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.