Bill Knott asks some important (to the extent that poetry is important) questions here and here. His focus is Objectivism (the Zukofsky/Williams/Reznikoff/Oppen Objectivism, not the hilariously stupid “philosophy” cooked up by that maven of selfishness, Ayn Rand), one of the root assumptions of which is the notion that content doesn’t matter. In fact, Objectivist poetry exalted a world of things, a world without meaning—except for the significance imposed upon it by the poet. Objectivism was essentially a rejection of Romanticism, at the visionary end of which we find a poet like William Blake, who viewed poetry as the art not of imposing meaning but of discovering it. Meaning was “out there”; the poet’s role was to reveal it. While Objectivism freed poetry from vapid metaphysicality, it chained it to an iron materialism. (“A poem is a machine made of words,” wrote Williams in his Objectivist mode.) This wrong turn was a shift in consciousness, really, that has left poetry to the tender mercies of the Language/Conceptualist/Flarfist contingents. And why not? If the poem is a machine made of words, it may as well be written by machine. For whom and for what are questions we are encouraged not to ask.
I confess to periods of despair over the whole enterprise, nutshelled in this depressing little ditty:
THE POETRY WRECK*
Against the manic, mindless entropy of Flarf,
against gigglers, Googlers, the purely craptacular,
against the fatuous and the offhand, the curled
lip delivering Sneer Poetry like standup—
what do you propose? More Bar-Room Ballads?
More shiny sonnets? More fishnet villanelles?
Verse that warbles, or rings like cathedral bells?
Get serious. Wise up! Poetry’s in the ditch.
The pulsing ambulance?** Nobody cares enough
to call one—leaving you trussed, suspended
by the seat belt, to contemplate your shattered
windshield, your cranked knees, your blood
like any animal’s spattered across the dash.
Your whimper’s laced with bourbon. The GPS
announces that you’ve reached your destination.
* The title is stolen from an essay by Karl Shapiro, in which he completely misunderstands what was happening to poetry in the ’60s and ’70s. He thought the Beats were ruining the art, but didn’t see—who did?—that the materialist technicians of The New Sentence would successfully eat away the roots of any poetry human beings would care to read. The Beats and their devotion to illumination for both the writer and the reader seem strangely quaint today, now that everyone from our political leaders to the denizens of academe have decided that there is no “out there” out there—only a world of rhetoric and style, a world made of words, and the words reducible to chemical sparks in the brain. Pay no attention to those foreclosed-on street people! Bankrupt Ireland? Who cares! Look how awesomely my new poem captures the weird sensation of physical tics brought on by watching the Wheel of Fortune marathon!
** Another Shapiro reference:
Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once,
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.
We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.
Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question, Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken, Who is innocent?
For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of dénouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.