Friday, March 7, 2008


I heard an interesting word from Chris Anderson (of Wired magazine) last night while Charlie Rose was interviewing him: “granularity.” In Webspeak it refers to the smallness of social groups formed by Internet interaction. The universality of the Web allows people with esoteric interests to meet (electronically) and club together, even if the club contains only five members. Those five members might be, for example, people who are crazy about the "Siuru" movement in Estonian poetry just after the First World War. This is "granularity."

Another vogue word applied to the U.S. poetry subculture is “balkanization.” It’s a way of describing the process of subdividing poets and poetry readers into ever-smaller factions—and, alas, warring factions. I’m not sure at what point the Poetics people started using a plural for “poetry” and began referring to “poetries.” That was one way of dealing with the evident fact that practitioners of experimental poetry weren’t trying to do the same kind of thing, and, moreover, regarded other approaches to poesis as failures in theoretical correctness. The debate was no longer about what was “pc” but instead what was “tc.”

Meanwhile, mainstream poetry also began to split up, in accordance with geography, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, politics, and technical approaches (for example, “formalism,” “free verse” and “spoken word.”) Of course the grids could sometimes be plural and superimposed, a phenom that tended to divide rather than unite, resulting in further “granularity.”

A good thing or a bad thing? Both. What is the point of proclaiming freedom of expression if it doesn’t actually apply? People should make the art they want to make, and that art will find whatever audience it finds. If you happen to like pistachio-raspberry ice cream with Oreo crumbles, who has the right to tell you you shouldn’t like it? The Declaration of Independence says we should be guaranteed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; and happiness is as we define it. Cultural analysts of modern, Western-style democracies speak of “the desiring subject,” a citizen whose desires are supported by government and commerce. In effect, this is the individual consumer, accorded a choice of fifty brands of cereal, cars, bars, movie stars, and, nowadays, aesthetic theories. We know that in contemporary visual art all approaches are now permissible, everything from James Currin’s revival of Old Master painting techniques (though used for edgy subject matter) to installation, Conceptual work, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, digital photography, video—anything you can name. Contemporary music, even within the Pop-rock genre differs wildly in technique and scope, and serious music is now being written in traditional tonality along with every other conceivable approach. In short, pluralism reigns everywhere and the old motto E pluribus unum has been turned inside out: Out of one, many. That is freedom: Desire is the final arbiter.

Now for the disadvantages. “Granularity” means that no single practitioner among all these competing poetries can have an audience large enough to support her or him. Rival factions devalue what other granular groups are doing and discourage crossover. Back in the day, T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas could fill a stadium for their readings. No poet can now do that, though I suppose John Ashbery would come closest to bringing it off; and even then some of the audience would be there to heckle. No, we’re really lucky if 150 people show up. (Robert Frost: “Hell is a half-empty auditorium.) I’m told that in the Mormon faith, good Mormons are rewarded in the afterlife by getting their own little planet, where they reign supreme. The contemporary poetry scene is like Mormon Heaven.

Another problem is the question of evaluation. How do we screen out good poems from bad, when there’s no agreement whatsoever about standards? The critical method of saying, “Every poem composed according to my tc is good, and every poem not composed in accordance with it is bad” isn’t going to fly. So then should we just dispense with any systematic process of critical evaluation? Well, maybe. But if we do, if we say, “I like what I like, and that’s all that matters,” where do we end up? Those who teach poetry workshops will have no ground to stand on when their critical comments get the answer, "Well, that's just your aesthetic, it's not mine. I wanted the poem to be vague." Also, reviewing becomes an exercise in pure subjectivity. Choosing books for prizes becomes impossible—or else it is understood as being nothing more than an expression of personal taste, not impinging on anyone else’s taste. It’s a stance that removes all substantive content from the process of focusing positive attention on some works at the expense of others. And awarding grants to some poets becomes equally meaningless or, again, simply a “political” instead of an aesthetic action.

