Thursday, November 20, 2008

Inside Jokes, Giggles and Self Absorbed Poets

Near to my mother's hometown is the Vittoriale of Gabrielle D'Annunzio. In many ways the Vittoriale is the kind of house a poet would design it bears all the narcissism that is so much a part of our art form.

The home has everything original folios of Dante and Shakespeare, Marble reliefs of the greatest italian poems. A bathroom that is to say the least poetic and a battleship jutting out
of a mountain.

As a small child I would go the Vittoriale with my Grandparents we would make a day of it lunch, Gelato, Vittorale, Nap.

In Italy poets, even Fascists like D'Annunzio are held in high esteem. When I Published my first book of poems that was a moment of pride in our house. Being an artists was something to be respected. In the valley where my mother is from artists and poets can get a free ride and their lives are allowed to unfold as they see fit. It helps being in one of the world's most beautiful places as well.

I often think about D'Annunzio and his narcissism when I am at poetry readings. How many poetry readings have I sat through where inside jokes and giggles are the norm. I have sat through work that is just filled with self absorb ion and giggles. I wrote earlier this month that I thought that the reason for Flarf and also Ironic Poetic is now in question because of the election of Barack Obama as president. I also questioned the validity of the Obscurist trend that is embodied by a couple of poets here in Chicago but is part of our larger poetic reality. I was excoriated for these comments both on line and in emails to my personal account- I especially like being excoriated because I know that I have hit a nerve which means people are thinking.

I have stopped going to many poetry readings. The reason is that there is so much 'inside' baseball. I have sat through Flarf readings where everyone sits there-trying to understand and a small group sits in the corner and giggles at the insider jokes. I have sat through readings where the poet has to explain that he/she is using this source material from a 9th Century Zen Koan rather than letting the world speak for itself. I go back to what Mark Tardi said to me once that the work will stand or fall on its own merit no matter how obscure or 'clever' you make it.

As we move into a new age- and I do believe that it is a new age-we see global forces redefining what we are to be. I recently read the new issue of Sibila a Brazilian on line magazine published by Regis Bonvicino. He wrote a mostly laudatory essay about Obama. But just a year or so ago he and Charles Bernstein while in Brazil wore Abu Graib inspired hoods to a poetry reading. They used that tragedy as a backdrop to their poetry. This was an easy way of appearing provocative but what now? Bonvicino and Bernstein used our national political tragedy as a vehicle to contextualize their poetry and to appear cutting edge. This is what poets should be doing but what do poets do now?

In a response to an earlier blog post Dave Pavilich (I think it was Dave) wrote that really nothing has changed and that during the Kennedy Administration other bad things happened. He also defended the obscurist tendencies of some poets. But is poetry to always be inside baseball? Is it always to be some rarefied conversation between MFA's and other smarty pants? OF course the poets who dwell in the obscure are there for a reason that is where they can matter. But shouldn't poets try to do more?

I think about Vallejo politically active, intellectually curious, poetically spectacular. There is a poetic that really speaks on many levels to a time and place. Does the poetry we have created do this? Shouldn't we ask it to do more than be an insider club or a marginal retreat for academics and sycophants?

As a person who works in business rather than academia I see what is happening around our nation clearly. Companies are firing people, money is drying up, people are losing their homes, we are a nation filled with uncertainty. I do not know if irony and inside baseball gigglefests are what we need now? I do not know if poetry that is about obscurity is where we need to be?

I keep going back to older work. I look at poems like Mauberley and the Wasteland or even Patterson and I see depth and texture. I see poems about something and I see poems that are teasing out the sense of a time and place. I think that techniques like Flarf are interesting just as Language writing is interesting but I keep asking myself is this what we need now? Is cleverness and insider poetry what needs to be written?

Or should we be about more?

So much poetry now is written for the margins because it is in these micro communities that a modicum of success can be achieved by a poet. Look at the SPD catalogue lots of communities are represented but where is the working class writing, and where is the world writing?

Does anyone in the academy care about the working class? Studs Terkel just died two weeks ago would SPD have a section for someone like him? Does anyone is poetry really care about in the words of Kenneth Rexroth getting their nose in the armpits of the people?

So I guess again I bellow from my fat belly and ask does any of this matter?

As I spend time with old literary friends mostly for solace; Rexroth, Sorrentino, Augustine, Williams, & Vallejo. I continue to look amid our current poets for this kind of depth and texture.

Is poetry just about our own narcissism? Or is there more to be written? What happens when the nation and the world continues to go into a deep economic downturn?

Do we continue to giggle at our own cleverness?


Matt said...

I don't think of flarf as insider poetry. I liked it before I even knew it existed. Besides, no matter what kind of poetry you're reading, there are always references you might not get, but I don't think that's a problem.

Mark said...


I think it's worth making a distinction between the social posturings amongst poets and the actual work that is produced. It seems like you're reacting to a social behavior that you're then letting color the poetry itself. And sometimes it seems like you're prodding for a kind of populism which is both impractical and wouldn't jibe with your own work.

Pound isn't for everybody. Neither is baseball. Hell, even soccer isn't for everybody.

There's always been in-jokes and petty dramas in the art world -- poetry hardly has a trademark on it. The Abstract Expressionists fought with each other; Alexander Pope snarkily wrote the comments of his detractors into his poems; and on and on.

I think the real question is whether or not it's worth it to navigate the social dynamics. You can read the work (or not) regardless of whether or not you socialize with the poets.

To me, it's more important to connect with people. The idea that I'll connect with a person just b/c she reads or writes poetry is preposterous. There are millions of Cubs' fans: only a few are a close part of my life. And that's OK.

Raymond Bianchi said...

it is very true that my work is not populist or even accessable but what concerns me is that so much of contemporary poetry has put on the cloak of 'liberal' and 'ironic' when really it is just a big cover up for crap.

I critiqued Bernstein's Girly Man Poetry for example- which is just dreadful but it is postering to be socially critical.

As we have disussed a million times the problem I have is the elitism and faux intellectualness.

I am so glad that you are not friends with all those Cub fans. I can handle only having a few of those.

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