The Plight of Poetry
Quick, name a famous living poet. I bet that 99.99% of Americans can’t do this. When I was a boy, they actually interrupted pop music on the radio to say that T. S. Eliot had died. Can you
imagine this today? Once the lusty Queen of the arts, Poetry now seems dithering and irrelevant. What happened??
I can do this in 10,000 words but we’re all in a hurry, right? The pretentious and sententious mugged Poetry. Mostly professors, lots of professors. There were also the highbrow critics such as Clement Greenberg, who lamented that middlebrow culture was “infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and stultifying the wise.” Here’s what he and his friends were saying: if you don’t like what we tell you to like, you’re not entitled to like anything at all. Instead of encouraging people to participate as much as possible, even if only a little, and thus lifting the whole society, Clement & Co. undercut the process. Our self-appointed elite is good at the stilted, the mannered, the brainy, the opaque, the ingeniously pointless, so that’s the genius stuff. Everything else is deemed unworthy.
Fifty years ago we still had great and greatly famous poets. But after World War II, the universities swelled in number and size, and professors swelled with ambition. Poetry got kidnapped by publish-or-perish careerists (because universities count poems as “scholarly publications”). MFA programs claiming to teach the “craft” of poetry--never mind that it’s an art--sprouted like mushrooms. Dozens of little magazines, subsidized by university budgets and infused by academic hauteur, claimed to present true poetry. A small group (were there even a thousand of these people?) wrote, published, reviewed, praised, and gave awards to each other’s poems, all the while sniffing disdain at anything from outside their circle.
Sure, there are always culture snobs. In moderate doses it’s a fine thing--keeps the intellectual pot boiling, makes life interesting. But when think-alike extremists take over, you can kiss your art goodbye. And this is no short-term phenomenon. As early as the 1980’s, the generic poetry stamped out by academics already had a sardonic name: the McPoem.
McPoems, we might say, are to Poetry what chamber music is to music. Let’s concede that great skill is required to create chamber music, there is beautiful chamber music, and many people do love chamber music. The problems start if you pretend that chamber music is the only kind of music. Well, that kind of snobbery doesn’t go far in the music world, but it got disastrously far in literary land.
McPoems are usually genteel to an effete degree. Which would remind many of the New Yorker, so rich and influential, so enamoured of McPoetry. I confess that I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with Eustace Tilley’s Mag. The cartoons made me laugh. The poems often left me dazed: What is this? Are there actually people who enjoy this?
Whereas McPoetry is usually tired and gauzy, great poetry is typically energetic and lucid. Opaque poetry? Unless it’s at the level of Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, let’s not go there. (Billy Collins, a poet laureate, crafts his poems so they can be understood on a first reading; you can guess that McPoets hate this guy.) The language of great poems is generally intriguing on its own; but typically you fall through the language into the story or epiphany. No story or epiphany? Why write? And great poetry almost always gives you a grin or a chill, a sigh or a shudder. They’re emotional. McPoems tend to murmur faintly.
Who today writes with vigor and emotion? Our songwriters may be the exemplars. One of the pleasures of being in a Karaoke bar is to really study the lyrics on the screens, study them as if they are great poetry. Some are. You just know, if they published a book of Recent Poetry That Actually Made Somebody’s Heart Beat Faster, most of it would be by the Beatles and 50 other rock and rollers, Tin Pan Alley wordsmiths, blues and country singers, rappers, and other outcasts.
So, here’s what the McPoets accomplished: a torrent of boring poetry gave Poetry a bad rep. To judge by the proliferation of websites, more people may be reading long-dead Romans than are reading any American poets alive. What’s certain is that writers such as Catullus and Martial are perused with more visceral enjoyment than virtually all contemporary poets, because the dead guys are alive with sophistication and high spirits.
Poems from the Greek Anthology seems also to be more popular than ever. Wow! These poets wrote about every facet of life, including enemies, lovers, battles, and favorite boats. Here’s what poetry was like when it was young:
On a Thessalian Hound (by Simonides)
Even as you lie dead in this tomb
I know the wild beasts
still fear your white bones, huntress Lycas;
your bravery high Pelion knows,
and splendid Ossa
and the lonely peaks of Cithaeron.
Point is, this ancient poetry displays a directness, a force, a fullness of life that literature has traditionally possessed but McPoems abandoned. Just as they abandoned lightness (the kind that ballerinas possess) and a sense of fun. e. e. cummings shows how to do it right:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
cummings also gave us a remarkable poetic credo: “It is with roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls) that [poems] are competing.”
