Monday, August 21, 2006


I just posted this in response to a strand on the Buffalo Poetics list, and thought it came out well enough to put here:

The claim that poetry and politics are essentially opposed is a sigh of resignation that wants to make itself universal.

In a recent workshop on "Poetry and the News" (given at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee), Kerri Sonnenberg put some emphasis on the value of "vulnerability" for poetry that concerns itself with politics. The explicit suggestion was that a political poem is more likely to appeal to/reach a reader if the poet doesn't seem to already know all the answers to her questions (and, therefore, if the poem raises questions-- this said with the caveat that a totally open indecisiveness that anyone can feel comfortable with is NOT what's being recommended). There are a number of appealing things about this notion and the ways it can be expanded.

For one thing, "vulnerability," leaving oneself open to error and to multiple possible solutions (and to more interesting problems than the ones we're handed--and, because of all this, to attack), seems to me to be an essential ethical concept at this time, when we've suffered through almost five years of a relentless emphasis on "security." Support for the all-out "war on terror" has been (especially since 9/11) based largely on an insistence on the right to a total safety; do I need to point out that this safety is factually impossible? That nothing whatsoever can ensure an absolute safety on any scale? In the face of this, the demand for invulnerability amounts to a sociopathic paranoia. This is as true on the interpersonal scale as it is on the global. Letting vulnerability be is one way of removing oneself from power relations whose tendency is to reproduce themselves (indefinitely deferring their own impossible satisfaction), and whose consequences are brutal.

Recently, as part of an ongoing investigation of her book "The Fatalist," I watched a Kelly Writers' House talk given by Lyn Hejinian (archived on the PennSound site), in which she discusses the "open text" explicitly in terms of the contrary desire for closure, again in reference to 9/11. She identifies the need to close the narrative begun by the events of that day as one of the major political crises of our day.

Too often the idea of "openness" in poetry is oversimplified (made vague and broad) and caricatured, mostly by people who want to take a swipe at "LangPo," and can do so by not examining the actual work of those writers, but instead taking one or two sentences from an essay written in the late '70's and riffing on that. In her talk, Hejinian proposes one of many specific kinds and functions of openness (the "rejection of closure" for crucial political reasons) in poetic writing.

Openness and vulnerability. Poetry is a comparatively safe place to practice these. Even a prescriptive political poetry (isn't this an unlikely term? who will have their politics prescribed by a poem? "no-one listens to poetry") can allow its prescriptions to include their own cracks, uncertainties, provisionalities, tactical transiences, the new questions and problems raised by those very solutions offered as prescriptions. Vulnerability means maintaining a space for an active, thinking listening in the face of the insistent beat of rectitude that can only be heard and absorbed.

("no/ one listens to poetry")



  • At August 25, 2006 at 7:55 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    mmm, you're showing a nice essayistic turn here Andy. I didn't realize the Kelly Writers House site offers video as well as audio. Will have to give a (literal) look-see.

    The peculiar cultural symbolism of 9/11 (in terms of archetypal ideas or themes involving crisis / hazard / danger / safety / attack / hatred / etc.) seems, at present, unique in the collective American psyche.

    One wonders how Ginsberg would have dealt with it.

  • At August 25, 2006 at 10:42 PM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    Thanks, David.

    I started this blog with the intention of writing almost exclusively (proto-) essays, and feel like I've done far too much other stuff.

    Since the posting to BuffPo, I've had a couple of interesting responses and a number that are well-intentioned, but basically parrot familiar ideologies about how any ethical or aesthetic commitment or discipline is exclusionary, or even fascistic... which is absolutely not what I'm aiming for. But such is the vulnerability that comes with the territory of discussing "vulnerability."

    I wish I knew how to spell "commit(t?)ment."

  • At August 26, 2006 at 7:15 AM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    The Merriam-Webster Online (pardon its popups) claims one [internal] T for commitment though two for committing. I think the emphasis on the 2nd syllable of commitment is what can dispose a writer to feel inclined to double it; all this investment makes one assume that at least another letter should be spent. And, too, there's the 2-T model of the "non-committal".)

    It's been long since I've been a habitual BuffPo reader. Certainly a venue where the toss of a proto-essay is apt to elicit some manner of chatter.

    In your essay, you present or imply an either/or (vis-a-vis responses or ways of responding to the 9/11 phenomenon); but of course, an intelligent response can include some elements from Box A and some from Box B (and others to boot). The thoughtful reader can fill in such blanks without demanding that the writer always state the obvious.

    digression: in another context, I lately analyzed (and marvelled at) how the writings of humorists so frequently (nearly ubiquitously) highlight and play upon a gap (often a glaring gap) between connotation and denotation -- between what is understood as the shared and intended meaning of an utterance, and what is logically or restrictively stated by the bald words themselves. In this respect, humor seems concerned with the dimensions of irony per se.

  • At September 22, 2006 at 12:52 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…


    I've wrestled with this poetry/politics thing for ages, and I don't have a solution.

    I think poets who self-consciously set out to write politically directed works risk completely subverting their imaginative gifts in the service of ephemeral ends.

    On the other hand, a fully informed sensiblity includes the political context as being an integral part of the context of every human utterance.

    The problem is finding a way in which the political doesn't dominate the aesthetic to its exclusion.

    People who see themselves as at the struggling end of the economic spectrum tend to become preoccupied with the political realm in art, as if to overcome the hardships which inequality creates. In other words, they become galvanized by circumstances. But the writing which lasts, rarely lasts BECAUSE of its politics, usually on the contrary in SPITE OF them.

    Is it possible to have interesting thoughts about the universe and language and form, without the implication of just what circumstances lead one to that vantage? Must mere speculative animadversion always signal a privileged exploitation of society's greater resources, or at least a trivial pastime?

    Neruda and Borges can be favorably compared in this argument. Each was sensitive to the conditions of class and government, each understood the implications of political and non-political poetry. I think both wrote brilliantly, one with a strong political bent, the other without.

    We need to have or make room for both kinds.


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