A versifier of forty years, I have drawn (literary) inspiration haphazardly or sporadically, from divers sources as I happened to find them. Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling, touched me early—names seldom to be found in academia. Then Claude McKay, also an exile from the halls of higher education, save for in ethnic studies departments, about whom I have written. To be sure, some of my illustrious literary forebears and influences do get taught in the university, but that was not primarily how I encountered them.
Having written about McKay so recently, when a Facebook link brought me to a piece touching upon “colonial aesthetics,” I could not help but be interested. I posted an entry titled “On ‘The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo’” about it. The “coalition” —more likely one or two disgruntled individuals—wrote a wild screed condemning a publication called Jacket2 as well as a couple of academics (affiliated or not?), one a poet-practitioner the other a critic-promoter of the avant-garde in poetry. The names were not familiar to me, or hardly familiar, but after the vituperative attacks against them I was sure to recognize them when next they cropped up, and I did.
Kenneth Goldsmith, or otherwise “Kenny G.” as he was referred to in the screed (which brought to mind the saxophonist whose song is so popular in China at closing time), came up in a video about which I posted: you can tell by my entry that at the time I wrote I had not completed watching the full video, or I would have seen footage of the “auteur” before his gawking presidential audience. (His performance art or wordsmithing—call it what you will—has since prompted a typical online kerfuffle, about which the best critique and analysis is by Illya Szilak at Huffington Post.)
Meanwhile I have started attending seriously to Marjorie Perloff —a substantial collection of online interviews and speeches has given me hours of amusement: it is pleasant to hear ideas spoken of seriously, even when one is unfamiliar with the names. Her article describing a poetry event at the White House had been briefly scanned by me before I posted on Goldsmith, and I obviously conflated information. (Appropriately, Elizabeth Alexander, about whom I have written cursorily—see the preview here —also performed at the event.) She is a compelling speaker, if at times a little too rushed, but I have had little luck in laying my hands on any of her published books to read more closely.
Another name which pops up is Ron Silliman. He has written a book called Against Conceptual Poetry (of which naturally I had not heard, not having heard of the thing itself), so he obviously bears some relation to the community. Googling brought up a wry article (“Death of a Kingmaker”) by Goldsmith at Harriet, the blog belonging to Poetry Magazine. (Yes, Harriet, which had linked the original “colonial aesthetics” piece—I know it all seems a little incestuous.)
I had not known of Ron Silliman either—except possibly as a name in passing—until, due to another Facebook link, I was prompted to look him up after reading a recent essay at his blog. The piece, which is untitled, touches upon a lot of the thoughts I had been having for months, which I wanted to fashion into an essay. I’ve taken several stabs at it, and failed—even mentioning it here more than once. My theme encompassed, to use Silliman’s words, “a sense... that the world is coming to a very bad tipping point quite soon—may in fact already be on the wrong side of it—and that there are no effective mechanisms for braking the out-of-control vehicle that is the Anthropocene before we all hit the wall.”
He references specifically “a lot of bile online of late” to which he is responding; my theme would address rather the function and value of literary endeavor under such seemingly Apocalyptic conditions. The jostling that we do, the acrimony, seem out of place. Silliman suggests,
All of which makes me want to say, lighten up a little, folks. Take a deep breath. Some tone deaf poet is not your enemy any more than Charlie Hebdo was anybody’s enemy. The English Department is not your enemy. The police are not your enemy—tho it would sure help if they were demilitarized, properly trained and representative of the communities they “serve.” Now the CEO of Nestlé who argues that the idea of drinkable water as a human right is nonsense, he just might be worth looking at as a significant opponent. And as somebody who controls disproportionate amount of resources on this planet, it matters that he says that. But if you think your problem is that somebody put the contradictions of discourse into high contrast in a way that made you cringe, might I suggest that you have not noticed that your house is on fire.
GAY FLAG-DRAPERS, WHITMANIAN TWINK POETS, WHITE LGBT POETS WHO USE THE TROPHY OF QUEERNESS AS NEGATOR OF RACIAL PRIVILEGE, THERE’S CHUNKS OF EGG ON YOUR FACE, POETS WHO SO NATURALLY APPROPRIATE AND ABIDE BY THE LANGUAGE OF FINANCE, POETS WHO CLAIM THAT POETRY IS RISK TAKING BUT CANNOT LOCATE THE DAMAGE.... [all caps in the original]
“It’s like wanting in on the aristocracy,” wrote David Need, whom I quoted in respect to a discussion on “falling gatekeepers.” Not only the gatekeeper, the gates are falling, meanwhile some are gloating over the corpse (really the corpse of a chimera), and, amidst all the conflagration and upheaval, here or there a voice can be heard, “Have you not noticed that your house is on fire?”