Poetry as Site of Resistance
by Jeremy Schmall
If you’re willing to argue with me when I say that nearly every poetry book published in the last 30 years is an abject failure, it’s likely you’re among the small group of people across the country who consider themselves poets. For everyone else, poetry simply doesn’t exist outside of high school textbooks. Poets do not appear on talk shows, do not perform on late night TV, and it’s increasingly unlikely their books will be reviewed in prominent publications like The New York Times or the Washington Post. It’s common knowledge in the publishing industry that even the rare “blockbuster” poetry books sell laughably small numbers compared with verifiable “failures” in the fiction and memoir world. In almost every measure we use to gauge success—money earned, books sold, widespread popular relevance, public recognition—poetry today is an absolute failure. My argument is that’s a good thing.
A number of critics have argued that poetry owes its irrelevance to an increasingly insular, excessively experimental practice; that if it were more accessible, more comforting, it would then be accepted into the mainstream, and poets could walk the streets like real authors, with book deals and money. But has anyone stopped to think of what that poetry would look like? I can hardly imagine anything less appealing than subway advertisements for the James Patterson or John Grisham of poetry, for books that are market-tested, or even ghost-written, whose products are tailored to a target market.
The problem is simply this: traditional measures of success in contemporary society are biased toward a capitalist bottom-line imperative, and therefore do not apply. As Dean Young put it during a poetry reading in Chicago last February, “[Poets] are not a market, we’re a tribe.” But the question becomes, if poetry is irrelevant to the culture at large, if it doesn’t sell, then why does it still exist? How has it not disappeared yet?
In the past twenty years we’ve seen the rise of capitalism 2.0: globalization, which can truly do only one thing well, and that is commodify and sell. All other factors must be subordinated to this goal. Local cultures and traditional ways of life—if they can’t be appropriated and sold—must be smoothed out, pulverized, and replaced by quantifiable markets.
The truly great promise of poetry—today, right now—is as a functioning site of resistance to globalization; and to be very clear, I don’t mean that poetry should be explicitly political, or anti- or pro-anything. Sloganeering is best left to pamphlets. Poetry resists simply by stubbornly existing largely outside the control of the capitalist hegemony, by creating a true and uncommodifiable culture.
The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itself understands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.
Poetry, as it exists today, is a spontaneous, self-organizing and utterly unprofitable source of culture that exists in the gap between production and capitalist appropriation; it is precisely in that gap where it can do the most harm to the larger project of globalization, which must continually expand both its productive and consumptive capabilities toward a receding horizon. Anything that has the power to interrupt the pervasive manipulation of globalization—that can flick us off autopilot and force us to really think and use our imaginations—re-grounds us within our essential humanity. After all, we are a soft-skinned, flat-toothed, no-clawed tribe whose very existence demands the full engagement of active, truly imaginative thinkers. Engaged and imaginative individuals—the very kind who make up the tight-knit poetry world—potentially form a truly resistant body politic.
I challenge anyone to read Noelle Kocot’s apocalyptic 33-page elegy, “Poem for the End of Time,” and not come away from the experience utterly astonished as she weaves the political (“America your skull-shattered martyrs / Are fucked into God-symbols of music / Are fucked into Emerging Markets / Are fucked into frontiers slouching toward the rough beast / of Bloomberg”), with an intensely personal redefining of herself and “neighborhood” following her husband’s death:
In the night, the stars, the way things used to be
Why did I look into those gypsy eyes
It was weird and cold and dark there
Alone, alone, alone, alone with my visions of skull-shattered martyrs
In Laramie, Wyoming
America what is this river of stars that runs through us all?
Through intense repetition of certain phrases—continually rearranged to create and accumulate meaning—the poet razes the personal, corrupted “neighborhood” and creates an entirely new one, a new place worth living in (“For this we were given a voice my neighborhood / For this we were given a voice my neighborhood”).
A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.
The continued existence of poetry despite overwhelmingly hostile market forces demonstrates its importance to humanity, as a vital tool in the struggle to continually define the purpose of our often bewildering existence. That popular culture holds no esteem for poets—that it dismisses truly imaginative work—should come as no surprise in our current milieu of political and economic crises. Our recent concerns have centered largely on figuring out how to turn money into more money, without much regard for what the end result might look like, never mind what it should look like.
According to the cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, one should not privilege the optimistic outcome, but rather should accept the inevitability of future defeat, truly imagine it, then do everything in one’s power to prevent it—now—while it’s still preventable. But before it’s even possible to begin laying the groundwork for a new utopia, before we can establish what the coordinates of the new world should look like, before we can know what we want so that we can then actually build it, we must first be a humanity with the full capacity to actually imagine it. So, what are we trying to prevent? And if we succeed, then what?
Jeremy Schmall is the founder and co-editor (with me) of The Agriculture Reader. He is the author of Open Correspondence from the Senator. His poems have appeared recently in Forklift, Ohio and PEN America. A thousand thank yous to Jeremy for sharing this essay with HTMLGiant. We’re hoping to hear from him again soon. – JT