Sunday, January 23, 2005

Fear among the peerless

James Ensor "Aux Masques" Posted by Hello

Great post at Michael Hoerman’s Pornfeld (Tuesday, January 18). I’ll sabotage a small portion since I had the same note written down on my notebook that caused Michael intrigue. It was the following comment by Ron Silliman that raised both our eyebrows:

…anti-group behavior has never served any younger poet well…The tendency of so many younger poets has been to be militantly anti-group formation, yet in a field of literally hundreds upon hundreds of younger poets (say, under 40), it seems very clear that this strategy serves almost none of them well at all.”

Michael’s twist on this —his neuroeconomics discussion— deserves a careful read. You will find there that “male monkeys will pay in juice to see a picture of a high-ranking monkey, but must be given extra juice to be coaxed into looking at a picture of a monkey on the lowest rung of the social scale.” Translate that into the politics of poetry and see what you come up with. As a metaphor it works quite well and you need not be T.S. Eliot to bring this one home.

I happen to agree with Michael about his take on autodidact poets vs. academic poets, loners vs. groupies. None of the descriptions being derogatory, of course. But all of it also runs into previous discussions I’ve had with Bino Realuyo, Roger Pao, and A.T., among others, about the need (or not) for group formation in order to succeed in a poetry “career”. By group formation I also mean “cliques” or “clikes” (so A.T. can bang me right away). I’m not much into groups and their politics; e.g., recall the anthology “Asian American Poetry. The Next Generation”, edited by Victoria Chang and what that did to raise—aside from interest—a great deal of controversy and discontent. We heard about all kinds of things about that anthology—as we did from Houlihan on BAP 2004 —but little if anything on the poetry itself. Not something to write home about.

But reality also brings these issues into focus. Consider Charles’ recent posts about multiple submissions and rejections. Consider the reality of having your poetry given the minimum consideration when you are a nobody: a groupless poet without the necessary connections. Granted, we must consider in all of it the “quality” of what is being accepted or rejected (and the subjectivity of the taste with which you are judged), but it isn’t the same for C. Dale to get a 48-hour return on his submission as opposed to a two-month return for Charles. C. Dale is an established poet and editor, Charles isn’t. (Thus, multiple submissions are bad for some, good for others.) Likewise, consider what cutting down and careful definition can do for those yet to be published. Consider a narrower—by definition—anthology of Asian American Poetry vs. a mammoth BAP. Within the concentric circles of group definition narrowing the group is extremely effective. Belonging to a group is extremely effective.

So you’re right, Michael: “Naturally, it is disturbing to think of my diminished chances in a system where members of a group advance each other. But if everything I do, I do on merit alone, fuck it any other way.”


  • Alberto, I only wish I got my submissions back in 48 hours. Usually, it takes 3 or more months. But I used to be good at sending out poems that came back within 48 hours. That is why I never simultaneously submitted work. Interesting post.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 2:20 AM  

  • Haven't the anti-group young poets of each generation in turn been the poets of note? I think of Rimbaud as a case study for the militant...

    I believe this assertion by Silliman comes from a view of poetics as an evolutionary process, with lang-po and the like being a highly evolved or divergently evolved poetic form. Thus the "anti-group" may be viewed as youthful/naive and counter-progressive when thinking in terms of a linear development.

    Yet there remain those academically-minded (and respected) among us who hold ancient forms in higher esteem than current forms. There was indeed an entire movement toward "primitivism" in modern American poetry that can be similarly described as counter-progressive and anti-group. What, if anything, lends validity to the scholar who holds the Classic/Romantic/Formal/Beat/Language/etc. as the poetic ideal? Is such devotion quixotic?

    With each movement comes the transition from the anti-group to the group to the forgotten group. With each movement arrives those writers who view the landscape of poetry respectively as tired then revolutinary then under attack (or more suitably, stepping aside).

    It isn't the evolution of forms, it's the shaking of the snow globe of poesy. There are those writers who shake and those who fall in with the settling particles. The latter are "served well" by group subscription.

