Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part IV

The final part of the essay. In one way, a Defense of Poetry. In another, an Offense of Poetry. Either way, it is very much a statement of belief for both myself and the project that is this blog.

With this post, the entire essay can now be found on the website, here (including the pdf).

Here is the jump table for the previous parts, as they appear on this blog:

  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

Yes, the saying that "99% of anything is crap" is a touch hyperbolic in the use of the word "crap": there is in every society some degree of quality control, and so most of the 99% would actually lie within the mediocre rather than the god-awful. (Though, mediocre is a relative term -- something directly to my point.) It is nonetheless worth the while keeping the phrase to heart lest you forget and you the words "J.J. Abrams" and "auteur" in the same sentence.

Let's take as a for instance Major League Baseball. It might not seem to apply to MLB that "99% of anything is crap" -- presumably meaning 99% of all Major League baseball players are crap. It does, however, but you need to expand the context to its fullest. Every Major League team has beneath it seven or eight or so minor league teams. (And below that there are the college teams, and then independent leagues, etc.) And while I would still not call those players crap, they are for the majority well set within the mediocre, or even the sub-par, when they are compared to the players of the major league. Like an iceberg, Major League Baseball is but the more visible top ninth of a much larger mass.

What is important is to recognize that Major League Baseball has a vested interest in bringing the best players to the top: it is, bluntly, to their financial gain. The appeal to the fans is firmly rested in that desire for excellence: it is, after all, an arena of competition. The fans want excellence upon the field (not only in their Major League team, but also in the team's farm system). So, while the 99% rule can be said to apply to baseball, the culture  of baseball is governed by that desire for excellence. The members of a AA team know that they are in AA because of their level of baseball sophistication, as it were. They are comfortable, emotionally, at that level because they play in a league whose members all play at that level. They also know, should they surpass that level, they will rise into the AAA ranks, and from there, potentially, into the show.

If we move to the culture of pop music, there is no such governing desire, even though financial gain is still the primary energies of the industry. That is because for music to make the most money, it needs to be broadly popular, and so broadly appealing. Thus the push to conventionality, familiarity, to playing to expectation, to the use of the ‘hook' as a song's identity as opposed to true creativity, to the resistance if not active avoidance of idiosyncracy and sophistication. As Billy Joel spoke of it:

It was a beautiful song but it ran too long
If you're gonna have a hit you gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05

The more sophisticated the music, the more effort is required on the part of the listener; the more idiosyncratic the music, the smaller will be the receptive audience. Both limit, greatly, the range of appeal. For music to appeal to the mainstream, it must be mainstream. Songs written by Benjamin Britten may be more sophisticated and aesthetically brilliant than songs written by Taylor Swift, but Britten will never go platinum.[FN]

[FN] The lyrics are from "The Entertainer." It is also worth here pointing out that sports teams are geographical in nature: their fanbase is for the most part their geographical region. An industry like music could exist on such a geographical fanbase -- and in many ways does. But the real money is made in national, if not global appeal: thus, mainstreaming.

Pop music -- even for its degree of corporate-manipulation -- is a functioning cultural nomos. Conventionality rules; quality is adjudicated by appeal and not by sophistication; merit is granted to those that most effectively perpetuate the system. (And in those words I have given definition to the Grammys.) Thus, a nomos will always pull to mediocrity, and to persons that will most capably perform to the nomos.

And so my base assumption: that the culture of contemporary poetry is no different, and, in its current form, should not be expected to be any different. Success, status, professorship, the lecture and workshop circuits, financial gain, is not tied to excellence and sophistication, but to the nomos and its continued performance. And so the culture of poetry -- as with any other nomic culture -- sets itself to maintain the importance, value, and rightness of the conventional, the less sophisticated, the most broadly appealing.

Which is to say, the crap.

Within baseball, whatever the rank of the league, there is no inherent threat of inferiority, or threat to the merit of one team by any other team within or without that league. The system puts equals in competition with equals, and raises excellence up to the next level. A fan of a AA team knows that they are rooting for a AA team, and does not expect of them more than that which they are. But, they do expect from them AA level play. Because of all of that, there is no nomic pull to the mediocre: identity lies not in the nomic but in the individual: each player is that who they are, and that which they can create out of the medium that is themselves. It is a greatly aesthetic system -- and we see through it the appeal and cultural status of the athletic with the Greeks.

