It's STILL "TOO MUCH" – The Plague Ground of Poetry in the Age of Internets (Part 1)

by on Dec.06, 2012

Those of you who have read this blog for some time, and/or read my last blog, Exoskeleton, knows that one of my interests is the use of anti-kitsch rhetoric in modern poetry (and by modern I mean from Wordsworth through Pound up to Perloff and beyond). The most dominant strain these days seem to be the “there’s too much” argument: there’s too much poetry being published, and too much bad poetry, so we can’t keep up, we can’t read it all, and most importantly (the subtext sometimes, sometimes just the text) we can’t police what’s good and bad.

Basically, it’s the anti-kitsch critique. Modern technology has brought poetry to the masses, now how do we make sure that they have taste? How do we keep this, what Joyelle has called the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry-writers/readers from forsaking our Taste, our narratives, our ideas about what poetry should be.

I kind of feel like I ‘ve written a lot about this… But this topic keeps popping up. Recently, there was recently a really great discussion over at Boston Review between Jed Rasual (my PhD thesis advisor) and the scholar Mike Chasar. And it’s really in response to that interview that I write this.

In particular, I think Chasar’s statements are some of the most insightful I’ve read (especially coming from an academic). In the discussion Jed, who is generally pretty suspicious of mass culture (his book “American Poetry Wax Museum” is both one of the best books about contemporary American poetry and a massive brick of anti-kitsch rhetoric) keeps expressing doubt about the proliferation of contemporary poetry, making it a symptom of capitalism etc.

I think Jed makes very good observations, but I think Chasar totally re-directs this conversation (by which I mean the larger conversation about “too much-ness”, not just the discussion with Jed) brilliantly:

My gut reaction (you could maybe call it my glut reaction) is to say that questions like “Is it a glut?” or “Is it a problem?” aren’t nearly as interesting as questions like “Who is it a problem for?” and “Why do those people think it’s a problem?” For critics like Burt, it’s a problem because it challenges what it means to be an “expert” in American poetry. Whenever someone’s status as expert is predicated on knowing everything—all the good poems (i.e., a canon), what everyone is saying, etc.—a glut is going to be a problem because, as Burt puts it, “I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything,” and thus the governing paradigm for what it means to be a poetry expert is put into crisis; how can you be an arbiter of taste if you can’t read everything to pass judgment on it? Insofar as the centrality of Official Verse Culture is affected by a period of glut—where there is no longer an official center—then Official Verse Culture has a stake in the matter.


Importantly, Chasar does not just use this insight to criticize “Official Verse Culture” but also what I have called “Official Experimental Verse Culture,” the members of which seem as disturbed (if not more) by the anarchic energies of the Internet:

At the same time, so does the avant-garde (a profile you didn’t mention in your question above), since terms of distinction and debate like “Official Verse Culture” and “avant-garde” or “School of Quietude” and “post-Language” are incapable of describing the nature of the glut, which appears to have no inside for the outsider to react to, and no outside to shock the inside; there are more types of poetry than any binary (raw or cooked, high or low, etc.) can fully account for. Finally, a glut is problematic for anyone who benefits from an economy of scarcity—or a perceived economy of scarcity—because that person’s status, prestige, or perceived self importance, is suddenly devalued by the glut, which goes by the name of “surplus” in other conversations. That’s the point at which governments start burning crops and paying farmers to let their land lie fallow.

I think here Chasar also gets at the seeming contradiction of Ron Silliman’s investment in keeping a binary between experimental poets (in a direct lineage from New American Poets) and “quietists”, or the Poetry Foundation’s investment in bolstering Kenny Goldsmith and a lot of “experimental” poets in a binary with its own “accessible” poetry. The binary is oppressive and it benefits both parts.

In the academy in particular, “experimental” or “avant-garde” has been a way of making contemporary manageable. Most scholars these days do not merely study “contemporary American poetry,” they study “experimental American poetry,” a much more manageable field. And “Avant-Garde Studies” is a field complete with its own much more manageable lineage and theories. No need to venture out into the “too much” of contemporary poetry: all you have to do is study the “cutting edge.” Much cleaner! You can still master this field.

