Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Christian Bök Is Always Interesting

From The Poetry Foundation’s harriet blog, I’m finding out that Christian Bök is being fascinating again, responding during a Q&A session at Kelly Writers House, UPenn, November 18, 2009:

[I]t seems to me that among the poets that I know, many are very lazy and very dumb. I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it.

Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know. They became poets in part because they were demoted to that job, right? You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that discipline actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.

I find this very distressing that the challenge of being a poet in effect to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself, that we tend to think that because we’re conditioned to use language every day as part of a social contract, we should all be incipient poets, when in fact people have actually dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice in order to become adept at it and I think that craft and technique are part of that.

If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course. I joke with my students again that if it was simply a matter of saying, “You know you’ve written a good poem just because; you’ll know it was a good poem when it happens.” To me, that’s tantamount to telling your students that “You should just use the force, Luke” in order to write a poem. I don’t think it’s very helpful. But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.” I think it’s important that students are at least reassured that there are some technical aptitudes that they can adopt.


That’s one point that can be made. But there are others. Bök, for me, makes the same mistake nearly everyone makes (including me) when talking about art. It’s a call to the collective, which is, that people keep wanting to find some way to project outward the conversation of art making, when the truth is that’s a craft issue, not an art issue. Art is a projection inward. If it helps an artist to think in craft terms, that’s fine. But I also posit that a poet could write as good of poems by following slavishly the “use the force, Luke” approach.

It’s terribly presumptuous to imagine, “If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course.” Sure, it’s a true statement. There is and will always be craft in what an artist does, but there’s a bucketful of hedging in “informed by,” that also leaves open huge fields of what one might mean by “craft.” “Practice” would be a better word. As in what one does as well as the need to repeat things. Even Luke Skywalker had to practice. And he had a practice he followed. There was craft in that.

What matters, in the end, is not the artist’s conception of what is being done, while it’s being done, but by what in fact is left behind. The artifact. The project is beside the point. That said, it is interesting and fruitful to see what others see in the making of art. Such things have an impact on the art’s reception, which can be enlightening, and dangerous to art (as when art gets conflated into pesonality).


At 12/09/2009 4:37 PM, Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Mmmmm, Yeah. In my experience the "learning of poetry" or whatever was working out what I could do, and what I could do well. There are certain things that I think all students are taught, rules, craft etc: "show don't tell", easy on the adjectives/adverbs are bad, etc etc, but I think that it's more a process of being guided through a process of experimentation with different modes and the like, and working out what you enjoy writing, then writing more and more of that, working out why you enjoy said mode, and why you are doing what you're doing. Building a poetic.

At 12/10/2009 4:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Facebook:

Fascinating and provocative, yes.

In other words, lots to quibble with. That poets are poets because they know nothing (having been demoted from some more specialized discipline) is 1) absurdly Procrustean; 2) more false than true. Many (most?) poets are something else besides (not least because the mantle "poet" doesn't really impress, paycheck-wise, for most poets in contemporary society). I can do the easy calculations in quantum loop gravity. C. Dale Young is a doctor and a poet. Stevens was an insurance executive. Etc.

"Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit." Ditto points 1) and 2) to this claim. If it were true, computer algorithms could replace human poets. Reductio ad absurdum.

Extreme statements are so rarely true outside the technical sciences. In line with his interests, it seems like Bök lusts for that kind of truth and certainty (even in his "jokes").

So you're right: "Use the force, Luke" is no more or less helpful an advisory than "Follow the recipe, Luke." Which is to say, on its own, not very helpful at all.


At 12/10/2009 5:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Modes and Strategies! Indeed, when looking at craft, and acting like that’s separable, one gets oneself right back into that FORM and CONTENT problem. Bok is a great example of that as his forms (especially when he composes without using one of the letters from the alphabet) force content. His craft issues are Process issues, which could easily also be “type with your eyes closed” or “use a sentence from Ladies Home Journal.” Which is: just a way of getting at something interesting and, as RUSH sings: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”


I was going to say something about the “dumb poets” remark, but I got bored. I guess it’s just his funny way, being provocative and all. I would offer this corrective: poets are no more intelligent than the general population. Most poets I’ve met are very normal.

And, of course, as you say, one can do many things and write poetry. In fact, one must. Mostly, what I do is teach first-year composition classes. I do that much more than I write poetry. So?

At 12/10/2009 1:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, I agree 100%. Surely, every poet works within some prosodic system -- what you'd call "craft," right? -- that could be articulated or unarticulated, conscious or unconscious. What workshops do is force poets to articulate their prosodic systems and, in the process, become more conscious of them: something that can be either good or bad, depending on the poet.

But as you say, poets should never become so infatuated with their methods than they value the method above the poem. It's a natural mistake, and I make it all the time. Especially when my artistic self-confidence is at low ebb, I'm comforted to believe that there's a true system ... but the only good poems I write are the ones where I throw away my systems.

I wonder whether Bök's comments are especially relevant to the poetry community in Canada, where there's one MFA program, a handful of MA programs, a healthy formalist community, a healthy avante-garde community, and many, many self-taught poets who find the idea of "craft" vaguely elitist. In my opinion, the Canadian lit. world doesn't give Bök the respect he deserves.


At 12/10/2009 5:42 PM, Anonymous louise mathias said...

I always like it when someone tries to take poetry and/or poets off it's little high horse.

"Most poets I’ve met are very normal." - JG

Normal is probably about the last word I'd use!

At 12/10/2009 6:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'll stand by it!

At 12/10/2009 6:03 PM, Blogger Louise Mathias said...

hang out w/ me more often. you'll change your mind ;)

At 12/10/2009 6:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Promises promises.


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