So, I’ve survived the first year of my PhD on poetry. One of the risks of academia, they say (whoever they are), is a kind of creativity-crushing self-consciousness, knowing too much for your own good. Also, doing what you love as a job, or as the primary focus of your life, can sometimes bring you closer to love-hate. I’ll admit, at times, the fact of the PhD – not only knowing that there is a community of thinkers and writers surrounding me virtually, but the high expectations I have of myself – has been intimidating.
This is the flip side of the sense of feeling lucky or privileged. I’ve been given such a rare opportunity – to spend a few years reading, thinking and writing in an area I’m deeply passionate about, and in a genre that’s infamous for being obscure, the antithesis of popular or useful. It’s like an extended arts grant or residency, but with institutional support (and administrative hurdles). I want my efforts to bear fruit, so I strain, push, ruminate, argue with myself (do fruit trees do this?).
Almost all my reading has been directly related to my topic – bodily otherness in poetry, using Emmanuel Levinas and Disability Theory as philosophical guides – but I’ve also been reading a little more broadly. Which brings me to The Hatred of Poetry.
I read a fascinating essay by Ben Lerner recently, which was the core of this short book of his. He begins from the classic Marianne Moore poem called “Poetry” (which I’ll quote below) to argue that poems are inevitably unsatisfactory – they all fail – which is precisely the reason we are drawn to them.
I, too, dislike it.
***Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
***it, after all, a place for the genuine.
It’s a much more complex and nuanced argument than that, of course, and there have been many very interesting and insightful reviews of the book – for example, in Cordite Poetry Review, The New York Times , and The Conversation, among many others – which I won’t even pretend to compete with.
I think Lerner is onto something with this book. He captures something about the transcendent frustration (or frustrating transcendence?) of poems. But I think its flaw is that he mis-identifies the “genuine”. It seems Lerner’s argument is that the problem is not poetry per-se, but poems. In other words, he takes Moore as saying that if we read poems with a kind of contempt, we will find the genuine poem, or poetry. Instead, I interpret her “genuine” as something more like “reality”.
When I am writing a poem, I am maneuvering through a dim landscape, an uncannily familiar yet definitely unmapped terrain which is psychological, political, linguistic and bodily all at once. I’m trying to capture something, or at least point to it. What I invariably find is that I fail to capture or point. But the poem does something. And the best ones, the ones I’m happiest with, seem somehow to include the failure to capture, include it within their structure, underneath the lines, almost subliminally.
The poems I’m most drawn to, the ones that bear re-reading, dwelling within, tell me something about life, embodiment and the spaces between us – but they tell me this by the way they renew my desire for the actual world. They succeed by failing.
I’m very much drawn to the idea of poetry as embodying failure, but not quite in the sense that Lerner seems to intend it. Our bodies fail – they break down, certainly, but they also live through processes of decay and transformation, and we move through the world by turning whatever brokenness we carry to our own ends.
Has my PhD been a success so far? Well, I’ve leapt all the technical hurdles so far. I’ll be presenting a version of the first chapter of my exegesis at the Australian Society for Continental Philosophy’s annual conference. One of the poems I’ve written received third prize in the inaugural Health Poetry Prize through the University of Canberra. Another was published in the new literary journal, Deaf Poets Society. And I’m writing poems I didn’t expect to, some in modes that are quite different than what I’m used to – so, in a way, it’s hard to tell if I feel like I’ve been successful on a personal, creative level. Time will tell.
What I do know is that I still love poetry (and my thesis topic), not in spite of the way it fails, but because of it.
Speaking of poetry, I can highly recommend that if you’re able to make it to Castlemaine on the weekend of 21st to 23rd October, then you book the Castlemaine Poetry Festival into your diary. Featuring Omar Musa, Chloe Wilson, Mike Ladd, Nathan Curnow, myself, and others, it should be a memorable, stimulating and very poetic few days.
And speaking of failure (of the body, but of nothing else), Fully Sick is a tremendously down-to-earth and informative podcast about the realities of chronic illness. Host Jenny draws her interviewees out of themselves (including me) with warmth and humour – the show reminds us that brokenness is not something we can fix or ignore; it just is. Somehow we succeed, sometimes beautifully, through failing.