I’m writing this note from the library and knowledge commons at Abolition Park, formerly know as New York City Hall. It doesn’t have a lot of poetry yet, but it will, maybe as soon as tonight. The past four weeks of uprising, movement and rebellion have, in addition to several more monumental shifts, revivified once again the question of the relation between poetry and the street, between what’s going on and the forms of thought and language that can make it perceptible in its totality. I’m patterning this claim on something Fred Moten says, which Zaina Alsous quotes in her interview in this issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter. Moten suggests that poetry and theory are both “forms of description”; Alsous adds that “the point of poetry and theory are to give us new language that intervenes.” If poetry is a form of description, that doesn’t mean it’s anchored to the world as it empirically, miserably exists. I’d extrapolate: a poetry that “intervenes” would have to be one that willfully insists on the necessity of saying something for the first time, in a language that the present may not even be able to recognize.
This issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter explores a series of attempts to describe and intervene—to defy recognition, with a sense of recognition’s uneven stakes. Zoé Samudzsi, writing about Momtaza Mehri’s Doing the Most with the Least, cites “the poetic tapestry of black existence”: “Opacity, a speaking in code legible to those who know and those who will care enough to investigate, is always a blessing.” Samudzi leaps over the platitudes mainstream poetry has to share about experimentalism, which assumes, falsely, a universal reader to whom a direct poetic language might be conveyed; why shouldn’t poetry form a link between “those who know” and everyone else who’s willing to keep up? As Monica Sok makes clear in her interview with Danny Thanh Nguyen, the risks of translating poetry into the terms of white liberalism are precisely to neutralize the force of poetic solidarity, gifting a non-implicated reader the gratification of “trauma porn”: Sok insists that poetry against war and imperialism isn’t for the imperialist, it’s for the people speaking the “death of Henry Kissinger” into the world.
On the other hand, the most potent collectivity of poetry at this moment would be its ability to speak to and emerge from a commons of dispossession, which each individuated subject traces in isolation, always potentially collective. Cam Scott reviews Ted Rees’s Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving follows a needful subject through a labyrinthine consumer landscape; but for all the roving subjectivities enrolled in the poem’s point-of-view, containing shopping malls of multitudes, Rees insists on the recollected lyric-I as a vehicle of political experience.” Scott remarks that Rees’s “unfinished negativity bears on the present”; the dead empiricism of capitalist life is never just that, insofar as it’s only the present form of a series of social relations. Poetry can describe that dead empiricism, and intervene into the relations disguised behind it; in a consonant mode, Petero Kalulé offers that the “poetics or erotics of relation,” emerging from music, ghosts, polyrhythms, go “beyond condition and hierarchy … we cannot entirely define, grasp, categorise or delimit them.” The moment when everyone masked up and ditched quarantine in solidarity with Black liberation, the shift in public space when the crowd overwhelms the cops, the genius whereby spontaneous movement aligns forcefully if intermittently with consciousness and principle—nobody predicts it, everyone’s waiting for it, and I’m gonna say that poetry can name it like nothing else.