However, in the culture of contemporary poetry, there is no such impetus to field the best possible players and the best possible team. The drive is rather, like with popular music, toward the conventional, the expected, the generic: not just in the poetry written, but in how poetry is talked about, how poetry is read, how poetry is spoken of in critique, even how poetry -- especially poetry writing -- is taught.

And just to keep it clear: this is not a radical claim. This is the wholly expected nature, tendency, and status of any such culture. If the culture does not actively struggle toward otherwise, this is what the culture will become.

Establish a body of critical voices willing put labels of hyperbolic praise on anything that crosses their desk and you've established the mechanism by which mediocrity can be maintained as all that needs be. Establish a system that will award the type of poetry and the poets that are the least threatening to the nomos, and that are the most capable of performing the nomos, and you have established a system by which the authorities that maintain the positive valuation of the conventional are themselves maintained. Establish a system where graduate education in creative writing actively avoids theoretical discourse on the aesthetic and you've established a system where the up-and-comers will never be challenged to perform beyond the conventional. Establish a system of graduate education that rests primarily in contemporary poetry, rather than the great voices of the past, and you have established a system where the nomic norms are never brought into question by outside voices of brilliance and beauty.

After all, how can an MFA program successfully graduate the exceeding majority of its students -- and thus continue to make money and brand identity for the university -- if the culture of poetry did not accept as publishable and meritorious the output of those students?

Which sounds accusatory, except that all those establishings will happen within a culture all on their own, with no particular effort by anyone. It is the way of the nomic.

One would think that an MFA society would be dedicated to a system where masterworks like Browning's The Ring and the Book or H.D.'s Trilogy or Williams's Paterson occur more than five or six times a century; a culture where works such as Tennyson's "Maud," Browning's "The Bishop Order's His Tomb," or Bunting's "Briggflatts," or Carruth's "Sleeping Beauty" are upheld as emblematic goals of literary endeavor.[FN] Yet that is patently not the case. The entirety of the culture of contemporary poetry functions to the very opposite direction: to the avoidance of such critiques or standards of performance. The nomic solution is, simply, to remove such expectations: in part by isolating them as exceptions to the rule, in part by removing them from the discourse of creative writing, and in part by giving ample praise to performances that are merely mediocre -- if not plain bad -- such as to remove the idea that such exceptionalism is what is to be striven for.

[FN] No, I am not arguing from example. I think very few people would refuse those characterizations. Those books are masterworks; and those poems are damn good poems.

Can you imagine a world of MFA instruction where a professor can one day find themselves in the department chair's office, hearing, "Let's face it -- it's not like you've shown any development over your last two books. The critics are hitting you like your setting it on a tee. Hell, when was the last time you pitched your way out of the sixth? So, management's decided to buy out your contract. We've got a kid coming up in Gwinett with pin-point control who's re-animating the dramatic monologue, and they want to make room in the bullpen"?

Can you imagine a poetry culture where critics, instead of praising the newest latest of the popular and esteemed simply because it is the newest latest of the popular and esteemed actually says, "There's nothing new here. Why should I or anybody read it? Are they even trying? Time for this poet to hang up their shoes."

Imagine what might be happening in the culture of English in the U.S. if English departments embraced the philosophy, "How can our national culture outshine that of other nations if the writers of our literature are not first scholars of our literature?" (Seriously, name another field where that is not assumed?)

Am I saying that English departments should only accept into their programs future Brownings and Eliots and Pounds and Zukofskys? Of course not. The very thought is absurd through and through. What I am saying is that that does not excuse the cultures of language (or art, for that matter) from striving to create a broad, social culture of reading that is sophisticated enough to read and more importantly expect and demand from its literary institutions Patersons and Waste Lands. For it is so very true that poetry -- and literature -- is so very important a thing: because it is about language, and so it is about how the individual sees the world; about how the individual engages the world; and about the development of their spiritual self as much as their cultural self.

Derrida's preferred word was desedimentation, rather than deconstruction. It reveals by comparison the relative weakness of the latter term. Yes, the aesthetic project is an active project, and thus the structures of society must be actively "deconstructed." But the true description, the true narrative lies in that other word, desedimentation: for it is not only a statement of action, but a statement that the inherent modality of any culture, of any society, is movement toward sedimentation, toward conventionality and dogmaticism, toward mediocrity as a norm and toward the suppression of the individual and of beauty as a necessary act of survival. In that, those who speak themselves as being concerned with language and beauty are thus called to the bar.

