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Nathaniel Tarn



Shouting God
" . . . now I believe our average poet, if it can survive,  is lucky to be something like a liver fluke progressing through the guts of a sheep."


I take as my text today a passage from Octavio's "Corriente Alterna."

"If imitation becomes mere repetition, the dialogue ceases and tradition petrifies; if modernity is not self-critical, if it is not a sharp break and simply considers itself a prolongation of  'what is modern,' tradition becomes paralyzed. This is what is taking place in a large sector of the so-called avant-garde. The reason for this is obvious: the idea of modernity is beginning to lose its vitality. It is losing it because modernity is no longer a critical attitude but an accepted, codified convention . . . it has become an article of faith that everyone subscribes to . . . all this raking of the coals can be reduced to a simple formula: repetition at an ever-accelerating rate. Never before has there been such frenzied, barefaced imitation masquerading as originality, invention, and innovation."


If this is a correct reading, it has deep implications for the future of poetry. I will look at this question in my habitual persona as anthropologist. Be warned, gentle audience, that the social sciences do not often console. I offer a hypothesis in the form of a reduced model of an extremely complex situation: there is no time for more. The reason for a sociological approach? It is nonsense to talk about poetry, as most poets and critics today continue to do, without accounting for the socio-economic context of poetry production and reception.
      Let us suppose that the ancient art of poetry reposes on certain ancient foundations which are being eroded or destroyed with ever increasing rapidity. Let's take three such foundations: 1) Non-Human Natural Species; 2) Human Natural Species; 3) what I shall call Cultural Exemplars.
      First: Now that we are environmentally conscious, we hear every day of disappearing species -- many unknown to science -- in the dwindling forests of the Amazon, or S.E.Asia, or Africa. Likewise in the oceans, suffering to their very depths by overfishing, pollution, global warming.
      Second: Those of us who care hear every day of underfed, poverty-stricken, culturally-deprived endangered and oppressed indigenous, "primitive," archaic or traditional peasant peoples, whether in the Americas -- the Amazon again; among the Maya of Central America; among our own Northern Native Americans or in other continents: in other words genocide and ethnocide. After managing two world wars of unparallelled proportions, our century continues on its merry way with the horrors of Guatemala, Tibet, Kurdistan, Ruanda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Kosovo, Burma, East Timor. The truth is that, whether of the Left or Right politically, elites need land and will kill to get it.
      Third, along with the effects of the World Wars (I think of Dresden and Warsaw,  for instance) there is unparallelled looting and destruction of cultural exemplars whether, again for instance, at Angkor, or Egypt, or in the Northern forests of Guatemala or, equally bad, there are the various renovations and the drowning of historical centers by highrises and bulk projects of every description. Belonging to both 2) and 3) there is the destruction of and backyarding of languages.


Nature Poetry is as old as mankind; so is that regarding human species: think of Homer or the Mahabharata. For the poetry of cultural exemplars, we evoke Dante's Florence or, more recently, Wordsworth's London and Baudelaire's Paris. It is my hypothesis that poetry consciously or unconsciously anchors itself in, and is nourished by, the existence of these traditional natural and cultural treasures and that when these latter suffer as much as they are doing, poetry needs to become purely elegiac or turn to other forms of accomplishment. What it turns to, I'll argue, is no longer poetry but something which is increasingly being called, simply, "writing."
      I am not unfamiliar with many of the internal arguments for this: those, for instance, attending to the changing mutual relations of poetry and prose; the evolution of genres and a great mass of "so forth." Here I continue to focus on the external and, because we are here and this is where we live,  I focus on our country. Let me also stress, once and for all, that there are always exceptions in any theory or hypothesis.
      Okay. As I have stressed many times before, the end of World War II witnessed the insertion of the creative arts into the academic universe with extraordinarily dramatic and transformative results. Let me go on dealing with creative writing, leaving aside music and the visual arts -- while adding in passing a footnote to the effect that the sovereign reign of "installations" in the latter seems to me, for many reasons, to parallel the accession of "writing."
      The transformation has proceeded along many different lines. The sheer danger and life-shaking, life-long, risks inherent in being a producer of poetry; the interminable alchemical process of conjugating intellect and emotion, head and heart, in order to produce a life-work in poetry, an opus if you will,  has become in these institutions, since the head develops faster than the heart, one of  the fabrication of a product known as "writing" using academic "theory" rather than life experience to, as they say so elegantly nowadays, "write off of."  This, I have found, often gives rise to bodies of theory from young practitioners infinitely exceeding in interest and value their actual writing production. The normalization of "poetry" production (I now use the word poetry in inverted commas) has led to the transformation of a vocation into a career, into a profession.
The Flag of Fashion


