America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece
$500 down on your old strophe
I want try to organize some old ideas of mine and others around more recent remarks made by Gary Norris at Dagzine and Kasey Mohammad at Lime Tree. When I started this blog, I announced it as an expression of "MFA envy", namely, that there doesn't seem much interest in teaching philosophy as a form of creative writing (or any other form of writing), i.e., as an activity rather than a body of doctrine (cf. Wittgenstein T4.112). I wish there were. So my basic project here has been to try learn from poets and critics of poetry (often the same people) whatever I can to cash in Wittgenstein's suggestion that philosophy ought to be composed in the manner of poetry. As an extension of this approach, philosophy ought to be read and criticized as one reads and criticizes poetry. Of course, this is where all the disagreements begin.
My first inclination sounded like this:
That's what's so appealing about poetry: it's got a product. We philosophers ought to approach our passing remarks in a similar fashion, commodifying what is already our fetish for thinking.
But I can see now that this is itself a somewhat controversial stance in the poetry community. I imagine that especially Gary Norris and Jay Thomas would take issue with it. But Kasey's recent post gives me a kind of hope, even if it leaves me puzzled in what is no doubt exactly the way he intended. Before I get to that, I want to take issue with the following critical principle, which, I fear, threatens to do to poetry and poetics what has always irritated me about philosophy.
Simon at Rhubarb is Susan apologizes for his critical approach at precisely the point where I feel most inclined to praise it. He notes that his intention to critique individual poems has a "disadvantage" that stems from the following claim:
[M]ost poems only make sense in the larger context of a poet's work. There are some poems that can blast themselves out of context into the consciousness of the language, but even there it is nearly impossible to understand and appriciate in any deep manner without at least some familiarity with what else is happening behind the scenes. The residue of a single poem is ephemeral.
After reading this I posted the following somewhat flarfy comment on his blog:
Great idea, this blog. I think what you call a disadvangtage, however, bears thinking about. While it is true that some poems "blast themselves" out of their context, the whole genius of web poetry is that every poem is equidistant to every other poem, and, actually, to every other sentence. In my opinion, "familiarity with what else is happening behind the scenes" is always an illusion that is affected by some critics . . . in order to bolster their authority by bolstering the authority of "the author". Not necessary now. Each poem can be easily taken out of context and criticized (attention can be drawn away from the poet and onto the poetry, as T.S. Eliot advised), and "everyone knows" that the critic does not know jack about what's happening behind the scenes anyway, and that "deep appreciation" is, well, sort of icky.
Reading Kasey's post about "Why we publish?" I get the eerie sense that the consensus out there is on Simon's side, not mine. Everybody, it seems, knows that the whole point of publishing is to make a name for yourself, i.e., establish an authorial/authoritative position, from within which to accomplish poetry. What is disturbing about Kasey's analysis of the situtation is that this accomplishment seems wholly circular, i.e., the only relevant sense of "accomplishment" seems to be "publication". (I say this knowing that this is no doubt a manifestation of the "reductively deterministic model of poetic culture" that Kasey warns against taking too seriously in his post.)
My suggestion here, and one that I like to think Flarf (especially Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot") taught me, is that web-based poetry accomplishes itself without authority. I think the central error here (which also motivates the fear of market forces) is the romantic image of "poems that can blast themselves out of context into the consciousness of the language". If they had to blast themselves out, Simon would be right and the fear of markets wholly justified. But poems, at least today, are able to install themselves in the consciousness of the language. That is, they can be determinate little machines, gadgets . . . products. They can't accomplish everything, but to expect them to do something "deeper" after first submerging them in "the larger context of a poet's work" is simply to expect too much.
I say this knowing that I'm being naive about the way markets produce personalities. But I'm working at the level of critical taste that still thinks there are a lot a brilliant, depersonalized consumer products on the market, which we overlook because they are right under our fingertips.