Horace, a Roman, wrote a long Ars Poetica full of sensible advice to the young writer. Fast forward 2000 years: Archibald MacLeish wrote another Ars Poetica, quite short, quite bizarre. This one has probably been quoted a million times in various McPoem Academies. It starts:
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb...
Poems should be mute and dumb? So gloriously goofy. Twenty years ago, when McPoems were practically blocking out the sun, I wrote my own Ars Poetica in self-defense. Here’s all of it:
oh to uncage words
as startling as birds
naked and silken
full of song and shriek
flung into the envious air
on a wonder of wings
to spin and soar and rise
dazzling our days
MacLeish tells you how to write McPoems. I tell you: there’s other roads. But what the hey, I love these lines by Gelett Burgess:
I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one;
but I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!
Perhaps you feel the same way...but you’re afraid to admit it? Well, there’s some good in getting older and cranky. I no longer care what professors and cultural commissars think. Here’s advice I gave elsewhere about art: “Don’t be intimidated. If you don’t like it, it’s bad. If you like it, it’s good. Buy it.”
Another of my favorite lines is something I found, decades ago, scrawled on a vending machine in the New York City subway:
Let my red hot lips kiss your blues away
But here we are, pathetic losers. For the first time in the history of the world, in the most word-filled, endlessly communicating society ever, there’s hardly any literary hot lips.
Coda: Other people have made these same laments. Perhaps not as stridently. But they probably wanted to be respectable. I just want to set you free. First, ignore most of what comes out of academia until they stop being so pretentious. Second, spread yourself around, gather your literary rosebuds as you may, practice that diversity the universities love so much to talk about but don’t always get around to practicing. More than anything else, open up your heart! Let the works in. That’s all any writer or artist can ask. If you then decide, no good, that’s no problem. Don’t apologize, keep looking. There’s so many talented people, in this country and around the world. You’ll love many of them. Find them, and take them home with you.
The Rules of Poetry
1. First rule. There are no rules. Do you believe there are? Let’s talk about this. Sure, the sonnet and the limerick have rules; haiku has rules; these forms are defined by their rules. But poetry in general? At the end of the day, I’d argue that poetry has but one rule, that it not be prose, that it be one notch more distilled and exciting than prose.
2. Wrangling about rules can take you down dead-end roads. The history of the arts is littered with the corpses of creative projects that started off with some theoretical soul declaring, “A painting should be X...A novel must be C.” Says who??? Sometimes these declarations and manifestos--these rules--serve to keep you focused. Probably more often they seal you off from life and the endless possibilities of life. Often the rule-making is part of a self-serving circuitous process. If you state that a poem (novel, painting, etc.) should be Z, and you then create art that has lots of Z, you can sit back and say, “I’m great. Look, my art is sooo Z.”
3. I’ve been thinking about rules a great deal, ever since I wrote an essay titled The Plight of Poetry arguing that Poetry is in bad shape because academics moved aggressively into the field. The results, according to my uppity essay, was that “a torrent of boring poetry gave Poetry a bad name.” But I didn’t zoom in what made this development possible. Namely, the academic poets imposed a new set of rules on Poetry...and then pretended these rules were fixed and immutable. The more I look at this little trick, the more amazed I am that they could get away with it. Ultimately it’s hard to see any difference between these rules and social customs. If all the people in your Club agree to wear white to tennis matches, then it’s a rule, and quite a compelling rule. But I don’t suppose any intelligent person imagines that this rule is anything but a trivial convention. How could anyone suppose that “rules for poetry” devised by academics have some greater foundation in the cosmos?
4. Here’s one way you know that meter and rhyme schemes--all the things that many people have in mind when mentioning rules--are not primary. We can enjoy translations just as much (or more sometimes) as we enjoy poems in our own language. Those poems, in their original form, may have followed many rules that we can no longer experience. We are experiencing everything else--the story, the insight, turns of phrase, observations, and vision. Let me make this point from the other direction. Wallace Stevens starts his marvelous “Thirteen Ways To Look At A Blackbird” like this: “Among twenty snowy mountains, the only moving thing was the eye of the blackbird.” (I left out the line breaks and caps; even with them included, this is almost prose.) So where are the rules? But I tell you, this bit of magic could be translated into every language on the planet, and readers everywhere would fall silent before it. The picture is so vivid, so memorable. This for me is poetry--by virtue of its leap into unexpected truth. Oh, if only I’d thought of that! Make a list of the poems you really love and you’ll find, I bet, a similar degree of originality, even oddness. Rules may have been followed but that’s not what brings you back. What captivates are vistas new and lucky, feelings sharp and unanticipated.
