Saturday, June 14, 2003

Scourge of Silliman Chris Lott writes:

I've always been a believer in the part of poetry that demands study and thinking. This is one of the aspects of poetry, regardless of school, that I find so appealing. There is a scholarly part to it that must be wedded to the spontaneity that is the bread and butter of a poet. I hate to trot out the old "emotions recollected in tranquility" saw, but isn't that just what is being referred to? If anything, post-avant poetry, like abstract modern art, has seemed like a channel into which even more pretenders flock because there is an appearance that no study or discipline is needed. Just do it and you are an artist. And whatever one makes must be art.

While I understand the aspect that Tim presents a little earlier about the academic game seeming rigged, I'm baffled by the notion that intellectual labor, reading and thinking, are somehow more the province of one school or another. Isn't this simply the province of that percentage in each who are writing the best?

I don't mean to set up an opposition between learned and naive poetries, or to say that one form of poetry doesn't need to be "studied" as much as another. It was more about where different modes of poetry seemed to be positioned vis-a-vis academia at the time I was an undergrad.

Big gasp: I wasn't an English major, not really at least. So I was actually a lot less well read in contemporary poetry than some of my poet peers. My major was Social Studies, a weird social theory/cultural studies major, and I first got interested in Language poetry in part because of its self-proclaimed connections to political theory. The "nerd" factor seemed to arise from the fact that my reading of Marx or Weber seemed as relevant as reading Bishop or Lowell; context seemed as important as text.

So: theory as defense mechanism for a young, insecure writer, maybe.

And just as you say no group has a monopoly on study, I don't think any group has a monopoly on posers, either. The idea of avant-garde poetry as a haven for "pretenders" smacks a bit too much to me of the "My 5-year-old could do that" reaction to abstract art. I don't see it that way. I don't see hordes of poets flocking to elliptical or fragmentary styles just because it's easier to get away with something there.

Finally, "writing the best"--that seems to be the fundamental category avant-garde writing's trying to question. What constitutes "the best"? What institutions and structures do such allegedly universal prinicples conceal? What can we learn from writing or art that by all conventional standards seems to be "bad"?

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