I was recently asked to write a poetics statement for an anthology in which my work is being published. In an effort to promote discussion (and for a more timely response to Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric” (Boston Review, May/June 2012), I decided to seek out a literary blog with which to share this piece. What follows is a modified excerpt from my statement.
Poetries of Resistance
The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem––a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs––has produced an extraordinary uniformity.
—Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric”
We’ve all heard the cry about MFA programs producing the “McPoem,” but Perloff’s description doesn’t just point fingers, it locates the source of the problem––that uniformity in poetry is produced by a system filled with people who long to become one of the initiated, in hopes of securing these “good jobs,” or at least to be praised by people in such positions. In short, the “well-crafted” poem has achieved a certain exchange rate in the creative economy. Contemporary American poetry has, in a sense, become infected by the drive of capitalism. Higher education, after all, is a business.
That said, I am a graduate of an MFA program, and I can honestly say it helped me determine my poetic sensibility. In observing the poetic development of my peers, I saw many individuals cultivating the aesthetic of the “well-crafted” poem. Of course, there were poets who weren’t interested in this at all, and we became close friends. I came to the program wanting to find myself as a poet––not to piece myself together into a tidy, tame, and marketable superstar that could win the “Yale Younger,” which seemed to be a common goal.
There was one specific moment in graduate school that determined the direction of my work. I was at an MFA theme party where everyone was supposed to dress up as their high school selves. I ended up talking to a drunkenly honest “well-crafted” classmate, who bemoaned the fact he had “lost all [his] connections” and that “the only thing that matters are connections.” His delivery was frightening and monstrous. A poet was actually telling me to my face that he cared more about networking and publishing and success than actually writing a poem he could stand behind. This is not the spirit of the artist; it is the spirit of the businessman.
I agree with Perloff when she states that lyricism has become incredibly uniform. I will take her statement one step further––lyrical language has become, literally, an advertisement of one’s poetic gravitas. We have reached a point in literature where people are utilizing their skill to manufacture a lyricism with the sole purpose of targeting book prizes and selection committees. Like the language of advertising, the contemporary “well-crafted” lyric manipulates, soothes, and empowers its audience (or, more specifically, editors and judges). I wholeheartedly believe poetry cannot move forward into new territory unless there is a unified (but not centralized) resistance to this creative model.
Perloff seems to think that the primary resistance comes in the form of the Conceptual poets (and their “relatives”). This gives those in the establishment (or those sympathetic to their aesthetic) the impression that this is an “establishment” vs. “experimentalist” deathmatch, which results in tired arguments of accessibility, the impenetrability of the avant-garde, and the desire to “expand the audience” of poetry. Marjorie Perloff’s “avant-garde mandate” seems particularly stringent; she fails to address that there are poets with far softer, self-dictated mandates (myself among them) who agree (vocally and/or through their aesthetic) with her sentiments regarding the uniformity of the dominant lyricism. When the resistance to the dominant lyric is recognized as something that concerns a wide variety of poets, the argument shifts from accessibility and audience to the ethics of being a poet in the world. And, ultimately, this is what I mean by there being a necessity for a non-centralized resistance. We must do things on our own terms, and not necessarily according to singular models of what a poem has to be.
Drew Krewer is the author of the chapbook Ars Warholica (Spork Press, 2010) and is founder and co-editor of The Destroyer, an online publication of text, art, and public opinion.
15 thoughts on ““Poetries of Resistance,” by Drew Krewer”
Hey, thanks for posting this! And congrats on the anthology.
I personally find Marjorie Perloff needlessly reductive. Sure a lot of the PLUS (Personal Lyric of Universal Significance) out there is garbage, but so is a lot of everything. My (brilliant) classmate Virginia Konchan recently published a (brilliant) poem in the New Yorker (“Love Poem,” 30 April 2012)—and she says they just bought another one from her, too. I rarely read the poems in the New Yorker, but there’s two brilliant ones for you, and I saw one by Ashberry not too long ago that was also rather good.
The avant-garde won’t save American poetry. American poetry doesn’t need saving. There are more brilliant poets writing and publishing today than I can keep up with! Some of them write concept poems, some of them write New Sincerist poems, some of them write constraint-based poems, and some of them write lyrics. And there’s more beyond all of that.
Adam-why do you find Perloff needlessly reductive?
It seems what Drew and Perloff are getting at is that one type of lyric is prized above all others and that some people write towards an end not of their choosing because they see others being rewarded for a particular type of aesthetic. This type of lyric is defined by Perloff as “exhibit[ing] the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.”
Isn’t this: “The avant-garde won’t save American poetry. American poetry doesn’t need saving. There are more brilliant poets writing and publishing today than I can keep up with! Some of them write concept poems, some of them write New Sincerist poems, some of them write constraint-based poems, and some of them write lyrics. And there’s more beyond all of that”
Ugh, I or WordPress put my reply to this below, under your other comment. Drat.
