Sunday, June 15, 2008


The call for relevance in literature always suggests that literature should directly engage some important aspect of its historical moment, whether in its content, structure, or most thoroughly in the relation between its context and structure.

Anyone who has spent any significant number of years paying attention to poetics discussions has probably noted the frequent repetition of the call for relevance. In fact I would say constant repetition if it weren’t for the fact that the call bubbles up more frequently at some moments than others. Oddly, if not surprisingly, the assertion that literature should be related to its moment is not itself related to any moment. Insistence on the relevance of the moment is not momentary but repetitious.

Given that oddity, it might be worthwhile to ask, what are the relevant issues in any call for relevance in literature?

One issue is certainly that the call for relevance to a historical moment begs the question of what are the most important historical conditions of that moment. That is, what elements of contemporary conditions are most relevant to a call for relevance in literature?

It turns out that different writers have different answers to that question. Some calls for relevance might call for literature that responds to specific historical events, most likely ones related to violence and the abuse of power. Some might call for response to the troubled and even horrific conditions in which some people live, that is, for writing that speaks directly about poverty or the appalling work conditions created by globalist political and economic operations. Some might call for a relevant address to globalist operations understood in their totality; rather than literature addressing some particular group of people or circumstances, this call for relevance asks for literature that exposes the operating mechanisms of global power. Some calls for relevance might suggest that literature, as a structure of information itself, needs to speak to changes in contemporary structures of information, with particular reference to how those structures of information restructure the lives of people using them, for better or worse. And still other calls for relevance might suggest that we need to look again at social problems whose relevance we have forgotten too quickly, for instance various patterns of systematic discrimination which we may think have been resolved but likely have not. This would be a call for writers to recognize that some issues relevant in the past continue to be relevant now.

The result of such calls might be a poem about the Iraq War, a poem for the poor and disenfranchised, an essay that critiques globalist power structures, a piece of conceptual or procedural writing making use of the structure and information found on the internet, or an essay reminding us that gender problems have not vanished just because we have talked a lot about them in the past.

There may be many other kinds of calls for relevance, but the ones above are the ones that seem to have the highest profile recently, at least that I’ve noticed, which might suggest that they are, at the moment, the most relevant calls for relevance. Certainly all of them take up issues of crucial human importance.

That said, many debates occur around the degree of relevance of various calls to relevance. Calls for relevance frequently come into conflict with other calls for relevance, with some people suggesting that their call for relevance is more relevant than some other. Yet it is also possible that all these calls for relevance are relevant, although it’s certainly not unreasonable to debate the extent of the relevance of each specific call for relevance. What all this might suggest is that there may be multiple points of relevance, multiple things about which to be relevant in any given historical moment.

Is there something to consider regarding the reactive nature of the idea of relevance? That is, the call for relevance presupposes that literature should respond to already existing social conditions and that the writer is therefore a social critic. But this fact raises the question of what constitutes a successful or at least a worthwhile response. Does a relevant work of literature prioritize describing that social condition or celebrating or speaking its outrage against it? Does it prioritze imagining another, perhaps better, possible condition? Is it a call for its readers to group together to change or even overthrow the social condition that it speaks against or to engage more thoroughly the condition that it speaks in favor of? Can it be described as successful or not in the degree to which it leads to such change?

Another issue worth taking up is the basic fact that the call for relevance presupposes that a successful work of literature is defined by its relevance. But if we look at the issue of relevance historically, do we actually find that those works of literature most defined by their relevance to the social concerns of their moment are the works that we find most relevant at a later time? It’s intriguing to consider the varying ways and degrees of relevance to their moment of, say, Wilfred Owen, Marinetti, Stein, Dickinson, Hughes, Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and really anybody else. How does one measure, after the fact, the relevance of each of these writers to their historical moment, and how much that relevance is or is not related to the degree of relevance which different people might assign to them today?

