No, I’m Not Talking About Conceptual Poetry
Sep 13, 2013
4 Min read time
I try to read everything, and I've tried to read everything. I’m not sure that phrase means anything, “I try to read everything,” but I am sure it becomes increasingly meaningless, if meaninglessness can be said to increase. Oh, but of course it can—meaninglessness, like anything else, is subject to economic imperatives, and the concept loses some essential shade of, well, meaning if it’s not spoken of or to or near with terms that at least suggest the presence of those imperatives.
So, anyway, I try and have tried to read everything, but I’m no good at reading, which means I’m hopelessly behind my smarter friends (“smarter” as intensifying the class “friends,” not limiting it), which means mostly I watch, awed. And I’ve watched long enough—or maybe it would be more accurate to say I’ve stared confused in the right direction, occasionally distracted by birds, long enough—that I think maybe I’ve noticed a few things. The big-picture thing I’ve noticed is that my friends are mostly lefties, mostly writers (mostly poets, if the distinction must be made), and mostly, with varying degrees of clarity, against capitalism. I am mostly, with varying degrees of clarity, all those things myself.
But I worry about my friends and me. It’s not that I don’t think we go far enough in our efforts—be they public or private—to fight, or at least poke irritatingly at, or at least usefully expose the workings of, capitalism. It’s that I think we don’t know how to fight it. Yes, I’m talking about conceptual poetry.
No, I’m not talking about conceptual poetry as a thing in itself, but as an example—a manifestation—of a particular impulse. Here’s what I’m really talking about:
At this point in history, capitalism is more a symptom than a disease, but it is a symptom of a disease that was itself originally created by capitalism. The disease is—it has become—us. Or, more specifically, the disease is, collectively, the various ways our minds operate in reaction to capitalism’s impetus, which most of us surely felt before we felt any sense of selfness that we could recognize. The disease was in our brains before we were. And I worry that our attempts to critique and combat the power structures fed by late capitalism reflect, and therefore reify, and even strengthen, the very power structures in opposition to which they explicitly or implicitly position themselves. Such projects are, I think, self-defeating because they arise from the kinds of thinking produced by the power structures they seek to combat, and ultimately manifest as symptoms fighting symptoms. But we must fight, yes? Yes.
I don’t see a way around this problem. But I look for a way around this problem—and you will notice right away that this arises out of my “I try to read everything” b.s./nonsense—in books written before capitalism became what it is now. I do this because the people who wrote back then weren’t infected and infecting in the same way we are (they had their own ways, of course—sexism, racism, otherthingsisms, among other things—and one must read carefully). And I should clarify: I’m not looking for strategies of confrontation or combat, I’m looking for ways—patterns, or, better, grooves of thinking—according to which I hope to adjust my own thinking. And when I am changed, as I hope to be, I believe I will be better-equipped to at least think about fighting capitalism. It’s true, in this instance it is fundamentally true—before we can make change, we must be changed. Because C.R.E.A.M.
And because, as (someone who tries more or less fumblingly to be) a poet, I’m in a privileged position. I’m in a lot of privileged positions, actually—in many instances, thanks to capitalism. And I’m in a privileged position as a poet thanks to capitalism. You’ve heard this one before, right? Well, that don’t make it less true. Never—except maybe in ancient Greece—has poetry been more important culturally (and politically and economically). Poetry is everywhere, and is one of the most powerful forces in the lives of many millions of people. Some days—I really mean this—some days I just get so jazzed thinking about hip-hop, thinking about this whole culture that celebrates writing and writers. Those who do it and those who love it really care how well the verses they write and enjoy are written. Damn, poets, how are we not stupid giddy about hip-hop every day? We are privileged to live in hip-hop’s moment; hip-hop raises us up.
So, anyway, I’m in this privileged position thanks to capitalism, and I’m trying to find a way out of my own head—not through the drugs or the drink, but through, right now, Percy Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry.” And I feel anxious about it because “A Defence of Poetry” is, like, 200 years old, and I’ve noticed—and, friends, haven’t you noticed this, too?—that the compulsion toward the new is especially powerful among thinkers, especially thinkers in the humanities, double especially among poets, so many of whom love their theorists. And this situation is bizarre and even, if I’m being honest with myself, a little repulsive to me because the compulsion toward the new—as Westerners, at least, experience it today—in all its forms, is a signature triumph, and one of the necessary engines, of capitalism. And me and my socialist friends are compelled toward the new so hard.
But we poets, we gotta do this work. One way or another, my way or yours (probably yours is better), we have to find ways to think with new and different heads and bodies and words. It does no good, no good, really, from where we’re at right now, to send up, even to expose, capitalism in a new way because all that means is you’re changing the music—you’re still dancing with capitalism. Sure, it’s funny sometimes, but a lot of things are funny. And we pay for them all.
Photograph: Clever Cupcakes
September 13, 2013
4 Min read time