REVIEW: POETRY MAGAZINE (OCT 2015) – PART IX
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all content © A.E.M. Baumann
Crash Davis vs. the Zombies
– posted to the PDC blog April 15, 2016
– added to the Cabinet May 25, 2016
"Because you don't respect yourself,
which is your problem. But you don't respect the game,
which is my problem."
Let's talk about discourse.
There is an article on the web site of The Federalist from about two years back that made brief rounds on that ersatz discourse known as Facebook, one of those articles that people will give vocal nod to but dare not dwell on or actually take to habit because of what it might mean for their own participation in the ersatz discourse that is, really, what constitutes most of the popular-oriented content on the internet. The article was "The Death of Expertise" [link ], written by Tom Nichols, then and still professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Perhaps you saw it pass by.
The article opens
I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.
I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they're plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious "appeals to authority," sure signs of dreadful "elitism," and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a "real" democracy.
But democracy [. . .] denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that "everyone's opinion about anything is as good as anyone else's." And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.
The essay is a relatively brief piece, something of the nature of an op-ed, and carries the weaknesses one should expect in such a format. There are moments where I think Nichols wanders off track or confuses, say, a symptom for the cause. There are even moments to which I take direct opposition: though mostly for reasons that have little effect on his main thesis. All in all I like the essay as a general and needed defense of intelligent discourse. And the essay could have easily been titled "The Death of Discourse" – and, perhaps, more accurately and more potently titled at that.
Because that is really what he and I are talking about. There will always be experts; there will always be people whose love of and fascination with a subject will push them to becoming masters of their chosen field. The "death" to which Nichols refers is not that of expertise; it is rather the death that inevitably comes to any discourse from which expertise is removed.
In the middle paragraph above Nichols offers description of how such change is motivated: through the rejection of expertise by the lay. Though, I am of the mind that the far greater problem may be that which is the other face of the same coin: the claim by the lay to an expertise they do not possess. It is quite possible the difference between Nichols's and my observations lies in our fields. It is far easier for a person to claim expertise in literature, film, music, or the arts than it is in political science. In literature, the truth of the matter, a truth demonstrated repeatedly both online and off, is you need never have cracked a book of academic criticism in your life to throw five hundred words up on an internet lit zine on why whatever poet's recent work is brilliant literature; nor need you have ever have spent any significant time developing technical skills to break half a dozen poorly written sentences into lines, declare it a "poem," submit it to Poetry Magazine (and however many more journals or poetry sites it takes), and when it gets published (because the editor, in the end, likes verse about trees) call yourself a "published poet." Congratulations. All you need now is a head shot.
[Ferris Bueller's Day Off]
Whether the situation lies as Nichols describes it or as I do, the two events are two sides of the same coin. Whether value is granted to one's voice through attacking legitimate expertise or through claiming illegitimate expertise, the underlying motivation is the same: the exclusion from discourse of true expertise; which is also to say the successful avoidance of the years of study, labor, and experience that goes into the development of true expertise. To be honest, in the end, it always boils down to laziness and the defense of laziness. Here again is Dr. House; this time, I'll add the picture.
"People choose the paths that gain them
the greatest rewards for the least amount of effort.
That's a law of nature."
[House M.D. ep. 1.1]
And ego. Of course, ego.
|"When I declared myself a poet, I knew it was an important calling [. . .]."|
But always ego, and the defense thereof. (From the excerpt of Ben Lerner's forthcoming The Hatred of Poetry on the Poetry Foundation Site, an excerpt whose warp is of the thread of self-justification, as with most defenses of "poetry" one sees today.)
When Amy King wrote in "Threat Level: Poetry" (in Boston Review, 2014),
|But poetry forever fails the marketplace with its messy complex tissues of connectivity and exploratory bravado, bringing together what shouldn't be, conceiving that which hasn't been, and undoing the certainties we've built lives on. It is complex and strange, despite our hope for simplicity and security via epiphanies or aphorisms that make us last forever.|
do you think she was limiting those comments to only the highest of verse produced in the history of the English language? Do you think it was her intent to exclude from that description the massive body of intellectually shallow and poorly written, if occasionally but mediocre verse that constitutes the majority of so-called "poetry" published today? Do you think she would be willing to say in regards to the content of last October's Poetry Magazine, "Well, obviously I don't mean that"? I guarantee you when the great crowd of self-declared "poets" read
|Poetry is performative utterance. Poetry is kinesthetic language. It can startle in visceral ways and take the top of your head off in the process. Do we really grasp the magnitude of that potential? I can speak in the shape of a lilt. You can be the color of winter. I can look for you under my boot soles and conceive the complexities of that notion. I can feel and explore what poetry evokes. Poetry tells me my emotions can be smart and discerning.|
they heard those words as talking about themselves and their own scribblings. And when they read
|Guess what poets do. Whatever we want with language.|
they assuredly took that, despite it being offensively anti-intellectual if not outright idiotic, as justification of their inadequacies, as validation of the "technical study be damned, I'm being creative with language!" ideology – and it is an ideology, one that creates cultural nomos that rationalizes, legitimates, and performs the anti-expertise positioning – that is killing verse and literature culture, and doing great harm to intelligent discourse in the U.S. in general.
