Thursday, January 01, 2009

Quietism (response to Seth's response to etc)

Apologies for being so slow to respond to this discussion. I've been on both the east and west coast over Christmas. Right now I'm watching some kind of strange squirrel reading on television. This is meant as a response to Seth's responses (below) and some of the posts on his blog I've skimmed through today.

First off: I have read some comments suggesting that Ron Silliman believes he fits into the "post-avant" category of the quietist-vs-post-avant breakdown. I think that category is in fact in Ron's mind in many ways a post-language poetry category that includes any number of various strains of poetry that doesn't fit neatly into the Quietist aesthetic.

The important thing about the "quietism vs post-avant" breakdown is that it makes visible a stream of American poetry that has over the past few decades tended to define itself as neutral, quality, tradition, while defining alternative or opposing aesthetic as somehow deviant of that neutral category. There will always be points of view, but the important thing is to engage with the various biases and ideas rather than just accept them.

The problem with the division is that it is static, binary and too cold-war simplistic. It doesn't account for any number of factors, it is too vague and static. It doesn't for example account for the fact that a lot of language poetry has - as Seth notes - become standard fare in a few programs such as Iowa, or why it's precisely Iowa, that supposed bastion of Quietude, that has accepted Langpo and the likes into its canon (see "indeterminacy" and "syntacitcs" below).

What I tried to do in the post below was to briefly make this argument: that Quietism should not be read as a static style, but as a dynamic of our literary culture; a dynamic that establishes what "poetry is". Therefore it changes in some (usually stylistic) ways but it also remains the same in some respects (usually more overarching).

I have several problems with the "cognitive poetry" category Seth has come up on his blog. To begin with, it is even vaguer, more general than Ron's breakdown, including just about anybody that Seth feels doesn't fit into the quietism-postavant breakdown. Basically this just reiterates Ron's reductive cold-war breakdown of q, p-a and "third way." It also suggests something similar to "post-avant": there are many different ideas in poetry.

For example, I've seen Mattea Harvey compared to Joyelle in a lot of discussions: both come out of Harvard/Iowa and both have expressed an interest in "hybridity". But if you actually compare Harvey's "hybridity" - for example lyrical poems about a half-robot, half human - to say Joyelle's "Flet" - a Joycean hyperflow of language in which the binary of "human" and "robot" become totally quaint - you see that they have fundamentally different attitudes about the very fundamental idea of what "human" means (and technology for that matter). So we could place them both in some big taxonomical group (neither one writes what would formally classified as language poetry, neither writes personal narratives of authenticity), or we can point out their differences.

I think the solution to the dilemma is not to come up with new, decontextualized taxonomical categories. I think the "conflicts" that Seth simultaneously criticizes and engages in, are good. Lets have people write about poetry they like, not in normalizing terms or broad taxonomical categories (quietist etc), but in terms that engage with the material and ideas. That is why Joyelle and I write manifestos and reviews and why I like Flarf and Lara's and Arielle's "Gurlesque."

I think Ron is perfectly right to point out that all these prizes go to "Quietists" - lets look at who gets these prizes and teaching jobs. Adorno has a good essay in which he discusses how the administration of art has to repress differing views in order to function. Well I think we should make perfectly obvious that various departments and presses and awards have aesthetics, and make them be explicit about them. Nobody is looking for "just the best" (as many journals claim), but a certain aesthetic.

Quick responses to Seth's responses below:

1. You don't need to understand post-structural theory to read "Syntactic" poetry (does syntactic poetry mean langpo?). In fact, a lot of langpo seems opposed to a lot of post-structuralism. Lyn Hejinian for example is always insisting on the "empiricism" of her writing (See her lectures on Stein).

2. One reason why "syntactic" can't mean "post-avant" is that "post-avant" has "avant" in it and a lot of "avant-garde" writing has nothing to do with language poetry or "syntactic" operations. When I write "noise" I do not mean "syntactic" poetry. For example, Majorie Perloff's idea of "indeterminacy" is the opposite of "noise."

3. Noise is not just a matter of "syntactics". The most important study of this issue is probably Deleuze and Guattari's "Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature," in which they sugget how Kafka exaggerates a kind of exaggerated "Prague German", using yiddish to deterritorialize German. Kafka doesn't break down syntax, but makes it clumsy etc.

