doing, with Shakespeare, discuss recent translations of Virgil, and Homer, and on and on and on and on and on....okay, I am getting a little excited here, but you get my meaning, right? We can simply move forward. Or not.


Don Share said...

Thank you, Lemon, for a constructive view of the frustrating world of poetry blogging. Nobody has said this better.

Lemon Hound said...

Don, quick response!

Given my post it is perhaps hypocritical of me to say that I appreciate your support, but I do.

Matt said...

I agree.

jason christie said...

Hey Sina, that is exactly what I've been grappling with for a couple of years now... I'm bored with discussions of why one type of poetry is more or less exciting or (eep) relevant. Thanks for posting this note. I think it is important for people to be considering where and why they stand where they are in the wee poetry world these days. There are so many more exciting things to consider as you declared, and there are so many terrible things to call attention to, that falling back on the same tired discussions smacks of a failure on the parts of the cynics to realize that the ground underneath us has changed (to paraphrase Mr. Obama).

shanna said...

I used to know a person who always complained that others were interrupting him. "Every time I am talking you/she/they interrupts me!" he said. Until finally we said, "What you are doing is not talking it is lecturing."

(Word verification is dishobs, which I read as DISH HOBOS.)

VanessaP said...

So keep your hands to yourself, then, here, then. That other lot's just pillars of salt-- journalism, that's real prose? Ah, the achiness of a bit of stale bread between the gumless. In other words (and there are so very very many), lie down with dogs, get up Donne.

Lemon Hound said...

Hey, it's looking like a posse in here...

Vanessa, you always find the best way to work a poet into a sentence.

Shanna, feel free to wonk upon lecture.

And Jason, yup, earth is moving. Has been moving.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Lemon Hound, to my mind, is already the home of a different kind of conversation. This blog is an evolving example of what this medium can be. What I find here is exciting. That's why I hang around. And the conversation these posts generate is certainly not limited to the comments section. That I know. So long live Lemon Hound!

Shawna Lemay said...

This is always an exciting, lively place, always interested in provoking thought, moving forward. Definitely part of a conversation that, as Brenda says, expands beyond the posts, the blog.

Steven Fama said...

Dear Lemon H.,

Good points, well put, with the following question: why limit what you want to "poets"?

Include, if you please, those who just, or mostly just, read poems.

Also, as I remember from being in school, and as I think anybody who's taught knows, there's a large percentage of people in every discipline who never say much, even when called on. This may explain the paucity of "voices" heard in poetry blogging.

Plus -- and this cannot be underestimated -- it takes a lot of time to think and write about a poem-book. A lot of time. Many y may not have the time, or use such time when they might write something to post to do other things, including writing poems.

Lemon Hound said...

Hi Steve,
I'm not sure I follow those first two distinctions...can you clarify?

It does take a lot of time and energy to write about poems, it's true. Part of the reason I started blogging was to work this particular muscle.

There seems to be a belief that there is only one proper way to write about poems. And so if people have other rhetorical styles, or they seem to have less formulated thoughts, or perhaps more open-ended questions, they aren't encouraged to share those. In fact they are discouraged from sharing those. They are described as intellectually lazy (I've seen that written as a response), or lacking critical rigor, and so on. The different voices are not acknowledged.

I would like to hear from people who are just trying to make sense of poetry, or poems, or just working at expressing what they think of a poem, or who have questions. I think it's okay to wonder about a poem, to try out a reading, and not worry that someone will immediately take a swipe at you for not "getting it right."

I don't think having a question is a rhetorical weakness.

I don't think struggling with a poem is a bad thing.

I don't think there is necessarily a getting it right when it comes to reading poetry.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks Shawna, Brenda.

Manny Karkowsky said...

I've never been too impressed with the internet. With a foundation of pornography, videogames, and gambling, I don't see why people would assume its "progressed" from face-to-face discussion. To be quite honest, I'm rarely impressed by face-to-face discussion, either, when it comes to most expediency-minded Westerners. Is poetry in America more than an elitist club and a vague sort of unstimulating entertainment? But I live in Memphis. Maybe I don't see what you see...

Matt said...

Manny, I didn't know there was a Pornography Foundation. Is it based in Chicago too?

Lemon Hound said...

Matt, you are quick. Chop, chop.