There are two points – well, more than two points, but I'll only pick two – that King happily skips over in her self-blind-folded defense by fiat. First, "poetry" has already been commodified, and we need only look at the degree mill that is the MFA and the anti-critical culture that supports its continued existence as proof to the point. Second, Edmundson in "Poetry Slam" (one of King's targets) and the other critics of contemporary verse are not writing against poetry as it would be defined by Wordsworth or Coleridge, Yeats, Eliot or Pound; are not writing against language as, to pick Matthew Arnold's phrase out the hat, "the most beautiful, impressive and widely effective way of saying things"; they are writing against the flood of bad verse – and the habits and institutions that encourage, promulgate, and defend it – that defines the culture and discourse of literature in the U.S. today.
Going back to the Nichols quotation, above (and to save you scrolling back up):
|Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious "appeals to authority," sure signs of dreadful "elitism," and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a "real" democracy.|
I did not say above that attacks against expertise do not exist in literary culture (they most certainly do, even from professionals), I said only that to my observation illegitimate claims to authority was the more prevalent event in literary culture. But let's give attention to that word democracy. It is that third paragraph in the above that gets us wholly into the idea of discourse.
|But democracy [. . .] denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that "everyone's opinion about anything is as good as anyone else's." And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.|
There is a distinction being made here, one that carries through Nichols's essay, if a distinction unclearly expressed and imperfectly maintained. That is, there are two ideas that are generally confused under the term democracy: the first, "democracy" as a label for a particular system of government[FN]; the second, "democracy" as the participation of the populace in socio-political thought. The first is an issue of fact, the methods and operations of the government. It is in the second that we find the concept of discourse. When Nichols says
|And if that happens, experts will go back to only talking to each other. And that's bad for democracy.|
he is talking not about the system of government, but about the discourse within the populace under that system of government. For example, the individual vote is not part of discourse; it is part of the system of government. Though, it is one of the places where discourse and system meet.
[FN] I am intentionally ignoring, as was Nichols, that, by definition, the U.S. is really a republic. The clarification is unnecessary within the bounds of this discussion, which concerns the word as used in popular discourse.
This is where Nichols is imperfect in his use of the term. As far as the system of democratic government goes, discourse is irrelevant. The system can exist, and continue to exist, without true discourse existing at all. Nichols's observed withdrawal of experts from popular discourse is in no way bad for the system of democracy: as long as the basic structure exists then it will continue to be a democracy. Indeed, contemporary U.S. politics is built upon that understanding and its consequences: elections are run today – and the larger the voting population the greater this is true – not through engaging in political discourse but by the activation of voting blocs.
Voting blocs are won not through argument, not through the presentation of convincing evidence to a case, but through appeals to ideology and ideologically linked emotion. The members of a voting bloc – and this covers the vast majority of the population of the U.S. – do not make their voting decisions deductively or inductively or in any combination thereof. They think adductively: they will come to their conclusion – they will give their vote – not through reason or understanding, but when a candidate says the things they want to hear. This is how the extreme right gained control of the US government and maintained control of it pretty much since Reagan: they understand this principle and have learned how to put it to use. If X% of the people hate group Y, then a candidate need but say things anti-Y and that bloc will vote for them. If X% of Christians feel their beliefs threatened by I, J, and/or K, then by saying things that justify those feelings the candidate can activate that voting bloc in their favor. The Democrats lose so often in part because leftist ideology can't beat the majority desires for hate, greed, and religious self-righteousness; though, they lose also, and perhaps for greater reason, because they simply are not as good at the game as is the right. But, the left does have its successes. Create a advertising campaign that generates the idea that going to vote makes youths politically active and socially important
and you have both created and energized a new voting bloc. Does this actually, in any honest way, directly develop discourse as regards politics within the U.S.? No. But no one is going to say that, and there is no need to, for that is not the intent. In the end, people do not want to undertake the effort and difficulties of informed participation in political discourse, they just want to feel empowered, to believe they are both informed and participating. Thus, the political manipulation of adductive thinking:
"What I want to hear is that I am politically important!"
"Rock the vote and your voice will be heard! You will doing the important act of taking part in our democracy! You will be part of the political discourse!"
