Ethos of Wayfaring

Have been pretty absent & absent-minded around the Plumbline lately. Partly due to personal circumstances (a strange summer), & partly due to somewhat of an impasse in my thoughts about "plumbing" (constipation, Henry?).

Joseph D. & Mairi have offered us some models, here, for moving beyond a general terminology of "the middle" - showing how "plumbline" values are manifested in particular poets & their poems. I've been too scattered to do that, myself. & too involved in poetry website discussions/squabbles (especially at the Poetry magazine Harriet site) - among various hotheads, wannabees, nobodies, & cranks (like me).

But this morning it occurred to me that I might be able to salvage something for the plumbline from a few of those controversies - if only to add another layer of generalization to our field of interest....

Two of the topics of interest (to me) on those websites have been 1) the rise of "hybrid" forms of experimental poetics - Flarf, Conceptual Poetry, etc.; and 2) the nagging debates over the purpose & value of the "poetry teaching industry" (MFAs, etc.).

I would like to try to propose a statement of (my) principles which addresses BOTH of these topics, together, in a unified way. I've done this in a piecemeal way in various comment streams on said websites; but here's how I would summarize my position :

1) Poetry is One Thing (with tremendous variations). It is not whatever anybody decides to name as poetry. For example, when Kenneth Goldsmith, the main proponent of "Conceptual Poetry", copies an entire day's issue of the NY Times, and calls it "conceptual poetry" - I would, au contraire, describe this as an oxymoron, or contradiction, rather than a description. It is not poetry. Poetry is a verbal art with its own distinct characteristics (some of which Aristotle began to analyze, way back when).

2. Poetry and poetic making are inseparable from experience at large. The aphorism which Keats assigned to the Grecian urn - "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty; - this is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" - is a perennial challenge to every artist and maker : ie., where & by what means comes to pass the conjunction of beauty and truth, art and experience? (& this is perhaps one of the bases underlying our "plumbline" concept of the poem as an equilibrium, a balance of forces).

3. With #2 above clearly in mind : the social vocation & role of the poet can be best summarized as the companion. The aspects of artist, craftsperson, fabulist, musician, performer, scholar, etc. - all these are subsumed under the primary role of something like wise fellowship. The poet is our companion - Whitman's camerado/camerada - on the "road of life". A poem is a testimony : bears witness to felt & comprehended experience. A poem which achieves the status of art - which fulfills its aesthetic purpose - is one which faithfully comprehends & reflects some aspect or value of that shared experience. (& to say this is not, on the other hand, to rule out the most baroque & parodic fabulations & gleeful take-offs & lethal/tragic ironies & vicious satires & zithery re-makings of same.)

It seems to me that when this (traditional) ethos of the poet - the poet's social role - is better understood, then some of the gnarly ethical problems of "teaching" poetry & writing might be re-formulated (& maybe redeemed). Writing will be subsumed under the ethos of language-use in general; poetry-writing will be integrated with the study and practice of literary history; "creativity" and "self-expression" will be re-valued in relation to elementary education (& arts education) as a whole.

One need only reflect on some of the great "engaged" poets of the last century - Spanish, Russian, Italian, French - Char, Montale, Akhmatova... we could each make our own list - to recognize a common thread in their verse : an evocation, an expression, of the shared experience of living through those brutal & tumultuous decades. The ethos they represent seems distinct from the image of the poet as experimentalist or craftsperson; and the influence of ethos seems like a kind of undercurrent which has all kinds of implications for literary style...


Ron said...


You know what happens to anyone who sets themselves up to be the gatekeepers. That first tenet is not sustainable.

Henry Gould said...

Ron - if this is Ron Silliman - this seems to be another one of those corners where you & I turn up on opposite sides. My first tenet was not intended as a counter to your contention that "there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry" (have I got that right?).

I would argue that a statement like "art is whatever anyone says is art" renders the term "art" meaningless, and as a result, doesn't mean much itself.

But I'm probably also over-simplifying, & this is the kind of thing that leads to endless arguments (mostly meaningless, too).

Iain said...

