Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Couldn't let today pass without posting this link to a new essay up at HTMLGiant by Alexis Orgera called "Animal Instincts: Destroying the Cult of Reason":

Please enjoy. I certainly did. It's something I think about quite a lot--the notion that there is an ineffable something about the poems that floor us--something that can never be reduced to a list of gestures or a discussion of craft. And this is significantly why 1) poetry remains powerfully weird and 2) that teaching poetry writing is largely a matter of providing an atmosphere wherein students are excited to wander around in the dark BAM! As always, the things in a poem most worth talking about are the things that can't actually be talked out (not rationally, not methodically, not in terms of linear articulable instructions--and why on earth would anyone want to?), the unsayable said.


alexis orgera said...

Thanks for posting, Matt. I just thought I'd say publicly that I'm really indebted to you for getting these ideas percolating in me noggin'.

Oh, and this:
teaching poetry writing is largely a matter of providing an atmosphere wherein students are excited to wander around in the dark BAM!

Love it.

Elisa Gabbert said...

Hi, Matt,

I wholly agree with this part of your post: "there is an ineffable something about the poems that floor us--something that can never be reduced to a list of gestures or a discussion of craft." But I can't agree with the implied conclusion that it's not worth talking about gestures or craft. Yes, there is something inherently indescribable about great poetry, something that transcends "craft," but there are also many *describable* things about poetry, good and bad. This is true of any art, and it's why there's value in writing and criticism about architecture and music and yes, poetry, even though reading an essay is never the same experience as looking at a building or reading a poem. Luckily there is room in the world for both the essay and the poem.

Matt said...


I wholeheartedly agree with what you've said here, and think that craft is not only necessary, but fundamental to understanding, writing and reading poetry--a point by the way that I think Alexis' essay deals with beautifully (which is a big part of why I posted the link). That said, my sense as someone who teaches in an art school is that craft is often discussed at the expense of everything else, which I find tiresome and noodle-y. Suddenly, we wind up with seniors, who think the ONLY thing that matters is photo-realistic drawing skills, which unfortunately often leads to lifeless work. Craft is the thing that no one notices when the work is really good (the amazing and actually describable elephant in the room). And by "no one," I don't mean other artists, I mean other people. I'm hoping to write poems for people--with people interests, not only poets (who happen to be people with poetry interests). As poets, and educators, it's our job to talk about craft--and to teach it--which I LOVE. But my hope would be that what we're after as artists is establishing the rules (I know, big HOPE...sigh), rather than just following the ones we can articulate. As a result, my wish is to help students learn to use craft, but also TRUST their instincts, especially when it comes to the unexpected. I really didn't mean to suggest that we should all be, as a friend of mine put it, ONLY "talking magic all the time" at the expense of craft. I just want to be able to do both.

Thanks for your comment.

All best,


Elisa Gabbert said...

And thank you, Matt, for responding! I agree that in academic settings craft is often all that's talked about--probably because it's easier to talk about, and certainly easier to teach (and learn) than genius (or whatever you want to call the quality that allows some poets to blow your mind). Here's to talking about both.

Another fun project would be to make a list of 41 completely unclassifiable mind-blowing lines. :)


Josh Grigsby said...

As a non-poet, it has been really interesting to watch this conversation bubble up on HTML Giant and spill over a bit here. Elisa's assertion that "there's value in writing and criticism about architecture and music and yes, poetry," is certainly valid, but I don't think anyone is suggesting otherwise.

The crux of the argument as I see it, if an argument exists here, is a conflation of the respective roles of the artist and the critic suggested by Elisa's post on poetic moves. It is the artist's job to create, the critic's to evaluate. Artists do what they do; critics point out what they do and to what effect, and they hazard educated guesses as to why. If in the organic process of doing what he or she does an artist develops what a critic might call "moves," so be it. But it would be disingenuous for the artist to build his or her work around premeditated moves.

Think of the cinema of Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, or Michael Mann (my education is in film, not poetry, but I think all forms of art are essentially different tools used to tackle the same job). Each has produced a singular and identifiable body of work—the moves of each auteur are consistent and omnipresent, and easily articulated by critics. The filmmakers, however, do not articulate the moves themselves. They simply transport their vision onto celluloid. An exception that proves the rule is Mann's Miami Vice, a self-conscious attempt by the director to filter his old television series through the iconic moves of a "Michael Mann" film. Miami Vice works fine as an exercise and is arguably successful as a piece of entertainment, but it is artistically dishonest.

