The poetry world has a paranoid side. If you ask Anis Shivani or certain folks in the avant-garde crowd, American poetry is a shell game. It’s rigged. And in certain circles, it’s clear that there is an us, and there is a them.
For instance, after a recent controversy in poetry land, there was this comment:
The entire official world of poetry publishing is corrupt from the top down to the smallest little contest – and the NEA is a facilitator of that. It is a world of mutual back scratching MFA grads with middle names like “Lavender” who elevate the word “vanity” to heights never before seen. Geoffrey Gatza (yes, I published with BlazeVox and donate to them) is one of the handful of honest, innovative publishers who are trying to deal with the real issues facing real poets and their readers – hence the hatred heaped on him by the officials patrolling the boundaries of verse culture.
This made me think of something from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:
The notion of resentment is central to the book. In it, he makes a distinction between “slave morality” and “noble morality.” He writes:
…Slave morality from the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” … In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself.
Or as the philosophy department at Lander University puts it,
For Nietzsche, vanity is the hallmark of the meek and powerless…Vanity is a consequence of inferiority.
So when certain crowds get riled up, you see comments like this:
Two of the best considerations on this matter…were published last fall by…one of the central figures on the Buffalo poetry scene.
There’s a profound sense of self-importance—and yes, vanity—in that statement. It almost sounds like a perverse version of John Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill,” as if Buffalo were a beacon, preventing wayward poets from entering perdition.
Needless to say, the very notion of a “scene” speaks to a dichotomous, us. vs. them approach; “scenes” are defined entirely by them, by the Hegelian “Other” (which Nietzsche was damn familiar with).
And does Buffalo’s “scene” merit that much importance to begin with? While I admire a number of Buffalo poets and presses, I have to say that Buffalo’s crowning achievement is its hot sauce. (Frank, of Frank’s hot sauce fame, is surely what Hegel would call a world-historical individual.)
That’s the thing: I’m far less interested in a scene—I’m far more interested in good writing wherever I can find it. Needless to say, there are numerous great poets scattered across the country, and many of them aren’t any part of a “scene.” Case in point: One of my favorite poets works at car service on the West Coast.
Moreover, the folks in favor of a “scene” always seem to attack the opposition, as Nietzsche puts it, “in effigy.” In other words, it’s one big straw man argument. Even though that’s a logical fallacy, it doesn’t mean it’s not convincing; folks use fallacies for a reason: they work.
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