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Furthering the Discussion

Some years ago, I heard a music reviewer criticize a band for “not furthering the discussion.” They were, he said, bringing nothing new or interesting to the form or structure of whatever sub-genre of pop they purported to belong to, nor were they engaging coherently with their own history or influences. He said they were simply making the kind of noise you make when you’re a band that wants to be “A Band.” Three chords, guitars, verse-chorus-verse, typical “Hello Cleveland!” crap.

And I remember reading an essay by Hayden Carruth, in which he talked about Paul Goodman’s sonnets, and his innovation of putting the couplet other places than at the end (quatrain, couplet, quatrain, quatrain; or whatever). regardless of what you think of Goodman, or sonnets (or, for that matter, Carruth), and whether you think this constitutes “innovation” on any meaningful scale, at least Goodman was goofing around with the form somehow, furthering the discussion, seeing what spaces he could find within the form.

Someone once said: “a good number of people using them [formal structures such as sonnets, etc] now are using them badly and for the wrong reasons.” Actually, I think the real problem is that too often people are using them for no reason whatsoever, other than that they’ve been led to believe that this is the sort of noise you make when you want to be “A Poet.”

I definitely don’t intend to start up any sort of mudslinging between neoformalists and verslibrists or whoever. I don’t care about any of that. (Though I would add that lots of sophomores make all sorts of noises when they’re trying to be “poets;” the particular noise is usually determined by what hero they’re trying to emulate, be it Jorie Bly, or Seamus Frost, or Gary Ginsberg, or Lew Kerouac, or Octavio Neruda, or Sharon Pinsky, or Kenneth Berrigan, or Jack Ashbery, or Lorine Zukofsky, or William Carlos Laughlin, or E.E. Cunningham, or whoever.)

I bring it up because the idea of “furthering the discussion” has shaped my critical perspectives for most of my adult life.

Furthering the discussion means, first of all, endorsing the idea that the discussion is useful, valuable. Second of all, it means doing what you can as a participant to encourage others to contribute, rather than discouraging them from participating; discussions are by definition collaborative. Thirdly, it means seeing that discussions are additive, and are themselves processes. They are not objects, they are events. Objects are static, closed; events are fluid, ongoing. A discussion cannot be static or closed. A discussion must flow, must move.

This also means that a discussion, to be completely healthy, cannot serve the agenda of any participant; if it does, however implicitly, then it will be unliving: it will be an object, it will be a stone cast by that person (or persons) who controls the message. It will certainly not be collaborative or open-ended. It will, in serving only one goal, serve no real goals. To live, to serve any goals, a discussion must serve no goals other than that no one can know ahead of time what’s going to happen.

If you can’t stand that sort of spooky indeterminacy, you’d better not join in. And you should head back to the nineteenth century, where you’ll be nice and cozy. You can have the past, just leave us our future.