Fashion Poetics #3: Art’s Double Life

Inspired my Johannes’ near-constant blog posts, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the channels of poetry.

The mainstream: the stuff you can pick up at Barnes and Noble that is relatively easy to read and can be considered worth reading and “beautiful.”

The other/experimental/difficult/abstract/challenging/elite/outsider: you’re probably ordering it online or you’ve got a good bookstore in town. Probably not “beautiful” and probably not as accessible, however you define it.

In fact, what defines accessibility is a damn fine question: anyone who can answer it (if anyone’s even reading this) gets a cookie! What makes a poem “difficult” to read? What is it about Keats that high school students “get” that they don’t get about others? Is it the way Keats and other Romantics are taught in schools? I suppose the idea of the canon is that it becomes what poetry is for people throughout their lives- when they like it at 16, perhaps they find comfort in buying it again at 36 without wanting to look for something new.

Perhaps the average reader isn’t about the “experiment,” but are MFA students now to try and go beyond the quasi-academic audience that inevitably picks up modern poetry? On one hand, to reach a larger audience would make sense, but what does that larger public want? While it is impossible to define what the poetry counterpublic desires because it is not one mass, at least there is some idea of what one is getting into within subpublics. However, the larger public requires a level of canonization that most poets just starting out will probably never get to- and I’m guessing a majority probably don’t want to get there.

But then there is the limit of the counterpublic that is being set. Obviously there’s no number, but of course there’s the range of people we’re including. There are academics and those just beyond it (I’m including myself in the beyond for now, though I’m a wannabe). Who else is reading unless they’ve been involved in some way with creative writing and workshops somewhere?

While you may not have to accept the limits of poetry and language itself, I think there has to be an admission about the limits of audience and public in the "poetry world", which I know is a phrase many around me would disagree with. There is no poetry world, they would argue, but I believe it has been created as such, and to an extent, there may be no way around it.

But I wonder: aren't I creating a canon simply be creating opposition? And while this is a good moment to mention that I want to avoid a binary situation, is it possible for something to be both mainstream and more obscure? Doesn't someone like Pinsky, who's famous enough that no less than Lisa Simpson went to a reading of his, seem kind of silly publishing a chapbook, something generally left for those that are up and comers in poetry circles? While there's no reason Pinsky should be excluded from publishing whatever he wants to publish, somehow the idea that Pinsky had to settle for a smaller publication seems ridiculous to me. Maybe it's even a little insulting to us little guys that he can do something which we find difficult so easily.

Anyways, I wonder if there's a time element to mainstream that has yet to happen with contemporary poetry. Were people reading Eliot or Pound in large numbers at the time? Would anyone have predicted that lines from Eliot would be used in movies or other such things? It would be hard to argue that Apocalypse Now has no public.

I suppose the reason I wanted to come back to the awful Fashion Poetics analogy was to say this one point: because it exists beyond the public, as a counterpublic, non-mainstream poetry has room to do whatever it wants. The threads don't have to stay together so long as the dress itself looks interesting, experimental, and new. I would argue, in fact, that the threads don't even have to hold and that at the points where the dress rips is where you have real fashion and "real poetics." Mainstream poetry- Garrison Keillor's best poems set or whatever- must have a certain "beauty" to it or it won't be pulled off the shelf at Barnes and Noble while you're kid is screaming to go to Kay-Bee Toys next door. There's a standard the mainstream must achieve and because no one outside of the poetry counterpublic cares about it, counterpublic poetics can avoid and continue setting its own goals on language, thematics/politics, and whatever else.

Fashion Poetics #1
Fashion Poetics #2

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