Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 48, December 2014)

Sam Witt
Reconnaissance Poetry: Against the Manifesto

Picasso said once that he who created a thing is forced to make it ugly. In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not know what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness.

—Gertrude Stein, Picasso

Whenever I think about the ongoing debate about Avant-Garde mandates, I return to the quotation above, because I think that Picasso’s point, and Stein’s point, is not that the writer exists to wow everybody with her originality and brilliance, but that it should be done with the intensity of experience, like raising a child, or loving somebody; that, in short, a work of art is a created experience, and as such, doesn’t have a style or an originality but an existential force. This is but one reason I am skeptical, therefore, about manifestos and mandates: they reduce writing to an exercise, a dogma, when in fact it should belong to the world. Poems are there to create, then focus, the urgency of the one moment you have to capture and transform, the one moment that will never return. So if the artist is trying her hardest to be the strangest cat on the block, she misses that urgency, and gets distracted by the kinds of concerns that litter the art world, not the world of art.

When Stein quotes the word “ugly,” she might just as well have meant the word “undiscovered.” Isn’t that the point of writing, to discover something that wasn’t there before, to see something acutely for the first time? The artist, poet, painter, it seems to me, is on dangerous abstract territory when they concern themselves with manifestos or even try to register where they lie on the spectrum of the so-called Avant-Garde, so as not to lose that existential urgency that drives the greatest work. An obsession with style, then, is a self-conscious obsession. One should let the style grow organically out of the artistic existence, not train that existence and trim it along the lines of a trend, which I see a lot of experimental writers engaging in these days. So I guess I find a lot of contemporary experimental writing to be exercises in style, trends, fashions, and not the kind of heart-rending experience that remakes and rebirths the world as if a poem were a physical thing.

But I do think that one should make it new, as Pound famously urged us to do. One has to or one risks writing the poems of the dead. But there’s precious little of that going on at any given time, our own notwithstanding, because of this obsession with literary relevance and other competitive urges, a kind of literary tribalism that pits writers against one another. Give up on the literary war games and positioning that goes with them, and you’ll be left only with the work, not style, but the work itself.

My trouble with the experimentalism of our day, then, especially in America, is that so many poets and writers are repeating the experiments of the past.

So as far as an Avant-Garde mandate, that sounds dangerously dogmatic, and I can’t stand it when writers and critics are constantly telling me how it is; that is, how poems and stories ought to be written, as if they were evangels of some sort, handing down the golden tablets rather than describing one possible way of writing among many. With that in mind, I reject the very exertion I find myself engaged in.

Hasn’t it always been an imperative to be new? And isn’t part of the drama of writing the secret suspicion that such a thing doesn’t exist? After all, as Borges once wrote, all art strives towards the condition of unreality. Why should the prize itself be a fiction? A mere voice remains just that in the reader’s mind: a nagging little sound. I want a world, an experience, a rending way of seeing what I couldn’t have seen before. I don’t want a language that has been generated; I want language that has been birthed.

I remember all those years ago in poetry class at the University of Virginia, when Charles Wright read us a sentence or two about the anxiety of influence that sounded like it might have been written by an Oulipo poet. Then he asked us to guess who the writer was. If memory serves, the quotation went something like this: “Would that I lived among the times when ideas were new.” One of us guessed Pound, another Walter Pater, another Walter Benjamin, thus covering the entire spectrum of the Walters. It was an Egyptian scribe from the fourth millennium BC. Has there ever been anything new under the sun? I’m not so sure. Isn’t it the yearning, the striving, that’s new? And can you really reach that if every other moment you are trying to be more original than the guy next to you in your workshop class? It’s not poems that ought to be new. It’s the world that is new at every moment, and the trick is to see it as such, to break out of the formulae that makes everything seem tired and boring and plastic and lost: for it is art that shows us that each moment is our first and our last. It can’t be any other way. So the very separation of writers into the experimental and the formal is a horror, an absurdity, at best, stupid.

I doubt Terrance Hayes and D.A. Powell look at writing in precisely the same way; I know for a fact that Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein didn’t—so does it really matter or make any sense to ask us how we conceive of what we, as artists, do? Or even worse, what other artists, as avant-gardists, should do on the page? Like Helen Vendler, I don’t care for schools. The artist is alone, and should be, and thus attends a vital community that’s lost, terribly lost, if we start judging what other people do.

How can there be any sort of mandate of the sort Perloff described in her incredibly persuasive, but incredibly problematic piece in the Boston Review this past year? Her trick was to quote bad poetry as if it represented a bad school. I have news: somebody could easily run through the poorer examples of “Avant-Garde” poetry and make just such an equally meaningless argument for more traditional modes of writing. I believe Dana Gioia has made just such an argument in the past, and I’m afraid it was equally persuasive. I myself am not on either side of this continental divide, except to say that this is my mandate: write it new; keep it close; make it challenging; keep it a thing of the world yet striving towards the condition of unreality; be subtle; look to the present moment; keep your eye on the poetry of the past as well as that of the present; be the intensity; say what needs to be said; be what needs to be said; and don’t rediscover what others have already discovered.

I don’t doubt that, right now, there is a sublimely inspired sonneteer spending his break at Wal-Mart scribbling down sonnets. Likewise, there are folks I know who are operating within the strictures of chance operation and using it to discover wonderful poems. But both sides of this artificial argument serve some pretty awful masters, and produce some pretty mediocre crap. Why choose sides in this little battle? Mediocre writing is mediocre writing, whether downloaded from the internet and run through an N+7 generator or written in a crown of sonnets. That’s a major critique I have of this entire question; that is, the artificial divide between the experimental and the traditional, as if the two were mutually exclusive. As best as I recall, the term “Avant-Garde” is a military term, meaning the advanced guard. This, to me, points out the inherent practical nature of this term, and it reveals how deeply the entire argument strays from the muscle in your brain you need to be using when you actually write.

