Friday, May 06, 2011

Arguing for Pluralism

When we say, “This is what poetry is” or “This is what poetry does,” we almost always mean, “This is what the kind of poetry that interests me is” or “This is what the kind of poetry that I like does.” I know what I value in poems, what I want poems to do. But I also know that what I value isn’t the definition of poetry, if only because there are so many poems that do other things, that aim at other goals.
—Reginald Shepherd

Reginald Shepherd, during his lifetime, argued consistently for pluralism in poetry. He went so far as to say: The vast majority of poetry out there doesn’t interest me. Much of it I actively dislike. . . . [But,] except in my grumpier moods, I don’t begrudge it its right to exist. That's an attitude I wholeheartedly embrace.

I find a great deal of poetry out there to be not worth much effort to get inside of, either because there isn't much depth to it, or because the effort expended isn't otherwise rewarded with deep experience. As I've frequently opined, I find a lot of contemporary poetry stuck inside the intellect, or worse, stuck in only part of the intellect, ignoring the rest of human experience, which involves the body (soma), emotions (psychology), sexuality, and that word most dreaded of all by contemporary poets, "love."

(I put "love" in quotes precisely because the word means many things to many people, and there is complex, ambiguous disagreement about its many definitions. We ask that single four-letter word to do a lot of heavy work, whereas other languages such as Greek have many words for different aspects of what we singly call "love.")

Nonetheless, I seem to find myself in a minority whenever I take on a poem for the sake of critique that isn't a poem I like, or one I would ever write, or was written in a style or form that I wouldn't use. I'm more than willing to take such poems on, to see what's there. Who knows? There's always the chance you might learn something.

Still, I find most poets prefer to talk only to their kin, their cliques, those who already (mostly) agree with them. And most poets respond to commentary from "outside" their in-groups with a defensive refusal to engage with any viewpoint of which they disapprove. Time and again, poets have proven to have brittle, fragile egos about their own work, and rarely be open to honest critique or criticism. I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed poets in workshop settings refuse to respond to an honest critique, saying they see no reason to change anything based on the feedback given—then turn around and tell other poets they're being stubborn if they do the likewise. The lack of self-knowledge demonstrated by this byplay is breathtaking.

My personal rule on this point is simple: If someone comes along and attacks one of my poems for reasons having nothing to do with the poem, as a poem, I don't have any time for them. That's because they have'nt engage with the poem, as a poem. However, when they engage with the poem, rather than the poet—or the poetics implicit in the poem—then I'll listen to them. Talk to me about the poem, and I'll listen, even if I strongly disagree, and in the end don't take the advice.

Stubbornness? No. One is not required, as a poet, to change what one is doing when one receives a criticism from the "outside"—we're not flags flapping in the breeze, changing direction to please everyone who comes along. Yet, a refusal to listen guarantees insularity, and being close-minded about one's experience in the world is guaranteed to generate delusional tunnel-vision.

I enjoy hearing someone's interpretation of one of my poems coming from a completely new direction that I never imagined. I even enjoy encountering interpretations of my poems in which the person seems to be commenting on something from a parallel universe that had nothing to do with the poem I wrote. (Were they even reading the same text?) I generally choose not to dictate what a poem of mine means, as I think one of the basic characteristics of effective poetry is its ability to encompass multiple interpretations, multiple layers of meaning. I appreciate plural meanings in a poem, layers which give resonance, ambiguities which create room for interpretation.

But you run across a lot of poetry criticism that is covertly anti-pluralistic, and rude about it, just as Shepherd describes it above: When we say, “This is what poetry is” or “This is what poetry does,” we almost always mean, “This is what the kind of poetry that interests me is” or “This is what the kind of poetry that I like does.” I'd have to say that the vast majority of poetry criticism falls into the category of defining something as good based on it being something that one likes. And poetic egos, being brittle, often go on the attack, ripping a poem to shreds, when all they really needed to say was, "This doesn't speak to me." There is no one definition of poetry. No one recipe or formula suitable for all poets or all poems. No single poetic truths.

The lack of civility is a shadow aspect of pluralism: the refusal, or (let's be charitable) inability, to engage with poetics outside one's comfort zone. The known and familiar are by definition alien—which many view as frightening, even threatening. I don't think people realize how much they are driven by unconscious xenophobic over-reactions to the unknown. Sometimes it takes an artist to point out how art is never appreciated or understood, at first; thus, we keep returning to Jean Cocteau's plangent observation: We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.

Reginald Shepherd was a gay Black man from the Bronx, had a fairly hard life, and as a poet refused to be categorized as a "gay Black poet from the Bronx." He refused a lot of labels. Not that he was trying to ignore the labels, rather he was pointing out that the labels can't really contain anyone in their full, rich complexity. Individual poets are pluralistic within the course of their careers: they keep changing and exploring, addressing new topics, and/or using new means.

