Poets in Society: A Reconsideration

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:14 AM

Written for the People’s Poetry Gathering, New York, 2003,
& previously unpublished


Artists and poets are inextricably in society. This is both our opportunity and our doom. And even when we think of ourselves as in the margins or on the fringes or alienated or outsiders, these are all social terms and we are all of us social creatures. We are also, as poets, sharers of a common language, in the shaping and reshaping of which we put ourselves forward as hyperconscious players/actors/agents. That there are other agents, with more power over the means of dissemination, may be our misfortune, but we seem to persevere in spite of that. By doing what we do we call their language (& their world) into question, and this forms the basis of what we think of, hopefully or foolishly, as our counterpoetics.

I have never written a poem that wasn’t a response or a comment on the world in which I live and the language that I (and we) use in that living. I have never written a poem without a politics at center. At the same time I have recognized myself as a poor purveyor of what’s called “political poetry.” By this I mean poetry that purports to act as a rallying cry – not to convince the unconvinced but to affirm the convinced in their conviction. I have lived through enough bad times to have tried my hand & voice at this among other forms of composition, and I’ve conceded that others (poets and near-poets) do it far better than I do.

In a recent interview, the following question was asked of me:

It is frequent to hear claims about the impossibility of an avant-garde today, as well as complaints about the scarcity & poorness of contemporary poetical production. I feel that "Millenium" brings a more positive stance, emphasizing the possibilities, the "revolutions of the word" still to come, not their closure. Thinking specifically of the international experimental traditions you gather in "Millenium", do you see that poe(lit)ical movements are possible or desirable today? If they exist, where would they be occurring?

My response follows.

It’s my belief that those “revolutions” are inherent to poetry as we’ve made it & will continue to be so into the foreseeable future -- as long, at least, as ideas of freedom & transformation (change) remain a part of our outlook over all. I don’t say that with any certainty, however, because revolutions are an area in which authority – the wisdom or the will to get it done – is, unlike some other things, a matter for the very young. So while I feel, as ever, ready for those kinds of revolution, it’s not for me to say.

Revolution – if that’s still the going word – is something more than a change of style or fashion. So when you’re playing with the words & come up with a portmanteau like poe(lit)ical, you’re hitting on the dual characteristics (poetical & political) of what was once the avant-garde & certainly the avant-garde of art & poetry that formed itself as movements. For those in the early days of experimental modernism – Futurists & Surrealists & Dadas – the ambition was to transform society & consciousness together, & it was only when the social transformation was separated from the poetic one (under the pressures of communism on the left & fascism on the right) that the avant-garde project put itself in question. In the post-World War II time, the poets of the avant-garde – whatever avant-garde there was – were no longer so quick to place their art, as the Surrealists once had it, “at the service of the revolution.” The general tone, as in words from the Cobra poet Christian Dotremont that we cite in Poems for the Millennium, was “against all isms, against all that implied a system.” This meant – for many – a politics against a politics, but with a leftward tilt & keeping, over all, a freedom of occasion – where & when to act. And the occasions included a widespread opposition to war & to resurgent forms of nationalism & racism, but also a reawakened sense of the poet as a spokesperson for peoples & species under siege.

The result by the 1960s was the appearance of a new “dialectics of liberation,” political & personal & marked by a sense of resistance, of breaking free (in word & act, mind & body), while retaining a more-than-formalist conception of the poem as vehicle-for-transformation. As Allen Ginsberg wrote, drawing from an older source: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” And the Japanese “postwar poets” (in a “demand” voiced by Ooka Makoto): “Bring back totality through poetry.”

That anyway was where I found poetry – in the days in particular of the postwar & the cold war. Even in a movement, say, like that of the American “language poets” – the emphasis falling on that key word “language” – the underlying issues remained political & existential. Indeed, as Charles Bernstein put it, “In order to fully develop the meaning of a formal rupture or extension, we need a synoptic, multilevel, interactive response that accounts, in hopefully unconventional antiauthoritative ways, for sexual, class, local-historical, biographical, & structural dimesnions of a poem.” Or, in Ron Silliman’s words, which still ring true to me: “[A] critique of reference and normative syntax ... situated within the larger question of what, in the last part of the twentieth century, it means to be human.”

Other movements, like those grouped around ethnic & gender identity, were & remain more overtly agenda-driven & sometimes, from my perspective at least, lose the sense of how a “revolution of the word” relates to those other revolutions. But even here, as I’ve stated above, there are language questions at issue – black voices / white voices, female voices / male voices, dialects & dialectics, written word & shouted word. Such language issues – the whole slew of them & more – are still the heart of our poetics, though what the future holds is never amenable to easy guessing or glib prophecy. Certainly, as I see it, the work is far from done, & the challenge of a poetry & a counterpoetics is as much needed as ever. That in the end it may be a largely losing proposition is also possible, but I can only act as if it isn’t.

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