If'n you claim to be avant-garde, you ain't.

A couple of weeks ago, after hearing about it from the Poetry magazine podcast, I watched the entirety of this:

The Cage Match of Canadian Poetry from Kit Dobson on Vimeo.

Yes, I realize it's a gazillion minutes long. However, just watching the first ten minutes will give you a good idea of the debate raging in contemporary poetry these days. These two poets, Canadians Christian Bok and Carmine Starnino--both by their own admission and by the exacerbative tendencies of the media (more on that later)--stand on opposite ends of a spectrum of theory.

Bok is best known for his book, Eunoia, a word-game little poetry exercise that sold tens of thousands of copies in his native Canada and in the U.K. He is a sound poet (read: he thinks he's a Dadaist), a conceptual artist, and...let's be clear about this...a university professor.

Starnino is a somewhat curmudgeonly, somewhat traditionalist critic/poet who seems to yearn for the good ol' days, when a poem was a poem and everyone was concerned with craft, with what Pound incantatorily called "the better word, the better word."

Both hover around 40 years old. Both never truly look each other in the eye during the entire debate. If you're keeping score at home, a youtube search for Carmine Starnino yields 3 hits...3...3 parts of the same video of him sitting on a panel discussion of Canadian literature. A similar search for Bok yield hundreds of hits of him reading alone, at performances, readings, etc. In essence, Bok is a literary performance artist in the most public sense. Starnino is a public figure in the most contemporarily academic sense.

The problem I've been having is this: I don't know where I stand. Let's start with Bok. Here he is explaining a project of his in 2006:

Essentially, here Bok wants to take one of the hot topics of the day--namely, genetic modification--and fuse it with poetry. For Bok, if poetry is not pushing the boundaries of how it is defined, it is irrelevant. The aforementioned book, Eunoia, contains one chapter for each of the five vowels in English (yes, there's a chapter called "And Sometimes Y") and writes an entire prose piece (poem?) using only that particular vowel. He is also very fond of reciting poems by Hugo Ball that are more vocal sound experiments than poems. He is also very fond of talking about himself.

On the other hand, Starnino is a well-respected young critic (if a bit grumpy) who champions nothing if not craft. He is a traditionalist, in this sense. He is also an accomplished poet in his own right, helping bring Canadian poetry to the forefront of literary discussion in North America, championing, ironically, Christian Bok along the way. For Starnino, poetry is news that stays news. It doesn't have to speak directly to the very edge of current knowledge to be relevant. Form can only be judged based on great masters who have come before, who have been inculcated into the canon.

I wrote an experimental poem today and titled it "IEDs," an acronym for "improvised explosive device," a term all-too-often spoken during these times of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I took the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet and replaced it with the syllables "ba" and "boom" according to whether or not the syllable was stressed or unstressed.

I have to admit, reader, it felt good.

I would bet that Bok sees his experiments, at least in the compositional phase, as almost meditative to write. Nonetheless--considering my poem, at least--once the reader gets the schtick, the punch is over. There's no lasting complex commentary about our world, our politics, our human condition. No intricacy of thought. No better word, better word.

But that's all Bok does. His most famous book seems to me to be one elaborate game. To put it another way, I don't even have to read his book to understand his sentiments. I've seen a passage or two. I've read the explanation on the dust jacket. I get it. I move on.

In conclusion, I have to respond to Bok's persistent claim that he is part of the avant-garde of poetry, a claim he makes in the "cage match" video numerous times that he is never questioned about. I was always under the impression that if you were truly doing something new, something interesting, something unique, you didn't have time to be self-congratulatory about it. You didn't draw attention to yourself, waving your arms in the air, saying, "Look at how fresh my approach is! Look how rebellious my stance on poetics is! Look at how quaintly humorous and ironic my work is!" I sort of thought that's what others did, after the fact. It's sort of like being in the zone as an athlete: Once someone comments on the fact that you're in the zone, it ends.


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