What’s wrong with didacticism?

I have a thing for truisms.

As I’ve grown as a poet, I’ve come to realize certain things about my aesthetic, from a purely linguistic standpoint: I prefer simple sentences. If I write a sentence made of several clauses, I keep it as short as possible. For this same reason, I love a short line. There’s something about terseness and brevity that appeals to me, and I think this is because my poems are largely interested in big ideas. To pair these big ideas with tight language creates a kind of balance.

I think my use of truisms stems from these same impulses. If I can present a big idea clearly and concisely, particularly when the rest of my poem is highly figurative or imagistic, I feel as though I’ve grounded it for the reader somehow.

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with a good friend and fellow poet, with whom I have writing dates every week or so. At a recent writing date, I wrote a poem that included the following sentence: “Pain is a temptation, something we / must test before we can believe.” When we exchanged the drafts we’d written, she pointed to these lines as a particularly strong moment in the poem. She said she admired when my poems took a didactic turn.

“It’s funny,” I told her, “I’m never sure about didactic moments like this.” I write them all the time, I said, but when I go to revise a poem, these are often the lines I cut, or at least think about cutting.

Lately, rather than cut these moments, I’ve accepted them as part of my aesthetic, for the reasons I noted above. But I still feel the impulse to cut them.

I started wondering why I resist my use of truisms in poems. In the moment of revision, my rationale would be to cut these sentences because they “tell,” rather than “show.” I teach my students all the time about the importance of showing rather than telling, so I should listen to my own advice, right? But ultimately, the whole poem shows, or attempts to show, what the truism tells.

Earlier in this same writing date, my friend and I had talked about gendered language in poems, and particularly the gendering of the lyric speaker. We’d talked about coyness, and different ways of understanding what that means—from talking indirectly about a subject, which seems rather neutral, to a more literal understanding of “coy” as “flirtatious,” which is clearly more gendered. We wondered whether male poets wrote coy poems (of either variety, or any shade in between), or if they were criticized for doing so. My friend had received such a warning before: Don’t be coy. We’d tried to puzzle out which form of coyness she was supposed to avoid.

Then it dawned on me. My resistance to didacticism and the use of truisms began to seem less about not “showing,” and more about the authority inherent in “telling.” Do I really have the authority to make such claims about the world or human nature? Who am I to say so? I mentioned this to my friend, who said, “Do you think a male poet would ask these questions?”

Of course, it’s possible—even probable—that a male poet would be concerned with questions of authority. Yet it still felt gendered to me: in the same way that I feel it’s my job to keep my apartment clean, I feel an impulse to be implicit or suggestive, rather than direct and didactic, in my poetry. Sure, you might say that there’s little in common with cleaning and writing, or that men feel these same gendered pulls in their lives. Let’s not forget, too, those who are genderqueer and may feel these pulls much more intensely and more problematically. I’m certainly not discounting these issues. This was just a moment of discovery about my own personal experience as a woman who writes poems. I’d never thought about how my gender may affect the way I write my lyric speakers. I’d thought, in the 21st Century, I didn’t need to worry about it.

And, ultimately, I don’t. (Or, at least, I try not to). As I said, I’ve overcome my resistance to didacticism, in part because it tends to be a single, short moment in the poem that I think is necessary to bring balance. And, in some poems, the speaker questions or undermines her own authority, so when paired together in a book, these levels of authority play off each other in interesting and, I hope, fruitful ways.

But it was a huge realization to me that my own self-criticisms could be read as gendered.

On Grains

Grain #1

In Image, Music, Text, Roland Barthes argues that language does a pretty poor job of discussing music. We’re limited to adjectives that essentially affirm the position of the listener, rather than really saying anything about the performer or the performance. If we struggle against the adjective, he says, we can approach a space that exists between music and language, a space he calls the grain. The grain of the voice in particular is used to describe this space in a voice that produces both music and language–a singing voice. He says:

The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.

The body in the singing voice. It’s hard to think of this in anything but abstract terms, and Barthes tries to describe it using examples from classical music. But I think I’ve found my own example, in the isolated vocal track for Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Listen here

Right?! The grain of the voice(s). 

(I’ve totally skimmed over much of Barthes’ argument, but that wasn’t really the point of this post).

 

Grain #2

田んぼアート (tanbo art), or “rice paddy art,” is made like a paint-by-numbers, except instead of painting, the artist plants different varieties of rice. (Rice is a cereal grain, in case it was unclear how this fit the subject of today’s post). Check out this article on Kotaku. Some of my favorite examples of tanbo art are meta, replicating famous paintings, like these:

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Funny how the Internet presents patterns and connections you hadn’t noticed before, like the many ways in which “grain” can refer to art. Like as not, I’ll find more examples, and I’ll make this post the first in a series.

