Poetry & Politics Roundtable           (page 5)
with Joshua Clover, Chris Nealon, & Juliana Spahr

JOSHUA [cont.]: But here comes the contradiction. In my own writing, I have been increasingly compelled to poetry that thematizes and sometimes formalizes the specifics and dimensions of the political-economic situation as I see it. I do not do this because I think it’s politically effective, but because — to be honest — it’s what I’m obsessed by, and I feel sort of lame and empty when I look elsewhere for engagement. Most other things feel nihilistic. So the riddle for me as a writer has been in finding ways to open this political-economic fascination up to something more, to struggle against it becoming two-dimensional.

Having said all that, here’s a terribly reductive remark. The problem with movement poetry isn’t poetry, it’s movements. Movements here in the US, I mean. It’s obvious that poetry played a substantial role in Tunisia and in Egypt this winter, as it has in other places. Even in the UK anti-austerity movement there was a constant reference to Shelley’s anarchism, his Scritti Politti poem. What Juliana sees as US poetry’s unwillingness to recognize or pursue its force beyond its own confines — well, she’s completely right — but I also don’t see movements out there in the US looking to poetry as a way of understanding or focusing or remembering.

Which is to say: I think it’s not so challenging to look at the institutional ways that US poetry has aligned itself with private interests even while it murmurs its humanist blandishments. And I think it’s also easy to discover that repulsive ideological sleight within US poetry where the autonomy of the aesthetic is celebrated, Mallarmé and Adorno are exhumed to testify on its behalf...but the part where this is irreducibly part of an absolute demand for radical politics, anarchist and Marxist respectively, conveniently vanishes. Yet as I suggested, I am not finally inclined to look first to poetry for the failure, despite all that. That US political formations and movements have come to recognize poetry (if at all) only as anodyne celebration of being alive does not seem to me to be something that can easily be laid at poetry’s doorstep. It has a semi-veiled pathos: the situation is so straitened that we can imagine only endurance, micro-kindnesses, stolen moments of intensely local intimacy. But still.

Of course, the very way I’ve formulated it is riddled with the foundational problem: it’s exactly because I can identify “movement” and “poetry” as discrete pursuits that I confront their inability to reach out to each other. And so when I say they fail to reach out to each other, I am missing the point, which is that they became alienated in the first place. Isn’t that a way to restate the purpose of politics? To demand that there be no separation? Isn’t the goal not to insist that poetry and movements find each other in the terrible dark, or try to engineer that, but to attack the dynamic which has isolated them — a dynamic which seems to be more advanced and even decisive here in the US than elsewhere? This is what Debord meant when he insisted, contra the Surrealists and their entanglement with the Communist Party, “not poetry in the service of revolution, but revolution in the service of poetry!”

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