Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? Part Four: Thinking the Fray

Hey Joe:

Your response here definitely helps move this discussion in the direction of what Thinking Again is about, and here’s why: we need to Think Again about your vision of the culture of poetics.

You characterize me as “above the fray.” The culture of poetics, I guess, is the fray. Then, quoting Dorn, you seem to suggest that there are two main moves that one can make in the fray: disagreement/debate, or blind obedience.

Let’s see what’s wrong with these ideas.

It’s funny to quote, but here goes. Fray:
1. a fight, battle, or skirmish.
2. a competition or contest, esp. in sports.
3. a noisy quarrel or brawl.

In other words, your concept of the culture of poetics is that it’s a kind of war, with different groups struggling for supremacy. At times it may be closer to sport, a ritualized and refereed game in which in theory no one gets hurt, but at times the stakes are far more serious. Also, the institutional framework of the sporting event perhaps represents the dangers of conformity, which are best replaced by the unregulated bar room brawl. And apparently there are two main moves one can make in this brawl: fight, or succumb.

That seems to me frankly a sad view of what poetics, and the poets who engage in it, are up to. And despite your wish to get gender out of the picture, it’s a view that remains immersed in male warrior culture, which it takes to be simply the way the world is. There’s a working class liberating edge to the idea of the barroom fray, I can grant, but it’s still obviously male, and only liberating to those who feel liberated by a gloves-off fight, which would be, of course, fighters. And yes, women hit each other too sometimes, but I don’t think that fact makes the fist fight an ungendered activity. And your reference, by the way, to “precious sensibilities” feminizes emotion in a troubling way: Masculine Idea and Feminine Emotion. You might want to rethink the relationship between ideas and emotions.

While debate is important, and the role it plays in resistance can be crucial, it’s hardly the only reason for having a conversation about poetry, and it’s hardly the only way to talk to other people about it. I wonder how many poets would not be interested in poetry at all if poetry were nothing more than a debate involving nothing more than assertions made for reasons of seizing power of some kind or other. Still, nowhere in anything I have said have I rejected the idea that debate and dissent have value. But it’s true, there are many current debates about poetry which I find deeply uninteresting, with people endlessly asserting cliched positions that it seems very tiresome to refute and refute and refute again. I’ve been interested, on this blog, in trying to come to a greater level of understanding about issues that are on my mind. The goal is to achieve a kind of insight, maybe even a greater level of wisdom, and certainly I’ve been trying to look past typical poetry world debates to find some type of connection among positions that often think of themselves purely as opposites. For instance, my post on the notion of self in poetry was designed to point out that people who assert the value of personal narrative poetry and people who reject the idea of the personal in poetry share one thing in common: they actually don’t have much idea of what this self is that they’re trying either to assert or reject.

So yes, on most of the posts here on Thinking Again I muse, and think through problems that are on my mind. The posts show the process of what it means to think through something. I come to many conclusions, something you seem not to have noticed, and many of the musings contain implicit critiques of other positions, which you also seem not to have noticed. But I’m also using the blog as a forum for conversation and I’m often trying to find out what other people think. Isn’t that funny, that I’m actually curious what other people are thinking instead of only wanting to know how they respond to my own ideas?

Even though my blog is something I use to create conversation, that doesn’t mean that I think the culture of poetics is a conversation any more than it’s a fray. It’s too divisive to be called a conversation, too generative and sustaining to be called a fray. It can be one or the other at times, or both, and many other things as well. There can be as many different types of exchanges as people can invent. People involved in the culture of poetics can be mean-spirited or generous, power hungry or self-deprecating, funny or long winded and dull. Much of the time—like in most of this discussion—they have a poor conception of who they’re talking to. Maybe speech act theory would be helpful in analyzing the way talk develops in the culture of poetics. I’ve written about this subject before in my essay “Haze,” which among other things discusses the role that misunderstanding plays in all attempts at understanding.

As to your assertion that poetry can take on important issues in the world, whoever said it couldn’t? I can’t think of a single poet who has ever made such a point. In order for a debate to exist, they’re actually have to be two sides.

So while we may disagree, I disagree with your interpretation of what we disagree about.

To sum up: 1) Your comments about my blog are based on a misunderstanding of what I’m doing and why. 2) Although it embarrasses me to say it, I am and always have been contentious, both in writing and in person, at work and in my private life. I’m a man who likes nothing better than a stupid argument like this one, and therefore I spend a lot of time trying not to give in to that pathetic, needy tendency, the feeling that nothing real is happening unless some guy is throwing punches, verbal or otherwise. Therefore 3) your charge that I’m afraid to state my opinions, or perhaps don’t have any, is ludicrous. In fact, and I mean this quite seriously, I challenge you to find a single thing regarding poetry about which I will not state my opinion.

That’s all I have to say on this subject. If you’d like the final word, please send another post and I’ll put it up. I’ve appreciated your willingness to make public your claim that I refuse to take stands in public, and I appreciate your willingness to hear my public answer to your criticism. I’m prepared at any point to shake hands and move forward.

All best,



Joe Safdie said...