And in order to be thorough in discussing the relevance of relevance, we need to consider the other side. Is it possible that an irrelevant poem, however we would know that it was irrelevant when we saw it, might still be engaging and worthwhile? Is it possible to conceive of literature as not reactive, maybe less a response to its times than a creator of its times? Or even maybe as removed from the issue of its most immediate times? Or if some of the extremes implied here may not quite seem possible to some of us, is there a possibility of worthwhile literature that is more irrelevant than relevant, more creator than reactor, more removed than engaged?

None of these issues can finally suggest that calls for relevance are irrelevant. There’s no doubt that relevance remains relevant. Yet it might be worthwhile, in calling for relevance, to consider the dynamics of relevance as part of the problems related to calling for relevance. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that many times, a call for relevance will be related to an issue so genuinely pressing that considering the issues related to the dynamics of calling for relevance will be of secondary or no importance. Yet I suspect that even when that is true, the dynamics of what it means to call for relevance will still come into play when somebody calls for it.


Anonymous said...

What is outward relevance without inward relevance? And can that which is truly relevant inwardly ever fail to be relevant outwardly to others of the same species? Dickinson closed her entire opus in a drawer, forswearing outward relevance for the sake of inward relevance alone—and thereby reached timeless outward relevance without trying (though others "try, try, try" with less success). For the two are one. To remove the mote in the other's eye, we must first struggle to remove the log from our own. And so the beginning of outward relevance is inward. Thus China IS near, and though you say you "do not know" who I am, indeed you do, though "years have rolled over our heads." I read your early work with my ears, and I know that "Walking Dreams" began as "Delusions." -P

mark wallace said...

I think in this instance I probably know who you are, Anonymous. I don't encourage anonymous comments on my blog because it lends itself to verbal abuse and has led to that in some other cases, though never on this blog, at least so far.

I appreciate what you're saying, but I'll also point out that, as you know, the call to relevance is always mainly a call to look outward, to see what's going on in the world beyond our own myopic corners of it. And I think that has a lot of value; there are things I can't know about the experience of others if I only consider my own inward, reflective abilities. So yes, I can imagine situations when my own inward reflections will not automatically resonate for others.

That said, when the call for relevance denies the value of inward reflection--when it says, for instance, that if you're not writing about this issue, you're not writing about anything important--that's when, to my mind, it risks becoming narrow and pompous. More than one call to relevance comes across that way.

Ian Keenan said...

Ignore the times, analyze the times, oppose the times, you can have two at one moment but not all three, you can't shake completely the one you're missing.

I think of those gifted at and determined for painstaking analysis of their times as bequeathing a special gift to the future, for which they often pay an initial price. Inert literature can do none of the three, certainly not ignore the times tho there's ritualized ignoring going on.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful observations, Mark, and for generous indulgence. I will not abuse the anonymity. That sort of abuse is, to me, one of the lowest forms of cowardice. You rightly hold the power to keep anything of that kind off of your blog, but you will never need to exercise this power in my case. I am grateful to you for your patience with me for this use of anonymity, and I promise you that I use it to give our reacquaintance the ceremonial quality it merits and that we both would wish for it. You and I like games, provided that the honorable customs of sportsmanship are observed; I know you to be true to them, and assure you that I am as well. And in this spirit, this is such a game. When you state my name, I will raise the veil, and, with my apologies, cease to clutter your comments box--I know too well it was not intended for this. You will find your test easier than the test of the miller's daughter, for unlike R, I will find my inevitable loss a welcome thing.

Sandra Simonds said...

Hi Mark

Thanks so much for this interesting post. I almost always ask myself if the poem that I am writing is relevant to some larger historical situation. I think I do this because if I didn't then I would always find myself writing about love relationships or things that I consider, on a larger scale, irrelevant. So your post just made me realize just how often I do this.

I guess one of the things that you didn't talk about that I might add is that there's a difference between relevance and the direct treatment of the subject. I think a lot of writing can be relevant to an historical situation but, at the same time, that work might not directly deal with the Iraq War, for instance.

