Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aesthetics, Poetics, and "The Conspiracy Against Poems"

I've been brushing up on the history of aesthetics lately. Which is to say, I'm reading various overviews of critical and philosophic thought that investigate why art creates an aesthetic response significant both to individuals and to the societies in which they live. As a multi-textured subject of inquiry, developed over hundreds of years, this body of discourse can be overwhelming, especially if I try to relate it to contemporary discussions of art, poetics, and literary culture.

In other words, I have encountered more concepts than I am prepared to address in a blog post. But the reason I'm studying aesthetics is that I recently revisited an essay by Adam Fieled at The Argotist Online - "The Conspiracy Against Poems" - and it clashed significantly with my own way of thinking.

In fact, I wanted to take Fieled to task on what I saw as a number of poorly supported assumptions and a terminology that was ill-defined in the context of his argument. But what led me to reacquaint myself with the history of aesthetic concepts in the first place was that I suspect, in more ways than one, that an argument like Fieled's (though not directly stated in the course of his reasoning) largely concerns how we approach the writing of poetry from an aesthetic standpoint.

And, phrasing it as such, I realize that I'm not sure how to fully support what I want to say. But here are a few assertions and remarks in Fieled's essay that got me going:

  • Currently "a majority of poets" are "more grounded in and more stimulated by theories than by the poems they bolster"
  • "Poetics" (implied by Fieled as both subject and object of the aforementioned "theories") is a "nebulous entity"
  • Poetry generated from this practice is primarily focused on an academically inspired quest for "novelties and political-correctness"
  • "This insidious addiction to novelty cuts off poetics from a serious engagement with poetry’s history"
  • "[P]oetics configures a conspiracy against poems" by dividing poetry into two opposed realms (poetry and theory)
  • And theory (as one of these realms) demands "poems should serve theory and not vice versa."

All of this comes from Fieled's opening paragraph and constitutes a thesis for his argument, well-reflected in the title of the essay. While reading the remainder, I found that if I look beyond the hyperbole of his assertions, he does hit on what for some are problematic issues. For instance, when he writes that the "conceit of post-modern poetics is that there is no such thing as 'quality'," he refers to a contestable notion that troubles many who are concerned about poetry and what is presumed to be its diminishing relevance in American culture, i.e. that the quality and popularity of contemporary poetry is being undermined by the inaccessible, elliptical nature of sub-standard practices.

But is the type of practice addressed by Fieled's essay really sub-standard, and does this appraisal (not to mention the practice itself) apply to "a majority of poets"?  Both assertions are highly debatable. In fact, he never specifies a particular practice or example to illustrate his point, but instead asserts generalized assumptions that fail to address or explore any of the issues he ostensibly raises. As an essay, "The Conspiracy Against Poems" is more like an agitated screed than anything else, asserting its conclusions as support for an argument that fails to critically engage any of the issues it rails against.

Still, there are "realms" of contemporary art and literature in which the primary significance of a work generates from it's purposeful (and frequently contrary) placement within overarching categories as an artistic gesture of critical defiance that explores the conceptual territories (and constraints) of traditionally defined practices that, in themselves, further relate to society in general. And there are texts which reflexively build from specific problematics derived from diverse branches of social theory.

Work of this character, with a conceptual frame that extends beyond the limitations of aesthetic control and traditional expectations, may even require a significant amount of knowledge and thought (not to mention curiosity) if it is to be effectively received and appreciated to its full potential. But is a culturally-engaged, experimental approach to poetry really a fetishized conceit, or do these artistic structures build from a significant logic intrinsic to their own emerging forms and thus merit more aesthetic legitimacy and lasting import than Fieled is willing to concede? Do they have quality?

Again, I bump up against what has become a troubling word - aesthetic - particularly as it applies (or doesn't apply) to a so-called "post-modern poetics." More precisely, what exactly defines "quality" in a work of art, literary or otherwise? What criteria determines (and limits) its legitimacy and potential significance within the broader field of a given practice?

More often than not, the answer to these questions involves time, discourse, and general acceptance. Which is to say, historic definitions of quality flow from the interrelated phenomena of human institutions, practitioners, historians, audiences, and critics in the continuously unfolding field of specific human societies. And these definitions have a genuine impact on our perception of quality in art.

While I don't believe that "experimentation for experimentation's sake" is always the best way to write a "quality" poem, I certainly don't see experimental poetics as being a detriment either. My own belief is that the practices to which Fieled takes exception can also work to expand the availability of verbal and conceptual tools necessary for good, even exceptional, poetry.

Contrary to Fieled's assertion, poets who engage theories of language and society don't necessarily ignore traditional skills or the time honored body of accomplishments from which those skills ultimately derive. They do, however, extend the palette of tools available for writing exceptional poems - even if (as is typical of poetry throughout history) a good deal of what's being written falls short of "exceptional."

More simply, "quality" takes care of itself. There will always be gatekeepers, and some (for better or worse) will always have more influence than others.Which, of course, leads me right back to the history of aesthetic inquiry. Here's a relatively recent quote on the Institutional definition of art (lifted from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that, for some, might throw the value of intrinsic quality into a thoroughly postmodern sense of disarray:
The Institutional definition of art, formulated by George Dickie, is in this class: “a work of art is an artefact which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by the artworld.”
Pretty simple, no? The definitive "quality" of art and poetry is whatever we collectively decide it to be - over a period of time - but institutions (formal or otherwise) frequently sit in the driver's seat when it comes to determining the influence of poetry that comes up for critical and popular appraisal. And, I might add, these institutions - collective subjects that confer status on objects of art - are not just academic, nor are they entirely "disinterested." ("School of Quietude" anyone?)

Food for thought, if nothing else. More later.


  1. So much, unfortunately, is driven by the growing interest in franchising creative work, of any kind. The ability to kindle interest in almost anything BUT the work or its merit.

  2. Yeah, market forces. The commodification of art. It's all very weird, human, and tangential.