To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Outsider Poems (3): Micropoetries, an Encyclopedia Entry by Maria Damon

MICROPOETRIES. The term m. refers positively to the rawness of fragmentary, ephemeral, non-literary, unintentional or otherwise “unviable” poetry: doggerel, occasional verse by amateurs and other para-literary detritus that, because of its high degree of defamiliarization, achieves the poetic in its effect on the reader, audience, or recipient. Because audiences and poetic discourses vary widely, M. are intensely context-specific and often arise out of the cultural practices of subcultures or informal communities with little public acknowledgment or power. For example, graffitis, prison poetry by non-literary inmates (as distinct from figures such as Oscar Wilde, Osip Mandelstam, et al.), slogans, private (scrap-book or diaristic) or semi-private (correspondence, blogs or social-network) writing, poetry written by children or their strange and charming utterances, “écriture brute” (outsider writing), thieves’ cants and other argots or vernaculars, and so forth, may be considered micropoetries, as might newspaper poetry, greeting card verse, prayers, idiolects. Intended as a capacious rather than narrowly specific term, the category of M. widens the field of the poetic by valorizing artifacts that may be considered clumsy, awkward and inadmissible among professional poetry circles.

Introduced in the late 1990s, the term reflects the democratization of poetry and poetry scholarship in the US. The poetic nature of M. inheres as much in the critical intervention as in the artifact itself. M. scholarship draws on the Russian formalist principle of ostranenie, or defamiliarization, as an index of poetic language, but, in accordance with insights from Russian socio-linguists of the 1920s and British cultural studies scholars from the 1970s-1980s, aims to broaden the nature of this defamiliarization; it is also indebted to W. Benjamin’s method of combining phenomenological observation of linguistic effects with social analysis, and to ethnographer C. Geertz’s method of “thick description” as a way of making the micropoetic artifact meaningful. M. is genealogically related to ethnomusicologist M. Slobin’s term “micromusics,” musical subcultures that fall outside mainstream (classical, popular, folk and other commercial) networks of production and distribution but enjoy a relationship of productive adjacency to these mainstreams, challenging and combining with them to create new styles and otherwise refresh popular musical culture. M. also derives from E. Conrad’s working concept of “micro-movements,” the smallest perceptible physical movement that the mover him/herself can detect; the practice of isolating these micro-movements and training awareness of them has been instrumental in working with brain- or physically injured patients. M. inherits Slobin’s emphasis on subcultural, minoritarian or highly eccentric but context-dependent expressive practices, and Conrad’s heightened awareness of minutiae with an eye toward enhanced aesthetic experience. Both of these indicate the micropoetic object’s contingency and dependence on the contexts of its production and reception. In their ubiquity, m. comprise a thicket of discourse and expression-quotidian, eccentric, ephemeral-that gives rise to more polished "high-art" poetry and forms its background "noise," even while that elevated poetry defines itself by repudiating m. in terms of complexity, craft, or taste.

Bibl.–M. Damon, “Post-literary Poetry, Counter-performance, and Micropoetries” (1997); M. Chasar and H. Bean, eds., Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies: Poetries (2006); B. Perelman, “Democracy & Bathos: Variations, Calypso & Fugue on a Theme by Ella Wilcox Wheeler," Poetry of the 1970s (conference paper), June 2008.

Maria Damon’s encyclopedia entry on “micropoetires” is scheduled for publication in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for which information can be found at Earlier entries on “outsider poems” as an ongoing anthology project were posted on Poems & Poetics on June 14 and July 7, 2009. [J.R.]

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