I think self-consciousness and artifice are often, though not always, synonymous. Every artist understands craft, consciously or subconsciously, but the conversation of craft is the realm of the apprentice, the teacher, and the critic—not the artist. A person can be all four of these things, of course, but not simultaneously. The creation of great art in any medium requires a degree of unconsciousness, of being "in the zone," that is antithetical to the cultivation of moves.

Elisa Gabbert said...

Hi Josh,

I get the feeling Matt doesn't want this debate happening here, but I'm not sure I understand your point. Though Mike and I are writers, the list was created in critic mode. There's a long tradition of artists doubling as critics of their own art, though not their own creations. We weren't suggesting, necessarily, (or recommending!) that poets use the moves consciously.


Matt said...

Elisa and Josh,

Hey, thanks to both of you for your comments.

While I'm happy for debate, I will note again, that my point in posting the link to Alexis' essay was not a jab at anyone or any particular way of doing things--though, as I said in my earlier response to Elisa, I am opposed to doing things one way at the EXPENSE of other possibilities (which seems to me to be the current institutional norm, for the reasons which Elisa noted beautifully in her second comment above). I would also mention that I don't think I articulated myself very well--or completely enough--in the original post, resulting in understandable confusion.

At the end of the day, I think what most poets want (certainly what I want as a poet) is to 1) write more (and hopefully more powerful) poems, and 2) as a result, to be able to engage with other people through them. I'm happy for whatever ways poets can find to do this.

With that in mind, I would add also that my own desire is to foster this connectedness through poetry with as many people as possible and to address our common human predicament, while also attending to the art of poetry. My experience tells me that craft is a necessary base of operations to do this, but its primary usefulness comes in the service of finding a way through it (by using it) to something unexpected. Thus, I love that we are able to (try and) talk about both--though in all honesty (as an educator), my preference is to try (and mostly fail miserably) to talk more about the latter than the former, because of the institutional reasons above (craft is already being talked about), and also because that which can’t be clearly articulated is what interests me poetically and drives me to write more poems. This may not seem correct, or useful, to other people. And I'm glad to leave it at that. I want people to do what works for them, so that I can read more awesome poems.

Finally, I don't know if the two of you feel this way or not, but it seems to me that too often poetic conversations (NOT this one or any of your comments) wind up dividing people and/or descending into negativity rather than enthusiastically describing possibilities--which is what I like in critical writing/discussions about poetry--descriptiveness and enthusiasm for plethora. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t have our own preferences, but those have to do with faith and belief, not fact; they can be acted on, but not so often rationally defended, and certainly not prescribed. What may work for you or I, may have no effect at all on someone else (and/or might even be a hindrance to the way they need to work).

Anyway, I think Alexis' essay acknowledges this well, and I wanted my art students to read it--the blog is a perfect way to make that happen—esp. "Ways of making do exist. Practice must exist. But none of it would be possible without the Other."--at least not in the way that we're after as artists.

Thanks again to you both.

All Best,


Mike Young said...

Sometimes you need to find all the lights before you can break them.

Craft is boring and reducible. The more obvious that appears, the quicker we can start talking about more interesting things.

On discussion of craft-only: yes, sure, sometimes people hide their cards in order to filibuster discussion of the hand. They do this until the reducible looks irreducible, which is cagey and frustrating. Which is why it's fun to start counting cards until you've figured out exactly what they have, so you can get on with the goddamn game.

For this reason, I thought it would be mostly funny to make the moves list with Elisa, to stop after a ridiculously arbitrary number, and to use the opportunity to highlight many excellent poems.

(Was going to talk about how things I hate in conversations of po-po land include, yes, their descent into negativity—as you note, Matt—and also the exasperating way in which people use bad faith and annoying rhetoric to cage the Other, e.g. tucking "cultivation of moves" into the end of a sentence, where it might rhetorically pose as pre-proven evidence necessary only for bolstering a more important point about how everybody needs to be in the zone or something—ignoring, of course, the fact that no one ever talked about cultivating moves, watering moves, a cult of moves, etc. etc—but I decided not to talk about any of that.)

I think you make very salient and noble and eloquent points, Matt. And I like Alexis's essay a lot. Magic I'm all for. Would you believe me if I told you that, in the simplest terms possible, that I believed making the list would promote more magic and celebration of magic and access to magic? Is it okay to name a dance? Does it make dancing less fun? Does the fact it's called the watusi make the watusi any less powerfully weird? Speaking of writing poems for people, not just people interested in poems, doesn't calling it the watusi give it closer to people who only knew about the waltz? Does the watusi, the can opener, the badminton butterfly, make the dark any less sweaty?

Fully aware that the card & dance analogies hopelessly/stupidly conflict, I bet. They're magic!