On his Tumblr, Matt Henriksen writes "The best thing about being a poet these days is we are widely ignored and not taken seriously." This has its upsides and downs, of course, an upside being that, yes, we can generally get away with things that might be seen as controversial if someone the public was aware of did them. Fortunately, there is no way for American poetry to be controversial, except to other poets, but it seems we are fully capable of creating our own drama for drama's sake.
Here in lies the conflict that seems to embody much of what has been happening lately: there is a struggle between what Henriksen calls the "anomalies, outcasts, losers," who "don’t need consultants, the establishment hierarchies, or pyramid schemes" and those who wish to see poetry in America as a bourgeoisie engagement, made up of public intellectuals, professionals and politicians who are asked about their opinions on television, who make policy and who are mobbed like Alfred, Lord Tennyson when they are seen on the street.
It seems, to me at least, that poetry isn't (or at least it shouldn't be) about that. Poetry is an act of subversion: it is against the normalcy of language, the complacency of society. It's not about being a pop cultural icon or about being categorized and stuffed into some simple ideological space. Poets, and artists in general, ought to be on the outside of society because that is the way in which one can look into it. Those that want to make poetry a water cooler conversation piece seem to have little understanding of its history.
Robert Archambeau's wonderful essay "The Discursive Situation of Poetry," which is included in his equally wonderful book The Poet Resigns, talks about this history. I admit freely that I didn't know most of it myself. In it, Archambeau takes on those (Dana Goia comes to mind immediately) who wish to make poetry some great endeavor and poets the grandes dames of some kind of intellectual society built on a shining hill of egos.
This, again, doesn't seem to me to be what art is about. Art is an afterthought, the remnants of the ideas and culture that have gone before it. Art is about what's left over when things have passed, the memory and the experience. The thing is, the reason artists are famous after they are dead, to use a very tired cliché, is because artists always make up the awareness of a time period, which isn't something that happens overnight, although we seem to be trying to in the poetry world-- we cannot create our legacy by will alone.
Henriksen points out a systemic problem with art, especially in this country and to a similar extent, in academia, which is the commodification of art, the branding of it in order to make it a non-difficult, accessible item available for purchase for the purpose of profit. Especially in colleges and universities, where students are now taking on a lifetime of debt in order to get very little by way of future prospects, the arts are falling into a worm hole in which the outcomes are not definable or identifiable in any simple or timely way but must be in order to justify their existence.
This, to me, is a constant issue within the Capitalistic society: things must have a monetary value and not an abstract value before they are allowed to exist in the same world as the norm. And the beauty of it is that there are those within poetry, who in order to justify their existence as poets, are attempting to pull poetry into the branded, hyper-capital. On occasion it feels like our own establishment within the poetry world is busier trying to get into regular establishment, like the pigs of Animal Farm, than exist in the system which is already in place for them.
It's hard to blame folks, really. We all want to be comfortable and be taken seriously, especially the people that consider themselves adults. When you have your own slice of the "American dream," paying a mortgage and driving a large car, the answer to "What do you do?" rarely ends with "I write poems." Some might say that it would be nice if poets were paid like athletes but that hypothetical society would be the one in which poetry, as a mainstream established art form would be usurped by some other form which takes as its motivation the subversion of societal hierarchies.
This, however, in Henriksen's words, does not mean those people should expect the "embrace" of the "loser poets." No, it's a battle that will constantly go on because "American Poetry," as an institution. is growing, and in seemingly close numbers on both sides of the commercial/ars gratia artis divide. The embrace of either side would mean poetry has lost whatever vigor it had and that seems worse than the in-fighting and commoditization of it in the first place.
The only place I take issue with Henriksen is on whether his Tumblr/Facebook post is a "manifesto." Regardless of his saying it isn't, it is, mainly because it (the piece) gives us the intentions of a group, their motives and their views. It tells us what loser poets are not: bankers and politicians, who seem people and their productions as fetishized objects rather than the art and artists they are. Henriksen's manifesto creates a public of poets as defined separately from other poets. Henriksen points to an already existing line and shows us what side we were already on, whether we believe necessarily in the tenants of either side.