It was beautiful to be way up north for a few days, even in the chilly spring rain, and to stay in a little motel with a taxidermied bear in the lobby, and to read for an attentive and amused audience, and to eat sea creatures at a lobster pound, and to take a picture of a Paul Bunyan statue, and most of all to have the chance to hang out with Ben and Carla. I believe I met Ben when I was sixteen, although I may only have met his bookshelf. I remember going to a party with my ex (who once worked at the same skateboard shop in Berkeley where Ben’s best friend Jimmy also worked) in Oakland and seeing a shelf full of interesting books I identified with and finding out they were Ben’s. I guess we started hanging out when I was maybe nineteen or so, as he (along with his girlfriend at the time, Pat) was one of the only other young people around at Language Poetry readings at places like Intersection (the old one, when it was in North Beach) and 80 Langton St. One of the great joys of hanging out with Ben is the intensity of conversation, for he is so well informed and thoughtful and enthusiastic; it turns out Carla is, too, and I was so happy to have a chance to get to know her on this trip.
Now, one of the conversations I had with Ben has me a little puzzled. It was a conversation had towards the end of the evening, when I was tired out from a hectic day with Q and A with students in the morning and the lobster pound in the afternoon and lots of heavy rain, so I may have been a little crankier or argumentative than normal. We were talking about blogging, and what blogs are good for, and I said that one of the things I like about doing Ululations is that it gives me a place to “articulate my poetics” in a space that is occasional and in a form that accrues. At least, I think that was what I said (I was tired). Ben said then that, I think, “poetics” was not really the right term for me to use: “just thinking and writing about poetry,” or one’s own poetic methodology, was not, he said, a poetics. Poetics, he clarified, implies a set of general statements about all poetry, about how poetry works, and is not the same thing as one poet’s “working notes” or even one’s personal aesthetic (which is what the word seems to synonymize with in our community). [And it makes me wonder, too, does the same distinction apply to “aesthetics”?]
I argued that this was just a difference of semantics. His may be the official definition, but I’m using the vernacular. Could the difference also be signaled by the possessive pronoun, i.e. “my” or “his” or “their” poetics as opposed to Poetics, a la Aristotle? It’s very unlikely, at any rate, that I am going to enunciate a highly worked-out Aristotelian system of the structure and function of poetry, so if that is the sort of thing that poetics is, really, I guess I’m fucked. Because a) highly worked-out systems are not my thing, and 2) look, just take a look at my tag cloud just to the right of you. What word is biggest? You guessed it: poetics. And it’s possible I’ve been using the word wrongly all this time.
I’m lazy about tagging posts, but it occurs to me that if I were to go back and tag everything, there would be far more to which I would give this same tag, which just goes to show you either how a) expansive and casual my use of the term is, or b) how exact and rigorous and maybe pedantic Ben’s is. I don’t know. What do you think? It seems to me that all statements are partial; that is, they create “states” that isolate even when they masquerade as statements of totality. Or maybe I’m just stubborn?
It’s true that poetics is an overused and underdefined word, though. In this day and age we can have a “poetics” of all sorts of things, a poetics of doughnuts, a poetics of carburetors, a poetics of poetics, a poetics of peepee, I don’t know, why do we not use the word “theory” instead? Or is theory different? A theory involves a hypothesis to be proven; a poetics seems to pretend to be descriptive, maybe? Or perhaps there is something about “poetics” that implies appreciativeness, what I think Kristen Prevallet once called (in reference to how poets write about other poets’ works) a kind of “fondling.”
We looked, for example, at the artist statements on the 21 Grand web site, and Ben contended that they were not really poetics statements. I think he’s right, although to be fair I don’t think that’s what they were asked to do, and I do think that there is a kind of implied poetics in each of them that can be deduced from the choices they made in writing them.
Ben’s more erudite than me, and better educated, so I want to take his distinctions into account, even though I am certainly not going to go through my archives and retag everything! But I wonder, what would be a better term for the tag? If musing dilettantishly on the how and what and whoa of poetry doesn’t count as doing poetics in the strict sense, what is it, exactly?