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Taxonomy and Grace

By (April 1, 2011) 60 Comments

When I first heard WS Merwin’s poem “Berryman,” I didn’t know who either writer was. Instead, I sat mesmerized as Olga Broumas—a poet whose own reputation I scantly appreciated—recited the poem in my undergraduate creative writing workshop. Her voice began with her usual airy breathlessness but quickly demanded attention. By the time the poem reached its final three stanzas, her voice was raw and unrestrained:

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

As a twenty year old, there was something romantic about the terms “passion,” “genius,” “good,” and “write.” They embodied my driving need to express a distilled, pressing urgency — to write poems. It was my hope that somehow my limited experience could reach someone else. I believed that the poem itself could change how just one person saw the world. Likewise, I also believed that other writers’ poems could fundamentally shake me to my core and offer me wisdom, hope, and faith in humankind and could connect me to another soul I might never meet.

Over the fifteen years since first hearing “Berryman,” I still believe — however naively — that poems can speak to other human beings and can make collective society consider our own convictions, experiences, and beliefs. Yet, I also am now deeply entrenched in the creative writing field, located squarely within university walls and my profession’s various conferences. The most notable conference is AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs), where I annually see thousands of writers like me. We sport name tags announcing university or press affiliation and carry a phonebook-sized guide to the various panels on pedagogy, poetics, aesthetics, politics, etc. To the uninitiated, it might appear that such a vast, diverse gathering of community committed to poetry would be elating. Yet, at the end of every conference, I leave exhausted and somewhat deflated. When I mingle with other writers there, rarely do I speak of how individual poems transformed my life. Honestly, I rarely hear any writers talk about this. Instead, we talk about our bona fides and aesthetic theories because we want to participate in the academic world—one whose tenure-line opportunities are dwindling as our numbers grow exponentially. While MFA/PhD programs have abounded for decades, I’ve never heard of or witnessed so many writers — particularly younger ones like myself — unnerved and worried. Where will our place be at the professional table? I believe these anxieties have penetrated creative writing so deeply — especially poetry — that we have become unwitting slaves to the taxonomic tendencies of literary criticism and the institutional emphasis on publication and theoretical self-labeling. In the face of what we perceive as our “professional future”, many writers struggle to remember that poetry’s greatest gift is located in making intimate human connections, no matter how disfigured or disembodied.

While creative writing in American literature has always had camps, movements (and the prerequisite back-biting and bickering), I believe our current poetic climate is so conflicted and contentious that we have done away with talking about poems on their own organic terms. Let it be clear: I am not arguing for a return to New Criticism nor do I believe in the overtly easy-blame game of it’s the fault of those fucking universities. We live in the 21st century. What’s the point of asking to return to “the good old days” when those days would have excluded the likes of me — a working class, oddly educated, and peculiarly read writer with gaping holes in my canonical knowledge? I’m suggesting that while it is important to attend to our own academic reputations and political and aesthetic convictions, it is more important that we honor the imagination by not solely treating the poem against a singular interpretive mechanism. Poems can arrive from disparate and conflicting sources — should we not discuss how those poetic sources interact as a kinesthetic presence in our lives? Furthermore, can we believe that poems have the potential to matter to all kinds of human beings without “pandering” to the lowest common denominator? For if we fall further and further into the world of literature departments and literary criticism, we fall into a world whose axis spins, according to literary scholar Stephen Cohen, on “career-making” and “professional politics” by participating in “a self-perpetuating cycle of exaggerations, misrecognitions, and demonization.”

To speak more exactly, Shakespearean scholar Sharon O’Dair argues that the current state of much literary theory is located in the politics of The New Left—concerned with gender, sexuality, and race—at the expense of Eugene Deb’s Old Left—a class-based interpretive method. Whether I find myself intellectually agreeing more with “New Left” or “Old Left,” these are only labels—a shortcut in indentifying a select portion of my brain, heart, or soul. If I were to write poems whose primary genesis is overtly taxonomical, then my work would lack the complexities of human thought and experience. After all, humans contradict themselves, behave in morally troubling ways, think circularly or contingently, and resist a singular pinning. If we judge poems not on their abilities to capture human experience, but rather on their ability to perpetuate and frontload a singular aesthetic or political theory, then we rob ourselves of the right to be unknown to ourselves. We rob ourselves of the ability to try to find what is necessary in our own lives and to articulate that through the artificial and highly flawed artistic mode of poetry. Literature matters to most people not because it reinforces a dominant ideology or singular politic, but because it reflects tension and uncertainty.

