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The self-abolition of the poet

by Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr

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.

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.

Read the rest of this amazing piece at Jacket2

Follow this with Part Two / Part Three

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