 

Poetry as horror

There’s a haiku-writing serial killer murdering the residents of a small Japanese town. His haiku, which he leaves at the scene of each crime, becomes incredibly terrifying in context:

Setting a fire– / smoke gives delight / to a country fellow

(I’m assuming there’s a dash or other punctuation after the first 5 syllables. Is it wrong that I’m thinking about the haiku poetics of a serial killer?)

When fear of lyric subjectivity goes too far

You’re left with a purely linguistic shell, a work of methodology, rather than craft, as Cal Bedient persuasively puts it in his essay, “Against Conceptualism”:

Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.

I’m of the mind, too, that transcription–one of a few different methodologies of conceptual poetry–does not actually avoid subjectivity as much as one may think. There is no moment when I read Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Day” where I am not completely aware that he made this, that he chose this title to append to this newspaper article in order to say something about 9/11, the news, the shock of the mundane, etc. There is no “I” in “Day,” but the concept is what’s subjective in a poem like this. And it’s rather neoliberal in the way it earns the poet cultural capital (and a nice position at UPenn). 

Of course, Goldsmith is perfectly aware of this, and discusses it openly in an interview in BOMB Magazine:

Marcus Boon: Do you think you can get rid of subjectivity? What you’re talking about downplays the importance of the subject’s intention, the subject’s intentional relationship to language as an intimate or personal experience, but subjectivity is really interesting, right?

Kenneth Goldsmith: You can’t avoid it. What I choose to appropriate and reframe and distribute all expresses my own subjectivity as much as anything I could possibly write. How could it be otherwise? You go back to Duchamp: every object he chose to appropriate expressed his own sensibility, subjectivity, and taste, hence the success of his approach. It’s both deeply personal and deeply impersonal at the same time. I strive for the same balance.

My purpose here is not to implicate Goldsmith, or any particular conceptual poet, but rather to note how pervasive subjectivity really is. To mistake an absent pronoun for an absent subjectivity is politically problematic, as it feeds into, rather than dispelling, arguments about poetic privilege and the cult of the self.

As Bedient notes above, fear of subjectivity does not necessarily lead to a politically better poem. 

On Pronouns, Collectivity, and Anxiety: How Dead Is Poetry, Really?

This has been one of those weeks where I’ve been mired with rejections, such that I took one demonstrably non-personal rejection as saying, “Your poetry used to be better.” This led to some histrionic sad-facing and familiar but unreasonable thoughts, like “What is the fucking point?” and “I should drop out of grad school and work in a makeup factory.” (Why a makeup factory? Because it is easily the worst job I’ve ever held, and I needed to be as melodramatic as possible). These thoughts were fleeting, of course, and when I emerged from my self-imposed gloom, I started thinking about the seemingly incessant string of death-knells for poetry, the most recent being the much-discussed article in Harper’s by Mark Edmundson. I realized that I, too, in weeks like this, feel the impending death of poetry: I question why I write poems, whether it’s worth it, who I am “reaching” and why and how. But poetry is not dead for me—not really—and it is not dead in the world, either. It seems that what motivates feelings—voiced or not—about the death of poetry is a palpable anxiety, a fear that what poets and poems do is ineffectual, or irrelevant, or otherwise worthless, and to pre-emptively elegize it is more comforting than having its death take us unawares.

But the reason for all this anxiety is that we tend to think in terms of utility and value, and these terms are colored, or more forcefully defined, by our experience with capitalism. For a poem to be “useful,” it should do something—but poems don’t have agency (see my post on political poetry for more on this). For a poem to be of “value,” it should have monetary payout. This reminds me very much of arguments against majoring in the humanities—as though studying English or history or philosophy is worthless because it doesn’t easily translate into high-paying jobs. Arguments about the death of the humanities, of which you might call the death-of-poetry a subset, ignore values that seem to lie outside the marketplace: imagination, intellect, empathy, morality. (Okay, that last one was a little tongue-in-cheek, but you get the picture). And on the one hand, I might argue that these values actually do correlate to the marketplace, in the roles of cultural or human capital, in which case, as much as poetry seems to be dying by the side of the capitalist road, it truly is not. (Just look at bourgeoning MFA programs in creative writing). But this would dismiss the continuing fear among poets, critics, and readers that poetry is on its way out. Why does this feeling persist?

