Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gnomic Poetry


Mysterious and often incomprehensible yet seemingly wise.


A saying pertaining to the manners and common practices of men, which declareth, with an apt brevity, what in this our life ought to be done, or not done.

Viz (from Armantrout, via Silliman):

Dreams unspool
with an ersatz
familiarity, conspicuously

Viz Liz:

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

I think, perhaps, I may have been too harsh (is that possible?) on lyric poetry.

I think my disdain for it comes from the seeming fact that so much lyric poetry devolves into Gnomic Poetry -- the poet-on-high telling us how to behave. But it's worse than that. It's the poet-on-high, the poet-guru, telling us in enigmatic phrases, how to behave. What is. What to be.

What's more, this is done with gnomic language -- it "sounds nice" (if they're lucky) -- or rather it "appears complex" without meaning anything -- or without deeper meaning. It's either a smudge or a stock photo -- there's no there there.

Now, I'm not sure that modern lyric poetry can save itself from the gnomic. Lyric poetry now well may be inherently gnomic. There's a fine syzygy between observation, explanation, and indoctrination.

Maybe indoctrination is too strong. Certainly most poets don't give pronouncements about not smoking or believing in nothing. But the idea pronouncing of "this is what is" (spouting tautologies and eschewing explanation ) is a terribly strong pull for most folks. Especially most poets.

This shouldn't be surprising. Most published American poets are progressives. Progressives are Puritans (generally sans all the trappings of religion). Purtians, as we know from grammar-school history, love to tell us what to do without explaning why.

So they publish what they know. They publish "how they want to be" -- that is, they publish and promote work that is inherently didactic -- that is, gnomic-lyric poetry.


upinVermont said...

Hey G.M.,

Just read your "fark" post.

Did I mention that I not only 'read' narrative poetry but write it too? It's not dead.

I agree with you, though, the lyric poetry is the ultimate "received form" - at this point.

There's just so much sameness to all the poetry being written. It's really remarkable how few poets are taking any risks. It's like the Victorian era all over again, only we're awash in a sea of free verse poetry - horizon to horizon.

God, so much poetry is so boring nowadays.

G. M. Palmer said...


I like you more and more every time I read from you.

You aren't going to AWP next month, are you?

I'll trade you my longest narrative poem for your longest. Email me!

What are your thoughts on the Declaration post?

upinVermont said...

//You aren't going to AWP next month, are you?//

No... I have to keep making money. A carpenter's wage is a paltry sum.

My longest narrative poem is at:


But if you would rather have it by E-Mail, I can do that too.

You can E-Mail me your poetry at upinVermontat anISPcalledyahoodotcom. I look forward to reading it.

And I just read your Declaration page.

I have to say G.M., I've never been one for the fight. If the vast majority of poets want to write lyric poems and if there are enough readers to support the journals that publish them - then good for them. I'm not about to tell anyone how they should write or what they should write.

On my own blog I try to avoid antagonistic rhetoric. If I can help a few readers appreciate the complexities in great poetry, then (for me) that's the better part of valor.

But ultimately, it's not free verse or lyric poetry that gets me down. It's bad poetry. It's the sameness and mediocrity. There's not a single living poet who sets me back on my heels. *That's* what gets me down.

As for me, I just want to write great poetry and find an audience to read it.