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“What happens when everyone is a poet?” asked Marjorie Perloff at the start of her controversial essay, “Poetry on the Brink.” Citing a recent lecture by renowned critic Jed Rasula, Perloff argued that “the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety.” In the following exchange, conducted via email between November 2011 and May 2012, Rasula and Mike Chasar, author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, take a closer look at the notion—so prevalent in discussions of contemporary poetry—that more Americans are writing poetry today than ever before. How true are the rumors of poetry’s newfound popularity? How might this popularity affect, or reflect, the way poetry is conceived of and consumed by the culture at large?
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Jed Rasula: Yesterday Ron Silliman was here, visiting my classes and giving a reading, and he mentioned the figure of 20,000 poets actively publishing in the United States. This figure presumably excludes those coasting on vanity presses, etc. (though who’s to tell, these days?). Ron also mentioned he gets a thousand books a year sent to him, gratis, just for the potential notice in his blog I assume. So how do we deal with this glut? Is it “glut,” in fact? And how do such figures stack up against two profiles: 1. “Official Verse Culture,” Charles Bernstein’s now-infamous term for mainstream poetry publishing and reviewing practices; and 2. the cornucopia of the demotic, as you so assiduously track it?
Mike Chasar: Ron isn’t the only one using more than fingers and toes to count up poets and poems recently. In “The New Math of Poetry,” David Alpaugh estimates that every year more than 100,000 poems are published in online and print journals. Seth Abramson has calculated that MFA programs graduated 20,000 poets in the last decade alone. And in his Harriet blog posting “It’s Too Much,” Stephen Burt writes, “I think I can keep up with [poetry] books, more or less, which are countable, finite sets of things . . . but if the proliferating, ramifying, exciting discourse about poetry now takes place in a million web journals, at all hours of the day and night, I’m not sure I can keep up with them.” And “if I can’t keep up,” continues Burt, citing his stable job, leisure time, and professional obligations, “who can?”
I agree with the upward trend in people’s accounting, though I think that, large as their figures seem, they’re actually quite conservative, and far more people are writing, reading, or hearing poetry than we’d expect. (I don’t have exact figures for how many people saw the moving recitation of Whitman’s “I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” on Season 3, Episode 6 of AMC’s Breaking Bad, for example, but it’s a lot.) But this is hardly a new phenomenon; to some people seventy-five or a hundred years ago—when poetry was appearing regularly in magazines and newspapers, and was being broadcast on national radio shows devoted exclusively to poetry and appearing on business cards, postcards, pin-up girly posters, billboards, and even souvenir pillows—it felt like there was a similar sort of poetry glut as there is now. You yourself have noted that, in 1911, Davenport, Iowa, lawyer and poet Arthur Davison Ficke wrote, “Just now there appear to be more writers of verse than there have been at any time in the history of literature.” [Ed note: Ficke's essay, “The Present State of Poetry” is in Vol. 194 (1911) of the North American Review.] Fifteen years later, Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow wrote in the American Mercury that her state’s literary culture “is snatched at by everybody—farmer boys, dentists, telegraph editors in small towns, students, undertakers, insurance agents and nobodies.” The first edition of Granger’s Index to Poetry appeared in 1904 and contained 30,000 listings of poems appearing just in books and anthologies; the second (1918) edition of Granger’s grew to 50,000 listings, and its third (1940) to 75,000. Its 1940 subtitle alone (A Practical Reference Book for Librarians, Teachers, Booksellers, Elocutionists, Radio Artists, Etc.) suggests a much more active—and demotic—poetry-reading culture than we typically associate with the age of High Modernism.
But as much as these examples are suggestive, perhaps my favorite is the one Heidi Bean and I use in our introduction to Poetry after Cultural Studies—and that’s the case of the Auxiliary Poetry File constructed by librarians at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio. In the early 1900s, right after Granger’s appeared, the librarians realized that Granger’s was only indexing poems printed in books, not in local and daily newspapers and magazines, so they started their own, supplemental index, making three-by-five-inch index card entries for the poems they selected and then filing them by author, title, and first line. Whenever possible—which was about 40 percent of the time—they actually cut out poems from their source publications and pasted the verse to the back of the appropriate card. By midcentury, their index alone had 60,000 cards in it!
So I agree there’s an astonishing amount of poetry in circulation, and it’s partly astonishing because the high numbers don’t square with the various “death of poetry” arguments that get rehearsed every other decade or so. That said, I think there’s been a poetry glut for a long time and that at certain times—probably during periods when people are gaining more access to new media or communication technologies, just as they were when Ficke and Suckow were writing, and just as they are now—it comes into view more strikingly than at others. My gut reaction (you could maybe call it my glut reaction) is to say that questions like “Is it a glut?” or “Is it a problem?” aren’t nearly as interesting as questions like “Who is it a problem for?” and “Why do those people think it’s a problem?” For critics like Burt, it’s a problem because it challenges what it means to be an “expert” in American poetry. Whenever someone’s status as expert is predicated on knowing everything—all the good poems (i.e., a canon), what everyone is saying, etc.—a glut is going to be a problem because, as Burt puts it, “I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything,” and thus the governing paradigm for what it means to be a poetry expert is put into crisis; how can you be an arbiter of taste if you can’t read everything to pass judgment on it? Insofar as the centrality of Official Verse Culture is affected by a period of glut—where there is no longer an official center—then Official Verse Culture has a stake in the matter.
