I’ve been thinking a lot lately—ever since the night when I blurted out to a friend, “I think poetics is stupid”—about words like “doing” (as in, “What Michael Nicoloff is doing in his writing is…”) and “engaging” (as in, “I’m engaging with [fill-in-the-blank politically charged topic]”) and “intervention” (that thing we’re supposedly doing sometimes when we’re “doing” and “engaging,” and a word that seems to imply effecting change). I have some problems with these words, some of which I’m still trying to tease out. I don’t think it’s lost on most people that the zero degree of poetry is that most of it is being read by the same, relatively small group of people, most of whom are writers themselves, and in turn I don’t think it’s lost on most people that any kind of “intervention”—I’m thinking of intervention in that hazy cultural/political sphere—that poetry is participating in is likely going to be small-scale and happening in the minds of an already-primed audience of poets. I know that that’s a point of frustration for some writers sometimes; I know it is for me. And so when I hear poetic work analyzed using those words, discussed in the context of the political work it purports to be doing, I tend to shut off; the proliferation in intros, extended essays, and blurbs of analyses of a work’s politicized literary meaning and the political effect it (potentially) has on that small group always makes me say, okay, but, well, it’s only us in this room who are reading it. And it irks me that more statements of poetics don’t at least factor that into claims they’re making—and maybe that’s why we end up some nights with me and my blurt.
But once you pause for a second and quit yr aggro bad-vibing about the state of the Art, you start to see that maybe all that railing is blinding you to the fact that there’s a whole world of helpful analysis that isn’t really being done. I don’t want to uncritically retreat into conventional disciplinary categories of academia, but I nonetheless think that if we shift our preoccupations and started asking our questions using terms and concepts from the social sciences, and actually follow through by taking advantage of the fruitful methodologies from those same disciplines, we’d end up not just with some critical work that’d make for fascinating reading but also with a better sense of our place and relevance both as individual artists and as artistic communities. Maybe the poems themselves aren’t reaching that wide of an audience, for sure, but reading and writing it is still affecting the poets, changing how they think (in ways too often left vaguely defined—maybe neuroscience needs to join the party, too), and it’s not as though these poets are only interacting with each other, even though it seems that way sometimes. Furthermore, stepping back one level of remove, poetry communities obviously don’t exist in isolation from other institutions and structures—e.g. ([Small Press Traffic] CCA), ([The (New) Reading Series] 21 Grand)—and in turn have a reciprocal relationship. Artist’s statements and literary analysis certainly have their place, but when it comes to the questions of poetry and politics, I’d much rather see a lot more work that historically tracks poetry’s formal institutions and informal bodies, that traces who is talking to whom (non-poet and poet) and in turn how the movements of one in-group alter the trajectory of another, that asks where the grant money and independent wealth that buttresses some of our organizations and small presses is actually coming from. Etc. Because to really understand the ways Poetry (capital P, including the poets, their work, their reading series, their watering holes) does and does not have effects in society, and the ways in which it could refocus, redirect, or, god forbid, increase its own relevance, we don’t need another articulation of what someone’s “doing” or “engaging” with: we need a sociology of poetry.