At the Poetry Foundations's blog, poet and theorist Joshua Clover writes about the false freedom of poetry, which is often held up as an art form uniquely unencumbered by economic logic (in contrast to, say, contemporary art). On the contrary, writes Clover (who gets paid to teach and write poetry at UC Davis): "In the society of ambient discipline all verse is unfree." Here's an excerpt:
So then maybe this is a thing to say about poetry. I think that more people get paid for poetry than get paid for poems. Not only teachers. Get paid on Fridays or get paid on the last of the month for gigs we got for having published poems and gigs we keep with the expectation we will continue to be productive in that way. Nonetheless the whole time there is no appearance of getting paid for poems and no appearance of discipline flowing through the act of writing poems. You can have the same discussion they have at SPIN about “the reader” and what they will and will not put up with and it will keep a workshop busy but no one ever makes you change a poem directly. You will never “get edited” in the sense that someone exerts a disposition over your poem’s form or content based on the fact that they pay you.
And this allows for the amazing ideology of poetry. Allows for the idea that it is a free act. It is doubly free. It seems to have no economic value and seems not to be subordinated to labor discipline. It seems not to be salaried work or waged work. And so it can stand for certain kinds of freedom. Poetry can stand for freedom so intensely that people start to worry there is too much freedom. This hovers in the air when Robert Frost says that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Seriously fuck you Bob. There is a net. Poetry is bound up in this net and the net is the social system in which poetry is required to appear as free even as poets are constrained by ambient discipline in every moment. And if you split the moments in half you are still constrained in each half-moment. And people talk about the autonomy of art all the time like that means anything and people talk about how poetry is subversive and even anti-capitalist for no other reason than that nobody buys it. But that part we know is not true. People buy it all the time. It just looks like something else is happening. In the society of ambient discipline all verse is unfree.
Image of Joshua Clover via Wikimedia Commons.