Manny, I think there is no poetry, only poetries. Or maybe poetry is a verb.

Manny Karkowsky said...

poetry is a heart on the verge of dying. poetry doesn't care if you know it's name. poetry wonders if you know it's name.

brian a j salchert said...

"Why is there a versus? I just don't accept that premise."

Lemon Hound, I don't accept that premise either, and I haven't for many years; but until two years ago I was for twenty years elsewhere involved.

If they continue it, Adam Fieled and Joseph Hutchison are trying to eliminate the "versus" between the so-called post-avants and the so-called SoQs. I'm not sure their blog conversation will in the end really accomplish much, but they are into posting about specific writers and specific poems, and that in itself may be sufficient.

Poetry is everywhere, and it definitely is not the special province of any one poet or any one group of poets.

Thank you.

et said...

just hopping by to say nice one, Lem!

Steven Fama said...

Hi again Lemon,

My first two distinctions were simply to suggest that not only should it hoped that "poets" write about poetry, but that so too do those who aren't "poets" but instead simply or mostly "read poetry."

Your comments about how there ought to be more "wondering" etc. about a poem, as opposed to worrying bout getting something down exactly right, are excellent. And inspiring.

Lemon Hound said...

Talking about the poetry does help, but after many years of believing that I needed to reach out to all equally, I may be finally running out of patience. At least with those who have rigid ideas--no matter what part of the spectrum of poetry or art they fall on.

Life is short. There are all kinds of poets and artists out there, listening, looking to engage, and a whole new generation that doesn't seem to have the same investment in their small vision being the top dog.

Of course indoctrination goes hand in hand with dogma, but optimism may be an ally here.

vintin said...

"Why is there a versus?" That thought is the sweet spot. That's the good stuff.

When I put together Impure, about the spoken word scene in Mtl (with coauthor Victoria Stanton) we tried to approach the topic with as wide a net as possible - as inclusive as we knew how to be - an approach I'd been introduced to via feminist theory - the idea being, it's all a continuum of forms, some serve one purpose, some another.

I tend toward an even wider, more general sense of the poetic to include all art forms - again, as a spectrum of possible responses to the poetic moment of apprehension. One might write or one might snap a picture of a chickadee, just for instance.

My reading-of-poetry-books is absolutely chaotic, but I instituted a rule a couple of years ago, that I'd read poetry when at work (in a used book store). This works, although I've been consumed by one anthology (America A Prophecy) for months now ...

Manny Karkowsky said...

I don't understand why there's a nation-wide conspiracy to dispel emotional tension. Poetry is written from conflict. There's only so much communitarianism that it can encourage. Revolution is where its at. There's a reason why poetry written about peace, prosperous and harmonious times sucks. Because it's boring. Peace (emotional and political) is so banal it's offensive.

ryan said...

While I agree with you, Manny, that interesting poetry doesn't dispel what emotional content (though I'm not sure what you equate emotion with), poetry written from "conflict" or "revolution" can be just as banal, if not more, than poems "about peace."

ryan said...

I forgot to add that the banal as a poetic device is awesome, although that might be beside the point.

Asher Ghaffar said...

thanks, lemonhound. more in a bit, but for now...

Pearl said...

The medium does tend towards that lemming thing. If one is on the same end of spectrum, one tends to agree, and if reading to disagree, then a regular commenter who debates tends to irritate.

Because protocol for comments is to not speak more than what you are responding to, I suppose that leans towards sparring rather than effective exchange.

Because some people only come online once or twice a week, the back and forth of asynchronous can be hard to do.

If two people post in public exchange of letters, that takes a whack of energy.

If ideas are being processed and genuine changing of mind, that's going to take a lot of hours potentially and hard to do publicly where you are then making a record of something you later take back.

That's not to say blogging is hostile to real conversation, but dynamics are different. And yes, males seems to prevail in talking. I don't know why that is.

There was a recent conversation of a few contributing thoughts in a thread on Gladwell's numbers for achieving expertise:

Pearl said...

So far as the closed-track debates on versus or against verses I suppose it's a kind of discourse, a sport. The narrower the debate, the more fired up and competitive.

If that is the only kind of discussion, with its polarizing emotion and sparring volumes, some things are not going to get discussed in that atmosphere. The mood in the forum isn't likely to shift because some are thriving. Other forums with a different pace and rules can allow what feels more "productive" as you put it.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, and the link to your blog, which I have added to the right.

