More than it is necessary, or beautiful, strife is common. Strife takes up a tremendous amount of our time and energy; and it isn’t only “men” who concern themselves with strife. Strife can’t be avoided or let go of for long, before it returns. The energy of strife, if we look at it “positively” is probably what Blake had in mind when he said that “without contraries there is no progression.” Generative energy—as any poet knows—insofar as it informs the poem, involves “strife” at some point in the process. For many poets, just finding the time to write includes experiences of strife, internal and/or external.
I’m feeling bad about terms like “poetry wars,” especially because strife is so built in to the process of writing already. The term “poetry wars” seems another overlay, which can be paralyzing. But even more paralyzing, I think, is what Diane di Prima called “the war against the imagination.” And when poets themselves practice a war against the imagination, this is a real problem, and one that should be resisted. Resistances in poetry and other arts often end up taking the form of manifestos, which tend to emit strife-energy. Dispatches could be considered a manifesto-in-the-making that is countering the war against the imagination. (“All other wars are subsumed by it,” di Prima says.)
I feel awkward saying it, because I don’t want to bite the hand that fed grateful me for nearly a decade, but I do think that Dispatches’ concern about the effects of the “institutionalization” of poetry are valid in the context of “the war against the imagination.”
Robert Duncan, in a 1979 radio interview, said something germane in this context—and he said it without rancour or accusation: “The university today is destroying scholars faster than they destroy poets—as a matter of fact, they are being nice to us poets now….[W]hat the university wants are authorities, people who will produce new authorities to pass on an authoritarian line.”
If this is the case, what do we expect will happen to poetry, and poets, when it has become almost mandatory for all poets to enrol in a creative writing program at a university? (I make a distinction between degree programs in creative writing, and stand-alone college courses.) Especially when, in the context of neoliberalism and the “corporate university,” innovation is the university’s most prized product. In the world of corporate product, innovation is a synonym for Virtue—for what innovation does not “make the world a better place”?
And what authoritarianism, no matter what it is disguised as, isn’t at war with imagination?
Poetic genius doesn’t belong to the poet; it belongs to the Divine in everyone, just as the imagination, as Williams said, belongs to the real. So if there is “necessary” strife, it must be the striving to take poetry back from authorities and oppression—even the oppression of the oppressed! An oppressed, approved (i.e. “improved”) poetry is not going to free anybody or make anybody feel better or make the world a better place. But poetic imagination—and we know when we are in its astonishing presence—can move us and wake us up and allow everything to be more loving, open, free, wild, and sane.