“The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” says Ben Lerner (32). What he means by this is that each actually existing poem stands a monument to the unrealizability of the utopian hope that we call “poetry.”
Lerner has some interesting things to say about poetry and its relationship to work, the desire and the worry that writing poetry not be work. Poetry is utopian insofar as it seems to offer an alternative to “getting and spending,” an order of work that is also seamlessly a way of leaning and loafing at one’s ease; hence the defenses. That very utopian possibility also seems a monstrous indifference to the brutalities of being constrained to sell one’s labor in order to live; hence the denunciations.
“It’s / true enough that we’ve fallen between / two generations — one drunk, the other / stoned,” Keith Waldrop writes in an early poem addressed to his wife, poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s easy to imagine that Waldrop, born in 1932, is thinking of the “liquor and analysis” (43) that marked the lives of some of his lionized predecessors, such as Berryman and Lowell, and of the intoxicating, telling wit that can mark their work.
Since I’ve been offering commentaries about multilingualism for several months now and haven’t yet devoted any time to addressing poetries that use nonstandard varieties of English, I want to turn my attention to that particular elephant in the room. The question of what type of language poetry should use is, to employ another familiar expression, as old as the hills. Debates over what Wordsworth called “the real language of men” and its place in, or relation to poetry are at once passé and radically contemporary — a source of perennial debate.
This past summer, the publication of Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Cheap Signaling” drew renewed and welcome attention to the question of poetic diction and how it ought to relate to “real” language. Tiffany explores a wide array of contemporary poems that use a “fabricated language of the ‘underneath’” to queer “the diction of poetry,” mixing “a nice tranche of idiomatic talk” with the “glam-tags of theory.”