Monday, October 23, 2006

A Grand Experiment



In reading Lauterbach's new book of essays, "The Night Sky," she writes:

"Recently, I was introduced as an 'experimental poet.' The adjective was uttered with mild disdain; I felt as though I was being damned with the faintest of praise. In the world of poetry, to be experimental is sometimes taken to mean you have, as the poet Charles Bernstein has remarked, an aversion to form, rather that an adversion to conformity."

I love this quote - but it leads me to ask, in the world of poetry, what is conformity? What is experimental?

I've also heard of small journals that take the opposite stance and attempt to limit themselves to "experimental" poetry. I read in submissions guidelines - if it's narrative at all, don't send it. Also, places that say we don't take poems about 9/11, poems with any grounding, poems about grandmothers and so.

Is there anything wrong with a magazine sticking picking an aesthetic and sticking by it? I can see the lure. It makes your work easier. Submissions are read quickly, and your audience sticks with you because they know what to expect. But, I find the whole thing grossly problematic.

1. Who sets these labels? Define the following words: formal, narrative, lryical, conventional, and experiment? Who gets to pick who's what? Bernstein (one of my favorites) is considered a forerunner of experimental, but many of his poems are narrative. Berrigan is another experimentilist, but he wrote sonnets. And where do Fanny Howe, Seamus Heaney, and Jorie Graham fit?

2. People who exclude are missing out on a lot. It reminds me of the Lower East Sider who brags they never go above 14th Street. Well, that's too bad because The Met and Central Park (not to mention Brooklyn!) are the highlights of New York and they're really missing out. Thus, people who refuse to read Mary Oliver - or people who refuse to read Bernstein.

As poets, we are automatically the outsiders of society. Do we need to do to each other too?

6 comments:

Lester said...

I like that you keep the recognition of these differences very fluid rather than make some attempt to put them to rest.

Rodrigo Garcia Lopes and I have coined the term "excusamental" to replace "experimental." Of course the irony is that both Rodrigo and I have published more in the experimental side of things. Suffice it to say that Rod and I have both been excused. Repeatedly.

A poem without narrative is either a sound poem, a concrete poem, or a terrible poem. Now I must admit my standard for narrative is low: the merest inkling of a conflict is sufficient for narrative.

As for Bernstein versus Oliver I can say I've read both and neither overwhelms me. Bernstein truly recognizes and communicates poetic moments, phrases, nuggets, etc., but his work seems to be in desperate need of some serious editing. His texts wouls be very good places to start if you wanted to use a text to sculpt new poems from. Oliver may be more careful, but her writing comes off as polished yet uninspired. The inspired moments feel gimmicky, forced, contrived.

Clearly Bernstein is the better poet for two reasons: (1) the poetry is in there, and (2) he is making it new. Without newness a poem isn't meeting its (very) minimum requirements for employment. Where Oliver stretches narcissism Bernstein stretches language.

I'm torn about the issue of inclusion/exclusion. On the one hand, if you're a poet, you should be included. On the other hand, let me resort to painting for an example. Let's say you're a painter trying hard to do something new and interesting and struggling to achieve beauty through nolvety and interestingness (among other things). Then a friend asks you why you dismiss Charles Kincaid, painter of light, the painter with mall stores across America. Well, I guess I align Oliver with Kincaid. If evaluated in a wholly context-less fashion Kincaid's work has some beauty for many, and my democratic chest swells with pride. But I'm not context-less, and I can't help but feel it's uninspired, uninteresting, un-visionary, unartistic.

I don't think Bernstein is equating formalism with conformity. In fact I think if you were truly "new formalist" in the literal sense you would invent new forms. And given that my work has been widely accepted among the avant garde/experimental, formalism is cool if it's new forms you're delving into. For a time every poem I wrote started with an entirely new form. So true new formalism is acceptable among the better experimental journals. And old formalism is treated as old and uninteresting, which I think is entirely fair.

However if a journal says "no narrative" I think they're being moronic. And why would you even bother to read the journal? Isn't it bound in some way to be awful by the mere presence of some witless standard like that? There are so many good journals that should be easy to tune out the bad ones.

Categorization serves librarians better than it serves working poets. Making judgments about the excusamentality of Berrigan or Fanny should be rather beside the point, unless your job is to categorize, classify, hierarchicalize. But if you're working professionally in literary critique, it's easy to get confused as to where your poet-ness ends and your critic-librarian begins.

I truly have a hard time thinking the Lower East Sider is anything more than a straw man. Now I don't live there, but I've spent on average about three weeks a year in NYC over the last decade. I've never heard anyone say that. I'm not saying no one has ever been that way--when you have 10 million people someone's bound to fit the most improbable of standards--I'm just saying it's too ridiculous to take seriously. Just as a journal that doesn't permit narrative is too ridiculous to take seriously.

I share your concern that poets don't need to marginalize each other. However I understand some of that outside-ness. If Kincaid was given a show at the Dia I would barf all over myself and consider the Dia to have lost all credibility. And if Kincaid actually asked to show at the Dia, which makes no sense, I think he would be just fine after being turned down. Mary Oliver will have her opportunities in many more places.

Lester said...

I should add that I really like Fulcrum, Exquisite Corpse, and Jacket because all exude an editorial openness that never adheres to prefabricated standards. To me at least these are the best journals. Of the three only Jacket suffers from some clubbiness, but that clubbiness casts a pretty wide net to be sure. The Canary is another one that shares a certain fluidity.

Editors said...

Lester,

Thank you so much for reading! And for your insightful comments. I would have a hard time saying Bernstein is "better" than Oliver, just very different. The thing he does have going for him is his ability to write diversely. Oliver has blown my top here and there, tho. For example,

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I think this poem's pretty damn good.

As far as the LES things, I in fact heard a poet say it during her reading at Barnard. The term has become a parody, but it was definetly true enough at points. Now, most of the people on the LES are just hanging out and have come in front New Jersey. The rents are too high to make a real downtown scene that many of my friends were part of.

Editors said...

Lester,

Thank you so much for reading! And for your insightful comments. I would have a hard time saying Bernstein is "better" than Oliver, just very different. The thing he does have going for him is his ability to write diversely. Oliver has blown my top here and there, tho. For example,

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I think this poem's pretty damn good.

As far as the LES things, I in fact heard a poet say it during her reading at Barnard. The term has become a parody, but it was definetly true enough at points. Now, most of the people on the LES are just hanging out and have come in front New Jersey. The rents are too high to make a real downtown scene that many of my friends were part of.

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Matt said...

In regards to a poem without a narrative being terrible, what is your veiw on Gerard Manly Hopkins "Pied Beauty"