[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
A neoliberal specter haunts poetry today.
This thesis is too much for a few lines to convey
but hopefully my rough periplum suffices
to sketch our new vices and their devices.
Art & politics, according to Jacques Rancière
lend to each other only that which they share:
the parceling out of collective imaginations,
the figuring and arrangement of occupations
& the perceptions that generate reaction-formations
to the situations we defend as civilized innovations
or condemn as merely populist demonstrations.
Neoliberalism restructures our civic relations
by equating the consumer’s “freedom” to choose
between brands x & y with much larger values—
such as democracy, liberty & the apple pie
of virtue that never stains your suit & tie.
“Markets first!” is the spectral battle-cry
CEOs & their pundits daily amplify
until it fills the echo-chamber of our TV-eye
with its moans: “goodbye to work, yet work to buy!”
This ideology arrives in time to mediate
the loss of a market in labor once thought inviolate—
the post-war regime of Fordist accumulation
loses ground to new kinds of appropriation—
new global territories & new fields of information
freshly sold & sown for financial speculation.
In North America, the arts lost tax-based subsidy
accomplished by promotion of a new hostility
targeting queer & otherwise deviant experiments
& closing down or buying up alternative environments
both actual & virtual. Meanwhile, a digital blizzard
conjured by techie gurus & advertising wizards
strands us in a nearly infinite sea of little island
offices, where, captains of our destiny, we try and
fail & try again, floundering in a network
of self-production & self-promotion. Temp work
& e-mail combine to entail an unprecedented up-tick
in productivity. No time for breaks or to call in sick
& who can afford the doctor’s bills, anyway?
We scramble to pay our own way each day
focused on salvation as we stand in meek confusion
on the margins of our downsized class reunions.
Poets, of course, are no strangers to the protean coast
of side-lined desire. We flourish, but at what cost?
No more center, no more margin is my answer.
We all know how the dance becomes the dancer
but when the troupe submits to marketplace reforms
what’s lost is a certain politicization of forms.
Twenty years ago, center & margin were well defined:
on the far right, new formalists, who would re-find
an age of sanity by returning to the refinements
of yesteryear. Their Bottom (or behind) went
to the White House when the second Bush
was crowned. On the left, the strongest push
came from the LANGUAGE outsiders
who hurled punk’d up, Lacanian curves & sliders
with names (“the new sentence,” “conduit,” “frame”)
they told us how love of self was to blame
for the deadening conformity of Poetry’s “free” verse.
Between these margins, the winning purse
went to poets, both felicitous & degraded,
who agreed to let the subject remain untranslated.
Mistaking form for voice, the centrists celebrated
a liberal conformity most carefully enunciated
in poems about oneself. The simple pleasures
& pains of life in proximity to middle-class leisure
should suffice, they sang. & wasn’t tennis nice?
& base ball? & wouldn’t a child-hood in Venice
be terrific if you were an academic & could afford
that sort of thing? To this Fordist center went the awards
& accolades, & along with them critical praise
& reputations to fit the day, if not all days.
But in twenty years, so much can change
& while the terrain remains, across the range
a subtle rearrangement has occurred. The right
& left no longer dance to such different beats.
Just as punk & classical, classic rock
R&B & rap & the new country & soft-cock
gothic emo are equally available on your i-pod
(long gone to copyright the aged rocker & the mod)
so too has Erato faced the market’s leveling
& lost thereby her most recent source of sting.
Right falls toward center, as does the left
& as ochlocracy leaves democracy bereft
of her accommodations & contradictions
the poetic field succumbs to exclusionary fictions
of false unity. The new center-right submits
to present conditions by crowning dimwits
like Kooser & Collins with the laurel wreath.
Both scribble by the wan light of sentiment’s hearth—
fed by the dull humor of newspaper verse
they rely on the parlor magician’s simple reverse:
in affirming their status as fortunate dullards
they make poetry safe for the aisles of Borders
where they sit side-by-side in placid morbidity
with colleagues of the center-left’s new hybridity.
But while the populists disown their craft
the children of deconstruction exaggerate its breadth
& depth with no regard for breath’s relation to action.
Raised on lite versions of Olson’s proprioception
they plumb the furthest reaches of time & space
not so much to know as to reserve their place
in the publishing queues at Greywolf & Fence.
This “postmodern sublime” mistakes for dense
what is merely opaque: we’re meant to take
every rupture in the syntax & every break
in the line as evidence of a new discovery.
Such “extremity of experience” as university
workshops find these days is quite remarkable
for adjusting so well to what is marketable.
And just as both parties, since Reagan, have agreed
on trickle-down & sending factories overseas
today’s poetic factions—the humorists
with their mild parodies and voluminous
egos, and the weavers of golden fragments
who wear their souls’ complicity like a fragrance—
agree to let the marketplace decide
at ever divergence which road to ride.
Both deride lyrical subjectivity
with a mildness that makes cynical complicity
a virtue: repudiating an authentic self
becomes the best way to Amazon’s shelf.
The collapse continues. It’s becoming critical.
Our only hope is to make ourselves political
by pushing back against the tide we feel
until we reach the shores of the Outsidereal.
The term’s Dorn’s, but the project’s Objective
in the broadest sense: the outsider perspective
calls forth a world of actual practices
to remind us that the imagination is
always larger than the world it’s nestled in.
It’s critical. But never too late to begin.