For Edmundson, contemporary poetry fails in part because it doesn’t connect with the reader: it lacks a connection to the community. (Let’s ignore for a moment that the community he seems to envision is purely American and how isolating that makes the notion of “the communal”). I’d interpret his argument as a call for poetry to return to its roots. But there’s a problem with this argument: If you look closely, poetry—and particularly that broad category we call “lyric poetry”—really has not strayed that far from its Classical origins at all. Stephen Burt has touched on this in his own response to Edmundson in the Boston Review.

Edmundson argues that poetry should “slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common,” and he laments that contemporary poetry does not do this. As I see it, part of the problem here is the way in which he sees the lyric “I.” Early European lyrics (and their Classical ancestors before them), sung to an audience and accompanied by lyre or lute, used a collective or “Everyman” “I,” with the singer as emblematic of the audience at large. Though printed poetry is necessarily distanced from both poet and audience, that does not mean that a contemporary lyric “I” cannot be similarly collective.

The issue of lyric pronouns and communality/collectivity is one I’ve been thinking about a good deal as I’ve been writing my dissertation prospectus. Certainly there is a problem with the subjective lyric poem if it is taken to be solipsistic and self-serving. But just because a lyric speaker says “I” does not necessarily mean that the poem is just an act of navel-gazing.

For fun, I went to the Poetry Foundation website and searched for a Recently Added Poem, and then followed the sidebar on the right to find a second poem. I wanted to see how randomly-selected contemporary poems fared, facing the “collectivity test.” The two poems I found were “Noguchi’s Fountain” by Helen T. Glenn and “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce” by Paisley Rekdal. Here’s what I found: Glenn’s poem, which uses the lyric “I,” can be seen as an Everyman “I”—this speaker is not just talking about herself in the act of grief; she’s talking about how people grieve. If you read this as purely subjective or solipsistic, you’ve clearly missed the point. And Rekdal’s poem, rather than using the lyric “I,” uses instead the lyric “You,” which works to speak about the self obliquely, but is also a means by which traditional lyrics addressed the audience. As such, her “You” refers to both the speaker and the audience. Now, this is by no means a thorough or otherwise reliable analysis of the state of collectivity in contemporary poetry, but it certainly shows that Edmundson is off the mark in thinking that concern with the community, with poetry’s audience—small as it may be, and large as it may want to be—is dead.

Like Edmundson, I worry about how poetry engages the audience, and who/how it represents. As such, my dissertation plays with lyric pronouns. I use the subjective “I” and the Everyman “I.” I write I-You poems that have singular and plural referents (You as lover, and You as audience). I write different sorts of We poems that collapse either the singular I-You or the plural I-You into one pronoun, knowing full well that trying to speak collectively on behalf of a whole group is problematic, overstepping a number of bounds. Most of the collective We poems I write, as a result, are mythic. This way, the world created in the poem, and the seemingly shared behaviors and beliefs of the We are tempered as fictions, which hopefully relate to behaviors and beliefs in the real world, while avoiding the problems encountered when speaking in universals. All of this is to say that lyric pronouns are tricky, and each comes with its own set of problems. To suggest that increased collectivity would be a kind of life-support system for poetry, whether achieved using pronouns or other means, would be rather shortsighted.

The belief that poetry is dead or dying is fueled, as I suggested above, by the anxiety that what poets do is irrelevant because it lacks the notoriety and financial payout that rewards success in other arenas, even other aesthetic arenas. Contemporary poetry’s readers are a small circle, and there’s fear that subjective lyrics could potentially alienate these readers, thus diminishing the circle further. This is a fair concern, but as I’ve tried to (briefly) illustrate, it is not as widespread a problem as critics like Edmundson believe. And further, it is not the only problem inherent to poetry. Like anything else—literally, anything else—it is flawed, and engaged discussion about its flaws is certainly productive. But let’s avoid the histrionics involved with proclaiming poetry’s death (yet again). All that does, as Amy King points out, is paint you as one who “hope[s] to harness the beast for capital gain.” And who does that benefit in the end, hm?

A light distraction

After what feels like a solid month of traveling, I’ve been thinking of writing a new blog post that considers issues of community and commonality in lyric poetry, particularly in light of Mark Edmundson’s (relatively) recent Harper’s article, “Poetry Slam; Or, The decline of American verse.” I’m super late to the game, especially since the brilliant Stephen Burt has already written an incredible response to Edmundson’s article, but I have ideas about this topic that are related to my post-dissertation project, so I’m going to write it anyway. But not today–the ideas are still stewing.

In the meantime, so that this blog doesn’t feel like an abandoned internet wasteland, I wanted to post the preceding preview of my next post, along with this gem I discovered this afternoon:

Antique Chronicles of Japanese erm, Fart Competitions

If you’ve even glanced at this blog you’ll know that I have a deep and sincere love of Japanese art and literature. But you may not know that I also love a good fart joke. (That doesn’t make me less of a person–or poet or academic–right?) What I never imagined was that these two things would come together in a hilarious critique of increased Western presence in Japan during the Edo Period.

Sadly, the article says little academic research has been done in this area. Is this a new research project for me to take up? Would I ever be able to talk about it in an academic setting without giggling? 

Enjoy!

The Problem with Political Poetry

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about political poetry for a while, but I had too many ideas, and I wrote one rambling, didactic piece that sort of lost its bearings. This is one reason for the delay in posting; another is just that I’m terrible at sharing on the Internet.

For example, I’m on Facebook, but I rarely Facebook. I had a conversation with some friends just yesterday about our online personas, and I found myself becoming adamant that I didn’t have one—I didn’t want one—because it all felt so artificial. But I have this blog, right? And my near non-presence on Facebook is, in a way, a kind of persona: Brianna likes things, and occasionally posts gifs of goats with hiccups, or goats that yell like humans, etc. etc. This is pretty true-to-life. I do like things, including animal gifs. I think I just balked at the idea of marketing myself like a commodity. But this is inescapable, I think, in late capitalism. I don’t want to play into the neoliberal side of art—racking up human capital or cultural capital like it were cash in an alternate economy—or the seeming cronyism that is, and perhaps always was, part of the poetry “game.” I told my friends yesterday that I want to hide behind my poems—my poems that avoid post-confessional subjectivity in favor of a shifting and intractable “I.” Basically, I want the work to do the talking and let me recede far into the background. But let’s face it: This isn’t going to get me anywhere. Plus, I’m a scholar as well as a poet, and it’s quite hard to keep my critical ideas to myself. So here I am, rambling about myself when I really want to write about political poetry.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Political poetry, as I see it, is poetry that addresses political issues, current and historical. Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet is one example. Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation is another, very different, example. Poetry could also be political in its form, rather than its subject, as in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which both play with language as a way of approximating the “white ink” of Hélène Cixous’ écriture féminine.

But I’ve noticed that some people who talk about political poetry are talking about something else: not poetry that addresses politics or that uses language experimentally to challenge socio-political dominants, but rather poetry as activism. That is, when the poem somehow manages a kind of human agency to realize political change in the world. I have a problem with this notion of activist poetry in the same way that I have a problem with liking causes on Facebook—it’s a way of appeasing one’s desire to enact political change without really doing the work. I concede that both generating likes on Facebook and writing a political poem can rouse awareness—of course on different levels and to different audiences—but this is a kind of armchair politics, is it not? It’s not worthless, by any means, but it is—dare I say it?— lazy mollifying.

Now, I’m not trying to be all high and mighty here. I do exactly nothing political in my everyday life; I am not a force of change or revolution on any level. I wish this were different, but I’m quiet and timid, and I like to hide behind language. But, I’m also not deluding myself into thinking that I am being politically active when I write a poem that mentions war or poverty or contemporizes the Pinkertons.

Again, let me stress: political poetry is good. Believing a poem has real political agency is not good.

Surely “not good” is a bad way of describing it. Maybe “problematic” is better, though I tend to have my knuckles rapped when I use that word in academic arguments. Let’s go with it anyway.

On the one hand, because poetry is largely a marker of privilege—the poet has the time, the money, the education, the cultural and/or human capital to write poems—the so-called activist poem is problematic in that it emblematizes the poet’s privilege. To look at it another way: If the poet is really devoted to political change, why not use their privilege to better advantage? Their time, money, education, cultural and/or human capital could be used to lobby, or rally, or write their representatives, or form a union, or run for office. (Or write poems and do these real-world things). The political poem is a great endeavor, but in truth, it is little different than a subjective lyric. Both are art. Neither has agency.

But the thing that troubles me most is that the so-called activist poem becomes—whether directly or indirectly—a means of achieving not real political change, but accumulating cultural capital for the poet by writing the “right” kind of poem, the kind of poem that seems to be “missing in the world.” And I use scare quotes here because I’ve seen calls for just this sort of thing, and I find that troubling for the very reason I’ve just noted. It becomes a whole lot of self-promotion in an art economy, and maybe in the real economy, but fails to achieve its purported goal of change on a broader social scale.

In the end, the problem that I’m seeing seems to lie in intent, or in interpretation. The so-called activist poem is a political poem like any other. The issue lies in what you believe that it does.

The political poem can inspire action, or even model what activism might look like. This is what Shelley meant when he called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”: their poems represent the problems society faces and, subsequently, evoke or ignite collective outrage. Shelley is not calling poems agents, but “heralds.” They call for the readership—the audience, the public, the person—to enact change. One must realize that the poem is not enough, is not the last step but the first, if the goal is political in nature. But even then, the poem is not a pure or unadulterated herald; the poet should also recognize the dark, neoliberal underbelly of even this seemingly respectable endeavor.

This has been on my mind lately because I’ve been writing boatloads (well, tugboatloads) of poems for my dissertation, and I’ve found that some of these poems are starting to look like the beginnings of a new manuscript which may be somewhat political in nature. (See “war or poverty or contemporiz[ing] the Pinkertons” above).

Also, I just read some of the winners and runners-up in the recent New York Times Found Poem Student Contest. Because the found texts came from the newspaper, many tended to be political in nature. I loved these three poems in particular. They make me want to design a similar assignment for the next workshop I teach. I will accompany that assignment with a lecture about political poetry. Man, I’m simultaneously excited and bored with myself.

I’m going to end here. I have more thinking to do about these poems I’m writing and what they can and cannot do.

The Untranslatable

I have a particular fascination with what you might call “untranslatable” words—or words that don’t have an English equivalent. I put “untranslatable” in scare quotes because most of these words can be explained in English; they just don’t have an English equivalent—a single word that expresses the same idea. I think I’m so fond of untranslatable words for the same reason I’m so fond of poetry: they communicate succinctly, and often metaphorically.

Japanese is full of words like this. (German is, too—I’m looking at you, Weltschmerz!). One of my favorites is 横飯 (yoko meshi), which appears in Christopher J. Moore’s In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World. Moore defines it thusly:

Taken literally, meshi means ‘boiled rice’ and yoko means ‘horizontal,’ so combined you get ‘a meal eaten sideways.’ This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally. How do English-speakers describe the headache of communicating in an alien tongue? I don’t think we can, at least not with as much ease.

A section of my dissertation is, in a way, concerned with yoko meshi. I’ve been calling it a “language-learner’s glossary,” wherein the poems attempt to define Japanese aesthetic terms like 幽玄 (yūgen) and 渋い (shibui) from a foreigner’s perspective. Part of the point of this section of the project is to show that a Japanese language-learner may never fully or natively understand these concepts, and an attempt to define them is, necessarily, flawed. The notion of failure is central to the way these poems work, and not just as a kind of self-deflation, but as a mark of humility in the face of imperfect knowledge. Other sections of my dissertation concern the violence that can arise when one insists upon mastery of nature and ideas, so the embrace of uncertainty in these poems is critical to the (loose) argument I’m making about the ethics of knowledge and art.

One such poem, which discusses the term 弦音 (tsurune), or the sound made by the bowstring when an archer releases an arrow, is forthcoming on The Kenyon Review’s website, KROnline, this summer. I’m super excited about it.

All of this is preface. I really just wanted to say that I’ve discovered a new “untranslatable” Japanese word: 積ん読 (tsundoku [listen to it pronounced here]), which means “buying books and not reading them.” I love that there’s a word for this. And I might be guilty of it myself because though I try to avoid tsundoku, inevitably I have a stack of new, unread books on my bookshelf just dying to be read. I’ll get to them eventually. Just let me finish Game of Thrones.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

This mysterious title is the literalized English translation of Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, released today in Japan. Until this point, almost nothing has been released about the work, and even now, the title and the bits of plot offered by those who’ve only had time to devour a few chapters remain pretty enigmatic. But oh, am I excited! I was able to read this, the Easy NHK News article about its release, but my Japanese isn’t nearly as good as it needs to be to read the novel in the original language. Sadly, unless I can become more fluent more quickly, I’m going to have to wait for the English translation.

I’m currently struggling to read this light novel, which is theoretically much, much easier than a full-length novel by an author whose language is surreal, poetic, and playful. I’ve heard Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart is pretty “easy” in the original, but let me finish this young adult novel about a wolf-goddess and her merchant companion first. (I’m learning loads of Japanese economics terms! Reminds me of UIC in a lot of ways–learning economics in a literary context. Hm).

Look at that cover!

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