Is poetry dead and did Vanessa Place kill it or is it merely on the brink?

Here’s a confession, since Harriet started sending me traffic I’ve been paying far more attention than normal to poetry debates in North America. Two things have caught my eye recently, the first being ‘Poetry on the Brink’ by Marjorie Perloff in the Boston Review and the second being ‘Poetry is Dead, I killed it’ by Vanessa Place on Harriet.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed position on these matters is reasonably straightforward:

  • Vanessa Place can do no wrong and is always strategically correct;
  • poetry is far too poetic for its own good;
  • conceptual poetry is not the answer to the poetry problem;
  • whatever she might say, Vanessa Place is not a conceptualist;
  • creative writing cannot and should not be taught;

I regret to say that the first of these may be up for revision but I think I need to turn to the Perloff piece which is very grown up and thought through and has far too many words. I’d also like to make the rather obvious point that you don’t (ever) do long headers in very big fonts in a different colour. “We have witnessed a return to the short lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material” is too long, too complex and dull for this kind of eager treatment.

Perloff’s survey of the nature of this particular brink is written from the perspective of a custodian rather than a user and makes some pertinent observations, the main one being that quality does not increase in lock step with quantity. There is a debate to be had about the ‘market’ for creative writing courses and how this functions just as there is a need for custodians to know what it is they want but Perloff manages to avoid this with her extended list of platitudes. A glance at the response thread gives a clearer demonstration of what might be wrong than the article itself.

Perloff also manages to lump Place, Goldsmith and Bergvall into the same very short and dismissive paragraph. This is the sort of error that makes me quite cross. I’ve said before that I do want to be Caroline Bergvall so I might be a bit biased but anybody who has bothered to read any of the work of these three will know that they don’t ‘fit’ together, they are doing different things in completely different ways and their relationship to the ‘C’ word is really rather complex.

Having waded my way through all of the words that Perloff has put together, I’m not clear as to what poetry might be on the brink of nor what we ought to do about this apparently quite bad thing. She does try to make something of Pound’s ‘make it new’ but omits to mention that the new was/is nothing without the irascible.

Vanessa Place’s piece is thankfully much shorter and has a proper header and says this:

But if we can agree that we may function critically not from the conceit of extramural critique, which is essentially a postmodern argument, but rather from a relational perspective, which is the more conceptualist approach, we can avoid the temptation to fall into the sweet satisfactions of self—including a sorrowful self that has seen it all before. The best minds of my generation are servile, but it is service with a purpose. We take it and dish it out and leave its rumination to other minds. For, as Marjorie Perloff argues, the genius of conceptualism is in the plating.

Which is obviously correct and needs stating and restating but is only one variation on the ‘c’ word repertoire. For readers of Harriet however this could probably have done with a bit more flesh on the bone:

Wherein I slap my name on whatever comes to mind and call it poetry and yet it is poetry, and, too, as Drucker rightly notes, if I return it to its usual habitus (the appellate court, the news station), its “poetic elements lose their defining identity quickly enough.” Thus my readymade is also a reverse readymade, and critique proves not so much a matter of contemporary segregation but of an intellectual encounter which may be properly rigorous and properly ahistorical because Kant’s a prioris no longer apply.

This is an accurate precis of what the Place Project might be about but you do need to know at least some of the work and (I imagine) most would need some evidence for the irrelevance of those a prioris. I may be wrong but it seems to me that Harriet might be read by more than those that have already got the ‘c’ message and that this faux defiance might not be the best way to fight the fight- and it is a fight that needs to be fought.

Now we come to the caveats, the text doesn’t live up to its header, which is almost as bad as Perloff’s abuse of headers- if you’re going to maintain your deserved reputation as the scariest woman in literature then you’d better come up with something more witheringly vicious than this. Let’s be clear, Vanessa Place scares me and I’m not easily scared and this was a missed opportunity to scare and convert a lot more people.

The second quibble is a bit more serious, I’m of the view that endings are quite important and that they tend to leave an impression. Place’s final paragraph tries to do far too many things and the last two sentences are just inept because it doesn’t say anything at all and the ‘boring’ conceit isn’t good enough. So, I feel a little bit let down that the only person on the planet who seems to have a handle on this stuff seems to have blown her place in the sun, at least on this particular occasion.

Whilst poetry eschatology is always a fun game to play, it’s never more than a game. Poetry goes through all kinds of phases and transmutations but (whatever the crisis) it doesn’t die, it might not be what we want or what we feel that we deserve but it doesn’t die nor does it get anywhere near a brink….

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11 responses to “Is poetry dead and did Vanessa Place kill it or is it merely on the brink?

  1. Eschatology is a good word. Millenial convulsions seems apt but I’m sure I’ve nicked it from somewhere. I hope the swordfish held some solace, and that you’ll indulge me in this final birthday greeting.

