Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bronze Age of Poetry?

It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry...

The SoQ (School of Quietude) reference will clearly indicate to anyone who has clicked through the links at the right that this though originates with Ron Silliman. I read his blog religiously for the same reason that I used to fiddle with my father's slide rule: I knew there had to be great ways to leverage it if I could come to understand it.

Before you run away, note that this juxtaposition isn't really that far a stretch. Many replies (to this and any number of his prior posts) criticize Silliman for (1) using labels to categorize poets and (2) implying an absence of talent in the SoQ category. In this short excerpt he has, I think beyond dispute, dispelled both complaints.

First, he clearly says here that there are poets in the derided category that have talent. If you read through his posts, he sometimes names poets whose work he doesn't care for, but who display strong poetic craft. And more importantly, he's made it clear - for me, at least - that his purpose for categorizing is to create a kind of timeline for poetry: overlapping bands that, taken together, clearly illustrate an evolution of poetic craft and purpose. Independently, the terms have some, but greatly diminished and incomplete value, which explains why, when used independently, they lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings.

Look at an analog: Take three terms which describe the evolution of technology preceding the modern age: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, and The Iron Age. What do the terms do? Create a memorable structure into which to organize basic commonalities (eg: the use of stone tools, the absence of metal forming and metalworking technologies, etc.), not a complete sets of characteristics (doesn't try to capture social structure, regional differences, etc.), and no finite opinions on start/end or on the quality of those who executed within its limits (excellence of workmanship within the limits of the age, etc."). It was possible to have brilliant stone workers who did not, out of ignorance or will, practice metalworking. However, a society that refused to accept and integrate the new technology - as part of its evolution - was likely to die off.

Where my analogy falls apart is that the transitions between Stone, Bronze, and Iron - or more dramatically, the ages themselves - were too far long for individual members of society to feel any pressure from the transition. Silliman seems to be searching for the artists who are clearing the path for the next steps on the evolutionary path in areas where the ages of the art are shorter than the lifespans of their practitioners. Pejorative implications notwithstanding, the application of a term merely identifies a form of the art in which that groundbreaking seems, in general to be absent.

Might there be examples like this in the sciences? Imagine an advanced practitioner, schooled and studied in the branches that have come before, making public the results of a meta-analysis of unprecedented size along with results of her own research and theories. I wonder if such a figure would have more respect inside or outside her discipline. I wonder if fellows would tend to compare the conclusions of the meta analysis with the direction of the research to ask "is this scientist following a consistent and logical direction" or to form opinions of the research and then skim the analysis for bits to quibble with. I wonder.

Anyway, I'm probably way over the top (or drilled down way too deep - your choice) with this discussion. But this idea of classification for consideration is so essential to a technologist's mindset (and I am certainly a technologist first) that I'm regularly fascinated by the dismissal of interesting ideas because they require classifications to commit them to paper.

A quick to those lamenting the impending All-Star Break: If you like, I can rewrite this post using the dead ball era instead of the Stone Age. Less universal, I dare say, but possible....


Ron said...

Plus I still own the slide rule I had in high school,


Anonymous said...

I think that game last night made up for the one that ended in the tie. :)