Maybe just as a comment, Mark, because I can tell there’s not going to be any resolution here. (Nice pictures, by the way!)

You’re contentious? You think? Perhaps the reason debate gets a bad name is that people are always trying to throw sucker punches – which is not to say that I like the metaphor of a fist fight: I don’t. As I said, I think it’s possible to disagree and conduct respectful, even contentious, argument. I think such occasions have the potential to generate a higher degree of focus and perception in everyone involved. They don’t have to be bar fights; they don’t have to be duels. For the most part, that’s what we’ve been trying to do here.

There are things, of course, that make successful argument impossible, and as I’ve said, I think our particular cultural moment is one of those things. People get defensive and/or make ad hominem attacks and unjustified, unwarranted generalizations . . . like, for example, “Let’s see what’s wrong with these ideas” – even if they’re not my ideas – and “You might want to rethink the relationship between ideas and emotions” – which I find a particularly repellent phrase.

But we can’t go on with this, really, because we’re talking past each other now. So I’ll limit myself to reactions about some of your sentences in this post.

“That seems to me frankly a sad view of what poetics, and the poets who engage in it, are up to. And despite your wish to get gender out of the picture, it’s a view that remains immersed in male warrior culture, which it takes to be simply the way the world is.”

Largely, Mark, that is the way the world is. Look around. Where is it not? Iraq? Afghanistan? Mumbai? South Central L.A? English departments? Among the “post-avants” or in the dimmest, darkest reaches of “the school of quietude”? You or I might wish it wasn’t that way, but it is. Surely the poetics world, for all its considerable pleasures, isn’t immune from this – surely the poetics world is not some idealized Platonic Symposium, no matter what you try to do with this blog. But a comment last night seemed to agree with you, that somehow poetics and the poetry world was “different,” that its practitioners are working to establish some new, communitarian world with different new-age values. I’m getting too old for that kind of thinking, really, and I’ll repeat until my dying breath that there is nothing fundamentally or necessarily wrong with debate and contention. It’s not the only way to talk about poetry; it’s not even the most important way. But it can be healthy and life-affirming – certainly not “sad.” Perhaps it would be if people were pugnacious and obnoxious about it, but I’m about the least aggressive person I know.

“And your reference, by the way, to ‘precious sensibilities’ feminizes emotion in a troubling way: Masculine Idea and Feminine Emotion. You might want to rethink the relationship between ideas and emotions.”

Talk about clichés -- this is really unbelievable. I’ve lived my entire conscious life trying never to separate ideas from emotions. There are emotional ideas and smart emotions – and, sometimes, emotions without any visible thought and ideas without any visible emotion. So who’s really doing the essentializing here? Don’t you think that the words “precious” and “acerbic” can be applied to both males and females? Aren’t there women warriors too? You’re right that one’s reactions to words, in or out of, might be the issue here – for example, I experience the phrase “You might want to rethink” as so totally condescending and pompous that I had trouble even continuing the discussion.

“Isn’t that funny, that I’m actually curious what other people are thinking instead of only wanting to know how they respond to my own ideas?”

Hilarious. But to give you some credit, I went through your archive a bit, and you make plenty of assertions – and you nearly always invite people to express their opinions about the subject matter. I particularly admired your post about becoming angry and irritated with blog posts – I thought there was some really astute psychological analysis going on there. In fact, there were only a few times where I thought you were trying to summarize all the available positions that could ever be taken about a particular issue instead of just asserting your own – a rhetorical strategy that I don’t have much patience with. But finally, that’s just a matter of taste.

“Much of the time—like in most of this discussion—they have a poor conception of who they’re talking to.”

Indeed. And that goes both ways. But since you mentioned your essay “The Haze,” I went back and read that. As I’ve told you, Haze is a book of yours that I genuinely admire, not only because of its hybrid contents, but because of the things you take on and the way you take them on. I obviously wasn’t the audience for Felonies of Illusion, but that, too, is a matter of taste. Everyone who doesn’t like your poems is not necessarily unwilling to explore his or her ossified points of view.

More than shaking hands and moving on, we need some alcohol and frivolous socializing, so I hope we get a chance for that soon.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, Joe.

Now that we both agree that I can be as contentious, argumentative, condescending, pompous and obnoxious as any other guy writing a blog, is it okay with you if I return to the more typical tone of this blog?

The question of the way the world is and the way the world of poetry is are certainly complicated. Obviously the world of poetry is affected by all sorts of larger world conditions, and has its contentions on a daily basis. I've never made claims about the world of poetry as some untouched preserve of the mind, and in fact I've written a number of pieces undermining just that idea. Still, there are things I like about poetry and the world of poets that make it something other than armed conflict. That's not about new values or idealism; it's just been my experience of it, literally. I find that, for myself, I learn most through modes of interaction other than debate.

Lemon Hound said...

Here, here to other modes of interaction. I try not to stoke these fires, but I have to say that this exchange didn't inspire, it depressed, and that's a good test for productive dialogue isn't it?

Finally, what is made of this kind of thinking? Productive discussion moves forward, it doesn't wallow in self-congratulatory, "gotcha!" "read through your blog posts and found a flaw," "see, you're as bad as the rest of us..." there are warriors all over the globe, why fight it?

