Here’s a response to Christian Bök that I posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, for what it’s worth….
I might suggest that, if the avant-garde has repudiated the lyric genre, such poets have usually done so in order to resist reiterating this dominant, romantic identity of self-expression—the coherent, rational ego, recounting anecdotes out loud to itself in the “quietude” of elegiac emotion (a subjectivity that the avant-garde has historically equated with the kind of selfhood produced by bourgeois capitalism, if not by modernist patriarchy—both of which demand that everyone “confess” openly to their innermost attitudes so that social forces of conformity might act upon such experiences). I often joke with my students that I am never going to tell them “to find their own voice” because, despite the fact that most teachers of lyricism in other creative-writing classes may pay lip service to the idiosyncrasies of such expressive uniqueness, these teachers, nevertheless, end up producing a spate of poets who often write like everyone else and sound like everyone else (each poet, for example, using line-breaks to chop up heartfelt anecdotes into free verse that differs from prose, only because it is no longer right-justified…).
Christian has managed to pack an extraordinary number of idiocies into this paragraph, but it may be worth trying to “out” them if only because this excerpt is so characteristic of his posts.
First, the lyric “self” in the Romantic tradition is anything but coherent and rational; it is, in fact, typically fragmented and irrational. A swift tour through Blake, Coleridge, Keats, the early Wordsworth, and our own Poe can provide plenty of evidence for this.
Secondly, he attacks “subjectivity” as if the avant-garde offers an alternative. No writer of any stripe simply starts up a machine that generates random words; that is, ALL writing is subjective. Furthermore, the work of ALL writers is shaped buy the historical, socio-cultural world the writers inhabit. The “avant-garde” — a scarcely century-old self-description that could never have come into being without bourgeois capitalism — is certainly as conformist as any other style of writing. Like most poetry of all kinds arising out of our cultural and historical moment, avant-garde poetry is a product of the Academy, is read by almost no one but once and future members of the Academy, and is generally “quietistic” in the extreme. If there is an avant-garde poet whose work can stand comparison with the work of Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Nazim Hikmet, Taslima Nasrin, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Andrea Zanzotto or Ko Un, I would dearly love to know about it.
Third, Christian tells is students (poor creatures) that they need not bother trying to find their own voices because so many creative writing teachers have failed to produce poets with distinctive voices. Does he really believe that writing programs “produce” writers? Is he really so tone-deaf that he can hear no difference between Kerouac’s prose in On the Road and Williams’s verse in Spring and All? Is he so blissed-out on his mechanistic literary ideology that he can’t grasp the absolute importance of “voice” (which I take to mean individual, distinctive style) to the ultimate survival of any piece of writing?
Christian and his students are, of course, free to write — or assemble, or dissemble — for an imagined future audience of cyborgs, but if there is going to continue to be an audience for poetry, then poets will have to continue addressing human experience, human emotion, and human psychology. The lyric is only one form in which this can happen, but it’s a form that’s likely to outlive not only the PoBiz that has produced such safe, anemic mainstream poetry, but the self-congratulatory claptrap that characterizes the avant-garde.