The economic side of things is worth considering, too. Gone are the days when a poet necessarily had to live in what I.B. Singer called “the holiness of poverty.” A “poet in residence” at a major university can expect a salary of six figures. The MacArthur grant offers between a half million and three-quarters of a million to its recipients. The Wallace Stevens Prize is (I believe) $150,000, and the Lilly (I think) $100,000. And so on with Lannans and Whitings and Guggenheims and NEAs. Reading fees for the famous are often $5000 and in some cases $20,000. I know of at least three millionaire poets, I mean, poets who didn’t inherit their bank accounts. If your temperament isn’t bothered by the aesthetic side of the debate about demonstrable value, possibly it will be when discussion turns to the economic issues involved in deciding who deserves support.

Presumably, those whose arguments for a particular aesthetic (developed in conjunction with a practical criticism, with clearly defined measures for success or failure) should carry the day over their less persuasive rivals. But have we seen that happen? I don’t think so. Over the past years the prose section of Poetry magazine has staged a series of debates on what standards should be applied in evaluating poems, and apparently no one is the wiser—that is, no progress has been made toward consensus. Things just seem to become more and more granular all the time.


David Graham said...

I agree with the gist of this post. But I don't think it's quite true that there aren't poets out there who can fill an auditorium the way Frost did in his heyday.

Billy Collins certainly can. Maya Angelou, too. I've seen Robert Bly and Allen Ginsberg do it.

Gwendolyn Brooks also--a few years before her death I was present at a packed school gymnasium in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for instance, where a remarkably ungranular audience came to hear her read.

The vast majority of poetry readings are more sparsely attended, of course. But so were most in the Dylan Thomas era. He was one of the few big draws, as Collins is today.

Alfred Corn said...

The word wasn't "auditorium," David, but "stadium." That's a bit different.

Ron Slate said...

Take your copy of Paul Carroll's 1968 YOUNG AMERICANS POETS off the shelf and look at the t of c. Ther was Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Diane Wakoski. There was Louise Gluck, Marvin Bell, Robert hass. That anthology represented an embrace of all styles into something called "American." It was one school with lots of personae in the playground. Even so, we could make useful distinctions between Michael McClure and Charles Simic without lapsing into inane culture wars. There's a blogger today who divides poets into two batches ("there is no such thing as a poet, there are only kinds of poets"), the socially virtuous and the aesthetically quiet. You're with us or agin' us, per Bush II. In the US, we've never had to learn the lesson of Milosz's THE CAPTIVE MIND -- wherein the programmatically social poets and writers get the others sent to the Gulag. Or even the message in Roberto Bolano's novel DISTANT STAR (newly available) wherein a similar political treachery is committed by an us-or-them literary type. The great George Oppen deprecated THE NEW YORKER in his daybooks, then gladly accepted their check when his turn came to publish there with "Bahamas." Perhaps most of us are susceptible to the desire for a worthy antagonist. But what we're seeing is antagonism as a group behavior. Poets are difficult enough as individuals.

Steve Fellner said...

Hi Ron,

How exciting that an insignificant person like myself can write a response to the deservedly well-respected poet Ron Solate on Alfred Corn's blog! It's weird how I can feel like I matter (mistakenly so, happily so) when I feel that way simply because I'm writing to a poet who matters on a bog by a poet who matters. I feel upwardly mobile.

I haev to say, though, Ron, I always have respected your poems because they are wonderfully political poems but not didactic; they're messy and compicated, and idiosyncratic, but that doesn't make it any less political, because creative writers are by their very nature more likely to be apolitical (they like to see themselves interested in "craft" divorced from the outside world), I was happy and unsurprised that you alluded to Bush, buy I was disheartened and I do mean that sincerely that your solution to these alleged culture wars (is there really a war? things don't seem that wild to me) is an embrace of middle-class etqiuette even though there are serious discrepencies in terms of who gets what and why.

