Thursday, March 18, 2010

Duffy giving Beckham a Break?

Oh, now this--this is funny.

When a 34 year-old athlete tears his Achilles Tendon, it is not comparable to the death of a hero in one of the greatest literary works in history. In fact, the comparison pretty much defecates all over the greatness of the original work. It’s pretty much like romanticizing a 55 year-old man’s colonoscopy.

The "poem" in question.

Quite a fall for Carol Ann Duffy to idolize David Beckham, if you ask me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Strong Verse, Part 5: Fun+Van+Full=Strong

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

As a dutiful and motivated undergraduate, I took a senior seminar entitled History and Theory of the Novel. I still have an incomplete in the class because I never liked the idea of journaling. I suppose I'm paying that back with the blog (hey Professor Wegner, can I have a passing grade now?).

Anyway, no class on novel theory would be complete without the pillars of Lukacs and Bakhtin. What struck me then, as a young poet who had been interested in narrative and epic poetry for four or five years at that point was that Lukacs and especially Bakhtin put the novel against the epic and discussed what novels could do so well that epic literature couldn't--essentially contain the multivocal nature of a heterogenous society. The poet-contrarian in me noted that in a backhand way they were telling me what poetry did best--to join together voices in a homogenous society.

I view people as people. We come together and make our own culture and where we are together without division and where we work together without derision is where civilization grows. I am a big fan of civilization, ergo I am a big fan of poetry. I'm civilized, therefore I versify.

As a poet, though, I made the keen observation that, with the exception of poets, no one seems to give two shits about poetry. Upon further digging, I found that few poets even cared about poetry outside of their own work. As someone who would prefer the possibility of living off of his writing, this was troubling, at best.

Now as a student of history it was clear that not too long ago poets could live from their work--we all understand the historical significance of patrons, etc. and how the university system (and a bit of private charity) has essentially replaced that system in our new and improved egalitarian society. Good on us. 150 years ago or so, however, patronage was few and far between but you still had poets like Longfellow and Tennyson selling mountains of copies of their verse. Today, not so much.

It was then that I realized what the problem was. Not that it is difficult to "make a living" from poetry--it is and always has been--most writers of any genre work on spec for their entire lives and have other careers--as editors or teachers or doctors or lawyers--that pay the bills. Moreover, just because Tennyson and Longfellow (and Hardy and Kipling) pulled in the dough doesn't mean that Poe or Lazarus (or Hopkins or Dickinson) did.

The problem with poetry readership today lies in the fact that is referenced in this article from the Boston Globe. The problem is that poetry is not an everyday occurrence. Even The Writer's Almanac, arguably the only mass-media daily dose of poetry, only airs at odd times of the day--in the evenings or late mornings--not during rush hour when the most folks are listening to their local NPR stations. The Christian Science Monitor and The New Yorker, being the largest weekly outlets (followed by The Nation) have poetry but it's "hidden" in the pages--sort of like NPR and these fine weeklies have poetry out of a sense of duty but don't really wanna.

So, again, why?

Lukacs and Bahktin would argue that we are a fundamentally different people and no longer need poetry. Silliman did argue that movies, music, and TV take the place of fun and full-verse poetry in our lives.

I say bah. We're still the same people who figured out how to plant crops so that we didn't have to forage any more. Granted, we have a mountain more stored information but it's not like our brains got any faster or could hold any more stuff--we just have a larger collective memory (and exobrains). Literature, music, and art still work on our psyches in the same ways (indeed, this is why drama and film and television are so damnably powerful).

Therefore poetry is still of the same value.

So why does no one care?

Part of it has to do with poets. That's what Part 4 of the series tried to highlight. We must realize that if we are to have an audience we must understand and engage that audience. But poets are not all.

As I argued in Part 2 of this series, most of the problem with poetry--from the reader's side--is that there is no longer any poetry to care about. That's the "magic" of full verse. Fun verse is light and airy and joyful but not deep and van verse is too dense for most readers--they're turned off by the avant-garde and can't build attachments to light verse. But it's in full verse that we build lifetime readers of poetry.

Of course, they aren't going to read that full verse poetry without an introduction to the motifs and styles and tropes of poems that they can easily learn from fun verse and poetry will stagnate again without van verse.

Because we need all three for poetry to thrive, this series will focus on a poetics not of full verse, but a poetics of strong verse.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Strong Verse, Part 4: Notes Towards a Perfection of Poetry

So WAY back in 2006, when this blog was still a twinkle in its father's eye, I spent a summer in the family castle of Ezra Pound in Brunnenburg, Italy. Having read a great deal of Pound's zany poetry propaganda, I wrote a typography-heavy manifesto called "a poetics of perfection." For many obvious reasons, it and its accompanying chapbook remain hidden.

Culling through the exuberance to the meat of the argument, however, brings me to the next step in the development of a strong poetics. Some of it came through in the declaration, but this work on "Strong Verse" will, I hope, expand upon and update the declaration. Here I present the manifesto, with exuberance redacted:

How does one approach perfection in poetry?

1. Use Precise Language:

a) Do not use a thousand words when four will do.
Repetition is neutral. It is the unnecessary that is disgusting.

b) Do not use lukewarm language.
Use the word that means what you are saying. English is second only to German for usefulness in this regard.

c) If you must be ambiguous, do not be vague.
Have more than one meaning but don't be paralyzed by every possible meaning a reader works on your words. That is, open the doors of your language – don’t tear down the house.

2. Write With Authority

a) If it didn’t happen to you, write like it did.

b) Don't use "as if" or "seems" or any similar word or phrase.

3. Give the readers what they need.

a) Poetry should not require a secret decoder ring.
If your poetry requires esoteric references either explain them or make them clear enough that your readers can find the information on their own. One may need to read Hamlet in order to fully understand “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but at least Eliot tells us that.

b) Your readers care about your verse, not you.
They don’t care about your inside jokes, emotions, thoughts, knowledge, tantric ability, whatever. They care about the language that you have given the world.

c) Your readers don't know you.
Instead of expecting them to "get you" and your references, assume they don't know what you're talking about. Don't spoonfeed them but remember any deficiencies they will have. Allow them the chance to understand your work as you do.

4. Use Natural Language

a) Write the way you speak.

b) Poetry is linguistic art, but it is still language.
That is, your poetry must exist within a common idiom. If no one lives your language, your art has no impact.


1. Use Precise Language

2. Write With Authority

3. Give the Readers What They Need

4. Use Natural Language

I think perhaps (1) and (4) could be combined. As I said, this is a rehash from a 4-year-old ranty sort of work. The final two points I want to resurrect from Italian ashes are these:

Poets must be recalled from their staleness and complicity.
In Pound's time, this was the Edwardian-style of overstuffed, Longfellowian rhyming verse. Today it is the Silliman-school of versa-obscura and, conversely, his correct attacks on the so-called "School of Quietude." I have long maintained that non-avant poets need to broaden the horizon of their verse.

No one will read poetry until we are writing poems that are good to read.
Poets are caretakers of humanity, not forensic scientists of letters. We must write for the good of the world and not for the amusement of our own devices, ourselves, or our over-educated brains.

This, along with the three classifications of verse from last week (and the rest of the blog, really) will serve as a foundation for the forthcoming poetics of Strong Verse. Happy reading and happy writing, fellow poets!