*
I will talk more about this interview in later posts, but for now I’ll put in one of Chasar’s key insight about the “floating” nature of the word “poetry” (much like the word “surreal” but more about that later):

I have a private theory—a feeling, rather—that the term “poetry” has become, in the age of capitalism, a discursive category into which all things that in one way or another resist or escape complete regulation, rationalization, instrumentalizaton, description, or measure by the logic of the commodity are projected: emotion, magic, uselessness, intimacy, hopes, dreams, love, utopian urges of all sort, beauties, elegances, difficulties, nonsense, mysteries, etc. Thus, the category of poetry is not a continuum from bad to good or amateur to pro like baseball is (where players move from little league to college to the majors) but profoundly heteroglossic—something of a Lower East Side, perhaps, where the value of sentimental worthlessness (cast as “it’s only poetry”) and the value of what you call “the glamour and power of the exception, the unique instance” (cast as “it’s sheer poetry”) both reside.

*
For now, I’ll end with two of the best responses to this discussion – Joyelle’s talks “Bug-Time” and “The “Future” of “Poetry.”

Joyelle delivered “The Future” speech as part of the Twin Cities Lit Fest (arranged by Raintaxi) a few years ago as part of the same panel as Steve Burt gave his talk about the future of American poetry. Steve’s talk was very well-thought out and organized: it divided America into certain groups and predicted that there would be a hybridizing of these different groups in the future. My problem with Steve’s talk is that I don’t recognize most of the poetry I read in this very American, very academically oriented group (language and post-langpo, slam poetry, quietist poetry, and Cole Swensen), but more importantly I don’t think poetry functions this clearly and cleanly, and it certainly takes its influences from other places: pop culture, wars, personal visions, foreign literature, visual art etc. Joyelle accounts for some of that in her talk, beginning by pointing out that giving birth – and nearly dying in the process – made her “goth.” But she points out one of the issues unaddressed by Steve’s talk: the huge proliferation of poetry, what she calls the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry (Of course Steve – I think humorously, but also maybe bravely – approached this dynamic in his Harriet post later):

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.

That is, her talk not only rejects the linearity of literary history, it also rejects the model of the empirical critic who can neatly divide the poetry world into categories. You have to wade through the shit like some sick, gothic Whitman.

Joyelle delivered “Bug-Time” as part of the &Now Conference in San Diego, thus the explicit rejection of a lot of contemporary experimental poetry progress-based models and anti-kitsch rhetoric:

2. What model of literary time is provided by this mutating field time, this bug time, this spasming, chemically induced, methed up mutating, death time, this model of proliferant, buggered, buggy, moist, mutating, selecting, chitinous, gooey, bloated, dying time, a time defined by a spasming change of forms, by generational die-offs, by mutation, by poisoning, a dynamic challenge to continuity, and by sheer proliferation of alternatives, rather than linear succession? How would T.S. Eliot’s golden lineup of genius allstars, constantly reordering itself but still male- and human- and capital-assets- shaped, be affected by this swarm of ravening pissed-off mutant bugs out-futuring them by dying six times a summer, by having no human-shaped future at all?

3. I’ve given a name to this flexing, death defined, mutating anachronistic field-time: the necropastoral. It does not in fact depend on classically pastoral settings, as, as any resident of New York will tell you, bugs are perfectly capable of shitting generations of themselves, of shitting explosive non- or multi-linear or mutant-time, in an apartment block. Instead, my term ‘necropastoral’ is a reworking of classical notions of the separation of the rural and the urban, the idyllic and the worldly. Instead, I acknowledge that the most famous celebrity resident of Arcadia is death; my necropastoral suggests that there is no wall between ‘nature’ and ‘manmade’ but only a membrane, that each element can bore through this membrane to spread its poisons, its death to the other.

It’s interesting that anti-kitsch rhetoric is so prominent in contemporary poetry. For example, Marjorie Perloff famously claimed that Merwin writes like Longfellow. That’s a real stretch but her point being that Merwin was kitsch, of the past, not tastefully modern. It’s interesting because Joyelle really does write in some pre-modernist ways, influenced in large part by her parents’ corny immigrant’s kitsch anthologies of popular verse from the 19th century. These collections are of course the coming together of so many tropes of kitschiness – the foreigner (inauthentic), the collection (bourgeois, inauthentic), poetry (tacky, poetic, foreign).

OK, more later…

15 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I liked that conversation in BR, too. I think Chasar’s angle is refreshing, and the questions broached by his research into populist modes are provocative on various levels.

    Regarding Marjorie Perloff and the avant-garde: I have an essay coming out in the next issue of Chicago Review, in fact, titled “Marjorie Perloff, the ‘Avant-Garde,’ and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.” Late winter or early spring, I think the issue appears. Apparently the editors are inviting responses for the issue after that, so maybe some of this topic you’re thinking of might connect with what I discuss there?