So here, here, to more productive discussions. And here, here to believing that poets and academics can and should be modeling other kinds of thinking.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Lemon Hound.

Just so everybody knows, Joe and I converse more cordially 95% of the time, and I'm at least as responsible for the tone of this discussion as he is and probably more so, since I asked him to do it publicly.

Lemon Hound said...

The tone of my response reflects a larger frustration with the discussion around poetry and poetics--not only the discussion here.

The question of how to effectively discuss is very much on my mind in any case, and I don't think I have the answer. The model of pick, pick apart is deeply entrenched.

So much so that people seem to confuse a tone of generous curiosity with a lack of critical rigor.

Joe Safdie said...

I like generous curiosity too, Lemon Hound, and share your concern about how to effectively discuss. When Mark and I decided to "go public" with this, my last words to him were "Let's hope something good comes out of all this!" From your reaction, and a few other friends', that doesn't seem to have been achieved.

I do have one suggestion: I recently picked up a book called What's Your Idea of a Good Time? by Bill Berkson and Bernadette Meyer -- it's a series of letter/interviews they sent each other from the late 70s to the mid-80s, question-and-answer exchanges with "musings on everyday life, childhood, marriage, sex, poetry and other arts, cooking, weather, house-and-garden details, fashion, politics, philosophy, time, identity, morality, and much else besides." (I'm quoting from the introduction). It's really a great read! So I propose that anyone interested in those subjects (more than, say, three) start up the project again -- through blogs if necessary, through a new listserv if possible. What would we like to know from each other? Let's interview each other to find out!

Lemon Hound said...

I would be very curious to see such a dialogue and will look out for it. For my own part I have been attempting to foster that very thing by inviting people to do readings of other's work on my blog...not necessarily work they love and/or are familiar with but work they are trying to understand, or that they have some resistance to. Witnessing people attempt to deal with difficult texts is I think, a great way to open up such thinking.

Thank you both for your responses, and here's to more.


mark wallace said...

Joe, the idea you're proposing here is an intriguing one. There are some group-hosted blogs, institutionally-based ones like the Harriet blog but more interesting perhaps are looser group blogs like the Now What blog (linked to on my list of blogs) that discusses issues in contemporary experimental fiction, although sadly it hasn't been that active as of lately, last I checked anyway. There's the older listserv model as well, as you suggest, through Yahoo groups and the like, although one has to be careful not to be bludgeoned by advertisements in those formats. A group blog, with different posters, sort of splits the difference between the old listserv model and the new blog model. But I think either model would serve.

As to how many people would care, it's hard to know until someone sets something up. On the group blog format, other people can be added in with posting privileges if they'd like, and of course one can handle listserv additions in a variety of ways. It's just a question of being open to whoever is interested, and finding out who that is.

I'd be glad to be part of this process in any way that was helpful.

Just for a general FYI for all of us, it seems that somewhere between 50 and 100 people land on my blog in a given day, according to my stats. Who most of them are, I have no idea, and how closely they read I don't know either. Most of them have obviously never posted a single comment.

adams24 said...

I like these exchanges: they seem grumpy and generous, righteous and deprecating. Somewhat weirdly, my taste for overtly negative poetry reviews seems to be waning--I guess because I think Baraka on C Rowell's anthology more or less blew donkey balls (though I agree that BAM has yet to receive the breadth of attention it merits), and rereading a review by Jason Guriel--who I know nothing about--regarding Jane Mead, D A Powell etc, I was not impressed: it didn't close-read, really, but didn't go for broke SNARK either, so I got a case of the yawns. I could read W Logan for an entire afternoon (though if prior points hold, maybe not): like I wouldn't go there to feel like whoa, I learned a lot; but I do think his version of bombast can be fun--and what often seems to be elided is how he typically reviews multiple books in a single go, and has much enthusiasm for at-least some of one of them. OK, I need to shut up--I should not submit this, but am liking the concept of commenting on something that in blog-land is Pleistocene era. Oh, oops, final tidbit: I have never been the recipient of a full-length review--honestly, of any unless one counts a very friendly write-up of a chapbook of "mine" someone wrote at their blog--so it's possible that I could be all for the extended blurb model if I ever get really roasted, though I'd like to think that my notion that being reviewed--even if it's a lambast--is more of a privilege than not would survive. Well hopefully this is a little more than boring drivel, and a bit relevant.

mark wallace said...

I appreciate your comment, adams24, and at this distance from the original discussion, what a surprise! Thanks for your thoughts.

adams24 said...

Perhaps counter-intuitively--or not--I love blurbs, really, really love them.

And am I alone in tending to mind blasting reviews when they're of a work and/or author I care about, but not so much if I don't? Bull-dozing H Mullen's Recyclopedia could raise my grumps; but I might lick my lips at a griping on Carl Philips--whose poems I do wish I'd like. Too, I think it's more fun to read grouses that are unexpected: Perloff going blah to S Howe would be interesting in a way that blah to Levertov--who bores me, true--would not.