Monday, June 02, 2008


Fail better. And again.

Failure in poetry is an interesting concept. Because inasmuch as the idea of failure/a poem's failure is bandied about, I'm going to call bs here.

What? Really? Can I actually be effin' serious? I don't think a poem can fail?

No. I don't. I think workshopspeak has invaded our lingo, that this idea is ghosted by other, bigger ideas that occupy the idea of failure, that the idea of failure is too firmly tied to object failure (not abject).

When something is supposed to work and it fails, it just doesn't work. The object doesn't cease be there, sitting around not workingg. But our capitalism is hurt. Our sense that money can buy progress is shaken, and waivers. And goodie goodie. The object works so our money works. The object breaks, our money breaks.

I'm very suspicious of the idea that a poem can fail. Sure, some poems get at their objective better than others; some are more precise, more poignant, more acerbic, funnier, more ambitious etc. Some even have wide audiences. But this notion, that a poem can fail, really only seems written into writing that doesn't make the bestseller list after getting big fat advancey paychecks.

The reason I'm interested in this idea is because it betrays (is treasonous towards) hubris and certainty. Just when you think you've got it, a downward spiral. The ambiguity of failure means another poem and another, which isn't failure at all. No writer can really know whether or not something isn't failing until it works. But if there's no one around, there's no forest, and certainly no failure.

So failure might exist, but only socially. Nothing fails in and of itself. So, for today, dear reader(s), I'm going to write something that fails, and not because I'm looking to make The Times list, but because I'm going to write something that fails and fails good. Like this, perhaps.


Troy Camplin said...

Of course poetry can fail. If it is poorly written, or poorly conceived, or does not communicate what the author intended to communicate. To say that poetry can't fail is to fall into the egalitarianist trap that there is no better or worse. Well, there is better and worse poetry. There has been better and worse poetry since before capitalism (which seems to be everyone's excuse for everything). I suspect that only failed poets don't believe in failed poetry. It's a way to boost your self-esteem without having to actually improve.

Ryan said...


Conflating the failure/success scale with worse/better seems mistaken: not everything that fails is worse. And this is precisely what I'm touching on in the post, that not because of, but perhaps due to our ever-increasing involvement in a system that opts, in many (not all) cases for efficiency over quality, the better is sometimes left behind. But perhaps this is what you mean by saying that there has been "better and worse poetry since before capitalism" (in my initial post you should note that I never once mentioned "capitalism"). Of course there has always been good and bad poetry. But we judge the failure/success of poems differently in the post period than in the pre-.

Moreover, I think you might want to reexamine your statement that "I suspect that only failed poets don't believe in failed poetry." Now, if I agree, then I'm a failed poet. If I disagree, then I risk being wrong. Which makes me wonder, does it seem more logical that failed poets wouldn't believe that they exist than believing that they do?

Stan Apps said...

Nice post. However, what about poems that are intended to fail? Can they fail, or no?

also, what about poems like The Bridge that are really good but that clearly don't do the things they say they're going to do (because their stated objectives are impossible, perhaps, or because they seem to lack sufficeint formals means). Do they fail? Or is it just the reader who fails to get them to do what they're supposed to?

Ryan said...


Can they fail if intended? I mean, sure, they can, if we wish them to. But --and not to turn the argument around-- if we wish them to fail, have WE failed?

Also, The Cantos clearly didn't do what Pound wanted them to do, but they aren't a failure by any means...Perhaps we can say that politically, Pound failed. But not artistically...

I think there's a chance that the reader might not "get" a lot of things, or that the this reader doesn't "get the poem to do" what they want it to do. But to call this failure implies that the poem only has one objective: to pass. Poetry's objective might be more than that (like you said, to fail or even to bore and be "uncreative"). And this speaks to the reader not getting the poem to do what he/she wants it to a greased pig, poetry.