Éireann Lorsung is a woman of many talents. She is a poet. She runs a small publishing house and creates amazing small press books(among other things of wonder). Check out her myriad talents here. Her two books of poems have both been published by Milkweed Editions.
Here is what she sent to me--
What is Wrong with Poetry?
Three problems, to begin with; not with Poetry, but with this Interlocutor:
1. I do not like confict, and I doubly dislike confict as it takes place on the internet. Even staking a claim (or stating a strong opinion) often makes me feel dangerously close to an invisible horde of strangers who at their best will demonstrate shortcomings in my thought, and at their worst will threaten to fnd my house and burn it down with me in it.
2. When I am asked to defend or take a position on a statement, I almost immediately
see how the reverse of the statement is true, even if I already agree with the original idea—and this is generally true for me, not exclusive to assignments like “write an essay about—”; it happens even in ordinary moments, like the habitual consensusmaking utterances English people follow their sentences with (don't they). An easier way to put this is that I'm contrary. The high-falutin' explanation probably has to do with having studied deconstruction for too long.
3. A congenital unwillingness to be pinned down, a desire to remain elusive (even to
myself), and a taste for the contradictory or the in-between means I have not
necessarily developed my skills in arguing something for the sake of arguing it. This
is certainly complicated by the fact that [see 1. and 2.].
So, reader, with those caveats I'll begin. And begin by saying that Poetry, like Granite or Wheat or Water or Nitrogen or Sailboats, is a category which does not, in itself exist; it exists in its exemplars. I suppose it might be possible to
judge each exemplar individually to fnd out what precisely is wrong with it and to make a graph of these wrongs in order to arrive at a general or cumulative idea of what is wrong with poems, but that would (a) take a long time, and (b) require some sort of scale by which to judge. The scale that has been used in the place I come from (which begins with the Romans and ends with the Moderns, pretty much, although that's a chronological expression of it, rather than an evaluative one) doesn't
work for me, in part because it has tended to leave out poems that do things it's unconcerned with, including feel. And those things matter to me. But in any case, that scale, like any other I or anyone could devise, is about measuring the poem in its singular instance, rather than the category Poetry, and so I'll leave it for another time, and likely someone else. Yes: Poetry as category. As a category, Poetry does not exist. It is impossible to touch Poetry, just as it is impossible to touch Sailboats, even though at this very moment I am within arm's reach of many
poems (even collected into books of poetry) and once, many summers ago, I sat in a tiny and imperfect sailboat painted yellow on the inside, with the name The Old Took in scrolling print on its dark blue hull. The poem is not Poetry; the sailboat is not Sailboats. Poetry is perfect in its nonexistence: it's a Platonic form of itself. The problem, then, is when it becomes real, singular,touchable. In short, what's wrong with Poetry is the moment it becomes human.The human touching Poetry, making a poem at her desk or on the subway, walking down the street,sitting at a tacky table in a cheap restaurant somewhere, that's what's wrong with Poetry. The human, introducer of contaminants and biases, of polemic and perspective. The human, active carrier of the virus we call Flaw, which marks all she touches with her mark and makes it no longer
the form of itself—perfect and nonexistent—but an instance of itself, individual, real, and intimately broken.
There is nothing really wrong with Poetry itself; it is a fairly neutral and uninteresting substance, the way perfect things mostly are. It exists as a distraction from what is happening on the ground—from the making of poems and from the interaction between time and the poem, which we can't witness but have to trust. Griping about Poetry (about its exclusivity/its accessibility; its banality/its remove
from everyday life; its uselessness/its appropriation by those who use it for ends of which we don't approve), we neglect the fact that the poem, despite its problems, is going on. Which is the important thing. The fawed and singular poem, which cannot stand for much beyond itself and certainly is not a perfect form—not a banner under which the gilded armies of Art can gather—which happens at the point that the element Poetry meets the crucible of the person: that is the important thing.
Often Poetry is used as a stand-in for 'access to education in the arts' or 'access to publishing and recognition'; it represents the division of people who make one kind of work from those who make another. Poetry as an impenetrable category, a fortress of concealed meanings to which you probably don't have the key; Poetry as What I Do but Not What You Do—these positions, adopted for who knows what reason by perhaps each of us at some point, primarily serve to batten down our hatches, create some illusion of capability or assurance about whatever it is that we're working on.
Their effect is the establishment of a brittle territory fought over by those whose work would be better served by making the work and, in so doing, broadening the territory itself, rather than making space for themselves by barring others from the land they think they own. But again, this is not something wrong with Poetry the category; it is the point of contact between the human and the work of writing and the way we imagine Poetry.
Imagining Poetry I think of a man in ballooning tights, carrying a lute and wearing a funny hat. It is impossible to contain the history and the future and the extant corpus of work and the potential corpus of work and the billions of personal and cultural defnitions and uses that defne this thing—Poetry; it is impossible to touch them with a fnger, to stick a fagpole in the land and descend the mountain with a claim to know What Is. Which is, I acknowledge, diffcult. It is always easier, given
our puny human brains, to encounter things we can encapsulate and know and fgure out. That way,we can trust ourselves to say what's wrong with them, and maybe to fx them. Or at least to become good critics of them, which seems to have worth—if only in getting rid of things that function poorly or have no use-value.
Poetry is used when people mean writing or what has been or is being written, as in
What Is Wrong With Poetry Is That It Makes Nothing Happen, as though visible, quantitative results are the only things to be aimed for in this life, and the only worthwhile occupations are those that fll the time with fnancially rewarding, demonstrably valuable pursuits. Making Nothing happen is a shorthand dismissal of something for ineffectiveness or invisibility—which depends on the assumption that
productivity, effectiveness, effciency, visibility, and non-exorbitance are absolute goods. Poetry making Nothing happen pokes a small hole in the fabric of that assumption; despite its exorbitance,the frivolity of something existing only to make Nothing happen, it does exist. As a writer I am happy with the Nothing that happens in and on the body of the reader, including my body when I read, and if Poetry as a category can make that Nothing happen, then from my perspective this is not something that is Wrong With It but something actually quite Right. If I have, after all this thinking and avoiding, to say that something is wrong with Poetry, I fgure I will have to say that what is wrong with it is what's wrong with anything we cannot touch and yet have expectations of: it's bound to disappoint. It's bound to be used to keep some people out. It's bound to be made a border between what's valuable or not, a border I don't trust because the system that sets it up has values I don't agree with, values that are mostly to do with what a thing is worth in a market that makes no sense to me. But it's my tendency, too, to say In or Out with things I love and don't; insofar as Poetry stands for the little societies we build on earth and their
exclusivities and pettinesses, that's its problem. But then what's wrong with It is what is wrong with Us, and I come again to the intersection of the frail, fallible human and the poem: that point of sparks and possibility and danger and failing, the point we love in poems we love and the point that fails for us in poems we don't.