Sunday, February 11, 2007

I know. It's criminal how long I've ignored this blog. But I've come back! At least for the time being. It's been a stressful few months and quite frankly, after teaching poetry and reading poetry and writing about poetry, I would rather go drink a gimlet or read the boards than post bon mots about more poetry. Anyway, a friend asked to read an essay that I've written awhile back for American Letters and Commentary. I thought I would just post it up on my blog. It needs some sufficient updating--I slag blogs for instance when well-heh-I am "one of every writer who has a blog now" (which is usually neglected). And there are certainly poetry groups that have emerged that I previously wasn't in the know about. And I don't live in Seoul anymore. But here it is:

Fabula Poetics

Currently, I live in Seoul where English words and idioms, troublingly or not, have crept into the Korean language. Why say bu-in when “wife” will suffice? Overworked Koreans complain about “set-u-ress” and urge a “well-being” diet of green tea, muffins and yoga. Korean hip hop artists blend black urban slang with Korean slang so fast you can’t tell which language they’re rapping in. One moony college student explained to my friend that when love strikes, he prefers to use the phrase “I love you” rather than the Korean equivalent because “I love you” felt more momentous and more real.

So goes Globalization’s patter as developing countries take crash courses in English so that their citizens can say “Would you like an aisle seat or window” in Hindi and English. As multilingualism is imposed around the world, words from mutually exclusive languages begin to cannibalize each other. Chalk this off as the tainted innerworkings of neo imperialism. But America’s boundaries are also being eroded and our English is becoming truncheoned with cultures from the Outside. Copywriters, prose-stylists, journalists, bloggers, rappers and TV writers can pun, chop up, cram in allusions and churn out a turn of phrase more hybridized than a poem by your typical Pound influenced poet. The conduit of cultural exchange (or its degradation) merrily speeds both ways and the world’s soundscape is rapidly evolving. As the world shrinks, the word expands.

Where does that leave poetry, that genre that should be the avatar of linguistic experimentation? Why when is there so much cacophonous, sampled, cyber kinetic blather heard on the streets (and on the internet), are budding poets still debating the merits of Language poetry in MFA classrooms when Language poets are now the gatekeepers of academic institutions, grants, and book prizes?

Poetry has become a boutique enterprise. Camps have branched off with their own grad programs, academic posts, and presses which have stifled innovation since writers dare not stray too far from their academic niche market. You have defiantly traditionalist formalists, poets who write Language Poetry Lite (as in Language Poetry with Heart), poets who plunk out flaccid first person quasi-autobiographical free-verse. You have Ashberian poets whose verbal flux attempts to be an evocation of postmodernity’s mindless chatter but ultimately rewinds back to the injured, romantic Self. Poets are moving toward an online community (every other writer has a blog now) but it has not only cemented the cliques but has also amped up the squabbles about Po-Biz politicking rather than politics itself.

This is of course all redundant. Writers have long complained about the current fragmented state of poetics but they seem rather resigned to its Balkanization. As to poetry’s inertia, many might argue that poetry’s role is to stand apart and that poetry should not have to keep up. But in our staunch determination to be timeless, we have long forgotten how to be timely.

As for myself, I am one of many young poets who is indebted to Language poets. I followed their Marxian critique of language and borrowed their techniques of macerating the lyric down to “word as such.” But while the defamiliarized non sequitur might have been fresh awhile back, it has now become an old stylistic tick that just adds white noise to all the random associations and informational clutter that are out there. Why splice around syntax when your local spammer does it better than you?

So as history dictates, perhaps the pendulum should swing wildly the other way and we should plunge back into the aural. Inject a kind of layered dynamism into poetry, a highly concentrated polyglot song where the voice is not a mimesis of the natural plain spoken but instead “speaks” in a stylized invented language that reflects and ultimately synthesizes the careening sounds of a shrinking late capitalist world.

