Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 46, October 2014)

Lisa Olstein

A couple of years ago during a Q&A, a cocky, earnest undergraduate asked me a question along the lines of this: my friends and I aim to take up the mantle of poetry and we’ve read about movements and schools and we want to be the most important new one; what should we stand for? Recently, in an honors proposal, a student took great pains to articulate that he would engage in intensive study of poetry and song and only write his own poetic lyrics when he was confident they would be so original, so new as to transform both genres. I realize that these and all students have every right to their naïveté, that there are worse things than ambition, and that it can be a tired trope to frame an argument within the context of what one encounters as a teacher. But it’s not naïveté that bothers me, or ambition. It’s the romantic, sometimes tyrannical, idealization of the “new.”

This is not to diminish the necessity of experimentation and innovation, especially—perhaps uniquely—in the context of art as we have defined it in western culture for some time. Maybe once the purpose of art shifted from explicit, utilitarian-social-religious functions to more open-ended, conceptual-aesthetic-expressive-philosophic pursuits, it entered into a complex and necessary embrace with the idea of the new. The problem is, sometimes so-called newness is one more category with the potential to reduce, delimit, atrophy, and obfuscate. Not to mention, who defines “new?”

I hate Pandora. With apologies to well-meaning friends and due respect to anything that introduces us to unknown artists, I hate the idea and I hate the experience. My partner is a musician. When people ask him what kind of music he likes, his stock response is, “good music.” I’ve always found this answer annoying, even hostile (he is overwhelmingly a kind and generous soul), but this is how I feel in response to Pandora and to the idea of the reductive categories on which it’s based. Let’s say I love certain Cat Power covers. This does not mean I love every depressive, husky, female-vocal-led, distorted-electric-guitar-saturated band retreading songs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In fact, I think most of them suck. At least most of the ones that Pandora plays for me when I create an “album” or “playlist” or whatever it is that stimulates its sterile copycat algorithms.

Categories, binaries, and camps lack nuance, flexibility, and discernment. Some “accessible” poems are revelatory; some are terrible. Likewise poems described as “avant-garde.” And back to that question: who’s defining the definitions? Nothing is more “accessible” to an initiated audience than a work that hits on the right already agreed upon “experimental” notes. Too often these categorizations function like academic jargon: a shortcut by which to bypass original thinking and active engagement with the art itself, a means of reducing complex, interactive experience to something less embodied, less alive.

Original thinking and active engagement, are, of course, what we’re after: to be electrified, jarred out of routinized patterns of mind, introduced to new layers and depths, to encounter something new or newly. “People who write poems about the Aztecs have the same opportunities as those who write about doorbells in old shoes... You want children, not dolls, and in the same way people have the utmost need for what touches them, what is alive, what recreates them and is.” (Wallace Stevens) This is what I want from a poem that I read or write: a new experience of body/mind. And this is, of course, a primary animating spirit of experimentation and innovation: a rejection of the rote, the stale, the pre-digested. It’s when a poem’s ability to achieve this is defined by markers external to the experience of the poem itself, or when the definition of what is “new” becomes codified, that I shudder.

When I write poems, the only guide I can trust, the only question I can devote myself to is: where is language most alive and through it, what am I discovering? Sometimes the aliveness is a question of voice, of momentum based on thought flow, diction, syntax. Sometimes it’s a question of music and its attendant transmutations of meaning. Sometimes the discovery is semantic: a conviction or juxtaposition or question. Sometimes it’s aesthetic: the unanticipated and amalgamating powers of sound and form. “What we want from poetry is to be moved, to be moved from where we now stand... language can be hazardous as it is our primary grip on the world. When language is skewed, the world is viewed differently.” (James Tate) When I sit down to write, all I want is somehow to see the world differently. I feel responsibility in many areas of my life, but I feel no responsibility to notions of either avant-garde or accessibility. To imagine I could truly define or predict these qualities, let alone want to write accordingly, seems silly. Who reads this way? Who writes this way? Well, the critic, for one.

For a historian-critic taking an anthropological view or an ecological one, perhaps it is wise and necessary to map the many-petaled unfolding of poetry according to certain axes or from a light-pollution-as-seen-from-space perspective, to test the biosphere according to certain ontological markers, and to debate the health of the habitat based on those measures, the definition of which are a matter of great debate themselves. From the point of view of a (this) practicing poet, though, there is only the ground—the many and evolving grounds—one inhabits rooting around in the deeply personal (which is not to say pure) work of reading and writing. Here, the only linearity is the elliptical movement from one poem to the next as influence and inspiration are propelled by circumstances inside and outside of time, personal and cultural, idiosyncratic and communal.

I agree that safety and uniformity are anathema to the vitality of art. We rely on the visionary and restless and demanding within and among us to fight against them. But newness comes in infinite shades of intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual experience and the doorways leading on discovery are infinitely varied, too. One of poetry’s most essential powers is the subversion of formulaic, coerced or numbed-out thinking and feeling, and you can’t rely on categories or camps to lead you to it. The problem isn’t any one formula, the problem is artwork that is formulaic, that itself assumes or is received by an audience that assumes, like Pandora, that a tallying up of certain identifiable characteristics defines and validates the work, when these measures really have so little to do with whether a given poem has the vitality to offer an experience of something meaningful or, finally, new.