      Our young student practitioners do not follow their life-experience, meager as it is, they follow their guru teachers. When all is said and done, it is impossible for the teaching not to assume that anyone in a class can become a writer (a variant of the Napoleonic "every soldier has a general's baton in his backpack"); impossible for it not to foster competition -- first for the guru's favor, next for achievement in reading, publications, grants, awards and the like. Competitiveness, reducing the writing career to a simulacrum of other late-capitalist careers, ensures a stultifying and extreme degree of unpleasantness, rudeness, irresponsibility, lack of community and mutual help in the writing population. Above all the result is a terrifying overproduction of writers in a society which, in part because of the nature of "writing" as opposed to that of poetry, is underproducing readers, is in fact losing readers by the droves every day. I have described this in Levi-Straussian terms as a prevalence of incest  (the relation of poet as producer to poet as consumer) over marriage (the age-old relation of poet to common or garden reader). Regular incest as we know is not particularly good for any species. Yet another aspect of  this population pressure is generation-related. In the Age of Information, the fashions and fads of culture move extremely fast (as a new book's title has it "The Acceleration of Just About Everything"): one's creations may be out of date more than once in a lifetime. There is also the principle that each and every time late capitalism claims to make one's life easier it makes it, in fact, more complicated and time-consuming. How does the average  writer survive while aging?
      Let me dwell for a moment on the question of difficulty and obscurity. While it is true that the great discoveries of modernism preceded the academization of "creative writing," my sense is that the progression of "writing" towards unreadability has been helped by that academization. Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avantgarde and its replacement by avantgardism: remember my quote from Octavio at the beginning. I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call "disjunctivitis." The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment mainstream, to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against late-capitalist discourse is singularly inept: I do not see oppressed workers of any kinds devouring the products of avantguardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted,  are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable ego crying in the darkening wilderness? The expectation of exegesis in a constitutively backward-oriented academy (I am salaried to explain the previous generation; the next generation explains me but no generation explains itself) fosters a belief that significant writing is writing that needs explicating by critics, thus ever strengthening the hold of "theoreticians" and canon-formulating critics over the one-time freedom of the one-time poet. As for life among the incestuous, it hardly matters if a consumer truly understands a producer: we are, are we not, all brothers and sisters under the skin and have to pretend to stick together!
      A word also on competitiveness. "Mankind cannot stand very much reality" a poet once intimated and I would add that it cannot stand very much writing. Bored to death on the one hand by the interminable repetitions of the MFA clones of their MFA teachers and, on the other, by the unreadable so called "writing" of the reigning avantguardisms, the public or the last common-or- garden readers left, faced in addition with this lemming-like overpopulation,  have a desperate need of  selection. This leads straight into the terminus of competitiveness: the winner-take-all syndrome, another familiar late-capitalist life-enhancing marvel. The award system is the crowning glory of this syndrome. It is deleterious not because it is unjust (nothing human is perfect) but because it inflicts an apparently  consensual body of opinion on a public not usually aware of its options. The moneybags, playing it even more safely than the universities, select a group of trustworthy canonizers and trustworthy mainstream writers conveniently gathered in a number of "Academies" -- a group in whom the public can be induced to trust since they are already, are they not, "so trustworthy" -- and regularly disburse large sums . . . almost always into the pockets of the already fortunate. The consensus established by this system is an appalling fraud but it is supported by a host of established colleges, universities, institutions, foundations, magazines and publishing houses so large that it is never questioned.


