So much for Walt Whitman.
So much for us as poets, really. That comic -- just that one, not their entire body of work is better than any damn poem I read during the years I subscribed to the New Yorker. That's like what, 400 poems? Not that it's a poem. Please, please never mistake me for an idiot who thinks that everything can "be poetic." I am not that person.
The problem it belies, however, is that two geeks with a pen and photoshop can make something more interesting and memorable than 400 or so of the "best poems" by the "best poets" of our times. Now before we get off into debates on whether or not The New Yorker actually represents the "best poetry of our time," let us understand that it believes that it does and -- as it has, by far, the largest circulation of any periodical that regularly contains poetry (1,000,000 compared with The National Review's 150,000 and The Nation's 100,000 or Poetry's paltry 30,000) -- it well may.
What's wrong with this, of course, is that it represents poetry as some sort of "experience." The smarty readers of The New Yorker want to be able to pretend that they read and enjoyed and understood the twenty or thirty lines of drivel about clouds and dreams and warzones and that they "do poetry" or some other nonsense.
Poetry, of course, is no "experience." It is a form of communication. A medium, not a message (fuck off, Marshall), which brings me back to my original point -- lyric poetry is dead. Why?
Because if poetry is nothing more than communication, we can do a hell of a lot better describing something with a picture or a song or a youtube video. In fact, it would be so hard to make our descriptions more beautiful and important than a mere daugerrotype that we should stop trying until we can figure out how to write poetry again.
Because there is one thing that poetry is amazing at. Storytelling. The Homeric epics existed and thrived in a time of dramatic presentations for the gods. There is something available in the language of narrative poetry that exists nowhere else in the world of storytelling. Shakespeare knew this, and so composed his plays with the language of epic verse and the situations of Romance novels. Eisenstein wrote Ivan the Terrible in the verse of Russian epics for this very reason. Some plays and movies can come close to the visceral connection with language that changes our very chemistry but they almost always miss their mark. Novels don't even try.
And now, because we can only see what is in front of us, we come to believe that poems never had that power. And we murder what is poetry.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
So much for Walt Whitman.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The good people at Nielsen Bookscan provided me with the total number of poetry books bought for the last four years. Breaking down the top 20 books for each year will cost $500. Each. Pony up, if you dare!
Here are the (terrible) numbers:
Year Total Units Sold
2004 -- 3,121,630
2005 -- 3,176,000
2006 -- 3,103,000
2007 -- 2,826,000
That's right. 12 million books. Total. For FOUR years. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold that many books in one day.
I wonder why?
Maybe because it didn't suck and was easy to read.
We have some serious repair work to do, my friends.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Firstly -- people love stories.
Secondly, think about poems you either remember reading as a kid or you read to your kids. This is not to say that Uncle Shelby worked entirely within the realm of narrative verse -- but what poem are you going to remember? Smart? Ickle-Me, Tickle-Me-Too? Yeah. That's what I thought.
And who doesn't love a little bit of the old snicker-snack?
I mean, do you remember reading Shakespeare's sexy sonnets as a kid? And by "as a kid" I mean in gradeschool?
So here we have an audience waiting for a good story that might be rhythmical, or rhyming, or somehow playful with language. And we give them nothing except for things that are very long and kind of maybe difficult to read and understand.
Why not? Why do we hate our readers? No other group of writers hates their readers.
And, magically enough, they have readers. Lots of them. How many do poets have? Precious few (if anyone has a bookscan account, you can actually look this number up for us).
So instead of trying to get more readers, we piss on them or pretend they're so stupid they can't actually breathe.
Why? Well, I won't go into Collins today. But as for the pissah part -- it's because we've forgotten that ART comes from CRAFT -- we've led ourselves to believe that somehow art comes from deep within us and so when someone doesn't like us, it's because they suck, not because we do.
