Is poetry a domesticated art? Are we drowning in it? Or are we in fact not drowning enough? This is what I’m thinking as I peer out into a green ravine in the Druid Hills area of Atlanta. There is all this writing, but it seems very little gets said. And then we have the strand of thinking that says, well, it’s very difficult to say nothing very well. And no, that is not the conceptualists speaking.
In fact, I think many of the conceptual writers would agree that there is much poetry about nothing. As would the flarfistes. But I think we have a different notion of what nothing is. And what feelings are. How rare is it that one comes across a line of poetry that makes the hair on one’s neck stand on end? Or in the case of Vanessa Place, makes one want to burst into tears? Or upon hearing an entire reading of Kenny Goldsmith’s Traffic, want to rip one’s head off. That’s a visceral response.
What we respond to is very different, clearly. And when we respond. With conceptual writing, the poetry is about the idea behind the project, the realization of the project, the material gathered into the project, but more so, or as much as that, it’s about the discussion. The “thinkership,” as Goldsmith says, not the readership. The ideas behind conceptual writing—Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts, for example—can make the hair on my neck stand up as much as a great lyric poem, or a narrative poem; a line by Alice Notley, for instance, or Jorie Graham. But neither the intention of the poem, nor the craft of the poem, is enough to garner such an effect.
There are lovely poems out there filled with stunning images, gorgeous syllabic, gymnastic language, perfectly crafted, and yet, they leave me absolutely cold. There are poems out there filled with heartfelt sentiment, “true” emotions, reported from the poet’s depths that leave me absolutely cold.
Over on the CBC Canada Reads book talk the other day a poet said that contemporary poetry “terrified” her students. Wow, I thought, what is she reading? I want some of that. Because I don’t think there’s enough poetry out there terrifying us. Or making us feel, or think. Dale Smith, on the other hand, wants less of this terror. In his Slow Poetry Manifesto he asks, is this terror really serving us? That’s a good question too. For my part, I guess it comes back to a question of thinking. Is the poem offering us a way to think about something? Does it wake us up? Because it seems to me, that’s one of poetry’s great tasks.
Soothe me okay, particularly after you’ve ruffled my feathers. But don’t smother me with niceness. Don’t insult me with simplicity. If I’m dying of cancer, don’t tell me it’s all going to be fine. Don’t tell me to relax and be positive. Tell me how I can think about what I’m facing. The world is a complicated place, and only becoming more complex, this is true on many levels, from material to technological to psychological, even how we learn…so yes, the writing I encounter better in some way have come to terms, or at least acknowledge the difficulty of coming to terms with what we’re facing.
So yes, when I come across a voice like Alice Notley, I do feel terror. But I feel terror because she is looking very directly at the world. In doing so she reminds me that I can to. And I might not even need to be soothed. I might in fact be stronger, more capable than I thought. When I read the narrator in an Anne Carson poem wiggling her ass before the man who spurned her, I feel more than a little empathetic, just as when I read about her thinking about Bronte while sitting with her aging mother I understand the complexity of simple human presence. When I read Darren Wershler’s Update I feel moved because he tells me something about the language I am using every day, because he folds literary history and play showing me the potential in what is now the benign, the daily, status update. It’s a quality of intellectual and emotional stimulation that does not leave me cold.
So what is this quality of writing precisely? Intelligence? Insight? Emotional intelligence? Bounce, as Goldsmith says? Lyric intelligence, as Jan Zwicky might say? What is this quality in the writing, and how do we get to it?
As Stephen Burt notes, there is a constant parade of questions and opportunities for discussion on Facebook or Twitter. Every time I come to my desk top now, I click open a browser and am transported into various poetry worlds: the Twitter world, the Facebook world, the world of my university, my fabulous students, my immediate poet peers, or here in the Harriet world…spaces populated for me in any case, largely by poets, or at least writers and artists who are colleagues, friends, people I admire, and want to talk to. I am enormously blessed, I know, but on the other hand, I worry about my practice. Why? Why, when there is so much poetry in my life, am I worried?
Well, that’s just it. Life is complicated. If you’re looking for doily making, contemporary poetry is no place for you. In order to write poetry one has to be immersed, and then pull back. Goldsmith talks about the “thinkership” as a group act, but I would argue that the work of conceptualists, the successful work, is extremely well considered. The projects, the great ones, all rely on decades of life experience and thinking on the part of the poets themselves–I am speaking here in particular of Vanessa Place, Christian Bok, Kenneth Goldsmith and Darren Wershler–each bringing vast quantities of information from other pursuits, other disciplines, to their conceptual projects. All good poetry is well considered, no? One needs to consider the conversation in order to add something to it, but one also needs to bring all of one’s thinking, everything one has, to the table.
So what does this look like for the contemporary poet facing the flood of poetry and data and news, etc? Goldsmith likes the idea of the filter. Okay, but it’s a matter of balance, surely. My ideal life would be half of the time in the center of everything, half in the middle of nowhere. This balance is increasingly difficult to manage; the middle of nowhere is harder to achieve, even in Canada, even on one’s own desktop, let alone one’s mind…
For me, the problem isn’t all this stimulation, or data, but as Goldsmith points out, it’s the processing. For me the question is where do I go to consider all of this? How can we gain any perspective on the material with so much instant publication and response? How big a desktop do I need in order to have all of this information, plus all of my own life experience and knowledge, open at once? On the one hand, you want to access it all, but on the other hand, the kind of work that I admire has always been marked by extensive contemplation, a sustained level of inquiry. This is something that I associate with a more monastic existence. The poet laboring outside of the system so long in order to have something to contribute…
In order to write poetry I know I need to be immersed in my time. Up to the ears, immersed. I also know I need to leave noise of my time. So how to manage the deluge? What I’m learning is that I need to manage less dramatic, and more daily, or even momentary retreats. I need to be able to imagine a clear work space, even if I have no physical work space, or little mental clarity… It’s not only the technology of poetry that has shifted: the texture of my poetic inner life has shifted too. And as Goldsmith says, if you can’t manage this, it will be a difficult road ahead.
(originally posted on Harriet, April 2011)