The Old Math of Poetry (Part One)
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | March 7, 2010
The poetry realm, with its current pressures of multiplicity, market-value, and massification, has devolved to a mathematics of representation. The representation urge stems from the google-culture we’ve helped build, nurture, and augment with voluntary aplomb. We are after all the chief preservationists of a web philosophy that labors to itemize and catalogue the alterity of our global existence, if only to document the sheer numerousness of class and culture types who share democratic access to the Internet. Words, documents, pictures and a googol of characters, files, pages, maps, and sites are stored and maintained in the cloud of our collective (un)knowing. (We know that what we don’t know is out there, on the web, known already.)
And set alongside the linkage of our private existence to the social media that sheds light on our intimate engagements are poems, those intricate webs of gossamer and steel that future poets will end up one day writing on a screen. Hydra’s Anelise Chen already pointed toward the coming age of “literary hypermedia.” Poetry has to a large degree become interactive and web-oriented in a way that’s changed the art of its production. For one thing, the ease with which a poem can be published (especially self-published) and put out on a cheaply made chapbook or in the poet’s personal blog (costing the poet nothing more than his/her own effort in writing it) has greatly enhanced the amount of poetry being written today. What counts in a poem, literally, is its addition to the exorbitant amount of poetry growing daily, on paper or on the web (and much more of it landing on the web). The sheer number of authors and their small and large poems are so vast, and so greatly proliferated, that they are in sum reduced to sums. According to an article by David Alpaugh, at the current rate of web and paper publication, “more than 100,000 poems will be published in 2010.” But Alpaugh claims that’s only the tip of an iceberg: “If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century.” He calls this massification “the new math of poetry.”
Alpaugh is mainly concerned with the large-scale discrepancy between the all-out democratizing of poetry that the web permits, empowering each and every poet with the facility to publish just about anything the poet scribbles; and the faintly elitist printing press arms of academia and large publishing houses that seem to propagate only a fraction of the smallest percentage of poets out there in misleadingly titled “best of” anthologies. Most of the time the gatekeepers of the major publishing branches tend to put out the work of colleagues, spouses, friends, and retired professors, not because of the age-old practice of nepotism, but because there’s so much poetry being written under the radar that there’s simply no reasonable way of accounting for all of it. The “independent poet” of excellence, like the unknown soldier of war, is consequently left out of the scale because he/she is joined by a million other he/shes of incalculable value. Massification of publishing resources creates mass anonymity of authorship, while reputation and affiliation serve as the better sieve available for the tons of poetry to sift through. The arch problem, according to Alpaugh, lies in his belief that “almost all of the world’s great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today [Alpaugh included] remain unaffiliated with any institution.”
While Alpaugh goes on to lament the impossibility of a situation in which poetry works as its own enemy (in that the root problem of poetry today is the glut with which it is produced but not read), the paradoxical malignity of too much poetry — when we should be gladder for it — presents other routes of thought I’m more interested in exploring. If Alpaugh claims that procreative prolixity is the “new math of poetry,” then I ask, what of the old math of poetry? Perhaps he slyly points toward traditional metricks and prosody as the old mathematicks. After it had passed from song rehearsal and the performance of a tribe’s collective memory (literally, a verbal archiving of the history of a village, a tribe, a people), the art of poetry was a way of sculpting language to fit a rarefied, often irretrievable species of thought. Rarefied not for a quality of ‘high’ from ‘low’ thought, but for encompassing, stimulating, an act of thinking in line with natural breath, natural attitude, natural philosophy; a philosophic origin. Thoughts, like pictures and visions, are instantaneous, unmistakable, indelible. Hence the language to drape the fugitive but habitual act had to be pared down, trimmed to its quintessence, shaped to the figure, hardened to resist corruption.