Some internal problems with number 1:

When you apply the term "oxymoron" to "conceptual poetry" , do you intend to suggest that the marriage of "concepts" or "ideas" to "poetry" is a contradiction?

When you say "Poetry is a verbal art", does that mean if Goldsmith gave a vocal performance of Day that it would become "poetry"? Also, what makes any poem on a page more "vocal" than the NY Times? Would you say that all poetry on the page exists as poetry only as far as it is a guide to its own vocal performance?

Saying that what Goldsmith does "isn't poetry" doesn't actually address any of the larger claims that he's making. The way that you say it almost suggests that anything interesting about what Goldsmith is doing "doesn't count" because it's not "poetry".

You define poetry as necessarily "verbal", so does that mean if someone is doing something interesting (or "beautiful") with text, that it's not worthy of attention (that's a loaded question obviously, but not more loaded than your initial statement I think)?

Joseph Duemer said...

Thanks for posting, Henry. Been sort of a weird summer for me, too. I was about to post something asking all the Plumbliners to maybe write a little What I Read on My Summer Vacation post as a way of reintroducing ourselves and kicking things off again & that might not be a bod idea.

As for point No. 1. above and Ron's objection, I don't see you as trying to become a gatekeeper so much as defining what, for this group, falls under the rubric of poetry. Now, obviously, such a definition implies a prescriptive intention. So be it.

As to poetry versus poetries, I think Wittgenstein's notion of language games is helpful. There are a lot of things we recognize a games, for example, some of which have things in common, but for which it is impossible to name some single attribute shared by all games. At some point, though, some thing or activity does fall outside the range of what we are willing to call a game. Chess is a game and so is golf, but is cooking dinner a game? So it is with poetries. At some point a text shades off into something that is not poetry. It is just something else in the large world of something elses.

Jon said...

On point one, my instinct is to agree. But I think history complicates matters. There is a dialect with experiment on one end and tradition on the other. there are times when experimentation is itself an ethical imperative. There are times when declaring a an appropriated text to be poetry serves a valuable function and can be aesthetically exciting. But doing so now is totally unoriginal and reveals nothing new about anything. It is in fact a tradition bound activity, if it is OK to call Modernism, in 2009, when it is over a hundred years old, a tradition. My problem with experimental poetry is not that it is experimental, it is that they are repeatin the same old experiments for the same old reasons.

Doodle said...

Couldn't be Silliman - he's a gatekeeper himself.

Henry Gould said...

Iain, you're right, to say the term "conceptual poetry" is an "oxymoron" is incorrect. Maybe it's closer to a redundancy (for which, for me, "Language Poetry" is the classic example).

You're other points do seem to be sort of leading questions or bait. I'm not merely trying to mark off poetry as some sacrosanct precinct, & simply dismiss visual poetry or Goldsmith's project. It may be hard for you to understand, but this is just how I conceptualize what poetry is : a distinct kind of verbal art. If it seems like a polemical statement to you, well, I can't help that.

My use of "verbal art" emphasizes both words in the phrase - so no, just because Goldsmith or anyone else uses words, that doesn't make it poetry. It's a distinct ART of words.

Joseph Duemer said...

Scientists have little trouble determining what is and what is not science. Is poetic discourse fundamentally different?

Henry Gould said...

Iain, just a 2nd thought on your comment. It turns on a logical question, which has come up often enough. If poetry is an artificial, rather than natural, object (or process), can't human beings define it any way they like? Isn't this part of the essential freedom of art?

Yes, they can. & critics & readers will inevitably come up with different, sometimes incommensurable, approaches & terminology, many of them equally valid.

My own approach would be to align myself with thinkers like Coleridge & Aristotle. You could call it an empirical-analytical approach. They see a human art form as manifest in particular, substantial WORKS of art; and they seek to distinguish & characterize the distinctive properties of those works, which allow us to recognize them as full products of that art-process. This effort of distinguishing & differentiating is not necessarily a "value judgement" or an application of idiosyncratic taste; it's rather an attempt at analytical objectivity or clarity.