As Karl Shapiro pointed out many years ago, theory looks to singularize and summarize experience—to be right. Readers usually don’t look to see how a poem measures up against notions of New Left vs. Old Left theory, just as many writers don’t create poems whose values rest in how well they measure up to the aspirations of positivism or critical/continental theory. Yet, even as recently as this past weekend, I watched an argument take place after a reading when a PhD candidate took one of the readers to task because he felt the writer overstated Wittgenstein in a poem. We spent a good half an hour discussing which concept of Wittgenstein was being hyper-inflated, which Wittgenstein was referenced, which Wittgenstein was pertinent, etc. In the process, we robbed the poet of his creative agency to take what he felt was necessary from Wittgenstein and discard the rest. After all, the writer’s impetus was not to stake a fixed claim within a rhetorical framework; it was to use his version of Wittgenstein as a jumping off point to something larger and more mysterious. A more appropriate question might have been “well, why did you use this version of Wittgenstein — I read him differently but am curious as to your interpretation.” It wasn’t that the writer didn’t know Wittgenstein; it was that the student wanted his version of Wittgenstein to be the correct version, and thereby he diminished the creative act’s potential.

If this story were an anomaly, it would be hardly worth the time to document. Over and over, however, I have seen New Criticism, Semiotics, Deconstruction, Neo-Marxism, etc. become the singular apparatus on which to judge whether or not a poet or whole poetic movement is not only worth a reader’s time, but whether a certain breed of literature has any business being present in the world. Don’t get me wrong: we are poets and should be part of the world. I see nothing wrong with healthy, socially-diverse debate on class, race, gender, cities, hot dogs…you get my point. But more often than not, certain writers of reputation take complicated and dynamic ideas and reduce them to a singular theory that the public has no foothold on. Often, the worst offenders are some “widely-read” writer blogs. These writers — some of whom are firmly established in their academic and artistic careers — speak with the tonal authority of gurus, but employ no substantive argumentative scaffolding in their posts as the medium requires none. In short, the bloggers assume that they are the experts and the audience continues to support, negate, or complicate their arguments with a similar lack of argumentative rigor. Of course, there are counter experts and counter counter experts — and so this galaxy spins and — most problematically — informs how many writers measure their intellectual, artistic, and personal worth.

For example: in the past decade, The School of Quietude debate has been fodder for the creative writing blogosphere. One of its most significant participants is Ron Silliman, who over the years has selected a vast assortment of writers and placed them within two camps — those who are creating “significant” poetry and those who are not, who are engaging, instead, in Quietude. What is Quietude? According to Seth Abramson’s blog, The Suburban Ecstasies, in Dead-Sea-Scroll=length response to Silliman:

In short, the School of Quietude is simply this: The belief, as exhibited in and by certain contemporary poems, that the near-totality of words in an individual poem should be employed in such a way as to utilize exclusively their transcendent rather than immanent meaning. To the extent this proclivity, as to word usage, commonly generates a poem whose individual on-the-page “marks” constitute merely an “echo” of the visualizable universe of matter the poem evokes, the actual words of the poem may be considered Quiet. They are Quiet in the sense that they are not permitted their full expression as “words-qua-words,” but instead remain merely signifiers of a series of referents whose acknowledgment, comprehension, and internalization is the most important work of the poem.

There is nothing simple in Abramson’s description because the whole discussion of this topic has been carelessly theorized, reinterpreted, and disseminated so vastly that the term has no clear meaning. Why? Because these debates’ ultimate goals are not to further artistic diversity or engage in fostering deeper thought, but, rather, to devolve into pissing contests based on exaggeration and the desire to drag one another through a Google-ready mud. For instance, Abramson feels compelled to list his “fifteen professional accomplishments” (his tongue only half in cheek) as a method to mock Silliman. Why? Because Silliman — bandying that he would “tarred” and “feathered” for arguing that WS Merwin is a Quietest—insisted that:

If there are to be adjectival poetry, whether we call our particular adjective Beat, Deep Image, Projectivist, Modernist, Surrealist, Actualist, New York School, Black, Gay, Feminist, Visual, Brutalist, Flarf, Hybrid or New Formalist, invariably it must be an instance of a marked case, something that sets it apart from the unmarked noun: Poetry.

Silliman further assumes that if one does not adhere to his theoretical notions — in this case, the School of Quietude needing to announce itself — then one is engaging in an act aligned with misogyny and racism, as calibrated against Silliman’s own recollections of his grandmother.

Ultimately, the problem is not so much that a few highly intelligent writers with well-regarded credentials are bickering over what constitutes “real” poetry. The problem is that this kind of rhetorical certainty and academic posturing is now what often serves as poetic dialog. I do not believe that writers should be innocent of the various theories taxonomizing class, race, literature, etc. But if I were a twenty-five year old poet entering into an MFA program right now (remembering my own emotional proclivities of last decade), I would be told that my job is to simply write, but I would also hear students and professors announce what kind of poet I am. Unable to situate my own writing in these contexts, I would feel stupid. I would no doubt surf the byzantine blogosphere and become convinced that either I must write with a conscious agenda on hand or I won’t have the chops to be a real writer. There would be no space for a tenuous naming, or a belief in intimate bonding. Instead, I would fixate upon whether or not my “ax” is someone else’s “ax,” and since these items mean different things to different people, I’d be pigeonholed into writing about nothing except my own inability to feel like I have any right to my own language and experience. I would simply revert to cleverness. And I would be miserable.

