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John M. Bennett’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)


(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)



Jake Berry does a great job in his essay describing the state of affairs of poetry in North America today, and I agree with pretty much everything he says.  Perhaps, however, he is a bit too generous to the “Iowa” and “Language”  cliques of poetry, which in my view seem more like schools of mere rhetoric, which primarily teach and uphold a process of obtaining various kinds of institutional employment.  That is not a bad thing in itself, what with the need for jobs, institutional intercommunication and “teamwork”, but let’s call it for what it is.  One could say that it’s not really “poetry” that’s being taught or learned.


Poetry that persists, that is read, and read very differently through succeeding generations, always has its origins on the outsides of contemporary cultural institutions.  For the poet to perceive and experience the world, and to re-experience it in her/his art, she/he has to work outside those institutions.  You can’t see ‘em otherwise.


To expand a bit on points Berry makes regarding what he calls the “collapse of time”:  another way of understanding our world today is to consider the incredible increase in both population and in the means of communications.  There are so many people in the world, that no one is truly alone.  Whatever you are doing, there are others doing something very much like it, and due to the ease of contacting and communicating with those people, a subculture, a group, forms.  With its own networks and bodies of available artifacts, ideas, and work.  Think of it: up through the early 20th Century, if you were doing something unusual, chances are that you would be known for it, even if mocked and dismissed.  In today’s mass culture, you are invisible.  Except to your subculture.  This is quite different from the past’s forms of cultural communication, and has its advantages and disadvantages: it provides enormous freedom, but at the cost of feeling irrelevant.


I think this phenomenon is also related to the relationship between poetry and the larger culture in matters of politics and social issues generally.  In the past, poets were often considered important voices in the social/political dialogue.  And often so much so they were considered dangerous and would be suppressed (or killed!) by the state.  This still occurs occasionally in parts of Latin America and in the “developing” world.  But by and large, the poet today is simply ignored.  This does tend to affect what she/he writes: if one is ignored, one tends to write to please oneself, since oneself is one’s only, or primary, audience.  If society and the general reader is indifferent to and/or has no access to the narrow world of one’s own subculture, then why write anything at all addressed to them?  Which only makes it less likely that the larger audience will pay attention.


The poet may be a “legislator of the world” but it is becoming an increasingly secret and private legislature, one that affects the world slowly, by dribbling new ideas, words, and forms of language into the wider language, and therefore the thought and behaviour, of the culture at large.  The poet can conceive of her/himself as a virus, (to adapt the conceit of Bill Burroughs), a slow-acting and invisible one, successful, that changes the world it inhabits.




copyright © John M. Bennett




John M. Bennett has published over 400 books and chapbooks of poetry and other materials.  Among the most recent are rOlling COMBers (Potes & Poets Press), Mailer Leaves Ham (Pantograph Press), Loose Watch (Invisible Press), Chac Prostibulario (with Ivan Arguelles; Pavement Saw Press), Historietas Alfabeticas (Luna Bisonte Prods), Public Cube (Luna Bisonte Prods), The Peel (Anabasis Press), Glue (xPress(ed)),


He has published, exhibited and performed his word art worldwide in thousands of publications and venues.  He was editor and publisher of Lost And Found Times (1975-2005), and is Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at The Ohio State University Libraries.  Richard Kostelanetz has called him “the seminal American poet of my generation”.  His work, publications, and papers are collected in several major institutions, including Washington University (St. Louis), SUNY Buffalo, The Ohio State University, The Museum of Modern Art, and other major libraries.  His PhD (UCLA 1970) is in Latin American Literature.