4. "Syntactic" explorations are often highly regarded within Quietism. That's why "indeterminacy" made such a splash in Iowa in the 90s. It's the flipside of the coin of personal narrative poems: both are mainly concerned with administering and controlling "excesses" of language, both are *refined* (what we need for a "high culture" to exist).

5. The most common ideas (even pre-Shklovsky) of what is "poetic language" has in some ways to do with "syntactic" explorations.

6. "Accessibility" is a red herring. I can never understand the poetry I hear on Garrison Keiler's radio show in the morning.

7. The importance of New Criticism cannot be overestimated. See Jed Rasula's "The American Poetry Wax Museum" or "Repression and Recovery" by Cary Nelson.

8. I tried to show that the populist argument is inherently ludicrous and false. Using an illusory "general population" is a facetious rhetoric that again avoids having to engage with the ideas and aesthetics behind the poems. Further, being part of the majority is not necessarily a good thing (I don't give a crap about most people).

9. The reason it is wrong to say that "we're all in this together" is that it not only covers up differences, but also hides the fact that certain aesthetics are much more likely to win awards and jobs etc than others.

(More later)


Blogger knott said...

6. "Accessibility" is a red herring. I can never understand the poetry I hear on Garrison Keiler's radio show in the morning.


surely, Johannes, you can't take yourself as the standard of what's accessible or understandable—

will you deny that Keiler/NPR understand the poetry they present,

even if you claim you can't!

your disdain contempt for the mass audience that listens to and reads those poems will help your career in the elitist realm of academia, of course——

12:38 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I'm saying that different things are accessible to different folks.

Nobody who's read my poetry has ever accused me of being inaccessible.


2:21 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I also find it interesting that you - who have had a multitude of professorships and books published by university presses etc - should accuse me of being an elitist academic.


2:34 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

One more thing: Because I don't get Garrison Keiler's poetry doesn't mean I use that as an argument for why he shouldn't write/edit what he does. But that's exactly the argument that is frequently leveled against various poetries perceived as inaccessible.


4:33 PM  
Blogger Max said...

What happens when so called post-avants start populating university positions or winning prizes? What then? Is that the game we're playing here ... "who can get the most resources"?

I think it's far more valuable for us to investigate whether or not we should take aim at these things in the first place, than to monitor how many SoQ/post-avants have successfully achieved these aims.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


This is a very good point. That is why I want to make the discussion about "quietism" about the literary system, not just a style. Because to some extent this has already started to happen. And that's what my much-maligned post about my time in Iowa was all about. Styles change but certain rules remain constant. And one of those rules is the prestige-based view of literature (awards and such). Absolutely.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, my real problem is that this only seems to go as far as monitoring the situation. The criticism never seems to venture so far that the overarching system itself (creative writing being locked down in universities, creative writing as a career, etc) is questioned. For the time being, we'll satisfy ourselves by proving that the so-called "neutral" writers operate under an aesthetic. You think they honestly don't know this? I mean, they may be "quietists," but this doesn't mean that they're dumb.

Anyway, I think a big part of the reason why this line of criticism is so limited, why it tends to fall short of cutting away at the system itself, is because a lot of the critics want in just as badly as anybody else. They may have tricked themselves into thinking it's not the same thing, that they'll be different, that they'll work from the inside to make things more ideologically palatable, but I mean, come on. It's a nice paycheck. It's a sweet gig. And we're not going to say or do anything that might throw the integrity of the fundamental system into question.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Max said...


Sorry if I sound bitter, Johannes, but I really feel like this whole debate over categories misses the entire point. Ever since I first heard about the SoQ/post-avant debate, and did a little looking into it, I've become more and more convinced that it's merely about encoding an socio-economic, political debate in the language of scholarly categories. I think Seth is completely correct when he notes that "SoQ," for example, is primarily a pejorative term, whereas "post-avant" is inherently complimentary. Any meaning that may be attached to these terms is subordinate to the socio-economic, political comments implied by them. And honestly, I have no problem with the terms themselves making such comments. That's okay. But why obfuscate the issue by acting as though these words are supposed to form a useful scholarly vocabulary for dealing with modern poetics? Why not just bring it all out into the open?

