Over at “Stoning the Devil,” Adam Fieled has chosen to re-engage via comments on the poems I’ve posted by Philip Levine and Adrienne Rich. He takes me to task for not explicating the poems, but as I told him in his comment stream, “I have no intention of explicating the poems, although I may comment on them in a general way as I continue to post more examples. The fact that you’ve ‘approved’ the Rich poem makes my core point—that so-called ‘SoQ’ poets have produced excellent poems—so I’m just going to put the whole thing to rest at my end, as far as the ‘quarrel’ goes. We’re arguing over nothing but personal taste, and to devote our energies to pretending otherwise is a waste of time.”
After posting that comment it occurred to me that really, all this time, I’ve been arguing through Adam with Ron Silliman, who after all invented the term “School of Quietude” as a pejorative designation meaning “any poet I [Ron, that is] doesn’t like.” Look back, what drew me into debating Adam was his support of the SoQ term and its implications vis-à-vis the so-called “post-avant.” Given the fact that there are several “post-avant” poets whose work I value, what in the world am I arguing about?
I stumbled upon the answer in a book by Joseph Harrington called Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics:
[A variety of poets] all, in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent, agreed that poetry possesses an intrinsic or potential duty toward or power among reading (or listening) publics. Accordingly, they all became suspect in the eyes of the institutionally ascendant modernist critics. It is only under the institutional influence of “high modernist” poetics that the poem comes to seem more important than either the poet or the public; the modernist poet therefore renounces the ethical duty toward an audience, or anyone else.
One could easily substitute “post-avant” for “modernist” in that passage. While post-avant writers are not (yet) “institutionally ascendant,” they certainly renounce the idea that a poet should write with a more than fractional audience in mind, and their endless complaining about being marginalized by the SoQ is a symptom of their wish to become institutionally ascendant. Kenneth Goldsmith, in a recent Harriet post, took this complaint to a whole new level with a post entitled, “It’s Always a Bad Time for Poetry”—meaning, of course, his kind of poetry; and in a reply to a comment on this post by Linh Dinh, Goldsmith stated gave clear support to that desire: “Linh: Everyone wants power. And money. And fame. Get over it.”
The lust for institutionally ascendant status on the part of post-avant polemicists like Silliman and Goldsmith—and in certain posts, Adam Fieled—is what I find so annoying. I have written over and over that I favor openness; I try, but sometimes fail, to cultivate it in my own reading and writing. Then along comes Silliman & Co., whose aim is to replace one gated community with another. The oppressiveness of the modernist hegemony in the Academy can’t be cured by a post-avant hegemony. I’m not saying that we all need to agree, or even “get along”; I’m all in favor of strong opinions intensely argued. But I do think the craven desire for power, money and fame is corrupting for poets, bad for readers (assuming one thinks that readers matter at all), and destructive per se for the art of poetry.