      As I pointed out during Octavio's 80th Birthday celebrations, the name of "poet" is now so poverty-stricken that it has been abolished. What you now have is the "poet- who- has- had- more- than- three- poems- published- in- recognized- peer- judged magazines;" the "published- poet;" the "noted poet;" the "esteemed- poet;" the "recognized- poet;" the "famous- poet;" the "feted- poet;" the "awarded- poet;" the  "much- awarded poet" -  and who knows whether the State of Kansas, inter alia, will not come up with the "saved-poet" or the "much-redeemed-poet" by the time we have all finished? Without lacking in respect, I would point out that even our esteemed hosts here did not describe Mr. Paz, the subject of our celebration, in the first version of their program through anything else but a list of his awards. This, thankfully, has now been corrected. In short, there is devaluation of the poet here as the poet disappears behind the award. The award is frantically crying out for an attention no longer granted to the poet: society pretends to value poetry by throwing sops to Cerberus. All the monies involved would be far more useful if given in support of adequacy in poetry publishing or of an organization like "Poets in need" devoted to helping sick, poor or otherwise handicapped poets. If the system is kept, one modification at least could be introduced: by separating "honor" from "monetary reward": let those who need honoring be honored and only those who need money be "rewarded."


      It is immensely hard for the true innovator to remain and survive outside the pale. In effect, he or she may be seriously said to face extinction: the law that there are no mute, inglorious Miltons has for some time been stifled under the weight of the over-producers. In the triumph of quantity over quality, it is now axiomatic that the indifferent and the sheer lousy can and does stifle the interesting and the good. An additional factor is being witnessed in the last couple of years or so: rather like what happens with ecumenical efforts among churches when the world seems little inclined to be religious; there is an ever increasing banding together of producers, a great deal of fraternization among individuals and groups recently antagonistic, for valid theoretical reasons, to one another. This, by the process of co-opting freelancers into establishment institutions, is leading to a blurring of the last few lines subsisting between differing schools of writing. We thus approach at ever gathering speed that state so beloved of the New Age in which "everything is happily, even deliriously, everything:" and all is for the best in the best of worlds. I have noticed yet another development: The New York Times reported, last August 12th, that those who made money after the Sixties and would now like to flesh out their youthful dreams can attend poetry-writing camps in environmentally choice surroundings, with healthy diets and no doubt much yoga, meditation and hand-holding counseling to boot. Democracy is undoubtedly the only valid form of government but when "everybody is a poet" in a society which does not want poets it certainly has massive drawbacks.


      Is it any wonder that, added to the deliquescence of any sense of responsibility whatsoever in most parts of the publishing world, including allegedly progressive publishing, the deteriorations I speak of have led to a mass migration of so-called major publishers away from poetry? This perhaps will be the crowning factor in my oncoming revelation: namely the proposition that Anglo (I use a New Mexican term but of course imply "Caucasian") elitist poetry, as we know it in these United Mistakes, is either dead or dying. If you take the figures of the Pound-H.D.-W.C.Williams lineage; adding, let us say, the likes of Crane, Stevens, Eliot, Oppen and other Objectivists; if you continue with the New Americans as anthologically defined between Donald Allen in the Sixties and Eliot Weinberger in the Nineties, you have a basic picture of the beauteous graveyard as we approach the so-called Millenium. Doubtless, there will always be names to add and there can be similar lists in other countries and other languages.
      There is nothing new, of course, in the claim that one of the arts, or all of them, are dying: witness, for instance,  Levi-Strauss's ability to foresee the possibility of a world without art. Or there is Arthur Danto's persuasive argument in his "The Delegitimization of Art" that art has, as it were, entered a post-historical era and disappeared up its own philosophy. Para acabar, it is merely that, after a great deal of life creeping toward death there is, finally, death. As Lorca said, "tambien se muere el mar."