You may agree with me on that. I don't know. I think you probably would. But in my view, that's the thing that's not being said here. I think Silliman himself would agree that there is a political element to his terms, but at the same time, I think he would insist that they are, first and foremost, categories useful for practical, neutral, scholarly purposes. And I really don't think they are. I think they're just euphemisms, at best, for "us" and "them."

Why can't we just say "us" and "them" outright?

Well, because quite a few people might find themselves in hypocritical positions if it came to that.

I wrote a comment in response to Seth's latest post, in which I argued that perhaps it might be more appropriate to categorize writers based on what they want and what they're willing to do to get it. What do you think of that plan?

7:01 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Max, many writers I know feel that the term "post-avant" is inherently negative, even if Ron says that he means it positively. I think in fact he does, on an overt level, mean it to be positive, but many writers whose work might, to Ron's mind, fit that term, don't see themselves as being adequately accounted for by his ideas regarding the "post-avant" and find the term to be a dismissive obfuscation of what they're up to. So my guess is that you only think of the term as inherently positive because you don't spend much time talking to the writers whose work is supposedly described by such a term.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark -

When I say that the term is complimentary, I mean that Ron has defined it in what he feels to be a complimentary way. Or, more specifically, I think the term is complimentary because it casts the post-avants as oppressed, wounded, etc. whereas SoQ folks are the powerful, the stockholders in "the biz."

So my use of "complimentary" here is not meant to imply that everybody who Ron describes using the term feels complimented by it. I don't think that this fact really changes the argument at all, because at the end of the day, all the people who buy into SoQ/post-avant are using the terms in that way. The people who don't feel complimented by supposedly falling under "post-avant" likely don't really appreciate the mechanism in the first place, so they are falling outside the scope of my criticism.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Just to clarify:

It's complimentary to those who buy into the term, not necessarily to those who are unwillingly swept under the post-avant rug. My argument is not about whether everybody is happy with the term or not, but rather that the implications of both terms, in the eyes of Silliman and other adherents, reveals a motive that has nothing at all to do with practical categorization, but rather a socio-economic, political discourse. My argument, furthermore, is that instead of coding said socio-economic, political argument(s) in the language of practical categorization, perhaps we could come right out and say what we're trying to say directly.

Of course, the reason why I don't think Silliman and others are willing to come out and say such things directly is because, if they own up to this being about "us" vs. "them," many people who think they're "us" might find that they are, in actuality, "them," and vice versa.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Just another note:

The reason why I'm convinced that the agenda of practical categorization is completely peripheral to the SoQ/post-avant debate evident in the way Silliman most commonly makes use of the terms on his own blog. You can only make so many passive-aggressive critiques about how many books on the short list for such and such prize were by SoQ poets, and blah blah blah, before it becomes apparent that this is not really even about drawing aesthetic distinctions anymore. At the end of the day, it's about who's getting published, who's winning prizes, and who's getting professorships. It's about the propagation of capital; the propagation of aesthetics is entirely peripheral to the discussion. Yet if you couch it in those terms, you tend to avoid disparaging the system itself. In other words, professorships, publications, and prizes are alright. It's the aesthetics of the persons they're doled out to that are the point of contention. (Yeah, right).

8:54 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Max, in response to your earlier query, I don't think that replacing a series of aesthetic-political-economic generalizations with spending endless time discussing what writers do for a living and what is involved in trying to get published is all that intriguing a switch. I mean, it's worthwhile to discuss the sociological circumstances of writers on many occasions, but I think at a certain point the most interesting thing to talk about in the world of poetry is the specific poetry that specific people are writing. I don't say that categories aren't relevant; I just say that they're of secondary interest.

9:36 AM  
Blogger knott said...

Sillimandias King of Blogs may intend SOQ

to be an insult,

but just as homosexuals took the pejorative term of "queer"

and transformed it into a proudly self-defining/defiant designation,

so we "them" poets (to use Max's term) can claim SOQ as our own,

or I can, anyway: I've identified myself as a SOQ since commencing my blog three years ago. . .

