Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Organic/Inorganic Part 3

Brennan Wysong contributes to the discussion with an appreciation of the dichotomy in terms of reader participation in the process:

Perhaps to further the dichotomy, might the difference between the organic/inorganic also be in terms of reader participation--say, in terms of analysis vs. (an attempt at) synthesis? In the organic, we find ourselves assuming all parts contribute to the whole and so we simply try to understand how they contribute to this unity. ("The tone of this poem is solemn because it's an elegy.") With the inorganic, and esp. with some Language poetry, there is an attempt on the reader's part to synthesize into a whole what cannot be reconciled as such. This leads to what Hank Lazer refers to as "a dialectical tension between possible continuities and radical discontinuities."

(That dialectical tension that sounds like a perfect definition of reader frustration, apathy, etc.. Ah, but there is titillation: excitement, promise of revelation. The transcendental pleasures of random juxtaposition…)

Mike Snider, who makes some pretty strong headbuts against against random "word salads" and other tendencies associated with Language and related poetries, takes issue with the very use of the term "organic" by Josh, Berger, and others. Living organisms, he points out in an astute and beautifully written post, not only depend on having internally consistent relations among their component parts, but these parts for their very existence depend on valid relationship to the external world. The implications for "organic" poetry are obvious:

It's an odd, and, I think, misleading use of the words, since by "organic" Bürger seems to mean self-referential, self-enclosed. The use of "organic" by Burger and by Josh … at first, intriguing because usually "organic" is the term used to indicate value and relevance to a well-lived life. But it's misleading because it fundamentally distorts what it means to be organic, whether in the natural world or in the world of art. Organic things - living things - certainly have an internal structure in which various parts are dependent on each other for their continued existence, but those internal relations have evolved in relation to an external world.

First, that set of dependencies in a living thing only exists because its ancestors were able to interact successfully with their organic and inorganic environments, with other creatures and the utterly indifferent rock and water and sun and air. It is utter nonsense to speak of a living thing as self-contained.

Second, those relations are fragile. We see this most dramatically in cancer, when some set of cells, by ignoring their relationship to the whole creature, dooms that creature's relationship to the world, except perhaps as food for other creatures. But blind cave fish illustrate another point: all things in that set of relations, even eyes, have a price, and when that price is not repaid by value to the rest of the organism through relations to the outside world, not even eyes, which have evolved independently many times and in many lineages, can maintain themselves however beautifully and intricately they are connected to other parts of the creature.

(My next project: to create the poetic equivalent of a cave fish: remove the eyes from a poem, and yet ensure that it thrive in a sea of sighted readership… Hmm… joking aside, I tend to agree with Mike about the misleading nature of the "organic/non-organic" terminology, and for that reason, employ, when I remember to, quotation marks around the terms…)

K. Silem Mohammad, more sympathetic to the "non-organic" trends, articulates so beautifully an overview of the antagonism between the two camps that I can't help quoting it as a fine contribution to the discussion:

Josh writes:

"my utopia of poetry is a world where EVERYONE is a poet, in which all voluntarily assume the pains and pleasures that come with the highest possible sensitivity to language."

This in the context of his larger discussion of the "organic" vs. the "inorganic" in poetry, or let's say modes of poetry based on the illusion of direct communication of transparent (i.e. familiar) meanings between a unified speaker and a (presumably also unified) listener, vs. modes of poetry that often take as their starting point the subversion or denial of such direct lines of contact between writing and reading subjects. The organic approach is distrusted by the avant-garde inorganicists because it relies on passive subscription to the dominant values that determine what gets counted as authentic, realistic, or beautiful; the inorganic approach is distrusted by the establishment organicists because (among other reasons) it resists evaluation along the lines prescribed for writing in the dominant poetic tradition (i.e. formally conservative and/or discursively "natural" composition).

Both these camps … have reason to believe that they are exercising "the highest possible sensitivity to language" when they promote their own tastes and denigrate the tastes of their opponents. In the eyes of the organicists, the worst crimes of inorganic poetry are defined precisely by insensitivity to the qualities they hold most dear: euphony, conventional structural coherence, sincere and eloquent expression of universal human emotions, etc. For the inorganicists, however, those who valorize the organic lack sensitivity on multiple contextual levels. They fail to acknowledge the significance, for example, of framing, of the ways in which the establishment scene of poetic practice and readership comes with pre-set parameters which are indestructible in themselves, but which may be interestingly tweaked and challenged by the intentional deployment of cacophony, disrupted coherence, deliberate stagings of insincerity and inarticulacy. More importantly, according to the inorganicists, the organicists lack one of the most old-fashioned of poetic values: Keatsian "negative capability," or the ability to accept that beauty and its cousin pleasure, being fundamentally irrational, may inhere in those habitations one would consider most likely to be unamenable.