    It takes meteoric talent to develop the new monkey juice and only the marginal to proliferate the old. This is where the "greats" arise: in novel developments, not in improvements of old formulae.

    When have the most ardent of poets, those most self-destructive of artists, ever sought for that which served them well?

    By Blogger A. D., at 7:56 AM  

  • Sorry for the above tangential ranting.

    To broach the actual topic at hand I would say that the inclusive aspects of the "group" (community and friendships) can be wonderful, while the exclusive aspects can be troubling (as cliques or favoritism) or defining (as revolution).

    By Blogger A. D., at 8:13 AM  

  • I can think of nothing more stifling to creativity than categories, schools, cliques whatever label is appropriate. To me it seems limiting: placing boundaries where there should be none. Of course, that's easy for me to say because I don't depend on poetry to put food on the table or buy shoes for my children. I'm relieved that I chose not to go into Academia and will never feel the anxiety that must accompany the 'publish or perish' enviroment. An environment that would most naturally lead to categories, I would think.

    By Blogger Suzanne, at 11:53 AM  

  • addendum--

    as well as leading to sympathetic 'connections.' In turn this makes achievements on merit alone much more rewarding and impressive.

    By Blogger Suzanne, at 12:11 PM  

  • I think that poets (especially bloggers) spend WAY too much time talking about "schools of poetry," categories, cliques. Maybe if everyone spent more time on their own writing, they might actually be better poets? Now there's a thought. I also think it's dangerous to take the opinion of the blogging community and draw conclusions from it, such as saying the Asian American poetry anthology did X or Y--I'd say the blogging community is skewed heavily towards those who are on the fringe of society and poetry (not all, of have the rare gem like C. Dale Young), but mostly it consists of anti-X's or anti-Y's. You can't possibley use this small data point of people to draw wide sweeping conclusions like this. I've heard of a ton of people who are poets who love Best American Poetry, and many who love the asian anthology.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:34 PM  

  • Hi, C. Dale,

    You are correct. I misinterpreted one of your comments to A.D. Thanks for the clarification. But I gather you get the drift. I also left something out of my post—the errors of blogging speed—about who the dominant hairless monkeys might be and why (though I did hint about real issues of quality and judging taste). And, of course, I’m terribly upset that innocent monkeys should always be used to exemplify out primate poetic troubles. That should tell us something. I shall soon be working on that "Final Ode to the Monkey."

    Thanks, C. Dale.

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 6:06 PM  

  • Quite interesting, A.D.

    I don’t think of your exposition as quixotic at all. New dominant monkeys or new juice to attract lesser monkeys are always in the making. Unfortunately the “magic juice” is not easy to come up with, sort of like the Lord of the Rings saga. You are right in considering evolution as non-linear or as not necessarily just linear. Each generation must weave and punch depending on the circumstances. They also must go back, reassess, and continue in different lines—not necessarily forward moving. There is no one poetic group superior to the other, lest we make a competition out of the whole thing. Such only occurs in the here and now where politics proliferate over poetry. Politics, however, soon die. Unfortunately—though that may not be the right word—some poets are born at the wrong time, so to speak. They don’t fit in with the reigning group (and I always turn to Wordsworth as an example). However, few succeed in their life times to come up with the necessary juice to make a splash. Obviously that means nothing in terms of “poetic time” and eternal literary survival.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 6:22 PM  

  • Precisely, Suzanne. Most politicians would not say the things they say if it weren’t necessary to uphold a certain group line of thinking. They get to maintain their jobs and positions of hierarchy that way. It’s understandable though hardly justifiable. The reality might be that Ron Silliman is right. Call it a thousand things or just networking or whatever the new pc name might be for it. The bottom line is that true poets (how I hate to say that) must do what they do. They should not know how to do anything else. So they may die in the pool of their own originality or, contrariwise, in their similitude to reigning styles of writing. I don’t think either type of poet is to be blamed for the space she occupies—assuming she does so from an honest perspective. If you write in a style similar to Eliot’s then you are doomed by his shadow, but you are in effect left with few options. That is where you fall; it is who you are. The rest is politics, though they may be necessary politics.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 6:32 PM  

  • Anon-

    I agree. I should be writing more poetry and C. Dale is a gem, isn't he.