A glut is problematic for anyone who benefits from an economy of scarcity.
At the same time, so does the avant-garde (a profile you didn’t mention in your question above), since terms of distinction and debate like “Official Verse Culture” and “avant-garde” or “School of Quietude” and “post-Language” are incapable of describing the nature of the glut, which appears to have no inside for the outsider to react to, and no outside to shock the inside; there are more types of poetry than any binary (raw or cooked, high or low, etc.) can fully account for. Finally, a glut is problematic for anyone who benefits from an economy of scarcity—or a perceived economy of scarcity—because that person’s status, prestige, or perceived self importance, is suddenly devalued by the glut, which goes by the name of “surplus” in other conversations. That’s the point at which governments start burning crops and paying farmers to let their land lie fallow.
For me, the glut isn’t a glut so much as a fundamental condition of poetry in the long twentieth century, a period when—thanks in part to the emergence and maturation of the culture industries, the development of mass media as well as personal communication technologies, and the expansion of consumer capitalism and the consumer marketplace—more poetry was written, distributed, circulated, and consumed than at any other time in history. Realizing that means reassessing our histories of American poetry, the maps and guidebooks we produce about it, and the way it gets measured and recorded. I’d expect that, for someone like you—who lived through, studied, and participated in the canon expansion of the 1970s and 1980s—some of this would sound familiar. Does it?
JR: The canon expansion as you call it was only fitfully demographic in the ways your mind-boggling statistics suggest. On one side there’s sheer mass, in which “poetry” means anything with line breaks—and then some. The other side is dominated by various versions of Pound’s Sagetrieb, or cultural force, high and abiding. Anything goes versus quality control, you could say. But then here’s where it gets sticky. The canon expansion was predicated on the recognition that “quality control” applied only to a small cadre of certain types, white men mainly, Ivy League educated for the most part (even Robert Bly, who otherwise made his reputation as a principled outsider).
Looking back, it’s clear that the famed “anthology wars” of the 1960s set in motion various kinds of expansion. At one level, it was relatively conservative, in that the incursions of the Donald Allen crowd mainly added more male contenders: Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery in particular, along with the older Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. It’s revealing, however, to look back at anthologies from the Sixties even into the Seventies that tried to pretend these guys weren’t serious options: it tells you a lot about the even longer odds of adding women. In the end, though, the real force of the New American group had to do with the counterculture in general, and the clutch of progressive social movements that made the counter politically effective. The deployment of poems in the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the black power movement, prisoners’ rights, gay rights, education reform, and more was pervasive; and, until the political gains were enfranchised (slowly and unevenly), all this poetry can be described as for use rather than for consideration—this latter term meant to suggest something like the Oscars, since that’s how the consumption of poetry was manifested at that time. A world of poetry, avidly consumed and circulated on the one hand, and a “poetry world” on the other hand, an industry unto itself, with its anthologies, prizes, fellowships, endorsements.
Calling it an industry rather than an institution draws attention to its public profile, but I wonder whether it’s gone the way of the rust belt economy in general? Certainly the institution(s) chugs on, more adaptively expansive, so it’s shed the sense of being a protective phalanx of privilege. And yet, I’m sure to lots of younger people it would seem that even C.D. Wright, Nate Mackey, and Rae Armantrout signify “establishment” as much as the old boys’ clan (e.g. John Hollander, Mark Strand, Richard Howard). One thing for sure is that the vast domain of “for use” poetry is still a world apart from institutional viewfinders, which raises the question: do the institutions of poetry (to give a collective name to everything from AWP to the Poetry Foundation to the Academy of American Poets—maybe even Small Press Distribution) have any relevance to “poetry” in the expansively heterogeneous and ultimately democratic sense?
MC: I agree that, broadly speaking, the culture of popular poetry is still a world apart from most institutional viewfinders, and it’s important to remember that many of those viewfinders aren’t very old. The Poetry Society of America was founded in 1910. Pound and Harriet Monroe fought over who should win Poetry’s first Guarantor’s Prize in 1913, when Pound lobbied (successfully) for William Butler Yeats’s “The Grey Rock” over Monroe’s favorite, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” by the more populist Vachel Lindsay. The Pulitzer was first awarded for poetry in 1922. The Academy of American Poets formed in 1934, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936. The Poet Laureateship was more or less established in 1937. And what Joseph Harrington has called the “poetry wars”—in which the high/low distinction was a major front—took place in the 1930s.
Do the institutions of poetry have any relevance?
