On "Poetics"?

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?

8 thoughts on “On "Poetics"?

  1. It seems to me that there is a common thread that runs through particular blogs that seem to deal with “occasional poetics.” Now, once we call this occasional poetics that seems directly limiting but I think that you are on to something Nada by implicating all of our permanent poetics in their provisional niche. We have come to the impasse of provisionality and I believe we must settle with that impasse, those paradoxes, and embrace a tentative poetics. I think this is what makes Kasey’s blog so astounding: you can be completely convinced and completely unconvinced within a two day blog post. The fallacy of “the end of inquiry” is something which we should all take into consideration (thank you Richard Rorty). And see what results in the new forms of inquiry we can attain (thank you Helene Cixous). lmr

  2. I wish I had time to write out in detail what I was trying to say, but just to make the principal point quickly: “poetics” has become synonymous in the last two decades with “thinking about poetry,” and I would rather―just now, anyhow―make distinctions between kinds of thinking than blur them. The particular distinction I was arguing for that night was between generalization and singularity. I put poetics at the “g” end of the spectrum, and noted that my own work (mostly case studies) tends toward the “s.” So it’s not like I was arguing for a version of poetics that would let me say, “Hey, look at what those other idiots are doing!” So far as poetics go, I’m the same kind of idiot. There are, I recognize, lots of problems with the “g”-“s”distinction (and yes, the goofball letters are a parody of L=A=N=G=P=O era poetics). Starting with the fact that one can always generalize about a singular example. What I say, for example, about your poetry, if it has any particularity, will likely not be true of all poetry, or even about all flarf, but it will, perhaps, be the basis for a “poetics of Nada.” OK. Let me just say two things. First, to quote Richard Rorty (twice in one comment stream!), a fuzzy distinction is still a distinction. And second: this is exactly why I try to avoid generalizations. It was wonderful to see you again, and spend a few days together.Ben

  3. Hey Nada,From time to time I teach in an undergraduate creative writing program with little to no curriculum, and I’m teaching a seminar in it next year entitled simply “Poetics.” Here’s how I defined it in my course description:Poetics is the study of literary language, traditionally opposed to “rhetoric,” the study of persuasive or argumentative language. In the 20th Century, poetics also came to denote a sort of artist’s statement written by a poet or on behalf of a movement, or, alternatively, the philosophical basis for interpretation (“critical theory”). So, that’s three impossibly broad and probably ill conceived categories: 1) what Ben (and Marjorie Perloff, e.g., to pinpoint the Buffalo poetics line I might tend to share with him) is saying–literariness; 2) “my” literariness; 3) “your” literariness.Critical theory, in attempting to denote what is available to one’s understanding and/or experience, is probably the least poet-friendly of these versions. But they all are if you want to cite Jackson Mac Low, as I also tend to do, and get all etymological: poetics = ways of making.Patrick

  4. In order to get past this entrenched poetics let us bring Rorty to the fore one more time: “In a post-Philosophical culture it would be clear that that is all that philosophy can be. It cannot answer questions about the relation of the thought of our time -the descriptions it is using, the vocabularies it employs – to something which is not just some alternative vocabulary.”Poetics, in this sense or as I see it, is an “alternative vocabulary.” I don’t mean to say that we should cow tow to some pedestrian analysis of poetic forms but rather we have, at present, an opportunity to develop an interesting (if not new) economy of language in which we can discuss poetry. This is where we can get past the phallocentric, anthropocentric, and generally hierarchical constructs (those that emanate out of humanist chauvinism) which have hindered our investigation thus far. I don’t know to what extent “the blog” will influence this investigation but, from what I gather as the best of the blog aspect, I would say it is helping us along.LMR

  5. I'm one of the culprits using this term (ala “HG Poetics”). The academic jargon-slicers cna cut it any way they like, but I prefer to keep it simple.“Poetics” is defined (by me) as the study of poetic composition, ad is a branch of aesthetics, basically. When I use the terms “HG Poetics” & (less-frequently, if ever) “my poetics”, I am referring to my own personal perspective on this general field of study : its relation to my own work.

  6. Put me down as part of the “Whatever You Can Get Away With That Walks Like A Duck” school of poetics. If I need to explain that, I certainly could, but with luck maybe I don’t have to?It’s another thing if you’re teaching a Poetics class though, and you’re trying to decide what students should or shouldn’t be reading to give them an idea of what poetics is. I still think I’d want some iconoclastic approaches in the mix even there though. For instance I’ll be teaching Nick Piombino’s fait accompli this fall in the context of poetics and the transformation of the Writer’s Notebook concept in the blog era.

  7. Back when I had a blog, its tagline was “if not a poetics, then what?”I meant it as a refusal to see that activity as the categorical statement/career consolidation I saw in the term. But from the other side of years of silence I recognize the tagline as the bemused acquiescence it always was.

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