Avant Lyric, a few observations toward an essay, part one

Anyone who has read the anthology of Canadian poetry I edited a few years back, or has read this blog must know how much I love lyric poetry. They might also know that I love avant gard poetry, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, sound poetry, visual and concrete poetry, formal and even new formalist poetry. In short, this blog loves poetry. Not one version of poetry, not my version, or my mentor’s version–if I had such a thing–no, I love poetry, or poetries. Multiple.

So what’s the problem with avant lyric then? Why am I giving these particular poets such a hard time? If my perspective is all open and inclusive what’s the big deal? A good question. It is perhaps not the poetry itself (though upon a closer reading there are some issues there), but the way we talk about it; the way we publish or don’t publish, what we include in categories–categories in fact are bothersome, categories that make modes of writing exclusive, that brand one person as accessible and others not.

Why for instance, is someone like Michael Dickman, published three times in the New Yorker this year, accessible, and someone like Katie Degentesh or K Silem Mohammad, not? My problem is with the equations that keep some poets out of publishing circles and some poets in.

There is likely a more rhizomatic way of thinking about, and discussing poetry. There are connective aspects to the craft…and there are huge blocks about what the general public can or can not understand. And there is of course the Steinian obvervation that original is ugly and then others make it beautiful and accessible. Or others water down innovation. Or others “tone” it down.

There is, to my mind, a great deal being made of tone these days. People are offended by flarf, they hammer away at conceptual poetry with words such as “nonsense,” “about nothing,” “dead ends,” and all matter of insults. They conflate conceptual poetry with conceit, with artiface. They link lyric poetry with painting and avant garde with conceptual art far too easily, far too simplistically to my mind. For evidence of this see comment streams everywhere….

And meanwhile there are certain poets and poetry that tend to rise above these little entanglements. Poetry that takes a little of this, or that, and goes off on its own to become somehow accessible. I’m interested in what this is. What makes this happen. I’m curious about this question of proportion. About the Michael Dickmans, and here in Canada publications such as Jeramy Dodds’ Crabwise to the Hounds, for example, a highly enjoyable, well crafted book. That is, a wonderful stream of energetic images, questions, fragmented and yet thematically linked statements, bits of artifact and archival materials that document, gesture toward essay, toward catalogue, and not so much collage as work up a kind of temporary psychological, or intellectual dust-storm, a kinetic event that seems for a moment solid.

What is it about this avant lyric poetry that makes it so much more palatable than other contemporary modes? Take Kate Hall, whom I also blogged about earlier. You can find her “Little Essay on Genetics” and “The Shipping Container” online. Here are two poems that tend to “sound” more like prose poems than they look. Very quickly you get the voice, a quirky, inquiring perspective, you also get a sense of the kinds of tropes that appear frequently–even in the small sampling that I found after reading Suspended. As we see here at the end of “The Shipping Container:”

It’s true, the container
has great aesthetic value but I was really hoping
for a free watch with a rechargeable battery or
at least a better kind of nothingness.

Read as a prose line I’m quite content with such a line, but, but, but, what makes this poetry? And what makes this more coherent somehow than the flarf texts?

The text made me question (and re-question) my desire for a kind of polish that I don’t ultimately believe in so much anymore. At least not in theory. The rough edges, the emphasis on the thinkingness of the text rather than its polish, those aspects speak to my current interests. I’m not sure I want a poem to tell me how to feel or what to think. I’m quite tired of poems that tuck everything in neatly in the end. Poems that don’t recognize the world they are being carved out of. And in terms of the poem on the page, I found the actual layout, the presence of the poem on the page, to be both compelling and slightly irritating–a retrofitting of a kind of poetry that exists elsewhere in rangier forms. And gangly references to more conventional aspects of poetry. Why line breaks if one isn’t going to do something with them?