I think the formation of this modern literary economy emerged partly as a way to replace and deal with the prominence of the popular Fireside Poets and the “crisis” that their deaths and poetic models precipitated in some spheres of U.S. poetry. And its lasting influence, in which there have been generational changes in emphasis (i.e., Stephen Vincent Benet to John Hollander to Rae Armantrout), but not paradigmatic ones, is one reason why Modernist studies are so relevant to studies of contemporary poetry. The effects of that period’s discourse—which pushed popular poetry out of institutional viewfinders even as popular verse persisted “for use” in many other institutions and other spheres of American culture (cf. work by Cary Nelson, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Maria Damon, among others) is difficult to understate. Many books are waiting to be written on these and related topics, such as a critical history of the Laureateship; a history (or exposé, perhaps) of poetry contests and their politics and economics; and a study of poetry and public libraries that would have to be rooted in the 1,689 Carnegie libraries built in the U.S. between 1883 and 1929 just as the long twentieth century’s dominant poetic institutions were taking shape. I could go on, but you get the idea.
That said, assessing the relationship between institutional and popular or “for use” poetries is difficult. The question you pose—do the institutions of poetry have any relevance . . . to “poetry” in the expansively heterogeneous and ultimately democratic sense?—is enormous because poetry is put to so many different uses and because so many interfaces or middle men facilitate relationships between institutions and what we might imagine as “uncredentialed” readers, especially now that the Web gives people access to large online libraries and many more people attend college than fifty or a hundred years ago. Are we talking about the possible relationship, for example, between those institutions and the trained writers of AMC’s Mad Men who had their lead character, advertising executive Don Draper, reading Frank O’Hara in a couple of episodes? Or about the recent television ads for Levi’s, Nike, and Chrysler that were designed by the Portland-based advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy and that incorporate poems by Walt Whitman, Charles Bukowski, Maya Angelou, and Edgar Guest? Or are we talking about socially, culturally, or politically marginalized and disenfranchised people reading and writing poetry much farther from poetry’s institutions (what Audre Lorde called “poetry as illumination” and “the skeleton architecture of our lives”)? Or high school poetry slams and “Poetry Out Loud” competitions? Or are we just talking about my mother-in-law who at one point clipped out several Edgar Guest poems from the newspaper and saved them because they reminded her of her son?
I’m not trying to avoid your question. The relationship between institutional power structures and the demotic, or between the supply side and consumer side, is fascinating and complicated, and I find Michel de Certeau’s description of the nomadic or “poaching” reader in The Practice of Everyday Life to be helpful when thinking about it. For de Certeau, in order to make their lives “habitable,” readers and writers who lack “a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional location)”—which I want to read here as a location in poetry’s institutions—use or repurpose institutionally sanctioned texts in unexpected and creative ways. They find them, they use them as raw materials, and they transform them sometimes very deliberately in the process.
Consider, for example, a couple of pages from a poetry scrapbook that I refer to in Chapter One of Everyday Reading (see image below). This album was assembled in the late 1920s or early 1930s by Doris Ashley, an aspiring writer and unmarried sawyer’s daughter in her late 20s living in Massachusetts, and on these pages she pieces together six poems cut out of newspapers or re-typed by hand—two poems by popular poets Frank Stanton (“A Rain Song”) and Helen Welshimer (“And So Are You”) and four by “modernist” writers that I’m certain were copied from Louis Untermeyer’s third revised edition of Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology (1925), including H.D.’s “Oread” and Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” This is what supply-side cultural reform theorists would have hoped to see, as Ashley’s “taste” is clearly being improved by having access to the institutions of good poetry (here represented by Untermeyer’s anthology), right? Well, not exactly. In combining these poems, Ashley is picking up on their repeated tree motif (Millay’s “Pear Tree,” H.D.’s “firs,” Campbell’s “maple tree,” and Pound’s “wet, black bough”) and using that motif and its associated springtime connotations to surround an article on H.L. Mencken’s late-life marriage to women’s activist and writer Sara Haardt—no doubt a marriage that the unmarried and aspiring writer Ashley was thinking about as a model for her own life. Her logic in combining the poems is unassailable even though she’s treating for consideration poems as for use poems and reading in a way that would have probably frustrated Pound. From my perspective, then, it isn’t the poetry that’s transforming her so much as she’s transforming it. That is, Pound (or the institution) isn’t turning her into a different type of reader; in a sense, it’s more like the other way around—Ashley is turning “In a Station of the Metro” into a popular poem!
Page spread from from Doris Ashley’s scrapbook, circa 1930. Personal collection of Mike Chasar.
So there is a relationship between the institution that produced Untermeyer’s anthology, on the one hand, and the expansive, heterogeneous world of for use poetry represented by Ashley’s scrapbook on the other. But this is only one example, and the nature of that relationship—between the “spatial or institutional location” and what de Certeau calls the reader who is “migrating and devouring [his or her] way through the pastures of the media”—was one of the major impulses for me in writing Everyday Reading. That said, I shudder when I think of the challenges of tracking these types of activities or relationships in today’s world of online and social media, even though the base practice of publishing, circulating, cutting, pasting, and repurposing may not be all that different.
