Rambling Upon Poetry

I’ve never had much interest about English contemporary poetry. I’ve studied it, but just didn’t get the right sort of appeal. It certainly has its good points, which I won’t repeat, since you can pick up any anthology of contemporary poetry and flip through the introduction for all the theory.

It just happens that I have a qualm about it: that it can be pretty easy to imitate. Which means you’ll have to wade through a bigger pile of junk before you can get to the real gems. Consider the form of language poetry. It takes the appearance of seemingly unrelated sentences and sentence fragments to show the materiality of language, to show how language is produced. Ideally, language poetry does come up with fascinating ideas about the way we form and associate words and phrases. But the human factor is always a monkey wrench. The temptation to just mash in randomness, to expect the reader to “collaborate” in extracting meaning out of it when there really is none, is much too overwhelming for the amateur (a problem that plagues minimalism too, I should think). Like throwing paint at a wall and calling it art. Certainly there are people who have thought long and hard about the history of visual art and have come to the conclusion that the next step would be to create something that resembles paint thrown at a wall. But show this to the amateur who hasn’t worked at grasping the history and the thought, the full value behind it, and he’d just as easily get a bucket of paint and started splattering because it’s what “art” looks like. To stop only at form, to only copy what it “looks like,” is fatal.

Content has fallen out of people’s good graces lately. Postmodernism has declared language not a necessary means of expression but merely another construct that we can just as easily revolutionize and play around with, as it has been playing around with us (thanks, Derrida & Company). I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is being overly fascinated with “liberating language” so much so that there is nothing else written BUT self-reflexivity and experimentation, as if a poetic career was one big workshop that never gets serious. It’s interesting at first, quite a novelty, but jokes do wear thin quickly, even if it is a joke on linguistics.

Well. I guess I’m just one of the few who sticks a neck out for content once in a while, since postmodernism has brought in the deferment of meaning (i.e. life is one big dictionary, wherein each entry endlessly refers to another), and made the concept of Meaning with a capital M rather unpopular.

Speaking of which…epistemological caution (e.g. not “I do this” but “I see myself doing this, and did I mention I’m just seeing myself doing this, and I’m not entirely sure I’m actually doing this?”), another characteristic of poetry as of late. Philosophically it makes sense: how certain are we of what we know? A dose of epistemological modesty is always good and keeps you in line. Too much, however, turns Robert Burns’ “O my love is like a red red rose” into “O my love is not altogether unlike a generally red rose” (vide David Dooley’s “The Contemporary Workshop Aesthetic”).

Anyway, I’m as much for the progress of contemporary poetry as the next student; I’m just skeptical about the side effects, since the human factor never makes putting theory into practice easy. I bet I’m sounding like an ad for elitism and snobisme in art right now, but it’s similar to what my aikido teacher once said, when I was still doing undergraduate. Your size shouldn’t matter, theoretically. Aikido is all about defense, so just because you’re smaller doesn’t mean you’re going to get pounded by your opponent. But until you reach your fifth year in aikido, you sure as heck are going to get pretty whupped if you’re smaller. When put to application, size does matter until you reach that level of mastery. So if you’re going to break the traditional rules of art and be avant-garde and experimental, at least go through the years knowing what they’re about in the first place.

If you’ve reached this far down, I’m impressed.

Oh, and we picked up a snail from a wall and made it a pet and called it “Turtle” (don’t ask). I’m still slightly grossed out, especially when cleaning the litter, but it’s pretty cool to have a little fellow to check on when I’m starting to get fidgety with my readings.


Posted on March 14, 2007, in School of English, Sydney, UNSW, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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