"Well then I'll vote for you!"[FN]
[FN] Yes, technically, as Rock the Vote says on the "About" page on their website,
But, really, come on. We know who is benefitting the most, and who most vocally supports the movement. Bill Clinton wasn't playing his saxophone on late night tv for the Young Republican crowd.*************************
Except, they are not part of political discourse. Except, they are not being brought into being a part of political discourse. They are nothing but an activated voting bloc. Yes, they are part of "democracy" the system of government, but they are not part of "democracy" the discourse on the nation. In truth, the nature of politics in the U.S. today is geared to minimizing that discourse, on both sides of the aisle. For discourse is bad for voting blocs.[FN]
[FN] It might be argued Bernie Sanders is exception to that rule. But there is a huge gap between a candidate inviting people to participate in genuine political discourse and the bandwagoning, internet meming, and "Bernie vs. Hillary" wars that has been the general response.
A vote is not participation in discourse; it is the mere assertion of a fact. Discourse may guide the decision making that is voting, but discourse itself ends in the act of voting: for the act of the vote is but the stating of a fact. The single vote is trivial in any election where possible votes are analyzed not one at a time but in blocs: no election strategist thinks in terms of the "single vote"; those that do lose. Indeed, the vote is possibly the least "democratic" moment in political discourse: not surprising since the vote is where the discursive democracy meets the factual democracy. It is also the least significant. For if an election can be analyzed and strategized through blocs, then the outcome of the election is decided long before the actual vote: it is decided through the activation of those blocs.[FN] As such, the vote is also the least significant part of the democratic process, the least significant part of the health of a democracy.
[FN] I have seen little if any real evidence that says that the "independent voter," the "undecideds" that are now elevated in news coverage of election cycles as some kind of final battle ground, are anything but an extension of the myth of the value of the single vote, one manipulated by the news to ends of ratings. To my knowing and observation, that group are far better understood as people who are part of smaller voting blocs whose activation is not a target of political strategy until late in the game; or, and far more likely, people who play the game of being an undecided, when really, whether consciously or not, their vote was also activated long before the actual button pushing.
As well, some people will bring up close votes as proof of the value of the single vote. However, those are statistical anomales, and statistical anomales have no value in general understanding. To see significance in the close vote as regards the value of the single vote is not far off from the Monte Carlo syndrome, which includes the belief that statistical anomalies are significant to future – nonetheless random – events.*************************
How do voting blocs, their size and their importance, change? Through discourse. I will pull away from going into this in depth other than offering some simple and obvious examples. First, the more current: the more gay marriage becomes a part of contemporary discourse, the more it will lose its charge as something "different," and the less people will consider the issue a primary decision maker in their adductive thinking, and the voting blocs that can be activated through that issue will grow smaller and smaller (on either side). As an example from the past, the conservative Christian campaign against rock music in the 70s and 80s was for a time a potent, voting bloc issue, especially in local politics. The value of that topic today as a bloc activator is approaching nil: the energy was dispersed as rock (and similar music) became more commonplace within U.S. culture.
What is to notice is that blocs don't appear and disappear by argument or reason: they are cultural and they are emotional; they grow or shrink through the energies that are given them or taken away from them. A street preacher railing against rock has little effect or influence when nobody cares, not because culture suddenly has reached the conclusions that the arguments are invalid. Culture today may find those arguments invalid, yes; but, that argumentative conclusion, that invalidity followed the draining of emotional and cultural energies from the issue. It does not happen the other way around.
When discourse ails, as discourse dies, as expertise either retreats from popular discourse or is chased therefrom, as the questioning of discourse is replaced with the affirmations of claimed truths, blocs become stronger, larger, and more entrenched. When discourse is unhealthy there is no discourse, there is only the violence of "I am right, you are wrong (and because of it you are going to Hell)" assertions of fact, of ideology, of political dogma: you accept them and be part of the group, or you reject them and be ostracized as the enemy. Functionally, there is no difference between the dogmatism of conservative Christianity and the dogmatism of pc, leftist social criticism: they both exist in, flourish through, and are created by the absence of genuine discourse; and they both go to pains to prevent such discourse calling to question their dearly held beliefs. It is in the death of discourse that democracy becomes nothing more than a show, an empty performance of a system of government that is yet a democracy in fact, only one that has been overrun by a culture that is not democratic in discourse but fascist. When one bloc gains enough size and strength to garner permanent control of government is where the system of democracy becomes a de facto fascist state. The ideology that wins out is irrelevant to the process[FN]; the result occurs wholly for the death of true discourse.
[FN] Cases in point, the Italian fascist state was built from the right; but the Soviet state was built from the left.