JR: The role of the critic, as the word in Greek means, is to judge. The critical validation of vernacular uses of art is a belated and much needed corrective to the metropolitan intellectual vandalism that has often passed for criticism, but doesn’t it also risk abandoning the critical role altogether? Are all privatized scrapbook memorabilia of poetry consumption equal? (Your example of Doris Ashley suggests that her discovery of Pound and H.D. somehow lifts her above mundane peers.) Let me offer a grim parallel from the art world. The most famous and best-selling artist in the history of the world is apparently Thomas Kincade, which means there are literally millions of “users” out there whose homes are graced with his creepy Hobbit cottages lit by kitsch tonalism. Obviously there’s a thriving commercial enterprise that drives this consumption, but Kincade started as a vernacular special-niche artist: he certainly didn’t deviate from a prospective career in Manhattan galleries. However you spin the tale of volition at the level of consumption, the taste that has made Kincade rich is surely applicable in its own diminutive way to the “poetry” (forgive the scare quotes, which are meant to highlight the point) that washes up in sanctuaries of private use, whether scrapbook or blog or community paper.
It’s hard to imagine a practice of writing long poems sustained by the ad hoc appetite of the everyday.
While I’m sympathetic to your faith in the Situationist dérive, or what you call re-purposing—as well as your commitment to “uncredentialed” readers—I have to wonder where that leaves the work of poets committed to another scale that would seem far removed from being recognized, let alone used, in the “everyday” valorized by de Certeau. And I have in mind here a body of work written by poets committed to these very values. In other words, where does your account leave The Iovis Trilogy by Anne Waldman, or The Alphabet by Ron Silliman (both more than a thousand pages), or even the long if not supersized works by Alice Notley, or Lyn Hejinian? These are poetic events, really, not just collections of poems from which the motivated reader might excerpt a bezel of wisdom or a consoling moment.
A poet writing a long poem tends to be hyper-aware of the legacy of long poems, a legacy that cultivates the practice. It’s hard to imagine such a practice sustained by the ad hoc appetite of the everyday, which is responsive instead to a more streamlined criterion of use. This raises a pertinent distinction between the transitive and the intransitive in the arts. The body of poetry amenable to notebook clippings is unambiguously transitive: I clip this poem because it’s (a) meaningful to me right now, (b) beautiful or moving, (c) fits into the thematic or emotional design of my personal compilation. But A Border Comedy by Hejinian, say, is intransitive. It resists application—although one could say that its applicability applies on another scale altogether: slow simmering. This perspective of course is familiar from Adorno, who regarded the flagrant uselessness of artworks as a mote in the eye of global capitalism, which is constitutionally blind to any value that’s not “for use.” One way to think of poetry and literature, then, as institutions, is in terms of this balance between use and uselessness. An anecdote from a recent New Yorker (Oct. 3, 2011, p. 39) spells out the difference. The founder of Lexicon, a firm specializing in developing product names (one of which was Blackberry), discovered the futility of telling clients “Hey, what we’re creating here is a small poem”: “you can see people sort of get concerned,” he observes. “Like, ‘This isn’t really about art here. This is about getting things done’.” (As I’m sure you know, Marianne Moore was approached by Ford in 1957 to come up with a name for the car that ended up as the Edsel, after Ford’s son, passing up the poet’s suggestions like Utopian Turtletop, Mongoose Civique, and Pastelogram—an instance of going from bad to verse, in a pun Ron Silliman keeps recharging throughout The Alphabet.) As this anecdote suggests, the distinction between transitive and intransitive isn’t fixed, and that which is anathema to marketplace mentality at one time may become iconic later on—think of the Beats!
