April 5th, 2011 / 2:06 pm
Web Hype

The Poetical Taxon: A Questionnaire

My friend Joseph P. Wood wrote an interesting article over at Open Letters Monthly titled, “Taxonomy and Grace.” I think his basic thesis is encapsulated in these lines:

“While creative writing in American literature has always had camps, movements (and the prerequisite back-biting and bickering), I believe our current poetic climate is so conflicted and contentious that we have done away with talking about poems on their own organic terms. Let it be clear: I am not arguing for a return to New Criticism nor do I believe in the overtly easy-blame game of it’s the fault of those fucking universities. We live in the 21st century. What’s the point of asking to return to “the good old days” when those days would have excluded the likes of me — a working class, oddly educated, and peculiarly read writer with gaping holes in my canonical knowledge? I’m suggesting that while it is important to attend to our own academic reputations and political and aesthetic convictions, it is more important that we honor the imagination by not solely treating the poem against a singular interpretive mechanism.”

It might initially seem as though Joseph is arguing against the artist pigeonholing herself, right, by ascribing to one philosophical or theoretical stance, and this would be true, but I think he’s also genuinely concerned with the way we read and discuss poetry, the way we disseminate poetry. Has poetry become such an in-club that we can’t love a poem without ascribing it to a school or a movement? Do we have to know a shit-ton about Wittgenstein in order to speak intelligently about a poem? And as for the artist, is joining the club actually the job, or the business, of a poet (insert artist, writer, whatever besides critic)? Shouldn’t we simply write our way into the world? Are we in an age that forces us to straddle the fence between idea-schools and self-expression? What about the movements that aggregate what their members believe and create manifestos? I mean, where’s threshold beyond which the artist is in danger of losing her essential selfhood?

Read the article. Take issue. Praise its inherent belief in beauty and grace.

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  1. letters journal

      I think ‘knowing a shit-ton’ about Wittgenstein would probably lead one to talk less about poetry, as the feeling and power of poetry is the sort of sublime nonsense (like music, religion, etc) that is so difficult to express with language.

      What Wittgenstein said below about ethics could be extended to poetry as well:

      “Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.”

  2. Adam

      Are there _any_ schools of poetry these days? Has _anyone_ written a manifesto in the last thirty years? (And I certainly don’t believe in an “essential selfhood”)

  3. Corey

      Excellent point, Alexis. If you are theoretically invested in poetry in any shape or form at this moment, you have to come to grips with inevitable fence-straddling. Thus, it’s really fascinating to hear when one of these fencers says, “I think that poem was beautiful,” or “I think that poem was horrifying.” The theoretical deduction, I believe, even with professedly conceptual poetry, remains a deduction from a broader whole. This means those very motile concepts like beauty and horror remain useful, even theoretically.

  4. Guestagain

      Thanks for this article, it is a beautiful problem/solution articulation and a great story. See the unfortunate snide intellectual veneer remarks that follow, which rather prove the point of the piece. My god, how do you people go on? Glad I went into software engineering.

  5. Trey
  6. deadgod

      Aesthetic and hermeneutic eclecticism: I think Wood is both complaining about and celebrating (and taking natural advantage of) the same thing. It’s the plurality itself – better: the vigor of the many frameworks – of ‘(n)counter expertises’ that both enables readers and poets “[to] take what [they] need from theory, history, or politics, and dispense with the rest” and throws those readers and poets into the hurly burly of those (n)counter expertises.

      You can straddle fences, you can pitch tents, you can dip your quill in the pollen of numberless blown buds and trace spores onto the paper the wind chooses for you. – but as long as we aren’t yoked together into a single, communally perceived Master Narrative, our culture will be one of counter as much as one of for.

  7. Josephpatrickwood

      I don’t know if I fully agree, but that is the best critique of the essay I’ve gotten. Really, really smart. It will take me weeks to unpack that…

  8. Guestagain

      Not clear from all this if you are for or against communally perceived Master Narratives, would need to take an Advil and reread it a few times, but the 4 camera sitcom and representational painting are enjoying a resurgence, so maybe everything trends to classicism over time, or cyclically, which would reflect life. To quote Brezhnev on the Soviet Union: a mystery hidden in an enigma under a secret wrapped in a paradox.

  9. deadgod

      A perspective “for or against communally perceived Master Narratives” was neither the point of the comment nor germane to that point; the comment was not prescriptive – but rather descriptive – on this question.

      The comment is a protest against (what I take to be) Wood’s wanting to have things two ways: both a diversity of poetic styles, voices, interests, techniques, and so on, and a diversity of interpretative responses to them, on the one hand; on the other, no ‘hostility’ or self-righteousness among the many claims of and for poetry towards any other claim(s). I think, ‘of course, if a culture is self-consciously multifarious – that is, has no generally accepted or “accepted” Master Narrative – , then each narrative in it will claim superiority or at least priority over the others — and of course there’ll be profound interpretative conflict among the many narratives’. – which is something to be accepted especially by people who are glad to have those diversities.

      You have almost quoted Winston Churchill on Russia. It was Brezhnev who made the ambiguous exhortation: “Boogie oogie oogie!”

  10. alexisorgera

      This is when I like the HTMLGiant comment thread.

