The Poète Maudit
In The Rules of Art, Pierre Bourdieu identifies a major pattern shift occurring in the social ranks as a result of the 19th century industrial revolution. The rise of the bourgeoisie, of course, and the increase of itinerant labor populations, but also the upswing of free agents, dispossessed younger brothers, essentially an avant-garde of disaffected and unattached intellectuals living on the margins like masterless samurai. Bourdieu viewed them as an unintended consequence, “a creative rabble that continually reinvents itself in a perpetual revolution, grinding itself into smaller and more complex distinctions.” From the congeries of the literate ronin arose a particular romanticized archetype, the poète maudit, the cursed poet or damned poet, living a life outside or against society. The anti-social sins (some might say skills) of drug abuse and alcohol, insanity, crime, violence, and general anarchy often resulted in an early and/or tragic death. Naïve as it may seem, belonging to that company of malcontents conferred an attractive outlaw status, as Arthur Rimbaud’s example can attest, and the irredeemability of the damned, as echoed in Baudelaire’s Fleur du mal. Shunned by polite society, theirs was ultimately, as all art should be, an anti-social art. In fact, it was Baudelaire who said, “A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
Fast forward a century and a half and nothing’s changed. The literary population is flyblown with bourgeois poseurs and ambitious wannabes, and they all have creative writing degrees. The poètes maudits (now identified as outlaws, outliers, independent unaffiliated autodidacts) still lurk, still cursed, passed over for grants or fellowships or residencies or awards or honorariums because the pipeline is clogged with careerist eggshell walking poets cum art administrators whose literary talent is grant writing and advancing their personal agendas at white wine socials and mostly vanilla privilege peer conferences.
Duchamp abolished art, Apollinaire abolished punctuation, Joyce abolished the novel, Stein abolished narrative time, Artaud abolished literature, and Berrigan abolished the sonnet, to name just a few 20th Century creative upheavals. Their aim was to thwart the pervasive valuation of the purchasing class and confront them with a critique of their expectations. No one (or very few) read the memo. The lemming march of the professional class continues unabated over the cliff of disposable literature. Same as it ever was. The great writers of American tradition are not professional litterateurs but the anomalous, Williams’ “pure products of America”, whose purity of intent is inspired by their own local truth, not the constraints of lab imparted tradition. Unfortunately, that sneaker shod individualism and independence is being paved over by the propriety of social acceptability. That is the tenor of the divide, the coarse and authentic, the glossy and superficial. The rift can be seen in how socially self-conscious poetry readings have become.
Apparently the sinful self-indulgence of public neurosis and bad manners under the guise of “poet” (mostly male, and of the horndog variety) with its associated behavior is looked upon with disfavor, disgust, and eye rolls as has mostly always been the case. According to a well-informed Black Bart Country source, now, in the age of self affected social awareness, the rules have changed as to whom may present poetry to the public to ensure politically correct diversity, and still be assured of something of an audience.
- There can only be one male poet (per reading).
- No more than one “cis” gender poet. There should be at least one person of color, and one woman (though “queer” counts).
- “Diversity” tests don’t apply to lineups composed entirely of persons of color or queers or trans people.
- Exclusively female programs are okay only if they don’t violate racial or gender tests.
As to the verity of these tacit social provisos in the staging of poetry readings, two such events might serve as at least partial evidence.
A celebration of an anthology in response to ecological disaster, current or unforeseen, has gathered in a small space packed with chairs and standing room only in the back or off to the side, of fifty or so, mostly women, and who have poems in this near 500 page compilation. Here at the margins of the literary world, they have gathered to express their angst in verse as former and current teachers, workshop leaders, workshop graduates, lifetime workshop devotees who have published their voiced concerns as poetry (or its semblance) in online magazines and poetry data banks. The great thing about cyberspace is that it is infinite and can take it all. And that perhaps portends a new direction in literature.
The self-satisfied, delighted to be there to read their pleasant inanities. Is your intelligence insulted? Let my coyness be your balm.
Some read their poems from their smart phones which look decidedly smarter than they do while others read from the hardcopy noting the page in the anthology where their poems are located. They speak softly to emphasize the gravity of their message. And they all have messages, of concern, of apprehension, anxiety, foreboding as well as resolve and determination and the will to power. Theirs are deeply felt emotional appeals, auraed in gravitas and impending tragedy.