Now, where's the easiest way to hide the fact that poets are talentless hacks? The same place it is in art -- "expression." Now, just like you can't paint a portrait with drunken pukes from a paintcan, you can't tell a story with slammed-up words and nonsense. So what do you do?
Write lyric poetry. And then, magically, no one can tell that you're bad because they don't know what you're talking about (I'm not even going to get into the epic-lyric [today]). Because when you tell a story, boys and girls -- as they say in Atonement: ''Your most sophisticated readers might be well up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I'm sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens.''
In other words, you can't cheat the narrative.
Friday, February 15, 2008
First of all, read this entire post. Here is my fabby fav part:
"We don't know much about how the brain works but it would be obvious that the human brain evolved to meet the requirements of humans. Therefore, the stories we consider the best are the ones that meet our requirements as humans in terms of helping us to remain alive.
Aristotle's Poetics then can be seen as an insight into neuroscience. That is, his Poetics is a guide to what our minds are looking for: stories with a beginning, middle, and end. An antagonist, and a protagonist. The notion of a recognition -- we ought to learn something from a story. On a greater scale a story should tell us what to do in life, and how to think. It should have a great narrative in it about what life is about, and how we will find peace and success.
Contemporary art largely has turned away from these concerns, and it is why it has lost its market share among the hoi polloi, while people increasingly go instead to the movies. Contemporary art sees art itself as the story to which it belongs, and so it has become separate from the human story. This is why popular art -- everything from Dilbert to the latest action film -- still is held dear -- whereas Jackson Pollock will always be -- an evolutionary mistake."
Damn. I don't think I could have said it better myself.
Now for the hard part. Dilbert and the latest action movies may get more lost in the mix than Mr. Pollock (though I think the fish himself is a poor example) because Jacky was trying something new (or applying being a kid to painting. . .). At any rate, we come upon the major quandry of my writing life:
How to appeal to the most people possible without sucking ass.
I am not looking here for the difference between "Take a Chance On Me" by Abba and "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground. That's like comparing Spielberg to Greenaway. One is obviously bucking for a larger audience while one is embracing obfuscation and "hip intelligence."
No, what I'm talking about is the difference between, say "Baby, Baby" and "Jeremy." Both were wildly popular and commercially successful during my waning Junior High days. Both are readily understandable -- there's no obfuscation here. There's a difference, however, between the two. Both of quality and sustainibility. "Baby, Baby" is merely a one-off piece of pop cuteness. "Jeremy" addressed the phenomenon of school shootings before any of the famous ones happened. "Baby, Baby" is silly and detached. "Jeremy" is gritty and, above all, real.
If we can have the novel equivalents of these two songs, why can't we have the poetic equivalent, at least in this century? But all we get stuck with is poets trying to be Peter Greenaway and The Velvet Underground -- trying to be Jackson Pollock with words.
The problem with this is, kids:
IT'S ALREADY BEEN DONE.
The avant garde is no longer avant garde once it has been done once. After that it is rank imitation. We need to get off our asses and stop trying to "make it new" so much that we forget how to "make it good."
And since Aristotle has shown us that what we dearly love is a story, let's give us some.
Yesterday I had a lovely conversation with one of the most brilliant young poets you could meet about her recent experiences in grad school (forgive the link being prose).
We got to talking about "experimental stuff --you know, the work where you have to read the poet's criticism about her work to "get" the subversive, social message in her poems. Cf. Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, et al. Not only does their criticism elucidate their brilliant work, it also explains why any poetry with a coherent narrative is mostly worthless and contributes to oppressive social systems."
