Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Declaration on the Revision of Poetry

Dear poets,

Modern poetry is sick. It's dying in its hospice bed and we should walk away from its cranky carcass before the stench of colostomy and muscle rub leaves us brainless. It's not like we're in the will anyway.

From the image of its corpse I propose a new direction for poetry. For the last century we've been tied into a strangulating mode of creating, producing, and promoting poetry. To wit: Artsy poets write impenetrable crap; Artsy journals with tiny circulations publish it (Poetry has a circulation of 30,000 – why do we want our work in it? Not because we want readers), no one reads the publications or the poems in them, and the publication line on a CV gets artsy poets jobs where they teach impressionable others that accessible poetry is evil and their excrement is the only rose worth smelling.

I propose, instead, the following solution:

To change how poetry is made, consumed, and thought of. This means altering the production, distribution, and acceptance of modern poetry. I will deal with each aspect of the solution individually.

1: Production

To change production of poetry we need to shift toward narrative verse. This is an easy task, as nearly all poetry published today is lyric poetry. Almost no one is writing or publishing narrative verse. This alone can explain the marginal state of modern poetry because people love stories. They crave them. They pay billions of dollars a year on movies, cable bills, novels, and video games just to experience stories. But they don’t turn to poetry. Why? Poetry can tell a story with such power that the reader or listener's body chemistry alters to fit the rhythm of the line. Nothing else can do this. But people don’t think of poetry because poetry no longer tells stories; it no longer entertains; it has become art for a dying art’s sake. When we ignore narrative verse in favor of the lyric we are depriving poetry of its natural audience.

Part of the reason has to do with today’s imbalance of lyric and narrative poetry. Lyric poetry is poetry that describes objects, feelings, and abstract concepts. Examples range from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXX” to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” to Ashbery’s “Just Walking Around.” Narrative verse is poetry that tells a story – from Poe's “Annabel Lee” to Jarrell's “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to Forche’s “The Colonel” to Homer's Odyssey.

Poetry traditionally has had its greatest and widest appeal when there was a balance between lyric and narrative verse. No such balance exists today. In the pages of the major poetry journals you will find many pretty words and almost no stories. Month after month, quarter after quarter, publications print variations on the same ideas and wonder why their circulations remain insignificant. Readers are drawn to stories in a way that descriptions and ponderings can never match. The power of narrative verse keeps them reading and teaches them how to read poetry, so that they may enjoy both narrative and lyric verse. When there is no substantial volume of narrative verse to entice readers, interest in poetry subsides.

While an overemphasis on lyric verse is not the sole problem of contemporary poetry, it has allowed poets to ignore not only the structure of narrative but any structure at all. In writing narrative verse, we must never fall into the trap set by modernists and sprung by language========= poets and new formalists – that how the poem is saying something is more important that what it says. It is this emphasis on form and formlessness at the expense of content that drives away the lay reader of poetry. We can avoid this trap by committing our narrative verse to five points:

Our verse must:
be clear
be timely
be memorable
be in the common tongue
bring us together.

For our verse to be clear it must be fathomable on the first read. This does not mean that our verse cannot be complex. Indeed, it must be unless we wish to be some soulless versifier. But complexity is only a part of the picture. If no one can possibly understand our poems without a decoder ring, we’re doing it wrong. Most readers don't want to decode poetry – they just want a good story. If a good story is there, they will read it. If it can be peeled and peeled, revealing layers like Eliot's multifoliate rose, then we have done a good job.

For our verse to be timely, it must be relevant to people working and paying and living and dying right now. It must depend on neither allusions from mythology, nor private experiences but be firmly secured in the present. Personal demons and classical gods may be important and relevant to the poem-at-hand but they are without meaning if they cannot be made relevant to the reader.

For our verse to be memorable, it must be beautiful, both in sound and image. If we aren't writing our poetry with an ear for how it sounds out loud, we aren't writing poetry. Furthermore, if our beautiful word symphony doesn't make any sense, we're writing music, not poetry. Poetry is the syzygy of image, sound, and form – all three must be in balance to have a poem. We must also strive to make our poems ring in the ears of our audience. We should ask ourselves and our first readers “what lines from this poem are memorable?” Then we should work our words until its lines stick in our readers’ heads like hooks in a pop song.