5. Still want rules? Well, let me suggest you find your own set. Make sure these rules are ways to liberate, not inhibit, the best in you. The great sin of the McPoets, as academics have been called, is that they all got on the same boat, and crafted a similar product. There’s a pretty irony in this story. The people making the rules for McPoetry were often the same people, as members of the counterculture, who told us: drop out, go crazy, get stoned, steal this book, in short, break all the rules! Remember the anarchy of it all. And yet, and yet. In Poetry’s higher reaches suddenly everybody was as conformist as fifty peas in a pod; and these conformists were content with McPoems.
6. Here’s a time capsule that is revealing, I still recall in vivid detail a phone conversation I had around 1985. Excited about something I had written, I told my fiend (a lady intellectual, let us say) with some excitement. “I’ve written a poem that starts--
So long, dear dead crazy Ezra,
you’re not missing a thing...”
And she broke in, “Well, that’s very nice but it’s not poetry. We decided all that. In meetings at the Cedar Tavern...” I’m as amazed thinking this today as I was then hearing it. They decided?! Meanwhile, there I was, the young poet, chatting familiarly with the dead Ezra Pound! Dramatic and arresting, right? If she had said I didn’t develop the idea very well...oh, any number of criticisms are acceptable. But to say it’s not poetry, on the basis of two lines? Well, I think that’s just nuts (and a good clue about why intellectuals making rules can be so dangerous).
7. Perhaps the Moses of McPoetry was Archibald MacLeish. In his Ars Poetica, written in 1925, he said a poem should be mute and dumb. His poem, for many decades, was presented to possibly a million students (I was one of them) as holy writ; some still think it is. In my essay I called MacLeish’s dictate “gloriously goofy”. Mute and dumb? A poem? It’s like saying a bird should not sing. If a poet feels this rule (or any rule) as a personal truth, fine. But for MacLeish to lay these strictures down as some final verdict was nonsense. A poem, he announced, “should not mean but be.” And so’s your Mama! But a generation of professors pretended that MacLeish had settled forever what poetry must be. And note that the professors weren’t talking about form (rhyme, meter, etc.) but about the sensibility of the poem. They wanted to lock in how poetry should feel. Not surprisingly, all those poems ended up feeling much the same.
8. What happened, in American literature, was that people embracing MacLeish’s Rules mainstreamed mediocrity. What got marginalized was highly original poetry, even though the great poems have usually had an offbeat, surprising, not-experienced-before quality. We don’t read poetry for the same-old, same-old; but McPoety was, by common agreement, exactly that. Perhaps, to some degree, this was not a group of people with a lot of high spirits. But I tend to focus on the careerist or guild aspects. If everyone agrees that a poem is a highly confected, artificial sort of thing that few people can do....then you limit the competition. Like wearing white to tennis, some rules have the effect of keeping out the riffraff. In practice, these rules also functioned as a self-imposed straightjacket or gag order. Think about rich Romans agreeing that good dinner plates, proper plates, were made from lead. Later, much later, scientists figured out why so many Romans went insane. Lead poisoning.
9. Here’s another perspective: A lot of the great English poetry was created by people who were supremely gifted at following rules. I’m thinking of writers such as Pope, Dryden, Shelley, Byron. We read this work and know, in an abstract way, that it’s great. Simultaneously, we are vaguely bored and annoyed--all that de-de-dum, de-de-dum, lake, sake, break. These giants are not real popular today. The very skill that made them so highly esteemed--they could nail a perfect 10 on these tightly defined genres--now strikes us as too predictable, too tight. These great talents, to some degree, imprisoned themselves within their rules, and their gift for following those rules. We want more surprise before our eyes. I can’t read Chaucer in the original but my sense is that he worked loosely within tight rules and somehow kept his lines feeling fresh. I believe this is the rule that trumps all other so-called rules, even for those of you who dote on rules. Be wild within the structure you inhabit. Stay steps ahead of the reader. In short, accepting rules, if that’s your inclination, is not the end of your problems, but the beginning, because you have to invent and reinvent within those rules to be a real poet.
