Poetry Fundamentals: Power, Risk, & Resistance

by on Dec.11, 2011

1)

Stop the Heavens
from crashing to the Earth.
This is the cry of the biggest
assholes in Heaven.

– from The Portable Atlas

2)
Last month Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman were beaten by Berkeley police, and Geoffrey O’Brien ended up with a broken rib. They are obviously not the only poets (“academic” or otherwise) to suffer at the hands of the State since the Occupy movement started, but they are the first to be given an opinion piece after the fact in The New York Times. Generally speaking, I’m not all that interested in their credentials or even their poetic oeuvre. What interests me here is their act of resistance as a form of poetry.

This is not a backhanded compliment. Poetry means a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me there’s only one “true” poetry, if I can speak like a monotheist here. Poetry is not some bullshit on a page. It’s a strategic practice that may or may not involve the creation of what are typically called “poems”.

The fundamental components of poetry are power, risk, and resistance. A poetic situation is one in which there exists a process of resistance within a field of power. This situation necessarily creates risk, and risk is what turns death into life and life into death: it sets power free or releases it from bondage, so to speak, by raising the stakes to their limit. What results is always a catastrophe, and yet the catastrophe itself is neither right nor wrong, neither good nor evil. What we’re talking about here is the mechanism of revolt, or what Žižek (via Benjamin) identifies as “divine violence”. Divine violence does not judge; it annihilates. This is pure power. It’s egalitarian only in the sense that it serves no one and no thing. It wipes clean.

Within the context of a conventional poem, the field of power is the psychic energy channeled by the poet. This energy is contorted and amplified through a process of resistance to what the poet wants to say. The stronger the resistance, the greater the risk. What the poet risks is 1) failure and 2) the consequences of not failing. Either way, risk is a destabilizing and dislocating force. The reader will experience it as ecstasy, or anxiety, or laughter, or boredom, emptiness, etc., but the poem itself does not move its audience to act. What it does is reorient them so that action is once again possible. In other words, the poem is a product of intentional, uncalculated risk, and risk is a prerequite to, though not a gaurantee of, revolt.

3)
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

This is a quote from famed occultist Aleister Crowley, whom I consider both a total clown and a real poet. For our purposes, what is relevant here is the whole of the law, which knows no risk; risk is what exists outside the law. There can be no turning of death into life (no resurrection) within the law. The law is made of rights, not risk. The moment you start talking about rights is the moment you have none. In other words, resistance is not resistance unless you risk everything by resisting the very concept of rights. Likewise, a poem that says what you want to say (that does “what thou wilt”) is not a poem. It’s a law. And an entire book of these non-poems is a system of death.

Globally speaking we are living within the worst book of non-poems possible. The book is getting worse. How much worse, and for how long, will depend on our collective efforts toward escalating a sustainable risk. If risk is what exists outside the law, the law is whatever serves the biggest assholes in Heaven. It’s what keeps the Heavens from crashing to the Earth.

We are told the world will end if we don’t follow their plan. This is not just a scare tactic (though it is that too); they are telling the truth. And our role, as human beings, is to seize this truth and do what we can to make it materialize. Our task, as poets, is to not fear failure or the consequences of not failing.

The world is the end of the world.

4)
“Where shall we go beyond the shores and the mountains, to salute the birth of the new work, and the new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, and be the first to worship Christmas on Earth?”

Crash the Heavens

Be the 1st

5)
SUGARCANE
for Ariana Reines

It’s so hot I feel like I’m in the wrong century. I wash up in a mini-mart and pull a bottle of orange soda out of the fridge and just start full on blowing it for no reason. This is the kind of shit I do in absentia. I’m running into the sun with a windbreaker the tears streaming down my face. I start diving into the surf like it’s my own rescue party and emerge hours later on the dark side of the beach. It’s so black I’m blind. I’m dripping with salt. I stumble toward a fire instinctually but it’s all these normal-looking people doing it to each other in front of goats and pigs. What the fuck. I just want to pass out and wake up shirtless back in Saint-Domingue, kick down some doors, torch the fields. Tell the white man and his entire planet that its time has come.

