Thursday, July 31, 2008

Continuing the thought

The whole blame thing just gets weird. Because "progressive" poets wrap themselves in the flags of egalitarianism and ars sola fide, my attacks can be labled crankery. It's tiresome, really -- the verse that I, and from what I can tell, most people prefer is dismissed out of hand as "the school of Quietude" or, in a quote directly from Silliman: "good for what it is." Their words are accepted as from on high. But if I say language======= poetry is not poetry at all but 2d art or that no experimental poet has really done anything that wasn't first famously done by Stein and cummings, or famous Spoken Word poets (like the ones in the several collections I own) would really benefit from editing, I'm expected to defend these statements with example upon example.

You know what? We live in the google age. If you aren't sure what I'm talking about, friggin google it. If you want examples, google them. Seriously. The avant garde poetry, langpo, and Spoken Word you find will almost invariably fit into the criticisms above. The defense of my criticism is the works themselves.

And anyway, instead of concentrating on blame, my concern is to illuminate what does and doesn't work in the production of poetry and to encourage the production of strong verse -- verse that is clear, communicative, and excellent.

I hope to get back to that soon. While we're waiting, google Gabriel Spera. Best poet I've seen in years.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

supposing the answer

And I suppose I will be answered by someone quoting a libertarian strain of thought -- that if the poet is harming no one, then why care?

But, of course, the destruction of language and the destruction of literature are harmful. So I will continue to call bad poets and bad schools of poetry out on this.

I may not be able to destroy the ill-built house or dig up the field of weeds, but I will certainly let everyone know who is screwing up what.

Answering a friend

A good friend of mine asks:

you're in serious danger of becoming just another "i'm a badass cuz i'm 'unfashionably' oriented in my aesthetic tastes" old-skool-wannabe crank. . .who are you making all this bluster of arguments in the service of? is it really in the service of the poor, ign'ant, under-educated, artless, lost "masses" who need a revived and truly democratic art to enrich their lives, or is it in the service of yourself and some other more or less aligned artists who feel slighted at not getting enough attention/rewards/recognition for yer hard work? or maybe you say it's both?
but who does your line really, finally end up supporting? if your line were followed faithfully through by a majority in the poetry world today, who would ultimately benefit, and who would pay?

I answer:

First, you have to remember that my problem with avant garde/language/concrete poetry is not that it exists but that it calls itself poetry. I would feel the same if I were a glass blower and some guy smashed coke bottles and made them into mosaics and called it glass blowing. It might be good, hell, it might be great -- but it isn't glass blowing. To that end, I came up with a new use for the old word Propago to mean writing that is dependent upon visuality for its communication (like Comix).

The reason that this is a problem is because so many of those canon folks you mention ARE these credentialled AG/L/C people -- and they continually present what they're doing as the only sort of poetry worth doing and that communicative, aural poetry is worthless (see Silliman's term "school of quietude). So then the only poetry that gets taught in High Schools and Colleges is difficult and reader-unfriendly and so not only do high school and college students not get exposed to poetry but (much more importantly) neither do their teachers -- even their English teachers -- who went through school after the 1970s. If you doubt me, just look at what's happened to UF in the last year or so. So I have a problem with AC/L/C poetry because its practitioners choke off the poetry that should be feeding the public.

Second, I have no problem with Spoken Word. I have lots of problems with badly written Spoken Word. The reason that this is a problem is because Spoken Word is at its heart a form of sound entertainment MUCH more than poetry (which is sound worship/communication/communion). Not that Spoken Word can't be (or isn't often) poetry -- but you can take ANY piece of writing and turn it into an effective SW piece if you are a good enough reader.

Good and great readers get a pass on spewing unschooled and ignorant lines because it's fun to listen to them. I don't have a problem with this per se, but I do have a problem with worrying that SW is too ephemeral and I think that poets (and artists in general) should strive to make work that lasts.

My main concern is not that poetry doesn't exist in the country. Of course it does. Poetry is unkillable.

