Eileen Myles: Nature offers so few choices. Man. Woman. What a drag. But the real dilemma: avant-garde outside the institution has no cred.
The most memorable moment at the sunny but chilly 2013 Massachusetts poetry festival in Salem, May 3-5, was when poet Terrance Hayes said at the podium: “I didn’t realize Salem was on the coast; I wish I had brought a jacket.”
I didn’t realize Salem was on the coast. I wish I had brought a jacket.
This was the most memorable moment in the festival. Why?
Because here was a headlining poet talking to an assembled crowd and
1) admitting he didn’t know something.
2) without feeling he had to be clever, related a simple, physical fact.
It was beautiful.
Unfortunately family trauma had to be turned into poems, so we got those.
It was pretty much the usual:
1. Familial framework filled with ruminative imagery much too difficult to understand, or
2. Indignant ethnical framework filled with belabored association.
It seems the geometric shape of a circle can be contemplated with a great deal of profit when one’s cousin stabs a policeman in the eye.
Ghosts are almost never black people, even though blacks have very good reason to haunt their killers; but the poet, in this instance, does not believe in ghosts anyway; what is more arresting to the poet is the fact of a body floating from a tree twelve feet off the ground.
Hayes got in some powerful moments; he is both a good poet and sincere in what he is doing.
If you are a black person in that room, you present black stuff, etc. But you don’t want to overdo it, so you present your black stuff as poetry—which, by default, in the modern/post-modern climate, becomes “difficult” stuff that only in flashes makes its indignation felt, which actually can be quite effective, just in terms of pure performance and timing. Which is perhaps one of the reasons ethnic poetry is overtaking language poetry right now: performance and timing has always been a crowd pleaser (relatively speaking, at least).
Hayes delivered, and delivered well, what all have come to expect in that small, closed, stuffy room known as po-biz. No one in that stuffy room had a clue what he was talking about most of the time, but that’s what fans of respectable poetry have come to expect.
Speaking of the room in po-biz, Eileen Myles referred to it recently in a polite (this is po-biz, after all) attack on Marjorie Perloff:
I feel like the back story of Marjorie’s avant garde mandate is mourning. I think Perloff has sustained an enormous amount of loss in her life and along with her championing of avant garde practice in her criticism she’s also deeply engaged in controlling the emotional climate of the room she’s in. Who gets to feel what when, and how! And that’s a problem because poetry is a community not an institution and we’re always at multiple purposes here in this room. When she opens her piece with Jed Rasula’s assertion of the problem of there being too many poets I wonder why neither of them notice that in the mainstream there aren’t any poets. We’re mainly hearing that no poets are being read. That there’s no understanding of poetry today.
Myles reminds Perloff and Rasula that “poetry is a community not an institution” and that “in the mainstream there aren’t any poets.”
But Myles, because she is stung by the avant-garde bug herself, does not go far enough. Poetry is poetry inasmuch as it reflects that primitive poetic sensibility which exists in everyone. The modern extenuation can be novel and exciting, but only so if it is understood by everyone, for the original and universal sensibility naturally feels it as such. If poetry is not seen as something that expresses what all people already feel it will continue to exist 1) outside the mainstream and 2) as an institution, not a community.
As Myles surely knows, “mourning” and “loss” affect everyone, and all poetry, and in fact all art, all writing, and all human endeavor involves either “loss” or preventing “loss.” The act of writing pre-supposes absence. And that’s just for starters.
Myles, representing the bodily, grounded, political aspect of the avant-garde, extends a desperate hand to Perloff, theoretical elitist, in the name of ”mourning” and “loss,” believing Perloff to have “sustained an enormous amount of loss in her life,” but this is to concede far too much to Perloff and lose the whole argument before Myles has even begun, not because Perloff hasn’t suffered “loss,” but because everyone has.
Myles belongs to the expansive, pluralistic, democratic, street version of the avant-garde—which is why she opposes Perloff, who is narrower and more theoretical—and therefore Myles is almost in a position to define poetry as Scarriet does; but Myles cannot, because Myles ultimately needs to defend her avant-garde creds. Myles is a part of the problem as much as Perloff is. This is the institutional game in which the institutional members flatter each other, and Myles proclaiming Perloff’s unique loss is doing this, and Myles is not even aware of what she’s doing. Myles is not tough. She’s extremely nice.