As Nichols puts it:
|[. . .] I like the democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight, because people like me, sooner or later, are forced to tune out people who insist that we're all starting from intellectual scratch. (Spoiler: We're not.) And if that happens, experts will go back to only talking to each other. And that's bad for democracy.|
As Mussolini and Giovani Gentile put it in The Doctrine of Fascism (1935, as found online on the World Future Fund site):
|Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity (11). It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual (12). And if liberty is to he the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State (13). The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian, and the Fascist State – a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values – interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people (14).|
Translate that from state to culture (the threat is the same), and it is an apt description of pop literary culture (which is unfortunately what defines literary culture) in the U.S. today.
"Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring;
besides that they're fascist. Throw some ground balls.
It's more democratic."
It is now a commonplace observation in criticism on cinema that the popularity of some genres of horror films speak the unconscious of the culture of their time, particularly in the U.S. You have, for example, the giant monster films during a post-war period of high anxiety over nuclear power and arms; you have the haunted suburbia films during the period of financial instability during the 70s and 80s. One of the more popular genres of horror in recent years is that of the zombie horde. It is my contention (I am sure I am not alone in this), and this covers all the way back to Romero's Night of the Living Dead, that the U.S. fascination with zombie narratives is an expression of an unconscious fear of and a reaction to the social fascism that has been brewing in this country since its full out experiment with fascist social ideology in the 50s.
Zombie films do not have an evil mastermind. They do not have a 'named,' singular enemy or group. There is in the monsters no directing cause or focused point of intent. In zombie narratives the nightmarish enemy is the great, faceless horde of humanity; at its worse the great horde as represented by the faces of friends, neighbors, and loved ones. They are everywhere and everyone, and no matter how many are killed or destroyed, there are always more coming over the hill.
Rather like the bad and dead – the both bad and dead – writing we find published under the banner of "poetry" today.
The analogy works with the whole of literary discourse, with any discourse where true discourse is threatened with being replaced with a false discourse that is constituted of assertions of ideologies, collective voices saying only "I am right; you are wrong; conform or be cast out." Indeed, popular discourse on literature is rife with the symptoms of the exiling of true expertise and the consequent death of discourse:
[the train of thought begins at 2:39,
but the main moment in begins at 4:22]
[FN] Not in effort to overturn the conclusions, but simply and practically to show that the argument itself is wholly fallacious, and that the readership is, for all intents and purposes, being conned; that is, demonstrating that the conclusion is moot because the argument can not stand.
As Nichols wrote:
|All of these are symptoms of the same disease: a manic reinterpretation of "democracy" in which everyone must have their say, and no one must be "disrespected." (The verb to disrespect is one of the most obnoxious and insidious innovations in our language in years, because it really means "to fail to pay me the impossibly high requirement of respect I demand.") This yearning for respect and equality, even – perhaps especially – if unearned, is so intense that it brooks no disagreement. It represents the full flowering of a therapeutic culture where self-esteem, not achievement, is the ultimate human value, and it's making us all dumber by the day.|
The rejection of expertise is the rejection of discourse. When a lay person enters the discourse on literature, they are entering a discourse that stretches as far back as the first time someone said, "I think Grog's telling of 'The Squishy Death of Muk' is better than Bort's, and this is why." That discourse includes the analysis, contemplation, and theorizing of many powerful minds and devoted experts, in more fields than merely "literary studies." To enter the discourse on literature means to enter a conversation that includes not only a history of criticism but people alive today who have spent years in serious and intense study of the subject both broadly and focusedly, whether those people are actually present in the room or not. Indeed, you are never entering a discourse on literature, you are always entering the discourse on literature. When a lay dismisses expertise, it is the functional equivalent of the person sitting down to a conversation at a table and demanding those persons who were there the longest, those who know the most about the conversation, immediately leave, then talking as though they had themselves always been there. This is what Nichols is describing when he speaks of people "who insist that we're all starting from intellectual scratch." A person who rejects expertise – or falsely asserts their own – is not participating in genuine discourse but creating a sham discourse, one in which there is and where there can only ever be the blunt assertion of opinion, put out invariably for a yes/no response: preferably the former. When someone agrees with you, your ego is safe from attack, and the "us" in the "us/them" dynamic inherent to discourse-by-assertion becomes one person stronger. Disagreement can only result in crossed salvos of assertions, statements thrown back and forth at each other in that podium-pounding contest of "I am right, you are wrong."
