Sunday, February 06, 2005

Via Positiva

The good will and generous open-mindedness of most poetry bloggers never ceases to inspire, especially in a profession where bitter grudges seem the inevitable result of what most of us find in the mail--big no's and little no's and the occasional yes. But affirmation and praise is its own kind of indirect negativity, isn't it? By valuing certain poems and poets, by elucidating their accomplishments, there is, I think, usually an implicit criticism of other writing that is not chosen, that didn't come to Josh's mind as he came up with his bag of groodies. To keep from drowning in the rising tide of poems and poets, with such a great deal of it not worth reading, I need someone to make a case for what I might enjoy or love. Slamming bad poetry is a losing battle; the factories of mediocrity will just keep churning out more of it. I'm for the Whitmanic promulge.

Ne'ertheless, Greg wants to see if it's possible for someone to demonstrate why a particular pomo (I almost wrote porno) poem is bad; to see if we're not just PR for our friends and the editors at magazines we want to publish us.

I've picked the following poem because it comes in a book which contains many poems I do like, a book by a press (California) whose editorial policies strike me as both wide-ranging and high-quality (they've rejected me twice). But this particular poem, "Ferdinand, the Prize," from Brian Blanchfield's mostly delightful Not Even Then displays the irksome, and familiar, fault of framing fragmentary and incoherent philosophical musings, replete with pomo jargon, by referencing one or another trendy philosopher--in this case Louis Althusser. The poem has a fairly interesting literal subject, a stud bull whose sperm is worth "two hundred dollars" an ounce. But Blanchfield, perhaps attempting to mime/mine these precious ejaculations, mummifies his subject in uninteresting prefab language and thought:

Coming so far, always-already Ferdinand, to a so-be-it. . .

It seems smaller and less just, what I said, not amen,
said for entertainment, really, hearing that it got back to you:
the inconceivability of our ever having been together rivals
the mechanical bull or some such remote craze. Look at me, love. . .

For my money, "always-already," used without irony, is as bad as deer in headlights. And despite its protestations to the contrary, what this poem lacks is entertainment value, at the same time as it struts its specious language and says look, look at me. Mechanical bullshit is a good descriptor for this kind of stuff. Although there's juiciness and jouissance in the syntactical slippages, this poem expects from me a certain work it doesn't compel; it wants me to interpret it in light of the weighty epigraph from Althusser, hoping that I'll do the work of thinking for it, or let the Althusserian police-voice interpellate such an interpretation. I'd prefer more amen, and less always-already. Enough, people, with the always-already, already.

Certainly there's a place for such ideas in poetry; I'm as excited by Continental philosophy as the next person with a decent liberal-arts education, an M.F.A. and a print addiction: I've built poems around kernels from Wittgenstein, Lacan, Derrida, Arendt, et. al. To my mind, though, such ideas are best when they've been digested, when they offer up something to those who haven't read in whatever book you have. That way, those who have read whomever can have fun in the bonus round, but the rest of your readers aren't left out in the cold. I don't mind working hard at my reading; it's getting exploited I don't like. Compare the above to the following gorgeous poem from the same book, "If the Blank Outcome in Dominoes Adds a Seventh Side to Dice":

A system builds around a refusal of system. Adrift
in flagless sabotage, ahead the fleet prolepsis in arrears,
I went with luck and I went without and to go is to give a
a leave. My dowry is narrow as a strait, as collapsed and
goodness gushing a get up more sophisticated.

While "prolepsis" is perhaps a bit too lit. crit. for my taste, the poem is poignant and fun, and the reverberation of the witty title, the bouncing dice of the lines, provides a joy the other poem lacked. This one doesn't assume a subordinate role to whatever philosophical system it's employing: it is the philosophy; is the "mind in the act of finding what suffices" (which itself suffices), as opposed to a philosophical carpet-bombing strategy which hopes that some poignancy will emerge from the desultorily destroyed palaces of an exalted way of speaking.

Anyway, I hope this provides a partial satisfaction of Greg's desires. I'm still for a 90/10 split on the ratio of good books blogging to bad books blogging. There's so little time and more stuff worth reading every day. Promulge, promulge.

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