A few contemporary experimental poets have returned to the aural through a reinvention of language and hybridized genres. Canadian poet Christian Bok’s brilliant “Euonia” consists of five chapters in which only one vowel is permitted per chapter. Amazingly, Bok manages to wend a narrative into these Oulipo constraints and the text, rather than it being dead on the page, comes alive as its own bleating contorted Homeric song (which is marvelously apparent when he reads). Harryette Mullen also turns wordplay into song, fusing Oulipo technique with referents as varied as airplane manuals, sonnets, and African American argot. A new poet Eugene Ostashevsky uses Russian inflected English to perform and write under two bawdy personas called MC Squared and DJ Spinoza. He sings, he parodies, and he raps. Strangely, few poets have absorbed any of the innovations made in contemporary music (i.e. sampling) unless we count Spoken Word poets and poets churned out of PhD and MFA programs certainly do not count them. But the three poets I have mentioned share one trait with the Spoken Word poets and it’s that they engage in aural theater as much as they engage in the page.

This idea that we have exhausted the field of experimentation is uninspired, especially now when there is so much politically at stake, when economically and culturally the global playing field is flattening, when the very fabric of our spoken language is changing. Of course, a brand new aesthetic is impossible. The three poets I mentioned, for instance, have a great allegiance to past avant-gardists but unlike some of their predecessors’ ahistorical agrammaticism they have updated their tongue-twisting wordplay within present societal conditions. Following their example, there could at least be a movement where poets are more aligned with the world. Poetry, as it has become divvied up into its camps, has become a narrower and parsimonious field where it constantly refers to itself.

I think poetry could be a bit more fabulous. Not “fabulous” in its camp definition (although on second thought, why not?) but fabulous in the sense of fable, of a heightened exaggeration of the world around us. Charles Olson once wrote that we must “build out of sound the walls of the city.” We must continue to build out of sound but with an awareness that the walls of the city have eroded. A small town poet tenured at the local college would beg to differ but I doubt it is now possible to celebrate rootedness and region in the same way Olson did Gloucester, Massachusetts or William Carlos Williams did Paterson, New Jersey. What does locality mean when access and communication are transmitted in ways that are faster than ever? Even the simple device of cell phone text-messaging has rapidly facilitated spontaneous demonstrations which have then toppled regimes (i.e. Estrada’s downfall in the Philippines or the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution).

The brilliance of Christian Bok’s “Euonia” is due to a startlingly kinetic combination of strict formal constraints and a verbal generosity. Flip through journals to see how many times poets will lazily overuse words like “vesper” and “glissando” in order to evoke shadowy interiority. Working with Oulipo constraints, Bok is forced to use words that one wouldn’t find within a poetic framework (for evidence, check out the chapter devoted to “U”-- “Ubu pumps Lulu's plush, sunburnt tush.”)

I think there is a pervasive flatness to contemporary poetry. In order to work out of that flatness, we could be more formally rigorous with sound while widening our palette on what makes a “word.” Aesthetically, politically, and culturally, if we are more globally engaged, it could also widen our perception on language and form. In order to work out of that flatness, there could be a poetic of dynamism, neologisms, high artifice, and dramatic persona. A poetic in fictional drag. A poetic with the energy of collectivity and not just the tricky interior self. If the autobiographical first person has been argued by Language Poets as a “mockup of consciousness,” why not camp up the mockup (see Ostashevsky when he assumes the role of MC Squared) and return to personas and find a poetic that is as much outward theater as it is inward. A poetic that blends wordplay with serious critique. A poetic that is bigger than itself. A maximalist epic poetic that outsizes genres and bleeds into prose and playwriting and hypertext, that exhausts itself in an inventive sonic virtuosity. Is this just a dressed up return to the lyric? Is this in actuality reactionary rather than a move forward? Not necessarily. But then, years from now, a new group of poets can come in, call it verbal hedonism, and bring it all back down to grammar once again.


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