Abdication 1, Courage 0
As I am wont to do, I engaged a stranger at the Maya Lin "Wave Field" at Storm King Art Center who told me that there is a class of artist that intends to do something new, and that in the snobbish caste-system hierarchy of The Arts, this is the top echelon (the others disregarded as dismissable).
Whether one agrees with this philosophy or not, one might concede that the Problem of the New has been a plague on the creative world following the stunning innovations that occurred in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century – an almost actual century ago. Marcel Duchamp – far more than Picasso, the eerie twelve-tone Webern, and, most relevant to a discussion of poetry, the literary avant-gardists Gertrude Stein and Kurt Schwitters broke fundamental molds and created hurdles quite possibly too high to leap without pretention. Poets have been in a creative hamster wheel ever since (free verse, Beat, concrete, Flarf and language poetry notwithstanding, ditto Christian Bök's überclever, singular, lipogrammatical Eunoia), recycling, homaging, and demonstrating the difficulty of breaking new ground. The result has been the default adoption of cleverness as the primary measure of poetic merit, and the so-far unobserved rise of Cleverism as the predominant, if unintended movement in poetry.
A primary driver of the Cleverist Movement in poetry is what Robyn Creswell of the Paris Review recently referred to as the "professionalization [and, I might add, the institutionalization] of poetry." With an unprecedented number of academic creative writing programs, it follows that there are an unprecedented number of educators and publishers with serious skin in the game, as in continued material existence. In an environment in which categorizable content correlates to coherence (one can't teach students that diversity means impossible-to-process overload: in that case, one's curriculum might as well be random) and credibility equates to conforming consistency (aka a canon), cleverness fits the bill, being recognizable (and conveniently, abstractly nebulous and elastic), unassailable and safe.
Cleverism no doubt has other, generationally recent roots: the post-war Age of Hip, when status-seeking – another timeless phenomenon, embodied in earlier sumptuary laws and later virtual friend counts – mattered, and snarky one-upmanship fueled preening egos. In a world in which not being connected is the ultimate sin, where "something is happening but you don't know what it is," Cleverism confers coveted status.
More important to critical acclaim and legitimization as an official movement, Cleverism demonstrates rare talent, intellectual rigor and superlative craft. It thus cuts off threats from incipient Populist and Relativist movements, in which the authors of an estimated 4,000 private press poetry books, almost 800,000 self-published volumes, and over 120 million blogs generate a quantity of hopeful literary content impossible to fathom, let alone ingest or evaluate. Cleverism gives us the superstars our cultural programming – and limited memory banks – require.
So what is Cleverism? It's the incorporation of a clever turn of phrase, or a clever idea, with a self-satisfied, patronizing undercurrent as the primary element of a poem. Precisely because it's clever, Cleverist poetry is inherently enjoyable (a clever critic might say that it produces jouissance). And the current crop of Cleverists write some banging good lines. It just so happens that our society is blessed with a just-right number of Cleverists (not too few to be short a movement, but few enough to be uncommon), and to be honest, I enjoy much of their work. For example,
You are in your pajamas
eating cold pizza
when you decide to make a coyote.
Now all you need is a pregnant coyote.
– from "Ten Inspirations," by Dean Young
If this excerpt is too insincere or facile for you, there's this, more trenchant one, from Kay Ryan, a Cleverist par excellence:
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks.
– from "Sharks' Teeth," by Kay Ryan
However, while demonstrations of coruscating genius, these examples are no more than that. Their punch lines (and they are just that) have the banal quality of aphorisms. After reading them, you might understandably expect tomorrow's fix with an air of haughty entitlement. But your thinking won't be changed.
I'm not saying that the consumption of cleverness isn't useful or even necessary to cortical health. It is. In fact, our institutional purveyors may be doing us all a huge favor by bringing a bevy of cleverness to us, whereby "beauty is truth, truth beauty…," "but ah my foes, and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light," "and that has made all the difference," as examples of clever good lines, and as stimulating varietals for intellectually capacious and insatiable minds. But there's always more at stake, and the assumption of placid continuity that underlies cleverivorousness is a dangerous one today, despite Cleverism at its best:
The next day
promises to be sunny,
although those still living
should bring umbrellas.
– from "The Day After – Without Us," by Wisława Szymborska
[translation by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanisław Barańczak]
At its least effective, cleverness is analogous to commercial entertainment, capturing our attention but delivering zero protein. It distracts us from important matters at hand:
If Wizard, then Why not Witch? If Land,
then as likely bring forth Sea, Sky, indeed
a veritable (invraisamblable)
Library of Oz!
– from "Only Different," Without Saying, by Richard Howard
Why not? Here's why: Stein's 1912/1914 Tender Buttons, a prose poem, was truly groundbreaking, destroying logic, scrambling language and exposing the implicit nihilism of cleverness, demonstrating, most important, the transcendentally creative capability of the human mind at its best:
The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.
– From "Objects / Glazed Glitter," Tender Buttons, by Gertrude Stein
Compared to this, even the consummate cleverness of Charles Simic pales as pedestrian, and comes across as simply flippant:
Do you happen to have an immortal soul?