MC: Since you brought him up, and since he might be the best parallel we have to the phenomenon if not force of nature that the unstudied poet Edgar Guest was in the first half of the century (among other things, Guest wrote a nationally-syndicated poem every day for thirty years for the Detroit Free Press newspaper, was known as the “people’s poet,” and was probably the most widely-published poet of the century), Kinkade might serve as a good point of illumination. If the hermeneutic I apply to Ashley’s album doesn’t reveal anything about Kinkade’s fans or users—and who’s to say it wouldn’t, as we haven’t done the research that would tell us one way or another how and why those hobbit houses have been so appealing and used—then that doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying him in other ways. In fact, given the ubiquity of his art, we’d probably be remiss not to; to not study him (or the phenomenon that has become “Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light”) would be like saying we’re going to seriously assess the nature of twentieth-century food consumption but then limit ourselves to five-star French restaurants without any reference to the economic, cultural, nutritional, and commercial impact of McDonald’s. If we don’t have data on how and why people have “used” the Happy Meal of Kinkade as they’ve done, then certainly—and especially now that cultural studies has been thoroughly mainstreamed—we have the resources to find other ways of assessing and judging him as a hobbit-cottage industry based in an appeal to, manufacture of, and probable circumscription of vernacular tastes. There is probably a very informative dynamic at play in Kinkade’s prints that may have less to do with the kitschy tonalism of the art per se than with how that tonalism effectively mediates between ideological, commercial, religious, and consumer interests. (Kinkade bills himself as an explicitly Christian artist.) As Stuart Hall has explained, “Alongside the false appeals, the foreshortenings, the trivialisation and shortcircuits” of mass cultural products, “there are also elements of recognition and identification, something approaching a recreation of recognisable experiences and attitudes, to which people are responding.” If Kinkade doesn’t yield to one analytical rubric, that’s not his problem; it’s ours. And if we want our scholarship to be engaged—according to Wikipedia, “one in twenty homes in the U.S. feature some form” of his art—then we need to come up with another rubric or set of rubrics for it to be so. Simply dismissing him and his users, which I know you’re not advocating, is not good enough unless we’re content with letting “Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light” do its cultural, religious, and ideological work unremarked and unobserved.
In using Ashley—and her inclusion of Pound, which, in some people’s eyes, would lift her above her peers—as an example, I’m using her strategically, hoping by way of her proximity to “legitimate” culture to gain a hearing and provide a gateway for other scholars beyond high/low binaries and into the complex and compelling world of popular poetry more broadly. It’s bait, right? I could just as easily have cited another scrapbook, one that I pair with Ashley’s in the beginning chapter of Everyday Reading and that was assembled by someone who was far more distant from literary institutions than Ashley was, but that album would have had far less appeal in today’s world of poetry criticism. That collection is meant to show how not all privatized scrapbook memorabilia are equal to each other; they’re different from one another, for sure, but each might be complex in different ways. I don’t think that I, or anyone else at the moment, knows enough about the culture of popular poetry to begin making definitive judgments about it (or, heaven forbid, creating a “canon”) even though we can, and must, make particular judgments as we go forward as the scholars who most specialize in language use. I think Wieden + Kennedy’s citation of Angelou’s “I Rise” in the appealing and spectacularly produced LeBron James Nike ad is a reprehensible co-optation, for example—far worse than Rick Santorum’s 2011 attempt to hijack Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again” as a slogan for Santorum’s presidential campaign. The engaged critic is responsible for saying so, be it in regard to “high art” (not all of which is on the side of the angel) or the mass and the popular (not all of which is ideological).
Use is not a bad thing: the moral or ethical component depends on what use things are put to.
I think it’s also important to remember that not everything that is “useful” is instrumentalized in the way that the marketplace instrumentalizes things, and not all things that are fetishized are fetishized as capitalism fetishes them. For instance, when I send you a Thomas Kinkade print for your birthday this coming year—and when you then hang it on your office wall—we are certainly using it but hardly, I think, instrumentalizing it; rather, we are packing it with additional meanings and embedding it in exchange and value economies in which capital is not paramount and that may intersect with a capitalist value economy but hardly replicate or reduce to it. The print is thus fetishized not because of its abstraction from social relations, as Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism would have it, but because of its proximity to social relations. The same thing possibly goes for the poems that Doris Ashley saved and likely exchanged with other readers. (Other scrapbookers recorded in their albums whom they got poems from and how.) Use is not a bad thing: the moral or ethical component depends on what use things are put to.
Many elements of popular or vernacular culture value the uselessness, apparent uselessness, or non-instrumentality of things—poems, puns, wordplay, ornaments, gifts, linguistic and artistic performances, recreational play, and evasions of work of all sorts—and so it might be interesting to talk about continuities between these things and the long, deliberately useless motes in the eye of capitalism that you mention. Personally, though, I don’t have a lot of patience for the types of long texts you mention, so I’m not the best person to ask. Maybe it’s the residual working class in me that finds them a bit silly (read “useless,” I suppose); or maybe I’m a corrupted child of the MTV age with a short attention span; or maybe I already have enough to simmer about without having to simmer in those projects; or maybe I’d just rather write a poem to my grandmother—I don’t know. That said, I don’t see any reason why a study of those long poems can’t happen in the same disciplinary field as a study of popular ones and I’m always surprised at the implication that they can’t coexist, or that the field can’t be capacious enough for it all. I mean, fiction studies manages to acknowledge its genre’s plurality pretty well, so that we aren’t all that surprised to find that someone writing about literary fiction also writes about Harry Potter—or a western, romance, serialized, dime, spy, book-club, or science fiction novel. So why can’t poetry studies do this too?
