Thursday, November 6, 2008

Poets and Poetry in the Age of Obama

I have been thinking alot about poets and poetry in the face of what an Obama presidency means over the past couple of days. For most of the past forty years poets could default to the counter cultural because of the political realities of the United States. Poets could retreat into a corner with other poets and create complete poetry worlds insulated from the big bad world. Poetry has become almost like Kabbalah or Scrabble rather than a grand art form. Either a secret practice or a odd craft.

It has been an easy default for poets to exist as ironic cynics who live juxtaposed against the corporatism and conservatism of the past 40 years. In fact if you look at poets who have built much of their street cred around irony and cynicism (Charles Bernstein comes to mind) a sense that their work is dated and anachronistic in light of new realities becomes a real question. How do we read the Girly Man poems with Barack Obama in the White House? It almost seems as out of date as reading poems about Mc Carthyism.

It is not that we are entering the sacred Millennium with Obama but what we are entering is an age where many of our values as poets are embodied in our President. I go back to an earlier post where I talk about Obama being a member of Seminary Co-op here in Chicago. Obama is a serious reader and is more intelligent than most poets I know- this could not be said for Bush or Clinton. Where do we as poets position ourselves how can we be social critics when the President embodies much of what we desire for America? Where do we find our edge? Do we move into the kind of navel viewing that so many poets prefer? Do we retreat into the academy as so many poets are wont to do? How do we engage now with a new and better world where our irony and cynicism don't really compute?

One of the things that has embodied so much of contemporary poetry is a focus on irony and cynicism. You see this in so many poets today the irony of Flarf or the hip poet writing of many young women poets even the crypto marxism of Language poetry. The reality of this poetic sense is that you can live life as a kind of drive by shooting where you leave your slugs in society and drive off to your next kill. Since none of us have ever had a president with whom we believed (In the way Americans believed in JFK or FDR) how do we now relate? Do many of our poetic projects become redundant and in need of revision?

I think that it is important for poets and other creative people to ask themselves the question of what we do next? Do we as a creative community continue to dwell at the margins- doing work that is ironic and cynical but marginal? Or do we rethink our poetic project and begin to believe again that poetry can be trans formative? How do poets whose whole lives have been spent in irony and cynicism learn new ways of being poets?

In the end this is a dialogue for the poetry community to have with itself but lets just say that with the age of Obama the time when a poet can get away with the Girly Man poems is past and we need a new paradigm of poetic conversation.


PaulS said...

I couldn't agree more. Fortunately just as politics is cyclical so is poetry and there are still people like you and I who are willing to assert that genuine creativity with the language is still possible and that poetry can have a positive purpose. I've always felt unrelenting cynicism was just smart people poking unnecessary fun at the rest of us.

Guillermo Parra said...

Yes, I completely see what you're saying. I also think these comments tie in with your recent post about Gen X. Your words here challenge me deeply, because as long as I can remember, and as long as I've been writing (since 1988), I've been under the undeniable sway of cynicism and pessimism. I frankly expected to continue with my fatalistic and disengaged poetics forever. Not because I LIKE gloom, but because the governments of this country ever since I can remember have been cause for despair. I don't expect the U.S. government to change much under Obama. And I never really found myself cheering for him at all. But I recognize what you say about a president who is an intellectual. And I recognize that his election marks a turning point of sorts and that Flarf et al have instantly become outdated (though I've never found Flarf very interesting beyond a couple poets).

As for Gen X, I always assumed I would live out its credo of invisibility and disengagement forever. But I see how Obama's election could signal a challenge to my deep-seated mistrust of U.S. society, offering a slight hope that there could be openings for difference and otherness within the American fabric. I don't know... it's not just Obama, but rather that a majority of us elected him.

peN said...

Kudos to Ray for opening this dialog. I am not a regular reader of this blog, but saw the link on Silliman's site and have kept this browser tab open for several days in an effort to come back and make a comment. (Actually, several.)

There were a number of questions asked here and, if one steps back and assumes a broader look, they become less relevant. Now, I am writing as a person who did graduate work in Organic Poetry, something I recall Ray ridiculing in the past, but the Organic stance does directly address one question, that being:

"Do many of our poetic projects become redundant and in need of revision?"

If it were that easy. In the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, reality is made up not of things (materialism) but events. (Occasions of experience.) These events are inextricably linked to past events and inform future events. (In Hua Yen Buddhism, future events effect the present, but Field Theory is a sidebar.) So, to revise a poem as if Bush never happened would not be something Olson, or those espousing his poetics, would do.

Does irony look cheap now? Well, as superficial as it did 4 years ago. While irony is one tool available to the poet, too many USAmerican poets fail to get to a deeper place than that and it's revealed to those who DO seek a deeper gesture as cheap, or too easy. Lacking energy, to go back to how Olson put it in Projective Verse. I certainly want something more than that.

Poets will always be the opposition party. And until Obama:

Reduces Militarism by 80%, (or redefines "Defense" as to include Environmental Defense (cleaning up the massive pollution created by the US military bases in this country and around the world would be a good start), defense against disease (some kind of national health care which includes naturopathic modalities),

Dramatically increases spending for mass transit (a continental high speed mag-lev rail system would be a good start)

Ends all aspirations toward Empire,

apologizes to Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba (and ends the economic blockade of that country) and many other countries whose elected leaders we have plotted against, or removed through subversion and outright coups)

and myriad other issues, poets will have much to "oppose." But opposition is also a limited source for poetry, so the whole premise is one I would question. But the discussion is an important one and I welcome it.

Thanks Ray.

Paul Nelson
Ilalqo, WA