No More Center, No More Margin

A neoliberal specter haunts poetry today.

This thesis is too much for a few lines to convey

but hopefully my rough periplum suffices

to sketch our new vices and their devices.

Art & politics, according to Jacques Rancière[1]

lend to each other only that which they share:

the parceling out of collective imaginations,

the figuring and arrangement of occupations

& the perceptions that generate reaction-formations

to the situations we defend as civilized innovations

or condemn as merely populist demonstrations.

Neoliberalism restructures our civic relations

by equating the consumer’s "freedom" to choose

between brands x & y with much larger values—

such as democracy, liberty & the apple pie

of virtue that never stains your suit & tie.

"Markets first!" is the spectral battle-cry

CEOs & their pundits daily amplify

until it fills the echo-chamber of our TV-eye

with its moans: "goodbye to work, yet work to buy!"

This ideology arrives in time to mediate

the loss of a market in labor once thought inviolate—

the post-war regime of Fordist accumulation[2]

loses ground to new kinds of appropriation—

new global territories & new fields of information

freshly sold & sown for financial speculation.

In North America, the arts lost tax-based subsidy

accomplished by promotion of a new hostility

targeting queer & otherwise deviant experiments

& closing down or buying up alternative environments

both actual & virtual. Meanwhile, a digital blizzard

conjured by techie gurus & advertising wizards

strands us in a nearly infinite sea of little island

offices, where, captains of our destiny, we try and

fail & try again, floundering in a network

of self-production & self-promotion. Temp work

& e-mail combine to entail an unprecedented up-tick

in productivity. No time for breaks or to call in sick

& who can afford the doctor’s bills, anyway?

We scramble to pay our own way each day

focused on salvation as we stand in meek confusion

on the margins of our downsized class reunions.

Poets, of course, are no strangers to the protean coast

of side-lined desire. We flourish, but at what cost?

No more center, no more margin is my answer.

We all know how the dance becomes the dancer

but when the troupe submits to marketplace reforms

what’s lost is a certain politicization of forms.

Twenty years ago, center & margin were well defined:

on the far right, new formalists, who would re-find

an age of sanity by returning to the refinements

of yesteryear. Their Bottom (or behind) went

to the White House when the second Bush

was crowned. On the left, the strongest push

came from the LANGUAGE outsiders

who hurled punk’d up, Lacanian curves & sliders

with names ("the new sentence," "conduit," "frame")

they told us how love of self was to blame

for the deadening conformity of Poetry’s "free" verse.

Between these margins, the winning purse

went to poets, both felicitous & degraded,

who agreed to let the subject remain untranslated.

Mistaking form for voice, the centrists celebrated

a liberal conformity most carefully enunciated

in poems about oneself. The simple pleasures

& pains of life in proximity to middle-class leisure

should suffice, they sang. & wasn’t tennis nice?

& base ball? & wouldn’t a child-hood in Venice

be terrific if you were an academic & could afford

that sort of thing? To this Fordist center went the awards

& accolades, & along with them critical praise

& reputations to fit the day, if not all days.

But in twenty years, so much can change

& while the terrain remains, across the range

a subtle rearrangement has occurred. The right

& left no longer dance to such different beats.

Just as punk & classical, classic rock

R&B & rap & the new country & soft-cock

gothic emo are equally available on your i-pod

(long gone to copyright the aged rocker & the mod)

so too has Erato faced the market’s leveling

& lost thereby her most recent source of sting.

Right falls toward center, as does the left

& as ochlocracy leaves democracy bereft

of her accommodations & contradictions[3]

the poetic field succumbs to exclusionary fictions

of false unity. The new center-right submits

to present conditions by crowning dimwits

like Kooser & Collins with the laurel wreath.

Both scribble by the wan light of sentiment’s hearth—

fed by the dull humor of newspaper verse

they rely on the parlor magician’s simple reverse:

in affirming their status as fortunate dullards

they make poetry safe for the aisles of Borders

where they sit side-by-side in placid morbidity

with colleagues of the center-left’s new hybridity.

But while the populists disown their craft

the children of deconstruction exaggerate its breadth

& depth with no regard for breath’s relation to action.

Raised on lite versions of Olson’s proprioception

they plumb the furthest reaches of time & space

not so much to know as to reserve their place

in the publishing queues at Greywolf & Fence.

This "postmodern sublime" mistakes for dense

what is merely opaque: we’re meant to take

every rupture in the syntax & every break

in the line as evidence of a new discovery.

Such "extremity of experience" as university[4]

workshops find these days is quite remarkable

for adjusting so well to what is marketable.

And just as both parties, since Reagan, have agreed

on trickle-down & sending factories overseas

today’s poetic factions—the humorists

with their mild parodies and voluminous

egos, and the weavers of golden fragments

who wear their souls’ complicity like a fragrance—

agree to let the marketplace decide

at ever divergence which road to ride.

Both deride lyrical subjectivity

with a mildness that makes cynical complicity

a virtue: repudiating an authentic self

becomes the best way to Amazon’s shelf.

The collapse continues. It’s becoming critical.

Our only hope is to make ourselves political

by pushing back against the tide we feel

until we reach the shores of the Outsidereal.

The term’s Dorn’s, but the project’s Objective[5]

in the broadest sense: the outsider perspective

calls forth a world of actual practices

to remind us that the imagination is

always larger than the world it’s nestled in.

It’s critical. But never too late to begin.