Thus Leavis's description of true discourse which I have turned to here and there in this series (overtly or not), where every statement is given in the modality of "this is right . . . . isn't it?" Discourse is not a presentation of facts offered for acceptance by the listener. Elitism – an event that in my experience occurs remarkably less frequently than the accusation thereof – is the closing of discourse through assertion but from the side of the expert. In comparison to the closing of discourse by the lay, however, it is a comparatively trivial event. Experts in general are always seeking, always questioning, always eager to learn more about their subject. But that seeking is not merely for factual familiarity on the subject. Expertise also requires learning how to understand, analyze, and talk about the subject. As Nichols states:
|The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn, which is why articles and books are subjected to 'peer' review and not to 'everyone' review.|
Information alone does not make one a true expert. Information is only fact; and, fact is not discourse: it is but a tool of discourse. Having read the Harry Potter books seven times through does not make a person an expert in fantasy literature. It does not even qualify a person to make judgements of literary value or sophistication on the books. It may make them well versed in the factual information within and about the books, but that is all that can be hoped for. To understand books as literary objects, to understand verse as a literary endeavor, requires study in the subject of literature, not merely reading everything that is in print. This is especially true in verse where most of what is published bears greatest resemblance to the shambling undead.
Which is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with reading Harry Potter seven times through. It is only to say that reading a lot of fantasy, or science fiction, or westerns, or NYT bestsellers or even classics, does not make anyone an expert in literature. It makes that person a fan (assuming they are enjoying what they are reading). And there is nothing inherently wrong with being a fan: most experts are "fans" of their field. (Expertise might even be called the ultimate form of fandom.)
That is, there is nothing wrong with fandom except where fandom shuts down or is used as an excuse to shut down discourse: which happens constantly, and not only in pop culture, where the fandom surrounding books, movies, or tv shows constantly creates bullworks against any criticism that might be leveled against those books, movies, or tv shows of which the people are fans. The inability and moreso unwillingness of fandom to permit discourse is frustrating to people like me, who, for example, love fantasy and science fiction in both film and literature. But what discourse can be had about fantasy in film when it cannot be accepted that the current run of Marvel movies are for the most part not terribly good films; what discourse can be had around the idea that Green Lantern was trying to do something literary when the recognition that Age of Ultron was two hours of cinematic idiocy cannot ever be broached; what discussion can be had in fantasy in literature if it cannot be permitted that neither the Harry Potter books, the Game of Thrones series, nor The Lord of the Rings are sophisticated enough to bear genuine, literary analysis? Attempt such statements and you are met mostly with proclamations of faith in defense of sacred cows. And fandom, at all levels and in all forms, is replete with if not currently defined by sacred cows, including that simple declaration of "I have a right to my fandom," a discourse killer if ever there was one. Contemporary verse and literary culture is equally replete, from such dogmatic exclamations as "this is expressing honest emotions" to "this is speaking the true voice of the X." And there is, in the end, little functional difference today between Marvel fandom and, say, trumpeting verse about gender identity.
The idea of sacred cows and the fandoms that defend them is one of many versions of what constitute 'voting blocs' with pop culture. Pop music, the corporate music that dominates radio-play, is the more – if not the most – established example of publishing by way of blocs, of publishing through adductive thinking. If song/group X have on their own become popular, then it is most likely the case that songs/groups that have the same qualities as X can also be sold to the public, as the question "what should I buy next," is adductively answered not in terms of innovativeness, technical ability, quality of performance, or other aspects that go to musical sophistication, but is answered by the creation of a voting bloc: "I liked this song the first time, so I'll buy it again" if under a different name and with a different title. Corporate music recognizes that there is no reasoning to be found nor argument needing to be applied beyond "I was happy with spending money on X; ergo I should spend my money on X" so they offer more of X and the adductively thinking public gives their "vote" by dutifully spending their money.
So also is popularity understood within verse culture (and literary culture) today. It is wholly adductive, wholly the activation of voting blocs. Is it a piece of verse about Afghanistani women or refugees from Syria? Or a piece of verse about poverty among Native Americans, or poverty in the inner city, or poverty in Deep South? Is it a piece of verse about gender identity or rape culture or feminism? How about is it a piece of verse that's a Pulitzer or National Book Award Winner? Or maybe it's a piece of verse that's about a dead parent or a dead lover or a dead pet? maybe, simply it's about nature, or urban life, or farming. Activate the right bloc with your texts and voilà, you're a pop poet, even though you can't use a semi-colon in a sentence and you have no demonstrable technical ability in verse form. Fandom is fandom is fandom, and when fandom rules judgment, when fandom replaces discourse, there is no functional difference between verse about Muslim immigrants in New York City and verse about cats: the poetic or intellectual sophistication of the work – or the lack there of – is irrelevant; they both garner their likes wholly through cultural/emotional appeal."
"This verse is not very well written."
"This is important verse about the life of non-whites and should be valued in verse culture. I am right; you are wrong; conform or be cast out."
