Racing For The Prize, Part 2 (Michael Boughn)

The following is the second of a two-part installment.  The first part is linked here. The article was previously published in Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): (193-199).  It is republished with permission of the author.

This high/low distinction has haunted thinking about art since the eighteenth century and its spatial language is a reminder of the lingering social hierarchies that defined the difference. These days the difference is often confused with questions of genre, where certain genres are assumed to appeal to the mass market while others don’t. Television is low art, opera is high. Literary fiction is high, crime fiction is low. Each has its own contests. Poetry, because of its pre-MFA-creative-writing-program history as a serious art, clings to some vestigial value, even though it has become so marginalized that its actual value is paradoxically low—hence, poets and writers.

Of course the distinction is overly simplistic. Our world is a world of lascivious democracies of form and in practice has lost all sense of such distinctions, as if Emerson’s words were prophetic in ways even he couldn’t imagine. Television can be a venue of astonishing complexity, as well as banality, where shows such as “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood” or “Fargo” easily qualify as—well, whatever they are, they are not low art, notwithstanding their relative commercial success. The world of writing is equally mongrelized and confused where much so-called literary fiction is hopefully pre-packaged for Oprah or the Giller with set pieces about incest and child abuse that are notable only for their predictability and sensationalism, while some so-called genre fiction is immersed in complexities of thought that boggle the mind.

There is a marvellous little set piece near the beginning of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, La Brava,  in which the two main characters, Tony La Brava, a secret service agent turned art photographer, and his new lover, the aging film star Jean Shaw, discuss responses to a recent show of La Brava’s work. After going through a list of art-speak comments—“His work is a compendium of humanity’s defeat at the hands of venture capital;” “He sees himself as dispossessed, unassimilated”—La Brava responds with classic naïve anti-art speak—“I thought I was just taking pictures.” And then he goes on to approvingly relate a further conversation in which a man said, “I think he takes pictures to make a buck, and anything else is fringe.”

Of course, making a buck had to come up. Even in pulp fiction, the dirty bottom rung on the ladder of literary excellence, any discussion of art will lead into the quagmire of its relation to money and commerce—maybe especially because it is pulp fiction, whose very existence is presumably premised on commercialism—work done for money, for a market. La Brava’s response would be shocking in high art circles: “I would’ve kissed the guy,” he says, “but it might have ruined his perspective.”

Even more so than the proposition that there is such a thing as “just taking pictures,” La Brava’s open embrace of the idea that it is not only OK to make a buck with your art, but actually a good thing, pushes the conversation into a zone that resonates beyond the apparent commonness of the situation, given that the book we are holding as we read is precisely analogous, written no doubt to make a buck.

Is La Brava just an art whore—and naïve to boot? Is Elmore Leonard just using a character to justify his own selling out? A turn in the conversation complicates things when La Brava introduces Walker Evans into the equation. Evans, of course, was the ultimate U.S. American art photographer, connected at least briefly to Steiglitz and the New York art crowd of the 20s and 30s. He rejected the artiness of that scene to do “documentary” work for the Farm Security Administration, work that came to visually define America in the Great Depression and reorient the art of photography.

He was Emersonian in his commitment to the common and the low, virtually paraphrasing Emerson in his 1969 book on photography: “After a certain point in his formative years, [the photographer] learns to do his looking outside of art museums: his place is in the street, the village, and the ordinary countryside. For his eye, the raw feast: much-used shops, bedrooms, and yards, far from the halls of full-dress architecture, landscaped splendour, or the more obviously scenic nature.”

La Brava quotes Evans to the effect that his photographs, like Evans’s, are “images whose meanings exceed the local circumstances that provide their occasion.” What exactly is this excessive meaning, and what is it doing in a piece of low-rent genre fiction about murder, duplicity, and mayhem? For La Brava, it seems to define the very possibility of art—certainly his art—that the most common image, or the image of the common, can be informed by a power, a force, utterly unique and independent of the photographer. Evans was moving counter to the elaborate romanticism of Steichen and the artiness of Stieglitz, a genuine low art. What he achieved is often referred to as “realism,” but I think it is closer to what Charles Olson—roughly Evans’s contemporary—called objectism.