The problem is that the community of poetry has been killed -- that is, the communal nature of poetry. Poetry used to be in all major newspapers. People used to read it and buy books of poetry. They don't now. And if you look at the poetry of the 19th century vs the poetry of the 20th and 21st, it's easy to see why. The poetry of the 19th century spoke to the people -- the poetry of the 20th and 21st often speaks to the elite. Where poetry has been wildly successful (Plath, Collins, Spoken Word) it's been because the poetry spoke to everyone and not just academia.

The community of poetry has been killed by tenured academics and critics who wrap their ignorance in European loan words and tired French linguistic theories. It's been killed by teachers too lazy to do any work. It has been killed by people who are afraid to do the difficult thing -- which is to write with a level of craft that would make Dante proud and at the same time write in such a way that the common reader can understand and enjoy their work.

It's easy to write enjoyable, understandable poetry. It's easy to have esoteric and impressive skills. It takes hard work to do both. That's the crux of my problem with most poets since the mid-19th century. They have either prided themselves on being accessible (Whitman, Collins) or fantastically proficient (Pound, Hejinan) at the neglect of the other, equally important skill.

Of course I want my work to benefit myself.
But what I really want is to help create a world (or at least an America) that buys more than one book of poetry for every one hundred people in a year. And the reader unfriendly practices of the academic avant garde and the resonance unfriendly (or ephemeral) practices of "popular poetry" don't help in this regard.

And this is why I'm not content to just "live and let live."

If you saw a neighbor building a house, and he was obviously building it incorrectly by, say, not putting roofing sheets on his house, would you not at least suggest the right course of behavior to him? What if his shoddy construction would patently lead not to water damage, but to a fire? Shouldn't you let him know what he's doing wrong? And furthermore, what if you lived in a neighborhood so compact that his house fire would surely jump to yours? You would still feel like you should "live and let live"?

A man was sowing his fields. Instead of sowing wheat, he was sowing tares. When another farmer asked him why he was sowing tares instead of wheat, the man replied "the tares are more interesting, even if they feed no one." The farmer then asked "what if your tares infest my wheat fields, and the surrounding wheat fields, and no one has a crop?" The man then replied "tend to your own fields, I will tend mine."

Would you let him continue to sow weeds? And before you say "but this or that poetry is not a weed!" please show me how it has fed the people.

I don't think I'm a badass. I'd like to get talented poets convinced that wasting their talents trying to please the academy is pointless when there are a hundred million reading Americans who are much more in need of their words. I'd like to get charismatic poets to see that their charm and cleverness could be polished to brilliance with a little erudition.

I'd like to see these things happen, but I probably won't -- so I hope that the poets stuck in between will find each other (and me, obviously) and begin to work toward a common goal.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Modern Aesthetics as Sola Fide

This post requires background. For Christian thought in the current State, I recomment this post and especially (as the post is quite long) this link within the post. Teh Wik can help us define sola fide. If you need more info, contact this guy. Suffice it to say that the flippant version of sola fide is "I'm saved because I say I'm saved."

This was a fairly radical notion when it was invented by Martin Luther. Indeed, it became the cornerstone of Protestantism. The traditional thought on salvation is that though "faith is the beginning of human salvation," "faith without works is dead." The sola fide folks just skip that second part. They don't have to do any work to get saved, so why should they do any work at all?

Why is this important, you ask? What does this have to do with poetry? Easy. If you did the above reading, you'll know that an de-Jesussed form of Protestant Christianity is the dominant religion in the West. Ever wonder why Barack Obama sounds so much like a preacher? It's because he is.

Since Godless Christianity cannot use sola fide to justify salvation, it uses it to justify something just as undefinable:


That's right. It didn't happen overnight. Luther introduced sola fide in the early 16th century. It began to catch on in the arts at the beginning of the 19th century, concurrent with another silly idea. It was gaining solid ground by the Victorian age and was firmly entrenched by the middle of last century.

The mantra of the artist is no longer "I am an artist because I work hard to create works of art." It is "I am an artist because I say I am."

In this feeble tautology there is no work, there is no schooling, there is no difficulty. There is only shoddy work, quackery, and showmanship.

I have often wondered what happened to craft and hard work in art.
Now I know.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Perhaps there's hope.

Silliman's blog put me on the blogroll. Woot.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Review: Ludlow by David Mason

by David Mason
2007, Red Hen Press

On the recommendation of Dana Gioia, I picked up David Mason’s Ludlow. What is an epic is called a verse-novel for, I would assume, marketing concerns.

