8.30.2007

Innovation, novelty, feeling--

Great post from Kasey and I haven't even finished reading it, so apologies there, but I want to quote all that I've read for those who might not get over to {LIME TREE} on a regular basis (after this point it becomes less general--a review of Human Resources by Rachel Zolf). I've completely slipped out of "posts of substance" at Poesy Galore (I think there were a few back in 2005), and I regret that. Things don't get from the brain to the blog, somehow, and it's not like riding a bicycle.

But I have been thinking just this for a while. Thanks to Kasey for articulating and writing it:

We have been dealing for some time now with that awkward moment in contemporary poetic practice where innovation and novelty give way to the basic problem of reflecting the state of human language with a feeling accuracy. "Feeling" is the key term here, for while it is valid to object that anyone can slap together a jumble of computer code, spam text, and instant messaging slang and call it a poem, it is more useful to acknowledge that such materials really are a significant portion of what the poet now has to work with, and that if one is truly interested in contemporary poetry, one must reckon with these materials--or rather, their application--in a way that is neither superficially celebratory nor blindly dismissive.

The problem of separating a facile from an artful engagement with "a selection of language really used by men," as Wordsworth put it, is that radical historical changes in such language occur at a pace that appears both gradual and dramatic to its reflective users (e.g., poets). The sense of newness is perpetually at war with the sense that this is what we've settled into without even noticing it starting. The poet who treats it as a novelty will write verse that is at best novel, at worst cynically fashionable. The poet who works with an actual feeling for the language in its awkward transitional throes is the rarer case. In the context of language as it has been transformed specifically by recent online communication technology, for example, I think of artists like Alan Sondheim not just as pioneers but as feeling pioneers.

It's important not to dilute "feeling" as I mean it here with a simplistic sense of "emotion," or "authenticity." I'm talking about feeling in the sense of the carpenter's feel for wood and awl, or the sewist's for fabric and thread: in other words, "craft," but more than mechanical craft. Craft as it is defined by the craftsperson's aesthetic attunement to the materials. What does it mean to have a sympathetic "feel" for computer code, for hack ad copy, for typo-ridden cable news tickers? Whereas Wordsworth embraced "common speech" out of affection (however paternalistic and "romanticized") for the working classes, our relation to today's common speech is invariably more conflicted, if not downright anxious. Can materials that seem degraded not just to a literary establishment, but often to the poet herself, be used "feelingly" in the way I'm trying to get at here?

Answering this question is, as I see it, one of the primary tasks of contemporary poetics.

-- K. Silem Mohammad