There's nothing like a fish on the line.
I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.
Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?
I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.
“'At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don't go there very often, they don't have the tools to go through the wall, because it's the end of notes. It's the other side, where there's only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn't translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can't go back. I don't know too many musicians who try to go through the wall. I love to go through the wall.”
Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:
“Poetry is mostly hunches.”
Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”
Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.
I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.
All this, however is a meandering introduction to Gabriel Gudding’s essay from the same collection. What is there to say about this thing? Well, it’s certainly hyperbolic, that’s a given. In fact, the hyperbole is so wild, it borders on parody or satire. And it’s absolutely aggressive, with the kind of manifesto tone that is certain to elicit a reaction. An aesthetic and a political reaction. Whatever it is, it's the most "out there" essay in the collection. As always, points for that.
Because of this, it’s also a good way to get the craft vs ? conversation going. Is he anti-art or just anti craft issues? Can someone agree with this essay and then make art, or is this a “goodbye to all that” move? How much cognitive dissonance is healthy, and how much is too much?
One person's "Cut it out" is another's "Follow the Line."
I’m sure there are more questions than that, but here, for the record, is his essay as it appeared on Poetry Daily a couple weeks ago:
The Line as Fetish and Fascist Reliquary Gabriel Gudding
The line is not a feature of poetry.
The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique, an imaginary feature upon which to render pronouncements and leverage arbitrary distinctions for the purposes of acquiring or wielding social and disciplinary power.
The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life in an advanced, industrial world. This history of the line, then, is, in its latest iteration, in great part a holdover from the history of the right-wing modernist fetish of form, which marked the removal of poetry fully from the office of humility.
So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement. In another sense, the line is a verbal machine, or a machinic talisman, that marks a fetish of music and voice and wax over content, context, flesh, ethical inspiration and political struggle—often, on the one hand, in the name of archetypal, transcendental, universal, colonial, ostensibly transcultural values, and, on the other, in the name of provisional resistance and socio-aesthetic struggle against late-capitalist hegemonies, authoritarianism, and consumerism.
The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as "official art" and its false rival "avant-garde art" whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture and delimit the range of experiences we call "human" as a broader push continually to establish, disenchant, and rationalize advanced, industrial society. It's a trumped up vomitnothing about which and around which belief and conviction and argument are purposefully constructed in spasms of pseudo-activity—the purpose of which is to mobilize collective narcissistic excitement in a genre characterized by ethical inaction.
So, yeah. Our world is in peril. We don't have time for the line, except against a backdrop of those cosmologies positing (a) an eternal realm, (b) an impending apocalypse followed by redemption for true believers, (c) a viable suburbia. Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.
This necessary renunciation will inevitably extend to poetry's other most favored myths: that song destroys illusion; that dysraphic poetry also destroys illusion and, unlike song, also destroys capitalist hegemony; that messing with syntax is somehow in itself politically radical; that formalism is really exhaustively open to content; that close reading isn't textual fetishism; that craft isn't technical fetishism; that imagination is somehow by itself salutary; that poetry is precious speech uttered by special beings or by necessarily radical people.
In short, the line is an ideological device masquerading as an aesthetic element. Which would in itself not be a bad thing, except for the fact that the current effect of what gets called "art" in our world, or what gets called "poetry" in our life, is in fact to limit the number and categories of experience in which, by which, and through which one can become what one is and work toward justice and develop a truly loving heart. If we are to stop the professional suppression of joy that we call literature, and if we are to cease manufacturing false needs through poetry, if in short we are to stop treating poetry as both a kind of country music and a hipster cagefight, we'll need at some point to wake up and stop ritualizing literature, stop valorizing its sacred heresies, and stop attributing inherent value to technique (both belletristic technique and dysraphic technique—as they are two sides of the same coin). Breaking the habit of obeisance to the religion of literature would especially mean renouncing poetry's fetishes, sublanguages, arguments, battles—especially its purportedly liberational ones—in favor of poetry's fundamental ethical argument, pragmatic kosmophilia, and not confusing that renunciation as further invitation to bicker. Why climb pebbles?
And let's maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.
The line is the place where all your hang-ups can go.