In architecture, you may have conceptual models, or play-architecture, or analogues of architecture in other art-forms; but architecture in its full or substantial mode involves the construction of habitable or practical dwellings out of actual materials.

In the same way, poetry, as the art of measured or rhythmic speech, finds its fullest or substantial manifestations in works which draw upon the most complex sonic, rhetorical, and logical resources of language, & set them to (verbal) music & representation.

Because language is a "sound" medium, less physically substantial than architecture or painting, closer to the conceptual, it's not difficult to reverse the process : to start by drawing an aesthetic magic circle around any bit of speech, and by calling it "art", presto! you have a poem. This is what you see happening in the so-called hybrid forms or gimmicks (like Conceptual Poetry etc.). It goes back to Dada, I suppose. But I see these activities as closer to "nature" than to art. (This is actually one of the precepts advanced in its support : Nature is wonder & Life is beauty, ie. everything is art, any strictures in this regard are just snobbery...)

But, as Aristotle & Coleridge emphasize, we only recognize the potential & purpose of an art-form in its actual, distinct examples - the end-points of the artistic process. & so I define poetry, for myself anyway, based on the actual history & traditions of these examples, from Homer & the Psalms & even earlier "bards", down to the present day. It's the greatness & depth of the tradition which displays the substance of the art form itself; & poets can still learn from this & draw on it, & in the process invigorate the literary language of their own time.

(A good study of this whole issue, by the way, is found in R.S. Crane's "The languages of criticism and the structure of poetry" (from the 1950s).

Iain said...


There are huge and endless disputes in the sciences over what, in fact, constitutes "science". If anything, much more so than in the poetry world.

Joseph Duemer said...

Lain, could you be more specific? There are lots of edge-case disputes, sure, but science as it is done every day around the world is a more or less unified discourse among scientists. Now, of course, lots of non-scientists dispute the nature of science . . .

Iain said...

sure Joseph,

In general, there are disputes over whether so-called "thought-experiments" can be considered scientifically valid. For instance, depending on who you talk to, concepts of "dark matter", "dark energy", and "dark flow" will either be considered "hypotheses", "theories", or completely unscientific speculation. There's disputes everyday over whether a given experiment can be considered "scientifically valid", over whether certain results can be trusted in a scientific sense. Even the criteria for what makes something a "scientifically valid experiment" cannot in any sense be considered "nailed down".

They're are huge disputes over whether the "traditional" scientific method is the best way to approach studying anthropology. Many scientists do not even consider anthropology a "science", but many others do. Not sure if that's what you had in mind when you said "non-scientists dispute the nature of science". Which (if that is what you meant) is kind of a silly statement as it favors one side of the discussion over the other. It would be like saying there are no disputes in poetry just because you define anyone who disagrees with you as a "non-poet".

Here's an article by a scientist that questions what the computing era means for the scientific method. He argues that the scientific method could become obsolete.

Psychology and linguistics are both considered sciences by most scientists, but there's very little consensus as to how to best approach their study, with huge rifts within both of these studies as to what is "scientifically" valid.

This is just off the top of my head, there's so much more. Even though I guess I'd admit that there is more "common ground" within the sciences (as opposed to poetry) over whether or not something is "science", even this common ground does not lead to less disputes of "validity" than happen in the poetry world.

Henry Gould said...

... but maybe it's worth debating, sometimes... What's that line from WC Williams, in PATERSON, about Marie Curie? something like "dissonance leads to discovery" (but better than that).

The hybridists force the traditionalists to define the essential. The aggressive offense of the opportunists requires a defense. But in order to be a good defense, it has to move to the offense... toward (re)discovery...

you could look at the Renaissance as a defense of ancient learning against the offense(s) of decadent (avant-garde) Scholasticism... & in the process, starting over...

wars of Ancients & Moderns...

Joseph Duemer said...

I don't think it's silly that the members of a particular tribe, er, discourse community, get to say what constitutes discourse within that community. The dark matter examples, along with string theory, have given rise to some grousing among physicists that some of the theorists have moved from science over into philosophy, but I'd call that an edge case. Most physicists would allow that the string theorists are members of the tribe and are doing science.