Myles cannot be a radical democrat defining poetry from a true human, universal, pre-existing, standpoint, precisely because of her (and this is very common in the avant-garde) theoretical pluralism:
I arrived on the scene in New York in my 20s landing very deliberately in the avant garde where it seemed everyone I met took it upon himself to pass on to me ze avant garde canon as he saw it. There were so many approaches and rightnesses and because I already came from a doctrinaire catholic background I wasn’t so open to learning from some man of my age or older “the truth.” My avant garde then & now was composed of a shaky imagined grid holding a multiple of approaches. *** I think of the reader as somebody who deserves something other than a recitation from the long phallic night of my heart whether that recitation takes the form of personal expression or a wily conceptual sound poem.
Myles does not want to hear “the truth” from “some man.” Myles is unable to see that her ”multiple approaches” approach is not democratic, but elitist—poetry common to all is vigorously and academically defeated by sly, doctrinaire pluralism; the “truth from some man” is a straw man invented by Myles to relieve her own institutional/avant-garde guilt.
Marjorie Perloff, on the other hand, has no trouble believing she has a unique poetic sensibility which only a couple of thousand people possess and that it is her duty to bring this unique wisdom to as many people as possible.
But there is no such thing as a unique poetic sensibility—poetry is precisely poetry in its social universality.
The phenomenon is what might be called the big tent/small tent syndrome: poetry, the big tent, can have a lot of small tents under it, but fanatical small-tentism is what finally kills the universal appeal of poetry.
Myles, like Perloff, is unable to champion poetry as a pre-existing sensibility common to all humanity, for this is precisely where the avant-garde cannot compromise, for this marks the break, the avant-garde break, of those like Pound and Eliot with High Romanticism, not to mention the break with countless others: Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and already we see the list has too many dead white males for Myles. Myles, when push comes to shove, finally joins Perloff in the avant-garde boat. Ironically, right-wing goons like Pound and Eliot mandated the break with poets like Shelley, a break which avant-garde left-wingers Myles must stylistically and institutionally obey.
The institution is precisely what fills up poetry’s universal vessel with what makes it avant-garde—and inscrutable to the mainstream. Academic study of poetry is not some guild which teaches the craft of poetry; it is instead a default scholarly pursuit which happens to co-exist with poetry, but really has nothing to do with it. Freedom to ‘write any poetry you want’ destroys the freedom to ‘write poetry that, as poetry, precisely prevents writing anything you want.’ In academia, the first (excessive) freedom has replaced the second (universal poetic) freedom, and this is what has taken poetry out of the mainstream.
Since poetry which is ‘respected’ and ‘awarded’ now belongs to ’the scholarly,’ all commentary on poetry is caught in the scholarly web; poetry is doomed to fade further from public consciousness.
The more poetry attempts to be ‘relevant’ as a force for ethnicity, capitalist-critique, the newest fashionable phase of its own existence, etc, the more irrelevant it becomes. Poetry as ‘stand up comedy’ was the default public success for poets at the mic at Salem, but this is only comic relief a short distance from the classroom. Professional comics are funnier. When poetry is everything it is nothing. Poetry is the helpless fly kicking in the unfriendly spider web of academic ’scholarship.’
Poetry is not historical; it is not chronological, finally.
Poetry is a passion, not a study, Poe once said; a histrionic-sounding protest, perhaps, but now we see what he meant—for study (scholarship) is not poetry’s friend; high-sounding scholarship has seduced poetry.
The relationship is not necessarily nefarious; it is an innocent error, perhaps; but the damage has been done.
Poetry as a scholarly pursuit no longer exists as poetry.
The simple truth is that poetry which the world understands as poetry is the poetry of Shelley, no matter how vociferously avant-garde scholars protest.
We understand the radical nature of our thesis: Not ‘commentary on Shelley.’ The actual poetry of Shelley is—poetry.
Will the truth flash upon the scholar’s soul?
Salem is on the coast.
Marjorie Perloff has suffered a great amount of loss.