Recently we conducted an excavation of Contemporary Art with an emphasis on photography.
The images were uniform and the uniform was aesthetically a kind of Retro East German Chic presented as if it were as subversive as a Wiemar whorehouse specializing in leather, morphine and blow.
Color if present was dulled, the faces were uniform in their vapid stares, the settings were exagertated depictions of suburban conformity or bleak industrial vistas and all together everything looked like something Stalin would have ordered from a catalog.
The idea, such as it is, behind this aesthetic, is that a minimalistic and sharp edged precision is the authentic response to the Moby Dick sized terror of the mass culture machine in all of its permutations.
Mass culture here being defined as, imperial adventures curated by Borg Drones who have taken Public Relations classes, and who work for people who paid someone to take the final for them at a well endowed business school.
To be an intellectual among these people is to be defined by the fact that you read Dover Beach – once – and believe culture had a nervous breakdown at the beginning of the 20th century and the solution was discipline and a copy of Spengler.
Culture qua Culture did of course have a nervous breakdown but that in turn was one of a rolling tide of breakdowns and those nervous conditions produced everything from the fetish gang in Berlin counting trains, to Bob Dylan.
Mass Culture is of course a genuine issue – the Culture Industry, the wars, the economic thunder dome and soico-political steel cage death match are all authentic concerns.
Munch’s Scream, and Ginsberg’s Moloch are not without significance.
As always feel free to make your own list – and we understand the inventory of what Henry Miller in a slightly different context referred to as nothing but hallucinations, crisis and breakdowns, is vast.
But we are here today concerned with the state of poetry.
That state is of course a vast continent and alternative conditions exist. However there is a uniform style or anti-style that dominates.
First there is the editorial claim common to an enormous cadre of small-ish magazines. These statements assure the reader and supplicant that they – the editors – are interested in a wide variety of form and content – of distinctive styles. This is followed of course by statements about how they are specifically open to “feminist” and “LBGTQ” and “Voices of the marginalized.”
This of course is both insincere and as sincere as an insurance salesman after three highballs and an appointment to get hair plugs and whiter teeth.
You pays your money and you takes your chances can be defined as cheep cynicism but it is worth keeping in mind.
Beyond that though is the truth – read past issues and you will find the same style and the same content corseted into the style over and over and over again stretching back years.
The form is generally of a few lines per “stanza” or “paragraph” and a relatively small number of these stanzas repeated down the page.*
The language is matter of fact and descriptive then set off by what appears to be a juxtaposition of words that on the surface make no sense or per quotidian usage do not belong together.
In other words, like a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table the language is designed to snap the reader out of the steady flow of the normal and the day to day.
In and of itself this is the very idea of poetry in its Modern form – to shock the reader out of dull conformity and the dreary paint by numbers routines of the Mass Culture machinery of night.
All well and good except the language is not very shocking for several reasons.
First because the form is repeated over and over again in the thousands if not tens of thousands and secondly because the content follows the form.
Earnest poems by earnest poets for earnest readers of small-ish earnest magazines determined to showcase just how earnest they are.
The style forces the language to conform and the conforming language forces the reader to conform in thought and expression which of course contradicts the very idea of the art.
The stripped down tone, the staccato delivery of chambered slugs fired at point blank range with little but damp powder to propel them do much of little and everyone goes home.
As with the photographs what has gone missing are color, joy, joyous sex, life, joyous life, and the pop snap and wow that are each themselves authentic response to the Mass Culture Borg Drone.
Which is not to say that this response is the only legitimate one. A dirge has its uses and sadness and anger, and rage are all in the mix.
The issue is not content but the dead end uniformity of style its impact on content and the insistence that the work is not at all uniform.
Lurking behind the absence is a demand that such language – the language of WOW – is to be exiled – condemned, ghettoized.
It is viewed as illegitimate precisely because it is not drab. The suspicion is that joy is both insincere, conveying conformity if not apology for the regime but also is a sinister force that must be confronted.
As the bumper sticker has it: If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.
This of course is ironic and toxic.
This is East German chic rendered as subversion.
It is in fact a kind of linguistic Stockholm Syndrome.
Which then begs the question – where does this come from?
The answer of course is the very nemisis of the earnest poets – the Borg Coollective and the Mass Culture Machine.
MFA Programs exist because universities are scams designed to separate fools from their money.
Universities are themselves nesting dolls inside the capitalist system which demands artificial scarcity as the sin qua non of boosting the value of stocks and commodities.
The more people saddled with the chain of debt the less money is in circulation and the less money there is the greater the relative value of property, and stocks. Add debt as a form of currency and you transform individuals into chattel bought, sold, traded, commodified.
The slick propaganda that accompanies this feeds a cultural heroin to the suckers – how to be cool, how to be a part of the “Resistance” and so on.
But the “Resistance” is a Pepsi commercial.
As noted imperial thug Al Haig said – protest as much as you like just so long as you keep paying your taxes.
The MFA programs in turn cough up a uniform set of styles each championed as examples of bursting independence while actually doing the greasy spade work of the corporatists who force feed ghettoized content through the marketing machine – “experimental” “traditional” “Beat” “Feminist” “Queer” and so on, each in its place on the shelf.
That this is a wholly owned colonial system within the imperial system is not discussed.
