Thursday 15 February 2007

Not poetry, but poetries

In his blog of 25 January 2007 (which, if you're not familiar with it and are interested in different poetries, I can't recommend highly enough), Ron Silliman writes:

"I always try to avoid the term 'experimental' when discussing post-avant writing, not just because of implications of the retro scientism in this age of stolen nuclear missiles, genetically modified corn & weaponized anthrax – that by itself is problematic – but because of the insinuation that the writers of an experimental work (e.g., The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, on whose subtitle I was outvoted) don’t really know what they’re doing. That’s the flip side of the same complaint Bob Perelman makes in IFLIFE:

the gestures that Language poetry triumphantly says are still radical are actually super-codified

which is in fact true (even tho I don’t hear any langpos 'triumphantly' making any such claim). With the plausible exception of Rusty Morrison’s grammar sampling, all of the co-authors here are using literary devices that are considerably older than language poetry, some decades older. They aren’t so much 'experimental' as they are in the experimental tradition. I know that last phrase will cause a few readers to choke, but since Blake & Baudelaire it is clear that an evolving and expanding community exists, of which these five writers represent certain aspects of the current generation. The value of the devices they employ isn’t that they’re 'new,' but rather that they empower indeterminacy and surprise."*

I've called one vein of my work experimental, avant, post-langpo/post-Language Poetry, and conceptual, but have never settled on one term. The problem with conceptual poetry is that some of what goes for "mainstream" poetry (another problematic term) is also idea- or concept-driven, i.e. the work of Peter Reading and Geoffrey Hill, and possibly also Christopher Logue's
War Music. In agreement with Silliman's statement above, I've tended to find "experimental" the least descriptive; and I regard "post-langpo" as too school-centred for definitional accuracy. I suppose for now I'll use avant and conceptual as placeholders while I hold out for a more precise descriptor or name. Any thoughts, ideas?

*Used here with Silliman's permission.


  1. Hi Carrie - I don't feel bothered about the exact terms we use, but I do think the distinction between two (and only two) poetry communities is the right structure for understanding the recent history of poetry. I sounded off various opinions about this during a debate on Mark Scroggins' excellent blog last October (see "ron and the brits").

    You're right to note that it's possible to identify common features - the division is really about how the poetry is seen by these two communities, the place it has in their lifestyle, the values attached to it. In my opinion it's extremely difficult for a poet to write top-quality mainstream poetry and also genuinely contribute to the experimental thing (and poetry is difficult enough already) - that's not so much like having two heads as having two lives, each populated by its own circle.

  2. Thanks for your response, Michael. I wonder what you mean by "genuinely contribute," as that is what I aspire to do--to lead not two lives but one life within a broader spectrum of what poetry can be.