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The Conspiracy Against Poems






Adam Fieled



There is no historical evidence to suggest that during the Romantic era, something called “Poetics” existed. At the time, Wordsworth and Coleridge, both identifiable as “Lake” poets, initiated investigations of a theoretical nature, centered on poetry. These investigations were one of Coleridge’s métiers; Wordsworth rarely identified himself as something other than a poet. The controversies that surrounded Wordsworth, from the publication of Lyrical Ballads forwards, were centered jointly on his poems and the theories that buttressed them. Why is it that in 2010, a majority of poets, particularly those toiling in experimental milieus, seem both more grounded in and more stimulated by theories than by the poems they bolster? What is this nebulous entity, “poetics,” and how has it sapped the life out of what it is meant to serve? The chief weakness of the pursuit of “poetics,” as I see it, is that it puts premiums on two red herrings—novelties and political correctness. “Poetics,” as practiced by the bolder American universities, wants to investigate the newest of the new, anything (striated, of course, within the taut bounds of political correctness) that has not been done before. But practicing “poetics” creates and perpetuates its own kind of romantic ideology—an unthinking and uncritical belief in one’s self-representations as planted firmly in the new, fresh, and bold. This insidious addiction to novelty cuts off poetics from a serious engagement with poetry’s history. It upholds the post-modern ethos that history is essentially a master narrative created in a homogenous vacuum, and thus worthy to be trashed. Why poetics configures a conspiracy against poems is that it bifurcates poetry, as a realm, into two realms (poetry and theory) and dictates that poems should serve theory and not vice versa.


Poets weaned on poetics never quite reconcile themselves to the reality that poems spun out of flimsy theoretical material cannot have any great or striking impact, either in the long or the short term. All this movement towards theory and concept is mirrored in other art forms; but as the post-modern impulse ages, it may be seen that when taken to an extreme, as it has been in experimental poetry, it creates such an aura of rapid obsolescence around new poetry that one wonders why new poems are being written at all. As the novelty aspect of poetics pushes for newness and gimmick-consonance, the political correctness angle further sharpens things against the emergence of poems. Simply put, poetics is mainly a construct established and put into propulsive motion by white, middle-class academics; and as multiculturalism has emerged as a subsidiary branch of post-modernism, a sense of guilt moves participants not only towards the outré but towards anything ethnic or deviant. The problem with poetics generally is that there is little quality control. The conceit of post-modern poetics is that there is no such thing as “quality”; quality is a teetering edifice erected by hegemonic white males to reinforce a master narrative patched up against invasion. Yet the way post-modernists configure things cuts off the levels of nuance within consensus opinions (borne out or subtly shifted over long periods of time) that build canons. Could it be possible that poems sometimes last because they have quality? If quality is not completely subsumed in evanescence, then both novelty and political correctness approaches become quixotic arrows shot at wavering targets. But the point is that in many circles these approaches have become standardized. Generations are now beginning to emerge who have been weaned on these approaches. The upshot is that poets have been formed who respond to theory first, poems second. If poems are a subsidiary branch of theories, then poetry as an endeavor has become so bastardized and decadent that it has ceased to be itself. I want to argue for the permanent preponderance of poems over poetics, and that poems, rather than poetics, need to be starting the fires that add luster to our lives as artists.


There is obviously a neat meta-irony at work here. If this piece starts any fires, it may seem, in the short term, to annihilate itself as poetics qua poetics, willy-nilly. But the larger issues may make the endeavor worthwhile—that post-modern theory may be killed by artists with art, and if the first baby steps remain theoretical, so be it. What kind of poem, in 2010, could start a fire? Wordsworth’s arsonist techniques involved what he deemed a new kind of language. This is what we need now—a new kind of language. This language, not qua poetics but beyond poetics, would have to eschew certain kinds of novelty and political correctness. It isn’t enough to wish for a return to narrative—it needs to be determined what a post-post-modern narrative is (and I freely admit that post-modern is important enough that it needs to be assimilated). The inescapable accusation that follows hard upon these assertions is of regressive conservatism—that moving into a new language world that has consonance with narrative and engages the entire history of poetry is tantamount to going backwards. Yet, it has not yet been widely noted that post-modernism has pushed the art-forms it has infiltrated so far in narrow directions that there is no room for any movement but a backwards one. In an experimental landscape dominated by poems impoverished on both sound and sense levels, to argue for sound and sense becomes a radical move. Thus, sound and sense, the ostensible pillars riveting poems to the ground that they might ascend, become signifiers of detested Romantic impulses, holding out bogus claims of transparency and dangerous delusions of grandeur. In such a landscape, the way forward is the way back, because it must be. For every gimmicky vista that opens up and is instantly thwarted, poets lose more of the capacity to both appreciate and generate the kind of texts that make poetry worthwhile—texts that find inventive ways and shrewd angles with which to create the balance of sound and sense that is the hallmark of durable poetry. Poetry that is truly inventive does not need to entail gimmickry—nor does it need to recreate Romantic sincerity, Victorian sonority, Modernist objectivity or post-modern acerbity. And because invention cannot be anticipated, it would be destructive for me to predict what form it will take or how it will be disseminated.


Poetry is shrewish. For poems to come along and start fires, they would have to burn through enormous resistances. The reason, historically borne out, is that movements become entrenched, and entrenched movements have a tremendous capacity for denial, obliviousness, and discouragement. Because poetry contexts do not entail gross, or even minor, amounts of capital being made or spent, the rewards poets work for are more or less intangible. As such, there is a tremendous delicacy to poets that often congeals into rigidity. That mature poets are often stiffened into rigid postures, and demand degrees of obeisance, necessitates that younger poets receive strong encouragements to conform or be killed. It is also inevitable that each generation will raise only a few poets above the crowd. Nevertheless, to the extent that poets are willing to take up cudgels, a preponderant sense of poems is worth fighting for. Post-modernism has been attenuated into something quite tame; to the extent that the only leaps left to make are, at least in the short term, backwards leaps (into narrative, emotion, sonority) means that the post-modernists expunged too much from what poetry had been before they put up their grayish fortresses. Yet this cannot be a manifesto, because I do not wish to promote any agendas. The essential agenda here is to create, if possible, a context in which poets can decide for themselves the best means of arson, because these grayish fortresses need to be burnt to the ground. It is over the ashes of the moribund that we invent; and if what we invent is poems, and if the poems are built sturdily enough, we do not need to worry that we will appear grayish to whoever succeeds us. That this work needs to be accomplished in different solitudes, rather than in groups, is worth considering; isolation is not merely Romantic, it may be a job requirement. Clannishness and conformity are the major enemies here.



copyright © Adam Fieled


Adam Fieled is a poet, critic, and musician currently based in Philadelphia. He has released three print books: Opera Bufa (Otoliths, 2007), When You Bit... (Otoliths, 2008), and Chimes (Blazevox, 2009), as well as numerous e-books, chaps, and e-chaps. His work has appeared in journals like Tears in the Fence, Great Works, Upstairs at Duroc, Cake Train, and in the &Now Anthology from Lake Forest College Press. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he also holds an MFA from New England College and an MA from Temple University, where he is finishing his PhD.