    By Blogger A. D., at 6:48 PM  

  • Dear Anonymous,

    Your tone is one of disagreement yet I fail to see the complaints that apparently upset you. I assume you are not disturbed because we are having a simple conversation about whatever we wish to talk about, during our own time. (This is being written while I rest from my painstaking work on two odes, three sonnets, five elegies and one sestina—all related to primate group behavior.) So don’t tell me I waste my time. I do take issue, however, with your insinuation that I have somehow said something negative about BAP or the Asian American Anthology. If I had I would defend it. Believe me. But I only used those two anthologies as very recent and fresh examples of how group-mindedness literally suffocated discussions about the literary quality of the poetry. The latter concerns me most. You clearly misread. Also, you demonstrate an unwarranted defensiveness when referring to bloggers, with the exception of C. Dale, which you consider “a rare gem.” I don’t consider him a dull gem myself, but do you consider him a rare gem as a blogger, poet, editor or what exactly? Are you saying he’s a top-notch hairless monkey and the rest of us are lesser monkeys? Truthfully, you misread. My post is not part of an experiment; I have used no data, none, in the true sense of the word. I have relied merely on opinion—my own—and that of others I respect, to exchange information that may or may not be of value to anyone else. As you can see some people, few, comment while others don’t. Not much different from actual poetry when you think about it, but without all the pretentious razzmatazz.

    And, hell, don’t comment anonymously. I feel like I’m talking to somebody wearing a hood. I don’t bite—I can barely nibble—and your comment was certainly worth reading.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 7:05 PM  

  • no, señor, TU ERES la gema. ¿qué pasará con este mundo de blogistas sin tus sentidos maduros? por lo general, este mundo de poesía esta lleno de espejos, espejos sin reflexiones-reflejos, sin significados, sin almas, sin nada. vacío, narcisista, y mortal. sigue de comentar, filosofo mío.

    By Blogger bino, at 7:12 PM  

  • Trust me, I am no gem, sparkly or otherwise. And I guess I would have to be called a "hairy" monkey as opposed to a hairless one. ;)

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 8:26 PM  

  • Oh, and I agree with Bino: Usted es la gema. Su filosofia es maravilla. Sorry, I am out of practice escritando en espanol.

    By Blogger C. Dale, at 8:30 PM  

  • Querido Bino,

    Tu siempre apoyando. Gracias. La poesía es como todo en la vida—lo bueno y lo malo. A mi me encanta y me encanta hablar y hablar de poesía. Es lo más grande que me dejo mi padre: su gusto por la poesía y él ahora la disfruta en mi. (But don’t carry on with compliments or you’ll get Little Fucking Emerson all worked up. He’s a jealous bastard!)

    Un abrazo,

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:01 PM  

  • C. Dale,

    Sorry about the hairless monkey thing. You don’t suppose I’ll be sued by the Hairy Monkeys Union? Hell I’m a Sea-Camel and I’ll claim E.M.S. (Effective Metaphor Syndrome) and move for summary judgment (in Spanish). That’ll show ‘em! :-)


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:09 PM  

  • Terrific post! Sorry, I've slipped in here late when the discussion may have run out of steam. But maybe I'll liven it up again. ;) I agree that belonging to a group can be extremely effective.

    If by "group formation," you mean "cliques" as you say you do, I would say that group formation in poetry is inevitable. There are cliques everywhere. Academics, autodidacts, loners, groupies, yes. But also Yahoo! groups, bloggers, state poetry societies, spoken word teams, feminists, Cave Canem poets, middle-aged Caucasian surrealists, different schools of poetry, etc., etc.

    To succeed in a "poetry" career (as too few do due to lack of funding/respect for contemporary poetry in academia, but I won't get started on that here) I would imagine that you've got to have your peeps, so to speak. You've got to have people behind your back, and you always belong to multiple cliques.

