Monday, October 01, 2007

Two Kinds of Poets?

Young British poet Simon Armitage, who likes to say provocative things, was quoted in an interview as saying:

You can probably split poets into two distinct groups. There are those people who want to try and work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poems and, very simply, on the other side there are people who want to sing songs and tell stories—and I’m with that bunch.

To which my immediate reply is: There are two kinds of poets: Those who think there are two kinds of poets, and those who know better.

Yes, let's divide up everything into little binary polarities, then put them in either/or opposition, shall we? and ignore that the Universe really operates in a both/and way, with most either/or propositions being the artificial constructs of philosophical game-playing. They're mostly not real.

We could talk about two other kinds of poets, if we wished—pretty much picking any topic at random: for example, poets who teach in universities, and those who don't. One might go so far as to point out that while there is some overlap with Armitage's glib categorization of song-poets vs. science-poets, in that many poets who teach in universities right dry, uninteresting poetry that is often about playing with the words as though they were "chemical equations," in fact some of the most prominent of, say, the Language Poets, have no professional university ties whatsoever. Overlap, yes; identity, no.

This brings me back to a rather geometric and mathematical way I've been thinking about poetry and criticism lately. Namely, the visual representation in multi-dimensional space of axes of criticism. The axis of judgment, for example, between good poems and bad poems is a different axis of judgment for any given genre or sub-style of poetry being written today. There are points of convergence and congruence, to be sure; yet the axes of critical judgment are not identical.

I think this way of thinking about the topic is useful largely because it makes things three-dimensional rather than one-dimensional. It complexifies the topic, alleviating some of the more egregious errors of over-simplification to which poet-critics such as Armitage, who make sweeping generalizations about poetry without giving examples, are prone to. Re-complexifying an over-simplified subject is service to humanity, not just poetry.

Poet-critics who insist on framing the contemporary debate about poetry as a binary polarity have allowed themselves to be (unconsciously?) suckered into an Us vs. Them entrenchment. Armitage is clearly making an Us vs. Them argument, even if he doesn't openly acknowledge it. Ron Silliman, when he recapitulates his definition of all contemporary poetry as being aligned with one of his invented categories of "The School of Quietude" and "the post-avant-garde," is also creating an Us vs. Them categorization; one guess as to which category he places himself and all his poetic allies into. (I have a great deal to say about Language Poetry, which is Silliman's camp, both positive and negative; but I'll save that for a later series of essays.)

Armitage and Silliman are both wrong.

There aren't two kinds of poets at all. There are probably a million; there are demonstrably at least three or a dozen. The mere existence of so many different Us vs. Them formulations in poetry, with all their individual axes of judgment, and between which there are many different and disagreeing formulations, makes the case by purely statistical means. Even such problematic terms as "postmodernism" define themselves as being in opposition to the very things they are rebelling against: Modernism. A truly after-Modernism poetics wouldn't feel the need to include the name of the enemy within its own categorical label. In point of fact, they're still dealing with all the things Modernism implied, and implies, still working out how to embrace or otherwise incorporate or reject Modernism itself: hence, "post-Modernism."

What these binary polarities are really expressing, on a deeply unconscious level, whenever they set themselves as an Us vs. Them polarity, is a deep insecurity about self-definitions and self-confidence. The anxious expression of categorical separation is really saying, There's us, and then there's everybody who came before us—but we're better than they are, and cooler, and we know more about what's going than they did. Make no mistake: this is artistic insecurity at its most obvious. Pretty much every artistic "school" which has appended the suffix -ism to the end of its name has passed through these gates.

The problem with categorical rejection of the Others is that you cut yourself off from learning from Them. Eventually, you have only Us to look at, and refer to. These tends to be a death-knell for artistic vigor, though, as pretty soon poets start writing to fit the party line rather than writing wherever the brush leads them. Pretty soon, the new movement becomes decadent, implodes, and the artists who are more interested in making art than in talking about it move on.

And so, eventually, another internally self-referential -ism or school is born, to be eventually superceded as a Them by a later, newly-minted Us. Some -isms have all the bad characteristics of transuranic radioactive isotopes, including short half-lives and a tendency to emit toxic radioactive byproducts, before settling down to become inert and ordinary.

The next time you are tempted to separate poets into two competing or opposed camps, resist the temptation. Resist even rhetorical oversimplification and reductionism. Let the arts be as complex as the field of life itself. Just as fractal geometry more accurately reproduces actual natural forms than Euclidean geometry ever could, a more complex literary criticism is going to be more inclusive, and ultimately, more enriching.

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Blogger Kaz Maslanka said...

And so, eventually, another internally self-referential -ism or school is born, to be eventually superceded as a Them by a later, newly-minted Us. Some -isms have all the bad characteristics of transuranic radioactive isotopes, including short half-lives and a tendency to emit toxic radioactive byproducts, before settling down to become inert and ordinary.

I dig that metaphor Art ... very cool and right on target!

12:30 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Kaz.

When the metaphor fits, wear it—as the saying might go, if there were such a saying.

2:10 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

What Simon really means is that there are two kinds of poets, those without institutional power and those with it -- he's with that latter bunch.

As I've noted the history of poetry is, in fact, a history and you can't opt yourself out of it by wishing it away any more than George Bush can.

But both tendencies are in fact exceptionally complex and what you're pointing to is the need to explore and honor all those aspects of complexity. I am cool with that. In fact, I agree with you.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're quite correct about the history of poetry. No one can remove themselves from it by wishing it away, although I do note that many schools of poetry and art continue to try, in their various breaks with the past. The "Year Zero" reset-reboot temptation is ever-present.

I can see Simon's point about institutional power. At the same time, I can conceptually map that as another axis in the critical phase-space model I mentioned. There's certainly overlap here between Insider and Outsider aspects.

Complexity is my real point, of course. That's why I resist binary polarities, even when they're handy rhetorical maps for the sake of discussion.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

Two kinds of poets, eh? Although poets can have certain things in common, something always separates one from the other; in my mind, that makes him or her a "different kind" of poet. I've never much liked duple divisions or groupings, but...

There are 10 kinds of people in this world; those who understand binary and those who don't.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Nice binary joke.

What separates one from the other is individuality, not some artificial category. Of course, there is some overlap between those sets, in theory.

12:34 AM  

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