Friday, August 16, 2013

All poetic "content" is arbitrary


As Marjorie Perloff has repeatedly noted, much of contemporary lyric poetry is prose by another name—there is nothing beyond lineation that commends it to the poetic tradition. She may be wrong insofar as there is also the persistent presence of affect, which is, as Calvin Bedient has recently chronicled, also integral to the tradition, especially the expanded lyric tradition. (In his recent Boston Review article, Bedient argues for the affective “something more” running through everyone from Bishop to Artaud, a spectrum with its own uncanny frisson.) But, beyond this affective imperative, the kind of current work Perloff describes is essentially arbitrary. It has no formal properties other than persistent lineation, largely left-hand justification and a typically idiosyncratic sense of meter that roughly translates to something like ear-feel. Contrary to Bedient’s charge that conceptualism is feeling-less work, conceptual poetry, or poetry that involves formal constraint, is not a priori devoid of affect (leaving aside the easy Cagean riposte that boredom is also an affective affect), but is poetry that is resolutely devoid of arbitrariness. I.e., conceptualism is against the arbitrary as a formal matter. (N.b., chance is a formal property that is manifestly not arbitrary, as you doubtless agree.) For the fact of the matter is, all poetic “content” is arbitrary. Content meaning the stuff we stuff our poems with, the petit histories or leveled landscapes, or, in the case of our more dutiful sons and daughters, those exhortations to greatness or survival despite or because of the fierce subjektiver Geist that looks so good on spokespeople for the marginalized. We will witness what we believe matters, if not to us, to people like us. Ideology works most optimally when we bear frictionless witness, as Eileen Myles has often opined, through us on behalf of others like us. Us, keeping us real.

For what it’s worth, my conceptual aesthetic does not serve my affect: it does not convey my feelings about this or that to the world. I am not you, I am not even Us. My feelings about this or that viz the world are unimportant, only of interest, only occasionally, only to me. My poetry is not a means of emotive conveyance from me to you, each to his reach. It is a platform for you. You feel or not, as you like—a statement about rape, whether a flat juridical declarative or a two-line gag—is up to you to digest in whatever symbolic or imaginative order you like. That is, of course, ideologically like you. And thus, my form of conceptualism serves as a platform for poetry as such. Or the possibility, perhaps, of poetry as such. This is by way of throat-clearing—the cogito equivalent of the institutional affective trope of setting the authorial stage for the poem one is about to read (i.e., this is how I feel about my poem and now we will see how you feel about my poem and whether our feelings may, for some transcendental instant, commix in that melancholic partial way which reminds us of the swannish beauty of language, that is to say, ever dying, never dead).

-- Vanessa Place, from her review essay at Constant Critic, "What Makes Us" 

Pictured: Oxyrhynchus papyrus (P.Oxy. I 29) showing fragment of Euclid's Elements