Saturday, December 16, 2006


Multiple blogs (Silliman from Wed., Dec. 13; Jonathan Mayhew, from Dec. 14) led to this, from John Gallaher:

"... to me the idea of a poetics is best left to someone other than a practicing poet."

Which led me to comment on JG's blog:

Generally, the best theorists of poetry are not the poets themselves. Or as my friend Geoff Brock once said to me, "One does not need a degree in Comparative Literature in order to write poems."

The irony of this, of course, is that Geoff and I both have degrees in Comp. Lit. (though we both wrote our dissertations on novelists), and even that we became friends in grad school. :-)

In the starting point of this discussion, Ron Silliman wrote this about Alice Notley: "She may choose to deny that what she does constitutes a poetics, but that denial, it seems to me, is not just a part of that poetics (as surely it is), it’s also part of the conscious loneliness that makes Alice Notley’s work instantly unmistakable, regardless of the forms it may take."

I would agree that the work of Alice Notley (or any poet) can be analyzed in such a way as to describe that poet's "poetics" (as something ever mutable, in the case of a living poet, as something complete and potentially even fully describable, in the case of a dead poet), but it is certainly not necessary for Alice Notley herself to do that analysis in order to write poetry.


John Gallaher said...

"...but it is certainly not necessary for Alice Notley herself to do that analysis in order to write poetry."

I agree, and I want to push it a bit further and say that it's also not advisable (past a point [all things in moderation]).

That would be my critique of some poet/theorists . . . who run the danger of theorizing their poetry out of existence.

Andrew Shields said...

... theorizing their OWN poetry out of existence, to be precise. I have nothing against theories of poetry; I even enjoy them. I just would not find it productive to theorize my own too much (and I resent the arrogance of those who insist that I ought to, or I will just be naive).

Donald Brown said...

Well I don't think Silliman is saying you have to; he's saying that even when Notley denies "having a poetics," she still speaks in such a way as to indicate what her poetics might be. But Silliman and Notley both seem to be using the term very differently; poetics for Notley seems to mean: having some clearly determined, structural idea that guides the writing and editing of a poem. This, Notley, insists, she doesn't have (and the poem Silliman quotes rather backs her up in that).
I don't think a poetics need be that preconceived, though if, as a critic, one tries to delineate a poet's poetics, it will have to rely upon typical formal constructions and choices. Which is what Silliman says about Notley: her comment about changing her mind in the middle of something IS a poetics (in that less than definite way).
In other words, Silliman seems to think of poetics as: some idea about what you're doing when you're writing a poem. Not exactly rigorous, but something that, I'd hazard, all poets employ, even Notley.

Andrew Shields said...

Did you read all the comments on Silliman's post? I mean on his site.

If Silliman really uses "poetics" to mean what you say at the end of your comment, then, as one of the commenters on his site wrote (I paraphrase), it does not say very much to say that every poet has a poetics.

Surely Silliman would argue for a stronger sense of "poetics" than "some idea about what you are doing when you're writing a poem." If that is what "poetics" means, then the term is superfluous.

A strong definition of "poetics" would point towards the kind of things that critics discover when they analyze poems. But a poet does not need to have that kind of sense of his or her "poetics"; in fact, when poets have those kinds of ideas, the ideas often get in the way of the poems.

I agree that everyone has a poetics in the sense that you concluded with, but if Silliman is arguing that Notley has a poetics in that sense, then I don't understand why he reacted so strongly to Notley's remark in the first place.

Donald Brown said...

Ok, two things:

1) I don't think Silliman intends to say what I say he says, but he does use the term so loosely, that that's what it seems to come down to, because (in the case of what he
quoted from Notley) his discussion of her "poetics" comes down to something much like I said; so, what I'm saying is that Silliman seems to want "poetics" to mean whatever he wants it to mean; but

2) I don't think Silliman is reacting strongly to Notley's comment: he's simply saying, "ah Alice, you think you have no poetics, but really my dear, you do." Because Silliman is the kind of poet for whom poetry without a "poetics" is inconceivable, but my
problem with poets of Silliman's ilk is that their "poetics" remind me of the kinds of artist statements for conceptual art: pretensious blather about their "approach" or their "stance" or their relation to whatever they think is significant in making things.

I'll agree that to define a poetics is often beyond the poet him or herself, but for conceptual poets, "poetics" is the term for "why I do things the way I do" or "how I think a poem means," etc. I'm sympathetic to the extent that I do believe a certain line of modern poetics begins with Pound saying "the first step was getting rid of the iamb." But poetics as developed by Pound, or Olson, and onward gets to be a kind of accouting of what can and can't be done in a poem. When Notley says "it's bullshit," that's what I think she's referring to: that need to define one's project in such terms. Silliman gets a little cautionary there because he thinks that poetry such as hers needs a poetics (I would say, "a defense"), or needs to have its methods articulated. Soooo, if it's poetry, it must have a poetics.

Andrew Shields said...

Your use of the word "defense," Don, is helpful: perhaps the problem for "conceptual poets" is that they find themselves in a position that feels as if it has to be defended. Whereas a poet such as Richard Wilbur does not need to articulate a defense of poetry in the form of a "poetics."

These days, of course, he might well be pressured into writing a defense of form, but he would not call it a "poetics." My favorite defense being that form is a matter of hedonism.

I stole that last line from a poet you don't like, Don, so I won't provide a reference here. :-)

Donald Brown said...

Well I don't know who said form is a matter of hedonism, but it's fine by me. I guess though that, since form can be a real bitch to achieve, it's not driven simply by the pleasure principle. Though I do agree with Stevens: It Must Give Pleasure; but that's not the same as saying it must be a pleasure to write.

I still remember an essay I wrote as an undergrad which was a blood-sweating affair. The comment when I got it back was "I hope this was as much of a pleasure to write as it was to read." I chuckled, because no way was it.

Andrew Shields said...

Form and hedonism: Marilyn Hacker.

Your remarks remind me of what Goethe supposedly said: "Entschuldige die Länge des Briefes, ich hatte keine Zeit, mich kurz zu fassen."

Donald Brown said...

yeah, I wonder what length Goethe's blogs would be... Or, like other German poets, would he simply not blog at all...

renew said...

Your blog is rather purple now.

Anyhoo, I'd say that Goethe would blog anyways because he'd make enough money selling his dramas and novels. He would be the kind of guy who could afford to have a little of his work out in the open. No idea what he would blog about, though, but his posts would certainly be longer than average.

I also suppose that he would be teaching at a very respectable German speaking university (if there is such a thing), and he'd be the über-professor whom everyone would quote in their talks and papers and invite for guest lectures.

Andrew Shields said...

Goethe would be a professor. But he would not be a writer of bestsellers, any more than he was back in his day! His brother-in-law outsold him many times. :-)