Greg, sometimes you boggle my mind. It’s a good thing I love your shaggy head.
How on earth is an appeal to recognize diversity reductive? I’m saying that not all lyric poets do what Perloff says they do (write uniformly = reductiveness; I am arguing against the claim they write uniformly).
Perhaps I really should resort to writing in pure symbolic logic.
Sure, some poetic techniques/forms are currently more prized in certain circles than other ones. It is always like this. That doesn’t mean that 1) all lyric poets are doing that, or that 2) all lyric poets are doing the same things with those techniques and forms (which is a crucial distinction).
Hell. All Language Poets write New Sentences that resist syllogisms through parataxis and the emphasis on associative qualities within the lines. Ergo…they’re all the same! Or: all Conceptual Poets are interested in the devaluation of the finished book or text, preferring to focus instead on invented procedures that remove all conscious intervention from the execution of the project. Ergo…uniformity! How silly.
I definitely think it makes sense to point out shared techniques and forms. I do a lot of that myself. Like with my current writing on the New Sincerity, sure, I’m happy to point out similarities between Miranda July and Tao Lin and Dorothea Lasky and Steve Roggenbuck. But for me to then claim that they’re all “unifiorm” somehow, and in some need of some external form that will rescue their work from those shared characteristics, would be idiotic.
As the poet Spock said, “IDIC.”
Adam, I love certain parts of you too, but sometimes I think you are replying to someone who is not there, or who is there, but is a doppleganger of yourself.
I don’t view the quoted section as “an appeal to recognize diversity.” It seems you are a simplifying a problem that Drew and Perloff are interested in exploring. What you do say (the quote) seems akin to a Henny Youngman joke – “A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”
No one said “all” – the argument is elsewhere.
OK, then explain to me how I’m being reductive when I say that poets should write in a wide variety of styles and forms, all of which offer near-limitless potential for innovation and artistry, and none of which are better than any others? As opposed to Perloff, who says that lyric poetry is shit, and that poets would be better off writing in an avant-garde form like Conceptual Writing? I want to see this explanation because right now the very thought boggles my mind.
Have you actually read the Perloff article? Lines about “poems the New Yorker would see fit to print”? The New Yorker isn’t the most diverse organ around, sure, but it’s more diverse than Perloff will admit. Just read some excellent poems in it by Virginia Konchan and Ashberry, and they were as different from one another as night and day—hardly uniform. LYRIC POETRY ISN’T UNIFORM AND IT ISN’T DEAD. WHEN PERLOFF SAYS THAT SHE IS BEING REDUCTIVE AND I AM SAYING THE OPPOSITE AND I AM NOT BEING REDUCTIVE.
Dear god. Look, I can name dozens of innovative works of lyric poetry published in the past ten years. Maybe I’ll even list them. In the meantime, though, Greg, your comments lead me to believe that you don’t understand, on a sheer comprehension level, what either Perloff or I am saying. Please explain to me how I’m being “reductive” here, because your claim makes no sense whatsoever to me. & until I see that explanation, I’m through with this conversation. Cheers—
“When the resistance to the dominant lyric is recognized as something that concerns a wide variety of poets, the argument shifts from accessibility and audience to the ethics of being a poet in the world.” – !
I wonder if there were screeds against poetry being a business back in 1910, it certainly had a higher market share in terms of cultural importance.
Your recounting of the “Connections” is all too familiar. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Maybe we are becoming businesswomen and businessmen. What I see myself and many people doing would have to impress a true businessperson at least a little. Through reviews, through facebook, through endless links – we are trying to convince someone to read our books (forget buying the book, actually getting someone to read it is much more difficult to do–an act that would satisfy the writers I admire much more than dollar signs). We are “selling” product–aluminum siding if you will–but in an age where nobody cares if their house has siding. Some are moving their product with luck, connection, and talent. Some aren’t. Joanna Ruocco, a fiction writer, has no website, no interviews, no facebook–yet she has written some of the most compelling fiction in the last few years. Her new book, which won a prize from FC2, came out in March and there is maybe one standard review of it.
Is it easy to tell who is writing to be “seen” and who is writing for eternity?
It’s not reductive to say that that’s what all lyric poets are doing? And that therefore they need an avant-garde movement like Conceptual Poetry to revive contemporary US poetry?
Sure there are a lot of similar writers out there—wherever you look—and lots of folks primarily seeking to be financially successful (although that doesn’t necessarily mean they still won’t write good poetry). But there’s also a lot of diversity in contemporary lyric US poetry, and Perloff prefers to overlook that. Her real goal, as it has always been, is to champion her favored ways of writing poetry: indeterminate works a la Cage/Language/Conceptual Poetry. This is a new formulation of the same argument she’s been making for decades now. (I well remember reading the Poetics of Indeterminacy 15 ago, and it came out in 1981.)