  2. Matt Miller

    One problem I have with Chasar’s analysis is that his figures for poetry are posited without substantial reference to other art forms that were truly mainstream. These figures of tens of thousands of individual poems exist in the context of dozens–and later hundreds–of millions of possible consumers. I would love to see a rigorous historical analysis of, say, how much money was spent purchasing media solely centered on poetry versus money spent on, say, records or movie tickets during a given era. Poetry doesn’t come out looking so popular when you compare it with mainstream art forms, but it does look popular when you compare it to the straw man, “poetry is dead,” argument. Estimating the existence of thousands of scrapbooks that included poetry isn’t that impressive when you realize that a popular film from the era discussed sold many times that many tickets on a single opening night, just to give one example.

    I also get bogged down with statements like “there are more types of poetry than any binary (raw or cooked, high or low, etc.) can fully account for.” My response is … well, duh. But that’s projecting a false rigidity onto this kind of thinking. I seriously doubt that when we use oppositions to begin to organize our thinking that we really believe we are “fully accounting” for all phenomenon of that type. Readers are fully capable of pointing out trends while still understanding the limitations of such descriptions. I seriously doubt that whoever came up with the phrase “the raw and the cooked” (was it Trilling?) believed that he had invented a binary that accounted for all poetry.

    I keep stumbling over this kind of rhetoric in his writing and in this interview. I found Rasula more compelling.

  3. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Freeze Means Run

    This is a sketch; not sure I believe it. For clarity, I will employ a sports metaphor, though even in Jack Spicer I find them ill advised. A big league batter hits 1/3 of the time. There is no bad poetry. When you’re out you’re out. Sit down, shut up.

    We call bad poetry, Poetry, because we hafta blab. Who makes the cut? We must learn to evaluate: vitality in a line, the pirouette, drive . . .

    “Nobody listens to poetry.” (Jack Spicer)

    “This is the age where everybody creates. “ Patti Smith)

    Gap off the Continental Shelf steep enough to crush the Thresher.

    Show don’t tell. Who gets benched? You think A-Rod takes his cool few million to TALK fucking game? You’re gonna TELL me why your poem is good? Hell, I like po’ poetry too. I eat Swinburne with two spoons. Call me, “Je Suis Snob.” (Boris Vian) ‘Cuz I don’t wanna WRITE it, though.

    Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    I do love where you’re going with this . . .

    (Never fear, believers, I’m amping down the Meds. I solemnly promise that I won’t go off the edge.”)

  4. Johannes

    GCH
    I don’t believe we have to like everything, but I’m opposed to dull ways of influencing each other’s tastes.

    Johannes

  5. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    I am down with that.

  6. Johannes Göransson

    Hi Matt,

    I think you have more knowledge of Chasar’s work than I do (I’ve only read this piece, though I’m interested in reading more), but my feeling about your comments is: I think everyone knows that blockbuster movies and hit music make more money than poetry. Nobody doubts that. I think Daniel Tiffany’s framework of poetry as a subculture (or a proliferation of subcultures) makes more sense. But I wonder about the need to create these strict borders between poetry and truly “mainstream” poetry; there is of course music and movies that are as unpopular or popular in different ways like poetry.

    I think the key moment in the raw/cooked is when Lowell in a famous speech (I think accepting a Pulitzer maybe?) presents himself as the person who is neither raw nor cooked. But I think absolutely this division is incredibly pervasive and limiting. People still think of Ginsberg for example as an animal (that’s what Revell compares him to in his prose book) when he was in fact (as you know well) incredibly learned. This rhetoric is still very pervasive. It makes sense of poetry but not in a very interesting way.

    Johannes

  7. James Pate

    I find this interesting: “For example, Marjorie Perloff famously claimed that Merwin writes like Longfellow. That’s a real stretch but her point being that Merwin was kitsch, of the past, not tastefully modern.”

    I’ve written about this before, but my problem with Perloff (and I like some of her work, her book on O’Hara is great for example) is that her notion of the avant-garde and experimental writing is stuck in the 20s, the 30s. I find the above quote interesting because she herself writes like Eliot, that is she has the same basic cultural assumptions. In her world, you would never know that writers like Pynchon or Bolano, writers who easily move back and forth between the so-called high and low, ever wrote a word. Ashbery of course does this a lot too, but that isn’t the Asbery she is interested in, as far as I can tell…

    James

  8. Bill Knott

    another binary is the Treekiller poets like Silliman and Pinsky and Armantrout and Gluck

    versus

    us Blogpo’s who post all our verse online for free open access:

    http://knottcollectedpoems.blogspot.com/

  9. Matt Miller

    Hi Johannes,

    There’s nothing most academics love than a perceived “strict border.” Why? Because that is what they have been trained to break down. And if there really isn’t such a “strict border” to be found, they invent one, so they have something to do. This form of thinking, endorsed by the A-list theorists, is academically rewarded.