Well, we know how I feel about this sort of "poetry". But I felt compelled to dig a little deeper into the "we hate actual poetry" school of writing -- these two poets in particular. I came up with this, from the above Scalapino link:
"Taking the view that “the self is a guinea pig”(2) (and herein I’m creating a foil) in considering presentation of ‘one’s/other’s bodies’ in writing, I will try to see the relations between ‘our bodies’ and ‘future’ in an example from my early writing, that they were at the beach, not because I’m so attached to that early work but because it was written in the period of radical as ‘communal’ language writing(3)). I’m only speaking of the San Francisco Language scene; I think New York Language scene was very different. A description of that writing of mine is only possible in hindsight, though when writing it I had a sense (a ‘feeling’) of what I’ll here describe. As writing, one can’t conceive of a future without changing the past and present. Corporal body and the future are separated, detached, though the body must be there for there to be an individual’s future (maybe there can’t be sense of body without sense of future?). The body must happen simultaneous in order to invent the future."
For those of you who don't read "Marxese," let me elucidate: "we can only experiment on our own work but we can't understand what we're doing until the moment has passed but that's okay, because we always change the past and invent the future." Before I tear into the idiocy of this premise, let me first point something out, if some person thinks that Marxese is the way to talk:
NO ONE FUCKING UNDERSTANDS THIS BULLSHIT AND IT MAKES YOU LOOK ARROGANT AND STUPID, NOT INTELLIGENT AND EDGY
(now, I understand that being arrogant and foulmouthed may hurt my position a little but I here claim for all time that I am being all meta- and ironic. Marxese speakers make no such claim)
Okay, now that that part of the rant is over, let me continue:
First, it's obvious that we can only experiment with our own work (our "selves as guinea pigs" or whatever) -- if we are doing anything to something someone else did (say, erasing words in Parasise Lost) we instantly make it our own. So -- for point one -- "duh."
The second point -- that we don't understand what we've done till we've done it -- um. No. Sorry -- we may better understand what we've done after the fact, but this line of reasoning excuses all sorts of badness -- from bad writing to violent acts. You can't ever make me believe that a murder just doesn't know what he's doing until a week later. You know what you are writing. Even if you don't know what its influence in the world will be, you have a pretty good idea of what you want it to be.
The third point I take more (if possible) exception with than the first. We may always be redefining the past, but we cannot change it. We can only change our perception of it. As much as postmodern poets rail against Milton, they can't change a word he wrote, any more than I can erase all of the damage they've done to poetry. We can change what Paradise Lost means, but we can't change what it says, and the two are much more different than some people would like to admit. As far as inventing the future goes -- bah. We contribute a ripple but its mysterious algorithms seem to have a deathgrip on what happens.
Well, this has gone on for a while. My main point is that if someone is speaking like this they are hiding something. Generally it is a lack of all reason and talent. Be afraid.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
So I was talking with an intelligent fellow yesterday about ye olde blogg.
He asked whether I believed that lyric poetry was a hindrance to the wider readership of poetry or there was something else there.
I answered both -- first of all, people love stories. Secondly, they love being able to actually read and understand what is written, unlike much of what passes for poetry these days. Now, I have some proof of this, as black urban poetry (also known as spoken word) has a hell of a following, at least from where I'm sitting. This is due to a) the nature of BU poetry to involve a lot of storytelling and b) its general nature to eschew, if not disdain, the academic.
These poets write for and understand their audience and continually seek to both broaden their audience and their audience's mind -- all for profit, mind you. When I try to suggest to other (white, academic poets, generally) that we should do the same thing, I get the cold shoulder?
My pal's position, as is the position of other, more feared and famous writers is that since "the public" doesn't give a shit about poetry, we shouldn't give a shit about them. J-dog likened my desire for wider poetic readership to the misguided faith in Nader, Paul, et al -- the "untapped masses" aren't going to be tapped because they don't want to be.
But I am NOT talking about the untapped masses. I am well aware that there are 100 million Ammurikans who don't read. I don't care much about them. I do care, however, about the 100 million Ammurikans (on the other end of the triad) that read more than 5 books a year. It's not that these people don't like poetry.
It's that they feel that they don't "get poetry." There are a lot of reasons for this but the main one is that, unquestionably, the great majority of
MODERN POETRY SUCKS.