The most interesting aspects of the Michael Derrick Hudson/Yi-Fen Chou Greatest American Poetry affair was the amount of contortioning, grandstanding, argumentative absurdities, and appeals to political self-righteousness put to the task of diverting attention away from the single most obvious character of the whole affair, that spanning from the selection and publication by Sherman Alexie to the assaults launched by pop-verse culture, the single most damning and readily come to conclusion: that critical judgment and literary sophistication within verse culture has entirely been subsumed by emotional appeal and pop-political trendiness. It is an affair from which genuine discourse was entirely excluded; an affair that consisted wholly of affirmations and declarations. It was an affair whose very purpose was the death of discourse.
The gatekeepers failed, and zombies were set free.
What is the nature of a zombie?
Now, of course, I'm not talking about zombie in the sense of the old films about voodoo. Though, there some recent variants to the theme that do apply to pop-verse culture. After all, one need only call out Hey! Guys! Open submissions! to get
[World War Z; image from (here)]
I am talking about the George Romero idea of the zombie, both as a group and individually, and for the most part the group and the individual are of the same description: which is of defining importance.
For, as said, the horde as an archetype is faceless, without identity, without individuality. No one is different from any other. And that uniformity is established not through the presence of defining characteristics, but through the absence of exceptionalism, the absence of distinction in any form. The zombie is the human reduced to lowest common denominator characteristics; as a group they are defined by their commonness, absolutely exchangeable, indiscernible, no one having any inherent value or threat greater than any other. So much so there is no real need for the plural form: the terminology could easily be that there is only the zombie, whether there is a thousand of the zombie or just one. When there are discerning factors in the films, they are usually used to emotional ploys: the friend, neighbor, or lover who has fallen to the mob; the emotional ploy speaking not merely to the death of the friend, neighbor, lover, but also to the loss of identity. The person exists now in form only, and threat exists to the living when they are unable to break from the emotional ploy and see the zombie for what it is – or, more accurately, what it is not. When identifiable zombies are not used to emotional ploy, the aims are generally to comedy, a comedy that usually plays off that same opposition of the appearance of individuality against the reality of non-individuality.
It is almost always an unstated and unexplained element of zombie hordes that they do not attack each other. Their threat is only to the living: zombies are not a threat to zombies, for all zombies are zombie. Nor, really, are people a perceived by zombies as a threat. Zombies do not defend themselves; they simply exist. Indeed, there is no perniciousness to zombie; they simply are. They do what they do, without maliciousness, without, even, intent. Their threat exists entirely in their existence, and that threat is perceived only by those who are not zombies. There, too, is seen the double meaning of the false connection created by emotional ploy: to see the zombie emotionally is to fail to see its threat.
It is to the archetype that zombies do not communicate, neither within their group nor beyond. If they appear to act as a group it is consequence of their being identical to each other: they all act to the same basic, non-descript ends: if, even, zombies can be said to have "ends." As such, it is somewhat false to say that zombies "do not" communicate. There is with zombies neither need nor impetus to communication: communication is beyond their perception, beyond their being. There is no zombie discourse; nor is there in zombies the lack of discourse. There is the voiding of discourse. All that is communicated is being zombie, and it is communicated among zombies by their lack of aggression to each other, and outward from zombies by their threat to the living, to the culture of the living, to the discourse of the living.[FN] Zombies communite solely by the assertion of the single fact that they are zombie.
[FN] It is worth nothing that character deaths in zombie movies sometimes occur because of a break in communication among the living.
Finally, there is the archetypally important aspect that neither in appearance nor in motion do zombies exhibit grace or elegance, handsomeness or potency, cleverness or machination. Nor are they meant to do so; nor does their creation demand it; nor does their creation permit it. Except for the initial event that established the film's story, an event that is usually mostly irrelevant to the plot, zombies are made solely by the presence of zombies; and, their ersatz animation, their faux life, their bites, breaks, and bruises, their ill- and mal-forms are the result of their own, non-descript, non-individual, non-selective or motivated, brute, unintelligent, and inartful creation, however "impassioned" their "makers" may have been at the time of their making.
It is in threat where the single and the many depart. The single zombie is of minimal threat to the living: it just takes the effort.
"Well, there's no problem. If you have a gun
shoot 'em in the head, that's a sure way to kill 'em.
If you don't get yourself a club or a torch.
Beat 'em or burn 'em they go up pretty easy."
[Night of the Living Dead]
Not zero, mind you, as there is always the chance that the foolish, lazy, uneducated, or emotionally driven get too close and expand the horde's numbers. But the true threat of zombies lie in number: the more there are the more difficult it is to defeat them; and the more there are the more their numbers grow.
