Monday, June 21, 2010

The American(?) Poet

Bit on politics, poetry, the politics of poetry, language and such. Not much more to say on it, *sigh*.

David Biespiel’s “This Land Is Our Land” is a great article, one that I came across in the May issue of Poetry (the first in my subscription), and had plenty of fun with. Of course this doesn’t mean that I agree with Biespiel’s views whatsoever, but I do mean to point out that the writing is good. The main issue I have to take with the ideas expressed are that Biespiel is taking issue with what may be a problem, but is also operating under somewhat useless assumptions.

Biespiel believes that poets should take a more active role in political life. He explains that the reason for this is that poets are somehow more fitting for that position. Then he takes issue with the position that poetry has taken in American society. However, this is simply not a smart move: Biespiel does not seem to have taken into consideration the very reasons that have placed his profession into its current place. The American poet who sees itself as something greater than corresponding people is what has isolated the label. The very politics of poetry itself, the feeling that being around these people at a dinner party, you could very easily say the wrong thing—this is why there is a divide between “poet and civic life” in America. You turn your face up to people and they’ll decide to stop fraternizing with you and suddenly you’re left in a small club with yourself and several other yous. Or maybe that’s too angry to get about it.

The politics of poetry, as I just mentioned, are difficult to fathom from anywhere but the inside. This is true of any number of individual habits, not just writing poetry, but for example watching baseball on television. In this case, I am on the inside of the circle and I do have an opinion: the best feed you can get on a ballgame is a local one, because they are the best at what they do—they need to keep the viewership. Your traditional national commentators in a sport like baseball are all facing the Peter Principle. It isn’t football where you weekly come in to watch your favorite team get crushed, but rather a daily game, and it needs to be dealt with in that light. ESPN and Fox (the main national providers) don’t do that well at all. But all of this is, of course, simply my opinion, elicited from my position as a baseball viewer, or specifically as a Rays’ fan. I’m sure that someday I’ll be able to offer views on the various groups in poetry, in fact I hope this’ll be the case, but it’s all so very complicated.

The problem with dealing with a somewhat isolated group of writers is that one of their jobs is creating language. This might be debatable, but it is historically true: how many words did Shakespeare bring to English? When we’re dead we won’t leave behind our verbal particularisms, but our odd ways of writing will remain. The words we’ve coined will stay. For example, as long as a book like Crash is in print, then we’ll have a word like autogeddon, an awkward pun from J.G. Ballard. And Ballard is an interesting case, because we also have a word-product from him that has nothing to do with his created parts of language: Ballardian defined on Wiktionary as “of or pertaining to the characteristic fictional milieu of author J.G. Ballard, typified by dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, societal, and environmental developments.” In fact when we go back through our list of names-turned-adjectives, we have a number of writers. We use the terms Freudian, Machiavellian, or Marxist (along with various other political variants, both arising due to the writings of the person named or the fact that their actions would be written done in history).

So suddenly we have this group of people who have effectively changed their way of speaking, throwing around terms like gurlesque and flarf among countless others, and you have to become a student to understand what they believe in, what they do. For the college-aged crowd, you’ll find some for which this is fun and interesting while also being thought-provoking and productive. Sure, you get better at writing by writing, so you get better at poetry by writing poetry, but you have to do a lot of reading as well. And with the essence of the poem, itself, you have to be able to develop an understanding of what poetry is and the way to do this is secondarily, by reading writing on poetry.

But to expect the masses to support this endeavor, what is often an intentional movement to jargon, to smart jokes and Easter eggs, is ridiculous. The Platonic logic does hold some water: the best person for the job is the person who should hold it; don’t mix fields. So we have politicians in politics and poets in poetry. Both have their own types of jargon, and both are quite often disapproved of. I, myself, side with Aristotle on this debate: rule and be ruled. But I expand this to include other ideas. Sure, you should be able to focus on what you enjoy, but you have to view your own abilities with a grain of salt, because once you place yourself as better than someone else, then you are on your way to judgment, to placing your way above others and bending their will to yours, and, eventually, to totalitarianism.

But this isn’t the only problem with Biespiel’s logic. Even if the term “poet” was one that had to be won by election from the masses, and was thus justified as a sign of someone who is better at something than the average Jane or Joe, another problem is his use of “American” and the general ideas of nationality. I don’t think these are important divides to make creatively anymore. For a creator, inspiration is now open from all places in the world, the only issue being language. So you can talk about “English-language writers” or poets or what have you, but can you talk about the American poet?

What does that essentially mean? …Nothing. You can’t talk about this category with any seriousness, because there will always be more exceptions to each rule you lay down then qualifiers. Writing about art from a regional perspective is something of a dead science in my opinion. Maybe it still has a hold in music, but I think it’s simply not useful to define someone and what they make based on where they’re born or where they live.

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