Scientific validity is another matter. Scientists argue about the validity of a particular experiment of line of inquiry without (usually) declaring something non-scientific.

Anyway, my point was that there is substantial agreement among scientists about what, in general, constitutes science. It would be absured to paraphrase Ron Silliman, for instance, and say that there is no such thing as science, just sciences.

What we want to know, of course, is why there are no so many apparent poetries dotting the landscape and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing (for poetry). By inclination, I'm a bit more of a pluralist than Henry, I think, and I'm comfortable with the notion that there are multiple sorts of poetries. But I'm also a pragmatist by inclination and that means I think that poetry gets defined by those who practice the art. And since there is some (small) amount of cultural capital involved, as well as individual issues of identity, there will be conflicts among the various people and groups trying to define what poetry is. In this light, I'm willing to defend Henry's claim that poetry is a "verbal art" & etc.

So I say let the contending parties contend. Let there be an aesthetic democracy in which beliefs are held with passion and commitment. Perhaps all the parties can define this aesthetic democracy as a large and general field of tolerance in which vigorous contention can take place. "Tolerance" after all indicated in the physical world a limited range of free movement.

Iain said...


I mean, that's very nice that you think that it's "absurd" to state that there is no science only sciences, except that many many scientists would not consider that absurd at all.

You bring up string theory. Another great example. There is a huge amount of the scientific community that would not consider string theory to be "science".

Saying "edge case" really just seems like a complete cop out to me, as my only point was to state that there are, in fact, innumerable disputes over what constitutes "science".

Whether or not you consider those disputes valid is really entirely beside the point. The disputes exist within respected discourse, and that's really all I was saying.

Henry Gould said...

But Iain, isn't it still true, with science, that the pudding is in the proof, so to speak?

Isn't String Theory still a theory? Whose lack of experimental verification gives it less general approval in the scientific community than, say, Relativity Theory? Isn't (or wasn't) quantum theory situated somewhere in between the two, in terms of general acceptance?

& aren't the controversies, therefore, about whether it's science or not, based on a shortage, for the time being, of theory-verification? & if this is the case, then can't we agree that science is one thing : the experimental testing of theories about nature & etc.?

Iain said...


Sure string theory is a "theory" as far as the colloquial usage of the word "theory". However, there is much dispute in the scientific community as to whether the "sting theory" can be considered a "theory" in any scientific sense. This is all I was saying. Many scientists say it's "science", whereas many others don't.

My point about "thought-experiments" can't be emphasized enough. There are scientists who say that such exploits are "science" as far as they cohere with scientific principals, but many others say without hard experiments they cannot be considered science.

All I'm trying to say on this point is that there are easily as many disputes as to what constitutes "science" in the scientific community as there are disputes over what constitutes "poetry" in the poetry community.

I actually don't think the two (poetry and science) can be usefully compared. I just thought I'd point it out since Joseph mentioned it.

Iain said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Henry Gould said...

Point taken, Iain.

But I wonder if there isn't some kind of similarity, between those who claim that unprovable thought-experiments (used to verify, in circular fashion, unproven theories) are science, on the one hand, and those who subscribe to the "it's art because I say it's art" school?

Joseph Duemer said...

The analogy between science discourse and poetry discourse is admittedly imperfect, but it is still range-finding, I'd argue. Perhaps I meant something closer to this: Scientists are not so often filled with self-doubt when they declare something either science or not science. The larger point is that discourses build consensus around certain values, standards and beliefs. Around certain definitions. (This is the sense in which the term "mainstream" might actually mean something.) And while, empirically, there are a zillion schools of poetry, I'm not willing to take the vulgar relativist position that it's all good and go on my way. (There are not a zillion schools of science, by the way.) That kind of relativism is a cop out, a failure to take the art seriously. I also expect the same from the Conceptualits and the Flarfists. As I said before, let us all contend within a field of general tolerance. Time will sort out who is "right" and who is "wrong" -- no absolutes anywhere, though I'd be willing to bet that going forward, Henry's notion of poetry as a verbal art is going to hold up better than many of the conceptual & etc. experiments now being carried out. And if one is not willing to bet on one's beliefs (act on them), they don't amount to much. So, to return to Ron's point, we're all gatekeepers, as we should be.