JR: What’s tantalizing about your research is the discovery of a hidden zone of poetry buried deep in the mass like a stratum of precious metal in a rock formation. To go on with that analogy, here’s my sense of emergent prospects. One is like industrial extraction, removing the precious substance and purifying it of residual dross from the excavation site. This is more or less standard practice in the Poetry World. The other prospect is to do core samples of the substance in situ, parsing what “poetry” means along a continuum of adjacent materials and practices. A long time ago my friend Don Byrd remarked that poetry had so diminished in terms of its cultural prestige that it occupied about the same social status as tatting and ring tossing (demographically, I’m sure he was right). It was meant as an alarming observation, but I’ve always been haunted by another prospect, which is to imagine poetry as part of a continuum of creative responses to the world that can seize upon any medium whatsoever. It’s routine for sports writers to refer to the “poetry” in a basketball layup or a free kick in soccer (Bend it Like Beckham); and I have no doubt that any devotee of a specific practice, whether it be golf or crossword puzzles, thrives on a sense of the “poetic” (ingenuity, justice, or sheer luck). Yet these sports examples disclose all over again the problem that dogs poetry, which is the glamour and power of the exception, the unique instance. But then the analogy collapses: Michael Jordan beats John Ashbery hands down when it comes to general appreciation of what they do and how they do it. So the “poetry” of poetry (as opposed to the “poetry” of sports) is muffled in obscurity and inconsequence. The consequences are so private as to be invisible (nobody’s ever going to hear about Ashley except from you).
Whatever else it’s been accused of being and doing, Official Verse Culture seems to have been about quality control: it’s a kind of semi-official regulatory agency. A laudable aim, in a way. But thinking back to Mathew Arnold’s famous yearning for the best that has been known and thought, I wonder: how does this not capitulate to the blandishments of the marketplace? How is it to be distinguished from the shopper’s outlook, the bargain hunter mentality, or the five-star rating system? How will the quest for quality avoid the perils of solipsism? Aren’t we all motivated, to various degrees, to legislate our personal tastes as general criteria? What do we do with our value judgments once we’ve made them? Taking delight in some obscure artist, do you resign yourself to being alone in your pleasure? The Nick Hornsby novel (and movie) High Fidelity pinpoints the conjunction between private neurosis and the canonical instinct. It has its pulse on a common urge to mete out personal fate in the form of a playlist, a canonical seal of approval on an otherwise private experience—moments in drag as monuments. Behind even the casual music fan the ghost of Arnold lurks. But that ghost lurks hand in hand with Walter Pater, urging intensity as the final criterion (off the charts, too much, far out: blow your mind). You see, I do keep coming back to the issue of critical judgment, which may mark me with my education but which has been egged on by a lifetime of alarm at the blandishments of the marketplace, the quintessentially haunting book title of which is I’m OK You’re OK from the 1970s, a very weird decade when the 1960s overlapped with what nobody yet knew was the 1990s, a contrast of narcissisms: spontaneous versus commercialized.
The term ‘poetry’ has become a discursive category into which all things that resist complete commodification are projected.
There was a moment (and in retrospect it was little more than a moment) when poetry really seemed to be news that stays news, in Pound’s sense. I associate that moment with the sprawl as well as the unbinding of aesthetic corsets put into play by Jerry Rothenberg’s anthology co-edited with George Quasha, America a Prophecy (1974). That initiative was promptly squashed (e.g., Helen Vendler in the New York Times Book Review, an infamous piece I discussed in The American Poetry Wax Museum), with the consequence that everything started being tidied up, with poets themselves subbing as the cleaning crew. It turned out this presaged the demographic tsunami of the writing programs, in which an entire generation or more squandered the potential of the art by making it all autobiographical (I’m not OK . . .); and that all too easy target was what Language poetry trained its sights on. But all of that now seems a distant fight in the OK Corral, doesn’t it? To go back to that moment of America a Prophecy, though, is to revisit some lost potential that seems a bit like the Zone in Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow (published around the same time, in fact), where all bets are off. My hunch is that, for you, that’s always been the case with the sorts of detournement you document in the private sphere. My great worry, though, is that popular culture, so penetratingly commercialized, has poisoned the well, and the Situationist moment in America amounts to little more than another t-shirt logo, and the uses of poetry amount to little more than broadening the waveband of greeting cards. Cynical, I’m sure it sounds. So if I can belt out my plea with the help of Fontella Bass’s early 60s hit, “Rescue Me”!
MC: I have a private theory—a feeling, rather—that the term “poetry” has become, in the age of capitalism, a discursive category into which all things that in one way or another resist or escape complete regulation, rationalization, instrumentalizaton, description, or measure by the logic of the commodity are projected: emotion, magic, uselessness, intimacy, hopes, dreams, love, utopian urges of all sort, beauties, elegances, difficulties, nonsense, mysteries, etc. Thus, the category of poetry is not a continuum from bad to good or amateur to pro like baseball is (where players move from little league to college to the majors) but profoundly heteroglossic—something of a Lower East Side, perhaps, where the value of sentimental worthlessness (cast as “it’s only poetry”) and the value of what you call “the glamour and power of the exception, the unique instance” (cast as “it’s sheer poetry”) both reside. “Poetry” has, as you indicate in your example of Michael Jordan, become a sort of floating signifier in the process—a term to describe those aspects of experience that we don’t have much language for and that capitalist ideology doesn’t want us to have a language for, because it would then call those things into being and make them real and more powerful. Any threat to rational utilitarian discourse—anything that can’t be “read” or completely instrumentalized, ranging from The Alphabet to the sort of obscure beggars’ chants that Daniel Tiffany explores in parts of Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance—ends up here as a victim of capitalist damage control: poetry gangs, and the various human experiences that are not satisfied or accounted for by capitalism, turn their spit on each other, and the administrators of capitalism can reach in and select any of these values for strategic use as the occasion requires.
