I was reading along in Václav Havel‘s historic essay “The Power of the Powerless” when I came to a passage that made my poetic antenna hum. I realized that Havel’s analysis of what he called “post-totalitarian” Czechoslovakia, published in October 1978, includes a pretty fair description of American poetry at this moment. I don’t by any stretch of the imagination mean to trivialize Havel’s essay, which galvanized the dissident community and ultimately helped to bring down the Czech regime. That said, I can’t resist.
The following passage required only two changes in wording: “power” becomes “PoBiz” and “people” becomes “poets”. Bracketed ellipses indicate, in the first instance, an omitted paragraph, and in the rest, the omission of “post-totalitarian,” a term coined by Havel that was accurate for Czechoslovakia at the time, but has little to do with American poetry.
As we have seen, ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of PoBiz, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the PoBiz structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such. Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it. The significance of phenomena no longer derives from the phenomena themselves, but from their locus as concepts in the ideological context. Reality does not shape theory, but rather the reverse. Thus PoBiz gradually draws closer to ideology than it does to reality; it draws its strength from theory and becomes entirely dependent on it. This inevitably leads, of course, to a paradoxical result: rather than theory, or rather ideology, serving PoBiz, PoBiz begins to serve ideology. It is as though ideology had appropriated PoBiz from PoBiz, as though it had become dictator itself. It then appears that theory itself, ritual itself, ideology itself, makes decisions that affect poets, and not the other way around.
Because of this dictatorship of the ritual, however, PoBiz becomes clearly anonymous. Individuals are almost dissolved in the ritual. They allow themselves to be swept along by it and frequently it seems as though ritual alone carries poets from obscurity into the light of PoBiz. Is it not characteristic of the […] system that, on all levels of the PoBiz hierarchy, individuals are increasingly being pushed aside by faceless poets, puppets, those uniformed flunkeys of the rituals and routines of PoBiz?
The automatic operation of a PoBiz structure thus dehumanized and made anonymous is a feature of the fundamental automatism of this system. It would seem that it is precisely the diktats of this automatism which select poets lacking individual will for the PoBiz structure, that it is precisely the diktat of the empty phrase which summons to PoBiz poets who use empty phrases as the best guarantee that the automatism of the […] system will continue.
Looking back, I can see that my reading of Stephen Burt’s recent review of four poetry collections is what sensitized me to the implications for PoBiz of Havel’s analysis. Burt struggles, it seems to me, to find positive value in the work of Juliana Spahr, Noah Eli Gordon, Anna Moschovakis and Kathleen Ossip; but in the end he chooses to title his review “Anxious and Paralyzed,” which seems about as much as we’re asked to expect from poetry these days.
The irony, of course, is that the enabling ideology of PoBiz—with its arid theories of language, its distaste for ordinary readers (that is, readers who are not poets themselves), its rituals of the effusive blurb and the jargon-ridden panel discussion—is the true source of the anxiety and paralysis that afflict its practitioners. Perhaps the cure, if there is one, is to bring down the system by simply opting out of it. (We are all engaged in it voluntarily, after all; there is no reason why more of us couldn’t follow Bill Knott’s example.) Or to create an alternate system. (Black Mountain College and Lighthouse Writers are two examples.) Or maybe, instead of writing for increasingly small communities of interest, poets should consciously write for the vast majority of readers whose concerns lie outside the perimeters of PoBiz. Of course, the situation is not 1978 Czechoslovakia, and any of these approaches (plus others I haven’t considered), or all of them at different times for different writers‚ may be in order.
As long as we can agree that PoBiz itself is the problem, there is at least the potential to clear enough ground for something better to emerge—something better not just for poets and readers, but for the poems they create together.