Friday, April 23, 2010

"I want a poetry that's bad for you."

I study experimental poetry.* Experimental poetry, it is generally believed, is ethical poetry. I don't dispute that; indeed, I would argue the same. But what are those ethics, and are they always ethics with which we can agree? That, I think, is a question too rarely asked, and too rarely answered.

I think that the ethics of experimental poetry need not be ethics which we must endorse. I think, furthermore, that experimental poetry is often more concerned with the fact of having an ethics than with the content of its ethics. When we say that experimental poetry is ethical, therefore, it's necessary to specify just what ethical position is being espoused, whether we endorse it, and why anybody should care if we do.

If some poetry is experimental (for most values of "experimental"), then at some point you will see a particular strain of criticism applied to it. Privately (and now publicly, I guess), I call this critical strain "ethical chicken." The goal of ethical chicken is to convince your audience that the poetry you're talking about is the most ethical possible poetry, preferably on formal grounds.

While it's not particularly obvious why this should be the case, it's quite often taken for granted that this involves the negation of the lyric "I," by way of fragmentation, palimpsest, spectrality, suppression, objectification, indirection, obtuseness, or some potent combination of the above. The winner of ethical chicken finds hitherto unimagined ways to obliterate even the possibility of, even the desire for, coherent subjectivity, on the premise that subjectivity is, if not flat-out evil, certainly reprehensibly self-indulgent.

I rarely find this sort of criticism convincing, in part because the formal arguments are often tenuous (white space being taken as an indicator of a radical negation of the self, and suchlike) and in part because, in the end, I find the premise itself--that we should like poetry because it is so ethical--unpersuasive.

Don't get me wrong. I think there's quite a lot of poetry--really good poetry--that is precisely interested in just how splintered or evanescent the subject can be. I also find impersonality fascinating. If robots are involved, I'm usually in. (And the subtext to all of this is that my dissertation is all about the conjunction of ethics and epistemology in experimental writing, and by and large I would say that I endorse it.) What gives me pause is the slippage: first, the suggestion that eradicating the subject amounts to being ethical; second, the notion that the value of poetry lies in what good people it makes us. So fragmented, so committed to hard reality, so literally selfless.

But whatever reservations I have about it, ultimately it isn't the ethics of ethical chicken that worries me per se. Some sloppy philosophical shorthanding frequently goes on, but that's more or less how conversation works. Rather, it's the chicken that's the bigger problem: the logic of going one better, the construction of an ethical continuum in which sheer numerical intensity or increase is the grounds of success. I don't quite know why we so ubiquitously believe that poetry should be ethical, and that it succeeds by being more ethical than most poetry. After all, there are so many different, conflicting ways to be ethical that could be at work in any given poem. Puerile score-keeping replaces a genuine qualitative analysis--that's the problem with ethical chicken.

If we want to claim that a poetry is ethical (and we often do), we ought to be able to say in what respect it is so. We ought, moreover, to be able to say why we should care about it.

What, after all, constitutes a poetry that's bad for you? What does an unethical poetry look like? (Let's face it, it probably looks like flarf.) Whom are we implicitly critiquing when we play ethical chicken, and why?

*I also study other kinds of experimental writing, but today I am talking about poetry, specifically contemporary poetry, because that's where I see ethical chicken most frequently played.

Here I am writing an oppositional post after praising the positive argument. So it goes. Opposition is true friendship.

"I want a poetry that's bad for you": Bernstein, Charles. "Against National Poetry Month as Such." My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.

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