Rewilding Poetry by Sharon Thesen

Sharon Thesen
“Rewilding Poetry” Panel
Cascadia Festival
Nanaimo, 2015
Sharon Thesen

By way of contributing to today’s discussion about the possibilities of “rewilding” (or, as I prefer to say, “re-worlding”) poetry, I would like to make a few observations to start with.  One is a quotation from a book published in 1986 by Andrew Ross called The Failure of Modernism:  “Poetics can no longer be regarded as the innocent haven for ‘wild’ philosophy or ‘wild’ politics which modernist poets claimed as their special privilege, but rather as a set of different and often conflicting discourses that are ideologically produced and therefore irreducible to any particular poet’s ‘vision’.”  This describes pretty much the trajectory that poetry went on to take for the next three decades.  Few poets now write without consciousness that discourse is ideologically produced and that they themselves inhabit, or are inhabited by, subject positions that are as distorted and unethical as the discourse they are situated in.   Despite the fact that successions in poetry are part of its history of continuing renewal,  and no poetic succession ever goes completely obsolete, what one poet calls “periodically recurring sweetness of heart” could be, I think, a welcome interregnum today.  And perhaps a re-wilded, or re-worlded, poetry could find a place within contemporary poetics, affecting both poets and readers in a place where maybe it IS the “innocent haven for wild philosophy” that Ross accused deluded “modernist” poetry of being. 

However, I feel cautious about the prefix “re,” implying an era of wild poetry either tamed and corralled, or displaced by domesticated monocultures, much as wild land has been; and that could, if elements of the wild ecology were re-introduced, revert to a wild condition.  In practical terms, this might entail introducing the vernacular into a thickly abstracted lexicon; or vice versa; or using pictorial or scenic imagery to “disrupt” an appropriated text; or vice versa.  These are techniques meant to mirror a dialectic.  Larger versions of this dialectic (reformation, counter-reformation, restoration) have plagued modernity until neoliberalism vanquished them all and we are now thrown into a dark ages of ubiquitous empire.  Except there are no uncolonized margins left.  Everywhere is in the state of becoming a neoliberal monoculture, via technology, economic seduction, and/or brute force.  As worldlessness consumes the earth, our attention is drawn to globalized cyberspace, if not to outer space—where, if we are lucky, we might run into the late Sun Ra, who said he  was born on Saturn and whose musical composition “Space Is the Place” should be our global anthem.

By “the world” I mean the public world, the world we share in common.  We are encouraged to think, however, that such commonality is a socially constructed fiction.  We do not share a world, it seems to say, but rather there is a “we” that excludes others, a “we” to whom all wealth, power, and security are owed.   The communities we belong to are communities of tastes and brands.   As we cling more and more to our finely parsed identities, what we take to be the world is more and more a totality of fractalled and fracked surfaces.  The ground opened by poetry, on the other hand—by the world-making activity of poeisis—restores us both to the world and to one another.   The late Robin Blaser, who was very much concerned about the disappearance of the public world,  as he thought along the lines suggested by Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, noted, “The public world has to do with the depths beneath the surfaces in which each simple, separate [and I would say “innocent” and “wild”] person swims—the rhythmic relationships by which one can notice that the surface is violent.”  None of this has escaped the notice of poetry.  Young poets today must write in such a vast and slippery territory, including the world-vaporizing currents of both neoliberalism and academic suspicion of imagination and spirituality (unless safely ensconsed within indigenous methodologies).

It seems to me that poetry’s de-wilding has been accelerated by top-down academic avant-gardism and its demand, similar to that of the corporations it now must service, for constant “innovation” (but with the caveat that the innovations also deploy “ethical” attitudes and activities, as its evangelical wing the Ted Talk also does).  Avant-gardes used to be scandalous; now they are merely au courant.  By re-branding former repressive rhetorical structures as “constraints” and by freely borrowing the discourses of other disciplines—usually cultural and critical theory—contemporary academic poets are redefining as wildnesses (that is, innovations) poetry’s traditional generic limitations and returning it to democratic speech.  Here, the way to reclaim poetry’s life, to “rewild” it, is to pursue conceptualism.  An urgently-required critique of dominant discourse (the discourse that also excludes earth and nature except as instrumentality) is in this way accomplished.  But where I think the conceptual move has perhaps not quite delivered as far as rewilding poetry goes, is where it enacts a curation of discourse, the poem a proxy for the de-centred, voiceless, visionless subject.  The poem is now without an unconscious, without depths, although its constituent words and referents are teeming with it.

This is not to dismiss the thought, passion, and knowledge driving a needed reaction to a poetry increasingly enervated by the plethora of “workshop verse” and conventional magazine verse.  The blindnesses and complacencies of mainstream modernist lyric poetry have been decried for decades, and very recently Junot Diaz in a New Yorker article criticized the unbearable whiteness of creative writing programs.  But there also exists a large contingent of informed and talented poets working on their own, although they will have aesthetic and personal alliances and claim a place in certain lineages.   They are continuing to write the poetry that, as Gary Snyder put it, “lingers in the mind.”  What San Francisco poet Duncan McNaughton referred to as “sweetness of heart” strikes me as a possibly interesting move toward a re-wilding that I believe is constantly trying to take place anyway.  Sweetness of heart, McNaughton says, is “what is really common to our desirous souls, the quality which overcomes all barriers in order to circulate anew the heart’s creative feeling among men and women, who have more than enough reason to despair.”  To radically expand the field of feeling seems an unintended ongoing work of any poetic practice of the wild.

I am interested in the nature of poetic imagination, or as Blake had it, poetic genius, which transcends the relative merits of anybody’s individual poem.  Someone once said that even unpublished poetry has an effect on the world.  I would say that poetic imagination is similarly alive in an infinite number of human feelings and interactions—with art, with nature, with each other, with spirituality, with language.

We have all seen representations of rewilded humanless cities, with vines hanging off the highrises and panthers draped over defunct signage, but this is not what we mean by the quest to rewild poetry.  What is, or was, wild poetry?  I suspect it would be poetry that speaks to us directly and openly, despite interiority of vision, or of distance or difference of time, space, and body, or formal peculiarity.  There is presence, and with presence, unavoidable complexity of the poet’s sense of reality.  Robert Duncan felt that poets were indeed on a “wild and far-out quest, albeit equipped with a pathetic compositional technology.”  Yet, he says, no shrewdly imposed technology can work for long or at depth.  Duncan felt that poetry was not interdisciplinary, that it couldn’t beg its ethics from other disciplines, and that the real audience for poetry, in the end, was human DNA.  As a reader or a listener, I have often enough had a feeling of my life being made more vivid and real by hearing or reading a particular poem.  I feel, quite literally, that I can go on.  These are the poems that as Gary Snyder says “linger in the mind” and the body, and are part of the gift exchange that has turned out to be the ethos and spirit of this Cascadian event.  This is the magic, the wildness, the innocence, the ecology of poetry, which is to say of poetic imagination.  Poetry, the sound imagination makes in language, is always to our deepest communal benefit.

© SharonThesen, 2015

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