The whole enterprise is complicated as you point out, by many things. And what this writer/blogger might think of as productive is certainly not the same as others might see as productive.

I guess that's enough for me, knowing there are different ways to be productive, and knowing how language figures in that.

So creating other forums is one productive way, and sadly, avoiding some forums and sites.

Lemon Hound said...

>"Why is there a versus?" That thought is the sweet spot. That's the good stuff.<

Alas, I do think this is a sweet spot in terms of the actual work. Not necessarily of those defending and organizing the work.

I'm curious about your anthology, and the American one as well. I find Blake very relevant at the moment.

Manny Karkowsky said...

I'm not sure I understand the debate. Maybe someone can diagram for me. Is the question: "Is everything poetry" or is the question: "where do new standards for good or successful poetry begin?"

If poetry is everything, then blogging, poetry about poetry, and blogging about blogging are all poetry.

I personally believe in standards. I've read poetry that smells bad. But I challenge people to show that blogging comes from a different area of emotion/thinking than poetry.

C'mon, compartmentalizers, where you at?

vintin said...

Although I don't have an opinion on the conversation going on here, I really like the idea of people talking about poetry and poetics.

To clarify, Impure is a book about the Montreal spoken word scene, the text of which was woven from 75 interviews with practitioners (french and english). It's half oral history, and half a 'how to' guide. There's copies at the Grande bibliothèque, not sure about the schools, but probably.

America A Prophecy I picked up for a dollar somewhere. Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha, it cuts across traditional and even nontraditional poetry lines, and also incorporates blues, Native myth, hymns, storytelling, even pictograms in a vast meditation on this notion of America. Published in 1974. I discovered some poets I hadn't encountered before, like Diane Wakowski.

Violetwrites said...

Always disappointing when there can be no true dialogue and artistic exchange. You're following a rhythm here with these several pieces in a row and developing a flow.

the unreliable narrator said...

Oh BRAVA. Though I am late to the commenting party as always, I add my huzzahs, even though, especially though, yes, I was in fact one of the breath-of-fresh-airers over at Harriet. Because it did seem momentarily less stale, that particular post—I guess mostly because it referenced actual writers and their writing rather than schools of this and that, sides who, per Woolf, then get to walk up to the headmaster and receive a highly ornamental pot, etc.

I also noted happily your use of the word spectrum (in your comment to Brian), a term mystifyingly absent from this whole recent bout of s/he said-s/he said. It almost gives me courage to post my own (insanely long) post about all this, which has everything to do with the spectral quality of art. But not quite. Because, as you note, I'd rather be writing actual poems. Thank you for this—

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for you smart comments, and for your reply despite being part of the originary Harriet comment stream. That interaction was for me, simply the tipping point.

And I too was unsure whether Martin Earl was a breath of fresh air or more posturing. Hence my comment. His response clarified.

the unreliable narrator said...

Well, and in the end you did enhearten me to say whatever it was I felt I had to sayabout the spectrum, before sitting out the next dance. So thank you for that, too. :o)

Lemon Hound said...

What is bothering me about the Harriet bloggers is the lack of honesty. This recent post about visual poetry for example rides on a long history of real disdain for visual and avant garde poetry in Canada without ever really acknowledging it, or the persistent mean-spirited attacks by some people mentioned by name as if they could be neutral...

J.H. Stotts said...

the advantage to pastoral poets (a bigger umbrella than lyric, since that just refers to muse-ic and lyre-ic aspects, that is, the poet's instruments) is that they are interested in invention, not just experiment. the difference betweeen an invention and an experiment is that the former should actually function, and is toyed with until it does. experiment is just the shadow or dross of invention.

of course, reexamining the terms of the debate means new alignments, and throws the terms as they are commonly defined out of whack. a lot of the arguments (in the form of blog comments), especially the impolitic, are false. and, then, a lot of the arguments are cover for the con game that the better part of contemporary poetry is.
if the centuries old benefits of privilege which guided poetic canons are giving way because of these nearly-free, nearly-instantaneous media, then that lets in a kind of argotic corruption. things are always bad for poetry, but always in new ways, and that's what the real challenge of keeping it new is all about. argument is a necessary part of that...