This is poetry’s version of “experimental fiction” vs. “realism,” another tediously reductive debate. Perloff is saying the poetry equivalent of “all US realist fiction is the same and written purely for financial gain.” That, too, would be a silly claim, just as it’s silly when lyric poets and realists decry various “experimental” scenes as being uniformly similar. (“Gass and Pynchon and Gaddis; they’re all so cold and inhuman and dispassionate.”)
Here’s another way to put it. Perloff is correct in that a certain type of poem, and body of poetic forms and techniques, is unjustly favored by publishers, awards, and tenure committees. But those are problems with those institutions, and should be rectified there. Hey you awarders, why you no recognize other formz? You be bad, you maybe should give prize to Kenneth Goldsmith!
(In before anyone says it: that’s how I would make the argument. I’m not saying Perloff writes that way.)
Meanwhile, though, to claim that all MFA/lyric poets are 1) all using the same exact techniques and forms, and 2) doing the same exact things with them—that’s the part I don’t buy.
Try it in film. “Narrative feature length movies about families in dramatic confrontations, and that are made with a certain professional quality (and large crews) tend to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Therefore Michael Haneke and Terence Malick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are ‘uniform,'” and we need some scrappy low-fi abstract director to revitalize contemporary cinema.
“But those are problems with those institutions, and should be rectified there.” – I thoroughly disagree. It seems through your posts or anyone’s posts about something off the beaten beaten path, what is getting forwarded is a different kind of art and people are holding out hope that the art (as well as themselves) will get recognition. Why are journals started, why are websites created? Why did a group of people create BLAST in 1914, which subsequently did influence the institutions? The institutions don’t create revolutions in art.
Adam & Greg— Thanks for weighing in on this!
I feel it’s neither an institutional problem nor a dominant lyrical poet problem… it’s a system problem, of which both poets and institutions are a part. The institution creates a certain type of demand for a certain limited range of poetries. (Unlike Perloff, I’m not claiming that there’s one specific poem that is being produced/elicited). One difference between what Perloff and I are saying is that I’m not claiming a problem with the entire spectrum of lyricism. I think there can be (and are) lyricisms that challenge the *dominant* lyricism. I didn’t take the time to map out what is dominant and what is subversive because that does seem “needlessly reductive” and in danger of falling into the Lyrics vs. Conceptuals deathmatch-model, which is the main problem I have with Perloff’s article.
And I do think American poetry needs a good slap in the face. But it’s not going to come in the form of centralized aesthetics… which I feel tends to lead to dominant models.
I definitely agree that the problem—inasmuch as it exists—is systemic. But I think Perloff is being unfair, and really ignoring a lot of the innovation and variety that exists in contemporary US lyric poetry—even in the award-winning books.
Timothy Donnelly’s work, for instance, is excellent and tremendously different that, say, Julianna Spahr’s work. Or Douglas Kearney’s. To name just three examples of prominent, award-winning US poets working in and expanding lyric forms. I don’t see how their work is uniform, or how the recognition they’ve received for it is a bad thing.
Meanwhile, yes, I wish programs and awards committees and departments were more interested in alternatives to the lyric: Langpo, post-lang, Flarf, constraint-based, conceptualist work, New Sincerist poems, etc. I locate myself much more on that side of the spectrum, rather than the MFA side, and I’ve defended such work in grad poetry workshops. But I don’t think it’s useful to reduce the contemporary lyric to just “a bad uniform thing that’s solely commercially motivated” as Perloff so often wants to do.
“American poetry” is hardly some monolithic thing; I’d claim there’s more diversity in US poetry right now than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Honestly, I get the impression people in all camps need to read a bit more widely, rather than decrying what actually exists.
I’m not familiar with Donnelly’s work, but Spahr and Kearney are absolutely part of the lyricists who are challenging the status-quo…please know I’m not quibbling about people winning awards. I just recently saw Kearney read/perform at a symposium here in Arizona and was impressed by how he’s taking the lyric into a more performative/multimedia territory.
When you’re mentioning “alternatives to the lyric,” that phrasing still feels very limiting to me—as if there’s a limited menu one can choose from. Why must we “locate” ourselves within a growing abundance of movement/pseudo-movement terminologies/categories? In a way, it seems to be connected to the issue at hand— sure, poets may share sensibilities, but when we start to gather poets into categories, we exclude people on the fringes of these sensibilities, etc. And what I’ve been discussing with some of my friends recently is the ability for us to even locate poets as has been done in the past. With the increased rapidity of information in general, why should we attempt to even capture a movement in this day and age? Why must we attempt to locate poets (and ourselves) when what could happen is a splintering in many directions (more than we could possibly categorize effectively)?
Greg, I don’t even understand what this comment is saying.
A brave and admirable effort: I live in fear of being asked to come up with a “poetics statement.”
I will say this, though: poems should be allowed to tell stories.