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Bill Lavender’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)


(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)



I would like to respond to Jake Berry's "Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)"-- not in the spirit of rebuttal, though I may wish to argue a point here and there. Perhaps I want, actually, to enter that unknown stream, to hone a practice in the unlimited margin.

I respond from a curious vantage: my desk at the University.  You might expect me to have an ax to grind, then.  You might expect me to argue in favor of the efficacy of the University as an aesthetic or philosophical arbiter or gatekeeper in this discourse.  For how could I not argue the merits of the institution where I make my living? 

But I have no intention of doing so.  My opinion of the University, of the University with a capital U, is in line with Lacan's.  Lacan defined four broad divisions of discourse: The discourse of the Master, of the University, of the Hysteric, and of the Analyst.  The discourse of the Master is the discourse of pure power.  It is the pure exercise of greed and domination by brute force; it's right because it says so; it doesn't even seek justification in reason.  That, actually, is what the University is for.  The University exists to provide reason for the Master.  On command, the University serves up research and rationale to prove whatever the Master wants to prove, invents what He wants invented, writes what He wants written, lauds what He wants lauded and censures what irritates Him.

Lacan came to mind, also, as I was reading Bob Grumman's definition of Otherstream, which opens Jake's essay:


A brief definition: art that’s now taught in college classes. For me, it means approximately but only approximately the opposite of “mainstream.” What it’s the exact opposite of is “knownstream.”

That "now" in the first sentence is obviously a typo for "not," for the University is the realm of the known, precisely, of knowledge.  But is he not saying that the Otherstream is the unconscious?  Lacan defined the unconscious as the voice of the Other; is this merely a fortunate pun?  We can take the puns and misprints for what they are, significant or not.  We are dealing with, quite simply, the known and the unknown.  "common knowledge," we might say.  But could we also say common unknowing?  That's what the unconscious is, after all, the voice that doesn't belong to us within the language that we use.

It is the Discourse of the Hysteric that we should strive to attain, that discourse that questions everything, leaving nothing to be assumed, not even common knowledge.

There is a remarkable essay by Rčgis Debray ("Socialism: A Life Cycle" New Left Review 46
) in which he analyzes the importance of typography to the Socialist movement.  He credits what he calls an "alphabetical heroism" to the typographers who were instrumental in keeping the movement alive, setting the type for the pamphlets and fliers that incited the crowds and drew them together:  


The professional typographer occupies a special niche within [the movement], the key link between proletarian theory and the working-class condition; herein lay the best technical means of intellectualizing the proletariat and proletarianizing the intellectual, the double movement that constituted the workers’ parties. For a printer is quintessentially a ‘worker intellectual or an intellectual worker’, the very ideal of that human type who would become the pivot of socialism: ‘the conscious proletarian’. 

We could approach the question of this new monster, the writing program, with a thought-experiment.  Imagine there were no creative writing programs in universities.  If we could imagine, or indeed observe, such an unthinkable condition, and measure the differences, for poets anyway, between that culture and our own, wouldn't we then gain some understanding of their real effect?  As it happens, this experiment can be easily envisioned, for Europe is still largely devoid of creative writing degrees, as are Mexico and South America.  Is the state of poetry in these places very different from the US, Canada, and the UK?

I leave this question open not for rhetorical effect but because I don't know the answer.  Despite all efforts to the contrary, despite great multicultural efforts and the great immigrations and emigrations of the past 50 years, poetry remains a profoundly national affair.  That "American" modifier is so automatic we don't even have to say it any more.  I will say, however, from my limited experience with writers in Mexico, Spain and Brazil, that they tend to make their way much as we "Americans" do, by scrapping together teaching gigs and readings and lectures and little grants. 

The Discourse of the University does not require a University to produce it.

We are at the end of the age of the "great writer," says Foucault in The Debate on Human Nature, a text I am teaching this semester.   I was reminded of this when I read, near the end of Jake's essay:  


The desire for literary immortality became impossible to maintain in such an environment so poets abandoned the concept as just another extinct idea. They projected into a future that would arrive and disappear as quickly as their poems were read, seen or heard. 

Likewise, Charles Bernstein told me in conversation that we need to take poetry less seriously and treat it more like we treat other elements of pop culture.  When I report this anecdote to my students they don't even understand the question.

I learned carpentry from my father and made a fair living at it for decades.  If you give me the dimensions of a roof, I can cut every rafter on the ground, and they will all fit.  It is satisfying work, but if you're obsessed with poetry and its many streams, it's hard to go through every working day without ever hearing the topic mentioned, so I finally gave up and went to work in academia.  I don't think there are many poets teaching in  creative writing programs who don't feel, at some level, that they "gave up" and surrendered to the system.  But they have no greater role in the University discourse than I, as a carpenter, had in the moloch of the construction industry.

If tales from ancient Greece and Rome and Ireland are any measure, poets have always been, to some degree, sellouts.  Selflessness is not a quality that buys the leisure necessary to ply this trade.  

"Beyond even twilight or shadows, no trace of it can be directly perceived," says Jake of the Otherstream.  Again, we are reminded of the unconscious as Lacan describes it.  But the unconscious is discernible, if only in glimpses, through slips of the tongue, automatic writing, slurred speech, typos. 

For the Knownstream flows where the Otherstream guides it.

River passing by at night: all that volume and we hear nothing. Except, maybe, now and then, the faintest little splash. 





copyright © Bill Lavender




Bill Lavender's most recent book of poetry is Memory Wing, from Black Widow in 2011. Transfixion was published in 2009 by Trembling Pillow and Garret County Presses. Poems from this book have been published online in E*Ratio and Fieralingua, and in print in YAWP, Fell Swoop, and Prairie Schooner. Books also include I of the Storm (Trembling Pillow 2006), While Sleeping (Chax Press 2004), Look the Universe is Dreaming (Potes and Poets 2002), and Guest Chain (Lavender Ink 1999). Bill is the proprietor of Lavender Ink and Managing Editor at UNO Press.