Iain said...

Your construction of the "vulgar relativists" is a straw man. I've never heard anyone argue from that position. There's certainly no one with flarf, conceptual poetry, language poetry, or anyone else vaguely affiliated with a so-called "post-avants" that has take a position even vaguely similar to this.

Here's an absolute: poetry is social. Like language, it's only "effective" when there's a shared experience between two parties. Sure, there are infinite variations within these confines ("no poetry, only poetries"), but there's an insurmountable distance between this position and your so-called "vulgar relativist" (who doesn't exist anywhere within poetry discourse).

To go back to the science analogy, to say that those of us who don't subscribe to a fixed view of poetry are "vulgar relativists" is like saying that any scientist who doesn't subscribe to a particular unified field theory is (as you said about some poets) "fail[ing] to take [science] seriously".

on to a something less nitpicky. You say "let us all contend within a field of general tolerance." I think I can certainly agree to that. thanks for being so engaging by the way.

be well,


Joseph Duemer said...

Iain, I think you're projecting a little here. Or perhaps I didn't explain myself as clearly as I might have. My use of "vulgar relativist" was partly satirical and, more to the point, names a tendency in my own thinking more than it names some imagined group of poets I disagree with.

Curtis Faville said...


I tend to side with you on these debates. I too think that simply stretching the word "poetry" to suit whatever extreme, extraneous verbal shape one proposes is not responsible to meaning or to use.

On the other hand, trying to limit the definition of poetry to descriptions of "craft" tends to narrow the range of possible innovations. That's part of the problem of "teaching" it for use, rather than simply for appreciation. Workshops must adopt models and show functions, which are all historical, and not present. That's just another way of saying, what has happened, has happened, not what IS happening or may be invented or discovered in the present/future.

Henry Gould said...

Doodle, I believe the first comment here is indeed from Ron Silliman - based on the form in which he posted a link to this blog today ("Henry Gould sets himself up as..." - echoes his comment above).

Here's what I commented in reply :


Thanks for your link to the Plumbline School site. But I think your slightly mocking tone ("Henry Gould sets himself up..." etc.) belies the fact that every reader of poetry - not just Henry Gould - makes conscious or unconscious evaluations about what is or is not poetry.

The hybridization of media & techniques is one of the hallmarks of contemporary art, across all genres. & I have no quarrel with that, nor with Ken Goldsmith or anybody else pointing to their pet rock or whatever, & announcing, "this is art", & so be it. "Let there be art", and there was art. But by the same token, I would also argue that the traditional modes - painting, music, architecture, poetry - have distinct characteristics - let's call them primary characteristics - which retain a kind of categorical priority over their hybrid spin-offs. & this may be due, paradoxically, to a certain kind of simplicity. There is a basic relationship between painting & paint, music and sound, architecture and building materials, and poetry and words, which remains.

A strong contrary argument could be made, that poetry is a hybrid art par excellence : that it contains within itself a deep bivalence, hybridity, polarity, between speech & texts, and that the relationship between these two has varied widely through the centuries. This is true. But remember what binds the two halves of this contrarity : language. Poetry is the art of words; language is the narrow door through which this art form distinguishes itself from "art" per se and all the other arts.

My position is that much of the hybridization going on (prose-, conceptual-, visual-... [add yr adjective]) is happening in an era in which all the particular genres are merging & collaborating. It's all "media" now. My attempt to clarify that there is something called poetry - that poetry is "one thing" - is motivated by my sense that some of the hybridization going on is opportunistic - a sort of market diversification, which substitutes immediacy & pizzazz for some of poetry's more subtle & uncompromising regions.

& I know that to say "poetry is one thing" is diametrically opposed to your remark, that "there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry". & maybe that fact has something to do with the slightly mocking tone of your notice here."