The real term suggests somebody who is on a mission, and let’s keep in mind that the mission is not to shock, not to piss off your dad, not to praise your grandma, not to point out the stupidity of human institutions, not to be the most original cat on the block, not to workshop Shakespeare and outdo him, not even to make it new, but to make it real, and good, and to move people. That, in the end, is my problem with 99% of the experimental poetry I read today: it just don’t move nobody on any level. It stays in the cerebellum. It wiggles there like a tadpole, or a minnow. It doesn’t grow. It lays no eggs itself. And most of it sucks, as my brother used to say, which to be fair, is true of the work of the Twenty First Century sonneteers, for the most part.

At Jaded Ibis Press, for which I serve as poetry editor, Publisher Debra Di Blasi and I prefer the term Reconnaissance Poetry, rather than experimental or Avant-Garde, because it doesn’t lose sight of the complexity, the deep practicality of this issue. Nor does it lose sight of the fact that we should be looking for something other than awards, grants, and a readership. And that this thing of ours, art, is as dangerous as getting your head blown off. Sometimes it takes the one person who is willing to be alone to find that new experience.

And sometimes, today, the most daring and original thing you can do is to make a moment lyrical, and beautiful. Sometimes the truly radical move is to make it sound like a poem again. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good N+7 generator as much as the next guy, but I also love sonnets, which was the radical experiment of another time. My problem with “traditional” or “formal” poets is that they are letting the dead write their poems for them; my main critique of experimental poetry is that many of its practitioners haven’t read widely enough, and have therefore, deliberately or unintentionally, severed those connective tissues to the past. So the irony is of course that they are doing the exact same thing that the formalists are doing! As a consequence, they are often repeating the experiments of the past. I was in Paris a couple of Summers ago and I was pleased to hear Harry Matthews give a reading that was so lyrical and lovely I almost wept; to coin an old-fashioned term, it was downright poetic; in point of fact, he sounded very unlike an Oulipo poet.

Should a writer be accessible in their writing and what does this mean to you? Well, in a phrase, not really. The writer should be as good as she can be, while keeping in mind that she is writing for people and not necessarily other writers. To write for other writers invites vanity and competitiveness; to write for other humans—for, as Stein says, myself and strangers; or for myself and the dead, as I amend that quotation—invites pathos, humility, acts of imagination, and ultimately art. One must write forward without losing sight of the past. How about a poem derived from Burrough’s cut-up method? And as for American Surrealism, I thought that was a political movement from a particular period in history, not a way of writing. Nothing wrong with those techniques, but too often they are an end in themselves, and the zaniest, most ‘original’ mad-libs sort of writing is the result. I want art that makes a demand of the reader, that damns the reader to jolt them awake, and I want my reader to be a human being, not a writer.

I like to think of myself as positioned within the experimental mode, but not afraid to reach back into the past when I need to. Too much of what passes for experimental today is merely easy crap, language that was generated rather than written. God save us from that. Don’t lose the connective tissue to the past; but also, my experimental urges tell me, don’t be afraid to snip them.

Make it new, sure; but make it good, and make it human. Otherwise, you are just writing for other writers. I don’t worship the poets who came before me, but I am fascinated by that country we call the past, and I have much to learn from the poets who come from it. What’s missing from a lot of experimental writing today is a sense of sacrifice, I think, a sense that you, the writer, is discovering something of value to the reader, something sacred and profane, rather than merely wowing that reader with the next flashy thing, the most recent idea, the most shocking turn of phrase. That’s why I began this essay with the Stein quotation about Picasso: let’s not forget the risks inherent in discovering something new. Let’s not forget the wonder.

Postscript: A few last questions

Alain Badiou, in his final thesis on contemporary art, writes, “It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.” In light of Badiou’s claim, what is imperative to you about a piece of prose in terms of the political, the social, the unconscious?

As every act is a political act, and as poetry and literary fiction are increasingly untouched by the marketplace—which we all complain about—this also presents an enormous opportunity to the writers of today not to be fiddled with and adjusted for a consumer end. This is endlessly frustrating on a bad day, when you are comparing yourself to Justin Bieber, or answering that dreaded question on the airplane: And how do you make a living? But on a day when you truly consider what poetry ought to be, a poetry of witness, a radical act, something which can’t be undone, it’s a truly blessed thing.

How do you navigate the tensions between audience, your compositional practices, and your imagination?

It’s simple for me: I don’t think of, imagine, or, in my best self, even want an audience. Of course I want people to read my writing, but I count them one at a time. The Greek poet Odysseas Elytis once said, when Kevin Prufer apologized for the size of an audience in central Missouri, that the poet only needs two people in the audience, and one of those people is the poet himself. Of course, that reader—The dead? Myself? Future strangers?—can be replicated many many times over the years, and I hope they will be…Poetry, literature, fiction: the fruits of it are in the intimacy with a reader, not the numbers, which is lucky, as the audiences don’t compare on a consumer scale. Remember what Blake said: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. Eternity is not in love with sales. My imagination is an inherently strange place. I’m rather proud of that fact, but it isn’t likely to get me on the Oprah Book Club. I just don’t know what else to say: to the extent that I do think of a reader, I try to imagine that reader as one person so that the poem can be comprehensible and challenging to that person each time. And I would define a writer as the first reader of their own work, so it isn’t far off in the end.

To conclude with your question, what compels me to write what I write and why?

It’s a sense of shame and emptiness and panic if I don’t do it. Trying to find fresh modes of expression, the new productions of time, is a compulsion for me. It’s also a gift, the reason to be alive, and I wouldn’t want to go too many days without engaging in it. What else am I good for?