Saturday, September 02, 2006

Books and Poems

Josh Corey asked for more about the concept-book, and so more he will get.

We are in a historical moment, it seems to me, where the collection or miscellany of poems/writings has had its star dimmed by the long poem, the serial poem and proceduralist or mixed-genre book. I have no way of knowing how much this has to do with changing tastes among, on the one hand, writers, or on the other, publishers, but considering that these are often the same people [sometimes even the very same person, as in self-publication], I suspect it a little of both.

There are a number of things one can note about this trend. First, that it evidences the strongly digested (and to some, no doubt, strongly misread) influence of language-poetry and associated, although sometimes NOT similar, 70s-80s-90s writers on younger poets (as well as the continuing prolificness of these writers themselves)--and this holds true, even if poet X., who wrote a series or concept book, has never cracked open a single volume by any of the people who fought and died in the brutal poetry wars. I won't name names. With this comes the partial success of an effort to remember a certain strain of Modernism to which often, at least in English, the weighty name of Pound attaches. On the other hand, as much as he wrote long poems, Wallace Stevens, I think, produced collections; however much we can say about the unitariness of _Harmonium_, there's an attention to the individual poem as quasi-autonomous space, as monad--an attention to, yes I will use the word, the lyric--that must, I think, be seen as the other of the trend toward the book. Pound, on the other hand, wrote a cross-referenced encyclopedia. Of course, this is a multi-axis graph upon which every work will occupy a certain area. Many (probably the best) will often make deciding difficult.

I would suggest that part of the current will toward the book, and the will to work against the autonomy of the poem or lyric, has to do with the frailty, the non-autonomy, of the individual poem post-blog, post-google, post massive-gift-economy of 500 journals. Making a book means, for some writers but no doubt not all, something that resists our uncanny ability as consumers and well-meaning dilettantes to reduce things to soundbites, blurbs, banal paraphrases, anthology pieces, blog posts. On a more neutral note, a book resists the current state of poetry in which (and I do think this is a good thing) everybody with half a brain is their own journal. For my part, reading journals these days is a constant reminder that writing a wonderful poem turns out to be, in the end, not all that hard. Or perhaps that great is now a somewhat empty term, just a quality set beside other qualities, a meta-quality that has settled back into the heap. We have an entire century and then some of models, and resistance to those models, for modern poetry. Producing an object that lies between two flaps, though, whether a collection or a "book," seems somehow, in my experience, more difficult.

So, the poet post-google, post-language confronts a crisis of value with several notable features: 1)"The wealth of libraries in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of anthologies'" 2)The good news: there are lots of great poems! 2) The bad news: it's hard to remember who wrote them, because everyone has the same name, even if they have different names. You could even say that the death of the author is the birth of the anthology, and lo, a kind of indirect hagiography--of schools, etc.--condescends around the corpse 3) Ergo, quick, write a book! One which demands a large share of the reader's available attention/concentration.

Let me say that I like--nay, love--many of these books; I've written one of them, and I would not in any way suggest that they be any different. Rather, I'm only hoping to begin a conversation about the perhaps unconscious social impulses that lie behind this trend, and the things that might be endangered in such a state. Without a doubt, this kind of durability is to be valued. But the drawback to the popularity of the book over the collection is that that book's concept, idea, base may be used as an apology for lots of, let's admit it, tedium without recourse to any of the arguments for the value of tedium--(see spinach, cooked; Popeye and negativity)

I find it interesting that the work of poets to give poetry an "expanded field," as Barrett Watten points out, borrowing Rosalind Krauss's formulation, to push poetry into discourse, into the site, into--yikes!--life even, ends up contributing to, twenty years later, a supremacy of the book, as if despite its will and ability to push out beyond the flaps, nevertheless the elasticity of that totality has outflanked poetry and bound it to the page. Now that we know claims about the death of the book (and the beginning of writing) are bound to be overblown, might we claim that the decomposition of the book has lead, paradoxically or just plain dialectically, to a strengthening of the book?* Doubtless, there are many writers of the generation now reignant who do not or do not often write collections or miscellanies but who would probably not consider the production of books the chief feature of their writing, books being in some way only a facet of a larger poetics or project. I think of something like Bernadette Mayer's _Midwinter Day_, where the books is a sort of residue, a glorious residue, of the original action. Is there a danger now of confusing the one with the other? Of thinking that having a poetics, having something to make in the way of poetry, means having a book, even if often the two go together? **

I won't pretend that I'm yet able to think a full thougth, or even half of a thought, here. Only two things: let's not confuse the book with poetry, and let's not forget about the possibilities that the individual, and even short, poem (or piece) offers--however much the weakminded have asked us to believe that such a notion is inherently bourgeois. For, sometimes, it seems to me the work isthe poem, and sometimes not--and the poem as such is often the most visible aspect of some of my favorite writers' work. And then there are books that are too disparate to conform to the narrow options discussed above--things like Kevin Davies _Comp._ or John Ashbery's _Rivers and Mountains_.

