Ignore Art HIstory and Just Make Art
I have two artist friends, one of whom just finished art school a couple of years ago, and one who was so traumatized by her post-art school career some decades ago that she effectively stopped making art until her recent artistic renaissance. Both of these are incredibly talented artists; both of them have made pieces of art unlike what you've seen before. Both of them have come under attack, in art school and later in gallery showings, for being out of step with their times and the artistic fashions. Both of them make sincere, unironic art, art that has meaning and beauty, art that speaks to the audience (if not to the critic), and has spiritual content. (Not overt religious symbolism, which I know is what you first thought of when I said "spiritual content," rather archetypal, deeply psycho-spiritual imagery.)
In an interview with poetry editor Micah Robbins, Daniel Nester makes a point or two that I find brilliant:
Nester: I’d like to run it up the pole here for you and see what you think, and I am sure I am wrong, because I usually am and I’m, like old now—is that we have reached a period of late style, where the already bankrupt aesthetic battles of yore—lyric versus narrative, Ron Silliman’s Post-Avant versus School of Quietude, subjective versus written-for-the-ages—have all been decided on. We’re all to be lyric, subjective, post-avant poets now, and that’s that. Baudelaire used the term “Rococo Romanticism,” and I think American Poetry has entered its Big Hair Phase.
Robbins: I find this both depressing and hilarious! And I don’t disagree with your assessment. I’m imagining Charles Bernstein, Kenny Goldsmith, Christian Bök, and Ron Silliman in leopard print spandex and frilly boas dancing around to “Rock You Like A Hurricane”! Ahhhhh. No! Someone make them stop!
OK. So what do we do about it?
I can’t pretend to have a simple answer, but I can say that I don’t think US poetry ever enters any stage without the calculated and concerted efforts of various individuals with very specific interests in mind. The 21st century scene seems to be dictated from above by a rather small group of poets with institutional (i.e., financial) connections that are constantly protected by a weirdly bureaucratic fiat (i.e., MFA dogma). The result is that contemporary US poetry has become, perhaps more than ever, part of the ideological state apparatus. It’s really no surprise that the gross capitulation to those approaches that you identify as having been ‘decided on’ has quite literally sucked the vitality out of contemporary poetry. It has also contributed to a proliferation of journals that fall neatly in line with the status quo. And this—the disturbing obedience of editors to what’s been ‘decided on’—is not only bland, but it’s frightening in its conservatism.
On one level I think the phrase "American Poetry has entered its Big Hair Phase" is one of the funniest assessments of PoetryWorld that I've encountered in a long time. Also one of the most accurate. One a more serious level, Nester's description serves as a scathing attack on the current state of affairs; and Robbins' reply explains why some poets have become disenchanted with the MFA writing programs that have proliferated all across the land (even as they participate).
I've been writing for over a year now on how mannerist art has become, while noting also that some of the same problems exist in contemporary music. This has been occupying my thinking about postmodernism and the arts for some time now.
That it's been "decided on" by the artistic mandarins that we are all supposed to be lyric, subjective, ironic, post-avant-garde poets and/or artists now makes me think of my two artist friends. That they were rejected by the artistic taste-makers and establishment mandarins seems to me exactly parallel to the state of affairs described by Nester and Robbins. Both of them ran afoul of critiques by other artists—I repeat, because this is important, critiques by other artists—precisely because their artworks were epic rather than lyric, archetypal rather than subjective, sincere rather than ironic, and influenced by art-historical iconography without being shallowly postmodern about their sources. My younger friend constantly felt attacked during critique sessions while in art school, because he was making art unlike anyone else, and he wasn't afraid of expressing darker emotions. My older friend, after her art school experience two decades ago, while she was starting to make a career of her art after art school, ran afoul of very similar critiques, and rejection after rejection from shows and galleries.
I've been through that rejection, too. For myself, I am quite aware that the art I make, and the music, and poetry, is the opposite of lyric, ironic, post-avant. It can be subjective art, but mostly in the sense that I approach the universal through the personal. My goal as an artist is not the "self-expression" of ego-display or the cult of celebrity, my goal is transcendence, getting past my "little self" to find the archetypal Self, which is mythic, shamanic, universal. A lot of my art actively scares people, or causes approach/avoidance behaviors, not because the art is shocking (intentionally or otherwise) or depicts brutality, but because it strips away shiny self-reflective filters of denial to deal with the big issues of life and death.
Over the past few years, as I've dealt with a chronic illness, had a few near-death experiences, and undergone life-changing surgery, my art has become even more focused on the big issues of life and death. In other words, as my life has been pared down to its essentials, its core questions, stripping away all unnecessary artifice and detail, so too has my art. I find that I don't care anymore if my art scares people, because I just don't have time or energy to waste on worrying about what people think of me. I've faced my own mortality, and I know my time here is limited, and I know too that I still have a lot I want to get done.
The younger of my two artist friends said to me, when he was still in art school, "You might as well admit it, the art you make is shamanic." He stopped me in my tracks, then, because I had been flailing for a way to market my art that was avoiding sincere words like "shamanic" or "visionary" or "archetypal," for fear of continuing to drive away the public and the critics alike. I had been using "visionary" as the most neutral possible term—but after my young artist friend called me on it, I made a new business card that openly said "Shamanic Artwork" on one side, with this image on the reverse:
It has in fact been a very popular business card. It might not be ironic or reserved enough for the mandarins of late-stage mannerist art, but the general public seems to love it.
So, where does this leave us?
In talking with both of my artist friends, the older trying to restart a career now that she's gotten past a lot of trauma she'd gone through back then, the younger having just survived the rigors of art school, I've found myself saying to both of them: Let all that stuff go. Let go of all the judgments and theories and -isms that were thrown at you, let go of all the career expectations they wanted to prepare you for, expectations which skew the critical judgments made in school and after. Just empty you mind and make art.
Ignore your history, ignore art history, ignore the mandarins and just make art.
That's my best advice to any artist, writer, or composer. I do my best to practice what I preach. I find it liberating to encounter the blank page with no expectations or history, beginning as if for the first time every time. In Zen, they call this practice "beginner's mind," which is fluid and open and playful, as opposed to expert's mind, which has become inflexible because it thinks it already knows all the answers. The state of affairs that Nester describes, the late stage of poetry, where the ossified are in charge of teaching, to paraphrase Robbins, is very much an example of expert's mind.
In expert's mind, what poetry is has been already "decided on." There are things you do, and that is Poetry, and things you don't do, and that is not-Poetry. I've run afoul of that myself, in a telling moment when a neo-formalist poet objected to a poem of mine on essentially moral grounds. Mind you, not on literary grounds, but on ideological ones. This is another example of expert's mind in operation, but also reflects on the aspect of postmodern Mannerism that focuses on means rather than ends.
So, again, I say that the answer is very simple and plain: Just make art. No matter what, make art. Don't stop. Make art. Don't get tied up in knots by expectations. Ignore the worst baggage of history. Just make art.
Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.
Poetry is just something you have to do, all the time. It's a wide and varied artform, and like many other wide and varied artforms it can accomodate a wide range of tastes and audiences. Don't limit it. Just do it.