To be brief, buy this book.

It is Mason’s tale of the events leading up to the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Mason brings the principal characters of a struggle between miners and their bosses to life in a powerful way and tells a story worth knowing.

Mason’s craft is exquisite in both its scope and precision. Not only does he paint emotion and action in the same landscape:

So he walked upright the way they all had come,
goggles on, a kerchief tied for breathing
dust that had shaken loose in the first blast.
Swallowed in utter dark, he pushed his fear
into that very mine, and took his last steps,
a man dead set to prove he was a man (26)

he does so in a way that would have been immediately recognizable to Dante, Chaucer, and Milton – he packs in meaning as only a poem can. Mason’s “dead set” echoes not only the imminence of the miner’s death but the inevitability of the whole tragedy. A similar use of juxtaposition and word-packing can be found in the union halls of John Lawson, who says:

“We’re hoarding guns. Now the job’s to win peace.” (32)

This extends even to Mason’s choice of leading characters – Luisa Mole and Louis Tikal – Louis coming from Ludwig which means “famous warrior.” Though historical characters, Mason’s use of them to frame this battle of the Colorado Coalfield War is, at the least, serendipitous.

Mason understands throughout Ludlow that our intentions are often contradictory and what we desire and struggle for is often the very worst for us. It is an epic in the truest sense of the word, containing all that is good and evil in humanity in 200 brief pages.

Again, read it. Buy the book. Mason and Ren Hen Press deserve a reward for publishing poetry that is outside the mainstream – for publishing poetry that is readable and good. It is certainly better than any of the other books of poetry I’ve bought in the last 2 years or so. Buy this poem and praise the poet, for its triumphs and successes far outweigh its faults. For it does have faults.

The first is a strange, intermittent dependency upon the word kcuf. While I don’t want to moralize about what words you can/should use in your writing, I must admit that I’m just tired of kcuf in written form. All it does when I read it is make me think two things:

well, there goes a dozen or so people I would have sent this book to and
gosh – couldn’t he have thought of something else to write?

At any rate, this is a minor flaw. Were I Mason’s editor or reader, I would have counseled him otherwise. As it stands, this isn’t a dealbreaker for me.

The second fault is much more difficult, however.
Mason interrupts the action of the story a handful of times with speaker intrusions. The speaker laments:

By now you’ve guessed this story’s partly mine. . .
. . . I made this trip alone . . .
these are the facts, but the facts are not the story.

Ted Kooser views this as a benefit:

“Some of the most touching passages place the poet, alone at some milepost, struggling to find adequate language with which to reach back through almost a hundred years.”

I, however, echo Mason’s own view – “these are the facts, but the facts are not the story.” I am a little amazed that Mason can write and include these lines that so obviously detract from the story that he is telling. The 20th century intrusions don’t add anything to the story of Ludlow. If anything, they bog it down.

This is not to say that they don’t include some lovely writing. Mason is a master crafter, and his verse is continually uplifting to read. I think, perhaps, that he became trapped in one of his own ideas:

I have a photo of a photo pinned
on an artist’s easel. . .
The photo in the photo’s of a girl. . .
This is my image of Luisa now. . .
. . . this young serving girl . . .
Photographer and subject, bound by a cord
of silence, look[ing] into each other’s world. (136-7)

This idea of a photo-within-a-photo – a frame-within-a-frame is very post-modern and interesting, but it fails as a frame in the way Mason uses it for Ludlow. At no point does it develop the story or the characters. If Mason insisted on keeping the verse, the best solution would have been to present Ludlow in two parts – the first the epic story and the second a “poems about Ludlow” section. As Ludlow now stands, however, the organizational part of the reading mind struggles to see connections between the photographer and subject.

That's so yag!

So from now on,
if I call you a ytrid reggin-gnikcuf nwolcssa ekik kcim knihc renaeb pow wej you'll know what I mean.

Holy crap, people! Are we really gniog to stand for such assaults on our dignity! Jeez! The horror!

On a side note, cursing has never been so much fun! I think from now on all my dirty words will be written back-ards. \/\/()()--1

Kcuf off,