Thursday, August 02, 2007

Survival of the Fittest Groceries

I steal my title from a brilliant poem in Bill Knott's book Auto-Necrophilia (1971). It comes to mind often, but especially in light of recent dismaying events. Silly to hope that one might see any rebirth of equanimity on these appalling internets. No, equanimity is for chumps, and it will always be smacked down by the endless lust for content.

So I guess I have to disagree with Seth's characterization (in the comment box here yesterday) of his BAP posts as "much-lambasted." They may have been that, but I'm fairly certain that they also got more play (more celebration, essentially), than anything else he's done, which seems a bit sad. Lots of very surprising people linked to them on all sides of the aesthetic barricades. Reason: there's nothing more delicious than a festschrift of literary indignation and schadenfreude, however accurately targeted or off the mark, and everybody loves to pile on.

The thing that interested me the most, back in 2005, was that the day after I'd been awkwardly joined to the hip with Brigit Pegeen Kelly in Seth's ceremonial BAP cuss-out, he went on the record and said (in a post called "This Just In," after he'd taken the time to read it) that "Best American Poetry 2005 is actually pretty damn good, and might just be the best edition in the whole series."

Of course, this post got no play at all, and not a single poetry-lover thought it worthy of a morning-after link.


Seth Abramson said...


You make an excellent point. From experience I can say that ugliness always draws more attention--on the internet at least--than its opposite. A close second, interestingly, is the opportunity for advantage. What I mean is, the most popular blogs are often the ones that draw the most controversy--think of Ron Silliman's comment fields-cum-donnybrooks, or Jim Behrle's many websites--and the second most popular category of blog is that run by a person considered "important" (socially) in the field. Erudite blogs are high-traffic only to the extent they're controversial or particularly of-the-moment. Sometimes there's an overlap: for instance, Reginald Shepherd seems to be well known in the field, and is certainly erudite, and has in an indirect way been the focus of some aesthetic controversies (by being one of the more prominent SoQ bloggers in the opinion of Ron Silliman).

The post I wrote about the BAP which was a satire was labelled as such, because really the aim of the "satire"--sharp as it was--was the issue of cronyism. I think folks often forget (though I don't know how) that I'm an attorney, and therefore obsessed with process; so, when I say something's a product of cronyism, or partially so, it doesn't mean I'm decrying the quality of the work--it's that I don't believe, as an attorney, that the ends justify the means, that a quality product excuses what to me is/was an at least in part corrupt process. I remember telling Shanna Compton once that the saddest thing about those who achieve much through non-meritocratic means is that many such individuals could have achieved the same level of success without that special leg up. But to folks who think like me, bad process corrupts the result of that process, whatever its own merits.

So, to me at least--and I've learned that many people, and many artists in particular, think differently--the "satire" post and the "hey this is really good" post aren't in any way in conflict. The anthology was good. It was also corrupt, in many (though absolutely not all) respects.

I wish I could say that poets' focus on the first post and not the second was the result of an interest in "process" commensurate with my own. The truth, of course, is that the controversies I find myself in, or knowingly initiate (in my view, on principle) are of interest because they're salacious; what I have to say about the substance of anything is immaterial, as I haven't made an attempt (as many have) to make internet friends. I prefer (and it took me a while to realize the vital differences) what Simon DeDeo once wisely called "real actual friends." The folks who read my blog whatever it says--and there are many of them--are an entirely different order of blog-reader, and perhaps person, as those who wait for me to put my foot in my mouth.

One interesting comparison I'll draw for you, though, and per usual I'm not sure it reflects well on poets: when I wrote a piece exposing some truths about the criminal justice system--some truths never/rarely widely discussed--it was covered widely by legal blogs and blogs run by attorneys. When I did the same sort of thing, albeit in a different way, with my "sociology of poetry" posts, there was, admittedly, some interest in the poetry community, but about a tenth as much as for the legal posting, and much of what interest there was was prompted by the vitriol and bile spilled against me by a small sector of individuals because of what I wrote. In other words, there was a small "first wave" of readers and a giant "second wave" of rubber-neckers. It reaffirmed my personal belief that attorneys are at least sociologically more inclined to think about process, and criminal attorneys perhaps also more sociologically inclined to think about institutions affect innocents.

What I found striking about all the HUM-PO/Jacket conversations (that I've seen) is how much they focus, like so much art-talk, on the self, or on how institutions operate upon the self. Most of the analyses I'm interested in begin with the self and project outward; it's why I say that most humor in poetry is at its core aggressive and unpleasant, because the only thought for repercussions in such instances is to consider (as with your roundtable) how it operates upon the self, reflects the self, or reflects how institutions operate upon and reflect the self. The thing is, "humor" as a philosophical construct is in many (though not all) respects an instance of the Self projected onto the Other--i.e., there's an audience, and they react not just to the poet but, perhaps more importantly, to how the humor makes them feel about themselves.

By that token, I do question what value Jennifer L. Knox's "Chicken Bucket" (say) is intended to have. Does it say anything sincere or genuine about the poor, or does it say in fact a good deal about how a poet feels about the poor, and leaves it by and large at that? Just so, the "YEEEAHHH"-heavy brand of flarf. Until the other shoe drops re: humor in poetry, I can't say I feel much interest in the subject.


Rachel Loden said...

Seth, racing here, but the issues you raise about "Chicken Bucket" are actually explored in some depth in the HumPo discussion at Jacket (The Dangerfield Conundrum, here), which also contains the full text of the poem (for those who have no idea what we're talking about).

During the conversation I ask whether we're "laughing with relief that she’s in Boron, and we’re not." Some people think we are, and feel deeply uncomfortable with that; D.A. Powell, for instance, says that for him the poem seems "to lack the compassion that’s so important to humor." Others strongly and eloquently disagree.

As I say in almost the last paragraph of the discussion, I went through many stations with this beautifully observed and detailed poem, and am still mixed up. Which is why I want to hear Knox read it; people who've had that experience seem to view it very differently than those who haven't. I'm also hoping to ask her some questions about the poem, and about her work in general, if she's up for that, because I figure she's the ultimate authority on Cassie, after all, and Cassie's an incredibly compelling (and for some, disturbing) character.

As for the "other shoe" dropping re poetry and humor, I'm hoping for that too, which is why I organized the discussion, and can only beg all and sundry to drop shoes, please, as many as possible, and let's get on with it.