10: I was looking at one of those American classics that most of us studied in high school, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. How wonderful this is--a meter that captures a horse’s gallop. Longfellow was a good writer, telling a great story in a magical way, and he pulled this off. I bet most people assume it’s a standard poetic form of some kind. However, when I looked at it closely and counted syllables, I realized Longfellow mixed up his lines and endlessly created variations on his metrical scheme. A lesser talent, following the same rules more tightly, might make us bonkers by the 20th line. Longfellow managed to achieve a kind of beautiful roughness that is a metaphor for this country. Another poem that is tight but loose is Whitman’s Oh Captain My Captain. They taught this when I was in the fifth grade. Most people probably assume it’s safe or normal, that it follows some familiar rules. I think not. You have to look at without preconception to see how rough, weird and attacking it is. So, sure, there’s rules if you want to embrace them, but you had better make sure you boss those rules and not the other way around.
11. I’ve been having a somewhat tongue-in-cheek joust with Archibald MacLeish. I’ve invented a new form--with very tight rules!--that I call the Archibald. You have to mimic the start of his Ars Poetica but create a poem exactly opposite of what he wanted you to do--something raw and rambunctious, something to make McPoets squirm. See if you can beat this one:
a poem should electrocute
and be hairy like a kiwi fruit
I’m having a contest with no deadline on my site Lit4u.com. If you can write a striking Archibald, send it in with your name and city. I’ll put it up.
12. Yes, at the end of the day, I want my poetry to be clearly poetry, not prose. And not something I’ve seen before. I want to be pleasantly surprised, or even jolted. Amaze me! As Ezra Pound said so succinctly: “Make it new.” Or as I in my rude way have opined on the same subject:
TOES in a bottle
dreams in a purse
only fools make rules
MAX YOUR C*R*E*A*T*I*V*I*T*Y
[An article about experimental approaches
to both writing and painting.
Created for creativity-portal.com,
it remains a pretty good read.]
If you have superior technical skills, if for example you draw like Michealangelo or write like Hemingway, skip this. But if you’re burned out, repeating yourself or feel the need to travel new
highways, read on. Today’s topic is increasing creativity by doing the wild thing, wild as in weird and even wacky, wild as in experimental.
In the 1920s Andre Breton and Surrealism celebrated the subconscious. Breton said we must listen to our dreams, not our conscious thoughts. To me this is a tiresome debate. What’s clear is that ordinary people go to sleep every night and dream astonishingly original stuff they couldn’t come up with consciously. Clearly the subconscious is a second source you can call on--if it works for you, use it. And I suggest that chance is a third source. (If chance is too Las-Vegas for you, call it serendipity!)
Here’s an experiment intended to tie all this up in a neat package. Take paper and pencil (yes, you writers, too) and draw the most interesting abstract you can in five minutes. Now, do the same in a room without any light. (Turn the paper so you don’t even know what’s up or down.) I bet the blind drawing is going to be comparable most of the time. Can we use the word skill, when there’s no feedback for the eyes? Can we talk about dreams or the subconscious? I think we have to allow for a big dose of you and chance dancing cheek to cheek.
I read an article about a sculptress (actually she was an arty ceramacist) who said: “Sometimes, the most interesting pieces come from a series of guided accidents.” Exactly!! What happens is you try to let interesting things happen and then you stand by like a midwife and catch the baby....Surely skill guides some of that guiding. Maybe the subconscious plays a role. And part of it is that you toss the dice and hope to get very lucky.
Around 1975 a man named Edward de Bono announced a device he called The Think Tank, a plastic globe with 13,000 words on little plastic strips. You roll the globe to expose new words in a small
window; then you were supposed to brainstorm your way to a creative victory. I loved this device; I wanted one. But the price was too high for a poor writer. Eureka! I realized I could generate
random numbers with my calculator, let the numbers indicate pages in my dictionary, and then with my eyes closed, pick a random word. Then I’d ad lib the most interesting sentence with that word
in it; and wing it as long as I could. Using this technique, I wrote a lot of poetry. Surrealism? Automatic writing? Or just forcing my overly intellectual brain to stay light and loose? Let’s
not waste time arguing. The only thing that matters is this: was the poetry any good? Some of it was, I’ll go that far. More to the point, some of it was better than what I was writing before
Something else happened. I became addicted to that rootless, thoughtless freedom when the new word comes up. I recklessly decided I would try to write a whole novel this way. I imagined that I’d need to pop a new word every few paragraphs to keep it going. But what happened was, the words suggested story and I ran with each story as many pages as I could. The first word was disclosure, and the first sentence was: “He decided to make a full disclosure.” I saw a man about to confess to his wife....
