Thursday, July 2, 2009

To become an extremist, hang around with people you agree with

Cass Sunstein — co-author of the hugely influential Nudge and an adviser to President Obama — unveils his new theory of "group polarization," and explains why, when like-minded people spend time with each other, their views become not only more confident but more extreme. (Read full article here.)

Naturally, we wonder how this can be applied to po-biz, right? Here's the incomparable David Shapiro on this very subject:

Apply this to poetry, poets and the clique, cabal, club, style. Advantages to authoritarianism. The group in Durkheim. "On a certain blindness in human beings." Why receptivity and love are wider than hate. "Do not commit an aesthetic bonfire." Noa: Human beings will give up a lot to attain security, only a few horrible ("literary dictators) want power. The Tiwi... Read More we the people eat you when one can't claim relationship. The cannibalism in most criticism. etc.


Lots of bloggoblather yet again about MFA programs, pro or con, stimulated by Mark McGurl's book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing - and the review of it in The New Yorker by Louis Menand. Click here, if you must, for another account - from the Chronicle of Higher Education - by the always-lucid Jennifer Howard.

It's a debate that's never held any interest for me, and I've only one very naive observation to make. I just spent a solid week at the Poetry International festival in Rotterdam, meeting day and night with poets from countries other than the USA, and heard - literally - not a single word about writing programs. (Nor about avant-gardes, post-avant gardes, flarf, or conceptual writing, speaking of group polarization....) I know that writing programs exist outside of the US (particularly in the UK now), and yet... we sure seem to do things very differently over here. The relative lack of toadying and jockeying for position I found among poets from other countries - and I know that a single week is nothing conclusive - leads me to wonder how and why things seemed so different. I have no answer. But among all the poets, editors, and attendees of poetry events I met or saw ... most very keenly wanted to read and learn about everybody they could. There was an impressive urgency among poets to encounter the work of people who were different. Sure, we had a few passionate and even heated discussions - but never about the kind of pecking-order stuff one must take for granted day in and day out over here. We're a big country, but our literary culture seemed quite small over there. . .

On a lighter note, here's a video of nimble critic James Wood in action:


Anonymous said...

>There was an impressive urgency among poets to encounter the work of people who were different.


My experience abroad has been similar in that regard. In Latin America (I've spent some time with poets in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) there is definitely that greater sense of openness, curiosity, and generosity about what is happening beyond borders-- borders either national or of poetic affiliation. Ditto for poets of the Balkans. And Russia, at least circa 1989 when I was there-- talk about urgency and hunger for otherness in that regard!

The sense I got in the UK from two visits to the CCCP conference at Cambridge (though one doesn't really need to visit there to get the sense!) is quite a bit more like the atmosphere here: poetic affiliation seems to enact Manichaean generalizations and mobilizations for fixed-position winner-take-all battles (the post-WWII UK avant emerges in close relation to the New American poetry, so this may have something to do with that).

But I don't think this greater poetic curiosity and tolerance towards other traditions and tendencies in many other countries necessarily implies that there's less passion for partisanship and aesthetic battle. If anything, the openness makes the partisanship deeper, more informed, more sophisticated. A read of Bolano provides a hint of this, actually.

So not disagreeing with your major point, but I think it's important to recognize that poetic politics certainly inform the scene in other countries. It just tends to be more advanced and interesting and learned than it is here!


Don Share said...

I think what you're saying is just right, Kent. You put your finger on this very nicely.

Bobby said...

Um, maybe not so nimble?

Reminds me of something I heard just yesterday on the street: "I was abused by an accordion as a child."

Don Share said...


the unreliable narrator said...

Hysterical fingerdrumming! I think, and the Brujo agrees, that he looks as if he's been trained on the tabla.

And now I must go read oppositionally different and challenging poets; because it is SO much more fun.

Michael Robbins said...

must ... get ... word of ... flarf ... to netherlands ... it is ... possible ... possible ... it must ... be possible ... it must be ... that flarf ... will ... in time ... from its crude ... compoundzzzzzzz

Bobby said...

Wasn't at least one of the guys involved with the Goldsmith-hyped Issue 1 from Rotterdam? Right, that's what I thought. Where'd they hide him?

Don Share said...

Sorry, Bobby. He's an American.

Michael Robbins said...

also, true story, my sister dog-sits for cass sunstein. that is so not avant-garde.

Bobby said...

Damn. Point Netherlands. (And Share...)

Matt said...

i think the main reason americans are wary of learning about foreign poetry is because there are so many different kinds of american poetry, and 90% of it sucks, so we're skeptical that anyone else can do much better. if only ugly duckling presse was bigger and more famous, more americans would know about foreign poetry. (because ugly duckling presse does a lot of foreign poetry.)

i refuse to tolerate billy collins though. just as kent doesn't tolerate flarf. we all have things we don't tolerate, whether we like to admit it or not.

Anonymous said...

Matt's comment about "foreign poetry" is a bit unserious, so I'll pass on addressing it, myself.

However, since he mentioned my "intolerant" attitude towards Flarf, I'll point to the 100th comment at Dale Smith's Possum Ego blog (under the "Con-Po" post). I extend therein an invitation to Gary Sullivan, Kasey Mohammad, and Nada Gordon.

There is nothing "intolerant" in the invitation!