I recently had an opportunity to re-read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" after a blogger challenged my take on Gioia's involvement in the New Formalism posted here recently. It got me thinking about what it is to be a writer in our culture, and what it is that puts those sorts of thoughts in our heads. By those sorts of thoughts, I mean the ones that give a relatively successful writer like Gioia the idea that poetry should be doing something different, or that the status of literature in our culture is something other than it should be. I want to uncover and identify that impulse that drives various writers and critics to do the things they do and talk about contemporary literature in the way that they do.
Rosenfield and I talk a lot about The State of Things Literary, which is well and good I suppose, since Wet Asphalt is decidedly a venue dedicated to taking a good hard look at The State of Things Literary. We are both writers who are trying to get our work out into the public eye. Our work consists of various bits of fiction, poetry, and essay that at root we just want other people to read. I'll speak just for myself for now, but I suspect Rosenfield feels the same way.
This is what Wet Asphalt is about, really. We want to put forward the things that we like reading so that other people can read them. We want to be able to write about the things we read so that people who are interested can read what we have to say. We think we have interesting things to say.
But the literary world, let's face it, is fucked. Books occupy a shrinking share of the expenditure of entertainment dollars. Of that shrinking word-dollar, a large percentage goes to non-fiction, and a big chunk of what's left is spent mostly on mass-market paperbacks of the same ten books everyone else is reading. I'm loathe to describe them as bestsellers, because what to my mind defines them as a group is not the scale of their sales figures but rather the vapidity of their contents. A brief list, off the top of my head, of a few of these books:
- The Da Vinci Code
- The Celestine Prophecy
- The Poisonwood Bible
- Rainbow Six
- The Client
- The Bourne Identity
- Snow Falling on Cedars
I'm not listing these books to make fun of them. I'm listing them because I really have no interest at all in reading them. I have read one book on that list, and I will never read any of the others. What does that mean?
For me, it means that I have to look harder for the books I want to read. This is even more true of poetry, where the to-be-avoided books are not so easily distinguished by their high sales numbers. To this end, the Internet has proven invaluable. I can find books that are rare or out of print fairly easily. I can talk to other readers as invested in books as I am and get recommendations from them. I can get electronic recommendations based on my tastes from Amazon.com. I fully admit that I've discovered writers who were wholly new to me simply by clicking links on a commercial website. In reality, there is a lot of good stuff to read, and it's easier and cheaper than ever to produce and distribute the material that I write.
So what's the problem? From what arises the dispute between the post-avants and the School of Quietude? Why does Billy Collins lament the difficulty of contemporary poetry as alienating to readers? Why does Dana Gioia think that poetry needs saving?
I think the answer is money.
Because it is an artform, writers expect that there should be some value on the work that they produce which is deserving compensation in exchange for its distribution. In other words, the problem isn't writing, the problem is that it is almost impossible to live off writing. Certainly there are a fortunate few who manage it, even fewer who become immensely wealthy from the pursuit. But at the same time at the other end of the spectrum lie the destitute, the disorganized, the unwashed masses of poets, writers, diarists and the rest, all of whom are a vying for a chance at a sustainable living funded by writing.
I like to think I've given up on this notion and in doing so, have improved my work and my reading. It seems to me the question is a simple one. Not "Can poetry matter?" but "Does poetry matter to you?" If it does, great. If not, I don't think you owe me a living for my writing. Simple as that.
But there's more here at stake, because there always is. I like Ron Silliman's formulation, as oversimplified and rough as it is, of the School of Quietude/Post-avant binary. I think it finally gives a name to a fact about American poetry that has been the case and needed naming for quite some time. It's obvious to anyone who's paying attention that there are two kinds of poets in America, poets who think there are two kinds of poets, and those who don't. Those who do are that fractious and rambunctious American avant-garde; cliquish and snooty as it's ever been and still rife with all manner of people holding forth about various theories and philosophies of art and rarely creating anything of lasting value or saying much that's meaningful. On the one hand, the Internet has been a boon for poetry. We are able to share and exchange poems in ways that were never before possible. On the other hand, the cliquish nature of electronic socialization only exacerbates the problems inherent in the post-avant crowd.
