Back in May Dispatches from the Poetry Wars posted a conversation between Nathaniel Mackey and Barrett Wattten, reprinted from a Facebook thread and a subsequent email exchange that came into our possession (An Encounter between Nathaniel Mackey and Barrett Watten). The exchange began on Watten’s Facebook feed when he criticized Grant Jenkins’ review of his new book, Questions of Poetics, for dwelling on the 1978 confrontation between Watten and Robert Duncan. Notwithstanding that Watten himself presents the event as an historic moment in his book, he accused Jenkins of dwelling on and mythologizing it. The exchange that followed on the nature and role of myth initially involved several people, but gradually became dominated by Nathaniel Mackey and Watten. Watten, who has a documented history of trying to repress or control the circulation of information, then shut down the Facebook thread and back-channeled Mackey in an attempt to keep the conversation private. Mackey, however, was having none of it and copied the original Facebook participants over Watten’s feeble protests.

The initial publication of the exchange, which Dispatches undertook without permission of Mr. Watten, garnered a flurry of criticism. We violated privacy, stole property, or worse, were just some bullies beating a dead horse for the hell of it since the exchange held no information of value. Oh, and we aren’t nice—why can’t you just be nice and accept all the different kinds of poetry, we were chastised. We have responded elsewhere to the charges of violating privacy and property rights and of not being nice. The question of the value of the exchange remains, and Dispatches must admit that—superficially—there may seem to be some merit to the charges in so far as much of the exchange simply involves Mackey trying to get Watten to answer a simple question.

Early in the exchange, Watten accused Robert Duncan of racism. Mackey responded by trying to get him to acknowledge that the ahistorical criteria he was using could equally be applied to Watten and his cohort with equally devastating results: “How many writers of color did you publish in THIS during that period?” Mackey asks. To most readers, it’s clear that this is not an accusation of racism; it’s an attempt to point out the flaws in Watten’s criteria for judging Duncan. It seems like an easy question, but Watten proceeds to evade it over and over again for the rest of the conversation, treating it as if it is an accusation. While Dispatches found this part of the exchange fascinating in its revelation of the mechanisms of rhetorical duplicity, we understand others may not share our interest and might even misinterpret it as mean-spirited. We assure you, nothing could be further from the truth (and we still believe in truths).

Our real interest, however, lies in the significant discussion of myth and ideology, the bulk of which takes place at the beginning of the exchange, but which continues to pop up till the end. Our critics may find this to be old news as well, leading, we suppose, to the charge of beating a dead horse. Please know that Dispatches would never beat a horse, or any other fellow creature, dead or alive, including stalking horses, Trojan horses, horses of a different color, and even one-trick ponies. We would suggest, however, that far from being dead, this is a veritable gift horse and may be the most crucial issue facing poetry today. Anyone who thinks it has been settled is mistaken. And you don’t have to look it in its mouth to know that.

The document deserves our attention not just because of what the multiple participants say in the exchange, but because of the further questions it leaves open. What is meant by myth? What are its sources and forms? What is its relation to community, to a-being-together? Is myth a tool of fascism? What is ideology and what is its relation to myth? Are history and myth different or the same? What does it mean to assert a relation between the poem and myth? Why has myth been at the center of the work of so many of the greatest poets in poetic world history, not least in the English language, right up to the present? We could go on.

Dispatches is of the party that holds poetry to be a unique mode of thinking essential to the preservation of the world, so these questions matter as they intersect with specific engagements with writing. This is not a question of so-called poetics. For the poet, the poem always comes first. “Poetics” is the name given post-poem-facto to the attempt to articulate how the poem did the amazing things it did. It sometimes then gets confused with schemas of the sources of poetry and becomes a “subject” that founds academic courses and even entire academic programs. This precession of poetics over the poem—in fact its isolation from the poem which becomes referred to as practice or even praxis in relation to poetics’ theory—is both a result of and a tool for the increasing commodification of poetry over the last 50 years. You can sell intellectual abstractions that explain poetry much more easily than you can sell poetry (the apparent exception, of coursebest-selling Instagram doggerel asideis Creative Writing, which really addresses neither poetics nor poetry, but is very big on marketable creativity). By removing poetics from poetry, it can be adapted to the positivist culture that tends to establish legitimacy in academic discourse. The mythic energies that animate the poem, however, remain incommensurate and outside that arena which locates them as akin to a reactionary nostalgia for the sacred.

Dispatches intends to come back to the myriad questions surrounding myth that have been provoked by the Mackey/Watten exchange. We think it is important for poets to engage these questions now, as poetry that resists commodification is more and more marginalized by the neo-liberal poetry economy and its Institutional control mechanisms. The pages of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars are always open to anyone interested in pursuing a conversation, or simply clarifying their thinking, about these crucial questions. We encourage you, dear reader, to send us your thoughts and arguments.

Stay tuned.