So where, or out of what or whom, does the future arise? Where is the creative energy of the first part of the next millenium to come from? An idea out of Octavio's "Otra Voz" has always struck me as valuable. It is that we must look for the survival of true poetry not in the horizontal deployment of an ever-shrinking population of readers at any given historical moment but in a vertical time-depth: poetry surviving as a diachronic passage of culture from one generation of readers to another. For me, this time depth is without limit: it reaches back to whatever we can envisage as the beginning of all and any time, encompassing the poetry voiced by any human from that beginning onward, not to mention the immense population of the dead. For me, however, there would be a horizontal dimension too, this one stressing not the verticality of any one culture, but the horizontal passage of the torch from one culture to another or one set of cultures to another.
      My sense then is that the future of poetry  will probably arise, for the English language, out of the indigenous Anglophone so-called "Third World" which is still closer to the foundations I spoke of at the start than most of us are. From there and also from the so-called "Minorities" in this and other Anglophone First World countries who, it may be argued, are or can be in many ways, whether deliberately or not, closer to indigenous thought than we are. These "Minorities" in this country have produced many of the poetries I have called "Liberation Poetries" stemming in large part from the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s -- but they are still far from completely integrated into what we label as American Poetry.


      Two problems here. The first is that the more indigenous of our worlds are rapidly being homogenized by such forces as economic imperialism and globalization so that the environments that poetry prizes may well be shorter-lived than we might hope. They may yet be defeated by corporate greed; the manipulations of the financial markets; consumerism; the stripping of environmental assets; the atrocities of genetical engineering; Aids and other such horrors; the massive digital divide. The second problem is that many, perhaps most, of the poets and writers from there that we value, from an Anglo perspective, have made their names by using the same methods and poetics as the Anglo Elite Poetries. Here and there, one can pick out a few names that differ. Kamau Braithwaite, for instance, who, not forgetting Aime Cesaire, was the true candidate for the Caribbean Nobel Award some years ago, is an experimenter and  bridger of gaps who may represent the future of poetry as I see it here.
      To end on a slightly more upbeat note, let me propose a couple more points about our art. I have wondered for years what makes so many young people hunger for the poetic career when the latter offers, except for a very, presumably happy, few, no rewards of any kind: no money, no lovers, no status, no fame, above all no Mercedes-Benzes, in short none of the goodies our consumerdom hankers for. I used to think that a poet was a god, later that the average poet was a dog, now I believe our average poet, if it can survive,  is lucky to be something like a liver fluke progressing through the guts of a sheep. I have finally concluded that the drug of choice here may be the Prinzip Hoffnung, that famous particle of Hope without which no human being can live or be creative for very long. But Hope by itself is not enough. It needs to be conjugated with Will -- the wayward possibility of any new, unexpected and unexpectable, desire arising and manifesting  -- so well argued for in Dostoevsky's "Underground Man." In other words,  that which, by propelling Hope into action, finally manages to abut upon the shores of the unacknowledged legislatordom of the world.
      I recently found the following in Eliot Weinberger's magnificent edition of Jorge Luis Borges's "Selected Non-Fictions:"

But the best immortalities -- those in the domain of passion -- are still vacant. There is no poet who is the total voice of love, hate or despair. That is: the greatest verses of humanity may still not have been written. This imperfection should raise our hopes."

When it seems to me that the treasures of diversification are being hopelessly polluted by the satanic mills of homogenization and when, at the end of this abyssal century, I conclude that the human race is a calamity waiting to be extinguished, it is to such hopes that I turn for the energy needed to get beyond our so-called "Millenium", the famoso year 2000.

Nathaniel Tarn


Nathaniel Tarn, New York City, 1999
Nathaniel Tarn, New York City, 1999
Photograph copyright © 1999 John Tranter
Nathaniel Tarn's latest publication is "I Think This May Be Eden," a CD of selected poems from Spoken Engine (Memphis/Nashville). Recent poems are in «Hambone», «First Intensity», and «Conjunctions» among others (obtainable from Small Press Distribution, Berkeley). You can read more about Tarn
in issue # 6 of Jacket.


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