It's either a) impossible to read (see the above poets I linked to) or b) completely soulless. Even when it is fantastic, it's often only fantastic to those with English degrees. So when Mr. or Ms. 33&1/3% of Ammurika picks up a poetry book or sees a poem in the New Yorker/Nation/National Review he or she thinks "well, this shit still stinks to high heaven, thank Gott I've got stories to turn to."
I have already said that I find lyric poetry irrevocably broken at this point. We can fix it later, once more than 1% of the country is actually reading poetry again.
So yes, Justin -- to answer the question, I think that there are lots of problems with American/English Language poetry. I think that the fix is to write clear, excellent verse about something the average reader can understand (note, I did not say the average person -- the average reader is a bit more bright).
I think that this can most easily be done through narrative verse.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
I've ranted about the uselessness of lyric poetry and suggested we all stop writing it.
So what of narrative verse? How should we tell a story in lines and stanzas?
Unfortunately, we've forgotten a little of how to do this. We've come to believe that storytelling is the domain of prose and that flowery crap is the domain of verse. We believe this so deeply that our instiutions generally split writers into storytellers and poets. This is such an ingrained belief that I had to snag a prose fiction writer to be on my thesis committee (my thesis was an epic poem about the American War of Independence) because the other two poets on it hadn't written much (anything) in the way of narrative and I needed someone who knew story structure "backards and fards."
Yes. So. What to do? Well, first we need to realize that writing an epic may not be within the grasp of everyone. Most poets are used to short pieces of crap and feel intimidated by anything that runs more than one printed page. That's okay. We can tell a story in one page. Let me quote from the emo kid himself:
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
And I will quote from his American Cousin as well:
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Now. Apart from having rollicking rhythms in your head, you should be telling yourself "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is longer than that and "Is Annabel Lee really a narrative poem?"
To the second question, yes absolutely. The movement of the poem is the story of their love and her death -- notice I said story. As for the first, do you need the rest of LBDSM to "get it?" It's nice in its truncated form.
But the point is not I think Emo Kid is long-winded, but that a narrative can be brief. We don't need to go on for 100 or 100,000 lines, we just need to make a good story.
How do we do this?
The same as any story-teller: plot, character, and setting.
So what is the difference between Narrative Verse and Narrative Prose?
Well, nothing. Unless you count the idea that verse is supposed to appeal to the reader on a sonic and visceral level that prose can't approach. Or that verse is monovocal and prose is polyvocal (as much as I h8 Bakhtin, I agree with him on this idea). I very much count those two things. Prose is great for telling a certain kind of story. Verse is better for telling another kind.
Let us not worry about what kinds just yet.
Let us instead say, "yes, we will write a narrative poem today." Keep it short, interesting, and full of life. Make it, above all else, accessible and moving.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Fuck lyric poetry.
Yes, that's right. For damn near a century and a half now, English verse in general and American verse in specific has been in the stranglehold of lyric verse.
When was the last time you read a narrative poem? Any of you read Omeros? When was the last time? When, in fact, was the last time you read a narrative poem written after Queen Victoria Died? One that wasn't a damn book?
Yeah. That's what I thought. And yet, where do all the great poetry quotes come from? Not from Sappho, that's for sure. From narrative poems (and verse drama -- thanks Nuncle), that's where. Sure, we may love us some T.S. Eliot and some Sylvia Plath, but those are mood setting pieces -- and besides, at least for Sylvia, she sells more when she's a'narratin' (Eliot does too, when his work is bastardized into a story-line).
So you sit reading through and writing terrible lyric poetry and you wonder why no one loves you.
Because lyric poetry is fucking useless.
Unless your entire life is based on being some pathetic emo kid, the lyric won't get you far (and even Keats wrote narratives, y'all). Sappho sucks, the reason we have western culture is named Homer, and we poets better wake up to that fact or we will be about as relevant as Jazz.
Just a damn rant.
I'll come back later to rant some more.
Go think about politics and wars and write something that tells a story or get the hell off the pen.