My Argument is Wrong But

by Eli Zibin

Philosopher Party

Image: Steffanie Ling

Eli Zibin holds a BA in English Literature from the University of British Columbia. His poetry appeared in Lemon Hound’s “New Vancouver Poets” folio curated by Poetry is Dead.

98. Good v. bad poetry. The distinction is not useful. The whole idea assumes a shared set of articulatable values by which to make such a judgment. It assumes, if not the perfect poem, at least the theory of limits, the most perfect poem. How would you proceed to make such a distinction?

— The Chinese Notebook, Ron Silliman

I - yes I - want to underscore the notion that any and all valuations of poetry and poetics always speak from and with their own unique historical and aesthetic biases. That is to say, any valuation of poetry in terms of "good" or "bad" is only so as constructed within its own particular épistème (as Foucault or Butler) may say, and is locatable (as Nietzsche or Haraway would suggest), in a genealogy of shifting values over time. Even if we could formulate a "shared set of articulatable values” (as Silliman doubts), such valuations would be (as Derrida or Irigaray would highlight) always tentative, slippery: unstable in their meanings, bound to their historical moment — only really indicative of aesthetic tendencies of their time.

Even if this weren't the case and that it were possible to stake out grounds for certain value judgments, Silliman's proposition does not explain what such a "useful distinction" would be or do in these cases. Any grounding of such hypothetical distinctions would vanish if their utilitarian values cannot also be articulated. Further, is it not that the use of a “useful distinction” — indeed the concept of any "use value" — is also subject to the exact same sempiternal fluctuations which "good" and "bad" are? In this case, even the distinction of the distinction is not useful.

Simple dialectics teach us that with the improbability of a "perfect poem" or a "most perfect poem" that we can neither have poems which wholly "fail". The notion of a "failed poem" or a "mostly failed poem" is untenable precisely because its definitive opposite does not exist, cannot exist, is illusory. And by extension, even if it did exist, it would still be subject to its own temporal moment, improbably failing only for a second, improbably perfect only for a moment.

Approaching poetry and poetics in this manner refocuses the discussion away from the turtledowns of ontology —what poetry is— towards re-constellating various forms of poïesis - what poetry does and can do.

Listen up. There may be a fear that this kind of approach dilutes the critical capacities of poetry and poetics by opening up the artform to hubbub, or irresponsible and detached authorships (as if it isn't open to these cases already). I too worry about how acephalous this kind of approach could become: the act of circumscribing "good" poetry from "bad" poetry is also to occupy these opinionated positions with passion and sensitivity. These claims represent an investment in identifiable poetic traditions, as well as supra-poetic and often politically valuable positions. Such positions posit a poetics which at their best are viscerally embodied, politically charged, and full of beautiful nuance. To disregard, discredit, or downplay these responses is surely not what I am suggesting.

Instead, in terms of reading poetry, the type of framing I am suggesting or reminding you of is merely meant to short-circuit those gutjerk reactions we have to certain forms of poetry that are unfamiliar, or annoying, or cliché, or banal, or difficult for us — for whatever reasons we so think. The way of thinking about poetry I'm proposing is simply a way of recontextualizing these initial responses.

Indeed, this type of paradigm forces us to take an interest in the poem (the etymology of interest is inter-essa meaning literally between beings). Reading here then is dialogic, an interaction that occurs between two entities, the poem and the reader. There is, although it is often forgotten, an a priori perceptual relationship between any reader and any poem; that is to say, the reader, not the author, is largely responsible for the semantics of any poem simply by their perceiving of it. The point then is that any careless dismissiveness of poetry and poetics actually involves us and reflects on us, more-so than the poem itself. Only a reader can activate a poem. How they choose to do so is paramount to any thinking of poetics: our responses are our responsibility.

In terms of writing, Silliman's dictum is most helpful when it relieves one from evaluating their own work with nonexistent or unhelpful categories. This approach to poetry removes a significant barrier to entry as the fear of writing “bad” poetry is mitigated by the fact that you couldn’t if you tried (feel free: elizibin@gmail.com with your attempts). Instead, one's perceived failure is simply a quirk, an errancy within a language game, if not a glitch in a discourse network. This approach can also quell the fear of “authorship” since one must now also recognize that they are no longer the single “authority” of a poem's meaning: that responsibility is now also shared with the reader. There are no poems which “fail”, and when they do what we conceive to be as "failing", they are only more interesting for partly exposing today’s aesthetic and linguistic slant.

The point when writing is that we can always just check the numbers afterwards. Pegasus. The flatness, when inscribing, is that we always re-numericalize numerology after words. Abbot Kinney. What if I told you the syntactic constraint I wrote this piece under? The etymology of ‘define’. What if I then wrote over this syntactic constraint? Do the adjectives I've used have any relation to the Fibonacci sequence? Look again. My argument is wrong depending on how you frame it, I believe this. All forms of diving involve the nose somehow. Many small animals dig holes. Knot nonsense metaphorically, but what’s the difference, or, either way, who is counting?

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