Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mean poets

Back in the day, I thought I would be a poet. Got me an MFA and everything.

Doing the MFA was fun at times. Taking on the artiste persona and all. All I care about is poetry, I told people. In a world of cant, I proclaimed, lyric poetry, being the most distilled form of communication, is the only thing worth reading. It's the only thing worth living for.

Yeah, I really said those things. Believed them, even. What can I say? I was young.

But workshops, lord, were a horror. So many people (including me) so full of themselves. Can't take criticism. Can't give it, either, because they think only one kind of poem is possible.

The kind of poem that comes from what Ron Silliman calls "the school of quietude." You know the kind: nice images. Narrative approach. And it all comes round to making us feel more or less reaffirmed in our sense of ourselves as nice people with liberal beliefs.

So when I broke free of the school of quietude and tried on more experimental genres, my colleagues and teachers were not often kind. One teacher lectured me on the terrible consequences of anarchism. Sure, some poets romanticized the Spanish civil war, s/he told me. But the anarchists killed people.

That's right. The implications were clear: this kind of poetry (the kind that works away from referentiality--what was popularly called "language" poetry) is evil.

That same teacher even gave a lecture against such poetry during workshop one day. These people (language poets, you know) are trying to take over. They want to make poems like the kinds we like into bad poems. They want to destroy everything we work for.

Yeah. Intense paranoia. Weird s**t, man.

And so it comes as no surprise, I suppose, that this paranoia has not subsided over the decade or so that has passed since I was trying to do the experimental poetry dance. Ron Silliman himself is no strange to this kind of attack, and he recently posted a missive from a well-known poet on his blog. Again we hear the experimental-poet-as-evil trope:

And since you can't become Minister of Culture for Stalin or Mao, I suppose it's a good thing capitalism distributed a computer to you: it's important for eccentric losers like you to have something to do, otherwise they might actually find a way to put their "ideas" into practice, and start putting the real artists in concentration camps.

Weird, huh? The extraordinary fear of difference, of change.

Not that the field I adopted after poetry-writing is any more open to change. But at least, as far as I can tell, the names we call each other don't descend quite to the level of evil. More like irresponsible.

Or cute.

In other words, experimentation in rhetoric and composition seems to be more often dismissed than it is attacked. And that might be even more insidious.

But it's funny, isn't it, that poets who write nice polite poems can be so mean? Kinda gives a whole new meaning to that old concept of poetic persona. You're darn tooting that nice person talking in that poem isn't the poet.

1 comment:

Unsaid said...

Great post! If I ever lose my faith in poets/poetry, I'll remember this post.