    My critical work has focused on Whitman, Stein, and Duchamp. More recently, I’ve started writing about Dickinson and Oppen. I don’t write about Burma Shave commercials from the 50s. This isn’t because I am devoted to maintaining a strict border between commercials and poetry. It’s because the writers I mentioned stir my imagination and make me want to spend more time with them, which leads to writing. Chasar, like Cary Nelson before him, adopts a kind of sociologist’s approach to poetry. Anything that has the slightest touch of poetic effect is regarded equally as poetry and studied as a cultural phenomenon.

    That in itself is kind of interesting to me, even if I disagree about many of Cary Nelson and Mike Chasar’s premises. If this was the method, I would have no problem with it. But their analyses comes packaged with the argument that looking at poetry the way most previous readers have looked at it is a part of conspiracy to “police the borders of poetry,” to oppress others, to defend artificial boundaries, to force others to suffer our taste, and so on. It’s quite a war they perceive going on! A

  10. Johannes

    My problem with interest in these non-poetry texts is that in fact often privileged over the poem. The “poetic” is the ultimate kitsch, as I’ve said over an over, in a lot of poetry discussions. So shaving cream commercials are in fact less kitsch than poetry in a lot of discussions. I don’t write about shaving commercials because I’m generally not interested in them, though to be fair a lot of my writing I’ve gotten ideas from commercials like when I returned after work in NYC I would come up with poems based on the weird -often translatese – ads in the subway for plastic surgery and language learning. I do like a lot of songs and movies and sometimes I write about that. And often I’m inspired by that kind of stuff in my writing. / Johannes

  11. Matt Miller

    Hi Johannes,

    There’s nothing most academics love more than a perceived “strict border.” Why? Because that is what they have been trained to break down. And if there really isn’t such a “strict border” to be found, they invent one, so they have something to do. This form of thinking, endorsed by the A-list theorists, is academically rewarded.

    My critical work has focused on Whitman, Stein, and Duchamp. More recently, I’ve started writing about Dickinson and Oppen. I haven’t written about Burma Shave commercials from the 50s like Mike. This isn’t because I am devoted to maintaining a strict border between commercials and poetry. It’s because the writers I mentioned stir my imagination and make me want to spend more time with them, which leads to writing. Chasar, like Cary Nelson before him, adopts a kind of sociologist’s approach to poetry. Anything that has the slightest touch of poetic effect is regarded equally as poetry and studied as a cultural phenomenon.

    That in itself is kind of interesting to me, even if I disagree about many of Cary Nelson and Mike Chasar’s premises. On its own, without the grand assumptions derived from it, I would have no problem with it. But their analyses comes packaged with the argument that looking at poetry the way most previous readers have looked at it is part of a conspiracy to “police the borders of poetry,” to oppress others, to defend artificial boundaries, to force others to suffer our taste, and so on. It’s quite a war they perceive going on! And in this storm of feathers, they are the anti-academic academics fighting the good fight against the artistic oppression of scrapbook collagists and writers of television jingles.

    I do agree that the silly “raw and the cooked” thing still exerts a distorting influence. I remember in the Poetry Snark days how angry adherents of “underground” poetry would appear in the comments to disparage Jorie Graham, etc. I even recall one of them implying that you are a language poet and hence part of the “cooked” side of the dichotomy. I think the phrase was originally conceived with more of a tongue in cheek flavor. I believe it was also concocted partially as part of a strategy to institutionalize Ginsberg as an American romantic.

    As for Ginsberg, maybe when one first reads him, yes, the assumption is that he is some kind of Rousseauian savant. But I don’t think that attitude survives long, and I bet nearly all of the readers of this blog understand full well that he was an intellectual.

    (You probably know this, but for anyone else reading, I should acknowledge that Mike Chasar and I were classmates, and we have discussed these issues over many a beer at the Foxhead. This is a longstanding thing.)

  12. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    For Whom Far Harm Has Come

    “I think everyone knows that blockbuster movies and hit music make more money than poetry.” (Johannes: above)

    How much more?

