Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Messy Garden of Contemporary Poetics

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Contemporary classification of poetry is a bit of a mess. For the next few days, I will be staying in an apartment across from the Linnaeus Gardens, the birthplace of the 18th century classification system we still use. You know, the kingdom, phylum, class, order, and on system we use to organize the things in the world. Though ‘science,’ the original system was deeply embedded within the values of the period and place in which it developed. It was extremely hierarchical, deeply patriarchal, and, as it would turn out, inevitably imperialistic. Linnaeus’ Garden was, perhaps predictably, intended to replicate the Garden of Eden. However, over the years, the dubious (to say nothing of the just-plain-wrong) features have been softened and tweaked enough that nobody is calling for the entire system to be scrapped. Considering the fact of Einstein in between the 18th and the 21st Centuries, such a legacy, in itself, is remarkable.

Reflecting on my trip to the Garden, I started thinking about the way poetry gets talked about today, and in the process classified. Poets tend to resist classification (and for good reason). Poets en masse have created a privileged space of unknowable weeds and wild flowers that continues to insist on their wilderness. Life unfettered. Still, it is no great stretch of the mind to acknowledge poetry as a genre made up of forms that becomes themselves genres. Like a fractal splitting, we find genres inside genres inside genres, with potentially no limitation as exploration pushes ever deeper into expanding universes. Part of the resistances to closure, no doubt, emerges from the Mandelbrot immensity and intricacy of language.

Old poetry classifications focused on scale: epic, narrative, and lyric (set drama aside for now). The form-crashers of the 20th Century, however, in breaking poetry open pretty much did away with the relevancy of these distinctions. The Lyric, for instance, divided between expressive/confessional tendencies that portray the subject and musical/imagistic tendencies that undermine the subject. Epic, too, disappeared into long, sprawling, unfocussed, encyclopaedic collages, or else serial poems. Narrative poetry fared the worst by pretty much drying up completely (sorry Pratt, no one followed you down that railway). The old genres of poetry were primarily defined and distinguished based on theme and plot, or else style and metre. But contemporary writing, starting from the free verse revolution seems oriented more by the depiction of consciousness than the form of the writing itself. Sonnets can be written by anyone, from whatever poetry camp.

To my eye, the most innovative developments in contemporary writing build from Pound various composition by field models to connect diverse webs of multiple consciousnesses into their poems – even in short ‘lyric’ poems. But the single-cell consciousness approach has survived as well, leading to the biggest division in contemporary writing, variously expressed as lyric versus anti-lyric, school-of-quietude versus post-avant, or confessional versus language writing. The lyric survives (and, some would argue, is over-represented and rewarded) by its investigation of the individual human consciousness in relation to otherness. It is an outward direction that begins with the assumption of subjectivity, and, often, unravels the certainty upon which the I accrues significance. Anti-lyric writing, or multi-cell consciousness, destabilizes that I by considering or exploring (or exploding) how language, ideology, technology, and so on, shape, determine, limit, or guide the experience of subjectivity. These are terse summaries, only meant to highlight a difference in terms of the different perspectives of consciousness. When flarf poets or conceptual writers or language writers or plunderverse authors collect and make art of found words and wordscapes, they all draw attention to the fundamentally social nature of language, denying or undermining the “inside” consciousness that lyric writing tends to depend on as a starting point.

Right now I’m on a plane to Reykjavik, reading a new lyric book by Susan Musgrave (properly, an elegiac collection), and as if to make my point about lyric poetry and consciousness for me, she quotes Rumi: “What I want most / is to spring out of this personality / then to sit apart from that leaping. I’ve lived too long where I can be reached.”

Of course the primary chunk of contemporary attempts to classify this division amounts to little more than reductive declarations that my poetics are better than your poetics. While I am inclined to agree that my poetics are indeed better than your poetics, pulling back for a moment, the implications of the division seem more intriguing than definitive. The shift from old classifications to one shaped by consciousness and language is rich and significant. Still, it seems strange and slightly absurd the way writers defend their preferred poetry ideologically. They are, after all, and to bring it back to Linnaeus, genres – kinds. Types of writing that do different things, awaken different potentials, access different modes and moments of consciousness. It’s no more a contradiction that bpNichol, Canada’s great experimental poet, wrote great love poems and great concrete poems than it is that Milton wrote classic elegies and a classic epic.

Despite how I began this potentially endless, meandering post, one of Carl Linnaeus’ chief contributions to taxonomy was to undo the entrenched hierarchies that bogged down other systems. As one writer on Linnaeus explains, he offered botanists a way to avoid the old “are cats lower or higher than dogs?” debate. Though his system was plagued with other problematic hierarchies, he allowed scientists (both professional and hobbyists) to participate in their natural world by recognizing its subtler details outside of and before judgement. What is remarkable to me is that, given contemporary poetry’s insistence on resisting or breaking classification, and the vitality of its resolute wilderness, how deeply hierarchical and adversarial the rhetoric of classification has become. It often seems a bit besides the point.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page