Some months ago, I reviewed Camille Paglia’s 2005 book of poetic criticism, Break Blow Burn. At the time, I was interested in Paglia’s observation that
In gathering material for this book, I was shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past forty years. Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific, but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive self-contained poem. They have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era. Elevating process over form, they treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page. Arresting themes or images are proposed, then dropped or left to dribble away. Or, in sign of lack of confidence in the reader of material, suggestive points are prosaically rephrased and hammered into obviousness. Rote formulas are rampant – a lugubrious victimology of accident, disease, and depression or simplistic, ranting politic
Since reading that passage, I’ve observed several examples of the trends that Paglia noted. I’ve even needed to have a close look at my own poetry and question my approaches and intentions.
It is with some interest, then, that I found a contrast to that bleak outlook on the social relevance of modern poets in Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. The book is published by Penguin (2018) and is worth the time spent in the reading. I can’t say that I agree with all of Chua’s perspectives, and in a few instances I think she starts with some unstable foundations. Ironically, for a book that points out the myopic and self-centred approach that Americans take to global and regional politics, Chua’s own interests rarely seem to go beyond a focus on what might be good for the US of A. Setting quibbles aside, Chua delves the subject of political tribes well.
What does all that have to do with poetry and Paglia’s assertions? In a chapter titled Terror Tribes, Chua says
Like the caliphates of yore, ISIS has “court poets”, including celebrity poetess Ahlam al-Nasr who married the Vienna-born ISIS bigwig Aub Usama al-Gharib to great social media fanfare, making them the “it” couple of terrorism – a “jihadi power couple.”
Later in the book, Chua references the struggles for dogmatic (tribal) supremacy within feminism and race politics in the united states by quoting blogger ShiShi Rose
“Now is the time for you to be listening more, talking less. You should be reading our books and understanding the roots of racism and white supremacy. You should be drowning yourselves in our poetry.”
Combining the observations of Paglia and Chua, one conclusion might be that mainstream poetry and poetics have become a ground for self-indulgent academics and diarizers on the one hand and ranting tribalists on the other.
As regards the ranting tribalism side of this argument, how different are al-Nasr and Rose from Shevchenko when writing on nationalistic themes, Clarke when writing on matters of history and race, Connolly when exposing issues of vulnerable women or Owen as he describes his experiences in war? Perhaps not so different in what they attempt to achieve on paper (capturing the sentiments of their era and their own reactions to them) but perhaps very different in whether the reader is sympathetic to their particular tribal values, traditions, assertions, and goals.
Considering the self-indulgent academics and diarizers, there is plenty of evidence of this trend in modern poetry. There are books and careers built upon technical experimentation such as Christian Bok’s Eunoia and there are altogether too many books (and it is not worth citing them) of poetry which feature the poet’s most emotionally charged memories in lines rather than paragraphs…with hopes that this, too, qualifies as poetry.
In context of these observations, it is tempting to portray the ranters as motivated primarily by group identity and the diarizers and academics as motivated by individual identity; it might also be interesting to ponder the diarizers and academics as fine examples of modernism (the art and artist as an undifferentiated spectacle) while the ranters may be cast as equally fine demonstrations of neo-tribalism (the art and artist signalling the virtues of their sub-cultural dogma).
Perhaps it is even possible to extend the analysis of these groups of poets to consider one group as overtly reliant on inductive poetic processes while the other is overly reliant on deductive poetic processes. I’m going to nod to a C.E. Chaffin’s blog post from 2007 as he seems to gesture to something similar (though I’ve discovered this only a moment ago):
Deductive Poetry originates from within, based on internal projections on the page, imagined scenarios, monologues of imagination, twisting facts and experience to accord with its production. Shakespeare subjugates poetry to character, for instance….Inductive Poetry rules the present age, and is based on real experiences recited in poetic form, whether pigeons resting on a statue or the experience of nearly being run over by a taxi. Inductive poetry builds from experience towards an emotional conclusion.
And finally I will ruminate that it is interesting that Martin Heidegger postulates The Thinker As Poet but abandons the theme (as Paglia argued) instead of exploring it. It is a theme worth exploring. What types of thinkers are all of these ranters, diarizers, neo-tribalists and individualists. What types of poets are they, too?
I predict that the poetry and poetics of academia shall soon (if it hasn’t already) completely abandon the ethos of modernism (including post-modernism) in preference for neo-tribalism.