The self-abolition of the poet

At the excellent Poetry and/or Revolution conference a few months back, one salient but perhaps muddy point of discussion concerned the relationship between poetry and capitalism (or class society more broadly). A couple of us here at Commune Editions wrote on this point in our statements for the conference, with Joshua Clover averring that a successful revolution would spell the end of the poet as a distinct social role, while Tim Kreiner and Jasper Bernes seemed to take an even more maximalist position, suggesting that the revolutionary formation of a free and equal society would mean not only the end of poets but also poems, allowing for some new and for us inconceivable form of aesthetic expression that might still deserve the name poetry.

In context, these are trivial speculations. It’s not as if the fate of revolutions will hang on the successful resolution of these theoretical niceties. That people  should continue to call themselves poets or write poems — however defined — seems unlikely to bring much harm to anyone or anything. Of course, these remarks were not intended as normative claims — telling people what they should or shouldn’t do — but claims about historical processes and historical effects. The stakes of such speculation are entirely in the present. How we conceive of the relationship between poetry and revolution – and, conversely, the relationship between poetry and capitalism – matters (as the argument goes) because such conceptions are, implicitly, a thought about what poetry is.

What is poetry, then? One definition might be: a literate dissatisfaction with poems and poets. The dissatisfaction is often some variant (or deformation) of the following syllogism: poems are products (if not servants) of this world; this world is mostly awful and must be destroyed; therefore poems and poets must also be destroyed. But who, pleads the poet, is better suited to vanquish the poet than another poet? And what possible weapon could be better suited to the task than the poem itself, intimately familiar as it is with the poet’s frailty, naïveté, and hubris? You see where this is going.

The coronation of kings, the praise of nations, the vindication of the ways of god (or the gods) to man, the counting and administration of the wealth of the rulers. These were the original tasks of the poem. The poet emerges alongside the warrior class, the priestly class. The poem emerges as one expenditure of the newfound surpluses of the grain-cultivating civilizations of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. Without peasants, no poets. Poets really are the unacknowledged legislators of the world because, from the start, the poem was a tool for the administration of the affairs of state: written business records and legal codes enabled by the measurement and patterning of speech provided by the poetic technique.

Dickinson’s attic, Rimbaud’s departure, Oppen’s silence. Though such dissidence is not unique to the modern poet, the legendary refusals and decompositions of the modern poets emerge largely as the consequence of the dawning awareness of this legacy. Once poetry is defined as an explicit antagonism to this legacy — and to the official, sanctifying role that the poem might play in bourgeois society — the categories of poet and poem and poetry are animated by curious contradictions, like so many of the categories in capitalism. The vocation of the poet becomes self-destruction; the vocation of the poem, self-abolition. The realization of poetry can only be had through the destruction of its specific instances. In this way, poetry enters into alliance with that class whose historical mission is the abolition of all classes, itself included, and the production of communism therefrom.