Calling the Bluff of “Innovative” Poetics

I have heard, from multiple sources, that there is a movement afoot, especially within academia, to rebrand what I have known as avant garde or experimental poetry as “innovative poetry.” The phrase strikes me as redundant, if not tautological. All poetry worth reading innovates in some way upon language. Furthermore, the four-thousand-year history of written poetry has been punctuated and advanced almost exclusively through innovative techniques. The differential between the poetry of forbearers like Walt Whitman or Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the majority of other Nineteenth-century verse, is far greater than that of any contemporary experimental project as it is compared to mainstream poetry.

While contemporary experimental projects, which often pursue a particular aspect of poetry in the extreme, do advance the art — even as exercising isolated muscle groups improves fitness — labeling such efforts “innovative,” with all this implies about other projects, is the worst kind of synecdoche — as absurd as defending thumb wrestling as the ultimate sporting event. Allowing experimental poets to call themselves “innovative” is like allowing a political party to rename itself — not as Democrat, Republican, or Tory — but as “The Party Which Stands For All That Is Right And Good About Politics.”

Repackaging postmodernism is not the great project of our time, nor is narrowing the scope of poetics down to a few theoretical elements. We must call such bluffs. Any art, in fact, which requires hefty intellectual defense, is unlikely to weather the common sense of individuals who know, on instinct, what moves them. Certain forms of experimentalism do provide a valuable antithesis to traditions like lyricism, but it is only an emergent synthesis — a whole-body poetics, that stands, like a body, complete and functional without explanation — that can truly be called innovative. Making a play to label one’s project as representative of the most fundamental aspect of poetry — innovation — amounts to a dangerous kind of wordplay, if not an all-out attempt to legislate taste.

Non Nobis, Domine

We went to Cambridge yesterday on a train that suddenly lost power. The conductor pulled over, shut it down, and started it up again. I never knew you could reboot a train. I guess Windows is everywhere.

Gazing up at the delicately vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel, the construction of which spanned the reign of several monarchs during the tumultuous Wars of the Roses, it struck me what a magnificent sanctuary the university system remains. It shares a common heritage with the monastic tradition. In a world beset by conflict, disease, and poverty, universities still stand as a tribute to our higher and more refined natures — both Soul and Mind. Prior to the Age of Reason, academic endeavor and spiritual quest were considered more similar pursuits. One aspired to contribute to Knowledge for sake of of a glory non nobis, Domine.

How strange to see science and spirituality become so unnecessarily polarized as the power of the church became destabilized through hypocrisy, and the power of the academy became decentralized even up to our present postmodern state. Strange, because despite all the technological advances we have gained through the scientific method of inquiry and through standing on the shoulders of previous scholars, so much of human behavior remains as barbaric and Medieval as ever. My thought and prayer in this chapel was: thank God (and Henry VI in this particular college’s case) for the universities, which still preserve the some of the highest and best aspirations of our culture.

Art School Math and Poetic Darwinism

If the statistics some people hold up to warn against doing an MFA are true, something like 30,000 Americans graduate from an MFA program each year. A quick look at the total US population and growth rate and the assumption that MFAs have grown since 1937 in a basically linear fashion gives us the following:

MFAs granted for70 years
Assumed avg. rate15 000 per year
Assumed total MFAs1 050 000
2005 U.S. pop.298 444 215
Literacy rate99%
Literate people295 459 773

The conclusion: currently, for every MFA graduate there are only 281 other people in the U.S. capable of appreciating their work.

Considering the current rate of growth seems to lead to an even more bleak conclusion:

U.S. Growth rate0.91%
New literate people per year2 688 683
MFA graduates per year30 000

The conclusion: for every MFA graduate each year, there are only 90 new other people in the U.S. capable of appreciating their work each year.

Considering that MFA graduates are only a small percentage of the total number of contemporary poets writing, the situation seems to get worse, the ratios smaller, the audience dwindling and the market saturated to the point that we should all put down our pens and find some other niche altogether.

Nonsense. The argument that there are more MFA graduates than teaching positions which require an MFA is undoubtedly an economic fact. Simply doing an MFA for financial reasons is like smoking for your health. Some smokers live to a ripe old age. But good luck. Artists have rarely been artists for career reasons, unless they were artisans. Ultimately, it seems to come down to artists having to make art to live a fulfilling life. And more people seem to be needing to do that. It’s tempting to worry this somehow saturates the market and dilutes art.

In fact, with each new writer in this world, we should rejoice.

Trying to extend this deeply flawed Darwinistic reasoning to the market for poetry in the above manner rests on the incorrect assumption that there are only producers and consumers of art in our society. The truth is that most artists are actually the most voracious consumers as well. For example, in my own MFA program, I will be reading over eighty books of poetry in the next two years, and rarely two books by the same poet. Assuming my fellow classmates in other MFAs around the country do the same, that’s up to 2.4 million more books of poetry being read thanks to MFA programs.

The notion that the market is saturated and therefore most poets won’t get recognition despite talent, that only an elite few can garner success — is deeply flawed. Reading and writing are the in and out breath of a life lived in poetry, and for this reason I encourage more writers in our world. Writers necessarily read. And true, many people read the same works by superstar poets. Poets themselves, however, are the most likely to branch out from the contemporary cannon and feed from the marketplace of more marginalized poets.

Therefore the proliferance of MFA programs in this country can only be seen as a sign of hope. More artists means an expanded, not contracted, marketplace for art. Those that despair of new, talented writers simply see glasses half empty. The rest of us stand open armed at a new stream of voices surging banks.