The Proper Response: When the Hell Are We?

Continually wrestling with the proper role of a poet in a culture that is bored, repulsed, and annoyed with "high art," it seems to me that the most pressing concern of a writer--or any artist, for that matter, who thinks him/herself worthy enough to respond to current culture--is, "What should I be saying, and how should I say it?"

The former part of that question is not something that is of concern to me lately. I am old enough and codger-ly enough to know who I am as a writer and what types of things I'd like to "say" in and with my poetry. The latter half of that question, however, is perplexing me these days. Let us return to the question of the avant-garde.

Granted, this is not the time to return to trashing poets who call themselves avant-garde. For that blog post, please refer to an earlier entry on Christian Bok vs. Carmine Starnino. The relevant concern seems to be one of form. A poet who shall remain nameless recently tweeted that the contemporary poetry movements known as Flarf and Conceptualism are going to "storm" the conference of the Association of Writing Programs in Denver. Storm? Wait, let's back up.

Flarfists are a group of poets who write intentionally "bad" poetry, usually taking common cultural references as a starting point. For example, a Flarf poem that appeared in Poetry magazine last year used the lyrics to "I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls, and replaced the verb "touch" with "Google," creating lines all circling around the ironic comparison between searching for oneself on the internet and masturbation. I get it. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Conceptualists create "found" poetry, essentially. One well-known Conceptualist poet is busy at work taking every single word of the September 11, 2001 edition of the New York Times and rewriting them into lines and stanzas. Since that is a date we all understand quite clearly, he finds it interesting to take that particular paper's articles into his work, since the newspaper came out before that day's events. Again, irony. I get it.

But is this all we've got? An urban bohemian sideways smirk at the current cultural moment? An upturned nose to all lyrical poetry? These writers believe (again, as represented in the aforementioned issue of Poetry) that the only proper response to the millenial condition is one of robotic, tongue-in-cheek production. Meaning is only found in form and in process, they would say, not in actual content. The form is the content. All that could be said has already been said.

I think I've heard this before. I think it was a little movement called Modernism.

I simply fail to believe that lyric poetry is dead. Most avant-garde poets would probably agree that it is not poetry's job to connect with the masses. Art should be made well and in a responsive way to its environment, and fuck the common man. The problem lies precisely in this worldview. This is not at all to say that one should "dumb down" one's writing in order to reach a wider audience. Nonetheless, if poets don't try to reconnect with the reading public, who will? Shoppers on Amazon? Doubtful.

Indeed, this problem should make the poet take her job more seriously. She must now attempt to determine both the proper formal and topical responses to living in 2010, she must also discern the most sensible way to connect writing to the "audience." Herein also lies the problem of the avant-garde. From what I can gather, at least in North America, they shun the audience. They write, blog, tweet, publicly read, and publish for each other. An incestuous network of making art just to make each other feel important. That's not what I was taught being a writer is all about, nor is it what I believe poetry should be.

So, when the hell are we? At the funeral of poetry? I think I've heard that one before a gazillion times. In an interspace between clearly bound schools of thought on what poetry can and should look like now? Most likely.

Just let me write poetry that says something. And don't talk about "storming" a meeting of writing programs. It makes you sound like kicking over sandcastles in your a bubble...on an which no one likes to go except you.


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