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Terreson Profile
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The Balkanization of American Poetry


This may sound crazy. But what the hell.

For some months now I've been following the proceedings at the Poetry Foundation's on line site.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/

It has made for an instructive exercise. I think I know something about poetry, its canons, traditions, theories of poetics, prosody, crit., etc. What I am perfectly ignorant about tends to always be the au currant on the poetry scene. This has been true all of my career. Periodically, maybe in ten year intervals, I'll feel the need to check in, so to speak, catch up, get a sense of what is current. The Poetry Foundation's site, it being the Poetry Magazine people and all, has served as a pretty good window view into the state of things. Especially, since, many, if not most, of its players belong to the world of professional poets, English and poetry teachers. One night I looked up the names of many of the principal players. I can say for certain I've never been in the company, in cybersapce or not, of so many MFAs. What I have come to this time around is that the scene has become balkanized.

The term is geopolitical in origin. Wikipedia has a wonderful entry, well describing the concept. The article also sports a cool interactive map showing the so-called balkanization over time, the fragmentation, of the Balkan region along ethnic, political, religious, even tribal lines which illustrates the process of regional fragmentation. By extrapolation the map's visual serves as a metaphor for this same process in America's poetry region.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkanization

I pulled up the article to make sure this is what I mean for describing what I see currently on the poetry scene. And it is. I can't remember all the concept-names I've come across over the last six months used to identify one poetic slant or another; and neighbor-competitive, which is another feature of balkanization. There even seems to be something called the New Chicago School of Poetry. Then, of course, there are the gender and sexual orientation slants to take into account. The lesbian slant, the gay slant, the feminist slant, and so forth. Then there are the many hyphenated-American slants that play out. And while I get the value of promoting through emphasis one orientation or another, one conceptual framework or another, I also notice certain fault lines. Thus the balkanization of both poetry and the poetic exchange. If, for example, one questions a poet who predicates poetry on her lesbian orientation it can be construed, not always is, as a challenge to her orientation. A similar reaction comes to when a poetry thinker gets challenged because of his theoretical framework. In such a circumstance dialogue and the sharing of views is no longer possible. Conversation tends to fall along these fault lines, with people of similar views taking up for each other, attacking those who see things differently or who take to poetry with different perequisits in mind. It all ends in the balkanization, the fragmentation, of poetry's own region.

While composing my thoughts I had an exchange with a board member who is also a close observer of the political scene. What I was thinking to describe she put into her own terms. She said: "It all sounds like identity politics to me. Or like identity poetry." Man, this straightened my back! It gave the perfect descriptor, the missing associative link.

She is right. The fault lines, at least as I read them, in the American poetry scene today, and amounting to this balkanization, has to do with this thing of identity poetry. 'If you are like me you must be a poet who will speak to me. If you are not like me, or you don't see things the way I do, you can't get poetry the way I do.' I specifically think concept-poetry has become a matter of identity poetry. By concept-poetry I mean an aesthetic constructed more around an idea, less gounded in gender, ethnic, even class orientation. Lang-Po, for example, has certainly become a case of identity poetry. As has the aesthetic of the so-called New Formalists whose practitioners insist on closed-form versification. The balkanization brought about by concept-poetry has less to do with prosodic emphasis, more to do with a kind of neighbor-competitiveness that, in the extreme case, ends in the inability to recognize poetry that does not meet the specific aesthetic theory.

How sad it all becomes. What a diminishment of poetry it leads to.

Anybody can go to the link supplied above, follow the blog exchanges and test what I think. Not looking to single out any one blog, however, it occurs to me this same balkanization can be found on any poetry blog and poetry board. Not infrequently one find's a certain, in my view limited, aesthetic bias for what makes for good poetry. I remember again why I tend to stay away from what's current on the scene. And why I more gravitate to poets and poetry thinkers who take the slow time, usually decades, to slowly chew on the cud.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Oct/13/2009, 6:50 pm
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


I see the post has received 60 views or so. I welcome discussion, that representing differing views especially. Best of all would be getting proved wrong or perhaps shown my perspective is missing in some way. Anyone not a board member simply has to register with runboard.com in order to post.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Oct/16/2009, 4:16 pm
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ChrisD1 Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


"William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher's own temperament...This creates, as James puts it, 'A certain insincerity in our philopophic discussions: The potentest of all our premesis is never mentioned...What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is--and so flagrantly!--is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is."

from a review by Sam Anderson in New York Books, Oct. 18, '09
Oct/27/2009, 1:08 pm Link to this post Send Email to ChrisD1   Send PM to ChrisD1
 
Patricia Jones Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


Have you seen this thread, Tere?

http://www.ablemuse.com/erato/showthread.php?t=7832

Incredibly, at the end,the moderator "plonks" them all...sighhhhhh.

