WHeMa Poetics

I'm a little over the top sometimes. Have salt grains ready:

When I got into my MFA program, I became, over the first few months, acutely aware of something that I couldn't really identify or name. It was a pressure of sorts. A looming in the room during every workshop, at our readings, when some visiting writers came to talk. It was oppressive. It was instructive. It demanded to feed and be fed. And it was hungry.

I gave it a name after some time—years—had gone by. It was: WHeMa Poetics. The white, heterosexual male mode of writing. (Caveat: not every WHeMa writes in this mode nor needs to. It is an optional mode for them as a member of this mode's ruling class. But the number of them who disavow/disinherit this mode is slim, especially at the stage of the game at which I find myself: entrenched in academe.)

I think of Pound, aggressively touting the tenets of Imagism, then abandoning it; of Robert Frost writing his carefully metric verse; of Wallace Stevens (maybe).

I'm trying to cultivate a better sense of this mode of writing.

First off, it's bland. And it's so bland because it's so explored, been done over and over. The WHeMas who cultivate the greatest offense are those who succumb to the narcissism of dominance. Typically, they're the slowest folks to recognize WHeMa privilege in the world. They probably grew up at least middle class if not higher, support conventional concepts of the literary cannon.

The workshop WHeMa poems I came into contact with were obstinately male. I'm slow to gender writing; I think gender is a false binary, although gender roles are not (because they are socially supported). It centers on the WHeMa experience. Poetically, what can a WHeMa offer? As constant comptrollers of American poetry, we're familiar with WHeMa experience: it is canonized or selects for the cannon writing that supports its own mode.

The WHeMa mode has no issues of self-confidence. It never asks itself, "Should I be writing this?" or "How do I write this?" It is fully informed of its place in the world. Its sense of agency is all encompassing. It is pure authority without mediation. Non-WHeMa poets always risk something when they write outside the WHeMa mode. And to clarify: there are multiple and varied non-WHeMa modes of writing.

The WHeMa mode has absolute faith in itself. Like brick walls of verse. Unlike a Berryman, say, whose psychoanalytically diverse work constantly questioned its own validity, which in turned questioned ALL of poetry's validity. Berryman's mode risked itself. The moth who flies to the candle because it believes it’s the moon. (Obviously, to tip my hand: I believe Berryman, via his psyche, is a non-WHeMa.)

The effect of WHeMa on me was a pandering. The self of my poems became a caricature self, a self/narrator/voice/presence that was coyly aware of its non-WHeManess, but who/which desperately wanted a WHeMa smack of approval. Pandering. Which ultimately results in the evanescence of the self: the dissolution and dissipation.

Since the language owned by WHeMa poets is ultimately the language that oppresses the oppressed (i.e. non-WHeMas), non-WHeMas sacrifice themselves, their experience, their voices to its use. Ventriloquism is the easy result. A false voice from the mouths gerrymandered by the non-WHeMa poet. This language cannot be used to my (our) advantage. We must disavow this mode! By supporting the WHeMa mode, non-WHeMa poets perpetuate its dominance.

I say: make language other. Only by subverting the "rules" of this mode can language be made oppositional. If it is a political move, it's a survivalist move. No more evanescence, dissolution, dissipation. Language organizes reality, organizes relationships and ideas. Disorganize. Depart. Do not disengage: the (new) mode is waiting.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting and suggestive thesis. You make me want to read more Berryman.
    My apologies for the WheMa-ish tone of my earlier comment to a later post of yours.
    Shakespeare, a WheMa if there ever was one, may have the last word in this issue. I’m quoting from a notoriously faulty memory here, so here goes:

    Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,
    thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
    Or that the everlasting hand had not
    turned its canon against self-slaughter.
    Oh shit! etc.

    So much for being a “canon” poet. But the canons do fire, you can say that much for 'em.

    Cheers. (My brain is turning silly, I think I’ll go to sleep…)