I've always had a kind of likeing for concrete poety, visual poetry and all that. The use of chance techniques, cut-n-paste and all that have often attracted me. The problem with a lot of the avant garde, though, is probably to do with evaluation. How do you evaluate a poem which is entirely based on chance proceedures, is a 'sound poem' or is, like Bob Cobbing, a piece of writing that had been photycopied repeatedly and turned into something that doesn't even look like writing anymore?
'Messy play' was a big thing in the '60's and '70's, and probably a lot of what was produced was, in the long run, pretty crap. Andrew Duncan reckons about 90% was rubbish; which sounds like a statistic worth working with, because probably 90% of any art is rubbish in the long run. Though it might have been fun at the time, it might also have been pretty boring too. A performance of Kurt Schwitter's Ursonate might be pretty remarkable; but listening to someone doing random dog noises may well get pretty grating. One poet I heard went on for an hour, about twenty minutes of which was the limit of tolerance. I'm still not sure whether watching someone eating book pages was interesting or a waste of my time.
But how do you evaluate this stuff? I still don't know; but I think there are a few clues. Firstly, I think a work of art, whether visual or literary, has to have a heart somewhere. Not a message, but a reason for existing beyond just doing an experiment with materials, or you feel like being random. Now part of this heart is actually that Stevensian phrase, "It Must Give Pleasure": both to the audience, and, actually, to the writer. Sometimes I write a poem out of some emotional state; other times I write out of some idea; other times I write because I just enjoy the process of producing something to see what might happen.
Secondly. if you're going to evaluate something, it has to be evaluated on its own terms. It's a waste of time expecting a Bob Cobbing poem to read like a poem by JH Prynne, because he's doing different things. And if I were to say that Bob Cobbing could as easily be put alongside Jackson Pollock, for instance, as against any poet of the age, is to acknowledge that a large part of Cobbing's appeal is visual, pre-literary and aural. You don't get very far by putting him against Larkin and saying that Larkin makes sense but Cobbing doesn't; because it is not part of Cobbing's purpose to 'make sense' in the way that Larkin does. The same goes for pitting Cobbing and Prynne together: unless you understand the context of a work of art, you can't get very far in evaluating it.
Thirdly, you have to acknowledge that you on your own cannot like everything out there. Nor should you. You are likely to miss out on some good stuff because you don't happen to like it; I like Bob Cobbing, but I know people who hate him and refuse to call it poetry. That's OK, as long as you can recognise that your opinion is as legitimate as mine.
Fourthly, I think you have to acknowledge the messiness of poetry. Poetry from the late 19th century on has been a 'messy' art form, like all the other arts. There were once rules that made poetry stand out form not-poetry, just as there were rules that made art stand out from non-art. In an age when a messy bed can be placed in a gallery and called art, those rules become merely one option among many. And there's nothing you can do about that. There really isn't, despite the fact that 90% is still going to be forgotten, including writing that you might actually enjoy if you came across it.
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