I kind of like the idea of poetry as a conceptual game, although I am not much of a games player on the whole. In the art world, amateur artists are discounted not because they can’t paint well (or sculpt or whatever) but because they aren’t making meaningful moves in a conceptual game or (even less meaningfully) positioning themselves in terms of an art market. The idea of poetry as a conceptual game comes across when an innovative practice is called a “poetry move,” except by the time it is called a “poetry move” it is perhaps no longer innovative but already recognised as a move that has already been played out. This was how most poets responded to Mike Young’s 2010 blog post of the poetry moves list he drew up Elisa Gabbert, as a list of moves you would now have to avoid. Elisa Gabbert wrote a follow-up piece about one of the examples of poetry moves in the original post, “exposed revision,” which they’d illustrated with lines from Alice Fulton’s “About Face” (“At least embarrassment is not an imitation. / It's intimacy for beginners, / the orgasm no one cares to fake. / I almost admire it. I almost wrote despise.”): I first read this poem in college and really loved that move, the sort of exposed revision. And I do think of it as a "move" now, though I'm not sure I did then. I guess this comes from having both read and written a lot more poetry and being able to recognize techniques and strategies as patterns. Realizing not everything is original and born of pure inspiration. Poetry is kind of like chess in that way: there are an infinite number of possible games, but experienced players know the classic openings and defences and so on.
But if poetry is like a game of chess, it is like a much more interesting game of chess than chess. There might be an infinite number of possible chess games, but the game itself remains the same. Poetry, on the other hand, is a game that continually evolves, as if the board that chess was played on was infinitely expansive, the moves that were allowed for any piece could be added to and altered, new chess pieces could be introduced to the board, and the purpose of the game itself was always evolving. Even so, the moves in this evolving game still have their meaning because of the game as it is established so far. Moves will mean nothing if they are entirely random, if they take place off the board – unless perhaps a brilliant critic gets in on the act. “I wasn’t playing, I was only tidying up the pieces left over on the floor” protests the cleaner, and the critic writes up this new and brilliant move in a way that has any young player up with the play claiming to be “tidying up the discarded pieces,” finding new ways of tidying discarded pieces and linking this in to the game, even calling moves “tidying discarded pieces” in their artist statements when it is hard to see how it is any tidier to place a piece here rather than there, or in what sense these pieces were ever discarded in the first place.
Knowing that some poets are playing poetry as a conceptual game, wouldn’t any poet want to figure out the rules and join in? What if I thought I was playing the game by arranging pieces in patterns that pleased me on the board, patterns that sometimes seemed to have something of the charm of earlier patterns constructed by canonical poets, when really my arrangements were at best an irrelevance, at worst were cluttering up the board? If I’m going to read widely in contemporary poetry now, it isn’t to pick up some poetry moves already in play to fake – or even master – the writing of contemporary poetry, the game is bigger than that. To play the game effectively means mapping out the full scope of where the players are at, recognising who the real players are, the direction the moves point towards, the goal towards which your own move must be aimed. It is perhaps a game that can’t be played fully consciously, that involves the simultaneous recognition of so many subtle shifts and cues that an element of intuition needs to come into play.
But if to play the game effectively today requires an almost impossibly broad knowledge of an increasingly complex, vast, and international field of play, is there a risk of substituting breadth for depth, and playing an essentially shallow game? Is there something worth salvaging after all from T S Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a deeper approach to the challenge of innovation? For Eliot, playing the poetry game properly involves making moves that advance a tradition: “To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art.” Not only does genuinely innovative work add to the existing tradition, it alters it retrospectively: “after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted.” The true innovator has a tremendous responsibility, not only towards the future but towards the past. And, Eliot warns, the poet “is not likely to know [the work to be done] unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past.” Those poets familiar with a range of contemporary poetry moves, and aiming to make a new move within that context, are playing a shallow game. Because other poets are also immersed in the same range of contemporary poetry, a new move within that range will make an immediate sense and is likely to be widely taken up, but it will do nothing to alter the trajectory of literary history.
But isn’t this still a game, and is playing a game all poetry is for? I used to feel I’d rather have liked to train as a Glass Bead player like the students in Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game, which imagines an intellectual game much like conceptual art or the game of poetry but involving a synthesis of all the disciplines and all the art forms, played on so meta a level that every major intellectual advance or idea, every literary or artistic move is represented by a glass bead. The novel, which follows the progress of a child prodigy who grows up to become a master of the game, ends with his renunciation of a life he comes to see as austere and pointless in its remove from real social and political concerns; he resigns his role and leaves the order only to drown in a swimming accident.
I can quite easily imagine giving up lake swims and a life of politics to master a game as beautiful as Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, or an idea of poetry as a series of moves in an infinitely expansive and enduring tradition. Yet can poetry, made not out of beads but out of words, ever really be reduced to a series of moves making sense only in terms of an evolving pattern?