    As someone totally outside the metanarrative under discussion, I do think it is interesting the disciplines need to have these apparent die-offs- the end of history, the end of science. I’m wondering if there isn’t something to be said for punctuated equilibrium in societies and ‘movents’ and so on as well as evolution and systems theory…

    • Not sure that disciplines need to have these die-offs, think that individuals / institutions have an interest in them but that’s more about them than what’s going on. There’s also something about being nostalgically vague…

  2. John, and Kayt–

    Several things. First, this post is right on and so is the comment. Second, the eschatology, as it were (the end, the brink) goes back to Hegel at least, for whom art was over. Adorno begins his last two major works by noting that philosophy missed its chance to die, and so did art, possibly. So the death of art trope (poetry, in this case) is a tradition by this point.

    As for specifics, speaking as a USAmerican, Perloff has been a kind of Helen Vendler of the “avant garde” for a long time. A gatekeeper who’s a dollar short and a day late. The critique of MFA programs and “MFA poetry” is just so old skool at this point. As Kasey Mohammad wrote a long ime ago, “Notice to all those poets still talking EITHER about “keeping out the ‘lyric I’” OR “putting the ‘I’ back in”: you are now living in the year 2005. That discussion wore itself out like 25 years ago. Get over it and feel free to live your lives.” Amen, re the whole MFA thing.

    Agreed about Place as a conceptualist – sort of. Is she or isn’t she? I spent some time a week or so ago with Teresa Carmody and others from Les Figues; we discussed their conceptual anthology I’ll Drown My Book. I noted that it was much wider and less “defined” than the Dworkin/Goldsmith anthology. Teresa said that was intentional; conceptual’s meaning should, perhaps, remain unfixed, and just stand as a placeholder for (these are my words, not Les Figues’) a kind of poetry in which the intertextual and processual comes more to the fore than it might with other kinds of work. And I just had a brief interchange with Juliana Spahr in which she described Jerome Rothenberg’s “outsiders” as non (or was it anti?) lyrical; my response was that I found Jerry’s outsiders to be quite lyrical. My point: I don’t think that any of these terms denote with great particularity.

    I do think that our discussion, John, about readerly anxiety, is very apposite here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Keats’ Negative Capability is pretty damn contemporary with Hegel’s death of art thing.

    A lot became unfixed at the beginning of modernity … and we’ve all been freaked out ever since …

    • I think it’s good that it’s less defined but I still don’t think Place ‘fits’, I’m particularly interested in her notion of giving the reader/consumer all the thought work to do and I also think we need to revisit Kant’s a prioris before we give up on them completely. The last paragraph however, does her nor her acolytes (me) any kind of favours.
      I actually like some of what Vendler’s written, can’t say the same about Perloff.

  3. John, I’d like to hear you definition, then, of conceptual writing to understand why Place doesn’t fit – which I’m not suggesting she does, really, nor that she doesn’t.

    As for Kant and his a prioris, even a Graham Harman, say, admits to being a kind of Kantian … I don’t think we’ll ever get out from under Kant, any more than we’ll ever get out from under Aristotle, or Plato, or any of the other truly great philosophers. It would be like getting out from under Homer, or something …

    I didn’t mean to knock Vendler, particularly, tho I find her boring, it’s just that gatekeeper thing (I know what’s good and what’s not) that irks me …

    • I’m not overly fond of labels and my understanding derives from Goldsmith’s quip about poems that are more interesting to talk about than they are to read, where the idea takes precedence over the poem. ‘Statement of the Facts’ doesn’t meet those kind of criteria because of the nature of the material even though self-plagiarism is the concept. I’ve watched several of her readings on various sites over the last two years and the ‘balance’ still seems to be in favour of the material. Hope this makes sense.
      I think the Kant thing is intriguing because, like you, I don’t think that we can get out from under but I do think that those a prioris may be applicable in slightly modified ways and this may be a factor in the development of the readerly anxiety that we both experience. The whole gatekeeping ‘event’ is too annoying for words whoever does it but Vendler just irritates me whereas I could get quite angry about La Perloff.

  4. John, Place’s work does not fall under “Goldsmith’s quip”. His work doesn’t even fit under it, really. 99% of his work is quite readable, actually. Maybe it (the quip) describes Dworkin’s Parse – or maybe I just don’t know enough about parts of speech to read Parse with pleasure … dunno. Have you read Plsce’s Dies, a sentence? Certainly not conceptual in the Kenny G sense.

    For me the thing with Kant isn’t the a prioris so much as the need for them, if we are as separated from the thing in itself as he suggests. I think he’s right that we can only “know” phenomena … but Bergson says somewhere that we evolved in such a way that the phenomena and the noumena were in very accurate relation – or else we’d be extinct. I’d be interested in knowing more about your thoughts on Kant’s a prioris and their relation to RA …

    There is a very very funny bit in Goldsmith’s Soliloquy concerning a meal he had with Perloff, by the way.

    • I’m rather fond of Kenny’s quip, haven’t been able to get through Traffic, Sports but have made some progress with Soliloquy and will now resume at least until the Perloff bit.
      Dies is currently being read on the Kindle.
      I don’t want to get hung up on things Kantian but I think we’re both of the view that something may well be afoot- hence readerly anxiety.

  5. Pingback: Poetry is Dead: Insert Blanc Press Killed It | Tarpaulin Sky Press

  6. ….a lawyer…..a poet

  7. Pingback: Poetry is Dead: Insert Blanc Press Killed It | Tarpaulin Sky Press

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