Is antagonism necessarily a bad thing? Isn't it healthy? How many reviewers who write poems and review regularly actually say critical things that are not necessaily positive? Joel Brouwer (who is amazing, I love his reviews in the latest issue of Poetry; they are kind even when he's critical and he actually says something.)? Who else? William Logan doesn't really count; his review are never an exploration of hsi reaction to a poet; they are conservative knee jerk reactions while I can't argue that he isn't a great stylist.

What I'm saying is you actually sound a bit conservative in a Bush way. Antagonism is a good thing, especially to those in power, whether it's in poetry or the Bush Administration, don't you think.

Rudeness, a failure of etiuquette (thank Lord, we have someone as talented and as exciting and as candid and as powerfulas Rebecca Livingston and Eduard Corrall) to me is a result of something more than bad manners but a symptom of a faulty ungenerous power structure.

With much respect,
Steve Fellner

Ron Slate said...

Interesting response from Steve. I'm all for antagonism as long as its personal. My point is that the critical dialogue loses interest and value for me when it's derived mainly from affiliation. The best argument against my point is that we can't evade affiliation. And my response would be: the role of the critic is to state what the poem is trying to do and then assess how well it's doing it. If affiliation to some theory or other prevents the critic from respecting a poem's mission, then the assessment doesn't hold up. It isn't etiquette that I'm looking for but tact, often confused. Sometimes tact isn't enough. David Orr's review of Matthea Harvey's book in the NYTBR is such an example; it sounded to me, at least, that he was tripping over himself trying to show appreciation for poetry he actually doesn't like. You mention Wm Logan and Brouwer -- I also like the reviews & critical work of Dan Chiasson, Peter Gizzi, James Longenbach. And David Orr, too. Anyway, Alfred starting this whole harangue by mentioning the word "granularity" (a popular and annoying word as used in business, where I work) so let's get antagonistic with him.

Steve Fellner said...


First appologies to Alfred. Because the economy is so ad, I can't afford to see a psychiatrist so I'm forced to use these postings as my therapy.

Second to Ron. I just want to say that to the critics list I'd like to add Joyelle McSweeney...I am heartbroken that she stopped reviewing stuff at Constatn Crtiics. I'd check for her stufff evberyday I loved that site. Also MArjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein

Third to Ron. I agree with you (I'm afraid to agree too mcuh with you because then I might be seen for the sycophant I am which is why I write these positngs: for love, or something i can mistake as such; im insatiable and have no power to get love in any other way.) that critics need to cross affiliation. More need to do it. In most reviewing these no surprise and I like, althouhg it rarely happens, when a critic from one camp says something positive/negative about a poet from another camp. most critics only review poets from their own camp and say nicey nicey things. I remember when reginald shepherd reviewed Mark wunderlicks book years and years ago in boston review. (If im remembering this wrong please tell me someone, i have a bad memory) and iwas so happy that one gay writer would honestly and accurately and not complteely favorably review aother gay gave me hope that there could be a credible, valuable exchange...alas, that rarely happens, and for people like me who like to read, we don't get the stimulation we need and have to wait to go to therapy to get something that resembles critical inquiry.

fourth to ron..because you gave me persmission, ron, i will now be antagonist to alfred...i wouldnt have the nerve to do it by myself because im an insignificant poet but since you said so and said i was interested i feel empowered (i know i hate that word too but im not as good of a writer as you and alfred, have mercy) why do you need this consensus alfred....why do you need to feel like there's some Objective Truth...i don't get it Why isn't you posting follow someone liek ROn Sillian's who tries to organize a critique around specific power structures and how that power structyre encourages cetain poets and not not telling you to be ron, one of him is enough, it'd be no fun if there was more, but i wonder if you're really upset about the failure of consensus, or if you're more upset at how there is ocnsensus about, and why they get their affirmation and otehrs dont...

if you look at a lot of the substaintial lit mags, the same people are in them that were there 10 years ago, i am very, very old and have seen this never change, and a lot of the same people get the same best posts and the same grants....

you started to touch on that on earlier posts, i think a lack of consensus is a goood thing...

with something like love,