Do you have a sneaky suspicion that you have none?
Is that why you flip a white pair of dice,
In the dark, long after the joint closes?
– from "Club Midnight," by Charles Simic
Perhaps one shouldn't complain. Today's Cleverists are no doubt seen by intellectual arbiters in our cinematic, short-attention-spanned society as more accessible than the blind epic poets and singsong sonateers of yesteryear. And the argument can be easily made that the quintessentially clever haiku form was clichéd in seventeenth century Japan, that it represented no progress (although Basho's
Year after year
on the monkey’s face
a monkey mask
– cleverness personified – is both timeless and brilliant, the two chief attributes of Cleverism). And that we are condemned (or fortunate, or something in between) to be of ours. Perhaps we are simply living in yet another rudderless period in which cleverness is the best that we can do, the strategy they'll say we contrived to fritter away our unappreciated time during our insignificant ironically Dark If Clever Age, seduced by glitz and noise as we played our mental games, our hoped-for messages-in-bottles to tomorrow (as Edward Hirsch might say), in fatalistic abdication of the proposition that we, through action, might make a difference, might be part of a force for symbiotic human-terran sustainability – that more was required of us than we deigned to give.
However, ours is a time of catastrophic change, which represents, despite claims otherwise, an entirely new period in human history, which urgently demands responsible attention. Not so long ago, poets as diverse as Carl Sandburg, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde and Gil Scott-Heron challenged convention, agitated for personal responsibility and action, and influenced attitudes and therefore effected the kind of change for which The Pen is legendary. They even broke new ground in political, social, sexual and racial perceptions. In "Howl," which was not rebroadcast on its fiftieth anniversary by WBAI for fear of fines ($325,000 per word), Ginsberg wrote about "the best minds of [his] generation":
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising… or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality…
– from "Howl," by Allen Ginsberg
Scott-Heron, who recently died, collaborated with musicians to communicate his message that:
you will not be able to stay at home, brother…
because the revolution will not be televised….
the revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32…
the revolution will be live.
– from "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," by Gil Scott-Heron
Presently, Daniel Tobin's joins with these courageous minds in shaming our indifference:
I watch talking heads drone on about the saved,
hollow notes in an afterthought of wind
when the storm's done…
a man pleads from a world consumed by waves
to us, to each of us, with his arms lifted,
as though it were we who needed to be saved.
– from "An Icon from the Flood," Sent from Troy, Alabama, September 1, 2005, by Daniel Tobin
Let's grant that Cleverism is a telling movement, an accurate reflection of the thinking of some of the best minds of our generation. And that we should celebrate their creative formula: the unexpected connection, the turn of phrase, the incisive insight, etc. But we should also admit to ourselves that in celebrating cleverness, we are elevating inevitables, our species' dependably occurring Talenteds. But Talenteds are not always what we need. Let us also recognize that in this worldview there is no progress, no hope of real change, no bursting of "the chrysalis," as Edward Bellamy hoped in Looking Backward. Perhaps we shouldn't expect so much from poets, or ourselves.
But wait, you say, Cleverism isn't a movement: Isn't it just another way to describe good poetry? And anyway, isn't poetry supposed to be clever? No, it's not; and not necessarily: it should be more. Cleverism qualifies for movement designation because, although its practitioners aren't formally organized, the confluence of poets writing in this style is definitive. Like Dadaists, Oulipos, New York Schoolers, Beats and Rappers, Cleverists have critical mass, and their work is taxonomically identifiable:
Perhaps this is a good time to mention
that I don't know Joe Schrank
and he does not know me at all.
We have never met in this, the allegedly non-virtual world,
although maybe the lives we think we live
are merely more virtual experience[s]…
– from "On receiving the message at 3:13 am on Tuesday, September 21, 2010, that Joe Schrank confirmed me as a Friend on Facebook," by John S. Hall
Cleverness may nourish – and even touch us, but in the end, it brings no real joy. Like fashion – and oxygen – it simply is, and if we don't set our sights higher, we will deserve the anticlimax of business-as-usual, passive, kultur-consumerist expectation that there will always be another "latest clever poem" tomorrow; that art's for art's sake; that we exist above it all. In contrast, Schwitters's asemic Ursonate demolished precedent, inferring profound implications – the stupefying horror and absurdity of the preceding war, the babbling drivelousness of metaphorically prosthetic (i.e., machine-age) life, the raving pathos of the human condition, and, optimistically, a demonstration of communication beyond language, of experiment and risk. Although the Cleverists will be hard pressed to top that, at least sometimes they look the hard stuff in the eye, and give us substance, if ever so cleverly:
One monkey, eyes fixed upon me, listens ironically,
the other seems to be dozing –
and when silence follows a question,
he prompts me
with a soft jingling of the chain.
– from "Two Monkeys by Brueghel," by Wisława Szymborska
[translation by Magnus Kryski]
Let's thank them much for that, and set our sights on losing our chains.
# # #