Don't get me wrong. I am not speaking against popular discourse. I am speaking against the destruction of that discourse by the exclusion of expertise; the turning of discourse into empty, ideological assertion; the substitution of critical judgment with the question of adherence to cultural dogma.
There should be local writing and reading groups within a healthy culture of literature. There should be amateur blogs and web sites reviewing and discussing published literature. There should be small, independently run, publishing venues, both electronic and in print. There should be larger, outlets for publishing amateur creative (and critical) works – so long as they make no pretense to being anything beyond what they are. People should read such knowing that they are not demonstrations of excellence; they are people sharing they enjoyment of verse, people participating, whether through essay or the creative writing itself, in the discourse of literature.
That is, so long as they are participating, actively participating, in the discourse on and of literature.
Fandom and creative participation in fandom is a good thing: so long is does not close off discourse. Communities of writers are requisite to the health of the discourse of literature, whatever the level: so long as they do not close off discourse. [FN] For once they do, they are releasing zombies into the realm.
[FN] I have written elsewhere on this blog (in this post, here) about levels of sophistication in publication, and do not wish to rehash the same presentation here. That may explain my quickness through this thought. I will only add here that if it was as easy to see the lack of skill in verse as it is to see the lack of skill in, say, birdhouse making, there would probably be a lot fewer people sharing – and publishing – their verse.
There must be a learning curve: that taken and true from both sides. A learning curve is requisite to a person gaining expertise, to mastery of a medium; as well, a person is obligated to climb the learning curve before they can proclaim themselves an expert. Though, that latter should really be, and should really only be, "before they can be proclaimed by others an expert": one of the more interesting and more revealing aspects of true discourse is that expertise never needs to be declared. When discourse is governed by the modality of this is true . . . isn't it?, expertise is less declared than sought and revealed. Expertise is not, after all, reaching the point where the discursive this is true . . . isn't it? collapses to the fact asserting this is true; expertise is rather the ability to lead to the understanding of how this is true or isn't or of where this is true or isn't. In discourse, the expert is not so much the person who has the right answer as the person who has traveled the paths, explored the area often enough and with enough attention that they are most capable of helping others explore the same areas on their own.
Again, true expertise is not merely factual knowledge; true expertise is defined by understanding, by having learned how to use factual knowledge, by having learned how to traverse a field, how to explore, how to expand one's understanding of it; even, how to talk about it. In the balance, true expertise lies far more in the how than in the what – and that too must be learned. This is why writers of lower sophistication must – and should – speak for their work in writing groups: "this is what I was trying to do"; "this is what I was exploring"; "these is aspects of prosody that I am most focused on developing"; "these are the ideational energies I was trying to generate." Weak works cannot yet speak for themselves; they do not have much to say on their own, nor do they know how to say it. Indeed, one of the more damning questions to ask of the editors of Poetry Magazine is What do these works you publish bring to the discourse that is literature? What can these works be said to offer as regards writing when most of the so-called "verse" is really bad prose with arbitrary line breaks? What can these works be said to offer as regards prosody when, even when attempting formal verse, they are clunky, clumsy, and half-thought out? What can these works be said to offer the discourse on poetry when the works are defined by and built upon appeals to convention and consider cheap gimmickery literary play? What can these works be said to offer as regards the discourse of literature when it is plainly obvious that these works are generally amateurish, immature, and poorly written?
Yes, the writers of the works in Poetry Magazine carry blame for submitting to a premier forum works that are not of expert quality; but the greater onus is on the editors of Poetry for publishing under the banner of sophistication and expertise works that in no way merit such a label.
|The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience (from the "About" page).|
It is, under even cursory examination, a patently absurd claim, just as are the claims found on the back of most books of verse, claims like an "extraordinary work," "polished to an impossible strength," that "reveals unknowable terrains" (Life on Mars, Tracy Smith); or "fine and deep," and "reads like a blessing," "the enchantment of a true maker" (American Primitive, Mary Oliver); or "artistically fine" and "very tightly controlled lines," and "sure-handed in her use of language" (Native Guard, Natasha Tretheway): praise there on three Pulitzer winning books that under genuine critical analysis fall far below such grandiose assertions.[FN] Blurbs, yes. We all know for blurbs. But that is the nature of literary discourse in the U.S. today, especially as regards verse: zombie assertions made about zombie texts.
[FN] I have already given a critical review of less than stellar Life on Mars on this site (here). I intend to give a full examination of quite pedestrian Native Guard at some point in the future. As for American Primitive, I was going to write an engagement up some time ago but saw Anis Shivani had already summed up the book in but seventeen words: "A 'nature poet' whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany." There is, however, an interesting thing Oliver does with commas in that otherwise unremarkable book that I would like to take a look at, and perhaps will.