Objectism was the name Olson gave his push in poetry away from the lyrical (which he saw as an interference, much as Evans saw Stieglitz’s carefully crafted art shots) and toward his sense of the unique and specific revelatory force any object projects in the world—and by object he meant persons as much as stones or Mayan artifacts—the utter specificity of each element of the world, each object. Olson, in a letter to Robert Creeley, cites this as “to force the particular to yield dimension.” That yielded dimension seems to me analogous to Evans’s “meaning which exceeds its occasion.” Olson elsewhere writes of it in terms of what he calls a secularism that loses nothing of the divine.

Not unlike Evans, La Brava’s art is focused on photographing what are called common people—the inhabitants of South Beach in Miami at a time when its demographics had been seriously altered by the Mariel boat lift and other de-gentrifying forces. Also not unlike Evans, he seeks to record a moment of the lives of the people he shoots that bears the full weight of those lives, their world, the depths they circulate through and that circulate through them, usually without recognition. Evans described it as “the movements and changes or, again, the conflicts which in passing become the body of the history of civilizations.”

But then, that is what Elmore Leonard is doing as well with his low art. La Brava is a text that engages common people in a narrative that locates them in a world of intense, unresolvable—sometimes unbearable—moral ambiguities and conventional transgressions—that is, transgressions of conventional expectations in both content and form. Murders are committed and no one is brought to justice—on the contrary, the killer thrives. Friends attempt to steal from vulnerable friends, and rather than being condemned or punished, end up getting married to them.

The text then turns into a kind of mise-en-abyme of images whose meaning exceeds their local occasion. This dizzying sense of multiple reflections is reinforced by the fact that the text is riddled with discourses about representation (photography, film, painting) and the ways in which the line between “reality” and “representation” have become utterly confused, a world in which life imitates art but art lies leaving everyone treading very deep water, indeed. And all of it is packaged in something you might call just a book, specifically a commercially viable generic crime novel. Art for money, but outside any hierarchy of value that could set recognized, established measures of high, low, commercial, non-commercial, or what have you.

Walker Evans fought against what he saw as commercialism his entire artistic life, even as he sought to sell his art, to make a living from it, and complained about the difficulty of that. This is not the same “commercialism” that bothers Peter Culley—not exactly, anyway—though it is not the same as the commercialism La Brava embraces either. Culley, I think, is concerned that the bounds of the work might be set by some other demand or attention than what is specific to the work at any moment— the thought of some reward, whether money or a prize. La Brava embraces the idea that if you do your work, you should be rewarded for it, an idea Walker Evans shared.

So while part of me cringed at the announcement of my nomination, anticipating the blogger’s accusation of hypocrisy and commercial sell-out, wondering briefly if I should withdraw my name, another part of me virtually swooned with excitement at the thought of this reward for my work. There is no question it feels great to have your book named among five out of hundreds as deserving of special attention, even if it was a fluke and the notice quickly disappeared in the Poetry Cone of Silence. Poetry will never be as financially rewarding as La Brava’s photographs, but after labouring at it for almost 50 years and making some interesting things out of words from time to time, it is nice to be recognized, however fleetingly.

There is no profound, unprincipled inconsistency between that pleasure and the sentiments of the Friggin speech, and even if there were, who cares? As Emerson famously said in his defensMe of self-reliance and the necessity to be true to the force of the moment, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Marcel Duchamp, yet another Dada artist, put it somewhat differently, but to much the same effect: “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

I doubt that being short listed this once will affect the way I write—I certainly hope, in any case, that my work is not so superficial that one failed run in the prize race will now turn me into an art whore, spending my last years trying to figure out how to produce a Commercial Poetry Product that will win the big prize. Not that it would work, anyway.

Joel Oppenheimer, a quintessential New York poet, once told me how he tried unsuccessfully for years to get a poem published in The New Yorker. Finally he sat down and systematically studied the poems the magazine did publish and determined they all had trees in them. So he wrote a poem with trees in it and sent it to them. Of course, they rejected it, because, after all, when push comes to shove, Joel was Joel, and the New Yorker is—well, the New Yorker.

But for all the pleasure of being noticed and put into those lists—however unadorned and far down the page they were—there were also drawbacks. The worst part was the inevitable competition that situation breeds, no matter how hard you try to resist it. That is not exactly selling out, but in some ways it is worse. I do believe that poets are not in competition with each other. The very nature of the process that I love—the fidelity to the opening, to the emergence of form, the language of that—is destroyed by competition that sets your work against the work of someone else in order to determine which is the “poem of the year,” as if there was some actual measure whereby one could be judged against the other, as if poetry existed in a market. Even our Oedipal relations are not quite competitive—we embrace those who came before us, honour them and incorporate them into our work with loving attention.

