Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Do what now?

Micah Mattix says he’s got the problem with contemporary poetry all figured out–well, he and Tom Bethell of The American Spectator, anyway, and while I can’t be certain that TAS’s reputation for accuracy in politics extends to poetry, I might make some guesses based on this argument. Are you ready?

The problem with contemporary poetry, particularly with the avant-garde, is…wait for it…

There’s too much money involved in it.

Why are there, Bethell wonders, so many mediocre poets today? Following Joseph Epstein and Dana Gioia, his answer is prizes, subsidies, grants, lectureships and professorships. There is too much money in poetry. It offers poor or mediocre poets too many opportunities to write and publish, and it encourages many otherwise good poets to pose as avant-garde artists–to write against their audience rather than for it–because it increases their chances of getting such fellowships and prizes.

Indeed, one of the ironies of art today is that there is little financial risk involved in being avant-garde. Unlike the first avant-garde artists who supposedly created works to challenge the commercialization of art, such a move today is very much the first step in making it commercially, in terms of fellowships and grants. Cut back on the cash, Bethell claims, and purge the country of a legion of Miles Coverdales.

To be fair to Mattix, he says there’s a bigger problem than too much money, though he certainly doesn’t disagree with Bethell’s premise. And just so we’re clear on something, there isn’t too much money in poetry–no one is getting rich off this genre, and few are even supplementing their incomes with it. And most poetry is published on a break-even basis, if not a loss. Now it seems pretty clear that Bethell is not a populist when it comes to poetry, so perhaps his point is that if you get the money out of poetry, you leave only people wealthy enough to pursue it as a hobby, and that will suit his aims just fine, thank you very much. But I doubt it would improve the world of poetry any.

Mattix’s larger problem with contemporary poetry is a more disturbing one, in my view. Bethell can be dismissed with a laugh, because anyone who looks at the actual money involved in poetry these days, especially on the avant-garde side of things, can easily tell that Bethell is full of it. Mattix however…

Bethell writes that “Creativity unaccountably waxes and wanes at different times and places.” This is not entirely true. There is a reason it is waning now and, it seems to me, it has to do with the sterile ground of philosophical materialism for the arts.

Philosophical materialism is the belief that the material world, as the word “material” is currently defined, is the only thing that exists in the proper sense of the term. It reduces the spiritual to the material and universal morals to mere politics (often leftist politics). Love, for example, becomes nothing more than a word we use to refer to certain chemical reactions in the brain. It does not exist in the materialist sense of the term. The materialist poet, therefore, does not write about love qua love. Instead, he flirts with language, writing poem after poem of mere surface language play that produce superficial frissons without engaging us at a deeper, more meaningful level. The political poet, on the other hand, rails against the oppression of a particular group. The stronger the outrage, the more effective the poem at accomplishing its political purpose, and, therefore, by the implied theory of poetry at work here, the better the poem.

All I can really say is that Mattix needs to read more contemporary poetry, rather than sticking to only those poets who confirm his biases. He mentions Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein and June Jordan by name, and they are, to say the least, a narrow sliver of contemporary poetry. Don’t get me wrong–L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (and its descendants) is still a powerful force in the poetic world (though not one I feel a part of), and there are still lots of poets who rail against oppression the way Jordan did, though perhaps not with her ferocity, but pick up nearly any mainstream journal and you’ll find pages upon pages of poems which engage on deep, meaningful levels–and sometimes they even do it in traditional forms. Shocking, I know.

And Mattix’s criticism of both L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and political poetry is off the mark as well. The former is capable of engaging at a deep, meaningful level–it just makes you work a little harder to get it, and to look for clues in ways you might not expect at first–and Mattix is simply caricaturing political poetry, so it’s difficult to know if he’s being honest or if he’s playing to the kind of audience who would read The American Spectator. The use of the term “leftist politics” makes me suspect the latter.

The darkly funny thing about Mattix’s piece, though, is the way he ends it. His solution?

I think critics need to do more to discover those poets and artists who are, indeed, doing good work. While it is the job of the critic to tear down, it is also his job to build up–even if he has to search far and wide for a poet that is worthy of praise.

Critic, heal thyself.

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April 1, 2009 - Posted by | Charles Bernstein, June Jordan, Micah Mattix, Ron Silliman, The American Spectator, Tom Bethell

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