Friday, September 4, 2009

John BR recently asked me "what's wrong with us?", following on from the same question in Angel Exhaust 20. Here's one answer: what's wrong with us is that we cling to the idea that there's an audience for contemporary poetry which doesn't consist of its practitioners. We also cling to the notion that this is a bad thing. We need to get used to the idea that the practice of poetry, at least in the US and Britain (and as far as I'm aware, in France) is no longer one where 'a poet' writes for his/her public. It's a participation sport. But "we" still retain an embarassment about that fact, and try to pretend, for example, that our publishing ventures are proper businesses. Maybe that was Salt's mistake (I see they've now had to venture into chick-lit fiction to balance the books).

"Innovative" poets, as much as anyone, still yearn for the poet-public paradigm, perhaps as a legacy of modernism. Witness this paragraph, from the otherwise excellent "Meaning Performance" from Tony Lopez

"There are always lots of poets who go in for competitions, belong to local writers' groups, and publish in small circulation magazines or vanity presses. They do no harm and they vanish in time."

Is it me, or does this sound like someone who thinks a select band of poets write the real stuff, and the myriad other scribblers ought to stop and listen to them? There are always lots of poets who go in for literary theory, belong to academic institutions, and publish with specialist presses and innovative magazines. They too do no harm, and, they (like all of us) vanish in time. In fact, the phenomenon Lopez comments on is the same one that sees thousands of creative writing graduates produced every year and poetry readings in Cambridge packed [sic] solely by poets. In neither case is this a bad thing, and in both cases it can produce exciting and beautiful poetry. It can also, in both cases, produce a lot of... OK let's not get negative.


Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting, how we've come to think of the arts always in terms of the performer and audience as opposed to people entertaining themselves. I suppose its inevitable in a consumer society that it should develop that way.

It's great to see mutual entertainment reasserting itself.

Laurie Duggan said...

Alan, it used to amuse me that, back in Australia, even the 'performance poets' (who would imagine stadia full of admirers) tended to attract mostly other performance poets to their readings. At the same time I would relish any review or notice that was written by somebody I didn't know (even if that person was another poet). But I do have a non-writing audience, even if it's a very small one. People I run into who say they liked a particular book. I'm always surprised and grateful for this, and I now feel that's perhaps all we can expect if we don't wish to play the celebrity game. I tend to agree with you about Salt, thinking of it as both admirable and foolish as a venture. In any case most of the poets of the past whose work we still read wrote for very small audiences indeed.

Jeffrey Side said...

Yes, the fact of the matter is, as you say, Alan, that there is no audience for non-mainstream poetry other than those who partake in its writing. Of course, this is also true, to a lesser extent, with mainstream poetry, but not to any extent that is dispiriting to mainstream poets.

John B-R said...

I've been reading Agamben's The Man Without Content (highly highly recommended, btw). He takes the discussion all the way back to the notion of the aesthetic as primary in art; aesthetics being the overarching descriptor for the effect of the work on the audience. As far as I've read, at least, he contrasts the aesthetic/spectator primacy with the promesse de bonheur, to quote Stendhal, which he does. That promise is "made" by art to the artist, not the audience. Nietzsche suggests that the artist is the primary benefactor of her/his creations, not the audience.

Now, I don't know that I wish to privilege either the audience or the artist. I couldn't do without at least a couple readers, or maybe I could, I probably would, to be honest, but it would feel more like silly solipsism, and would probably depress me at times. But knowing that I have Alan as a reader, and (who knows?) maybe occasionally you, Dominic, and you Laurie, occasionally as well, well isn't that heaven enough for one man?

I know it isn't, because we all want to be useful, as well as producers of commodities, if not commodities ourselves. But let's face it, we chose this path, and have to live with the consequences.

Which if really ok, I think. There's nothing wrong w/being a garage band, and getting the kids on the block to come by and get high and dance.

Great post, Alan. Good thing you respricted yr answer to what's wrong with us as poets? What if I had asked: what's wrong with us as a species? How would you answer that?

Ed Baker said...

I could address this

a six-pack of Buddha Beer
and the movie, Laura, awaits

except for a half dozen blogs, and 34,000 internet magazines, and 4.3. million web-sites..
and the "communications" that those make
I wouldn't now be the Famous Poet-Artist that y'all have come to know and love!
except that I can sit in front of this computer screen and


that I am communicating.. shit,
what a phantasy.

and all the while driven by this electrical connection to The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant whose waste is dumped into the Chesapeake Bay and is killing everything!

a friend just sent me a book of his to "give a read" 250 pages via this little monitor... no way can I read this on a screen nor desire to...

I guess it is all about creating internet groups of groupies hungry for anything original..


it is very lonely whe 'original' one tends towards living in isolation and futility..

in the "olden daze" "poets" and "artists" used to kill themselves. now they create a blogs and take manic-depressant and anxiety and cholesterol
pills and "perform for their audience"

I think that I will go sit in my own "garden" and watch the grass grow and the bugs fuck. and

wait for something to happen.

John B-R said...

I have to disagree with Ed. The relation of poets to audiences has always been virtual, in the sense that there's always been distance and assumptions. I'll add that if I have Jeffrey and Ed as sometimes readers, too, then I'm neither futile nor lonely. Tho I do enjoy watching grass grow and bugs fuck, just like everyone else.

Alan Baker said...

Laurie,yes, I guess there'll always be exceptional people - like Tony Frazer, for example - who are pure readers. Of course they're less likely to want to curry favour with other poets, so their opinions are likely to be more honest. But that aside, I can't see anything wrong with my readers being other practitioners. And if it gets away from the all-prevailing market ethos (now also promoted by funding bodies in the UK), which Dominic mentioned, then that's got to be a good thing.

Jeffrey, I'd lay bets that mainstream poetry is also read almost entirely by practising poets (with the exception of the stuff on the school syllabus, which is different, because it's not read by choice).

John, when you say "I don't know that I wish to privilege either the audience or the artist", I completely agree, though I'm not arguing for not having readers - that I'd find very hard to cope with. But isn't there something about creating poetry that is to do with crafting something that's well-made, of doing that for its own sake? Maybe that's what kept Emily Dickinson or GM Hopkins going knowing that no-one was reading what they wrote.

Ed, you say "poets" and "artists" used to kill themselves. now they create a blogs. Instead of creating blogs, they used to hang out in drawing rooms, taverns, royal courts etc...

AidanSemmens said...

Interesting post, Alan. Tony Lopez, to my mind, gets it almost right in that little nugget you quote. If he included the lots of poets who "study" and/or teach in "creative writing" classes in his line-up of those who do no harm, he'd be even nearer the mark. But I suspect he holds that sub-category of the whole poet species in higher regard, being one of them himself.
The category of poetry which actually does harm must be a pretty small one: I can't actually think of any off the top of me 'ead, unless you count Wagner libretti. On the other hand, I can't help feeling sometimes that we're all just singing in the shower, however beautifully and harmlessly.

Alan Baker said...

"Singing in the shower" is a great metaphor. But, if what I argued was true, then it's a communal shower (this metaphor could easily get out of hand).

AidanSemmens said...

You're right - a communal shower. Goes well with your original observation about a participator sport, which I thought was spot-on.