Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Difficult Poems"

Just in time for my aside about Spring break and "difficult poems" comes the new "The Writer's Chronicle" with the most inane article I've read in a long time, Charles Harper Webb's "The Poem as Fitness Display." Webb uses a metaphor (though he suggests that perhaps it's more than a metaphor!) that poetry displays evolutionary fitness - ie you write a good poem and that makes mates want to reproduce with you (to make the argument brief). Not sure how Frank O'Hara fits into that equation.

To show yourself as evolutionarily fit, you have to be moderately difficult - difficult enough to be admired but not so difficult nobody can understand you. He goes on to make some pretty pedantic arguments about this difficulty.

But of course - like most poetry articles published in The Writer Chronicle it seems - the article ends up being an attack on language poetry. (Seems this is true of everything I read in this journal. It may start out as an article about fishing or writing about gramma, but sure enough it always comes back to a critique of langpo - please!)

He makes a distinction between elite and folk art: "Elites... often try to distinguish themselves from the common run of humanity by replacing natural human tastes with artfully contrived preferences... [by which they] can display their intelligence, learning ability, and sensitivity to emerging cultural norms."

Here, the article gets really weird. Somehow evolution has "prepared" people to "admire and enjoy" WS Merwin's poem (which I don't get at all), but not to "admire and enjoy" langpo and other "elite poetries."

Why, you may wonder, do so many people enjoy this poetry then?

Well, for one thing they flourish in academia (as opposed to Webb himself, who happens to be a professor). Secondly many poets like to write difficult poems because the difficulty "erects a screen between writer and audience, protecting the writer from self-revelation." But most importantly, it allows writers to feel superior to "the mob." As a result, these academic types (not Webb) can use their hocus-pocus to advance their standing in academica (which frankly seems like a very evolutionary fit thing to do!).

Also: "Self-delusion also enters the mix. Most difficult bad poets thing they're good poets. They may even think they are accessible."

And: "When it comes to writing very difficult poems, though, no group surpasses the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets." Because: they ask the readers to do work, to create the poem out of nothing. This is apparently very difficult to do.

Another problem with langpo: It's difficult to judge. How can we tell that it's a good or bad poem? The horror!

The judge he posits is a "general reader" - who is ""an adult, somewhat above average in intelligence, literate but not literary specialist, and the possessor of natural human taste." This person, Webb speculates, probably enjoys Garrison Keiler and Billy Collins.

I'm glad to say that my tastes are totally "unnatural." (and so it seems are most people in the world!)

Anyway, this article pretty obviously ridiculous. My main point in bringing this up is ... What the hell is wrong with this journal? Stop publishing these inane articles. If you want to offer a critique of langpo, there are lots of intelligent ways of doing it - just like there are intelligent ways of discussing any number of different kinds of poetry. Writing something is "unnatural " or "too"-anything is the hallmarks of people unable or unwilling to actually engage with the poetry.

Most people who red this blog will probably say: Yes, Johannes, this is inane, but why do you waste your/our time writing about this nonsense? Because people like this are teaching students all across the country. And everyone in a CW program gets a copy of this journal. It is powerful in that sense.

"Teaching" here meaning "weeding out "unnatural" people, pushing them out of poetry. We don't need teachers who make rules, but who encourage students to explore.

And: I object to people using the word "difficult" because so much poetry that is considered "difficult" I don't find difficult (Ron S. for example), and so much that is supposedly "natural" I can't get (Jane Kenyon etc).

The concept of the general reader is of course deeply problematic; the "natural" general reader, even more so. For me the (un)general reader of poetry is an immigrant teenager who wants art to be interesting and strange, not merely something h/she can judge as good/bad based on an "evolutionary" standard.


Blogger Max said...

I read this article last week while up on campus with nothing to do, and had pretty much the same reaction. As little regard as I've had for the Writer's Chronicle in the past, publishing something like that is just embarrassing.

As far as the interpretive priesthood is concerned, I've always found the opposite of what he says to be true, anyway. It seems to me that academia is rather full of people who revere the "great" poets who make up the large mass of poetic output that is not avant-garde. I always find it funny how traditionalists or otherwise anti-avant-garde people have this massive persecution complex, even though the predominance of the poetry they like is evidence of how much the establishment is stacked in their favor. It seems to me that experimental writers tend to be more accepting of the fact that many types of writing exist, if only because experimentation is made possible by the very existence of a tradition or an establishment. This doesn't mean that experimental writers love all writing equally, but I certainly don't find many of them arguing for literary eugenics, which is essentially what this idiot argues in his article (with his "evolution" metaphor and all that).

