"It's too much…" (pt 1): Burt, McSweeney and the excess of contemporary poetry

by on Apr.26, 2011

From The Poetry Foundation Blog:

“it’s too much

I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the energy. Maybe I never did. Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation … on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines, like Montevidayo and Like Starlings and Tarpaulin Sky and Constant Critic and Cold Front… I should keep up. And I can’t keep up. There’s something to like in each one… a few are even places I’ll contribute, or plan to contribute, or hope to contribute, once I find the time to finish something or respond to their request. But I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything…”

I think this is a reasonable reaction to what is going on in this age of Internet and its constant production and overproduction of valueless poetry. Poetry as kitsch that keeps multiplying. Invading it seems Burt’s home:

But I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything, or even most of the things, that appear on them all. It’s midnight Eastern Time and I’ve just managed to clean the floor off which our baby will probably eat tomorrow (he’s an enthusiastic floorivore), and then there’s the family obligation-vacation and the left headlight that needs repair and the professional-obligation tenure-reviews and article-reviews, all of which have somebody’s safety, income or livelihood dependent on my doing an accurate and timely job, which isn’t the case for, you know, a poem.

It seems that poetry has mucked up his house. Might poison his baby tomorrow (when the baby tries to eat poetry off the floor in a hilarious/scary revision of that famous Mark Strand poem about eating, but instead of nourishment it is poison a child eats off the floor, I think it improves the poem), might have wrecked his car, will most certainly imperil his family vacation and maybe even his job – which is supposed to be to study poetry! Poetry has become unhealthy in its excess! A horror movie! I love it.

It seems to me Burt is kind of radical in this abdication; he is abdicating mastery, a hard thing I think for someone who believes in a rhetoric of mastery, as many academics tend to do and why they seldom do – as Burt has actually does quite often – venture into the shit of the internet-age poetry, instead preferring the neatly organized world of Experimental Poetry and its recognizeable strategies, or the nostalgia of Robert Lowell Was The Great Poet model.

Burt needs to abdicate mastery in order to retain professional and family stability. Art creates some serious contortions!

I also think it’s an interesting comment on our recent “accessibility” studies: the sheer quantity makes the poetry inaccessible to Burt. Or perhaps umasterable. Burt’s key mode seems to be to give overviews of poetry, to always want American Poetry to become mappable. Often his rhetoric is that of democracy: he wants to introduce the common reader to poetry, he wants to stabilize it. But here he seemingly gives up on this. It’s become too much.

My response comes from Joyelle’s gothic motherhood essay (which she originally read on the same panel as Burt in Mpls):

“Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.”

I keep quoting this section from Joyelle’s talk because I love the way it embraces the “plague ground,” the “shit of the Internet.” It’s not that she loves all poetry being written, but she does embrace the decentralized, dehierarchized vision of a spumey poetry world.

(It suddenly strikes me that I don’t know what “spumey” means, but I can imagine, the privilege of the foreigner.)

3 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    It suddenly strikes me that I don’t know what “spumey” means–I love this! I all the time use words that if I had to be realyreally honest I’d have to admit yah not sure o’ the definition. Cheers!

    For spumey I think seawind, sea-foam, seawrack, but yah I too am not sure.

  2. Jake Levine

    you’ll have to forgive me as i don’t have the book in front of me, but doesn’t burt compare contemporary poetry to assembling ikea furniture in that sense / nonsense book he won that award for?

  3. Johannes

    Yes, that might be correct. Which is why I think this post seems to signal something of a change in his thinking.