I admire Keilor, and wish he would include my poems in his anthols and on his NPR . . .

but here's Pasternak on the Romantic:

" . . . [A] whole conception of life [lies] concealed under the Romantic manner. . . . This was the conception of life as the life of the poet. It had come to us from the Symbolists and had been adopted by them from the Romantics. . . . [The Romantic poet sets himself up as the measure of life. . . . But the Romantic scheme is false. The poet, who is its foundation, is inconceivable without the non-poets to bring him into relief, because this poet is not a living personality absorbed in moral cognition, but a visual-biographical 'emblem', demanding a background to make his contours visible. . . . Romanticism always needs philistinism and with the disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie loses half its content."

In other words, I admire and appreciate Keilor, but I don't require him, whereas

you, Johannes, on the other hand, as Pasternak indicates, you need Keilor, and you need us SOQs—

that's one big diff between us SOQs and you (School of Noisiness) SONs——

you need SOQs, but we SOQs don't need you SONs!

if all the Piss-Avants and other SONs disappeared tomorrow,

we SOQs would just keep chugging along doing what we always do . . .

4:38 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark -

But in this case, I don't think that "talking about what poets are writing" is really what's going on with the SoQ/post-avant discussion. I think that it's code for a socio-economic, political argument that obviously people like Ron Silliman want to be making. And I really think it's quite an important discussion to be having, but not when the real issue is obfuscated--seemingly on purpose--by the language of practical categorization.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Knott -

Well, you apparently seem to need the "SoN" writers, seeing as how your entire stance appears to be of the reactionary, I'm-going-to-embrace-my-label variety.

You can go on thinking that you're outside of the discussion, but you're really not.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The problem is that all these discussions are reactionary, they're all about politics and empowerment, and hardly ever actually about poetry.

The binary dialectic is inherently problematic, because it folds everything into Us vs. Them. Ron's arguments are almost all us vs. Them, even those that hold some water. The reaction os almost as polarized.

Meanwhile, some other poets are off over there, doing their thing, ignoring all of this. Wisely.

7:20 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Art -

I think we should be having the political debate. The reason why I think we should be having this debate is because, like it or not, "creative writing" (poetry, fiction, whatever) is wrapped up in it via MFAs, professorships, prizes, and publications. If you're not involving yourself in any of these things, then fine, you're on the outside and you can just keep to yourself. But anybody who's gone through or participated in any part of the process has an interest in taking part in the discussion. And I would argue that, if you're interested at all in the implications for creative writing in America, in general, then you'd probably do well not to ignore what's going on here.

Plenty of people discuss poetry. There's really no question about that. But as far as this specific debate is concerned, I think what we're dealing with is a political issue that's merely dressed up as "talking about poetry." Obviously quite a few people would like to have the discussion, or else they wouldn't be having it.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"But as far as this specific debate is concerned, I think what we're dealing with is a political issue that's merely dressed up as "talking about poetry." "

But that's my point: the debate isn't really ABOUT poetry. That's why the MFA issue and its consequences on American poetry is irrelevant. The fact is, there is some truth to what you say about involvement.

But, the truth ALSO is, none of it matters to poetry, in the long run, because poetry goes on, as long as people write poetry, whether or not the academy or MFAs or you or I are involved, or care.

So there's a point at which all this is merely scholasticism: arguing about nothing. Angels dancing on the heads of pins, as it were.

I think it's fine to keep the discussion going. I just think it's necessary to recognize, individually or collectively, when the discussion has become hermetic and futile. Are we there yet?

9:27 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

In other words, both SoQ AND post-avant are the current fashions in poetry criticism, and its political arguments. But neither are enduring, and in a hundred years or so this will all be another set of -isms, to be noted historically and perhaps be influenced by, but not to be taken any more seriously than Symbolism is now.

So, forgive me if I find the total immersion in minutiae to be less interesting than the long view. The arguments will go on, as will the discussions. Will anything be settled, ultimately? Unlikely.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

As to keeping to myself, that's pretty dismissive. And it proves my point that other poets are out there, doing their thing, even while all this goes on. Folks who are heavily invested in this argument, academic or not, tend to be hammers that view everything as nails. All sides of this argument tend to get entrenched. They tend to forget that the rest of poetry continues to go on, whether or not anyone notices. Putting everything into binary relationships creates artificial categories that don't really have any weight. One time I tried to point out a third stream of poetry; Ron's immediate response was to lump it all back into SoQ. (This was on my own blog, not his.)