  11. mimi

      deadgod you are da bomb

  12. mimi

      ps – alexis, i also enjoyed reading the linked article
      sorry if i messed up your comment thread

  13. Guestagain

      I’m happy to be corrected on Brezhnev and nearly quoting Churchill, and thanks for that, I love you deadgod where nothing is permitted, so, speaking of ambiguous exhortations as an interested visitor from another planet where the premium is on communication and ever-thickening obtuse rhetoric is regarded suspiciously as bad sport and dick measuring, I did not take the essay (sorry for calling it an article) as wanting it both ways, and if the writer would advocate no hostility or self-righteousness or many claims against many/any other claims of superiority or priority in poetry, well, I’m thinking with only a computer science degree and 3 patents in hand that this is can only be a good thing and profound interpretive conflict among many narratives is something “smart” people can sort out in due time. One quote I’m certain I’ve got right from George Orwell is “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

  14. deadgod

      Well, welcome to Earth, Guestagain! We do indeed gladly measure dicks here – not sure what’s wrong with that – and we Earthlings, too, are suspicious of “rhetoric” – in my case, including the “rhetoric” of anti-intellectualism. – but I’ll not confuse you with that whole thingy.

  15. Guestagain

      I’m less anti-intellectual than pro-artist and the two are more often than not mutually exclusive. I am anti-the intellectual patina, where a brilliant point worth understanding is actually there under the aluminum foil raincoat of intellectual discourse style, a trained and acquired taste in an exclusive club that only perhaps .001% of people are interested in joining, an insular profession turned inward on itself. The artist/intellectual is the rarest and best of both worlds, and if you can get into some dicey/questionable activity of assigning ratios, DFW seems about 40/60 where someone like the widely despised (by intellectuals, for good reasons) Bukowski is only an artist, the beautiful crazy preacher in the middle of the street syndrome read by millions worldwide. In the end, artists make the momentums, shifts, trends, and zeitgeist, then the intellectuals show up afterwards somewhat like ambulance chasers to set themselves up as The Deciders and proclaim what they found, deem it worthy or not of attention or even existence, feather their nests, keep the tuition cash flowing, and explain it to each other in grave tones that serve to mask their artist-envy.

  16. stephen


  17. deadgod

      . . . — then, of course, there are The Decider Gatekeepers, at their Checkpoints of Smug Incomprehension, armed with their Envy – theirs is fawning towards the Artiste and implacably bitter towards the Carvers of Incomprehensible Tablets – , The Decider Gatekeepers keeping the Zone of Permissibly Self-Congratulatory Fatuity and Unhelpful Distinctions cleared of Difficulty – that is, of Reality – , fist-pumping Gatekeepers – “Yesss! Yesss!” – whose What I Don’t Understand is equal to “Bullshit, Dude” and who are attended always by their Scurrying Acolytes.

  18. deadgod

      I should have said, Joseph, that I agree that the ‘enemy’ you’ve indicated: careerist professionalization of “poetry”-as-a-thing-to-study and the Academy secreted around it shell-like and, in dialectical turn, that nourishes it — that disposition is hard to reconcile even with the pleasure and genuine edification available from reading wonderful poems.

  19. deadgod

      I should have said, Joseph, that I agree that the ‘enemy’ you’ve indicated: careerist professionalization of “poetry”-as-a-thing-to-study and the Academy secreted around it shell-like and, in dialectical turn, that nourishes it — that disposition is hard to reconcile even with the pleasure and genuine edification available from reading wonderful poems.

  20. stephen

      Smug is rich coming from you, deadgod. You are vile. I would beat you within an inch of your life if you acted like this to my face. I’m not bitter. I would rather die than be like you.

  21. stephen

      i’m in a horrible mood today, if you couldn’t tell. i don’t believe in violence. you do make me mad as hell, though, deadgod, and it’s because of what you represent and how consistently disrespectful and smug and awful you are. i’m so sick of smug intellectuals. i’m not jealous of you. i don’t respect you. you have a caricature of me in your brain. i really would rather die than be like you.

  22. Guestagain

      I hope this doesn’t mean we’re not friends anymore, deadgod, I view you as a 20/80 person. You really shouldn’t hate artists, without them you intellectuals would be bureaucrats… um…

  23. deadgod

      Guestagain, let me introduce you to three terrestrial “bureaucrats”: Kwnstantinos KaBafhs, Franz Kafka, and Wallace Stevens.

  24. deadgod

      seems like your rage, sickness, and phantoms are autoimmune

      seems “horrible”, not sweet

  25. Guestagain

      Sandy Koufax, John Fante, Johnny Moped

  26. deadgod

      Gale Sayers, Nathanael West, Johnny Gladdened

  27. Josephpatrickwood

      You know, I came back to this comment thread and actually read it with a good deal of interest–as I think it really does kind of take the ideas at hand and discusses them with a good deal of thought (though things get heated).

      I think one the thing I think you mention, deadgod, is can this duality I ask for–can this be done? And I think I hear you say, “no, it can’t.” Actually, I accept that answer for you locate it in a social/theory/whatever grounding–master narrative, etc.

      But what’s interesting to me that having someone say “no, this is not possible” doesn’t feel like an insult/assult to the essay as I feel the driving mechanism of the piece is more based in contingent thinking and genuine asking (meditative, I suppose) as opposed to a rhetorical clarity.

      I feel, now that a few weeks went by–perhaps the way “Arts & Letters Daily” front-loaded the link–that people were looking for a rhetorically sound document. The essay’s ambition is its asking, and I think to have the limits of the argument pointed out is actually helps the essay along–that it seeks ways of thinking things.

      I didn’t say this on OLM because there’s no point in getting involved in fighting with people over one’s writing–but I guess I’m surpised that people weren’t more in tune with the mode of the essay–where it’s not bad thing to say, “no”.