Ultimately, the placid satisfaction of the culture of poetry, in its unchallenging nomic mediocrity, concerns not just the poets, but also the readers of poetry, the readers of literature, indeed, the whole of the body of readers that constitute the greater national culture. Fussell also recognized this, and found the idea important enough that he closed off his book with it.

"The innocent eye sees nothing." The unwitting reader finds poems "obscure." It is the trained reader alone who fits himself for that great repeated act of complicity with the poet which is the source of the fullest delight and the fullest enlightenment; for the reader is an individual talent too, and it is technical knowledge and command that release his own singular energies and open for him his own liberating vision.[FN]

There is nothing of merit in a culture of poetry, a culture of literature, that depends upon and promotes the modality of reading/writing like that demonstrated with "Spook House" and its defense, especially a culture that promotes and encourages such writing/reading within its own academia.

[FN] 180, emphasis his.

The primary failure of English departments and English teachers at whatever academic level is that of failing to teach students how to read for themselves; how to develop meaning and experience out of a text on their own, without appeal to external authorities; how to generate a valid engagement with a text, and how to engage then the readings of other people toward new readings of that text and the increase of their own sophistication and understanding of literature and of themselves; and how to have confidence in their own readings, irrespective of the authorities demanding otherwise -- which is where the pedagogy of the aesthetic emerges.

In this lie my own emotional and intellectual energies, and the aesthetic/philosophical drive behind my projects in literature and the arts, including my PDC blog.

So here, at the end of this essay, I will permit myself a moment to some of those emotional energies. Here is my j'accuse. It lies in a fundamental understanding of the modalities of the nomic and the aesthetic that has been annunciated and demonstrated and proclaimed and analyzed within theory and literature and art and cultural studies and psychology in one form or another for the past three hundred years (last thriving previously in the time of the Renaissance, before the great nomic reassertion that was the Reformation). It is an understanding and a project embodied by the word desedimentation. The nomic is a passive modality of thought. Culture and society is not what is created, but what sediments, what concretizes into tradition, convention, and repetitive performance. The aesthetic, however, is and can only be an active modality of being. It demands action, effort, thought: thus its desedimentive modality, where any such action in the lake can not but stir up the silt and sediment.

In simplicity -- and here again I return to the writer-oriented voice of my blog -- it is only in the aesthetic modality of being that one can find true creativity, and it is only through the aesthetic modality of being that one can trace those higher natures of the human race. Any culture of poetry that permits itself to sediment into a nomic modality stands irrefutably in opposition to the very qualities related to those higher faculties of humankind it claims to uphold. The development of the self as an individual happens within language. It is through language that the creative imagination and the individual self finds sophistication. As such, literature, above all the other arts, is the vanguard of the development of the creativity, wisdom, and spirituality of any society. Poetry, in its claim to be literature in its highest form, thus has the obligation, the burden, and the charge of leading the point.

As such,

Poetry –

  • should be challenging of the reader
  • should demand that the reader think actively and creatively
  • should be striving to expand the reader's sophistication in language and thought through its own striving toward sophistication in language and thought
  • should be creative, and in its creativity develop and urge and reward the creativity of the reader
  • should make the reader look words up in a dictionary, and ideas up in encyclopedias and reference books
  • should tap deeply into the literary and artistic heritage of its own society and of others, entering the ageless tradition of art and beauty with intent to bring something to the table, not to sweep things off the table
  • should breathe, in its every inhale and exhale, the mythic
  • should push other writers to strive
  • should accept that readers and writers are of different degrees and fields of sophistication, but should not accept that as permission ever to write down
  • should know and emphasize that sophistication is an individual trait, and the only true praise of it is in its development
  • should demonstrate in its every utterance the strive to brilliance, no matter what degree or nature of sophistication out of which comes the striving
  • should understand, demonstrate, and teach that literary engagement lies in depth, not in surface; and that the individual can not be found in the cultural

So also with every poet. Writer. Artist. Being.

Any Defense of Poetry, any Poetics, any Book of Poetry, any Poem, any Poet that does not do the above is by definition and nature A FAILURE of the culture of poetry as an expression of the higher qualities of humankind, and A VICTORY for the reduction of the culture of poetry to little more than pop culture.

And there is no way around it.

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