Doing my thing doesn't mean that, hypothetically, my poetry existing outside the argument diminishes its worth. or even its publishabilitiy, even if Ron's camp would lump me in with the SoQ. Or whatever.

It's about everyone who gets invested in this argument losing their ability to think outside the boxes they've gotten themselves stuck in.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Art -

I think you're wrong about the political discussion being "scholasticism." I think that, right now, what's happening is a political argument is being scholasticized by the SoQ/post-avant smokescreen. With this system, Silliman and others are attempting to bypass a criticism of the system itself by coding it as a mere difference of aesthetics, but then waging political arguments--some obvious, some more subtle--using this language.

Again, I think it's an important discussion to be having, but we need to see the discussion for what it is. Unfortunately, if we try to tackle things directly, I think a lot of people might end up endangering the very system they aspire to be part of. At the end of the day, it's not about whether creative writing should be locked up in universities, but who should hold the key. That's really sad, but it's clearly what's going on here.

Art, I think you rightly expect this to be an actual discussion about poetry, because that's what it's dressed up as, and those are the grounds that, until now, it's tended to be waged on. This idea that all we're talking about is an aesthetic difference, however, is becoming less and less tenable. The reason why these terms are so lacking in usefulness, in that regard, is because at the end of the day, whether Silliman knows it or not, they aren't actually meant to do that sort of work. They are political labels. Anything else that they may appear to be is peripheral/subordinate to the political connotations.

And I don't think this discussion I'm trying to forward is "hermetic," because it implies that we can shift away from an MFA/university mindset. That's actually what I would like to see happen. I'm not speaking from a university position. I don't have any books published. I haven't earned a single penny from the "FA" part of my MFA (my current employer only cares about the "M" part, and it gets me something like +$1,200 remuneration per year). So I don't see how my argument would only have teeth in academia. I'm actually trying to move it away from that "hermetic" mindset, which would pretend that all we're talking about is aesthetics, when really our scope is much larger than that.

Will anything be settled? Probably not. Money is on the table, after all. I think economics is the unstoppable machine that will keep people jumping into the MFA machine and aspiring for MFA careers (and all the assorted rewards that come with working that system). The only thing I can see pushing against it is a rather severe job shortage in the market. It usually isn't until MFAs get into their programs that they actually learn about how crappy the job market is. If it gets bad enough, they'll hear about it before they even apply, and perhaps they'll turn back and save themselves the time.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Art -

I wasn't attempting to be dismissive. I was merely pointing out that, if you don't think you're invested, and you aren't interested in any way, then obviously you're free to be outside of it, along with all the others who supposedly don't have any investment or interest. But I would argue that this discussion doesn't necessarily restrict your involvement, since it deals quite directly with how the creative class operates and how writing is currently produced in this country by a large segment of its artists.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

If you are saying that this is how writing is THOUGHT to be produced in the US by a large segment of its artists, there is some truth to that. But again, the argument is hermetic and irrelevant to how lots of poetry is actually being produced because there are lots of poets who observe this argument without participating in it. The strictures of the argument tend to presume that all poets are heavily invested in the premises behind the argument—academia, awards, publishing, visibility, etc.—which is demonstrably not true. The scholastic nature of the argument lies in its very assumption that it matters to all poets, when it doesn't. Honestly, I've talked to a fair number of working poets out there in the real world, many of whom who are not "professional poets" but dedicated "amateurs," and the strongest response one often gets is an indifferent shrug.

I never said I myself wasn't interested in the argument—my presence indicates some interest, after all—but I do think it's important to remember that not all poets are part of this argument, or care to be—or even know it's going on.

"Creative class" is a loaded term, and its as Seth points out, a category error in which a sociological (economic) position is presented in the guise of an aesthetic position. "Creative class" means nothing in a culture wherein many individuals practice their creativity quietly and for its own sake, with no investment in the economics of teaching positions (or tenure), or rewards (literary prizes). "Creative class" itself carries an assumption that all the arts have value only in so far as they can be economically quantified. "Class" arguments are fundamentally economic arguments. My point is that such arguments overlook all those artists out there who are indifferent to economic motivations; which may in fact be the majority. (So if this argument is a minority argument operating in a bubble of self-regard and self-concern, insofar as the argument approaches being a closed system, it approaches scholasticism.)