Or maybe not. Peter Quartermain calls me on that, reminding me that competition among artists is inevitable in some sense and not necessarily a bad thing: “Bunting once told me,” he writes, “that he thought Shelley’s last gasp as he drowned must have been ‘destroy all my work’ because it doesn’t (couldn’t) match the work he loved: that ambition is in a different arena than the marketplace or the sports stadium has to offer, and of course one competes. But not to put down the other, but to say ‘hey look at this!’ the pleasure one takes in one’s own work.” It is hard to argue with that, but I don’t think this is the nature of the competition involved in a culture of poetry contests, of which the Big Prize is the ultimate expression. I was recently sent a flyer titled “A Year of Deadlines /

A compendium of poetry competitions in Canada.” Under headings including National, Provincial, Regional, and Cities, no less than 75 different poetry contests are listed on what looks like a page from the want ads in the daily newspaper. While Bunting may have been right about Shelley’s last thoughts, it is rather difficult to imagine Shelley pondering whether to submit “Prometheus Unbound” to the Malahat Review long poem prize or the Arc poem of the year award. He was far too busy writing.

At the risk of seeming arrogant, it seems doubtful to me that most of the poets entering the 75 contests even know what “Prometheus Unbound” is, much less have read it. Reading the great poetry of the past is not a requirement for an MFA (and in my experience is often what motivates students to take an MFA rather than a degree in English literature—all you have to do is “express yourelf”). Most creative writing classes are too busy searching for a catchy simile to worry about what the great artists of the tradition have done or how their own work might relate to that.

This is not a question of high or low culture or commercial or non-commercial art. It has to do with Culley’s sense of the transformation of poetry by the great cultural machine made up of creative writing classes, MFA programs, university degrees in poetry writing, and the infinitely expanding world of professionalized contests, in which the like-minded reward each other for making pretty things.

I suppose what’s at stake here are differing senses of competition, probably related to the etymological divergence at the root of the word. To petition together—to try to mutually attain, to seek together—still lurks in competition’s possibilities and in Quartermain’s thought of a different arena. But in our world of commercial determinations, the rivalry invariably ends up in the marketplace. That competition belongs to another world—business or sports, institutional conflict—and to put poets in a situation that encourages that is an arts management notion designed for marketing purposes. It degrades the writers, turning them into tokens in a race that doesn’t even really exist, since the arts managers know who won from the git go.

It is also a drag being turned into a loser when previously you were happily doing your work with no thought of winning or losing or beating or being beaten. As someone who had previously been through the race for the big prize mentioned to me, it is a process designed for the production of losers. If we want to award laurels for great poetry (and we should), it would be far better for the writers (if anyone actually cares about the writers) to simply announce the winners and the runners up—or maybe 5 winners—and then organize celebrations of their accomplishments. There are no losers in that scenario, only winners—but there are, unfortunately, reduced marketing opportunities.

Which brings me to the point. The Literary Racing Season, it turns out, is really not so much about Literary Excellence as it is about marketing products, both the books themselves and the digestible visions that populate them. It is finally just a way to sell books (not necessarily a bad thing, although easily accomplished in other ways) and guarantee jobs for arts managers (well, we could probably do without that), while reassuring everyone that the situation is under control and help is on the way. In so far as the culture it generates gives rise to a sense that the value of writing can be measured through prizes and awards, it is utterly destructive and we need to rethink how to do it.

Michael Boughn worked in the Teamsters for nearly 10 years before returning to university to earn a PhD in 1986 after studying with poets John Clarke and Robert Creeley. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including Iterations of the Diagonal, Dislocations in Crystal, 22 Skidoo / SubTractions, and Great Canadian Poems for the Aged Vol. 1 Illus. Ed. Cosmographia – a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic was short listed for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2011, prompting a reviewer in the Globe and Mail to describe him as “an obscure veteran poet with a history of being overlooked.” He has also published books for young adults, including the Maple Award nominated Into the World of the Dead, a mystery novel, and a descriptive bibliography of the American poet, H.D. He recently edited (with Victor Coleman) Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book for the University of California Press. He has also published numerous articles on film, writing, architecture and music, most recently “The War on Art and Zero Dark Thirty” in CineAction. He has taught courses at the University of Toronto since 1993, recently focusing primarily on American writing with special emphasis on the innovative writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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