I think, though, that all texts are, historical. I think Derrida is right when he says "I am in psychoanalysis"--that there is no separation between the text and then writing of history. That said, how can a poem talk about, or comment on history? It seems impossible. On the other hand, if one doesn't think about, I mean really interrogate and use one's intelligence to dissect one's historical moment, I just don't know how one could write what I would consider "relevant" poetry---I mean a text that actually makes history relevant.

My final point---and I see how much I am meandering here---would be how we all (myself included) have this weird idea that history is somehow separate from art. I think, though, one could argue that we know history through art---bad poems, good poems, artifacts, etc.

Well, I'm not sure all this meandering made any sense. I'm sure that there are a lot of contradictions, but thanks again for this post.


mark wallace said...

Thanks for all these thoughtful comments, everyone.

Ian, your note reminds me of a bad 70s song whose title I don't know but whose chorus goes like this: "I want you I need you/but there ain't no way/I'm ever going to love you/but don't be sad/ 'cause two out of three/ain't bad." Oh well.

Sandra, lots of good ideas to respond to in your reflections. How we write about that which we have decided is relevant is certainly key. I do think the idea of structure brings up the question of how to treat the (historical) thing; some flarf, for instance, is not just about a what (say, the Internet) but about how one might speak about that what. The structures found in Kasey's Deer Head Nation, for instance, respond to the raggedness of Internet structures with its own raggedness, while his new book is much more tightly constructed, for better or worse.

It's funny what you say about love relationships. Certainly it can be frustrating to read poems that write about love in overly conventional I-you ways, but on the other hand, poems that realize that love is part of our psychosocial landscape and look at it in its relation to other things around it can be fascinating. Chris Stroffolino has written some great poems of this kind, as have Catherine Wagner and more recently, Elisa Gabbert. So I don't think we're all done with writing about love just yet. I'm laughing here because I'm thinking about saying "love always remains relevant" and how both true and smarmy that sounds.

I think you've got a great point too about history and art. Just for the record, when I say "history" I don't mean actual events in the world, endlessly numerous and chaotic and whatever else they are. I think of "history" as a way of recording and thinking about and shaping those events, that is, as human discourse. In that sense it becomes even clearer that art is much of the history we know.

Joe Safdie said...

Mark, so nice to have discovered your blog! A synchronous story about this passage in your post: "It’s intriguing to consider the varying ways and degrees of relevance to their moment of, say, Wilfred Owen, Marinetti, Stein, Dickinson, Hughes, Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and really anybody else. How does one measure, after the fact, the relevance of each of these writers to their historical moment, and how much that relevance is or is not related to the degree of relevance which different people might assign to them today?" I've been reading a biography of Tom Paine (a friend and associate of Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft, as it turns out), and as we were coming up the steps last night, I asked Jerry if he knew of some play where all three of them were around the dinner table talking in, say, 1791 (the French Revolution already degenerating into the Reign of Terror, the enlightenment slowly degenerating into romanticism). And later on it hit me that the "Reign of Terror" could actually be considered a symptom of that romanticism, Rousseau leading straight to Robespierre . . . as it is today: "the war against terror" is romantic, just as nation-states are, historically (terror's previous incarnation, anarchism, wasn't nearly as sublime). Which is only to say that some writers' relevance to their own historical times might be repeated (some sort of eternal recurrence?) in our own. Anyway, thanks for this . . . and for last night!

Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

I like anonymous' point about the necessity of inward relevance.

Sandra's distinction between "important" zeitgeist issues and "unimportant" issues like personal relationships strikes me as terribly problematic. In poems, I look for a combination of intense motivation and brilliant style, and therefore the "subject" is unimportant. And besides, isn't love a sort of politics? And shouldn't politics be a sort of love?

What annoys me beyond description is the legions of writers STRAINING to be relevant. What better way to kill cadence, not to mention enthusiasm?