This persecution complex is just silly, and the whole idea of academia openly embracing experimental writing and rejecting establishment literature is a ridiculous strawman. And thing is that this guy knows better, because he works in academia. He knows that half the shit he's saying is a mischaracterization. But you know, he's got to get his article published in the Writer's Chronicle, and he knows that none of choir who make up its readership are likely to question his reasoning, so...

9:55 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

You're right. What pisses me off the most is this idea that if you don't write "quietist" (it's really not traditional, for me traditional is Melville, Poe etc)you have to go out of your way to be "even-handed", while if you are a guy like this you're allowed to be totally close-minded.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well what sickens me is how people who know damned well the pitfalls of essentialism seem to have taken on this willfully ignorant belief system about the "nature" of poetry and of what types of poetry people "naturally" like. It's as though, because the prospect of there being no "nature" to poetry diminishes and disallows them from hanging onto their old-timey theories about where poetry comes from and what poetry should do, they've taken on these ideas instead as a religion. And then they have the gall to talk about an avant-garde priesthood. Who are the ones coming up with all of these pronouncements about the essential "nature" of poetry? It's not the avant-gardists, that's for sure. But these "priests" are all in with the avant-garde? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

To believe in essentialism is excusable 50 or 60 years ago. To buy into it now, especially if you've heard the arguments against it, is just absurd. But many academic careers in literature are founded on the notion that there are solid underpinnings to the "good" and the "bad," the "successful" and the "unsuccessful," something that separates them other than the arbitrary fanfare and subsequent theorizing of intellectuals. Compensation, in the form of salaries, grants, publications, etc. is on the table. And so I guess it's not surprising to see that there are still people engaging in this sort of intellectual alchemy.

What I find funny, though, is how this guy's argument positions academics as the great enemy. Because as snooty and arcane as academics can get from time to time, it seems to me that it's far easier to be snooty about a subject whose "nature" can be pinned down and convincingly argued within an essentialist framework. The image he presents is of the literature professor citing all sorts of arcane critical theory, pronouncements going unchallenged as a result of everyone else's ignorance. But I'm honestly not sure how such a person passes this off in a community of intelligent people. Either academia is packed with such professors, who simply promote one another on their ability to bullshit about critical theory (which, if you take a stroll through the average English department, will be shown untrue), or this guy is surrounded by people who think pretty much the same as he does, and he has a persecution complex. Methinks it's the latter. And in any case, it's just pathetic.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

They must have horrible editors to allow something like this to be published. I was really horrified when I read this a few days ago. He not only gets the history of poetry wrong, but he gets Darwin wrong too!

6:24 PM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

oh yes. You should read his poem about Santa Claus dying of a heart attack:

6:38 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I am empty of the precious moments necessary to get a poem published, it seems.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...


You can always write about the tooth fairy having a stroke, or what about the the easter bunny dying of testicular cancer?


7:01 AM  
Blogger CLAY BANES said...

Inanity's apt. To relish goading: please join arms. Bores me!

7:32 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Cancer? Fuck poetry. I'll write a screenplay and win myself an Oscar.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...


Come on. There's a heart attack santa poem in every writer---you just need to be brave enough to fish it out from the depths of your soul and allow that baby to shine on the page.


8:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I agree. With everything.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think the new wave of precious poetry will involve recurring themes of Norse gods and sex change surgeries.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

I think that "Norse God with Sex Change Surgery" moves us right into Flarf. Kasey?

11:06 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Hmm, okay. How about a precious poem about Ronald Reagan getting a postmortem sex change? There's something of a "mourned loss" there, right?

11:23 AM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

I think anything to do with Ronald Reagan exemplifies the idea that some losses are not worth mourning.

But if you want to give him a postmortem sex change, Max, I think it's a gain rather than a loss...

11:50 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, I thought we were writing poems that would cause conservatives to weep, not ourselves. That's what the Santa poem was doing, wasn't it?

12:08 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I haven't read the article, but Webb's poetry is actually fairly flarfy. As for how O'Hara fits in Webb's idea of "fitness," see O'Hara's remark on the subject (form): "if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you."

4:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's a good point about O'Hara because that does seem to be Webb's argument. Plus evolution.

Also, could it be that this article is a kind of hoax and we've been had?

5:54 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I thought about the article as a hoax for a second, but then I remembered that I was reading the Writer's Chronicle, looked up a few of the guy's poems, and realized that, nope, this guy believes every word he's written.

As an act of egotism, the article might be considered fairly ballsy, since all it really does is describe this dude's own writing to a T. But the photo of him + really bad/strained references to popular music destroy that illusion, I think. I was really, really waiting for the twist at the end of the article, in which he would undermine all the absurdity he'd just let loose, but it never came. And I almost cried.

I almost cried.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

I am crying right now.

11:31 AM  

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