For our verse to be in the common tongue, it must be written the way we speak. Why do we eschew contractions in poetry? Why do we embrace archaic reversals or literary paper language? No one speaks that way – and as poetry is in many ways a perfection of speech, we must reflect and perfect current speech patterns. Listeners should hear our poetry and tell themselves "this is the way I would speak."

For our verse to bring us together, it must be uplifting. This is not to say that that we can't tackle difficult or deep or depressing subjects, quite the contrary. What poetry should do is present difficult subjects in such a way that hope is offered to the world. Remember that “The Waste Land,” for all its bleak obtuseness, ends with a prayer that all will be well. Poetry cannot be uplifting if it is engaged in self-referential navel-gazing. Solipsistic, pretentious, and inscrutable poems serve only to confuse, confound, and drive away readers.

2: Distribution

Print is not dead. It is, however, brainwashed. Less than three million books of poetry sold last year. Mainstream publishers rightly ignore it. Moreover, small poetry presses are entirely subsidized by universities, endowments, and/or contests. This means they are beholden to the establishment and to publishing arcane academic poems. They don't care about accessibility, the public, or promoting what they publish because their survival doesn't depend upon these things.

Luckily, we are left with the internet, a largely maligned section of publishing with the academy – but we aren't trying to get tenure; we are trying to change poetry. The internet affords us a much easier way to distribute poetry in its natural form – as audio. We can create videos with text to accompany readings, embed .mp3s of readings into web pages – there are nearly limitless ways online to bring poetry back to what it should be – something that both sounds and means good.

If you worry that internet publishing means we won't be getting paid for our poetry or able to control our copyrights, then you need only to look at homestarrunner.com, xkcd.com, or giantitp.com. These websites wholly support their creators through distributing creative content. People will pay for good content. Just like Radiohead's In Rainbows, distributing content for free only means that more people will come in contact with your work. If it is good, they will find some way to reward you – buying shirts, hitting a paypal donation button, etc. Any of these nontraditional forms of payment far exceed payments by poetry publications. Strong Verse is perhaps the only online publication that pays its authors ($10 a poem) and The New Yorker, the highest paying poetry publication pays only $150 per poem. Allowing our audience to pay us directly for our work will, even with a handful of readers, easily outstrip these token payments. But don't worry about money – worry about your work and your readers.

There are five major internet outlets for distributing poetry:

Emails
YouTube
Blogs
Forums
Websites

Emails are a simple and effective way to get our poems out to people. How many forwards do we get a day? Though we don't read most of them, what if one of them was the opening lines of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"? Would we keep reading? Would we pass it on? A great poem is certainly better than a story about how Barack Obama doesn't say the pledge or how someone’s cousin made money by forwarding “this very same email!” If we make a list of our contacts and send them a poem, they can keep it or not, but we may delight our friends and relatives with our words. We shouldn’t deny them the chance to love what we say.

YouTube is its valuable because we can harness its unique power to distribute poetry in its primal, aural form. The accompanying visuals can be anything – us reading, a background with text, a "poetry video" – it doesn't matter. What does matter is that YouTube allows us to get great poems into the public mind. If people will watch a father singing about his kids to the tune of "Canon in D", they will listen to a well-written, body-moving poem – and forward it to their friends.

We should each have a blog (I have two). We should comment and post on our blogs and forward them to others, digg them, etc. We should also find other poetry blogs and comment on them, contact their authors, and present our ideas. If we are not communicating with the world of poets, we cannot change poetry – and if we are not communicating with the reading public, we will never convince them that poetry has changed.

We should be promoting accessible, narrative verse on poetry forums. But we must be careful in a world of flame wars not to engage or defend ourselves against the blind and the stupid. We can’t get caught up in pointless arguments – if it is clear that the people in the forum don't care what we have to say, it is time to move on without looking back.


"Websites" covers a lot of ground. This category can be broken into networking websites – like myspace.com, meetup.org, and facebook.com; publishing websites – everything from strongverse.org to nytimes.com; filter websites like digg.com and reddit.com; and personal websites.

With networking websites like myspace.com, we can find like-minded good writers and show them the world is not wholly against them. We can also distribute our poems to friends who will, especially with encouragement, forward them on to their friends. If we can just make a poem as interesting as a survey, we will have hit gold.

Publishing websites as a category is best divided into new and established sites. We should create our own publishing websites in order to directly control the distribution and promotion of our work. Established poetry sites, like Strong Verse and Loch Raven Review may be responsive to our work and reviews. Large media sites like nytimes.com and National Review Online will be interested in any content that will bring new users to their advertisers.

Digg.com, reddit.com, and del.icio.us are websites that allow users to popularize web content by sharing and voting up interesting sites. These filter websites are a great tool for spreading the word. If you have a personal website or edit a publishing website, adding digg and reddit buttons to your site will help increase your visibility. A concentrated effort by even a few dozen readers will get our poems linked on these pages – and every time someone clicks that link and finds a beautiful, clear, narrative poem, we will have gained another reader.

Personal websites are, of course, your website with your name – gmpalmer.com (not that I've done anything with it. . .). These should be biographic with links and texts of poems we've already published (we should distribute new content through the above channels). These are best suited for disseminating information and philosophies – controlling what we say and believe before others can do it for us.

3: Acceptance

Once our work has begun to take hold in the world of readers and writers, we can begin to work toward canonization, that is, formal acceptance of clear, narrative verse. This will be a difficult process, as a great part of the Modernist ethos was the denigration of accessible, narrative poetry.

Canonization is achieved through two different ways. The first is textual – reviews, scholarly papers, etc. The second is positional – faculty postings, leading workshops, etc.

Written canonization begins with simple praise of our work and distributing it to as wide a readership as possible. After this begins, we can write and elicit reviews of our work. Reviews should be seen two ways. First we should make an effort to review each others work in online and print journals. This has been a core tactic of all literary movements. We should also work to get our poems reviewed by established critics. This will increase both our work’s legitimacy and visibility. After reviews come scholarly papers. These range from informal college essays to theses, dissertations, and books of critical theory. Though we may not have much control over this last category, we may be able to influence friends currently in school to look our way for research material.

Parallel to these written forms of canonization are inclusion in conferences and workshops, positions on the faculty of universities and textbook selection committees, and inclusion on textbook and anthology creation committees. Here we can directly influence both writers and readers in a much more direct way. Canonization is a far-away goal, to be sure, but any steps we can take – from writing reviews to teaching others to getting on textbook committees will be invaluable.

This will all be a lot of work, I know. But if you're dissatisfied with the empty poems you see touted as fresh and new – if you want to work to make poetry relevant to the two hundred million Americans who read, email me and let's get started discussing how to do what needs to be done.

24 comments:

WorldClassPoet said...

Great commentary. I agree with much of what you said, although I would not go strictly narrative. My views are more synergistic. While I appreciate and believe in narrative verse, I would not abandon the lyric. Read my series on Millennial Poetics at World Class Poetry Blog.

Robert said...

I don't think he meant to imply going strictly narrative, just that it needs to make a serious comeback.

"Poetry traditionally has had its greatest and widest appeal when there was a balance between lyric and narrative verse."

G. M. Palmer said...

Worldclass -- thanks for the link. I hope we can synergize.

Robert -- thanks for clearing up that point -- I don't mean we should abandon lyric poetry, just that we should be sure to write narrative poetry.

G. M. Palmer said...

Also -- you may have come across this livejournal post:

http://balladsofmirth.livejournal.com/516162.html?view=1695298

In case she deletes it, here is my reply:

I don't have an active LJ account, so I'll just use the anonymous button,

but this is me, GM Palmer.

First of all, what do you mean by nepotism? I have no prior relationship with the people that have posted my declaration.

