"I've been writing about justification and art, as part of my collection "The Million Monkey Manifesto." You've written that the existence of art needs no more justification than the existence of persons. This has shaped my thoughts on matters writing, teaching. I wonder, though, if there is a non-collapsing difference between justifying existence and justifying behavior. We might appropriately question another's behavior and expect reasons (not explanations) as (perhaps always insufficient) answers. Do you think that the behavior of a poem, say, is a relevant comparison here? Undermining things, itself too, seems to me morally requisite of any decent work. But if this is so, we may want to give reasons for this--reasons that are always partially self-undermining. So much infinite regress! the conservative analytician would say. So be it, I'd say.
The proviso is this: my query isn't one regarding "justification" in the very conservative (or typically American liberal) sense. When I say "justifying a poem's behavior," I'm talking about the function (or lack of function) of poetics, criticism."
Thanks for this question, David. My claim that poetry “no more needs a reason to exist than a person needs a reason for being alive ” from my essay “Reasons To Write” in Haze has an essentialism about it that might seem troubling in any number of ways. But I stand behind it, while at the same time believing very much in the value of poetics (let’s define one area of poetics loosely for the moment as theories and criticism of poetry).
I think that poetry (which I’m going to define as the basic art of language) and art more generally is not a luxury, but a human necessity. There are the more familiar members of this category: food, clothing, shelter. Yet the list is oddly incomplete: for instance, I’d place sexuality (understood as an activity) on it as well.
As necessities, though, they’re not all necessary in the same way. I’d grant that each human individual does not need literary art in the same way that all of us need food. And sexuality is particularly tricky here: there are celibate individuals, but how many, really, and how many of them have never engaged in sexual activity at any time in their lives?
But even if it becomes specialized in some cultures, something practiced by only a few people, the fact is that the art of language, and using language as art, seems to be a basic component of all human social contexts. Octavio Paz, for instance, talks in his essay “The Few and the Many” about the role of such activity in early human cultures. Poetry is a realization of our capabilities for language that we need to explore and develop. When we become alienated from that possibility, human life withers. And I don’t mean that “in the name of the future.” I mean it hurts us right here, right now.
But the idea that poetry, and art more broadly, is a necessity is one that has been under siege in many ways and many times. As you know, Plato thought poets harmed his idea of The Republic. One essential contemporary example is the war against serious art that globalist neoliberalism has been undertaking fairly relentlessly in the last 25 or so years. Of course, the good news is that neoliberalism can’t win that war. But it sure can cause lots of misery in the meantime (and of course its war on art has hardly been its worst source of misery).
So yes, my insistence is an essentialist one. Human beings can’t do without outlets for expressing their capabilities in language. The attempt to force all language to conform to globalist corporate norms amounts to a war against human possibility and complexity.
But absolutely there remain good reasons to question the specifics or, as you say, the behaviors of a given poem. We all need to eat, but that doesn’t mean that the way we eat is beyond criticism. Food habits are shaped by cultural and individual preferences, and are affected by large scale geographical and social forces. What we choose to eat and how we eat it have meaning, and that meaning is subject to criticism and change.
I have criticisms of contemporary poetics; for instance, how much of it still consists of an insistence that one’s own aesthetic, political, cultural preferences are absolutes. But I’ll save that problem for another time. Without question, having a developed criticism of poetry is crucial to a developed poetry.
And just as a p.s., in the hopeless hope of forestalling misunderstanding: sexual behavior is not a necessity because of procreation. It too involves a series of human potentials in the here and now that, like poetry, have often been under siege. And I know too that some kinds of poetry have non-linguistic elements; these comments are not a subtle dig at vis-po or Neo-Benshi or any other cross-disciplinary art.