Thursday, June 16, 2005

Contextual Healing

A flurry of postings from Josh and Mark and Robert (twice) debating the course and fate of "indeterminate" (or post-avant, or whatever) poetry, with an eye to What Comes Next. Robert notes that the slither of "ontologically difficult" poetry looks an awful lot like the slither of euphonious late-Victorian / watery Symbolist verse that Pound et. al. rejected: verse that traded on resonance, not on precision, and so forth. Who will rescue us now? (Cue up "I Need a Hero" here, from the Shrek 2 big finale: Uno, dos, quatro--hit it!)

All of which makes me say just this: I'm glad I'm not a poet.

You see, since I'm just a reader, and a teacher, I don't have to worry about What Comes Next. I tuned out of this debate around the time of the Barnard conference on "Where Lyric and Language Meet," and I haven't seen any need to tune in since. Debates about poetics are about as interesting to me as arguments over sausage recipes and competing meat-grinders, folks. I'm hungry, and if you won't git to the skillet and dish up some poems, there's them that will.

(I'm sorry. Was that anti-intellectual? Cue up "Oops--I did it again," preferably in Richard Thompson's medieval remix, and let's get back to business.)

Now, as a teacher, I can take a crucial lesson from one of Mark's observations: "The oppositional force of the 'original' Language writing," says he, "lay as much in its social formations, its rejection of conventional circuits of consecration and validation (the academy, trade and university presses, high-tone magazines), as in the forms and modes of the poetry itself; now that those forms and modes have begun to be common parlance and entered into the APR-AWP jobsearch marketplace, it becomes difficult to pretend they’re oppositional any longer – at least in the same way, or to the same degree. I'm frankly uncomfortable here, and need to think more about the issue, especially in regards to the creeping suspicion I have that a form or mode of poetry has no determinate ideological valence outside the social formation in which it is composed and received."

If I were to teach some of that "original" Language writing, then--as opposed to the more recent "crispy" variety?--I'd probably want to embed it in the story Mark tells. Indeed, I suspect that the more we teach poems as embedded in stories--biographical, literary-historical, whatever they might be--the wider the variety of poems our students will enjoy. Let's face it, folks: our minds crave plot, crave characters, crave coherence of all sorts. If we satisfy those cravings with a story about, say, scrappy young poets who overturn, overturn, overturn--get me the casting director here: I'm thinking Milton, Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Trisan Tzara, Susan Howe--our students will gobble up ontologically difficult poems like popcorn, baby, popcorn.

Speaking of which, here's a snack I've enjoyed for the last few days. It's the opening poem of Kathrine Varnes' new collection The Paragon, a book which veers from narrative to chewy, discombobulating juxtapositions with gurlesque delight. (Can that be the Next Big Thing? Please?) Since the title drops the "Tell it" from the Neville Brother's song--that would be a moment of "contingent difficulty," I suppose--I'd teach this poem as a piece about telling and not-telling, confession and evasion or concealment (which is to say, "tactical difficulty"), and try to tease out some clues from the poem for a narrative fromwhich it might spring:

Like It Is

Here is a spray of heliotrope
in fuchsia bloom. Here is the fool
who said I do. Here is the grope

that started it all, a small granule
of undissolved sugar. Tarry
and it’s whisked away by the cruel

waiter who lives by an estuary.
Why do we want to redesign
hip pockets anyway? You bury

the curses next to the common thyme;
I mulch them with shame worn sleek
with worry. Whatever stars align

themselves on this — um — yawn — antique
affair, let blaze out. Elephant
on the couch: we crowd the ends, sweet geek.

Let’s name the beast, its elegant
urn-like rump. Let it elope.
Our love was ever indigent.
More on this, on Peter's playlist, and on other things, tomorrow.

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