Monday, March 08, 2004

I sometimes wonder about the purpose of "test of poetry" games like the one Ron Silliman is currently running. Ron says he's not interested in what one commenter called the "gotcha" element of showing, say, how a lousy poem might be written by a poet we call "great" and an oustanding poem could be written by an unknown; or, to put it in a more nuanced fashion, how elements we regard as characteristic and distinctive in a certain poet's work may be equally present in a second poet who we'd never associate with the first. But that element of the game seems too much like an undergraduate, neo-New Critical exercise--exercises precisely because they deny the reality of how work circulates in the literary marketplace, as Josh Corey's take on the test suggests.

I'm more intersted in one of Ron's other assertions: "Every element of time, place, gender, all manner of basic dimensions now have to be inferred entirely from the text itself." That this is a central concern is evident from Ron's later question about the poets "lurking" behind these texts: "what gender are they?"

I'm guessing (though I'm not sure) that Ron's position would be that all of these sociohistorical markers can be inferred "entirely from the text itself," and that indeed part of the challenge of the "test" is that an ideally sensitive (which means not just formally sensitive but politically and historically sensitive) reader would be able to identify one text as the product of a 30-year-old white male New York academic, another as the writing of a mid-50s Asian American female artist living in New Mexico. This, I think, is the flipside of the contemporary idea of the "politics of form," in which a poem's political location and relevance can be read not through its explicit statements but through its formal choices; the corollary would be that one ought to be able to read, back through a poem's form, the historical and political position from which it emerges.

If this task is difficult, it's not exactly because Ron has stacked the deck, but because such questions are particularly challenging for the contemporary, experimental modes of poetry that interest Ron and many of those participating in the discussion. Poem A, for instance, does position itself in contemporary political discourse ("for Donald Rumsfeld"), but doesn't otherwise articulate a specific position on, say, Rumsfeld's policies (although I have a very hard time imagining this poem emerging from a poet who was pro-Rumsfeld). Instead, the poet has chosen to structure the poem as a parody/critique of Rumsfeld's own anaphoric speech structures--a technique, I must confess, I'm also guilty of using in a poem of my own. But part of that critique is that the poem declines to stake out a position that is the mirror image of Rumsfeld's militaristic, swaggering clarity; and in declining to become another talking head of punditry, it also declines to use any obvious markers to signal its own social or political identity.

It just so happens that I have on my left Elisabeth Frost's The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, open to the third chapter on Sonia Sanchez. Ron's game would have been a very different one if, say, lines like these had appeared:

my brown
bamboo / colored
blk / berry / face
will spread itself over
this western hemisphere and
be remembered.
be sunnnnnNNGG.
for i will be called

In this work from the early 1970s, Sanchez--in keeping with the tenets of the Black Arts movement--does use explicit markers of black and female identity, in a manner designed to erase any doubt about who is speaking. The "test of poetry" guessing game works only if it draws on a body of work that refuses content that gives this particularity of social location.

I don't say this as a criticism of Ron or of any of the work he's presenting. I dare say that it would be hard to read a lot of my poetry and immediately identify it as coming from an Asian American writer, and some of my work very explicitly plays with expectations about what Asian American writing ought to sound like. But I do think it raises some questions about what it means to choose four contemporary experimental poems and they ask readers to guess the gender of their authors. Ron mentions Araki Yasusada in his post; if the Yasusada affair demonstrates anything, it should demonstrate that work always circulates in a state that is heavily charged by nationality, race, gender, history--a charge that is given, first and foremost, by naming. (Indeed, this is very much the case for Asian American writers, whose ethnically marked names rarely afford them the opportunity to "pass" as non-Asian poets on a book spine.) It would be nice to believe that we can read poetry in the absence of such markers--on some rarefied idea of pure "merit"--but (as Ron is good enough to suggest in his post) any "test of poetry" already has certain ground rules set up before it begins.

A final anecdote: when I was in college I was on the poetry board of the college literary journal. Poems were meant to be considered anonymously by the board; only the poetry editor was supposed to know the identity of the writer. Despite this allegedly meritorious system, I couldn't help but notice that the same half-dozen poets were published again and again in the journal.

At one meeting, a poem came up for discussion that I found quite boring--flat in its language, reliant on esoteric pop-culture references that didn't really interest me. I began to argue strongly against the poem, but was surprised to find some of the most senior members of the board opposing me. One member--one of the best-known campus poets--was particularly vehement in her defense of the poem; as fatigue set in and others dropped out, the debate came down to a heated confrontation between the two of us. Finally, she looked directly at me and said: "I know who wrote this poem. This poem was written by--" and proceeded to name another well-known campus writer, now a well-known poet and critic. "And he is a genius."

I don't honestly know whether this story should be read as supporting or opposing Ron's test of poetry. At the time I thought it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. But in retrospect I realize it was a rending of the veil, a demonstration of how real literary institutions functioned in their establishment of insiders and outsiders, and how no amount of earnest anonymity could really overcome that. Far from making me more cynical, that revelation is refreshing: it suggests the need not simply to mount an assault on the temples of high culture in the hope that they will recognize your inherent merit, but to find other avenues of getting things done.

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