Monday, November 9, 2009

On "Aesthetic Tribalism"

The tactic used in this finger-wagging snipe dressed up as a corrective, a plea for the possibility of serious poetry criticism, is ...... hmmm ..... tribally applauded and beneficient, a frequent ploy, one used by those on the receiving end of uncomplimentary reviews who see dark forces at play, the reviewer being mainly a frontperson for the primitive, reactionary group who must put down anything which even vaguely threatens their own power base of influence. I set down the last clause with much humour, for surely the reader can smile, even laugh, at the inflated, antagonistic presumption entailed in one who sees an isolated review through such a conspiratorial lens.

I stare at the following quote, made by Banks, in disbelief:

"a provocative essay about Dean Young and his emulators which has started me thinking about the various poetry camps we see here in Canada. In a section of his essay called “Followers”, Hoagland writes, “We are living in a time of poetic explosion; the university creative writing systems have not just trained a lot of young poets in literary craft, they have fermented these young artists in a broth of language theory, critical vocabulary and aesthetic tribalism, which the age apparently demands.” "

Let's see. I've been linked in his first polemic as a snarkist, as one who can't or won't engage with the writer's intentions (bogus arguement, which I've answered in a blog post late last year). So -- though he employs the passive-aggressive tactic of high school off-stage whispers just loud enough for everyone else to hear, including the subject of the snark within a "snark", without naming them, myself and others -- I'll answer with some facts (not petulant assumptions) which should interest anyone else who may read his words.

Banks applauds Hoaglund's essay. In his quote of Hoaglund (above), "followers" are chastised for a kind of groupthink, a tribal coterie, which arises out of the university creative writing system. A quick glance to the right sidebar informs the reader that Banks has emerged with a degree from a university creative writing program. He now teaches creative writing. Is this a super sly form of self-abasing satire? If so, well done. If not, this contradiction tops even his previous embarassing assumption of yours truly as a young gun out to create an unearned following by stepping on the necks of his elders.

Anyone who has read my blog can easily see that the aggregate opinion is one of dismissiveness towards coteries and groupthink. That's one (among many) reason(s) I take the postmodernists to task. With rare exceptions, what they're doing is third-rate Black Mountainisms and French theory. Their theory (often written directly as "poetry") accepts no "conversation" with those poets working in the lyrical vein. So the conversation is pre-emptively closed by deconstructionists, postmodernists, post-postmodernists, avante-gardists, post-avantists, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ophiles, flarfists, and other assorted doctrinaire "new"-schoolers who, by their very foundation, are reacting against the word's (understood, obviously, here, in quotes) patriarchal aggression, linear falseness, traditional entrenchment, value-bound overview. No, when someone (or many someones) attacks my entire foundation for what not only constitutes great poetry (oh, evaluative meanie!), and for whom I see boring, in-club poetics substituting for poetry, I don't see any way of having a fruitful intermingling or "understanding" (misapplied word). But then the no-less-aggressive post-lyric "tribe" only recognize "signifiers" when coming from those they attack.

And the spiritual "progressives" complain because those not enamoured with spiritual ideas of what poetry should and should not be have their own ideological "tribes". I love spiritually saturated poetry. But only if it's poetry first, any message, if any at all, incorporated into it, not used as an excuse to mount a pulpit, unaffiliated or Presbyterian or Buddhist. But much in the direction of this conversation is unseemly, it seems. The best spiritual poetry I've read -- timeless lines about timelessness by way of timeless truths (you can immediately see the problems needed to surmount the abstractions inherent in much so-called "spiritual" poetry)-- is so because the music is there. Spiritual maturity or authority (a good word, not the oppressive accusatory outrage the "egalitarian" pomos denounce) is conferred on an author often by long, slow, doubting, thoughtful, changeable degrees. But "spiritual" poets often want to advertize their elevated status, their putative understanding, or, failing that, their wonderful sensitivity for the importance of enlightenment. I find it nauseating. And ironic, obviously. Spiritual pride is the most subtle and deceptive of sins. And by no means the most rare. By the way, my tendency is towards Advaita Vedanta, but there're no needed organizations for that, and certainly no proselytizing, which is a small part of its beauty.