One parlor whispers things said in confidence with all the humility of a handmaiden vying for the head priestess slot.
Fashionable long scarves drape their necks like ecclesiastic vestments, signifying the sacredness of the task, and as stoles of office, an accessory for claiming sagacity. It is part of the serious poet uniform‒unfortunately it comes across as something from the Unitarian Ministry, a similar solemnity of purpose weighing down the words. If you can hear them.
Others trot out their credentials in case the poems don’t sway. MFA in Creative Writing, Ph.D., ditto. It is helpful in this context to remember that Marianne Moore did not hold a postgraduate degree and that Kenneth Rexroth’s formal schooling ended in the sixth grade. But they are the new professionals and what they write is what they teach in their workshops and day long intensives.
Among all the breathless conjunctions and prepositions, the precise articles and implied punctuations, the verb and noun agreement in tense and number are some very serious words, some so serious they’re wondering what they’re doing in that poem in the first place.
To be fair, statistics are not poetry. Citing statistics will not provide the proof to your poetry pudding. Are you trying to impress me or put me to sleep? “Nuthin’ nuttier than a retired schoolmarm,” admits another. The tired wisdom of the oppressed. The tired guilt of the oppressors. Why can’t we all get along? Let’s take a nap. Together.
A few current and former poet laureates from various contiguous jurisdictions in attendance are introduced as if they were matriarchs of clans, the clans of Tupperware poets. It has all the precision of a practiced rite. Food is served afterwards.
On the other hand, the visiting poet, stranger in a stranger land, no matter how well known or accomplished, does not stand much of a chance of drawing an audience from an insular backwater poetry community, As everyone knows, art snobs are insufferable and poetry snobs are the worst, the epitome of blissful ignorance and I can’t be bothered with anything I don’t already know. Despite well publicized broadcasts to the poetry faithful and faithless on various social media frequencies and cultural tripwires, the provincialism of American poetry audiences, manifested as fear of the unfamiliar and not appearing hip, inhibits participation when the social terrain is uncertain.
Such was the case when Eddie Berrigan blew into the Bay Area from New York City last May with his fast buddy, John Coletti, for the launch of his new book of poems, More Gone. Both John and Eddie represent the new generation of poets published by that granddad of the avant-garde, City Lights Books. Along with poet Garrett Caples, editor of City Lights’ Spotlight Poetry Series, they graciously agreed to travel an hour’s drive north of the Bay Area to Black Bart Country. Schooled in late century post-Beat indie American poetry and associated with The Poetry Project in New York City and City Lights in San Francisco, these 21st Century bicoastal poets came to strut their novel modalities as the promise of a distinctive American prosody. The reading was held at a local art and literary affiliation, North Bay Letterpress Arts.
Luring a trio of younger generation cutting-edge poets for a rare engagement so far afield from the hub of literary culture seemed like an exceptional opportunity and worthwhile undertaking. As poets they represent a particular legacy rooted in the independent poets of The New American Poetry and as an outgrowth of the radical literary vectors of the seventies that included the noteworthy second generation New York Poets, the Language School consortium, and the ongoing colloquy of international innovation in the arts. Eddie Berrigan, if the name hadn’t clued you, is Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley’s son, an accomplished poet and musician in his own right. John Coletti, with local roots, comes from a family of poets. Garrett Caples’ impeccable cred includes his knowledgeable editing of surrealist poet Philip Lamantia’s collected poems. Presented on an unsettled late Sunday afternoon, the reading was a unique occasion for the rusticated local literati to meet and engage with poets at the forefront of artistic trends in contemporary American poetry.
As it turns out, those in attendance could have easily complied with current social distancing guidelines, and then some. Although the meager showing was disappointing, the extended Q&A after the lively reading by the three amigos was both informative and entertaining, offering an essential insight into their maturing in the American avant-garde tradition. And in the “there’s one in every crowd” department, at one point they were taken to task by someone whose political correctness was offended because the poets had not, collectively, mentioned women in their poems, or not often enough. Politicized social judgment of this kind sets up polarizations that makes everyone into victims and assigns guilt indiscriminately. In Hannah Arendt’s words, “The slow death of the political and the withering away of judgment are the preconditions for the socialization and devaluation of culture.” As a member of the audience confided afterwards, “These guys are way too sophisticated for most poetry audiences in this county.”