The virtue of viewing the wide universe of art as pluralistic is that one views it non-competitively. One allows room for those paths one dislikes and would never take, oneself. One also allows room for one's opinions to be wrong. That leaves the door open to being taught about something new and challenging that might merely be unfamiliar. It also tends to make us perceptive rather than judgmental.

Art in this pluralistic mode is seen as outside the the narrative paradigm of competitive progress, in which a new style "replaces" or "evolves away from" what has gone before. The narrative of progress applies well to technological innovation—and art is artifice, so the development tools can change the way art is made—but old styles and meanings in art don't go away just because new tools have evolved. One can conceptualized artistic pluralism as additive rather than progressive: more options become available as new tools emerge, but new options don't require the abandonment of old options—or of old tools. The current revival of hand-run printing presses, producing fine-quality books and other printed materials, even while other forms of publication become increasingly electronic, disembodied, and virtual, is proof enough of the survival of older means.

The problem with the progressive paradigm is that it tends to subconsciously idealized as not only competitive but Darwinian: the survival of the fittest of artistic paradigms, while all others, including previous paradigms, are meant to go extinct. This is the same underlying cultural assumption about warring competitors that leads to avantgardism in its worst aspect: always avant-garde, all the time, always needing something to rebel against even if there's nothing available. It's a cultural paradigm in which we are so immersed we barely stop to notice it: from high school sports on the small scale to paranoid nationalism on the grand scale, the mindset of winning-or-losing is the same. If poetry can indeed affect politics, of "give us the news," it's likely to be on the level of affecting how people think about what they're doing, and by (perhaps) providing alternative paradigms to consider. Peace is not merely the absence of war: it is its own mindset, other than the warring mindset.

What I like about the pluralistic viewpoint is that it can be actively cooperative, not merely non-competitive. It can become confocal, given a gathering of interests and affinities. If there is any such thing as a community of poets (which I often doubt), it is most likely to be built using the road of peaceful co-existence, of the appreciation of plural diversity (diversities), of mutual respect for all those running same road together, no matter what banner they display as they run past. We could, if we chose, cheer each other on, rather than throw obstacles in each other's way.

Fantasy? Impossible? Perhaps. In this age of cynical, ironic cultural narcissism and artists competing for what appear to be finite resources of dwindling patronage, it would indeed seem to take a major paradigm shift to get every poet or group of poets to cooperate, much less coexist. Yet pluralism, the pluralistic mindset, might be the first, critically important step in that direction. It's worth considering.

Some of these thoughts were prompted by reading Robert Archambeau's essay in the current issue of Poetry, titled "The Great Debate: Progress vs. Pluralism."

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I want to know why other people insist on writing the kind of poetry they do. I may never want to write like them but I hate not understanding. To that end I find most people are reluctant to talk about why they write the way they do. I think many don’t know how to articulate it to be honest, an odd thing to say about people who play with words but there you go. You are quite right that we want to herd with people who write like us. I would love to find a little group of plain-speakers out there that I could feel comfortable with. You might find that strange since there is an abundance of that kind of poetry online but so much of it is bad in a whole variety of different ways. I am keen to learn though – you can see that on my blog – but I’ve been writing my way for a long time now and it suits me. I play with other styles but that’s all it is; the Flarf poem I created will never go anywhere near my big red folder although the visual poem did. The problem with the Flarf piece was that – and, of course, this is part of the deal – I gave up creative control to a machine (Google Translate) and from that point on no longer felt as if the piece was mine. I’m not ignorant of the effects of chance in my poetry but I do like to limit its effect, to take back control.

If there is one thing I would like to see more of on the Internet it would be people explaining how they write their poetry. As a novice I muddled through as best I could and made up rules for myself because I couldn’t understand what people like Cummings were all about. I bought that book you recommended a while back and it didn’t help much and I suspect that’s because he reinvented the wheel for each poem – there is no “rule” per se – and what chance does a reader have when a poet does that?

As an analogy you might compare the different styles of poetry to different cultures. I watch programmes about China and whenever I do I soon realise that these people do not think the same way as I do. What is natural to them is totally alien to me. All I can do is sit at a distance and watch with fascination. I think this is why I steer clear of Japanese poetic forms because I know I can’t do them justice. Sure anyone can write a poem with x number of syllables to a line but it’s getting into the spirit of the poem that’s hard. So I devise my own forms and work to perfect them instead.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Natural to one being alien to another is, I think, the root of why people write different kinds of poetry—even if they can't articulate how or why. I agree that writers are often unable to articulate why they do what they do. That doesn't bother me much, though, because either I can figure it out by observation, or I don't need to figure it out. Cummings is an example, I agree.

But as much as I can appreciate the need to find a rule book, or invent one, I don't share the need. I actually like the idea of reinventing the wheel for each new poem, or newly invented form. I like the idea of creating a whole new universe every time you step out the door. THe analogy of traveling to another culture is a pretty good one, I think.

I know you and I are different this way, and I enjoy the diversity there. I like how you work with your invented forms; while I keep inventing new ones, and keep changing how I write.

10:27 AM  

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