What to make of this, particularly given how truly bad a lot of post-avant poetry is? (And what of those poets who think that there aren't two kinds of poets?)
In the post-avant poetry world, the biggest problem is a sort of photonegative of the emperor's new clothes puzzle; or, if you will bear with me, a mass application of the maxim "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." I think a lot of post-avants, Silliman first and foremost among them, are reticent to be critical of their friends or other poets in general. I think they feel so under-attack and isolated themselves by the likes of the School of Quietude, whose villainy and lameness I shall never question, that they have developed a pack mentality. So rather than saying "Clayton Eshleman is a clichéd hippy" or "Anne Waldman is a boring one-trick pony and she's only famous by proxy," or "visual poetry is what bad painters do when they realize they are also bad writers" or "I liked flarf better the first time around when John Cage and Jackson Mac Low were doing it in the fifties." (Not that I necessarily think that about the writers in question, these are just examples of what one might say. I like a lot of Clayton Eshleman's poetry.) I think this is a mistake because, from a distance, it looks an awful lot like a group of people who are all afraid someone else in their group is going to start juggling bricks and blow everybody's house two pieces. At the same time, it's hard to say mean things about the work of people who have your personal email address because you've all taught together at Naropa and have the esprit de corps that comes from being a persecuted minority. Of course, that sort of behavior can drive you crazy and isn't really advisable in the long term, and it tends to create figures like Carlo Parcelli—whose incoherent but entertaining polemic on the subject of binary oppositions in American poetry can be found here.
The end result is that there are a lot of people out there writing poetry, teaching poetry, teaching creative writing, and writing criticism, and a lot of them are not very good, their poetry is dull and uninteresting, and their work is only read by their friends and respected by strangers because of who those friends are. Silliman is critical of the School of Quietude for controlling the money and dolling it out to their undeserving friends and relations, and he's right to be critical, but the fact remains that his post-avant crowd do the same thing, the only real differences being that it's harder to tell that the friends and relations are undeserving—a problem with difficult writing in general because it takes a lot of effort to know whether it's any good or not; I tend to think most people don't want to do the work and in the end just let it all be good by virtue of being difficult—and the pot of money being divvied up is much smaller.
Of course it comes back to money, as always, because we are dealing with a group of snobs who think that they should be able to get paid for doing whatever it is they feel like doing. Payment may not come in the form of money, it may just mean awards, lectureships, accolades, and whatever dubious amount of fame comes from writing poetry, but it is a poor economist whose view of capital doesn't expand beyond the horizons of currency. Of course it comes back to money. Books are plagued by the awful stuff at every turn. Never mind the fact that these days there exists a cottage industry generating their ducats from writing books about how to write books. Incidentally, one of the most fascinating things about these writers is that in their bios, where it tells you that the author of the book has published 12 other books with various publishingers, they don't make the real point that one of those books is a failed romance novel and the other 11 were all about "How To Write and Sell Your Novel The Redbook Way" or whatever. Take as a case in point the book Give 'em What They Want, a surprisingly good book about how to approach Agents and Editors with fiction manuscripts, but about as terrible as anything else in the genre where it comes to actually giving advice on how to write. The authors of the book list in their bios such facts as "Author of 37 books" (Blythe Camenson) or that they "teach writing, editing and creativity" (Marshall J. Cook) but always judiciously avoid pointing out that between them they have written and published one (1) novel, Cook's The Year of the Buffalo: A Novel of Love & Minor League Baseball, which—I state confidently, not having read it but having seen the movie Bull Durham as an adolescent—is terrible.
Money and Art, then, and the interelation between them, is what I'm talking about here, and where much confusion and terrible work, as well as the problems with Silliman style solidarity. Silliman will go so far as to praise minor writers like Frank Stanford in spite of the fact that they aren't the least bit interesting, apparently because they are a part of his lineage and not SoQ writers. The problem for an outsider, as any reader worth having should be, is telling the difference between the various divisions in contemporary literary culture. That is, there is a multiplex of issues present that are all affected by money that tend to collapse into one another, as the proliferation of polar spectrums offered by various observers—from the poetry vs. prose tradition all the way up to the School of Quietude vs Post/Avant analysisMdash; demonstrates, when this tendency must be absolutely resisted to get a clear picture of the landscape. There is a distinction between snobbery of the kind present in both Glyn Maxwell and in Marjorie Perloff, and the intellectualism that Perloff shares with say Bernstein or Silliman, but not with Maxwell, but that Maxwell might share with someone like Robert Pinsky but which might exclude Ted Kooser.
