The Ideology of Critique 5: Categorical Division
I've gone back this past month to handwriting thoughts in journal books, those same blank-paged books I use for sketching, drawing, journaling when I have no typewritten access to tools, doing little calligraphic haiga, or enso. It's all one book with many kinds of art and writing in it, sharing space, going back and forth. If you were to open any volume of the handwritten journal I've kept for the last almost-thirty years, you'd see similar blurs. Most of my poetry used to start in the journals, first drafts at least, and only later be transcribed into the computer. I went back to handwriting partly because my laptop's hard-drive died a month ago, and the restoration has been difficult, leaving me with the almost-certain loss of a month's worth of work. (Don't lecture me about backing your data up: I've given the lecture enough times, I know it's every trope and judgment. The problem is, sometimes you begin to trust too much.) So handwriting has paradoxically come to seem more permanent than print, of late.
Perhaps you can see why the boundaries between prose and poetry blur, when other boundaries, such as those between writing and art, also blur. My journal has always moved between many artforms with no need to separate them. The truth is, I'm not interested in keeping things separated; I suppose I never was, really, but I tried to have maintain clear divisions for many years, mostly because other artists seemed to think one is supposed to. I bought into the ideology of categorical division, knowing no better; as a young artist very few of my teachers broke away from the party line. Now I think it's all illusion, those divisions all a waste of time. They might exist, or they might not; the point is not to waste a lot of time on them, but to get back to writing. Do the work, sort it out later. Or don't bother.
Academic scholasticism, at its philosophically reductionist worst, tends to get itself tied into knots over how many angels can dance on the head of pin. Is this really a poem? Is this prose poetic prose or no-style prose. Academic poetry and criticism tend to get similarly lost in the details, and lose oversight. Does it matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? and what kind of pin? Nail the world to the coffin of ideas; it won't matter to the world.
So what do I call this writing, this new writing I seem to find myself doing. Which again is changing, going in directions I never imagined or predicted. I do not feel at all in control of this. I feel like it's a struggle just to get the words to stop dancing long enough to find an image that lingers. Trying to get a poem down, lately, feels like trying to nail mist to wood: killing living butterflies by pinning them, in flight, to the page. They keep trying to get away. Getting to the end of a line is taking a lot longer than it used to, as I have to chase and follow, and nothing falls easily to the paper.
Does it need a name, an -ism? Aren't we always, in the grand tradition of the avant-garde, supposed to publish A Manifesto? Aren't we supposed to announce what we're doing? Tell the whole world we've invented the newest, shiniest toaster? Aren't we supposed to pretend we know what we're doing, as if it was all planned, and we weren't stumbling around by accident and chance and the luck, making it up as we go? As if we had a big overall plan?
No. Manifestoes only make sense when they're descriptive of what people are already doing, rather than what they intend to do. Most art made by fiat, by plan, by theoretical intention, is dry as dust at best, and excruciatingly horrid at worst. Art that is too well planned tends to fail as art. It might be a good etude, an interesting example of manifesto art, or political art, or otherwise "meaningful" art. But as art, on the merits of art, it often can't stand on its own two feet. This is not exactly a news flash, of course. Too many artistic "movements," too many -isms, suffer from manifestoitis. This has only gotten worse as a professional poetry class has ensconced itself in academia, and come to dominate the discourse. There are progressive voices within this chorus, but they are largely outshouted by those who find that once they have power over other's minds, they like it and want to keep it, and tend to become conservative in both opinion and relationship. Don't be fooled: even most of the current self-proclaimed post-avant-garde (All Avant Garde All The Time! Just Find Us a Straw-Man To Rebel Against!) are intellectually conservative, no matter what their art looks like. You won't see a lot of fresh innovation coming from those directions; although you will see a lot of retreaded ideas from previous avant-garde -isms.
Call these newest poem-like substances that fall out of my notebooks something, not as an -ism, but just as a convenient folder label in which to container them. Call them, for no better reason than that I need a folder to gather things in, Field Notes. Field Notes is a good name for something open-ended, provisional, notational, and, as far as it can be, effable. Random bits of conversation, artwork, and observation falling out from the between the loose pages of an explorer's notebook. Call them scattered leaflets and trash strewn in wake of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery (two hundred years ago in time, right now in spirit). Corpses falling off the back of the corpse-wagon. Leaves in the wind.
I'm discovering that I don't know when one of these pieces is done. It doesn't end on its own. It just stops. I'm not a poet who believes you can force an ending; it has to emerge out of the material, it can't be contrived. When you paste an ending on a bit of stream-of-consciousness writing, the paint colors never match, you can always tell it's an add-on. The parallels between neo-formalism in poetry and neo-conservatism in politics are obvious: both would like to stuff certain cats back into certain bags. But everyone knows how impossible it is to herd cats. Literary criticism that seeks to restore some essentialist value-set, or return to some set of values once held and know evolved beyond, is reactionary. There's nothing wrong with being conservative in one's opinions; but if you proclaim your New Dogma from the highest hills and don't convince anyone of your rightness, don't complain about it. Reserve judgment.
I'm stumbling around here trying to articulate three things about whatever it is I'm writing right now: I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know if it's any good. Trying to figure out if it's any good is a lot less important than continuing to do it.
So I'm going to just keep making the stuff. After that, we'll see. I will continue to contemplate it: to contemplate the act of Making, as well as what has been made, or is being made; and not only by my own small self.
And I'm not going to label it for you. You can do that for yourself. If you think it's poetry, or a prose-poem, or a bit of poetic prose, or something else, bully for you.
I've given up all notions of participation in the various literary-critical forums I once participated in: they have, without exception, proven themselves to be more about the personalities than about the writing. Life's too short to want to wade into other peoples' various kinds of drama. I left those communities because they were never more than virtual, or pseudo. I read around, I scan a lot of material, trying to find some critic with generally new and revealing ideas about literature, and I find a lot of parrots. I find a lot of very well-read, very articulate conservatives whose tastes in fiction, for example, are locked into linear narrative, into polished grammatical prose, and who post lists of Great Books that they love—meaning, that they think everyone else should love them, too, or at least they should read them.
"Should" is a very coercive word. It's a word that says "I know better than you, so you had better listen to my advice." It's an arrogant word. It's a word that claims authority. It's not that authority is bad, it's that claims to it must remain provisional lest they inflate themselves into absurdity.
But there's nothing you can say to impermeable arrogance, the variety that knows best, and knows best for you. Some critics try to demure, saying, well, this is only my taste, my opinion, judge for yourself. But that's usually disingenuous; there remains a whiff of sulfurous judgment in the air. You know they still think you ought to agree with them.
I have met folk who genuinely didn't want to impose their views on others. They do exist. They are often genuinely humble people—not falsely humble, and not humiliated. They tend to be self-contained while being open to experience. They keep their centers even as they are open to acting in the world. They state their truth, but they don't impose: they say what they mean to say, and let go of the outcome. Which was always up to others, anyway. They are truthful speakers.
There are a very few critics who fit this mold. Some of them are wise as well as educated and smart. They often don't stand out from the pack, and become famous. That's because there isn't an axe to grind, an ideology to be imposed, or a set of moral values driving their critical opinions. They are open to whatever they see. They report back from the frontiers of truth.
And I've noticed that for the most part they don't try to set fences around art, or break it up into categories, or create false critical divisions merely for the sake of egoistic rhetorical posturing. "Is it a poem?" becomes a less important question than "Is it a good bit of writing?" If they can do it, so can the rest of us. So Mote It Be.