Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

I find myself in a poetry feud

I’m glad to see that Micah Mattix has responded to my criticism of his article from a couple of days ago. His response misses the point, but I’m glad there’s a conversation going on.

So here’s what Mattix didn’t like. On his first point, about there being too much money in poetry, he replies:

The fact is, if you add up all of the lectureships and professorships at creative writing programs at universities, and add this figure to fellowships and prizes, there are more institutional funds (both private and public) devoted to poetry than ever before.

None of which negates my point, which is that poetry isn’t overfunded. Let me introduce you to a simple concept–funding can be at its highest point ever and still be too low. Like I said, no one’s getting rich on poetry, and in fact, most of the young poets I know are struggling to make ends meet, even the ones outside academia, and trust me, there are a lot of poets outside academia because there sure as hell aren’t enough jobs in academia to support the current poet population, even if you shift most of them into adjunct and composition jobs. As far as jobs in creative writing are concerned, well, the market makes crap look good–in the last job cycle, about half the already meager pickings were canceled or put on hold due to budget constraints. About the only genre seeing growth is creative non-fiction, and even there the pickings are slim.

Dana Gioia no doubt celebrates this fact, as he argues that MFA programs are basically a bane on poetry’s existence, even though he had no problem sucking that teat before he became director of the NEA in 2001. My one personal experience with Gioia involved picking him up at the Highfill airport in Cave Springs, Arkansas, so he could spend a week with the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, making a few extra bucks running a workshop and giving a reading. Pardon me if I find Gioia’s argument less than convincing.

To Mattix and Bethell, I simply reply that retracing a flawed argument does nothing to fix the flaws in it. If anything, it only makes those flaws more apparent. The fact is that there are more independent, outward looking voices, presses and journals now than there ever have been, in large part because the cost of entry has become much lower thanks to the internet and print-on-demand services.

As to the rest, I’ll be damned if I can see where I engaged in an ad hominem attack, unless suggesting that he used a less than comprehensive set of examples to make his point constitutes one. Here’s some of the rest of his response.

Contrary to what Spears implies, I think there are indeed some very good poets writing today (as I thought I made clear in my original piece). I have written reviews on some of them myself (even in so-called post-avant publications such as Octopus Magazine), and think that poets such as David Shapiro, Adam Kirsch, Scott Cairns, Franz Wright, Mark Jarman, Theodore Worozbyt, Timothy Steele and Peter Porter, to name a few pell-mell, are writing some of the best poems out there. These poets, it seems to me, do not reject narrative progression or formal devices for simplistic ideological reasons, but use (as well as bend) them because such things are part of what makes lyric poetry poetry — and not, say, a painting.

The problem with contemporary American poetry, however, is that there are also a lot of mediocre poets. One of the reasons for this, I think, is the influence of philosophical materialism. Silliman was an example of the effects of materialism on the arts, but its effects can be seen in non-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets as well.

First of all, I neither said nor suggested that Mattix had said there were no good poets writing today. What I said was that he ought to broaden his reading list if he thinks philosophical materialism dominates the contemporary landscape, and I stand by that. I didn’t deny that what Mattix complained about exists–I simply noted that it’s neither the only thing going on nor even the biggest thing going on.

The thing that defines contemporary poetry right now is that there isn’t really a dominant school of thought, Silliman’s complaints about the School of Quietude notwithstanding. The world of poetry is incredibly fractured right now, but I consider that to be its strength, because it allows for a far greater range of voices to be heard and for much more crossing over between groups. It makes for a livelier art.

Mattix complains that there are a lot of mediocre poets, to which I can only reply, no kidding. There have always been a lot of mediocre poets. They published in their times as well, and were promptly forgotten by the next generation of readers of poetry, if not their own generation. I’m reminded of a poem by Miller Williams titled “A Note to the English Poets of the Seventeenth Century” which reads, in part:

Someone in every century has to stand there
saying, No, I’m sorry, I’m sorry
I’m sorry.
You’ve gone as far as you can go.

and some
reading the three or four that make it through
will shake their heads and say
as even now we do
(having I think already turned back a few)
“They didn’t have many poets, but they were great.”

I’m not going to insult Mattix by suggesting that he would argue the sentiment in that final line, but his statement does have a hint of nostalgia to it, to the notion that in previous times, back when there wasn’t all this money in poetry or all this philosophical materialism, that there were fewer mediocre poets, when there’s absolutely nothing to back that contention up.

Next point. Mattix writes:

Second, he is indeed a rather important figure in contemporary American poetry, despite Spears’s breezy dismissal. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is probably the most widely known experimental poetry movement in America since the 1960s, and as of January 2009, Silliman’s blog on contemporary poetics had received two million visits. That’s right, two million. Not too bad for a poet no one ever reads.

Okay, this is just dishonest. First off, I never dismissed Silliman–I said that he, along with Charles Bernstein, represents a segment of the poetic world today, as opposed to being the dominant voice. Hell, I was ecstatic when I discovered that Silliman had linked to me, because he drives traffic. But it’s also important to understand that pointing to blog hits isn’t the best way to make a point.

Ron Silliman is huge online, and no one questions that he’s a major voice in poetry today, but he’s big online for more than just his poetics. He’s an aggregator, and I love that–he’s one of my sources of stories for my weekly column at The Rumpus, and that works like a feedback loop. Also, Silliman has no problems linking to people he disagrees with, which widens his appeal. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Silliman is abrasive toward what he calls the School of Quietude, and that controversy drives traffic. Lots of people come to Silliman’s blog to argue with him, not to agree with him or hang on his every word. That’s about as close to a universal truth as you can find on the internet, no matter what subject you write about.

Finally, I want to comment on one last point Mattix makes.

There are of course, a number of other influences on poets, but I do think it is pretty clear that philosophical materialism has been one of the more important ones in the last fifty years or so. In the context of this, the contemporary poet is often left with the choice of following the example of the hard-nosed L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, or seeming like a fluffy, nostalgic Longfellow. The latter is often the charge leveled against so-called “popular” poets, who evoke things like the self and love uncritically. Sometimes this charge is warranted, sometimes not. While there are certainly some very good poets out there who have managed to avoid this false dichotomy, the effects of philosophical materialism on poetry have not been positive.

I like how Mattix sets up a dichotomy, then tries to get away from it by saying “some have managed to avoid it.” Indeed. In fact, I’d say most manage to avoid it, which is why I suggested Mattix ought to expand his reading list, as opposed to sticking with those poets who confirm his biases (maybe that was the ad hominem attack?). If your favorites are Franz Wright, Mark Jarman and Tim Steele, and the people you don’t like are June Jordan, Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, then you’re missing out on, well, most of poetry right now, and I suspect that the world of philosophical materialism isn’t as pervasive as you think it is.

April 3, 2009 Posted by | Micah Mattix | 1 Comment

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.

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