– from The Portable Atlas (and the latest and last Supermachine)

 

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12 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas de Lima

    Hey Dan,

    Love your call for unsustainable risk, and obviously Rimbaud+Belinda Carlisle. But I wonder if poetry is, fundamentally, about resistance. Although of course Hillman and Hass and other OWS protesters are expressing resistance to the corporatized state, to me their dissidence ultimately lies in communality: they are “the 99%” confronting the “1%.” To “occupy” is thus to become vulnerable and convivial, in an extreme and even (self-)threatening sense, by commingling your body with other bodies, including those endowed with privilege. It’s a collapse of the private/public realms that leaves open an ambiguous and experimental space for any social organization to come.

    I wanted to raise this point because I think that resistance is a concept that dovetails too easily with capitalism. it also begs the question, resistance to what, exactly? I imagine we’ve all read by now about how non-whites, for example, aren’t so quick to identify resistance in the face of OWS.

    It’s through poetry that I’m tempted to think beyond the confines and prescriptiveness of a term like “resistance” and toward more bodily and affective political frames…

    L

  2. Dan Hoy

    Hi Lucas,

    “I imagine we’ve all read by now about how non-whites, for example, aren’t so quick to identify resistance in the face of OWS.”

    Yes, we’ve also read how OWS is “divided” around its lack of concrete “objectives”. I would be hesitant to reference media-sponsored polls and or any demographic analysis whatsoever. This is just noise.

    I think I’m using “resistance” broadly enough here that it “resists” your complaint (because ultimately it’s about resisting one’s own inertia — I’ve previously labeled OWS an “affirmation” not a protest), but really I’m talking about the mechanism of revolt. I’ve never heard of a frictionless revolt, or a frictionless community or “commingling” for that matter.

    Even so, I would likewise question your use of “capitalism” as the implied straw man. Per my previous post, I think it’s a mistake to focus on systemic violence as the result of some kind of sentient, self-evolving force. The system is continually invented and controlled by real people and they’re not capitalists. If anything they’re central planners presiding over a fake market. I’m not talking about the 1% but like the .001%.

    “It also begs the question, resistance to what, exactly?”

    To the biggest assholes in the Heaven.

  3. Kent Johnson

    Speaking of Robert Hass, I’m struck by how the top image evokes the hydraulic-controlled Security Slab at the Poetry Foundation (photo by the “Secrecy Officer of American Poetry”), on which the UK poet Tom Raworth recently photo-shopped the following slogan:

    POETRY SHALL NOT PASS / NOR SHALL ROBERT HASS
    https://dl.dropbox.com/0/view/ujmsiljg7nnj3qn/Photos/photos/scripsit.jpg

    Some of what Dan says also strongly echoes what the great Marxist poet J.H. Prynne said about the peaceful protest actions of the Croatoan Poetic Cell at the Poetry Foundation and the Foundation’s violent (I use that word carefully) response to them (some of this was recently printed in The Fiery Flying Roule).

    When Dan eloquently writes the following:

    >Poetry is not some bullshit on a page. It’s a strategic practice that may or may not involve the creation of what are typically called “poems”…. The fundamental components of poetry are power, risk, and resistance

    I couldn’t agree more. But I wonder if for him the engagement with the components of “power, risk, and resistance,” the critical articulation of these components into a praxis of “revolt,” should also include engagement with those components as they relate to the Field of Cultural Production itself, which for most of us most immediately means the Field of poetry, its background (and not-to-be-spoken-of!) power-mechanisms of hierarchy and control, and the ways these are presently so imbricated with Academic, professionalizing institutions, even with, as in the spectacular case of the Poetry Foundation, corporate Capital itself.

    In other words, I wonder to what extent Dan’s marking of the necessity of resistance and revolt would include, as an organic component of such, the risk of institutional critique, something that has been fairly absent, in past decades, from the very polite and respectful climate of our poetic situation.