For example, it can be hard to figure out why poetry is frequently pitched as the most democratic of literary genres (third graders are taught to write haiku, not novels or screenplays) even as it’s pitched as the highest of human achievements (“the glamour and power of the exception”). Regardless of whether we want it to be one or the other, functionally it’s both, a floating signifier that gets attached to any phenomenon that potentially reveals or reminds us how capitalism does not account for all aspects of human existence and experience. Thus, poetry is simultaneously made out to be the most trivial and worthless thing one could pursue (it has no value because even a third grader can do it) and something that only the very few can pursue (only the exceptions); and everything it represents—the mystery of life, the limits of knowledge, utopian impulses and urges to social justices of all kinds—is either diminished, distanced, or constructed to be self-contradictory, irrational, or unresolvable in the process. Capitalism 1, Poetry 0.
Instead of trying to pin down and reduce the capacity of this floating signifier, I feel like we need to embrace it and liberate it, along with the human experiences it represents and yet contains. You’re right: probably, the well has been poisoned, but let’s not, for example, throw out the impulses or motivations that find expression, however poorly, in the commercially penetrated language of greeting card verse, because that’s precisely—so my feeling goes—what capitalism wants us to do. For me, then, cynicism isn’t the answer. I’m by no stretch of the imagination an expert in Derrida or deconstructionist theory, but I’m inclined to say, along with Derrida, “On the contrary we must affirm it [the floating signifier of ‘poetry’]—in the sense that Nietzsche brings affirmation into play—with a certain laughter and with a certain dance.” Given the regime we are faced with, maybe we don’t have any other choice?
JR: Given the fatalistic tone of your question, I can’t help but wonder whether (and when) a “floating” signifier can sink—implicit, it seems, in your suggestion that it needs rescuing. Isn’t it the case, though, that capitalism engineers everything as a floating signifier? The logic of the commodity permeates everything. It’s well known that people don’t buy cars, they purchase mobile cocoons, clan heraldry, emotional armor, and a spirit of adventure all in one. The tendency promoted by capitalist commerce is to make choices on the basis of anxiety if not outright fear, for which the mild old plum “keeping up with the Joneses” was coined. This is altogether distinct, I think, from that bracing dictum by Laura Riding: “To go to poetry is the most ambitious act of the mind.” I dwelled on that in the Preface to Modernism and Poetic Inspiration, so I won’t reiterate it here, other than to add Riding’s cautionary reminder that “In poem-writing and poem-reading the stirring up of the poetic faculties has been a greater preoccupation than their proper use; the excitement of feeling oneself in a poetic mood has come to be regarded as adequate fulfillment both for the reader and the poet.” I can’t think of a better description of how poetry serves as floating signifier, than as a vague “stirring up” of latent faculties.
Poetry now conforms to an escalating pattern of consumption we see across the board, from politics to chat rooms.
Because I think you’re right to identify the role of poetry now as a floating signifier, I’m just adding Riding’s diagnosis to suggest that a floating signifier is neither a sanctuary nor a vehicle. In vehicular terms, it may float but it can’t sting; it may get around promiscuously, but as you suggest it’s always dogged by the sense that a third grader can do it. That’s a hard knock, so I think it may be more accurate to observe that poetry in the public sphere—in a way that clarifies the sense in which a poetic “feeling” is stirred up—is predominantly anecdotal. Poems are very short stories, with line breaks. (And the line breaks seem to have shed all traces of Olsonian vocalism: this really comes across on radio, where recently I’ve heard Tracy K. Smith—post-Pulitzer, and it can be heard by practically every guest on New Letters on the Air.) This is the functional transference point from “poem” to personal access; it’s the “aha, I get it” that aligns, culturally, with everything from water cooler jokes to televised product ads. I suppose in the most ecumenical view we could say that this little foyer of accessibility is a good thing for poetry: after all, peculiar behavior needs an explanation, and we’ve certainly had no end of poets eager to contribute to the poem-a-day, cultural vitamin building mentality. Besides, slap-happy populism is American; and now the anecdotal palliative is being reinforced by You Tube on a monstrous scale, where the “poetic” and the “cute” alternate with spellbinding rapidity. It’s a media blender in which compulsive attention and indifference are spun into an unprecedented psychological alloy.