I am looking at the underlying assumptions of the argument itself, here: the presumption that economic factors matter to art-making. The class arguments tend to be post-Marxist and/or post-capitalist theoretical stances that presume that an artist's chief motivations are economic. Again, economic motivations may be dominant for those invested in the MFA cycle, but not for all artists, everywhere; and not even for all artists engaged in this argument.

Now, I DO happen to make my living from my creativity; which is not limited to poetry. Pretty much no one, even "professional poets" makes their living directly form poetry, but typically indirectly. (Professorships, awards, etc.)

To be clear, I am not making an "art for art's sake" argument, I'm just pointing out that economic or "class" arguments are not and never have been a dominant motivation for art-making, even in capitalist economies. Don't forget that much of the reasoning behind many of the post-avant manifestoes has been post-capitalist or anti-capitalist, again underlying Seth's point that sociological arguments are being made about aesthetics.

6:36 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...


Yes, I agree that Ron is making a sociopolitical argument, often, on his blog. In fact, to be more precise we should call it aesthtic-cultural-political-economic, to break it down into its key elements. And I think discussing poetry relative to all those elements is important (and I've published writing on those subjects myself), it's just not the only thing to do. If actually looking at the work of specific writers falls out of the equation, though, the rest of the discussion stops being very worthwhile, since I'm assuming most of us involved in writing poetry do it because we're interested in the writing that results, not just in the sociopolitical foibles of the people who are doing it.

In fact, Ron writes about specific poets and poems on his blog all the time, as well as film and sometimes music etc. While his categories do seem to mean more to him than they do to you or me, and he falls back on them a lot, I'm struck by how often he really seems to like the work of writers who don't fall into the camps that he's accused of being biased towards. He's written in praise of Jean Valentine, seems to love the melancholy apolitical suburban mini-dramas of Graham Foust, and those are just two of many exmaples. So I don't think he exclusively and only writes about writers who share his perspective on all issues. Of course, even if he did, I don't think that would be a huge problem, since then his blog would about supporting writers whose values he shares. Why shouldn't he support the work of writers whose values he shares? For instance, do you support the work of Bill O'Reilly? So while you and Ron and I and Art Durkee (with his ardent support for the idea of the poetry amateur) disagree on what we value in the world of writing, we're still all supporting what we value, even as we are all sometimes probably capable (I hope) of liking poems that rub against the grain of our own beliefs. For instance, I'm a huge fan of James Wright even as I think he was a big dumbass about almost everything.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark -

I'm not arguing that aesthetics never has anything to do with it, but rather that aesthetics is peripheral to cultural-political-economic comment. Honestly, the majority of the time I see Ron using the term "SoQ," it is to criticize the fact that they are winning yet another prize, publishing more prolifically in anthologies, etc. In other words, the focus is clearly on capital and influence, and much less on an actual discussion of aesthetics. I think this is the reason why Seth, for example, is so dissatisfied with the terms, because at the end of the day, they don't really mean much of anything to a nuanced aesthetic debate. They mean much more to a debate about culture-economics-politics.

I never argued that Ron only writes about writers he likes. I argued that, much of the time, when he drags out the actual term "SoQ," it's to criticize--overtly or subtly--politics under the guise of criticizing aesthetics. One sees this routinely in his link lists, for example, how he'll "note" that an end of year list is all "SoQ" poets, or some crap like that. Obviously this is not really an argument about aesthetics, but rather an argument about who is getting published, and who gets the resulting credibility from those publications. Ron obviously would rather see people like him, not SoQ poets, winning prizes and getting published and being hired, because at the end of the day, that bodes well for his legacy. And people who agree with him, well it's great for them too, because it means that perhaps there are more publications and jobs and prizes for them down the line as well.