    Incidentally, the Croatoan poets, I know, were planning to attend Kenneth Goldsmith’s talk at the Poetry Foundation this Wednesday, a talk titled (it’s evidently meant as a response to the CPC actions and the national attention these generated) “How I Learned to Relax and Love the Institution,” but they (most of the core members of the group) arrived in Oakland today after a cross-country van voyage to join in the port shutdown/strike actions. So at particular conjunctions, some things take priority over others, no question. But the necessity of resistance and revolt in this poetry-that-is-more-than-merely-written-on-the-page is not just a matter of Outside, it’s a matter of Inside, too. A matter of the Outside that is enfolded into the Inside of Us.

  4. Bill Deng

    Two correx. There’s no such slab. Come to Chicago and see for yourself. Next, KG’s talk is on Friday, not Wednesday.

  5. Kent Johnson

    Bill,

    But there IS such a Slab! It’s hydraulic, goes up and down by remote control, part of the architecture: It goes flush down to the sidewalk when the Poetry Garden is open, and up when the PF wishes to keep undesirables out, like homeless people looking for a place to sleep.

    Sorry about the error with Goldsmith’s talk. I got the title wrong, too: It’s “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution.” The CPC’ers will still be out on the West Coast. If they’d been able to get through the door, he probably would have gotten a conceptual pie in the face.

  6. HOLLOW REVOLT « Scarriet

    […] law and protests and malcontents, here’s an excerpt of a recent piece we found on the blog Montevidayo that well, kind of scares us: The fundamental components of poetry are power, risk, and resistance. […]

  7. Bill Deng

    Nope, no slab folks. They have a metal gate kind of thing that comes down when the building is closed, that’s it. Doesn’t look like that picture in the slightest. And no barrier whatsoever during the day. Like I say, anyone can go look.

  8. Lucas de Lima

    “I think I’m using “resistance” broadly enough here that it “resists” your complaint (because ultimately it’s about resisting one’s own inertia — I’ve previously labeled OWS an “affirmation” not a protest), but really I’m talking about the mechanism of revolt. I’ve never heard of a frictionless revolt, or a frictionless community or “commingling” for that matter.”

    Cool- I like affirmation. And I definitely would not want commingling without friction. Dissipation and intensification is what the kind of encounter I’m talking about, and have written about on the blog, invites.

    “Even so, I would likewise question your use of “capitalism” as the implied straw man. Per my previous post, I think it’s a mistake to focus on systemic violence as the result of some kind of sentient, self-evolving force. The system is continually invented and controlled by real people and they’re not capitalists. If anything they’re central planners presiding over a fake market.”

    I think the real people you’re talking about contribute to “ecologies of sensation” (Amit Rai’s concept) that the market also sustains. Maybe I’ll post more about this when the semester’s over.

    Thanks for hearing me out,
    L

  9. Kent Johnson

    Bill Deng, anyone else interested, before leaving out of town for a couple days, wanted to send for the record this note from the “Secrecy Officer of American Poetry” (one of Chicago’s esteemed poets), who provides these additional links to photos he’s taken of the PF Security Slab. (Bill D. you’re not seeing it, again, because it when the button is pressed in the Security Control Room of the Poetry Foundation to lower the Slab, it goes down flush to the pavement. A “seamless,” high-tech operation):

    >Kent, I suppose it’s possible the slab lifts up for some other purpose (make sure you’re on the inside, though). It hardly seems worth anyone’s effort to deny its existence.

    http://db.tt/PIGZWyVV

    http://db.tt/2ygk9aik

    http://db.tt/r7JeBsdx

  10. Bill Deng

    This is on the authority of a”Secrecy Officer of American Poetry”?

  11. Kent Johnson

    That’s the a phrase J.H. Prynne used in a blurb for the latest book by the tremendous William Fuller.

  12. Bill Deng

    Good grief. Well, having been in the building a couple of times for events, and walked by at others (as I say, when it’s closed there’s a gate), I think I’ll go ahead and deny the existence of that object. But let others use their own eyes to see.