Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Jousting with Josh

I posted some comments over at Josh's blog: more sympathetic than my notes over here, or so they were meant to be, anyway.

"Josh," says I,

I don't think you've entirely clarified (to yourself or to me) the range of desires you're trying to articulate.

Some are practical: health insurance, more opportunities to publish, more attention from potential readers.

Some are social: the "association to mutual creative benefit" you speak of here; the encouragement; the honest opinions, etc.

Others here I find harder to name, maybe because they're incohate or maybe just because I'm not a poet, and so don't know what you're up against or going through. This desire for "dignity" for example...or for the "capacity for giving" to be enlarged. Or for "life." What are the losses, the frustrations, the lacks that these are meant to assuage? To what extent are they shared, unnecessary, and political, and how much are they really much more local, more idiosyncratic, more about you, age X in situation Y?
Here was his reply, with comments by me inter alia:
Eric, both you in your snarky post (is "snarky" a more fun way of saying "cynical"?
Yes! Ain't it grand? I learned it from the ladies in romance--check out, for example, the snarkalicious comments on trashy cover art at the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog.
...you and Aaron Tieger in his post worry that I've forgotten about readers. But if you wanted to quote Thoreau the way Mark did, surely you don't mean to suggest that we all should start writing poems that folks wanna read? You know, poems that rhyme and stuff?
Who's snarky now? I mean, really, Josh. This reminds me of a horrible exchange I had once with a famous & tenured avant-garde poet who saw no difference between reading Yeats and watching the Late Show. Contempt for the audience much? Ah, well--a dozen years of teaching undergraduates and judging teen poetry slams will give you some idea of the poems that folks want to read, even if it doesn't give you any more respect for their taste.
I rather take that quote as meant to nudge its reader out of the selfish circle of his concerns: it's akin to what some people have said about how we should worry about health care for everyone and not just poets.
No, I think the Thoreau quote--in my hands, since I can't speak for Mark--was meant to nudge you into remembering that you're hardly the first writer to feel put upon because your efforts, your gifts, heck your life's work are not a commodity that many people want to buy, and that just because you show up with them, you can't expect them to do their part and attend.

But that attitude strikes me as quietistic. As if you'll be able to have any impact on global warming if you don't start taking better care of your own neighborhood first.
Straw man, this. I think in general the political analogies are misplaced here, Josh. What you're really after is some sort of renaissance in--or first birth of--a Civil Society of Poetry. Politics is not the cure for this literary bowling alone.
Yeah, my desires are inchoate. It's a POETS' union, damnit. Its primary function might very well be the fuller articulation of its members' desires, which is the first step toward pursuing them.
Hmmm... don't know what you want, but you know how to get it, eh?
Surely, Eric, you don't blame poets and poets alone for the dearth of readers out there? You're a Ronald Johnson fan, aren't you? You think his work is beautiful, offering many pleasures? Why then is he so obscure? Would writing diffferent kinds of poems have solved that problem? Easier poems? Do they get any easier than his concrete work?
Whew! That hits close to home. Let me put this as plainly as I can, Josh: RJ is obscure because I'm not Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, or Harold Bloom. If I were--heck, if I hadn't taken five years off the conference and publication circuit, for the sake of my marriage and my kids, but been out there preaching the good word--RJ studies would be in a very different place right now. By all means, though--Mark, Josh, everyone--let's have this discussion. What would have made, or would now make, the difference?

What I'm saying is: if you want to address the dearth of readers, address the dearth of readers. I don't think that anything you've said so far about the Poets Union (PU--maybe not the best acronym?) does anything to address it either.

OK: off the soapbox. I have kids to feed.

1 comment:

Josh said...

All right, since you've led the conversation back to your own backyard, I'll follow you there. What I don't understand is your contention—one you've made before—that poets are to blame if they don't have many readers, and that apparently there's a larger readership available if one is willing to write to the tastes of undergraduates and teens (that's the audience you single out). My first response to that is, isn't 99.9 percent of our pop culture already devoted to the whims of teens and twentysomethings? But more to the point: if I wanted to reach a mass audience, I wouldn't write poems! Poetry, at least the kind I care about, demands qualities of attention that I doubt the mass of people will ever be willing to bring to reading, at least reading for entertainment's sake. It makes more sense to me to do the kind of critical, editorial, and scholarly work that will direct the pool of readers already extant to the kinds of poems I care about—Johnson's poems, for instance. The only ready path I can see toward actually growing the readership for poetry is through my work as a teacher. And as a good teacher you've no doubt listened well to what it is your students like. But I also imagine that, as a good teacher, you've worked hard to stretch that liking, and introduce students to work outside their comfort zone, and perhaps even made a few converts to the work of Johnson and others whose complex linguistic textures could never be confused with the poetry of personal authenticity that I associate with slams.

For the moment I'm mostly concerned with imagining ways in which me and my fellow poets might come together to make stuff happen, and perhaps to grow attention for the small press work that challenges and refreshes me the most. Ways we might support each other. New paths for the energy that too often expresses itself as bile, injured narcissism, and snark. Though I'll take even that kind of energy over slackness and gentility any day.