Secondly, what is wrong with audacity?

Thirdly -- the poets you mention. I hadn't read them, but now I have. I like a lot of Fulton, Duhamel is not terrible but boring, Valentine is empty and boring, and Powell is utter crap.

Fourthly -- I am "anti-intellectual" only in that I am "anti-establishment." Poetry has grown stale and nearly unimportant (ref: my blog on poetry book sales) because it is so obsessed with being clever.

also -- Poetry isn't a genre. It's one of the two forms of writing -- Poetry and Prose. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Creative Non Fiction -- those are genres and can be done either as poetry or prose. Furthermore, the idea that one has to learn a genre like a language is laughable. If a literate person has to learn how to read your work you are doing something wrong.

Fifthly -- you want to actually give some examples of narrative poetry's "dominance" in the market? It's certainly not the dominant style in Poetry Magazine.

Sixthly -- you quote a bunch of dead people in a Norton's to show how narrative poetry is dominant. Duh. I'm not talking about dead people. I'm talking about people and poetry RIGHT NOW. When I say "modern poetry is sick" I mean poetry today.

Your last point about teaching all kinds of poetry is excellent and I agree one hundred percent.

Now, for the "worse" things I've said:

Besides synapse being a bit stalkery,

Yes, I belong to a Republicans for Obama group. I joined before I had heard of Ron Paul. Yes, I am a Ron Paul supporter. Yes, I am a registered Republican (because I live in Florida, a state with closed primaries). My quote about abortion reflects the notion that it is not protected in the Constitution, nor should it be federally regulated.

And finally, if you "can't handle me" because you don't like my opinions, you are truly of a small mind.

Peace and hoping I'm wrong about that last bit,
GMP

Robert said...

That was the most snide and hateful thing I've read in recent memory. Of course she posts her opinion on her Livejournal soapbox, where her friends can nod and pat her on the back, instead responding here in plain sight to you.

G. M. Palmer said...

I should say that LB and I have continued our conversation on her livejournal page and it has become much less "snide and hateful" to quote Robert.

Adrienne J. said...

Thanks for this post, Michael. I think I agree with Robert - we're severely lacking in narrative poetry these days, and we need to fight for its survival.

[To change production of poetry we need to shift toward narrative verse.]

My first thought when I read that sentence was, "Ah - so THAT'S why most bites I get are from speculative fiction magazines." Those are the venues these days that are unafraid of publishing narrative verse. My primary frustration at the moment is that magazines like The Rialto, Poetry London, and Poetry Review keep rejecting me (and I mean to the tune of four or five times apiece now), and I can't seem to figure out why (seeing as I'm having considerable success elsewhere). However, when I think about the main bulk of what they publish - i.e. lyric poetry - it suddenly starts to make sense.

Michael J. Farrand said...

Please check over my set of narrative poems and see if this in any way alters the course of our poetic culture.

G. M. Palmer said...

MJF --

While I don't mind linking to your work here, I hope you also don't mind a bit of criticism.

Mostly I would say good for you -- you're tackling interesting subjects and certainly writing verse.

But what I don't see in the poems that I'm reading is a sense of audience -- the rhythm isn't there, the poems are overlong, they don't pull you in. Have you read these live?

Narrative is great but my ultimate goal is to make poetry both art and audience driven. This requires two things in equal measure 1) an impressive amount of technical skill and 2) a sense of an audience, what they want and need and what they will respond to.

G. M. Palmer said...

that should read "certainly writing narrative verse"
oops.

Charlie Kondek said...

I really support your mission here. I'm going to add the strong verse blog to my little blogroll at Virile Lit. (My other blog - virilelit.blogspot.com)

G. M. Palmer said...

Charlie -- great to be on the roll and I'll be glad to let you buy me a round whenever!

Nicole Nicholson said...

Mr. Palmer:

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for posting this! I find myself feeling the same way after reading some incomprehensible poetry and getting rejection slips myself.

I write for two entities: the reader and myself.

Poetry should be for the people.

I've added strongverse.org to my blog roll.