Still this complex of oppositions has little to do with the School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant distinction. XJ Kennedy is an idiot, a snob, and an anti-intellectual, but he's also a member of the School of Quietude which places him firmly in the camp of the highly intelligent, insightful, intellectual, and not in the least bit snobby Robert Pinsky, who is none the less a horribly dull poet with several backwards ideas in his poetics on the order of those of moderately intelligent, critically unsophisticated, snobbish-but-at-least-he's-not-as-dumb-as-Kennedy Billy Collins. Whose poetry is at least better and who is not nearly as snooty nor nepotistic as the more intelligent, more difficult, Jorie Graham. And yet all of these people are part of Silliman's SoQ and rightly so. At the same time, all of the afforementioned poets, plus other Post-Avant types like Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, John Ashbery, as well as lesser knowns like Anthony McCann and BH Fairchild who, while not fitting so comfortably in the post-avant/SoQ binary, are decidedly academic poets. They make their money not from teaching writing at universities and giving talks to academic audiences. They possess MFA's and generally are indebted to the model of Auden and Iowa, and less so to Roethke and his famous Northwest students, to the fact that they don't have to have real jobs. In fact, in the Gioia essay that got me thinking about all of this, he makes the ridiculous statement that in this day and age it's easier than it's ever been to make a living as a poet, because there are so many jobs for poets as creative writing teachers. That such an assinine statement could come from the future director of The National Endowment for the Arts is truly disturbing. For the record, Dana, should you ever do some vanity googling and read this, being a creative writing teacher is making a living as a teacher, not as a poet.
Compare this to Silliman, who I understand makes his money in IT or shoring up the iron girders of consumerism as a market analyst or something, Jim Carroll who makes his money as a performer and writer but doesn't teach as far as I know, Charles Bukowski who worked at the post office before he made money as a writer, or the vast majority of the big names on the performance poetry scene, people like Rives, Buddy Wakefield, Rachel McKibbens or Big Poppa E who, quality of their poetry aside (generally it's pretty bad) and as lacking as the lot of them are in intellectualism as Silliman is bursting with it, make a living from being performers. Still, even in that world of performance there are a few Ragan Fox's who, again, are variously snobs, intellectuals, School of Quietude, Post-Avant (albeit rarely), boring, and interesting and who are decidedly Academics.
What I think can be drawn from this is not the more obvious conclusion that people are individuals and that it is foolish to try to group them in these ways. That's absolutely incorrect. These sorts of groupings are essential, not just for marketing but just for us to be able to penetrate the field and try to seek out the new without just buying books at random. Thousands of books of poetry are published every year, and it would be impossible to read even a sizable fraction of them, let alone carefully, and ever do anything else you might want to do. On the contrary, I think what's necessary is the application of not the razor of simplification that Silliman applies when he groups poets into Post/Avant and SoQ, nor the one that Neal Stephenson applies when he groups writers as Dante writers and Beowulf writers. Rather, I think that these are assumptions to be challenged and transgressed. A Post/Avant writer need not be a Dante writer, relying on patronage for financial support. A Dante writer need not be an academic and can look for patronage in working for companies outside academia, like Silliman does. An intellectual must try hard not to be a snob, and it is patently obvious that a snob need not be an intellectual. More importantly, I think, a Post-Avant writer can be a popular Beowulf writer, should be an intellectual, and should not contribute to the growth of writing workshops. While they are certainly not solely responsible, the AWP world has helped to so cloud the literary fiction and poetry fields with writers, and therefore glutt the supply side of of the market, that it is now impossible for a writer to get paid for writing a poem or short story. What at one time were true commodities for creative writers have now collapsed into so much vanity and dues paying. These traits in a writer have value and are worth cultivating. But I can't for the life of me think of anyone who is trying to cultivate them.