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NONFICTION: Raising Poetry

Craig Dworkin, ed., The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (Roof Books, 2008)

The problem with poetry these days isn’t the literary magazines run by pharmaceutical industry businessmen, or the grants granted by pharmaceutical industry heiresses, or even the grant-granting bodies composed of pharmo-conservo-politicos (and heiresses). And it’s not all the writing about writing, either, or even the writing about the writing about the writing (which, okay, can get annoying). It’s the poetry about the writing about the writing about the writing. Poetry has become an overscheduled toddler run ragged by ambitious, bickering parents, its very existence a compromised simulacrum of their disharmonious projections and expectations. If you can, by some miracle of focus, keep current on theory and the attendant debates, and then try to incorporate the most imminent sound and fury into your poems, you’ll be damned lucky if you can find actual poetry in there somewhere, screaming from its stroller, “Mom! I said I want the raisin bagel!”
How did we get to this place? I’ll tell you how: the fetishization of debate. God knows there’s nothing wrong with debate. Or debate about debate. It’s one of the consequences of innovation, after all. But shouldn’t it be just that: a consequence, and not the beating heart of a vital body of work?

It is the fetishization of debate in The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics that undermines the very issues that this otherwise excellent collection of essays should productively address: what are the consequences of the innovations that came through theory? And—more importantly—has the impulse toward theory (and, following from that, debate) been exhausted? And, if so, where do we start looking for our…uh, poetry?

Innovation is widely and masterfully addressed here. In Jed Rasula’s “Innovation and ‘Improbable Evidence’” for instance:

"The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics," edited by Craig Dworkin (Roof Books, 2008). Cover Art by Bruce Pearson.

Innovation does not mean change for the sake of change; experiment does not mean fiddling with a perfectly serviceable tool. Innovation is a necessary response to force of circumstance in which the apparent utility of the medium is insufficient.

Michael Clune, in the aptly named “The Poem at the End of Theory,” takes a crack at the idea of consequences, but only toward the end of his piece. He’s addressing theory, but he could very well be speaking about poetry about the debate about debate:

Perhaps theory should listen to poetry, give up the ideal of the subjectless text, stop denouncing the space between subject and object as simply false, and begin to see it as a devious and sophisticated and thoroughly artificial structure, where something new and alien might come to life.

Yes! Something new and alien just might come to life! But what would it look like? Golem? Unicorn rainbow? Something human?
There is a narrative arc to this collection, a time progression that touches on the “anthology wars” of the ‘60s, discusses the underpinnings of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (both magazine and movement) in the ’70s, and visits the recent work done with computer-generated texts and Google-sculptings. Charles Bernstein’s colossal “The Task of Poetics, the Fate of Innovation, and the Aesthetics of Criticism” conjures with consequences in a powerful way, but in the context of what this book sets out to investigate, we are left with what we already know: “Poetics reminds us that the alternate logics of poetry are not suited just for emotion or irrational expression; poetics lies at the foundation of all writing.” Brian Kim Stefans’ “Stops and Rebels—a critique of hypertext (remix)” and Michael Gottlieb’s “Googling Flarf” do approach making educated hypotheses as to what might come next: it involves computers. But will computers write all the poems?

If the consequence of innovation is that innovative poetry remains mired in debate about debate, then Dworkin’s anthology inspires me to make this radical proposal: that we continue the worthy debate about debate on blogs and in bars, and get back to writing poetry. The tantalizing question that follows is: how do we do that? Is there work being produced now that will create the foundation of what will come next? That’s what this book should be debating, because that’s a debate that leads back to poetry.


Sharon Mesmer

SHARON MESMER's most recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008). Fiction collections include Ma Vie a Yonago (Hachette, 2005) and In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose, 2005).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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