Many thanks for writing and posting this.

-Nicole

California Writer said...

I agree with you about returning
to narrative verse, and I've written
four books of largely narrative verse. Reviewers have ignored me.
That's life and I would like a movement to restore narrative verse.

I recently read "Gilgamesh" for the first time--actually I read two translations. It's wonderful narrative verse. The story was gripping. The style was terrific. I liked it much better than Beowulf or the Iliad. Three cheers for Gilgamesh.

I also think that the vast majority of readers could care less about endless wads of lyric poetry and even less about language school. Narrative verse if really good could help return an audience to poetry.

ninsthewriter said...

I just found you today, quite by accident, and I'm delighted to say that I read "Prosady" on Strong Verse, and also "Declaration on the Revision of Poetry." then I went earching for your blog...I mentor a budding poet and sent her both of these pieces. They're wonderful tutorials, and I will certainly inform other writer/blogger/friends about you. I write a great deal of narrative poetry but that doesn't mean it's not lyrical...my first collection, Cooking Lessons, published by Rock Press can attest to this. I'm working on a new poetry ms. and therfore wanted to thank you for your informative and helpful blogs. Check out my blog when you get a chance--A Writer's Blog: Food and Poetry--is there anything bettr in life?

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Dear GM Palmer,

Greetings!

Thank you for this excellent post and the link.

Peace,
Geoffrey

Anonymous said...

At last someone who makes an inkling of sense. I linked to your feed (I hope I did it correctly)...I am leaving you my link to check out at leisure as well.
Real good to find a kindred thinker, even if our words may differ in dose of harsh, blunt, etc.
http://greggorywcrow.blogspot.com/

marry said...

Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!
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Larry said...

Sure agree with your poition on narrative.
Another thing in short supply is humor; not ha ha humor but smile and nod and occasionally chuckle humor. Poets as a rule take themselves rather seriously and the younger they are the worse it gets.
Poetry is fun. It teaches you to think about what you see and feel.
Enjoyed the commentary.
lars

David Formanek said...

Hi G.M.,
This was a refreshing read, a call to arms.
I am at work on a four-volume verse memoir about expatriate childhood in Europe during the Kennedy years. (The Trojan Tricycle, book one, The Little Germaniad.) I have been posting the first as two or three quatrains daily on twitter.com/formanex. The story climaxes with an iffy border crossing from East Germany a few nights before the Berlin Wall was raised, 50 years ago. Don't you think someone would want to publish it? Please have a look & let me know what you think of it so far.
Keep up the good fight!
David

Barbara Presnell said...

Hi, G.M.,
I realize your post is old, but I've just now found it, and I find that it's still very relevant. I'm a narrative poet. Storytelling for me is THE way to make sense of the world, and if it's in poetry, all the better! Short, accessible, our lives. That's what matters. Great thoughts on distribution too, esp. in this quickly and oddly shifting business of publishing. In the event you do check it out, I hope you find my work to fit your criteria--accessibility, engaging. Thanks, G.M.

benrali said...

I recently read your post. Thanks for the advice on narrative poems and you brought up some ugly truths about marketing and sales which are very accurate... keep blogging and I am sure others in the future will find this blog useful.

Kevin Bushell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Bushell said...

I definitely think narrative poetry is under-represented in print, and I like what you say about the appeal of story, especially when combined with the power of image. Where I disagree is in your sweeping statements about modern poetry in general and the prescriptive nature of your response. Shouldn't the form fit the content? I wouldn't want to write an elegy in narrative verse or woo my lover, but if my subject is historical the poem might fall into narrative.

I'm intrigued by your idea of using the internet to publish, but I still see it mostly as a promotional tool. We are all marketing managers these days! Some people are comfortable reading on a tablet or Kindle but others still want a physical book, so the question remains about how to print. Self-publishing, while okay for the emerging musician, still has the bad rap of vanity publishing for writers.

Your piece has produced a lot of discussion so you must have hit on something. It will be interesting to see how this period of literary history plays out. Good luck with your book.