The Rhetorics of Failure: Poethical Interventions

Emily Carr writes


On a Vancouver poetry panel at the June 2009 Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Biennial Conference, Roger Farr talked about what, if anything, poetry might offer these “eco-terrorists” & whether it is possible for poetry to help recompose the environmental movement. Farr argued that avant-garde poetries are politically relevant not for innovations in form or content but rather for their experiments in methods. We (innovative poets) should be devising strategies animal rights activists can use, for example, to combat the government’s sneaky semantic ploys, to recompose themselves not as eco-terrorists or as animal rights activists but in a third, more useful category. This hope is, as Farr acknowledged, utopian: we have not yet proved that our poetries can accomplished these tasks. We have not yet breached the gap between poetics and activism, between poets & the twentieth-century masses.

I want to think about Farr’s skeptical hopefulness in relation to some questions that were recently posed on the Poetics List by my colleague, Mike Roberson. On July 15th, Roberson asked some interesting (though depressing) questions. He writes:

Struck by the acuteness of and subsequent attention to Christian Bök’s discussion of “Writing and Failure” on the Harriet Blog, I am looking for further considerations of poetry and failure or poetry and inadequacy.  In one regard, much has been written about poets and personal inadequacies or senses of failure, but what about the actual writing of poetry as an inevitably impossible, doomed, or failed endeavor?  Do we continue to write poetry because it ultimately fails to do what we hope it might or should?  Is the “failure of poetry” a failure of language, or poetics?


These are good questions, & they should be raised. Personally, however, I think it is more generative & hopeful to talk about how & why poetry is not or does not have to be a failure. Admittedly, when I started writing poetry as a teenager, I wanted an out, an escape, a form of expression that was intensely personal & exceptionally private. I felt like a misfit & didn’t think there was anyone I wanted to communicate with. I thought this—naively—for many years. I wrote poetry for myself & not for the world. I wasn’t interested in changing anything. I just wanted to get by. All this has changed for me recently. I believe that, despite its small audience & lack of widespread recognition, poetry can & does have real world relevance. I come to poetry with hope. I accept that, as Lyn Hejinian argues, our victories will be local, particular, & temporary. I believe that what this world needs is an investment in local, particular, & temporary victories.

I come to poetry because I am disgruntled by the misuses & abuses of language by Culture-at-large & I believe I can make a change.

I mean: I come to poetry with hope. I come to poetry with faith. I come to poetry because I am disgruntled by the misuses & abuses of language by Culture-at-Large & I believe I can make a change. I don’t expect the masses will start picking up volumes of contemporary poetry at Barnes & Noble or Borders or Chapters. I don’t expect that poets will once again be venerated, as they once were, so very long ago, as sages & historians: “the voice of the people.” I think that poetry has a special place apart & that we should capitalize on it. (Yes, *capitalize*.) We can start by mobilizing & manipulating the enemy’s rhetoric.) In Jennifer Firestone & Dana Teen Lomax’s Letter to Poets, Victor Hernandez Cruz writes that poetry,

needing only the possibility of air through which the sound of our words can travel, makes fewer compromises with the powers that be, [and] thus [is] extremely dangerous to the tax collectors & the well behaved.

I agree that poetry is dangerously free. This is no failure. It is, in fact, a triumph. Perhaps we are marginalized. Perhaps our books do not sell as much as we like. Perhaps we cannot live off royalties like our brothers & sisters in fiction & nonfiction. Perhaps we have to take on second & even third jobs (I, for example, juggle writing between teaching creative writing, teaching group exercise, & editing a literary magazine). Perhaps…

Perhaps the rhetoric of failure is self-aggrandizing, selfish, & ineffective. Perhaps we ought to begin again by theorizing, as Farr argues, about what we can do. & yes, we can do, we can intervene in the linguistic practices of the dominant culture. Let’s start modestly, & with hope.

Modestly, & with hope, I am staging poethical interventions in my own local & particular linguistic space. I am using my classrooms as sites of resistance. I teach my students not necessarily to be lovers of poetry but to learn, through poetry, resistant strategies of using language so that, when they leave my classroom, they will no longer have to accept billboard advertisements, television speak, or media sound bites, so they will be able to intervene in the language that surrounds them. I send my immediate family several copies of every publication I am in. Often they are baffled, often they email me saying “I don’t get it…” but even this opens dialogue, starts them questioning what words can & should do. I give my publications as gifts & not as self-promotion. I know that my friends, family, & colleagues will read these publications because I am in them. They will—& often do—read cover to cover. They experience poets they would otherwise have looked for. They ask me questions. They want to know more. They are exposed to a range of linguistic practices they never would have experienced. They leave with tools they aren’t aware of, tools they will un- or sub-consciously use later. They are enriched, made better, &, in their own particular, local, & temporary fashion, advance the cause. Modestly, & with hope.

One thought on “The Rhetorics of Failure: Poethical Interventions

  1. i enjoyed reading this piece. some things are timeless and this brief tract illustrates one of them. i am old (60). in my time, this argument would have had the term ‘relevance’ written all over it. i can’t tell poets how to be ‘interventive’ because i’m not a poet and don’t have those tools. but, i do know that nothing can be interventive without first accepting the need for changing something. in itself, this acceptance does not constitute intervention but, as this piece makes very clear, it focuses energy and determination. i look forward to reading more.

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