In comparison to today’s word glut, poetry was less because it was vocationally and technologically difficult and it derived from a certain abundance, and so a specific filtration, of education. The education was not so much book-learning as it was a walking tour of one’s native geography and the geologic history compacted by eons underneath fresh soil. The materials of the earth and its weathers were the libations that cleansed one’s tongue. If poetry was ever class-exclusive for a time in the Old World, certainly only those few who sought it in all its impoverishing seriousness, found it. Poetry, in short, was not a source of lucre, but a laborious means of knowing, a science. It had little to no publicity, and it carried no ready rewards: its glories were nearly always the glories of private implosive discovery, a scientist’s share of quiet riot. But poetry isn’t a practice that desires solitude: it must be read because its power derives from universal truths, in allegiance with the culture and peoples that inform it, and as a lexicon, sometimes as the mere receptacle, of an outpouring of collectivity. It is, above all, in search of wisdom in its own fibre and timbre, raw and infinitely transportable to masses and man alone. That poetry could impoverish was the very reason for its exclusivity and the purpose that crafts its wares of nearly indigent earthiness.
Indigence is a state of grace for the poet. Hunger and urgency and obstinacy at once, but also: lightness. A lightness of being (at times unbearable) that volunteers to shed blood at any given chance. To give more of itself than possible. A poet cannot falter in this quality if the poet’s mission is to write more and more of herself away. In this respect technology will play a part, as Alpaugh tells us, because in the age of technological reproduction, the mathematicians of the new poetics have at their disposal a world-wide-web capable of increasing as the universe does, constantly and infinitely. Each addition to the open web, each new poem, blossoms into three more text documents that are hyperlinked with yet five others, indirectly and abstractly, but willfully; and so forth to limitless ends.
The problem however rests not with the explosion of numberless poems harvested on the web and hidden in the magazine racks of the world, but with the attitude with which poetry is written and idly tossed about. The attitude toward poetry is one of accretion and precondition than one of indigence and visceral impulse. Alpaugh notes that the standards for writing and publishing poetry have been dramatically lowered, so as to make room for a growing creative writing market. It’s a decent industry that profits from anthologies, seminars, workshops, classes and the like, to lure the would-be poet to hone an essentially self-involved skill in public scrutiny, while paying a horde for it. The benefits are the same as they were in Horace’s day — undying fame — except now condensed to a manner not especially different from a reality television show. Only the quality of celebrity is different: the one is fickle, the other slightly less.
Hydra’s Edgar Garcia recently alluded to the new math of poetry (in no anticipation of this post nor in reference to Alpaugh’s article, but purely coincidental) in a three part poem titled, “Indigence” (from which I borrow the term to diagnose the solution). Edgar sees the problems of contemporary poetry and publishing factions in a different manner from Alpaugh; the enemy is a tyrant quite different from the tyranny of publishers:
The “impulse” Edgar speaks of is the grace of indigence I referred to above. It is an impulse that does not lend itself to name-coining or writing titles to poems before they’re even written; much less the impulse of self-aggrandizement. The impulse is one that “travels lightly along the latitudes“:
To travel light along the latitudes: to engage the world freely, at liberty with its costliness and hazards. Sustained argument with a grandiose mundus that precedes the poet and gives the poet his sustenance, often at his peril, makes more of a man than a sack of trinkets, certainly more than a sack of positive gossip. The world is adamantine hard because it must be: the poet must, in contrast, pack lightly and see through things thoroughly, and remain in contention with the tremors and bustle of nations categorically dissatisfied with progress, because his faith is large enough to sustain its gyres; he must reduce himself, must make the end of poetry his constant acquisition. He does not write for the plain stupid sake of writing, but he writes with the end of poetry in mind, as virtue, as calamity, as credence. The poet seeks to end poetry — even knowing that it does not end, that it does not terminate — and will at the opportune moment cease writing – if only he could, if only a second coming should happen — once those ends are met. But they are never met: herein the struggle that beatifies the testament. Awaiting cataclysms is enough reason to warrant all the poems of the universe, the world-wide-web, and a googol more after that. Extinction of self, of you or I, of the whole gamut of love’s paradoxes.Tweet