But perhaps Banks was the exception, bravely (or cynically?) soldiering on in the face of closed-minded tribal association, dissociating himself from the power-groups forming themselves in his very midst during communal workshops and theory riddles. And for the record, I don't think creative writing programs are all evil (though I wouldn't know, I've never entered one). I just don't see that they're necessary. Fun, perhaps. And, maybe the best that can be said for them: I'm sure they can, at their best, save time for a budding poet by instructing her or him on what hasn't worked. My most prevalent thought on that particular subject, though, is that we already have more than enough poets on board. What sympathetic reader of contemporary poetry can read even a single poem of even a tiny corner of them? Just to be clear: I think that everyone on earth should, if they feel it strongly enough, create and try to get published as much poetry as they want. I should also have the opinion that that's often unfortunate only in that the acceptance of middling or bad verse tends to obscure, by time constraints and the leveling pell-mell effect, good poetry. But then there I go being evaluative and unaccepting, again.

The arguement that "Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet" (Banks) is unworkable and inane. I've dealt with this at some length in my post last year on "Negative Reviews of Poetry", but I'll expound since it crops up a lot lately amongst poets who feel hurt by an unkindly assessment of their own poetry. The creation of poetry is obviously highly personal, highly idiosyncratic, highly subjective. Why should the reader not be granted the same attitudes? If a poem, TO ME, lies on the page like wobbly graphite, smudged ink, or typographic epilepsy, my immediate reaction may very well be "ugh!" (TO ME). If the feeling persists through several more poems, I may start to formulate an opinion that this is bad (TO ME). If I read the entire book and find no redeeming virtues in it, I may even be so callous as to (gasp!) not even read it again, thereby losing all chance for a second-chance about-face, or at least softening. More often, though, there ARE redeeming strengths in even otherwise bad books, and I often point them out. Proportion is everything. I often point out what are (TO ME) severe faults amongst the books I rave about. Again, proportion. Another term for that is honest engagement.

Reviewing is highly subjective. It is not a soft procedure in order to find, at whatever compromising stretch, a go-between for author and reader. Such a "sensitive" approach is patronizing to both. The author can detail the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions, yet if those aren't set down in compelling image, metaphor, voice, syntax, narrative, sound, organic structure, passion, mood, rhythm, tone (you know, those outdated poetic "vice"-devices, according to the "revolutionaries"), the words may better be employed in a prose essay, religious tract, political speech.

"[T]he book reviewing status quo .... is about the homogenization of literary culture, and robs poetry of its natural tendencies toward innovation and change."(Banks)

That's the kind of abstract mush that sounds fine and noble, but what does it mean? I love poetry in many forms, moods, subjects, styles, voices, modes, lengths. I also become bored, even irritated, with poetry in the same forms, moods, subjects, voices, modes, lengths, styles. And whenever I encounter one of many complaints in the guise of calling out for "innovation and change", my eyes glaze over with a fine mist. Those frequently championed words need to be explained. There's nothing new. Though, thankfully, there are an infinitely fascinating array of new ways to say nothing new.

Want a better, more "engaged", review? Ask a friend, or a family member, or a poetic "superior" who can do you a favour. Isn't that, though, part of what Banks denounces in his (or Hoaglund's) silly "tribal" metaphor? I write my reviews because I love poetry. Over 90 % of them are unpaid. The ones I have been paid for have netted me somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1.89 an hour (give or take a quarter, or so). And if I wanted to kiss ass and "get ahead" in an intricately staged secret hand-shaking power-broking nod-nod-wink-wink-off, I'd say that shit was sherbet, and fashion my efforts and desires around the community and not the poem (Ursus makes that last important point in Brenda Schmidt's blog, though it shouldn't have to be said). If you want a guaranteed forgiving review of 10,000 + words, focusing on bland descriptors of psychically-intuited authorial intention, dealing with beside-the-point author profiling, thematic concerns, compositional theory and process, adjectival generalizations without textual back-up, and pro hominem non sequiturs in place of analysis of the poem(s), cough up the payola to one of those internet-review-dictators (in the secretarial sense) by giving a pre-set outline to him or her. That'll certainly get some kind of discussion going, perhaps even an understanding of sorts.

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