Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Lists, Barbara Jane Reyes and Lao American Poetics

Jorge Luis Borges once described 'a certain Chinese Encyclopedia,' the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are divided into:

1. those that belong to the Emperor, 
2. embalmed ones 
3. those that are trained, 
4. suckling pigs, 
5. mermaids, 
6. fabulous ones, 
7. stray dogs, 
8. those included in the present classification, 
9. those that tremble as if they were mad, 
10. innumerable ones, 
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, 
12. others, 
13. those that have just broken a flower vase, 
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.  

This list comes up in the preface to The Order of Things, where the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions between the Same and the Other."

I mention this because the ever-fabulous Barbara Jane Reyes just found herself plunked on a number of lists, including the Huffington Post's top 200 Advocates for Poetry, and Poets Unfit for Flavorwire, so naturally, she blogged about it with some great commentary about the importance, or lack thereof of lists, their subjectivity, and whether they're meaningful. As always, it's worth a read.

Lately, whenever I get on the topic of lists, I'm brought to mind the 2009 interview in Der Spiegel with Umberto Eco, "We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die." In that interview, as he discusses the unique and persistent magic of lists, Eco contends "The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order - not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible?" In the same interview, he also mentions that it took over 80 years to come up with a definitive definition of a platypus. Eco closed with the thought "If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot."

But back to Barbara Jane Reyes.

The big pull-away quote from her post people are applauding so far is:
"We seem to be preoccupied with listing — the need to create lists, and the need to problematize said lists. Arguments against the lists state that lists do nothing for Poetry but create insiders and outsiders, that lists of insiders have no place in American Poetry. 
Are you all familiar with Literary Canon? That is a List.  
We American authors of color, since we were youth of color and students of color, have been thwarted by canon, demoralized by canon, rendered invisible by canon, and many of us have been silenced by canon. The fact that we worked to become writers of color, and then authors of color means that we somehow found a way to persevere, despite not being included on any List. We did not accept being silenced by canon."
Among the poets I look up to over the centuries, most were NOT trying to suck up to the powers that be in their time, whether it was China, Japan, Argentina, Russia, etc. But to be realistic about it, neither did they object too strenuously should favor and laurels come their way.

Since the 20th century, we've seen poets plunged into a particular crisis of conscience: If we find ourselves taught in textbooks and our work held up as a reflection of our state, have we "sold out"? Are we legitimizing oppressive powers? Is our work now so fangless it can be casually entrusted to youth?

But if we don't yearn to be one of the immortals of poetry, to be allowed into the halls of world literature, what are we writing for?

A thousand possible questions can undermine a conscientious poet.

Many students I speak to have been oppressed by the Literary Canon. To the point that they can never see their work even approaching the dimmest shadow of those shining halls. These otherwise talented souls find themselves faced with crippling self-doubt that few feel they will make it to even a footnote of the great records. So why aspire at all?  I find that thinking utterly tragic.

I try my best to be a role model and do what I can to blaze trails. Open proverbial doors, etc. etc. etc. But I have always been particularly indifferent about my recognition. I'd loathe the fuss for accolades if that yearning got in the way of my creating art, which should always be the bottom line.

Yes, it's nice to hear the surprise of students doing research and suddenly finding my name among other luminaries. But I remind them that that and a cup of coffee gets you a cup of coffee. Poets who are honest to themselves vacillate between earned modesty and outrageous, cosmic ambition.

This is where Wole Soyinka's classic quote comes in handy: "Un tigre ne proclâme pas sa tigritude, il saute sur sa proie." A tiger doesn't go around talking about its tigertude, it pounces on its prey. So, too, should a poet.

Over the years, I've found my work at the Olympics, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian, San Diego Comic-Con, at least one edition of a Princeton encyclopedia and several textbooks around the world. I admit, it feels pretty cool, but I'd also be writing whether or not I was included in any of these things. There are times I wonder if that's enough for my work to endure the centuries, but then I am kept humble by the reminder of how we found the work of Catullus: a set of parchment crudely stuffed in a knothole as a makeshift wine barrel stopper. The road to posterity is treacherous and occasionally hilarious.

Do I agree with any of the recent poetry lists? Frankly, no, with the exception of less than a baker's dozen of the candidates on one of them. But I appreciate people trying to compile them and giving us as all something to consider.

But now, I've got poems to write. And so do you.

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