Collaboration, Social Control, and Muzak

by Joseph S. Salemi

Not everyone in the poetry world is serious about poetry. In fact, the vast majority of its practitioners today write it as a kind of hobby, like macramé or ceramic painting. It’s not a consuming passion or a psychological need, but rather a time-killing activity linked with the larger urge to network, socialize, make friends, and join a coterie of the like-minded in a literary Kaffeeklatsch. Here everyone can smile at each other and exchange mutual congratulations, and the “poems” are just an occasion for chitchat and psychodrama. Able Muse’s Eratosphere, a sort of downscale karaoke club for formalist poetry, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

That’s why computer-linked workshops and chatrooms have become so prominent a part of the contemporary poetry scene. People are not as interested in the poetry as they are in the process of collaboration and interaction, and the feelgood therapy of talking with others. These places don’t serve poetry so much as the American need to be gregarious. Rather than sitting alone at one’s desk and hammering out a poem, how much nicer to buzz and burble at an on-line watering hole, while preening in a mirror that assures you of your membership in a salon of literati. Computer poetry workshops are quintessentially American creations, in the same category as barbecues, tailgate parties, and church socials.

I hear a chorus of readers shouting What’s wrong with socializing?!? Nothing, as long as you limit it to family gatherings and pub-crawls. But socializing with your fellow poets on a regular basis for the purpose of advice and argument, whether in the flesh or on-line, is a recipe for creative paralysis. It deadens your real artistic potential, and turns you into a clone. This is in fact a profound cultural issue that goes way beyond poetry. It has to do with the deeper currents of social control and the maintenance of public orthodoxies. Because of its importance, let’s be completely candid.

In the past, interaction among poets was useful precisely because it was limited and private. The literary circle of writers around Ben Jonson in the seventeenth century, famously known as “the tribe of Ben,” included no more than a dozen persons who met infrequently at London taverns. They drank, conversed, and no doubt discussed the qualities of good literature, but the notion that they exchanged early drafts of poems for line-by-line critique is laughable. Similarly, the celebrated Rhymers’ Club of W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys was a group of about twenty-five accomplished men who gathered at the Cheshire Cheese pub in the 1890s for dining and talk. They published two anthologies, but they certainly did not engage in collaborative writing and critique. The same was true for the various cénacles of the French Romantics, despite the lying efforts of some modern academics to argue that the literary work of these cénacles was collaboratively produced.

Even today, a friendly private correspondence between two poets, with an occasional suggestion for improvement in unfinished pieces, is perfectly natural. I maintained a private correspondence of this sort for years with Alfred Dorn and Henry George Fisher, and continue to do so with three working poets.

The operative word here is private. Whenever you go public, you have to deal with Public Orthodoxy. That’s the big difference that no one seems to have noticed.

In the modern world, if you are serious about any kind of genuine aesthetic achievement, you need to understand the following: any public airing of your preliminary efforts will bring you face to face with an entire cadre of people whose purpose in life is to stand in your way, to hinder you, and to place obstacles in the path of your advancement. Make no mistake—these persons are as dangerous and hostile to you as an invading army, despite all their protestations of good will. They are the kneejerk defenders of middlebrow conformism.

Such people are not limited to your overt enemies and rivals. And they’re not just on-line. They may be anything from teachers to acquaintances to friends to family members. They may be persons who profess to love you and to have your best interests at heart. They may even be honestly well-disposed towards you. But objectively they are working to prevent you from deviating from the lock-step of mental and behavioral propriety. They are unwitting agents of the status quo. They will do everything in their power to stop you from fully realizing your potential if that potential threatens to upset the bien-pensant pieties of your time and place. They are the moralists, the gatekeepers, the warning voices, the schoolmarms, the bean-counters, the mommies, the maiden aunts, the bureaucrats, the concerned colleagues—the entire ruck of timeserving careerists and risk-assessors who make up the unthinking bulk of the human race. Every time you receive a friendly admonition, every time a finger is wagged at you, every time someone hands you a counsel of fear, every time you are urged to modify or tone down or palliate the energy of your craft, it comes from one of these little pricks.

In poetry’s past, these types were ensconced among the print critics and reviewers. Today they do their main work as anonymous critique-spouters in on-line workshops. If the on-line workshop that you frequent has a large number of grandmothers, feminists, liberals, academics, middle-school teachers, and Bible-Belters, you’re likely to encounter a severe Public Orthodoxy problem. But you’ll also find these sentinels of groupthink elsewhere, pontificating about what is “offensive” or “inappropriate” or “unacceptable.” Consider the following examples.