The next night I drew another word. And the next night. The writing was quite good, but I was creating new people and new stories at an unruly clip. Finally I assigned them all numbers and randomly determined who intersected with whom. Like happy endings? This extreme experiment became American Dreams, published by Permanent Press in 1985, favorably reviewed by Publishers Weekly, and still available. There’s no mention in the book of the technique used. Who’d believe it? But I always felt that American Dreams would be a top contender for Great American Experimental Novel. So, where did all that material came from? Same place dreams come from, I suppose. (You see that the title had a double meaning for me.) But unlike the Surrealists, I never argued that one place is better than another. I’ve written other novels the old-fashioned way where you plan everything. Much, much safer!
Perhaps the best art comes from a zone between partly planned and partly footloose. The most amazing thing I ever read about any writer was the comment attributed to Hemingway. He claimed he
never set out to write a novel. He wrote short stories but some of them wouldn’t stop! I once interviewed a novelist (he was semi-famous at the time) who told me he wrote a page each day and put
the pages in a box in a drawer. At the end of the year, he sent the manuscript to his publisher!
The thread running through all this is that sometimes you need to give up some control. Let go. What else was Jackson Pollack doing with those dripping brushes? He was tossing paint at the canvas, mostly in control but not entirely. The art was looser and more spontaneous than his earlier work--and better.
I understand completely. If I could throw paint against a wall and make beauty, that’d be my genre. Around 1990 I did a long series of paintings called “Poems” where planning was not allowed. I’d start with a blank, Zen-like mind and, shazam, create the most interesting and unexpected element I could put on the canvas...and then the next most interesting...If I could create five or six surprising elements, I’d have a good piece.
I suspect that Franz Klein, when doing the famous action paintings, was in this same zone. I bet a lot of them were ugly and he threw them away. The ones with that offhand, what-a genius quality, he showed to the world.
The main thing is not to fear failing. Take risks and see what happens. The big challenge is to stifle your practical, critical, intellectual side until the art is done. Then wake up that dour, annoying fellow and see what he has to say.
Creative block is usually caused by too much thinking and straining. Make sure you’re creating stuff that you like creating--so that it’s fun. In a cool period, try warming up by doing an extreme version of your medium. In the case of writing, go with sex or violence or emotional moments. Churn out scenes as fast as you can type. Write with abandon in whatever direction you fancy, and maybe in the torrent of words you’ll rediscover the joy of writing.
Having fun (or trying to) and creating on the edge--that’s pretty much my MO. Now I’m doing those same things as a digital painter. You might wonder, aren’t computers just machines--rigid and inhuman? How do they fit in with being wild and creative? The answer has two parts. First is speed--the computer lets me explore a lot of roads quickly. Second is originality--the computer lets me make a flood of startling stuff. Honestly, if I could draw like Michealangelo, I’d better do just that. I can’t. What I have is a flair for design, a flair for color; I know what I like. So I create a lot of elements and look for magical synergies. Often, I assemble the pieces a la Rauschenberg, David Salle or Rosenquist, so that the total energy is greater than any of the parts. Exactly as with the “Poems” 15 years ago, I stay busy, try to stay loose, and wait for the keepers to show up. A series of guided accidents, all of them!
I’ve seen books that suggest different kinds of experiments. But note well: an experiment is a cold thing unless it taps into your hot core. Which brings us to the final advice: devise the techniques, find the experiments, and cause the accidents that maximize your creativity. Whatever works!
--"American Dreams" can be obtained by going to WWW.THEPERMANENTPRESS.COM. Examples of the digital art discussed in the article can be seen on ARTNORFOLK.COM.
A footnote: I got so caught up in the process used to create AMERICAN DREAMS, I waited a month and then plunged back in. The result was MANHATTAN EXPRESS. More serious than AMERICAN DREAMS, the second one is just as literary and--to keep it simpler--confined to one city. Looking for something unusual to publish? You may be looking for MANHATTAN EXPRESS.
©Bruce Deitrick Price 2011