Here is my confession : since setting the Plumbline School on its merry airy erring way, I've had unspoken doubts & misgivings about what it all means. It began in a reaction : against what I perceived as a certain exaggerated or parodic or intentionally superficial or "facetious" atmosphere in the contemporary poetry realm (manifested at the time by "flarf" poetry - but this is only one example). But a simple reaction tends toward the reactionary : & I've worried that an emphasis on the "normative" and the "center" in poetry is a recipe for a staid, conventional stance (Joseph Hutchinson made this quite clear in his response to an invitation to join, a while back).
A second problem, for me, hovers around the idea of labels and abstract categories. To claim a poetry of "the middle" seems to homogenize & standardize a great deal of difference and variety; to look at it from another angle, it seems an awfully vague measure - so abstract as to be incapable of actually characterizing much.
I've tried, in various ways, to sharpen the idea, to make it more interesting : exploring such things as the relationship between mediation (the "golden mean") and ancient concepts of aesthetic and natural beauty; the issue of Metaphysical "wit", the yoking of opposites in a pithy metaphor, image, or aphorism; the differences between a poetry of experience and a poetry of discursive knowledge (Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility"); & finally, the notion of "the middle" as an ethical category, and its relation to poetry (Mandelstam's "sense of being right", etc.).
These are indeed some curious facets of the middle : but I don't think they answer either of the problems I've raised. We are still left with the question of how this concept of the plumbline relates to our poetry, and to contemporary poetry generally - if it does, at all! & we are still left with the 1st of my problems - that is, the slippage between the notion of "the middle" and mere, bland, complacent mediocrity (conventional, middle-brow or uncritical art).
Other members of the Plumbline may feel differently about these issues : perhaps I'm exaggerating the dilemma. But recently I've come upon some writings that might help me move forward. I was reading the final essay in Geoffrey Hill's Collected Essays (the essay title escapes me at the moment - something about modernist poetry). There he makes a reference to the late British thinker Gillian Rose, and her concept of "the broken middle". The phrase betook me to her book of that title, from the late 90s.
I'm not very well-read in philosophy & "theory" generally, and I found much of it hard going. So I welcome corrections to the following inadequate paraphrase. But basically Rose's book is a reflection on the status of contemporary philosophical thought, in the post-modern era. With deep readings of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Luxemberg, Adorno, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, & other modern & postmodern authors, Rose describes the agon of "authorship" in a post-Enlightenment, and post-Holocaust era, when post-structuralist theory has attempted to critique and dismantle "instrumental reason", the ideological underpinnings of Western society and governance, and to replace them with various alternative modes of discourse and social (non)structure.
Rose's very basic countering concept is formulated as "the broken middle" : a term describing the human condition, and the condition of human mediating social institutions, as always both sin-ridden and redemptive; violent and law-ful; and that this "compromised" (my term) condition is not escapable by way of verbal or ideological sleights-of-hand, but must be endured, deeply & critically evaluated, and lived. Surprisingly, she adds a small "lyric" toward the conclusion, which goes :
I am abused and I abuse
I am the victim and I am the perpetrator
I am innocent and I am innocent
I am guilty and I am guilty
(a poem which seems to echo both Whitman and some ancient Sanskrit passage)
I will have to go back to G. Hill's essay to see how he relates Rose's work to poetry in particular. But it occurred to me today that this notion of a "broken middle" - a mediation which is inevitably conflicted, compromised, endangered, guilty, and above all implicated, engaged - might offer another way to think about our "plumbline". The middle, here, is not simply a form of "instrumental" discursive management or technical flair, transposed to the sphere of aesthetics. The middle in this sense doesn't offer a "solution" to anything : it is not necessarily a resolution, or even always "peaceful" : in Rose's terms, it is more like an agonistic arena. Such a concept, in fact, might be applied to an interpretation of the contemporary poetry scene in another way : if the middle is conflicted, unresolved and agonistic, then the poetry scene - full of broken, distorted, and mistaken or incomplete formulae for competing styles - none of which seem to find much favor with an indifferent or uncomprehending public-at-large - the scene itself seems to reflect, to offer some evidence for, that agonistic state of things. Agonistic - yet still offering an elusive promise (or dream, or possibility) of reconciliation.