The Concept of Consent: A Note on Poetics

One of the quickest ways to get attention in the poetry world is to create a “movement”, call it ____ Poetics or Poetry.  If a few people catch on and write in accord with what you say, then you’re a superstar. If critics can use it to write about your work, then you get more reviews faster. If neither of these things happen, then it’s merely forgotten in an archive somewhere.

Sometimes I’m tempted to use a random word generator and write up a different ____ Poetics each month until one catches on.

Julie Carr at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog does not appear to have chosen her term quite so randomly but, rather, to have gone in for sound quality. “Consensual” shares most of its syllables with “Conceptual”, the term she is writing against. Unfortunately, in contrasting these terms, she drains any real sense from the idea of consent as it might apply to poetry.

The manifesto portion of Ms Carr’s post begins with thus:

 Consensual Poetry makes a pact with the reader, a pact that, unlike that of “conceptual poetry” (in some of its purist manifestations), includes the idea that the reader will actually read the work. As in consensual sex, both parties, reader and writer, must be willing to show up. And both must show up with respect. The writer respects the reader by writing something that is engaging, challenging, and exciting. The reader respects the writer by being willing to be challenged, disoriented and surprised, and by bringing her full intelligence and curiosity to the task of reading.

So far, so good. The problem comes after this paragraph, when she tries to define Consensual Poetry purely in terms of the qualities of a poem, assuming a universal reader with universal desires and a universal ability to consent to a poem. She writes that Consensual Poetry must be “involved with the ear and eye” which seems obvious enough but excludes any audience that does not use ears or eyes. After a bit of etymological play (“con sense”), she states that Consensual Poetry must also still demonstrate an interest in making sense, even if it struggles against or plays with the boundaries of meaning as we know it. I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes I like a bit of nonsense; pure play can be a relief. Saying Consensual Poetry cannot involve unadulterated nonsense is like saying consensual sex cannot involve bondage.

Informed Consent

Informed Consent (Photo credit: Kevin Krejci)

Ms Carr also discusses the relationship of Conceptual Poetry with its sources, stating that it must be in harmony with them rather than representing a rupture with them or attacking them. This sounds more like Nice Poetry than Consensual Poetry. I suppose it could fall under the heading of consensual if the poet contacted living writers and asked for permission to use their work as sources in a particular way. The examples Ms Carr mentions as sources, however, are dead; dead poets cannot consent.

So what would a real Consensual Poetics look like? Consensual Poetics happens whenever someone picks up a poem or a book of poetry out a of a real desire to read that work. It happens when the reader is not constrained by the requirements of a syllabus, by an assignment to write a review, or by any PoBiz considerations. To define a Consensual Poem in terms of the qualities of that poem is to go against, not with, the useful sense of Consent.

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