But line breaks are not what this chapbook is about, and it is a random event that these questions are being tagged on Hall’s chapbook because they are questions that have lingered in my reading for some time. And the irritation stems perhaps from the fact that they are sufficiently accentuated to notice the dissonance of them but for no apparent reason. Why? A poet like Anne Carson is very, very attuned to how things are laid out on the page. Even Short Talks, her early Brick book of short prose pieces, are meant to have space around them and they are meant to be read as “prose poems.” Her insistence on having them “not” be run on one after the other, “like a grocery list,” I think she said, actually dictated the entire formatting of Open Field. And with good reason: the poems were formally and consciously presented on the page, fully justified, smaller margins, etc. Nothing haphazard.

Again, this is not necessarily a problem of Hall’s text, which is, as I’ve said, a very compelling one. It is a question of the discussion and organization of contemporary poetry and one of several questions I bring to my reading these days. One question has to do with the use of formal elements. Where and why. What are line breaks doing circa 2008? And why is there so much poetry that is not acknowledging its place on a page? This spins out into, why do so many poems seem unaware of their place in a poetic tradition? Lryic or otherwise. Where are the elements of “poetry”? What is going on here? What makes this more “poetic,” than the apparently less successful modes of poetry including flarf?

The oddness of the line breaks and the lay out on the page made me look more closely, and then the closer I looked the more the poems seemed, not quite to fall apart, but perhaps to seem flimsy as poems. Yes, we have musings, and they are quirky and hold together thematically, but as Hall says in the end of her chapbook:

…I didn’t want to know
that you could add up so many things
and have them equal so few.

Which, going back to my little analogy of the dust storm, begs the question, what happens after the dust settles? You tell me–is there some base line thrum under the event? Because what you have after the dust settles is all that longtime engagement not only with the ideas, the thinking itself, but the shaping of the line and the project, the well-honed craft. Or not.

One of the things lyric poetry does to my mind, aside from a providing a kind of speaking subject or subjectivity (an entity can work, no), is to provide an anchor in the poem–an emotional and intellectual anchor. That “thing,” you find yourself face to face with after the dust settles. Someone, depending on your temperament, like Anne Carson or Lisa Robertson, Karen Solie or Ken Babstock, David O’Meara, Margaret Christakos, Juliana Spahr, perhaps even a newcomer such as Jeremy Dodds, or for that matter Mohammad. A good poet will leave you, not alone, but alone with your thoughts.

Your thoughts are your solace. Not the poems easy placations…

The question remains, is this lyric mode doing anything different? Is it taking risks, or is it taking the foment of the innovative response to lyric and making it cozy once more? Surprising surrealism in the texts, yes, but benign collections of ideas that go…where? Is it terribly old fashioned of me to want poetry to be about something? To go somewhere? And who is to judge where it should go? Who is to judge what a reader finds meaning in?

Further, are these lines more coherent than the flarf poems we have read on this site in previous weeks? Take Mohammad’s “I said to Poetry.”

poetry has died, just as easily
as junkies who spent all their money
on dope were killed

and later,

of course, I love Courtney, and her essays
have appeared in the future
some are embellished, and some are just
a blast furnace act for all the world to behold

what a sad violent fact it is
that poetry is just a bank or something

Indeed, it is a sad fact that poetry is “just a bank” or something. And that certain poetries are ascribed to have, or to evoke feelings, and meaning, whereas others are not. I’m tempted to read Ryan Fitzpatrick’s piece about Katie Degentesh’s Anger Scale, and Jason Christie’s piece on Fitzpatrick’s Fake Math, and Jordan Davis’ on Drew Gardener, side by side and ask just what is the difference between flarf and this avant-lyric mode? Is it social, rather than individual in the way that Fitzpatrick describes flarf as being or back to the lone individual in the surreal world of self-referentiality? How can we be so unsophisticated in our reading as to not note these registers in tone? Or read them. So, I guess what this unruly rant is really all about is not so much a complaint as a query about this mode and avant lyric in general, and more precisely into where do we talk about our reading of poetry? One must address the question of tone, yes. As Lisa Robertson points out, sincerity is rhetoric. But perhaps more importantly we really need to unearth and investigate these assumptions around our reading and corralling of poetry.

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