*You might say that the same thing happens in art after minimalism, where the turn toward the conceptual, the theoretical, the textual, and to the failed attempt to outsmart the commodity, gives way to an even more powerful fusion of commercialism and art. While the most fascinating and inventive of these attempts continue pushing out into the expanded field, their epigones go to art school and decide that art is *just* paraphernalia, rather than paraphernalia to a vanished concept. The psuedo-conceptual. From here, this looks like it was fun for awhile and then not. Although it was good to be reminded that, yes, ideas are for sale, this doesn't mean you need a half-a-million dollars to execute a non-idea.

**Perhaps the best piece of evidence I can give of this is Johanna Drucker's rewriting, in _A Century of Artist's Books_, of the initial chapter from Derrida's _Of Grammatology_ ("The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing") as "The End of Writing and the Beginning of the Book." Am I missing something--the original French perhaps--or is this the kind of error that's so huge as to fly by everyone--analysts, editors, Jonathan Culler, French consulates, etc.? This is the guy who talks about "the death of the civilization of the book"?


Jake Adam York said...


I've been thinking about the rise of the book, against the collection, especially as I've sought poems to recommend to my students at various levels of the curriculum, and I think you're right that the book now dominates the collection. I've begun to wonder lately how far back this goes, how early this becomes a dominant feature of the production of poetry, of poetry's system, and I mean to make some sort of informal accounting in my offices over the next few weeks, but I think the dominance of the book is probably somewhat recent.

(At least I can say in my own reading life I found mostly collections up until the mid-90s: then I discovered that books had been written before, but I also started to see many more of then afterward. Maybe, however, this is my own blindness.]

I've imagined, without enough information to do more, that the contest-ification of poetry-publishing has had some influence on the rise of the book, as the concept not only functions as an apologia for tedium (a reading I agree with) but also, and perhaps more immediately, as a means of encapsulating the entire book quickly, both distinguishing it at the level of the first cut and then making the marketing of the book easier as it enters "the world."

The concept then is the book's own blurb, and auto-blurb. So, I wonder if the book rises not so much in response to the fragility of the poem, per se, the individual poem, but as an expression of poetry's own exasperation at the decline of various forms of engagement with poems, an acceptance of the fictions of decay that seemed to infest poetic commentary in the early 90s. So, the individual poem collapses as it expands: the level at which the work becomes discrete is now a higher-order level, supposedly making the work easier to see, to acquire, but also more (time- and self-) consuming.

I agree that the "digested .. influence of language-poetry" also produces such effects: I'm just not convinced that such digestion is the primary shaping force, though it may present as a proximate cause for a systemic shift.

The more I go to AWP, and the more I talk to others who are currently working to make poetry, at least here in the barren middle of country, the more it seems that the concept is, as much as anything else, also an aid to composition, a way to get into a work that can take a year or two---perfect for an MFA thesis or a BA thesis or even the common interval between books.

So I see another kind of institutional influence at work, and maybe the observation is simple, over-obvious, and this obviousness masks a more fundamental change, but while I believe you would take such a long view of the situation of your writing, I doubt most of those producing books, rather than collections, take such a long view: my guess is that they respond to much more local conditions.

Are these conditions the products of the changes you describe? I don't know.

What do you think?

Johannes said...

I have often thought about this. I think it must have something to do with the way people read - a move away from the close reading as the dominant model. Many people don't seem to read the poems in "collections" as individual poems but as part of "books."

Jordan said...

Maureen Thorson's Tinysides arbitrage this very distinction... it turns out chapbooks of one (short) poem defeat the codex effect I experience when I read a book of poems - one poem running into the next - while preserving the pleasant expectations that come with sitting down to read an object with a cover and insides.

Anonymous said...

This is a late comment, but if you go back to the 19th century there are books by Browning and Blake, to take just two poets, and then earlier (18th century), Edward Young's Night Thoughts, or in the 16th century Spenser's Sheapardes Calendar and Sydney's Astrophil and Stella. These are just random examples.
Jon Frankel

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how any of this (concept poetry or book poetry) can be called a new trend. If anything, it's the opposite: an old trend. Dante, Blake, Milton, Rilke, Whitman, Dickinson, Holderlin, Lorca, etc.. didn't write poems or collections of poems, they wrote poetry. Every poem was part of a bigger poem, a life long poem, a poetry. If anything, people are just getting back to the basics, what made the great poets great, what they have always done, write poetry, not poems. And to be fair, it's been going on the entire time, if only practiced by a minorty for a while , unitl being more adapted and prevelant today becuase of MFA's and the Internet's ability to create communities of thought. People like Berryman, Lowell, Merrill, Charles Wright, Suzanne Gardinier, Duncan, Spicer, N. Mackey, Bidart, etc.. were (and some still) all writing concept poetry, or whatever you decide to call it, i simply call it poetry.