For better or worse, I am thirty-six, and these sweepingly large treatises do not factor into my own creative work. I take what I need from theory, history, or politics, and dispense with the rest. More importantly, I believe that my work can reach other people—that it can matter not solely for its theme or message but for its crafting and attention to detail. Whether it really does or not, well, “if you have to be sure don’t write.” I write with the belief that I will reach someone but once the poem is out of my hands and in the world, I also know I have no control over how people interpret or react to it. This is the basic tenet of art: art is tenuous. Matt Henriksen, in an interview for the Studio One Reading Series, similarly claims that his poems are often random “probes into space.” Still, connectivity occurs:

Sometimes grace overcomes that distance. In spite of our definite isolation, we experience closeness. I think everyone, myself included, cheapens that closeness through short-cuts, by naming ourselves avant-garde artists or Libertarians or Christians. We assert that familial bonds are unbreakable when the grace of familial love resides in the difficult fact that our love for family, even our children, is ultimately conditional. I need not give examples. In my experience, grace always arrives through the dismantled, disfigured, and disturbed.

Henriksen’s quote is especially inspiring in that he acknowledges the randomness of language and being, but still believes in the possibility for said randomness to procure intimacy. Not all people do. In the Sunday, March 26 edition of the NYT, book reviewer David Orr, on writing about the recent hubbub in the literary community in regards to Oprah’s fashion shoot of Rising Young Female Poets, laments that “The chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast, and not even the mighty Oprah can build a bridge from empty air.” Orr suggests that poets ruminating on the importance of their work or the political issues they champion will not fill the gap. Rather, he believes it would be best for poets to simply discuss with non-poets what it would be like to “simply to read a poem.” Orr concludes the article by quoting a poem whose ending acknowledges its own “inscrutable ending” and then argues that conclusive inscrutability widens the abyss between artist and pop culture.

I find Orr overstates the case because he inhabits an all-or-nothing attitude. Either we change everything we do in poetry all at once or we will lose the art forever. While he insists that people simply want to know “what it’s like to read a poem” and don’t care about the conditions that inform the writer and readers’ lives, I know no other method of reading that doesn’t allow for our responses to be calibrated against our own experiences of the known and unknown. Rather than just wanting the whole chasm to disappear in one fell swoop, perhaps we writers could find a more moderate ground on which to meet more diverse audiences. Could we stop speaking to just one another? Could we, both experimental and traditional poets alike, inhabit Langston Hughes’ model of “my readings or gigs” and risk being booed? Perhaps then we could realize that change can happen slowly, capriciously, and via one person at a time.

For instance, one morning in April 2010, I poured my usual coffee into my usual mug before my wife and daughter awoke. It was sunny outside, and when I cracked the windows, an air arrived that could make a person picture baseballs and budding trees and clotheslines. But I had no delight in that day — or in any day — as I had been suffering a three-year bout with severe depression and anxiety. I withdrew from my wife and child: in fact I almost hid from them. And then I started to grow desperate. I pondered, what right do I have to a family? Haven’t I always been nothing but an obstacle, “a giant infant with insomnia” to quote Jon Anderson? I closed my eyes and began to sob in muffled tones. It took time, but I gathered myself. And something approaching gnosis or fate or luck occurred. I reached for Denis Johnson’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, slowly paged through the contents, and stumbled across what is a rather incidental poem in the collection, “Behind Our House”:

My neighbor walks crippled, with a head half left,
toward the flag and boxes and machines
of the Post Office, having tried
once to shoot himself, having lived,
mails a letter…

The delay between the subject and the verb and the conditions built into the description still cause my spine to go cold. I picture these little PO Boxes in the student union and picture my daughter, now a young woman, lending me her shoulder as I’m consumed in drool and having to drag my leg behind me. How tired she must be, how utterly and perpetually crestfallen. It is not Johnson’s message that shakes me; it is my own experience with Johnson’s palette, language, and measure that rattles my stature.

That moment, my life: It seems so coincidental. I had spent the majority of my adult life hating myself, feeling unworthy to love and be loved. Through that summer and that fall, whenever I revisited those lines, I wondered why they took hold of me as if by the shoulders. I don’t know. But I know it wasn’t because of the poem’s canonical or theoretical location in 1980s poetry. Johnson believed his poem could reach someone. It did. And I am alive.

Joseph P. Wood is the author of two full-length collection of poetry, I & We (CW Books, 2010) and Fold of the Map (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming 2012), as well five chapbooks. Previous poems and reviews can be found in Boston ReviewBombVerse, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Rain Taxi, Gently Read Literature, among others. He’s at work on series of essays about notions of “closed” and “open”. He teaches at The University of Alabama and lives with his wife and daughter in Tuscaloosa.