Obama and the end of irony in our poetics. What I think is a deeper question is that poetry and poetics have been dominated by two tendencies in recent years- fascileness and a fixation on the obscure.
The fascileness in poetry is embodied by the Flarfists and other nonsense poetry that substitutes chance for craft. Chance of course is a great tool in art. I for one am a huge fan of Jackson Pollock and much of drip painting for example began in chance and it has grown into great art. But having said that you do not get great craft from chance.
It is hard for example when looking at a great piece of architecture to separate the craft of the work from the form. Many times in poetry there is an elitism which simply removes so much of the potential audience as to make the work a secret of the know club rather than art or even communication.
Another fixation is on the obscure. We have a large school of Obscurists here in Chicago. Poets like Peter O'Leary and John Tipton who are great at Craft. These are good examples of Obscurists poetry. They tend to be elitists and are drawn to very peculiar minutiae as fonts of the work. O'Leary for example will use medieval Byzantine monastic tropes, Tipton will re translate Ajax and so the poetry instead of being nonsense like Flarf and instead of being left to chance is very controlled. The control however protects the poet from engaging with the world as it is- rather the poet constructs his/her cathedral and dwells in it in a kind of sacred mystery.
So why do these two tendencies present a problem for poetry as we move into an age where irony is challenged?
I am convinced that many poets retreat into obscurity or fascileness because they are insecure with their place in our society. During the Bush era it was easy to think of oneself as John the Baptist or St Simon of the Pillar standing against the barbarians. But in the age of Obama how does a poet do this and remain a prophet and not a frothing at the mouth lunatic? The problem is that poetry is filled with people who have peculiar gifts. Most poets are not in the business of big things and we are woefully low on poets with big projects. The result of this is that poets retreat into obscurity or fascileness because it is easier than engaging with the world.
So Obama presents for poets a challenge. We are already marginal --but does poetry as an artform want its innovative and experimental self to become anachronistic? I have argued for a long time that poetry needs to reach out to the greater world of poetry for answers. Even a nonsense/ironist poet like Charles Bernstein has done this with his great interaction and work with the Brazilian poet Regis Bonvicino.
Having said this I think that it is time for poetry- especially of the experimental variety to move out of the shadows into the light. I think that best model for this type of poetics is a place like Brazil. In Brazil most poets are engaged in a greater dialogue with their society. There are fewer readers of poetry in Brazil than there are here in the USA but many of the poets are about big things.
I just translated RETRATO TOTÊMICO DE CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS by the Brazilian poet Sergio Medeiros. In this work Medeiros weaves Strauss, Scriabin and Ives into a work that has challenged silences. None of these subjects are particularly Brazilian but the work itself harkens back to not only Iberian writing but to Guarani and the Jesuit reductions in its complexity. (the work will appear in the next issue of the magazine Mandorla) When I look at the work that some of these Brazilian poets are doing- with its depth and layering I think this is where poetry in the USA must go.
We must move away from a poetry of shallowness. I would use poets like Duncan, Olson and Creeley as models but also the linguistic strength of a poet like Stein would do as well. We cannot as an artform remain in this world of throw away poetry and throw away opportunities. The moment we are in with a new president and a new age before us offers as chance to open dialogue with global poets and also to our past. A past not without irony but also a future with a big project.