Monday, February 25, 2013

Of Binaries and Avant gardes... Boston Review we thank you!

"Why do we have these labels that no one wants to wear?"--Samuel Amadon 

I admire the Boston Review's set of responses and reactions to Majorie Perloff's article Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric which also appeared in the Prague-based review VLAK, issue 3, published in 2012, as Poetry on the Edge: Reconceptualizing Lyric (pp189-199). I also based much of my recent Tears in the Fence column in issue 56 "Of Tradition and Experiment" on Perloff's text as well--I suppose it was/is my contribution to the "Symposium" on binaries.

But here I want to react to a select few of the many other poets who are weighing in on this article--Of the texts which appear on this symposium site, there are a few which just make me EXCITED to be a writer and reader, and who seem to really be asking themselves, and thus me/you/others the "important" questions. Among those are Evie Shockley's "Loaded Terms", the smartly writen (what lovely language) "The Purposeful Lyric Life" by Sandra Lim, as well as Dan Beachy-Quick's invaluable reflective text on "The 'I' of Lyric" which starts in  "a terrain of instability—a lyric instability—in which such seeming oppositions overlap."

But three I would like to chat about a bit more in depth are below:

One of the symposium articles I admired is the pearl that is Lytton Smith's "Pages and Soundscapes" at Here, Smith explores the limits of the sound/page binary as he states "All too often we treat poems as either written or spoken". Two of my favorite quotes from his text are below--I hope will make you all want to go read his text in its entirety online. Here, Smith reminds us of the inability to disentangle in poetry sound from sense, what is seen on the page from what is heard when we read or imagine it read aloud:

"Let go of the written / spoken binary and we find a spectrum analogous to Zukofsky’s “lower limit speech / upper limit music”: at one end, the material of printed words, set in place; at the other end, the possibility of unanticipated improvisation, of audition."--Lytton Smith

"...the poem has both physical materiality and soundscape, that we’re worse off if we can’t let these interact."--Lytton Smith

A second essay I found myself laughing aloud at while reading his first paragraph's list of crazy binaries because he so rightly points out some of the silliness of all the massive number of binaries being debated in this supposed era of the post-binary is Stephen Burt's "Ways to the new" which is at: Here, Burt begins "So many binaries circulate in and around contemporary poems that I find myself running out of ibuprofen as I pursue the most useful." However, the binary he does settle on a decide to address is the concept of  "neo-modernism". :

" A neo-modernist poet makes art that tests the limits of “art,” requiring us to ask what counts as a poem, what counts as good, what we assume about art more generally, and whether we ought to reject our prior assumptions."--Stephen Burt (I include this because his definition is compact and smart and makes me also think about its validity--a definitin that is also an invitation to respond)

But in the end Burt will address those authors that fall into this category, trying to remind them that neo-modernism and looking for new newness is not in fact the only way to make edgy exciting new poems. I think this then is really a rejection of a formal nature, and of many of the poets I am personally excited about, and yet I do want to get on board with one thing that Burt reminds us all about: "Ecologists say that excitement, novelty, diversity, tend to occur at edges, but they do not always mean where water meets land; sometimes they mean where forest meets prairie or tundra, where mountains arise, even where cities end. We have all sorts of edges, all sorts of boundaries and opportunities, within the enormous territory of what poetry is,..."--Stephen Burt

Some lovely historical reflections on the many debates about binariness appear in Samuel Amadon's "Hybrid Poets Exist" at: in which Amadon writes:

"...I see American poetry as a history of conflicts that have given shape to the poetry produced by the opposing sides."--Samuel Amadon

Amadon does point out the great danger we are facing, though, when he writes: "Binaries are inevitably going to be part of a discussion of an art form that is so often subject to conflict. But when those conflicts settle into long-standing camps, binary thinking becomes unproductive."--Samuel Amadon

But I do wonder if we are all even clear on the issue of what the real polemic is--is it really, as Amadon states, "—lyric-narrative / experimental-avant-garde—"? Because this looks to me like a binary between a red apple and a video of the apple--which he seems to point out quite smartly in the penultimate paragraph of his posted essay. The nature of the two sides are not for me antonymic, are not clear opposites--for me, as for Amadon I believe as well, many "experimental" and "avant-garde" poems are narrative and lyric in their own ways, just as many lyric and narrative poems can also be experimental--that is how we end up with book jackets which read "experimental memoir" or find ourselves talking about books like Memnoir by Joan Retallack, etc. So the issue is still one of how to locate the two items we keep wanting to place on Justice's scales to weigh against each other seeking hopefully a little balance and not superiority of one over the other. As Amadon suggests, better yet-- give up on trying to locate exactly what it is we are trying to pit against each other a do a little mixing as authors and readers--as Amadon concludes: "What to do? Crossover.":

"But I think that the crossover between these influences is a far more volatile experience: a conflict on the page that can lead our next poems in—thankfully—unexpected directions."--Samuel Amadon

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS--my own two cents?
Pretty much all of the texts on the site are well worth reading--even a few that merely enrage me with their own celebration of closing-off and rejecting a large mass of what I personally love to read (for if I do not read and know and listen to those whose voices oppose my own, what kind of person am I who asks those people to read and know and listen to the work I admire and which they feel opposes them?) So, I suggest reading all of these texts not only for their ideas, but also just to see the great variety of writing styles on a question such as this.

Isn't the fact that such a diversity in critical discourse exists--and that this diversity does not enrage and is readable to readers and writers of all kinds of poetry--a sign that the diverse poetries of poetry should also be "allowed" or "accorded" the same readership and respect? Because, for me, I find the main binary in poetry comes from a sense of readerships which are either closed to certain formal inventiveness or to a certain exploration of the "legitimized" traditions--as in, our risk is that we are not reading what is perceived as coming from what is perceived as another side, and that we then also do not know, dialogue about or respect at times the work of the wide variety of authors out there. 

The binary, however, is an illusion. For whoever resides today on the "powerful" readership side, oft called "mainstream", is in a position which is constantly shifting too. The line of the between is always in motion and is defined by the perception of the one reading, writing, publishing, etc. After all, the authors and poets I know are not asking themselves permission to write--they keep doing it because writing is like breathing for them, it is a prerequisite for living. And if nothing else this entire debate reminds us of one fabulous thing--POETRY IS MOST CERTAINLY NOT DEAD.

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