    The Master is the highest grossing flick ever released in art venues, such as the Angelicka, downtown NYC. Its world take on opening weekend was $250,000. On that same weekend Resident Evil (III, IV?) raked in 8 million dollars.

    “Get the picture? Yes, we see.” (The Shangri Las)

    G C-H

  13. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    For Bill Knott,

    “The very conceiving of this infinitely disgusting phantom is the one wrong thing I cannot forgive man.” (The Marquis de Sade, speaking of God)

    “They thrust on us the greatest superstition the world has ever known. They ought to be shot for that alone.” (Pancho Villa, speaking of Catholics)

    Still yelling and he’s a bone.

    We swapped letters once, Allah may know when. The Naomi Poems, Nights of Naomi . . . I was rapt. I still have both books, more; will check dates & see. My poetry chewed. Some say it gnaws on. Me? I likes it! Gang of One.

    You were kind enough to write back. Already enthralled with your work, now I’ll never forget you. You shored me up. We spoke outside The Grolier; I blanked out & stammered. Heard you read in Cambridge. “For my sins I live in NYC.” (Ted Berrigan). But I was born in Boston.

    Yours,
    Geoffrey Cruickshank/Hagenbuckle

    (OK MVID, I’ll bow out: I’m set for overkill . . . )

  14. Mike C.

    Sorry I’m coming late to the discussion, and I don’t have much to add except a short(ish) response to Matt’s early statement: “I would love to see a rigorous historical analysis of, say, how much money was spent purchasing media solely centered on poetry versus money spent on, say, records or movie tickets during a given era.”

    It seems to me that the problem with this approach is that it assumes the most important measures of poetry’s “popularity” are two: 1) how much money is spent on it; and 2) that we should measure poetry by media which are centered “solely” on poetry.

    Regarding #1: I think we can all agree that voting with one’s wallet is a significant measure of “popularity,” but it’s hardly the only measure and may not even be the most appropriate one regarding poetry. It’s not that it’s impossible to do such an analysis; in _Everyday Reading_, for example, I cite Hallmark card sales statistics for greeting cards containing poems by Paul Engle (30,000 copies sold of a card containing “The Wise Men,” and who knows how many more featuring ten other poems Engle wrote for Hallmark). But one of the things that makes poetry so “popular” is in fact its affordability! It’s oftentimes free, clipped, quoted, memorized, handwritten, copied, or otherwise circulating in cheap or no-cost formats. To measure poetry by sales figures is to measure it as one does movies and dime novels, but poetry doesn’t and hasn’t operated by the same for-profit logics as those forms. So, we need to come up with other ways of measuring poetry’s popularity aside from how much money people spend on it.

    This leads me to #2: Most readers don’t come to poetry in contexts devoted “solely” to poetry, so why should we measure poetry’s popularity by that rubric? The “book” or the poetry-only magazine are hardly the most prominent ways that poems circulate, and I see no need to privilege those two print platforms over, say, a newspaper, a greeting card, a radio show, a Facebook page, Craigslist haiku, etc. When Garrison Keillor reads a poem on the radio, it likely reaches a huge audience. So what if it’s not a radio show devoted “solely” to poetry? I was just in NY and got a MetroCard with a poem printed on the back (Kevin Young’s “Ragtime”). There’s a new TV ad for Mike’s Hard Lemonade narrated in verse. WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues” is recited at the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral. To measure poetry by poetry-only contexts overlooks that for most of its history poetry didn’t in fact operate in poetry only contexts — and it still doesn’t. Why take it out of its natural habitat?

  15. Johannes

    Interesting points. Joyelle just read the new Sylvia Plath biography, which happens to mention that Vogue published the ENTIRE Under the Milkwood by Dylan Thomas in 1953.

    The thing about Garrison Keilor is I wonder how popular his poetry schtick really is. He’s all about “accessible” and folksy poems, but despite the gigantic platform he has, this kind of poetry just isn’t that popular. And I wonder if he’s really interested in popularizing poetry. I think the opposite: an attempt to police it. Otherwise he’d certainly include just a slight variety in his program. I was just writing an essay about the Swedish poet Bruno K Öijer who is a rock star basically in Sweden, going on tour with the biggest band etc. His poetry is not folksy at all, but as part of the punk/neo-goth moment of the late 70s and early 80s he grew to be huge despite of a cultural climate that deemed him garrish. Here’s a few poems from the 70s that he translated for me: http://www.actionyes.org/issue8/oijer/oijer1.html#

    Johannes