I have a deeply religious friend whom I have known since 1964. But I avoid talking with him now because he strongly disapproves of much of my satirical poetry, especially its salty language and explicit sexuality. My friend is a self-appointed tribune for “decent language,” and he feels that it is his obligation to put pressure on those of us who don’t fetishize the same. I really don’t need to hear his moralistic whining, and quite frankly, if it comes to a choice between my poetic craft and my friends, I’ll choose my poetry every time. I wonder—would that same choice would be made by the lemmings who frequent on-line poetry workshops, where petty clique-ishness, politic backscratching, and sucking up to moderators is the order of the day? Ten to one they would betray their poetry in order to keep their good standing in the Kaffeeklatsch.

Or there’s the boring little Gen-X female on the N.Y.U. faculty who told me “The sort of poetry you’re writing isn’t doing your career any good!” When I asked what sort of poetry she meant, she answered “Oh, you know—formalist, rhymed, politically conservative… all that kind of uncool stuff.” When I told her that I didn’t give a swiving hump about anyone’s reaction to my work, she just stared at me with that blank look of baffled incredulity that one sees only on persons born after 1970. “You mean you’re not worried about being uncool? You’re not concerned about being unpopular?” she asked. “No, not really,” I replied. “Are you?” She blanched and left, probably to make an emergency call to her therapist or her support group.

People of this ilk are everywhere, functioning as unpaid enforcers of Received Opinion. As Plato pointed out, they will always outnumber the rest of us.

As I have said, the question goes a lot deeper than poetic style and subject, which are hardly earthshaking issues. Poetry, for better or for worse, isn’t going to have any effect on the way the world is run. But the pressure to make poetry a collaborative enterprise, and to subject poets to a stultifying orthodoxy of tone, etiquette, assumptions, and viewpoint, is one with the now normal and worldwide tendency to standardization and regulation in all matters. This is a flood-tide, and its force grows stronger with every passing year. And the engine behind it is the triumphant metastasis of Big Business.

It is one of the many great ironies of history that, having defeated the one-size-fits-all ideology of a reductive and leveling Marxism, we should now be acquiescing without a murmur in globalized servitude to the Fortune 500 companies. Is that what nearly seventy-five years of anticommunism were for—to make the world safe for tasteless, greed-driven businessmen? When I think of all the brave men and women who spent much of their life energy and fortunes fighting Marxist subversion, with the only apparent result being the empowerment of boardrooms of corporate scum and sleazy financial speculators, I am sickened.

This process of steady and inexorable standardization, of the global leveling of all significant difference and dissent in the name of smooth managerial harmony (i.e. unrestrained profits), is the major and defining movement of our day. We have exchanged the trinity of Marx, Engels, and Lenin for the no less unholy one of Borderless Capital, Mega-Mergers, and the Sacrosanct Corporate We. And what this new trinity values, despite all its pro forma bows to “diversity,” is predictability and sameness.

Art may be powerless, but art breathes the same atmosphere as everything else. There was no way that artists were going to avoid the mephitic gas cloud of corporate totalism. And that is why the world-encircling disease of Benign Sameness has penetrated and infected the precincts of poetry. Regardless of all their posturing left-liberalism, all their fake revolutionary ardor, all their fashion-accessory Bohemianism, all their adversarial play-acting, most poets are merely flacks for the hegemony and homogeneity of global capitalism. Like paid jesters in a medieval court, they say nothing really dangerous or threatening to the established order. They follow the guidelines laid down by their workshop buddies and dread moderators. They maintain an overall civility and middle-of-the-road blandness that touch no taboo subject or really hot issue. They are modern, non-dogmatic, polite, reasonable, safe, child-friendly, multicultural, globalist, cosmopolitan, and fashionably progressive—exactly the qualities that Big Business wants in its new trans-national world. How convenient for everyone! And woe betide any poets who dare to be different. The gatekeepers of Received Opinion will swing into action against them.

The poetry generated in this environment is muzak for the mind, not particularly different from the mellifluous sound track you are plugged into when your call is placed on hold. It is mild, unthreatening, slightly soporific, and ultimately forgettable. That’s what the workshops are training their denizens to produce—poems that don’t disturb this month’s policy guidelines. Some people have called these compositions “McPoems.” Mental muzak would be an equally appropriate description.

And the vast majority of poets have had not the slightest difficulty in adjusting to their new status as the Muzak-Purveyors-For-Globalist-Harmony. They’ve taken it as easily as a greased suppository. Well, why shouldn’t they? The only thing that gets lost is genuine poetry, and nobody seems to miss that outdated commodity. After all, the main thing is to chat with your pals.

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About Joseph S. Salemi

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.