Dear Emily Post-Avant, via Dispatches:

I don’t get this bit from J. Clover:

Debord countered, “I don’t want to put poetry in the service of revolution. I want to put revolution in the service of poetry.” [….] If we wanted to set poetry free to be all that it could be (I know that’s a terrible slogan from the US military), we would have to change the world first. To get the kind of poetry that poetry deserves, we need to destroy capitalism.

I’ve never read Debord quite that way. Yes, Debord doesn’t want to see poetry instrumentalized in the name of revolution, put “in the service of” revolution. Poetry mustn’t be tantamount to agitprop, OK. But when Clover suggests that Debord is saying that in order for poetry to be set free, as it were, we need to destroy capitalism — is this really what Debord is getting at?

Reversing his terms, Debord has revolution put “in the service of” poetry. But when you reverse the terms this way, it’s not at all clear that the meaning follows as a simple reversal, b/c it’s not at all clear what it would mean to further instrumentalize revolution. That is, we know that a revolution is by its very nature instrumental, is a means to an end, sure — say, OK, the end of capitalism. But beyond this, how might a revolution be understood as a means to an end when the end has something to do with poetry?

Is the idea that a revolution will liberate poetry? Liberate it from what? We’re not talking about a totalitarian state here — we’re talking about capitalism. Evidently we can say/write whatever we like in capitalism, about capitalism or whatever, provided we can think it. Is capitalism thus constraining our thoughts, is that it? And a revolution will thus liberate our thinking, hence our poetry? What does it mean to “set poetry free,” what does it mean to say that we will thereby “get the kind of poetry that poetry deserves”? The personification here is presumably an appeal to a kind of poetry or poetic effect that is presently unavailable or inaccessible or rare b/c of capitalism. Is the idea that if we “destroy capitalism,” citizens will flock to poetry in greater numbers? What, Marxist poetry? Or capitalism-free poetry? Or avant poetry? What about Rupi Kaur? Teenagers are certainly flocking to her poetry.

Or does Debord mean, more modestly perhaps, that we need a revolution that works alongside the already liberating powers of poetry, and in this regard a revolution “put…in the service of” poetry b/c it aligns its revolutionary energies with poetry as a potentially mind-altering and inherently social artform? That is, poetry is already doing what poetry does, and we mustn’t curtail its efficacies, whatever they may be, by yoking it to a revolutionary purpose. As for the revolution, it works “in the service of” poetry as long as revolutionary participants know better than to interfere with poetry (and other arts), which itself might suggest that they understand something vital about poetry.

– Joe Amato