A Post-Apocalyptic Action Movie
Apart from the long established and institutional venues (The Poetry Project, Beyond Baroque, The Poetry Center among them) with the capital and the capacity to feature well published recognized names, the reading scene is catch as catch can and definitely provincial, even in urban areas: the empty seats of sparse attendance like a service at a gospel mission with an earnest young pastor (poet) and the luckless homilies (poems) falling on the unhearing ears of the jaded and the cynical. Poetry readings are primarily a social call. The question then becomes who has the drawing power? Is it generational, old school gray heads and gray beards competing for meat in the seats with undereducated workshop industry professionals and ambitious academics? What about the younger poets? Might they not be holding secret poetry readings and not telling anyone over thirty? A long time Black Bart Poetry Society enabler notes that there is a sense that Bay Area reading scenes are tribal and generational, and that almost no one is known when venturing out of their tribal lands. The prevailing wisdom is that if you read with someone local you will get a bigger turn out. “It’s like a post-apocalyptic action movie minus the action.” But if one “belongs” to a tribe (coterie, clan, scene), one’s work is known by those of the younger (or older) generation within that social alignment. So what it comes down to is men vs. women, old farts vs. young bloods in a quagmire of mediocrity, all too conservative and concerned with the status quo. To be socially acceptable as a poet is merely to be shelved in a cultural category as a display of capitalized consciousness. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that poetry readings are being stage-managed by mostly well-meaning but clueless pedagogues engaged in the fetishization of diversity in a headlong rush toward the banal.
Nostalgia recalls that it was common in the day that poets and their confreres retired to a nearby bar for a self-congratulatory drink or two following a reading, certainly not to critique (unless you wanted to start a fight). But over time poetry readings have become more genteel, like the self-contained salons of the 19th century Paris where everything was judged on a social scale and the entirety of the experience took place in situ. Emphasizing the shift from stage to the commons, the reading now is based on a different organizational perception, horizontal rather than vertical, with an inherent gender bias and the rule of consensus over competition in allowing less forceful voices to be heard. And what of the old poetry warriors of yesteryear? Sadly, those who are left have mounted their own precious provincial closed shop in a sappy self-parody of everything they once claimed to despise. As Ted Berrigan once noted, “American poets think you stand in line to get famous.”
The Isolate Age
At this point many of the questions and concerns addressed here are rendered moot or, at the very least, deferred. Who can not acknowledge the profound shifts occurring that may reorganize society the way the industrial revolution did in its time or at the very least bring about a thorough reassessment of social arrangements? The catalyst is biological instead of mechanical which should prompt a pause in the consideration of our place in the scheme of things—the current taxonomic model may be too simpleminded for the understanding of life in all its diverse manifestations. Thirty years in, there is the recognition that the information age is more than just a clever historical meta-label and that its potential is now unfolding like the crest of a tsunami. Will media come to the rescue of literature once again and up the ante on how information is organized and disseminated as an emergent paradigm? When pressed by dire circumstances, innovation and creativity arise as the hallmark of the species. Literature, poetry in particular, is information that does not inform so much as give proof of life. How will that be accomplished in the future (that’s a rhetorical question). Technology changes the way we do business and for literature it is no different. Will it accelerate the Schumpeterian creative destruction of an outdated mode of self expression? The muse must learn to video tweet. And in the isolate age of zero contact, cyber connected, the oral and the visual will be reunited in the continuing recitation of the narrative and return poetry to its roots of voice and expression. Might we not be at a point of transition when the age of poetry made by cocktail party becomes the age of poetry made by robots? But what can be more gentrified than robot poetry in its blind adherence to binary algorithms. Geography and distance define provincialism, no matter the media. And provincialism argues for the common denominator that social privileging provides. Fortunately, in opposition to these trends toward the banal, the asceticism of the artist and poet, feral and anti-social by nature, works to counter the efforts of one-size-fits-all gentrification and the slide into naked pedagogy.
Submitted to the Membership by the Parole Officer
In Part III
“There are three components contributing to the gentrification of Anglo-American poetry: the ubiquitous workshop culture (pen and ink therapy), the politically determined poet laureate investiture (self-esteem enhancement), and the sacrosanct poets in the schools programs (learn to hate poetry) in a benevolent elevation of the undereducated. Poetry can be learned, but can it be taught?”