Though identifying ‘the crucial’ in a matter is often a straightforward process of logical assessment, the relative simplicity or complication involved in this identification rests heavily upon issues of framing. The question What’s at stake? has become a standard remedial in the poetry MFA workshop, a practical tool used to assess the merits of a piece. (Whether this query is ever examined in the workshop is another matter entirely.) But it is also used as a tool in various other practical contexts.
Suppose there is a board executive asking at the roundtable What’s at stake? in regards to whether or not the company should pursue a certain risky investment. The answer is initially simple enough to be calculated by any one of the board members in attendance. ‘Surely, what’s at stake is the potential loss or gain of such and such amount of profit,’ one might say, and then present the numbers. And so the discussion of how to proceed would go from there. Implied and understood by everyone at the meeting is that the bounds of the question end flush at the delimited borders of the business-as-entity. A business (being a conglomeration of commercial functions whose purpose is to make profit) has at stake the threat of not existing if it cannot maintain these profits. Thus, while a company may cite any number of higher raison d’êtres in its mission statement, these very missions are contingent on there first being the business that enacts them. In the metaphysics of the business, then, not to profit is not to be. Profit, in this framework of things, possesses an intrinsic importance for the being (that entity being the business). But the business entity is a construct of human make, its category is a fiction only valuable insofar as it is valuable to the human. Thus, what is at stake for a business cannot be said to be of absolute value, only relative value. In business, profit without representation of profit (a stack of bills, numbers on a ledger or computer screen) is daft.
Further: profits, removed from their function in human lives, have no value whatsoever. A hundred dollar bill would be on par with (or lower than, potentially) the importance of a napkin in the hands of the sole survivor of a total apocalypse. The loss or gain of money, removed from its function in life, is absurd.
And yet, through misconception and lack of analysis, highly relative values (like the value of monies) are regularly given priority over what could be far more valuable in a broader perspective. To protect and increase the profits of his business, a man might give up a quarter of his life—a pursuit that reveals itself as senseless in the expansive light of his deathbed’s lamp. It happens frequently.
When someone asks What’s at stake? about business or anything else, there is a framework implied in the question, seldom investigated outside of philosophy. For the business-entity, with its clear delimitations and simple ontology, it’s enough to take for granted profit-for-profit’s sake. But for the human-entity, who has no clear delimitations, who has no simple ontology, it is not enough to operate under any assumptions. One sees how the question of ‘stake’ in the purely human affair immediately catapults the question into higher registers. The same is true of the question in art.
Not strange, then (considering that the answer has blasting potential), that MFA questions of ‘stake’ are met with some pause. Unlike the business meeting, where all the board members are operating under the shared assumption of an answer to that question, the poetry workshop houses a tacit avoidance of the answer. More often than not, the question What’s at stake? is posed as a purely rhetorical statement, as if the metaphor of a stolid sharpening post is answer enough, resonating secretly to each attendant.
Business, as an entity in this world resigned to only the smallest category of relevance, is vastly different than the category of poetry, whose limits are very much wound up with the concerns of being itself. Does this suppose that, perhaps, the bounds of the poem are too infinite or ineffable to pin down, thus eliminating a possible framework by which to assess the crux of the poem’s existence? Is there no common ground from which to discuss poetry? And if that is the case, then why is it discussed at all, and on what grounds?
The matter points, I think, to the half-conscious existence of shared assumptions about poetry—about topics of ultimate meaning and value. Firstly, for the metaphor of ‘stake’ to have any validity in the workshop, the workshop must agree that there is some important correspondence between the image of the stake and whatever occurs at the crux of the poem. The metaphor is simple enough to unpack: it supposes the importance of keeping something in one place firmly―a tent or what have you―in opposition to a force that might potentially send it to the wind. It has correspondence to what the act of writing can accomplish, surely: how the symbolic trappings of language (the stake and ground) can pin down what would otherwise be forever blown. But still, to know that language captures something still does not answer what is at the crux of poetry, what is the most crucial to its existence as a form.
What, indeed, is so at stake in a poem? What is the ground, what is the stake, what is the thing pinned down that wags between? And shouldn’t the poet, in wishing to preserve the integrity of the poem, be constantly reckoning with these questions and the vast implications they hold?
Is the existence of meaning in poetry not the ocean itself upon which the workshop rides? The fact that workshops acknowledge the importance of “pinning something down” as more crucial to the act of poem-making than any single technical component, and yet do not dare look beyond the rhetorical gesture of inquiry speaks clearly to its limits. One wonders if the workshop-as-entity (like a company) must drastically abridge its terms of engagement in order to exist as-is, cleanly functioning in the smallness of its scope.
While seeming dangerous, there is quite a bit of safety in asking What’s at stake? in a workshop setting. Here, the inquirer can imply the most profound of queries to an audience conditioned to its rhetorical usage, without having to risk a shred of vulnerability. This is the stake operating as gainful tool, not as arbiter; it only probes those reasons that do not require true vulnerability to assess.
But what if the question were wielded like a spear to the heart-organ, to pierce right past the level of the line, the adjective, the noun, to the pulsing matter beneath it all?
To truly ask the question―What, indeed, is at stake?―and to labor to admit such depths of inquiry to the workshop table could very feasibly obliterate every sense of comfort in the room. It could very well do away with the illusion that important answers come without the sacrifice of comfort, saying Being, here, will be looked in the face.