Well, I tried to dissent from the debate, but now Seth Abramson has yet another lengthy and thought-provoking entry on his blog, to which I want to steer this blog’s readers, in part because I generally agree with his analysis.
I have two dissents, though. One regarding his statement that “it’s all very well to call Mark Doty a Quietist–fair enough, if the term’s to mean what Ron intends it to mean–but there’s a reason Mark Doty isn’t particularly widely read by today’s MFA students, and it’s because that quality of his verse Ron is attempting to capture by calling him a Quietist is evident, too, to MFA students.” The second regarding his statement that “thousands of poets … are falling through the cracks of today’s poetry terminology, and … their poetry is therefore in danger of being relegated to premature obscurity….”
First, the implication that a poet who is “not widely read among today’s MFA students” must be a bad poet is nonsense. It’s nonsense because it privileges the taste of a small subgroup of specialists over the taste of the public at large. Surely the taste of any subgroup—tugboat captains, press secretaries, professors of linguistics, janitors—is not automatically better or worse than any other subgroup’s, including MFA students.
Second, “today’s poetry terminology” has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a particular poet’s work is finally “relegated to obscurity.” (This is an amusing idea, by the way: “premature obscurity.” It tacitly recognizes that the vast majority of poets will be thus relegated in the long run.) Was Jack Spicer a Beat poet? A Magical poet? A Post-Avant poet? (Maybe the Martians let him travel in time so he could whisper “post-avant…” in Ron Silliman’s ear.) Surely Spicer’s work was “relegated to obscurity,” thanks largely to his own preferred publishing practices, just as Emily Dickinson’s work was self-relegated.
The process by which poets gain an audience in the long run would be worth serious study—something I don’t have the interested or temperament to do. (It seems right up Seth’s alley, I think.) But based on accounts of various poets’ careers that have crossed my path, I’m willing to bet that “relegated” poets who happen to be excellent, as well as poets who achieve recognition early on, all have their work preserved and promoted at first by small groups of friends and family who loved them, then by small groups of contemporary readers, poets, editors, and/or scholars who discover their work through the efforts of those friend/family groups. (We see this at work right now in the effort of Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian to preserve and promote the work of Jack Spicer.) At some point certain poets’ work finds its way into critical articles, anthologies, and textbooks, and from there into classrooms—from which they are either remembered or forgotten by the students who read them. Very few poets, whether the are lionized or ignored in their lifetimes, ever enter that phase. And the next phase is even more exclusive: the poet is granted, by general consensus, a niche in the Canon, from which promontory his work reaches a broad and diverse audience who have no clue about the early phases of the process that have placed the poet’s work before them.
Of course, no poet is ever “safely” in the Canon. As cultures change, tastes change—and the Canon expands or contracts. Now and then devotees of ejected poets—the equivalent of some long gone friend/family group—manage to resurrect this or that reputation. But the fact is, I think (this would take some statistical work to prove), that a poet who manages to hang on to Canonical status for 100 years or more is fairly secure. But all one needs to do is peruse popular textbooks and anthologies published 100 years ago to see that the Canon building process is messy. Editors, scholars and even fellow poets are often off the mark in their judgments of contemporaries—assuming, of course, that the judgments of later generations matters at all. The fact of this historical inability to judge ones contemporaries sets up an historically typical dynamic, in which fellow poets sneer at scholars and at other poets, while both poets and scholars berate the poor editors—who after all are just trying to turn a buck by catering to what they think the audience might want.
So what’s a poet to do? Well, hitching one’s star to some school of poetry or other has always been a popular alternative. Members of the “school” (a friend/family group) read and critique and promote each other; they usually develop attitudes, if not actual theories, that justify their practice, along with a special jargon to use in talking about their practice. (Jargon—the often overpowering Eau de Theory—is always useful to such groups, as Marxist criticism and the hand gestures of Freemasonry illustrate.) If the school gains any kind of currency (was that a pun?), it spins theories from the attitudes that justify the practice. Of course, theory sometimes precedes practice, as we see when we examine the shaping influence of Rosicrucianism on Yeats or Freudian theory on Breton.
Like Yeats and Breton, Post-Avant writers have rooted their practice in theories, primarily linguistic ones. From their investment in theories they’ve developed attitudes, the chief one (it seems to me) being that readers who don’t embrace these poets’ theories are somehow at fault. From that attitude it follows, as the night the day, that poets who choose not to write in ways that require their readers to put on theory-glasses (akin to those cardboard 3-D specs one had to wear to enjoy Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors) … well, those poets are bad because they encourage readers in their sin—that is, in their failure to give a crap about theories. These evil poets, these bêtes noires of the Post-Avant practitioner, are given the jargon-appellation of “Quietist,” and are consigned to “The School of Quietude,” much as Dante consigned Ghibellines to hell.
Which brings me around to Seth’s continuing attempts to create descriptors for various kinds of poetry, “Cognitive-Semantic” being the one he focuses on in this post. I would simply say that such descriptors may be helpful to certain kinds of readers, but because they are rooted in specialized, jargon-ridden theories that are controversial even within the disciplines from which they derive, these categories are useless to whatever readers the best of these poets will ultimately find—if they find them.
And while I thoroughly agree with his laying down the gauntlet to Ron’s readership regarding SoQ and Post-Avant distinctions, I’d rather see him lay down the gauntlet for himself, and take a single poem by Joshua Beckman, or Peter Gizzi, or Matthea Harvey, or Catherine Wagner, and demonstrate what marks it as a “cognitive-semantic” poem. I’d love to see him do it without referring to abstruse linguistic or psychological theories and without using specialist jargon. If it can’t be done—and if it can’t be put into everyday English—then I suggest he find another way to get at what makes these writers so similar and so excellent.