In Chapter 104 of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville puts these words into Ishmael’s mouth—but surely the sentiment is his own:
In the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with the outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying , is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty volume you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written upon the flea, and though many there be who have tried it.
This passage came to mind when I ran across an article about avant-garde writer Christian Bök, author of the risible and excruciating Eunoia. The article notes that Bök “plans to encipher a poem as a sequence of DNA and then implant it into the genome of a bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans, an organism highly resistant to evolutionary drift. Bök notes that, because this life form can survive a nuclear attack, his poem might even outlast human civilization itself.”[my italics]
This so-called “Xenotext Experiment,” in which a Professor of English at the University of Calgary (think of his poor students!) goes Ishmael one better by writing on something smaller than a flea, combines intellectualoid arrogance with P. T. Barnum-esque showmanship, all—I suspect—aimed at wowing the rubes on his tenure committee. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: In these times of economic meltdown I wish for Mr. Bök the kind of sinecure that all of us “culture workers” deserve. I do worry, though, about the effect the avant-garde decoupling of significant content from significant form is having on the broader practice of poetry. I just finished teaching a graduate level class in which I used Kevin Prufer‘s quite decent anthology The New Young American Poets, which I think is fairly representative of what’s coming out U.S. writing workshops, and feel forced to note that my students—most of them older, working adults—could find almost nothing in it of interest. Prufer’s poets are not avant-garde, of course, but they do to often reflect some of the avant-garde’s penchant for small subjects, small emotional effects, and a willingness to tip a toe, but seldom a whole foot, into various philosophical currents popular in American graduate schools. Whether these poets mention them or not, the ghosts of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Barthes, Pound (at his worst), the neurasthenic Eliot, and others of that kidney haunt their work. Prufer himself seems to be escaping these withering influences in his recent work, and one can only hope the best poets in his anthology are doing the same.
Someday, maybe, one or more of them will write something that survivors of an economic meltdown, or even a nuclear attack, might care enough to read.