Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More thoughts on (performance) poetry and the avant-garde

I've gotten criticsms about my dissertation because I keep talking about how poetry that talks about race and gender as giving us what we already know and that the most revolutionary of poetry is that which gives us what is unknown. I pick on these things because they are among the most frequent topics of contemporary performance poetry. But let me clarify -- and be perfectly clear about it -- I am arguing "against" poetry that is about anything.

My point is, and always has been, that there are plenty of forms for describing things or telling people about things -- fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, reviews, blogs, manifestos, etc. Literary critics often go around wringing their hands that no one reads poetry anymore, that poetry is irrelevant. But few people ask -- what is it that poetry does, can do, that no other form of writing can do. What is it that makes poetry relevant?

What I am interested in is poetry that is not, then, about things, that does not talk about things directly, describe them precisely, get at them. I'm interested in poetry that talks around things, so to speak, talks through them. Nonsense poetry, interesting or weird juxtapositions of words and phrases, things that don't seem to make any sense. I'm interested in the moment where a listener hears this poetry (because I am also interested in the performance of poetry) and it ceases to be mere music, but it is also strange, undecipherable, a cipher, a complete unknown -- not just because the person doesn't understand the conventions of poetry or metaphor, but because the poem isn't meant to be understood on the conscious level. Maybe it is written using cut-up techniques and therefore was never meant to be understood. Maybe it is syllabic, or zaum poetry which as Craig Dworkin has pointed out, can potentially be deciphered, but only after much thought. Maybe it is written from the subconscious as with Surrealist poetry and has the potential to be deciphered, but never with any kind of certainty. But I'm interested in this kind of poetry, the kind of poetry that the avant-garde has practiced for over a century, as the most politically liberatory because this is the kind of poetry that scrambles our rational thought and can produce new types of thoughts, new possibilities, not what is already known. Sol Lewitt said that rational thought repeats rational thought. When we scramble rational thought, we get out of the known and that is where the unique, political potential of poetry truly exists.

More to come . . .

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