Seth Abramson devotes two recent blog posts (here and here) to a single issue: “How to Make Poetry Relevant.” His point of departure is yet another post, this one by K. Silem Mohammed, which Abramson calls “flarfist” (not familiar with Flarf? Oh, benighted soul! See here and here [scroll down to “Feature: Flarf”], if you have the stomach for it). But Mohammed’s post seems pretty straightforward to me, and insightful to boot. For once it’s Abramson, usually so balanced and incisive, who intercepts Mohammed’s pass and takes off down field the wrong way.
Through all these musings over “making poetry relevant,” we are never treated to a definition of “relevance.” Interestingly enough, given that Abramson is a lawyer, the word originated in the early 16th century as a Scots legal term meaning “legally pertinent.” But in current usage it means “closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand.” So relevance in poetry must be contingent upon “the matter at hand.” But neither Mohammed nor Abramson address this issue.
Instead, Mohammed writes as if relevance were a quality in itself, speaking of “the way in which poetry transfers relevance from its means of production to its finished product.” Oddly enough, this comes after he criticizes Dan Hoy for his article on Flarf because Hoy accuses Flarf of “internalizing the insidious corporate ethics of Google by using its search results as material for poetic collage.” How can he criticize Hoy when he (Mohammed) himself implies that relevance exists in poetry’s means of production, from which it is transferred to its finished poetic product? Can it really be possible that “the matter at hand” upon which poetic relevance depends is really inherent in its means of production? Is the medium really the message?
Ambramson, on the other hand, sees relevance as something conferred by the audience rather than members of “the poetry community,” by which he means the community of practicing poets. This misunderstanding leads him to praise MFA programs for providing “the non-poetry reading public a rubric within which to understand the presence of poets in its midst,” and to further argue that the professionalization of poetry—i.e., the shoehorning of poets into the Academy via MFA programs—is “as much for the benefit of poetry’s audience, and the culture from which that audience arises, as for the poets who are thus themselves ‘professionalized.'” It’s disturbing, I think, to find a poet who actually seems to believe that MFA programs have any effect on the understanding of people who do not read poetry, when in fact the doings of MFA programs are as irrelevant to the non-poetry reading public as are the doings of The International Association of Plastics Distribution.
Both Mohammed and Abramson avoid the central question of “the matter at hand” when it comes to relevance in poetry, and I think I know why. “The matter at hand” has nothing to do with the means of poetic production and almost nothing to do with MFA programs, awards, publishing contracts, and all the other mechanisms Abramson cites as significant in creating an audience for poetry. “The matter at hand” that creates poetry’s relevance is a combination of its intellectual/emotional content and each poet’s formal responses to that content. Poetry that seeks to eliminate content (Conceptualism) and poetry that relies on mechanical operations to create its content (Flarf) cannot be relevant, because these poetries either have no intellectual/emotional content (Conceptualism) or that content entails no formal response from the poet (see the now infamous Flarf anthology Issue 1).
What’s more, poetry’s relevance is seldom experienced at the time of its creation. It’s always instructive to go back 100 or 150 years and compare contemporary assessments of the “major poets” of a given period with assessments made two or three generations later. Poetry’s relevance grows over time, because a poet’s contemporaries are often unwilling to acknowledge “the matter at hand”—that is, contemporary audiences typically fail to recognize the worth of the intellectual/emotional content and/or formal responses to it that all great poems embody.
So, while I sympathize with Seth Abramson’s desire to increase the audience for contemporary poetry, and while I sympathize with K. Silem Mohammed’s desire to liberate poetry from “the late capitalist contemporary” (a system he finds “monstrous”), I have to assert that authentic poetry is always liberated from even its creator’s own constraints. It’s that sense of liberation, of imaginative openness and revelation, that creates poetry’s audience and its relevance over time.