J.H. Stotts said...

and, i think, you and obama are right that calling out bad or wrong writers is a waste of time. just ignore them.

Lemon Hound said...

JH Stotts,
You point out "the difference between an invention and an experiment is that the former should actually function, and is toyed with until it does. experiment is just the shadow or dross of invention."

And rightly so, in a range of course. There are those who partake of experiment and show us new edges in our thinking, and there are those who cling to rigid notions of experiment and fail to make good use of it. Good arguments for dealing with poetry not schools. Or dealing with schools and poetry. Not sure there needs to be one or the other, but again, some context and flexibility in terms of discussion.

And yes, knowing when to ignore.

i love you said...

My favourite is when poets say that we HAVE to insult each other and act like morons to stay that poetry won't get soft. And that it's tradition!

Very poetic, non?

I blame my frustration with this aspect of community for a speech ( I gave while painted purple and pink from head to toe for the launch of my first book two years ago.

Great post!

J.H. Stotts said...

if it's not necessarily a good way to talk about schools of poetry, i'll offer this--that a school of poetry is just a good analytical tool for understanding the individual poets who fall there. that is, schools aren't very important themselves, and are actually forgotten except as critical models, not as much as groups of poets--the lion's share of the poets of any particular group are forgotten or willfully 'canon-ed' out.
no poem is good unless it exposes/discovers thought--but note how that implicitly suggests old, or lost thought--experimentalism is a way of faking it new, so to say. as if language itself weren't built in the radical, rhizomatic way that experimentalists (or, what is everyone calling them now, post-avants? (silly!)) make exclusive claim to.
these radical 'new' ways of thinking should be humbling, in the socratic sense, that they signal to us how little we understand, not that they rearrange the hierarchical model of muse-ic, but level it. in that sense, there is more than enough experimental pride (or arrogance, maybe?) to go around.

Manny Karkowsky said...

I see the canon as a reminder of culture and tradition, as a reminder for the open-minded and weak-willed reader (the best kind!) not to be seduced: "Don't get too pregnant with meaning before adolescence is done..." or the feelings won't mature ably.

I think poetry and pottery should stay within the realm of culture and community and not devolve too much into Cartesian realms where philosophy is more suited.

Lemon Hound said...

Mr. Stotts,
Technology, thought, poetics, politics, food processing, all aspects of contemporary culture should signal to us, as you say, how little we understand, and should in fact, makes us stand up and pay attention to how we are letting our lives be altered.

Innovative poetries can, at their best, make us aware of this too. They can, as effectively as the lyric poets want to makes us aware of self, and the nature poets want to make us aware of fissures, gaps, tears, seeing between ourselves and nature, or in nature, or of, or whatever you want to argue, offer powerful ways of rethinking, or seeing.

I don't think we need schools. We need conversations. Diversity of opinion and form.

And on the whole there is far too much talk of schools and canons and prizes and how to be professional, and how to self-promote, and me, me, me, and my career, and my version of things, and my canon, and my opinion, and far too little poetry...far too little getting poetry into the ears and hands of people.

Put bums in seats and books in hands. And do it by moving forward. Leave these stale old dogmatic discussions in the past. I really think these arguments are on the wrong side of history.

Another thing we can learn from Obama.

Lemon Hound said...

Brian, Pearl, didn't get to follow up on your comments, but thank you...they lingered. As did your speech Sharon, and thanks too for the visit and support.

Ryan said...

Lemon, you mentioned that you wanted to hear more from certain poets, but don't blogs allow these writers to be heard? Or are we talking about hearing more from them in official arenas?

Sure, the blog structure is relatively new and imperfect, but I hear from a greater variety of voices now than, say, ten years ago....

Lemon Hound said...

Most of the poets that I want to hear more from don't blog. Nor do they engage in critical writing. There seems to be a kind of divide--and partly I suspect that is because of the reviewing/critical model constructed on a singular, expert reading that sets itself up to be argued against rather than discussed.

There is also the matter of hostile responses that do little to encourage other poets to take the risk of engaging in public dialogs.

Just my take but that's what I sense.

Blogs are certainly an imperfect form, but I think the tone of poetic rhetoric is more disabling.

Manny Writer said...

well, I'm interested to know. What is a poetry expert?