D. A. Powell - The Avant Garde - Awards - Etc.
Micah Mattix writes:
Why are there, Bethell wonders, so many mediocre poets today? Following Joseph Epstein and Dana Gioia, his answer is prizes, subsidies, grants, lectureships and professorships. There is too much money in poetry. It offers poor or mediocre poets too many opportunities to write and publish, and it encourages many otherwise good poets to pose as avant-garde artists–to write against their audience rather than for it–because it increases their chances of getting such fellowships and prizes.
Indeed, one of the ironies of art today is that there is little financial risk involved in being avant-garde. Unlike the first avant-garde artists who supposedly created works to challenge the commercialization of art, such a move today is very much the first step in making it commercially, in terms of fellowships and grants. Cut back on the cash, Bethell claims, and purge the country of a legion of Miles Coverdales.
Is that true to your experience? Does this idea of being “avant garde” lead to some sort of commercial success? Well, looking at what actually sells, the answer is a big whopping NO. But, that said, it is true that the idea of the avant garde is no longer one infused with being ostracized in physically threatening ways (unless you consider the air of the conservative right in this line of reasoning, always looking for a way to unfund artists threatening, which it is, of course, true, but not very worrisome, at least to me). But that’s not a very interesting point to me, as America is a country that mostly ignores rather than threatens language acts. Avant gardism is now a “way of writing,” one among many. I don’t think that it does much to help one “commercially.” All one has to do is look at the map of awards and fellowships (the sorts of things people like to use to gauge “success”), and one sees that, by and large, the awards are fairly predictable things, going to fairly mainstream writers that don’t move in very avant garde ways. When it comes to awards and things, Linda Gregerson and Linda Beirds do much better than Lyn Hejinian and Martha Ronk, so I do think these is some weight still to the idea that being avant garde (at least in the Hejinian or Ronk sense) is less financially rewarding than being mainstream (at least in the Gregerson or Beirds sense).
Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. But cutting back on subsidies wouldn’t purge American poetry of the work of Ted Kooser or Dana Gioia or John Barr (if one would be so inclined). They came from the private sector. Does having a teaching job count as a subsidy? Well, if so, wouldn’t any job? One works and one gets paid. I’m finding it difficult to get my mind around the idea that there are subsidies out there that are these huge enticements into writing avant garde poetry. Either I’m way out of the loop, or the author of this piece isn’t doing very good math.
Anyway, back to the end of the piece:
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. . . while I think that Bethell is right about the subsidies, there is also a larger problem at work here–one that is not easily solved by policy changes. Yet, I am also somewhat more optimistic than Bethell regarding the future of American poetry. In other countries where the reigning ideology and particular governmental policies have been much worse for real artists, those artists still continued to work and produce compelling art, even if those works were not fully recognized until later. After all, Stalinist Russia gave us Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and a fascist Italy gave us Eugenio Montale. To compare the situation of American artists to that of either Solzhenitsyn or Montale is ridiculous. However, it does serve as a reminder that valuable art is produced by artists everywhere and at every time. We can’t always see it, but it is there.
Parallel to pushing for policy changes, therefore, I think critics need to do more to discover those poets and artists who are, indeed, doing good work. While it is the job of the critic to tear down, it is also his job to build up–even if he has to search far and wide for a poet that is worthy of praise.
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I like where he gets to in this part much more. There seem to be calls from all over these days to actually explore the poetry landscape. This fills me with hope that we might be at a moment where there is the beginning of real interest in poetry. Looking at mainstream poetry (if one gauges “mainstream” by what sells) one sees a very small, very repetitive, slice of American poetry. Books by Mary Oliver, Ai, and Billy Collins greatly outsell everything else (except when musicians and actors get into the publishing business, as Ryan Adams now has). These are the poets people hear about. I’m not here to knock them (I’ll save that for some other day), but to say that what they represent is such a small part of what poetry is capable of. I think that there are great pleasures in other poets, that people who read Oliver, Ai, and Collins, could find and fall in love with.
But this audience is not there yet. A couple nights ago I was at a poetry reading in Kansas City where D. A. Powell and Randall Mann read. There were about 20 people there. It was a Thursday night. The weather was fine. There should have been a hundred people there. I know that what poetry can do doesn’t interest most people. I’m not talking about most people. In a city the size of Kansas City, the type of pleasure poetry can provide should have appealed to a hundred people.
D. A. Powell read the following poem, which I believe could have done some good for some people who were not there:
corydon & alexis, redux
and yet we think that song outlasts us all: wrecked devotion
the wept face of desire, a kind of savage caring that reseeds itself and grows in clusters
oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself
how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs
what else but to linger in the slight shade of those sapling branches
yearning for that vernal beau. for don’t birds covet the seeds of the honey locust
and doesn’t the ewe have a nose for wet filaree and slender oats foraged in the meadow
kit foxes crave the blacktailed hare: how this longing grabs me by the nape
guess I figured to be done with desire, if I could write it out
dispense with any evidence, the way one burns a pile of twigs and brush
what was his name? I’d ask myself, that guy with the sideburns and charming smile
the one I hoped that, as from a sip of hemlock, I’d expire with him on my tongue
silly poet, silly man: thought I could master nature like a misguided preacher
as if banishing love as a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our sleepy eyes