Just as popular participation is necessary to a healthy literary culture, so also are gatekeepers. To be an editor and to make a claim about the sophistication of the works published is to bear the burden of gatekeeping that level of sophistication, else that level of discourse is threatened to be dragged down by the zombies let in the doors. To be a reviewer is inherently to be a gatekeeper: to give merit to that which does not deserve the merit is again to open the doors to that which by its very nature, without intent or malice, will drag down discourse to its death. To be a teacher of writing (or of literature) is to be a gatekeeper, for to permit a student to believe that their abilities are above what they truly are is once again opening wide the doors. MFA culture today is both cause, symptom, and facilitation of the zombie horde that is contemporary verse. But, then, ego. And always ego. Who within the zombie nation of MFA land would dare to gatekeep if that meant honest, informed, critical evaluation of their own work?
"What kind of hell would that be?
Ultimately, to participate in true discourse is to take on the mantle of a gatekeeper, for discourse exists and continues only so long as it is actively protected. The opposition is primary, instructional, encompassing: true discourse is a living thing, and must be actively kept alive by those who would participate in it; only death maintains its own status quo.
However, gatekeeping too must be understood within the idea of discourse. There, gatekeeping can be seen to carry two functions. In truth, gatekeepers of discourse do not guard closed gates, choosing who to let through. That is elitism, which, as said, is itself not participatory in discourse but a means and to the death thereof. More acurately said, a gatekeeper's primary charge is the defense not of gates but of discourse itself. Gatekeepers – and again, it cannot be overemphasized, to participate in discourse, to desire true discourse, is to be a gatekeeper – are charged with protecting the life, the animation, the flow of discourse against that which would kill it, against those who would rather have the contest of assertions, who would rather have the power and stability of ideological dogmatism over the chaosmos of engagement, of exploration, of this is true . . . . isn't it?. It is a defense made not by exclusion – for that in itself would be a threat to discourse – but through bringing such under the eye of discourse. In that function, gatekeeper is something of a misleading term.
But in the second function the term is aptly descriptive. For gatekeeping also involves keeping zombies at bay. And texts only become zombies when they are where they do not belong. It does no service to the discourse of literature to proclaim a work to be of a sophistication greater than what it is (whether that proclamation be made by a publisher, an editor, a reviewer, or the writer themselves). As such, works of lesser sophistication should be kept out of pockets of discourse that presume a greater level of sophistication in their subject of discussion. There is nothing to be gained – and much to be lost – from having the works in Poetry be placed in conversation with what can be considered truly "the best poetry," even, with what would be considered by such minds as Coleridge and Shelley, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, as poetry. By being put into a place they do not belong, the newly made zombies can only but threaten and kill the discourse, primarily through the inherent rejection of expertise made in those false claims and their defense. As well, there is nothing to be gained by submitting unsophisticated works to examination they cannot bear, and the writers to a level of criticism to which they should never have been exposed. It is a necessary thing in today's literary culture to look at the works published in Poetry and say, as I have here, these are not at all good, and I can show you why. But it is an act against which the authors of those works should have been protected by those works never being published in a venue beyond their merits or mettle.
Were today's culture of verse a healthy discourse, the critical act of demonstrating these are not good would never have been needed, would never have arisen. But that is not the case. There is no healthy, living, vibrant idea of verse being discussed in verse culture today: neither in free nor in formal, neither in popular criticism nor in the creative works they discuss. And if there is a living idea of poetry in today's culture of verse, it is cornered, encircled, trapped in some small building somewhere, in imminent threat of being overwhelmed by the shambling dead.
Which is to the shame of the gatekeepers of popular literary discourse; particularly to the shame of the professional participants in that discourse (such as that discourse even exists). In the short, this plague of so-called-critical and so-called-creative zombies being published and propogated and touted in the U.S. today is a cultural and national embarrassment. It probably should be no surprise that the bloated, dead cow that is Poetry Magazine is so greatly involved in the death of popular, literary discourse, through its participation in the making of a verse-reading public that, through the exclusion of the idea of expertise, can only be, as Nichols stated, being made "dumber by the day": ever more willing on their own to exclude true expertise from the discourse, ever more willing to declare expertise where no true expertise exists, ever more willing to replace living, democratic discourse with dead, fascist assertion.
As I said more than once in this series, sometimes the fault of a work is revealed by what was not done more than what was. Imagine, in that vein, what might happen were Poetry to take seriously that gatekeeping position and role which it took upon itself simply by existing, that role of defender of the discourse of literature?
"When Nuke started listening to Crash
everything fell into place. He started throwing strikes
and we started to win. [. . . And] for one extraordinary
June and July the Durham Bulls began playing baseball
with joy and verve and poetry."