"Supporting what you value" is, I think, really oversimplifying the situation. If it's a matter of curating small-time readings, or publishing your buddy's chapbook as a one-off deal, or something like that, then whatever. I don't have a problem with people promoting shit that they like. That's fine. But we're talking about a system where there is obviously much more at stake. We have lots of publishers putting out books of poetry every year, and prizes are on either end of those books at times, and most of the time jobs depend on those books being published. In other words, we have to acknowledge that there's more to this business than simply "supporting what you value." There are real cultural, political, and economic implications to every activity in the process. It's one thing to promote somebody in a way that will get them more exposure to an audience. But it's another thing entirely to promote somebody, knowing that not only is this about reaching an audience, but winning prizes and getting jobs. The morality of involving ourselves in such a system is what I question. Of course, rather than questioning this aspect of it, the SoQ/post-avant debate would rather pretend that it's merely a matter of who controls the most territory. We won't ask ourselves whether it's moral, in the most general sense, to be fighting over this territory. We'll just give in to our basest impulses and fight over it because it's there for the taking (and because, at the end of the day, we aspire to be the very people for whom we supposedly harbor disdain).

4:39 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Max, supporting what you value always has real cultural, economic, and political values at stake. Don't you know that? Ron does, and so does Johannes. Start writing poems and stop whining.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark -

You pay lip service to the fact that everybody knows there are "real cultural, economic, and political values at stake," but it seems that "the biz" is always exempted from an exploration of these values. We're never actually dealing with a critique of the system of publishing, the system of prizes, the system of MFAs and professorships. Rather, what we continue to argue about is which vague, overlarge aesthetic demographic gets the bigger piece of the pie.

I think that the reason why some people (such as yourself, apparently) insist on insulating the institutions from critique is because you actually quite like being part of all of it. And yeah, you'll soften the blow by simplifying the portrayal of "the biz" until it just looks like a bunch of buddies innocently clapping each other on the backs at readings and chapbook publication parties, but you know it's far bigger than that.

At some point, this ceases to be about "supporting what you value" and begins to look like the propping up of a horrid political ideology.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You keep throwing around words like politics and economics but you offer very little insight into these matters. The only thing you seem capable of is providing an opposing argument. I would like to see you lay out an idea of what to do other than glorifying your own paralysis and impotence. Say what you want instead of whining. Where for example do you want to move Poetry (out of the academy you say, but where? how?etc). In most of your comments youre still just knee-jerkly opposing things I (or others) say, even if that takes totally misreading my posts (such as my multilingual post). I appreciate your interest in this blog but at some time you have to develop your own stances and elaborate on them. Otherwise you're just bitter.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

For one, I think we could roll a critique of the culture itself (MFAs, professorships, prizes, publications) into the discourse, instead of insulating it suspiciously even though it's on the tip of everyone's tongues (e.g. when Ron makes subtle digs at who's making it onto lists or winning prizes or populating anthologies).

Obviously the best case scenario would be to abandon MFA programs altogether. While I think they are useful for the students, due to the fact that they provide, generally speaking, the time to write, the power vacuum created by the need for professors is out of hand. As these programs proliferate, they basically just become patronage schemes paid for by the tuition/labor of MFA hopefuls who, quite honestly, don't really tend to have a sense of what they're getting themselves into, and once they do have a sense of it, they're already too far into it to turn back. Again, not such a big problem for the few who go into MFA programs with no illusions about turning it into a career, but for the majority who do go into it for that reason, it's a mindfuck. And I think the major appeal that MFA programs make, as a whole, is one of granting legitimacy, granting influence, and of furnishing career opportunities. If only the average prospective MFA had the slightest clue.

In lieu of this extreme approach, I would say that the MFA industry needs to do more to disabuse prospective students of these notions. I doubt, however, that any MFA professor with a sense of self-preservation would be in favor of such a thing, since it directly affects the value of his/her position. We aren't likely to find much transparency.

Fortunately, I think the system itself will peter out sooner or later. It's been booming in recent years, but I think in actuality this is a big bubble, and it's only a matter of time before it bursts. The jobs are already hard to come by.

Of course, this doesn't mean we shouldn't critique the system while it still exists. It seems that people who routinely get published think it's all fine and well. Anybody who points at the spectacle is "bitter." If I were sending stuff out and getting rejected, you'd have a point, but I'm busy teaching and writing music reviews at the moment, Johannes. I honestly have no stake of that sort in making my arguments.

