Academic journal article Chicago Review


Academic journal article Chicago Review


Article excerpt

Dorn Again: an exchange between Keston Sutherland and Keith Tuma

I was thrilled this morning to receive the Dorn issue of Chicago Review [49:3/ 4 & 50:1, Summer 2004]. At first sight it looks to be a great slab of work, some real headway to dent the oblivion panels already riveted into place. First thing I read was Keith Tuma's piece on the late poems ["Late Dorn," 237-51], which is a great thing and more than many readers would comfortably want to bargain for. The collateral targets are (as collateral targets tend to be) carefully picked out: the complacency of so-called political poets far too infinitely interrogative of the "politics of form" to care very much about politics; the rise in egophantic sub-belletrism facilitated by fashionable obsession with blogs (as a substitute, I might add, for the more communal and sometimes healthily antagonistic activity of participation on listservs); the ambient prohibition of "arrogant honesty" in a literary milieu that leaves writers too afraid of the stigma of elitism to mock idiotic or conformist behaviour when they see it. Keith sets all this out with present political conditions in mind, issuing an unmistakable call to arms in a spirit that I can only imagine Dorn himself would have welcomed and admired.

My disagreement with Keith was spawned only near the end of his essay, where he argues that for Dorn "poetry wasn't the most important thing" and even that poets should recognise and in some sense allow themselves to be reconciled to the fact that their work is incapable of breaking out from the aesthetic cubbyhole that a hardline definition of culture (as superstructure floating powerless above the economic base, full of helium) has prepared for it. Whether or not Dorn thought this I don't know. But it's not how I read his work, even when, as Keith rightly notes, it gives up on versification and squats down into a tenement of prose. Neither do I think it can just be "realism" or grim deference to reality to insist more generally that poems are all abstract gossamer and inertia when compared with the (doubtless "more important") parallel activities of direct political action of whatever sort. There is a deep concession in this, a concession that to my way of thinking is ultimately more in line with, than inimical to, the capitalist instrument-talk which poetry is said ineffectively to oppose; the cubbyhole has after all been carefully prepared in order that we perspicacious cynics in search of ever more conclusive retardations of aesthetic experience can slot ourselves right into it (subject to a little finder's fee and deposit). That isn't to say that the marginalisation of poetry isn't true and real and even inevitable, according to the terms established for truth, reality and inevitability by the vacuum-brokers leasing out the cubbyhole; nor that their terms don't crucially match up with and underwrite our terms, howsoever we might imagine that we have any; but the task of poetry must surely be to fuck all this up and not to busy itself endlessly with making ever more refined negative endorsements of it. Keith doesn't say that poetry should do that, but I wonder whether his argument might not trail into that conclusion, or something like it, in explicit default not only of the currently visible alternatives but also of the possibility that any new alternatives might be "found." Poetry is and is not "the most important thing," it will always depend on how ambitious we are to determine idealistically what "importance" is and what right we have to do that. It depends too on how many things we want to call "the most important." Surely not just one? Love is not all you need.

I'd be interested to get Keith to talk about this, if he'd like to. I'm very grateful for the piece.

Keston Sutherland

Brighton, England

Keith Tuma replies:

I'd like to thank Keston for his comments. Reading his letter again I find there's little in it I disagree with and a few points I'd be interested to hear Keston say more about. …

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