Wednesday, March 18, 2009

viva la cliché

Robert Archambeau, a few days ago, fleshed out a list of seven "don'ts" in poetry. The original list was from Jason Guriel's review of Chronic by D.A. Powell. The idea is that the list pin-points 7 clichés of contemporary poetry. Here is Robert's list:

1. "reliance on buzzwords" (think: absence, abjection, the body, ellipsis, etc.)
2. "distrust of order" (as both theme and compositional principle)
3. "distrust of linearity and having a point" (call it Ashberying)
4. "anxiety over what words mean" (or, I'd add, the pose of anxiety)
5. "romantic bluster" (think Hart Crane on a bad day)
6. "imprecision" (I bet a comparison of contemporary poetic syntax and that of Swinburne would be instructive)
7. "sympathy for small critters" (I think this one's pretty self-explanatory)

I have a problem with this list on a few levels.

The list fails to get at the real issue here, It fails to pinpoint the problem that is behind any cliche poetry that exhibits these qualities. And, in fairness, Archambeau knows this (and in the end, I probably don't disagree with the sentiment of the list at all). He says:
But the point isn't that these are bad things, just that they've become a kind of decadent tradition in poetry, a set of gestures often made less because they have importance but because they are taken to signal "poeticness."
So the real problem isn't the existence of these clichés in any poem, it is the very act of approaching the making of a poem with no other goal than aesthetic conformity.

In America these days, we hate clichés because they reveal the fact that the poet (director, author, etc.) is merely trying to create a marketable product. It's something we all know, but find disgusting to think about. We want them to (as the director in the Rocketeer says) "Act, but don't act like you're acting -- so act, but act like you're not acting".

So if the real problem is the approach to poetry making with no goal but aesthetic conformity, what does a list do? Why does Archambeau encourage reviewers to "print them out, make laminated cards, and hang said cards from lanyards around their necks"? Just what we don't need: more reviewers that work from a list of "thou-shalt-nots".

The List (not this one, the List in general) is a form that does specific things. The temptation is to make one under the assumption that each item accomplishes its own thing apart from its placement in a list. Pointing out clichés is one thing, placing them in a numbered list is another. (I should blaug about lists at some point, I love lists).

I agree with the list insofar as I agree that the items are clichés, but many of them are too general to be of any value, and any attempt to apply the list as a list of "thou-shalt-nots" falls quickly apart.

reliance on buzzwords. Yes, don't rely on buzzwords. Please though, do not create a list of words that you think of as buzzwords and comb poems for them. Do you really want to be a checklist-reviewer or poet? Gah. As soon as this item was placed on this list, it undermined it's own existence. The problem with buzzwords is that they discourage active reading, but so does combing poems for clichés.

distrust of order
. This is utterly meaningless actually, without some very specific examples. So chaos is just cliché then?

distrust of linearity and having a point. Same problem as above. (And look, I understand that I'm not actually critiquing what Archambeau "means" by posting this list, and I'm not trying to. I'm addressing what the list actually "does" in its context of being a list of "thou-shalt-nots"). If western poetry has spent the past thousands of years or so being "linear" and "having a point", I think it's jumping the gun a little bit to say that anything that isn't "linear" is being cliché. Doesn't it seem a little weird to call anything that isn't "thing x" a cliché? So like, not towing the party-line is cliche? I was once called "cliché" for criticizing GWB.

What is actually meant by this item is probably a worthwhile thing that needs addressing. It's probably something like "there are endless ways to be non-linear, there's no excuse for just imitating Ashbery". Also, many people assume that non-linearity is something that needs to be forced out in some particular way. It would be interesting to study the very specific ways in which contemporary poetry constructs what it calls "non-linearity" (but what is really just another particular "style"). The item on the list doesn't address any of these more interesting questions though. It just creates two categories of poets: the "Linear" and "The Distrusters".

Q. What type of person frames the relationship between "linearity" and "non-linearity" as a dichotomy?

If you have an answer for this question, you lose.

anxiety over what words mean. What does this even mean? Archambeau adds "the pose of anxiety" which makes it a whole lot better. Am I really not supposed to be anxious about words anymore? Ok everyone, the Chaos of language is over. It is time to go home.

Once again, this isn't specific enough. And Guriel and Archambeau's versions of this item are the opposite. "anxiety over what words mean" vs. "the pose of anxiety over what words mean". The first suggests that the anxiety is cliché, whereas Archambeau suggests that the anxiety is what we need, and it's the fakers we need to root out (and I agree).

romantic bluster. Oh humans.

imprecision. Another ironic item. Who is it aiming at. Without specifics (Guriel gives one, but it fails to quite hit the imprecision mark) this is just a generic knock at whoever the list-wielder happens have in mind.

Any of these items could spark its own very interesting discussion, but placed in a list like this, they just become style points. And this is the whole reason your boring-ass poetry is so cliché in the first place, because you follow lists of style points, of do's and do-not's. You make your own rules, bro. Ok, I don't really think that either.

Here's a list of things to do to avoid clichés:

-learn to read (do this by bumbling around)
-learn to love or hate poems on command.
-learn to read (do this by sawing off other ways of reading)
-learn the insecurities you hide by hating certain poems
-learn to read (do this by accepting everything)
-learn how to run from your problems by hiding them behind a well honed style.
and then:
-learn to react to what is happening Now instead of the thing in your memory that the now reminds you of (do this by making/making-fun-of lists [also, it's good to keep in mind that this is all impossible, but so is communication, which has never stopped anyone.])

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