What irks me is how the SoQ/post-avant debate is so clearly locked up in these issues that I mention, yet you and Mark (and probably many others) insist that I leave it alone. I wonder why this is? Is it because you publish books that could, very well, end up getting people jobs some day? Is it because you, like many others, seek a (tenure track) job in the MFA industry (do you have one yet? I'm not sure...)?

6:46 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You still have not offered an idea for where to go from here.

I happen to think that MFA programs could be very good - and in many instances they are - but that they need to be reformed - constantly. That's why I bother to write about it, no doubt causing many people to think I am bitter.

If my publishing Lara Glenum's books can get her a job in a Creative Writing program I think that would be great. Not only would it allow her to make a living (and continue making art) but it would put someone with interesting ideas about art and pedagogy into a position of guiding students into interesting engagements with poetry. I think that would be a good thing.

Unfortunately, most jobs are closed to people who write the way she does (or I do for that matter) or have interesting ideas about teaching and writing, so it doesn't matter that she has books or that she has an amazing teaching record.

I have always been very open about this: That I think the MFA structure is potentially good and that it's a matter of reforming it, making it more dynamic (and this is obviously true about all education, the PhD system is worse than the MFA system). I believe in writing programs, I just have a different belief about pedagogy and poetry than most people who run these programs (or programs about programs).

It is odd to me that you consistently portray yourself as a lone warrior against the illusion of Mark, Me and the Establishment. Mark has written extensively about these issues and you are in fact replying to my posts about these issues. If there is one thread that I have returned to over and over it is pedagogy and the state of MFA programs.

It is particularly odd since you consistently put forward conservative replies to my posts on this blog: time after time (whether it be about translation, avant-gardism or whatever) you trot out old conservative/cynical notions to attack my posts. Your very idea that MFA programs should disappear is in fact in line with this conservatism. In fact, your cynical bitterness makes you the perfect MFA grad for maintaining the status quo.

Bitter is not bad in and of itself. I much prefer bitterness to quiet complacency. However, I would like you to take a step back and think about some of these things and then put forward some ideas about what you would like to see happen. For no other reason than that it might lead to more interesting discussions.

Just saying that the MFA will just die is a punt.

It's very nice that you're writing music reviews but clearly you care very much about poetry: otherwise why do you post more entries on my blog than I myself do? It's impossible to miss your anger in these posts. Again, I don't think that's bad. I just want you to do more than express anger.

BTW, I don't have a tenure track job, but that would certainly be nice. I really love teaching and it allows for a kind of intellectual stimulation that I find good for my brain. Before I went back to get my PhD I worked a blue collar job for a couple of years and wrote basically nothing.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, but all these points are still economic ones, not aesthetic ones. That remains a valid criticism of this discussion. Everyone wants to get a job, surely. But what has that to do with poetry? Except as a means to an end, not one damn thing.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I thought I was pretty clear in my last comment about what I think should happen. That what I think should happen is not likely to happen does not mean I didn't offer a suggestion about where to go from here.

Saying that the MFA will die is not a punt, Johannes. It's a prediction. Is it not clear to you that the number of open available professorships continues to dwindle, proportionally speaking, even as the MFA industry expands? This economic reality speaks to the distinct possibility of the bubble bursting some time or another. Unless, of course, I've got an unduly exaggerated notion of the proportion of MFA candidates who attend programs because they seek employment in creative writing departments. That could be the case. Maybe there are way more people getting into it solely to focus on their writing than I think there are.

I agree that there is some value to MFA programs, but I think all that value is for the students. I think MFA programs can be a great way to foster/nurture all kinds of art (whether we're talking writing, or visual art, or whatever else). My problem is with the university track that writing, in particular, seems to be on. For example, you don't see nearly as many painters who say to themselves, "Man, after I'm done with this MFA, I really want to get a professorship." It seems that the other MFA fields aren't nearly as vortex-like, sucking the focus of their fields into the university bubble. My big problem with creative writing programs is that this seems to be precisely what happens. Everybody is looking to get into an MFA program, and then stay in the university system for good as professors (and many of them will stay in even as non-professors ... doing assorted slavework like adjuncting, lecturing, and instructing).

I don't think this is a very good direction for the writing culture to be heading.

10:41 PM  

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