    Now, I think that any suggestion of grouping by race scares people. I've got plenty of friends more conservative than me, and as I noted on my blog, I think that the idea of having an "Asian-American poetry" blog or anthology as a sort of clique, for example, is just not right to some. Race is what I would call a "national anxiety," and I'm trying to better understand the underpinnings of this anxiety.

    Of course, the group vs. the individual is also an important anxiety, which both you and Ron Silliman identify. I'll just raise the question to younger poets who are "militantly anti-group," if they really do believe that they (or their poetry) are independent from any group -- race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class, philosophy of poetry, school of poetry, belonging to a poetry "society" or "club," preferences as to reach poets to read, etc. My guess is that they merely prize certain cliques above others and view certain groups as beneficial and perilous. Of course, having "groups" is always both.

    By Blogger Roger Pao, at 5:20 PM  

  • Hi Roger,

    It never is too late to liven things up! A lot of points in your comment. Belonging to a group is effective. The question posed by Michael and myself is: is effectiveness necessarily good? Is practical and pragmatic in the arts necessarily good? That is, if belonging to a group requires a particular set of ideas—which it often necessarily does to the exclusion of others—it may not be the best road towards poetry. (Though it may very well be the best road to the winning of a law suit.) You have often noted in your blog how the “establishment” can keep other groups down or out. That’s the negative side I’m referring to. Likewise, and I have already gone at length on that in another post (Voices from the Oracle), groups necessarily define closer circles—narrower circles—which may not necessarily lead to the “best” poetry. More on best in a second. What narrowing the pool does—positively—is give some individuals a greater opportunity, say, to be published, to be known, to have the voice heard. Thus, as an Asian American you have a chance to be included in an Asian American anthology, and you also have the chance to be included in a non-specific-group anthology, say BAP for our purposes (because apart from the great connections you have, you also happen to be a worthy poet.) The same is not true for others. African Americans must come up with their own anthology, and Latin Americans, and so on. I simply don’t like the idea of grouping because I fail to see the nexus between the group and poetry. Though you may disagree, I don’t think that an Asian American writes a particular type of poetry. Including issues of concern to Asian Americans in poetry may be noble, but it does not further poetry; it furthers a social cause. If it can do both great, but that is seldom the outcome, because what makes poetry great in my mind is the universality of what concerns humankind, not individual interests. But that’s just me and I am profoundly naïve. I also don’t think that such group behavior leads to the “best” poetry. Poetry is an individual art that must be based on individual ideas—not group politics; hence, the essence of originality and the concept of best.

    Back to that. Many people scuff at the “best” idea, about how it cannot be defined. Sort of like pornography, yet everyone seems to know what we’re talking about, give or take subtle matters of taste. You may find Frost boring as some poets may find him to be yet you must recognize Frost’s weight—the shadow he cast, even if you don’t like him—over American poetry; the same may said of Li Bai in Chinese poetry. On this I always turn to Matthew Arnold—always—when he speaks of refusing to lend ourselves to “any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them,” but which in fact have nothing at all to do with poetry. Of course Arnold was referring to criticism, in particular, though I prefer to expand that idea to poetry in general. Thus: “It must needs be that men should act in sects and parties, that each of these sects and parties should have its organ, and should make this organ subserve the interests of its action; but it would be well, too, that there should be a [poetry], not the minister of these interests, not their enemy, but absolutely and entirely independent of them. No other [poetry] will ever attain any real authority or make any real way towards its end—the creating [of] a current of true and fresh ideas.”

    Thanks for your comment. Full of freshness, as always.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 9:51 PM  

  • I love all this dialogue. A fellow Massachusetts poet also wrote on the subject, with some similar things to say. Check it out at:

    By Blogger hackzkztv, at 7:10 PM  

  • You started it, Michael, with your great post. A lot of fun. I’ll check

    Thanks for your great words and that terrific post.

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 12:29 AM  

  • This is such a beautiful post and discussion. I've been feeling very lonely lately. This helped.

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