---
"Don't you worry--I ain't evil, I'm just bad".
~Chris Smither~
Oct/27/2009, 3:15 pm Link to this post Send Email to Patricia Jones   Send PM to Patricia Jones
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


Thanks, Chrisfriend. James is exactly right. Nietzsche has for long been viewed as the father of psychology, credited for as much by Freud. I think James can be included as another such "father." They both understood to what extent philosophical systems are imprinted with their creator's personalities and temperaments. And yeah. I see the relevance to the topic.

And thanks for the link, Pat. I am not a visitor to Eratosphere and so was unaware of the discussion. And yes again to its relevance. Balkanization by any other name is ...

Tere
Oct/27/2009, 3:48 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


Tere,

I originally made this post in another forum but realized it might work better here:

I heard segment about the photographer Roy DeCarava on NPR yesterday morning. Here's the excerpt which reminded me of the point I think you are trying to make:

"In his application for a Guggenheim fellowship, DeCarava wrote that he hoped to show "not the famous and well-known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of human beings."

"There was this big hole. There were no black images of dignity. Of beautiful black people. So I tried to fill it. But that's not what I wanted," he said. "What I wanted to do was find within the black community itself — I was looking for humanity. People — these are people. Before they're black, they're people. And this is what I'm concerned about."

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114351046

Interestingly, DeCarava's "first book of photographs was a collaboration with poet Langston Hughes called The Sweet Flypaper of Life."

If a sense of humanity comes through in a poem, I'm more likely to be interested in the identity politics/poetics behind the piece. Without that sense of humanity, I'm more likely to feel the piece is more propaganda than poetry and less likely to care or to trust the poet.
Nov/2/2009, 6:39 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
Terreson Profile
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Thanks, Katfriend. The way I see it poetry is a transaction between people, not between races, ethnic groups, or economic classes.

Think about it. Perhaps the greatest threat to poetry has been Marxism with its (Hegellean) sense of dialectical materialism, what is supposed to determine historical epochs. Second greatest would be class or economic or meritocatric discrimination (professional poets particularly play a part in meritocratic discrimination). Third greatest would be ideology, either to the left or to the right. Fourth greatest would be the kind of cultural relativism peculiar to Lang-Po folk and de-con intellectuals.

I know you can see the trend here. Poetry is not of the head. Poetry is an intimate thing between people.

Tere
Nov/3/2009, 8:21 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


Recently I had reason to remember something Keats said. It is from his letter where he coins and defines the phrase Negative Capability.

“Brown & Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomine. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes all other considerations, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

I read this passage over two decades ago and it damn near slammed me between the eyes. What I take from this is that Shakespeare did not need what most people, and artists, need. He did not need the crutch of dogma or religion or ideology or any other "ism". His sense of beauty obliterated all other considerations. Thus his negative capability, his genius for living and creating in uncertainties without the nagging need for dogma, ideology or, and especially, group identity.

This would be the antidote I propose against the poetry scene's balkanization.

Tere
Nov/9/2009, 12:16 am Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Patricia Jones Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


If a sense of humanity comes through in a poem, I'm more likely to be interested in the identity politics/poetics behind the piece. Without that sense of humanity, I'm more likely to feel the piece is more propaganda than poetry and less likely to care or to trust the poet.

Me, too, Kat.

Pat

---
"Don't you worry--I ain't evil, I'm just bad".
~Chris Smither~
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Katlin Profile
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Re: The Balkanization of American Poetry


Tere,

Today, after reading your post about Keats on negative capability, I read an essay on Rilke that I thought you might like to read:

http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_zagajewski.php

Adam Zagajewski questions whether Rilke's lack of "political or societal passions" in his poetry is a legitimate criticism of it:
 
If some other poets from his generation and beyond tied both their spiritual disquietude and moments of inspiration to the cause of their nation, to the historic situation, or to their starkly accentuated biography, Rilke, we know, remained free in this respect; he kept his creative fire far from the furnaces of political or societal passions.

. . .