I’ve sometimes thought what’s been simmering under our exchange is the tension between poetry as something approachable, welcoming multitudes, and poetry in Riding’s sense as “the most ambitious act of the mind,” which clearly invites charges of elitism. Are these positions necessarily opposed? As cultural studies has revealed over time, extraordinarily ambitious acts of the mind can be applied to trivial phenomena—and, more importantly, the mind is not rendered trivial in the application. That’s because, in the act of scrutiny, the context is permitted to carry a signifying weight that the “text” cannot. Is it the case, then, that the sort of ambition Riding called for in poems is a vain attempt to jettison context, to speak as Stevens often aspires to speak in “ghostlier demarcations”? But then, isn’t it also the case that “repurposed” poetry in the demographically expansive sense is just as intent on setting any messy adjunct considerations aside? Any answer to these questions dangles in the wind, for the time being, because every conceivable context that might be used to explain and/or justify the use of poetry is defined with reference to some model of the commodity.
One of the intriguing disclosures of research like yours is that it provides a much broader demographic profile of poetry users, historically speaking. And that takes us back to a nineteenth century heyday when poetry in its most official capacity was also the most commonly consumed. Since then what’s happened is not, as so many assume, that poetry consumption declined, but that the demographic alignments shifted beyond recognition. There’s now a steady audience in the tens if not hundreds of thousands (not an audience of fellow poets, I should add) who have “poetry” on their viewfinder when it comes to high profile figures and events, i.e. poet laureate, Pulitzer, and once in a great while Nobel. Is this is a distant perpetuation of that nineteenth century taste for poetry, or evidence of the capitalist infiltration of market share?
However diversely poetry is debated, celebrated and deplored, the one thing that can be said about it is that it now conforms to an escalating pattern of consumption we see across the board, from politics to chat rooms. Every tendency and constituency has its little (or big in some cases) homeland, and all intellectual discourse haplessly revolves around (usually surrogate) issues of homeland security. I use this tainted Bush Era term to evoke the xenophobia behind it. In the old OK Corral domain of Beats vs. Squares, dismissive attitudes were common, but to dismiss something you had to at least be aware of it. Now, by contrast, the mountain of poetry has grown exponentially, but without a corresponding sense of scale. Enclaves remain enclaves, but the total number of enclaves has outpaced the ability to enumerate them. Withering contempt has been supplanted by withering indifference.
MC: As Doris Ashley’s scrapbook is partly meant to suggest—and as her incorporation of Pound is echoed in various ways by the recitation of Whitman on Breaking Bad, the reference to Hughes in Santorum’s campaign, and the quotation of Maya Angelou in the Wieden + Kennedy Nike advertisement—the tension between poetry as “something approachable, demographically welcoming” and poetry as “the most ambitious act of the mind” is not necessarily a primary tension structuring the reality of poetry’s social or cultural lives. Ashley, Breaking Bad, Santorum’s people, and Wieden + Kennedy all found poetry approachable enough to suggest that maybe approachability isn’t a key issue in some spheres; they’ve approached it, and people will continue to approach it. Thus, it’s what they’ve done with it, admirable or not, that interests me. And in this sense, perhaps, all poetry is anecdotal or occasional. That’s not to say that that tension you discuss doesn’t exist, just that I don’t feel it is as crucial as literary critical conversations like ours oftentimes want (or need) to make it out to be. From my perspective, if there is a tension simmering under our exchange, it is rather the tension between the literary critical tradition we have inherited—one in which discussions of poetry are implicitly or explicitly framed by binaries like Beats vs. Squares, quality control vs. anything goes, for use vs. for consideration, art vs. the marketplace, the “mind” vs. the “heart,” “demographically welcoming” vs. “the most ambitious act,” anecdotal vs. something more—and the possibility of augmenting or moving beyond those binaries to find analytics to help us judge and assess poetry in a greater variety of ways.
I’m not put out by all the enclaves—in fact, I’m thrilled by them (Write it!) and by how they frustrate or evade measure by a critical center or dominant historical narrative produced out of oversimplified antagonistic relations (high/low, genteel/modern). Nor do I think that “withering indifference” describes much more than the “expert’s” jaded or defensive response to those enclaves. Certainly the people in those enclaves aren’t indifferent to the poetry they read and write; certainly they perceive the stakes to be real and of consequence. Nor am I going to assume that one enclave is indifferent to the poetry read and written in another; I simply don’t know. And, all that being said, I don’t think I agree with you that, in our world, the “logic of the commodity permeates everything” totally, inevitably, or evenly. Part of our job is to untangle and understand the real poetry and the commodity “poetry” wherever and whenever we can.
Mike Chasar is assistant professor of English at Willamette University, author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, and co-editor of Poetry after Cultural Studies. He maintains the blog Poetry & Popular Culture.
Jed Rasula, Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia, is author of several books of poetry and critical works, including Tabula Rasula, Hot Wax, or Psyche’s Drip, and This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry.
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