Sunday, December 14, 2008
Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? Part Four: Thinking the Fray
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 dictionary.com, 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.