Friday, December 16, 2005

The Ideology of No Ideology

Here's a claim that I read on the back of Miracle & Clockwork. "Other Poetry has sought to present excellent poetry in an attractive form without regard to ideology or fashion." I wouldn't want to quarrel with the "excellant": there's some good stuff in the anthology; I want to argue about that last phrase: "without regard to ideology or fashion." This makes such massive assumptions that it has to be questioned.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of poet: "just poets" and "label poets." You can, for instance, be a really good poet, like say John Siddique or EA Markham, a truly inventive poet like Edwin Kamau Brathwaite; and when people come to critique your work, you suddenly acquire a label: "Black poet." All poets of the female gender are automatically "women poets", whether, like Elizabeth Bishop, they protest against the label or no. You can choose to be an "avant garde" poet, I suppose; but then quite often it's not so much a choice as a question of chance. Most avant garde poets, like most other poets, fall into their categories because of factors such as who they meet, where they study, what really turns them on; not because of some self-conscious desire to be different.

But the "just poets": the "I'm just a poet" brigade. Well, they tend to be white, middle-class and mainstream. There is nothing wrong with that; but it's every bit as much of an ideological position as would being a gay avant garde post-modernist poet of colour (such as Timothy Liu, to take an American example...) It's just that it pretends not to be. The "mainstream" is the normative position. The word "poet" without a label is usually assumed to be white, male, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, who writes poetry that is relatively closed, relatively comprehensible and doesn't do anything silly like "open-form." It can be a bit surrealist, but not so it frightens the horses. It can rhyme, but shouldn't use archaic poeticisms. It tends to be fond of the lyric eye, doesn't go in for fractured narratives, cut-ups, oulipean games playing, visual effects etc...

Anything that doesn't fit this mould is an "adjective poem." It's a "black poem" because it's about the legacy of slavery and it's written by a black man. It's a gay poem because it's about being picked up in a bar in San Francisco and the author is gay. It's "avant garde" because the editor can't understand it. Anything that is not mainstream is assumed to come with a label, anything which is mainstream is assumed to not need one.

The very notion of excellance assumes that the person making the claim to only like "excellant poetry" knows how to pick out the excellant poetry from the bad poetry. An "excellant poem" is one that confirms the idea of excellance that is in the editor's head. What is excellant to the editor of Other Poetry might well be dull, pedestrian stuff to the editor of Parataxis magazine. Yes, Miracle & Clockwork contains some excellant mainstream poetry (I don't include my own poem here, as I'd love to have had the opportunity to edit it) but to claim to not have a position, to be free of ideology, is nonsense. It's like saying "I'm not interested in politics," then always voting for the party that's in power.


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P.F.S. Post said...

I think about this all the time, being both a hard-core post-avantist & a straight white male. I was talking to Anne Waldman about it, she didn't seem to think it was important. Yet post-avant rails against the patriarchy that I, willy-nilly, represent. I've decided that the best policy is to acknowledge the problem of straight-white-maleness, then go on w/ the business of writing & forget about it. Life's too short.

AnnMarie Eldon said...

I guess I shall have to leave all categories behind other than female then? Good point(s). Life's long enough for irony thank God.