The blunt trauma reality of byzantine and corrupt publishing with its blood feuds and cock sucking favoritism, and its submission to the accountants who serve from their knees the corporate goons, is never discussed.
At regular intervals this system spaffs up the wall a new young genius – preferably female, or queer or both or “of color” and both clearing the path before them and following in their vapor trail come the breathless “reviews” of the trained seals – masquerading as authentic and independent excavations of the work.
The idea is that you, the reader, are witnessing the birth of a comet – a raw new talent lovingly curated within the artisanal confines of a small batch publishing environment.
The truth of course is that you are witnessing a car commercial except with more words.
After all, Zadie Smith is getting old so it must be time for Sally Rooney**
A survey of Poets & Writers list of magazines accepting poetry reveals a gray miasma and a broken metronome ticking off the same dull failed erections that are not only boring – which is bad enough – but worse still, are all boring in exactly the same way.
The counter argument, such as it is, offers up the old canard that art is subjective.
Opinions are subjective, aesthetics is a discipline like any other and thus, objective.
You could (to borrow an old joke) follow a fine Bordeaux with a Ding Dong but why would you want to and more importantly even if you did, understanding why shrimp doesn’t pair well with simultaneously eating ice cream, is a kind of wisdom about which there is nothing subjective.
A few years ago, Mark Edmundson, writing in Harpers, lamented the death of poetry that engaged with and spoke from and to the idea of a large voice – in this sense an expression of the idea that the POET spoke not about the details of breakfast but to the earth in all of its oceanic vastness.
The epic voice if not the epic itself had vanished.
The writers of stories, poems and novels have grown small and seek to live inside each other’s pockets.
Speaking to a famous writer doing time at an MFA program, he suggested the idea that the programs offered the would-be authors a chance to live and write unencumbered by anything else except writing, sex, the lack of both and getting published.
The famous writer laughed and dismissed the suggestion.
No one they said, was there to gain fame or be significant.
They wanted to curry just enough favor to secure a job at an MFA program where they could doll out just enough largess to pass the tray on to the next person in line and so on and on as if to say come to the window you bitches, the tenure track is full.
Consider this chilling example from his essay:
“Mass culture and mechanical reproduction surely play a part in the current retreat of American poetry, but what about MFA programs? Poetry now is something of a business. You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it’s a writer in residence from your undergraduate school. Then come the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship — which is to say pull.
To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor — you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key. If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance — well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master. The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel superior. He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go too far in displaying what he can do. The master will not like it — and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment. It is only by making the master look more accomplished, by writing in his mode, becoming a disciple, that the novice ascends.”
Edmundson of course was correct to lament and to criticize but like seemingly everyone else, he missed the crucial distinction between what gets written and what gets published.
That is, the issue is not to be framed, as Edmundson and others do, by asking why is no one writing this way anymore but why are those who are not getting published?
Granted that after decades of running into the corrupt walls of accountants and political cowards and assorted Quislings, precious little of the BIG VOICE is being written but in a country of over 300 million the idea that these stories, these poems, and plays, are not being birthed is suspicious if not downright absurd.
The truth of course is that America is a tyrannical corporate machine.
The MFA programs like the film industry, and the journalism schools, and business schools and our politics all scream CONFORMITY while insisting we be the freest of the free bestest of the bestest the mostest with the most.
Determined to quell their nervous breakdowns, the foot soldiers of poetry et al will insist they are unique- independent and fiercely original. This is the same tone expressed by the professional protestors who seem to sincerely believe that pink hats will topple the regime.
That they are in fact vampires and Borg Drones is not open for discussion and any attempt to contextualize publishing though the prism of the all-pervasive capitalist paradigm is denounced as reactionary, if not neo-fascist hysteria in the face of the authentically subversive.
The truth of course is exactly the reverse.
We would say they should look in the mirror but, as everyone knows, they have no reflection.
*Anticipating the response highlighting alternatives to the short sharp stanzas mentioned above, we are well aware of “experimental” writing. We are also aware of how it is within its own ghetto just another iteration of the same paint by numbers anti-style, devoid of authenticity.
**Consider that when Amy Schumer was doing her show, Inside Amy Schumer, she was celebrated for a routine in which she and two other famous actresses, played out a subversion of the not so hidden truth in which women are paraded along an aseembly line from fuckable to, too old.
The idea that this toxic truth is applicable elsewhere is of course off limits.
The fact that the same people own both the media production companies and the publishing houses is of course off limits.
The fact that there are no safety nets and that everyone is being terrorized into submission and conformity for fear that they will end up in a cardboard box under a freeway, is of course off limits.
Besides, here’s a new film based on a famous novel.
Now shut the fuck up and enjoy.
As to Zadie Smith Inc. keep in mind that she was curated during the gap between reactionary Thatcherism and the rise of “Cool Britannia” Blairism with its cadres of marketing weasels committed to “discovering” a “multi-cultural” England.
Cambridge scouts tripped over themselves to find Smith who gave them a few rough pages of manuscript which was slithered up the food chain and down the pipe came an advance for 250,000 quid, and a contract to exchange soul for fame.
Now approaching the event horizon of 50, Smith is being ushered off the stage replaced by the oh so young Ms. Rooney who we are assured, is a genius.
With a shelf life of a decade +.
To see Edmundson’s excavation of poetry’s dire state: