Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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.

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