Rilke's dialogue with gods and angels, his meditation on night and death (a quiet, aristocratic death, not the plebeian one having to do with machine guns or gas chambers), left out a whole territory of down-to-earth suffering, not sublime at all and yet craving recognition, maybe needing its own poetry. Those of us who have witnessed (or even only read about) the several terrible sequels of World War I and understand that there are two contradictory betrayals lying in wait for every poet—one that consists in forgetting the pain of modern history for the sake of the spiritual life, untouched by the news, and another that has to do with paying close attention to the pain of modern history but forsaking the delicate, nameless substance of our interiority—will be probably more than willing to exonerate Rilke from this criticism.


I have often heard you say that many poets lack the oceanic feeling and that this lack is evidenced in their poetry. Here's the way Zagajewski describes coming to the realization that something was missing in his approach to poetry:

for some time I did agree that poetry definitely must be tame, metaphorless, prosy, since history had delivered it such a deadly blow. Flights of imagination had to be strictly forbidden, I thought. Compared to the intentional flatness of Rozewicz's poetry, the wild opening of the first of the Duino elegies—but also everything that followed in this and the other elegies—was a welcome, almost unexpected confirmation that the poetic fire could still be alive, indeed was alive. Luckily, chronological (or, as the boring theorists of structuralism liked to say, diachronic) order doesn't apply to poetry at all, so that an earlier poem can contend with one written much later and thus can reassure the young reader: Don't listen to any contemporary commandments that seem to represent the verdict of the Zeitgeist itself. Listen to great poets only; sometimes a Catullus can save you from a literary dictatorship of somebody who lives only five blocks away. And then perhaps you will see that under some circumstances the Zeitgeist may turn out to be no more convincing intellectually than a vulgar poltergeist.

Here is a paragraph in which Zagajewski describes the difference between Rilke and Auden I thought you might like:

Someone who loves C. P. Cavafy's work, for instance, will probably have to admit that, as much as he admires this poet, he has also known periods when passion for and interest in the modern Greek bard faded for a while—as if each act of reading poetry consisted in acquiring some kind of spiritual vitamins and in the process our inner voice would tell us from time to time: good, enough of this, give me a different nutrient now. So after the immense intelligence of Cavafy's historical poems the inner voice might be tempted to say: Please, give me a poet like Dylan Thomas now. Rilke is no exception to the rule; perhaps he's even one of those great poets whose grip on readers fluctuates the most. For one thing, there's almost no sense of humor in his poetry, as contrasted with his letters, which emanate a lovely understanding of the droll side of life—in the letters we hear the voice of Dottore Serafico, not a prophet. His poetry is almost always high-strung; in a way it represents the essence of poetry in the purity of its lyric song. Rilke's oeuvre, especially in his last years, is also characterized by a certain "passivity"; this is a poetry that receives, that listens to, that waits for a signal coming from the outside—as opposed, for instance, to many of W. H. Auden's later poems, where a muscular rhetoric is at work, a rhetoric that gesticulates, posits, invents, denies, and moralizes all the time. Not so Rilke, who listens to the world, watches the world, who receives.

How does all this relate to the balkanization of poetry? If I had to guess, I would say that the balkanization of poetry, like balkanization in the world at large, is the result of the fact that we are still living in the waste land where estatic moments are few and far between:

Maybe it's more interesting to see Rilke's work as not as virginal, not as ethereal, as it seems to many readers. After all, like the majority of literary modernists, he is an antimodern; one of the main impulses in his work consists in looking for antidotes to modernity. Heroes of his poems move in a spiritual space, not in the streets of New York or Paris, but they also, because of their intense existence, are meant to act against the supposed or real ugliness of the modern world.

We know that the main domain of poetry is contemplation, through the riches of language, of human and nonhuman realities, in their separateness and in their numerous encounters, tragic or joyful. Rilke's powerful Angel standing at the gates of the Elegies, timeless as he is, is there to guard something that the modern era—which gave us so much in other fields—took away from us or only concealed: ecstatic moments, for instance, moments of wonder, hours of mystical ignorance, days of leisure, sweet slowness of reading and meditating. Ecstatic moments—aren't they one of the main reasons why poetry readers cannot live without Rilke's work? I mean here readers of contemporary poetry who otherwise are mostly kept on a rather meager diet of irony. The Angel is timeless, and yet his timelessness is directed against the deficiencies of a certain epoch. So is Rilke: timeless and deeply immersed in his own historic time. Not innocent, though; only silence is innocent, and he still speaks to us.


I love the idea of poetry as spiritual vitamins and the notion that great poets can save you from the "literary dictatorship" of your peers.
Nov/9/2009, 5:35 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 


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