In the background of all this blogger discussion is a series of highly polemical articles Joan Houlihan published over the last few years in the Boston Comment. (Must-reads for those interested in this issue, as these columns have been highly popular and influential in the poetree world.) Houlihan portrays herself as a staunch, if beleaguered, defender of what she herself describes as a "mainstream" poetry ethic, that is, "of the poetry that existed from last year all the way back to Beowulf, the kind of poetry that favors parsable syntax, drama and story, tension and resolution, epiphany and symbolism, connected imagery, strong, recognizable voice or narration, and some impact of either an intellectual or emotional nature."

(My note: hey, that sounds exactly like what I'm trying to do…couldn't put it better… DUH!)

Houlihan, described by Josh et al. as shrill, adhominemesque and pretty darned limited as a critic, writes an engaging primer on what readers like yours truly find irritating, dull and impenetrable or (or should I say, not-worth-penetrating?) in much of the poetry published over the last thirty-odd years. In it she takes on three (four, if you like) fundamental trends: the extreme prosification of poetry, the exaggerated prominence of all-too- easy poets like Collins, Tate, Levine, and Mary Oliver, the tendency of those (particularly the latter three) to continue to publish book after book long after their spark is gone, and then... incoherent extremes of Language and other established "experimental" (read Non-organic) poetries. Personally I find much of her reading highly sensitive, her analysis masterful. Consider her treatment of pieces of experimental poetry, and substitution of words to show that the writing doesn't go anywhere or penetrate that far. Confusing in the bad sense. I'm reminded of criticism of much atonal music, how it "doesn't go anywhere", and manages in the process to sound like nails scraping against a blackboard. (Or much abstract expressionist and other experimental art, which has become its own kind of establishment.) I have an appreciation for her gutsy, unafraid-to-make-enemies stance in a context where much criticism is all-too-tepidly kind. At the same time I remain wary because I prefer to at least try to keep an open mind to the new and different, even if it involves suspending belief as well as disbelief, pretending "empty mind." Chalk it up to negative capability, or a vain attempt at such. Anyway, as I always say, more later....


Charles said...

Josh calls, then, for the destruction of poetry. Logic requires that if all persons were poets and engaged in the same sensitivity to language, poets & poetry itself would cease to exist. Equalizing everyone's relationship to language would nullify the one thing that creates poetry—the fact that only a portion of members of a language system recognize its existence.

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks for your comment, Charles. But it seems to me you’re shootin’ from the hip here. In fairness to Josh, I take his “utopia” to be a fancy-flight, a self-admitted pie in the sky, not a call for anything, and logic has little to do with it. (It’s like me claiming as an ESL teacher that everyone by the end of my class should speak as fluently as me: yes, that would be good, and I guess you’re right, it would eliminate my job! But it’s not too likely to happen!) That poetry enjoys so little appreciation in society is not exactly conducive to its creation. Josh, of course, should be speaking for himself here, but frankly I think he does a more than competent job of that in his blog!

David Leftwich said...

What I find interesting about this is the very idea that there is a poetry “establishment” or “mainstream” poetry. I guess on a very small scale MFA Programs, Poetry magazine, the Academy of American Poets, etc. constitute an “establishment.” But in the larger context of contemporary society and culture poetry is, unfortunately, not much more than a road side attraction or maybe a nice picnic area (which is one reason for the tepid criticism you mention, I think people feel the need to band together.) In my mind, establishment conjures images of the White House or the Capital Records building, and mainstream conjures up images of Britney Spears and Brad Pitt, not Mary Oliver or Billy Collins. I work for a major publisher and even among the purveyors of the written word poetry is rarely read and is little more than a charity project if it is published at all. I don’t think Richard Wilbur, The New Criterion, or Joan Houlihan represent some oppressive hegemony, nor do I see Fence, the Language Poets, or Ron Silliman really representing a radical threat to “mainstream society.” I think we have entered an era of Eclectic Aesthetics or Post-Movements poetry and art. I think now it matters less what school you belong to but more how good your work is. I like poems by Richard Wilbur, Henry Taylor, and James Tate as well poems by Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, and Rae Armantrout. There are also poems by these poets I dislike. My personal tastes are shaped much less by aesthetic theories and much more by aesthetic response—if it ignites, to use a cliché, some spark or hits you in the gut then I like it whether it is “organic” or “nonorganic.” Such discussions are useful in both helping writers approach their own work and helping readers discuss poetry, but in the end it is the poem and the reader’s response to it that matters.

Brian Campbell said...

David: Points well taken. When I read your comment, I thought to myself, hey, did I say mainstream? I went back (upstream, as it were), and yes indeed, there it is. (Between little quoty thingies, but there indeed, there...) We are talking trickles, not streams & certainly not Amazon mainstreams. And tempests in teapots, when the coffee's the big commodity. If Britney Spears published a book of poems, she would outsell us all. Maybe she'll be the next poet laureate. Then the trickle would join the stream, become Mainstream, USA. And as for online theoretical debates, perhaps the day will come when most lit blogs are about poems, not poetics. A few are. I (re)commend them.