Thursday, July 29, 2010

There is No Such Thing as Poetry, or: Lightbulbs of Quietude

"How many poets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" asked a well-respected New York poet in a recent Facebook update. "There are no light bulbs, only kinds of light bulbs" replied the much-beloved editor of a prominent, and therefore often-maligned, literary journal [update: the editor in question, Don Share, has informed me I may name him by name]. I nearly sneezed my fourth coffee of the day out of my over-caffinated nostrils in mirth. To laugh at the editor's response, though, you'd have to know one of the most-repeated phrases of that éminence grise of poetry bloggers, Ron Silliman. "There is no such thing as poetry," Silliman often intones, "only kinds of poetry."

I've always had a mixed reaction to Silliman's mantra. On the one hand, I think I get what he's trying to say, and I agree with it. I suppose he means that there's no such thing as normal poetry, no entity that is the natural state of the art, from which other kinds of poetry are deviations. In his view, it is with poetry as it is with language. Just as there's no such thing as a version of English that has no accent, there's no kind of poetry that is simply "poetry" in an unqualified state. Those people who blithely say "I don't have an accent" do, in fact, have accents — it's just that their accents are the dominant ones in their countries, so they think of their speach as normal, natural, pure, and uninflected by class or region. Speakers of the dominant accent have the privilege of thinking of themselves as normal, and of others as deviants, but this is simply the ignorance and insensitivity that so often comes with power. And those people who might think of themselves as poets, pure and simple, are actually writers of a particular kind of poetry, members of some kind of school of poetry, every bit as much as are the writers of less dominant kinds of poetry. It's just that the dominant group doesn't have to give itself an -ism (imagism, surrealism, dadaism, postmodernism, what have you)

What Silliman objects to is that some people go around thinking that their poetry has no accent. I'm with him on this.

It's at this point that Ron, in a gesture both helpful and, I think, spiteful, provides a label for this kind of poetry — his infamous "School of Quietude." I like the idea of a label, just as I like the idea of people with the dominant accent realizing that they have accents. But labels always seem to cause trouble, since there are always people who feel that the level of generalization is too high (this is a problem with accent labels, too, since few people speak in exactly the same accent). People used to carp about being called language poets (I remember Steve Evans making some remarks about how poets outside the mainstream seemed to either have to accept that label or be ignored). And not long ago, when I wrote about "Cambridge Poetry," I set off a small-time internet shit-storm, in which a number of poets objected to the category as too general. Ron's term is particularly bad, though, because it comes laden with a negative judgement from the start, implying that those poets who write this kind of poetry are somehow complicit with the bad guys, quiescent in the face of situations of moral urgency. Also, it has even less buy-in from those whom it is meant to label than terms like "language poetry" and "Cambridge poetry" have had. After all, unlike the "School of Quietude," both "Cambridge poetry" and "language poetry" have at times been used by some of the poets they designate. To make things worse, I've seen Silliman create versions of literary history that essentially project his model of the current American poetic situation (the School of Quietude on one side, the Post-Avant on the other) back in time, claiming a history that extends from Whitman and Dickinson to the Post-Avant, over against a history that extends from Longfellow to the School of Quietude. I don't even know where to begin discussing how messed up this is — it betrays a kind of ignorance of the complex ways literary history and influence work, and it betrays a weird kind of will-to-power, a wish to grab the currently respected names from the past and label them "mine, not yours."

But my real problem with Silliman's phrase "there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry" doesn't come from the whole lamentable "School of Quietude" thing. It comes from the blatant logical fallacy of the statement itself. To say "there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry" is analogous to saying "There is no box, only compartments inside a box." That is: the second part of the statement asserts the existence of the category (poetry, or boxes) that the first part denies. To say that there are "kinds of poetry" is to posit the overall category of "poetry" as something that exists. I actually think Ron does believe there is such a thing of poetry — he just means no one writes "poetry" without writing a kind of poetry. Again, the analogy with language might help: it's not that there is no such thing as a "Romance language," it's just that it's an overall category into which particular languages like French and Spanish and Italian fit. No one goes around speaking "the Romance language," but this doesn't mean the term is empty or represents nothing. The analogy could be extended, of course — there's really no one who simply speaks "Spanish" pure and simple, only people who speak the Spanish of Barcelona or Uruguay or East L.A. or whatever — which doesn't mean that there's no such thing as "Spanish." It's an overarching category that exists but that manifests only in particular versions.

I'd like to continue, but the light bulb here in my secret backyard writing dojo seems to have burnt out. I'm going to cruise around to the corner shop to see if they have any Lightbulbs of Quietude. Last time they were out, and I had to use a 300 watt Avant-Bulb. My eyes are still hurting.