Monday, December 20, 2004

"ORGANIC" vs. "NONORGANIC": the discussion continues (endlessly...)

Josh Corey has a thought-provoking series of posts from December 3-6, where he discusses "organic" vs. "nonorganic" poetry. For me, it is a real privilege to tap into his intellectual process, as he is tremendously widely read, very much in touch with elements of the contemporary scene that I am not, & has a working familiarity with critical materials like Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde and Pierre Bordelieu's Genesis and Structure of Literary Field, neither of which I will probably ever read in this lifetime. In his consideration of those two works he allows me at least a peek at some of their key insights. The dichotomy he describes, however, is not unfamiliar to me. Adze (see bio, & poem) and I had lengthy discussions back in the late eighties around very much the same duality, as Adze, with his endless "city of words" text, TV (text-visual) series, and Big Pages (which covered entire rooms) tends strongly towards the "nonorganic" (what we called process-oriented art) and I - with my tinyman series, Biblical monologues, love poems series - etc. towards the "organic" (what we called product-oriented art). Over the years of our discussion, I became more open to admitting random elements in my work… but it seems I have a pretty well genetic predisposition towards the kind of singular, "accessible" expression to be found in, "organic" poetry, whereas he is equally predisposed to celebrate the surprises and superabundant possibility to be found in the "nonorganic". To which I say, vive la difference.

To summarize Josh's arguments, there are two rubrics poetry falls under (as described by Bürger, et al...NB, in this summary, I'm interpolating obs. of my own, which I'll indicate as much as I can considering the haste I'm in… as I'm doing this summary as much for me as for readers out there…if I distort or oversimplify Josh's views in the process, my apologies…)

Under "organic":

· Poems with definite unifying (and limiting) subject matter: this poem is about war, about love, etc. These are poems most people identify as "poetry": Poetry from the canon (Lovelace Keats Wilber Plath & beyond, inc. "popular" poets like Tate, Collins, etc. ) I would say (my interpolation) that the contemporary poetry in this vein is largely Romantic, with recognizable tropes: love, death, natural motifs, etc.
· Characteristics: quoting from Corey: "the work's elements refer primarily to itself and only secondarily to exterior contexts (whether those be the facts of its production or the work's subject matter)
· Ironically, although it is called organic, this has taken, "through force of tradition", Josh says, very artificial, "inorganic" forms: the sonnet, villanelle, etc. Josh writes: "the attitude of the author has a lot to do with it, I think: the ethos of making the poem look easy, effortless, never letting them see you sweat-the labor of concealing labor - associated with labour."

Under "nonorganic":

· Poems/poets of the 20th C. (21st C.?) "avant guarde": Language Poets (Bruce Andrews, Bernstein, Silliman, etc.), & others associated with that sort of "experimental" work. Predecessors like Olson, Pound could be grouped here, although they definitely had "organic" elements, as did TS Eliot, regarded as avant garde when he took the literary world by storm with "The Wasteland", although really a kind of "romantic/organic" poet in the spirit of his compositions…
· Characteristics: quoting from Corey, "in the nonorganic works elements retain some of their independence-which does not mean, I think, that these elements could necessarily stand on their own as artworks, only that they primarily refer to some external reality (again, the facts of production or subject matter) and only secondarily do they make a contribution to the integrity of the artwork they belong to. Hence expression through pastiche, fragmentation. My note: A critical (in both senses of the term) influence: deconstructionism (Derrida, etc.)
· While "concealing the labour" is a characteristic of organic poets, the nonorganic writer must "show their work." Quoting from Corey: "in nonorganic artwork the parts do not form a unity: it is an assemblage of pieces between which cracks are visible, and the pieces have some degree of independence from the unity of the total work. The more minimal (or the less intrusive) the structure of the whole is, the more independence the parts have, and the "harder" the poem is likely to be."
To quote further from Bürger: "It is true that at the surface level, automatic texts are characterized by a destruction of coherence. But an interpretation that does not confine itself to grasping logical connections but examines the procedures by which the text was composed can certainly discover a relatively consistent meaning in them" (79).
· I would tend to add (this is me, not Josh), that the procedures by which the text is composed is indicated encompassing "conceptual umbrella" titles that "nonorganic" poets tend give to their creative projects: Pound's the Cantos, Silliman's The Alphabet, my friend Adze's "City of Words" are cases in point. (Those who are familiar with Bernstein and Andrews can corroborate or deny… I am not yet very familiar with them)

Corey, while he considers Bürger's "provocative conclusion that… organic and nonorganic artworks are equally (in)valid for the present", & favours himself lyric and sensual elements in poetry, says

"I'm interested in at least trying to experience any text that in some way foregrounds its artifice and involves or implicates me in meaning-production. And I'm much quicker to reject bad or even good organic work than I am nonorganic writing because I feel like its form is a lie that won't admit it's lying. (I'm speaking of modern and contemporary writing, of course; I can love Keats without making any claims for his inorganicity.)

It's interesting how Corey, while conceding the personal nature of his preferences, cleverly draws us towards "non-organic" poetry by consistently describing "organic" poetry in unfavourable terms, and "nonorganic" poetry in favourable terms: Organic is easy, effortless, no sweat (at least for the reader), and nonorganic "difficult", showing evidence of the work involved, therefore, presumably, a greater challenge to read (and a problem that can be solved, as Cris puts it). Organic is a kind of duplicity, a lie "that won't admit it's lying", nonorganic is not clearly described as a lie, or if it is a kind of lie because it is "(in)valid", at least admits to its limitation; therefore it is implied that it is more expressly, honest & "true". Organic work is "driven by force of tradition," whereas nonorganic work is "experimental." Organic work, because it refers to "reality", is described as independent, whereas organic work refers primarily to itself (therefore insular), is dependent. Reading Josh's description, I begin to feel inclined myself to prefer "nonorganic" poetry any day. But do I in my poetry practice? It seems to me all his arguments can be turned on their heads. More on this later…

1 comment:

Charles said...

I think the conversation is interesting, but I'm not sure to what end this categorization occurs except to help Josh Corey separate the poetry he likes from the poetry he doesn't like.

Binaries are dangerous and seductive—they provide an either/or system of culture without questioning. "If not that, this."

If the terms "organic" and "nonorganic" were placed on a spectrum, a third term (the midpoint) would automatically be created. What's the third term, and how many other terms rest between the two end-terms?