Many people are terrified of the question “So what do you do?”
Everyone hates superficial judgement.
Is this not the greatest social fear?
And because 99% of our conscious lives are social, isn’t this the greatest fear of all?
To be judged superficially?
Poets hate the question, “So what do you do?” most of all—if they are bad poets.
Because to be a bad poet means precisely this: there’s no hiding from superficial judgment.
Here’s the first rule of good writing: it hides.
There’s only two social choices:
1. Superficial judgment.
2. Hiding from superficial judgment.
Nature does not fear superficial judgment: her genius is fully on display. Try and superficially judge me, she says. Here I am, for all to see.
Nature doesn’t hide.
So why do we?
Because we judge each other. Which nature doesn’t do.
The “social” doesn’t involve judgment; it is judgment.
Nature does not judge, nor is it judged—since Nature is, and it is the only thing which, in fact, is.
Poetry is not judged as good or bad.
Poetry, as not-Nature, as a social function, is bad and good judgment itself, on display.
The rise of “reality TV” reveals this most acutely: the producers of these shows, which depict simple social activities, whether cooking, music, dating, or wilderness survival, use the judgment/competition model to generate interest.
All humans do is judgmental.
We have no doubt that if a good poetry “reality show” were produced, strongly competitive in nature, it could be as successful as any of the other kinds of reality shows, and would help poetry in general.
Many, of course, would object, saying poetry is pure, and reflective, and has nothing to do with competition, and any judgment attached to poetry comes along afterwards and is apart from the poetry itself. To argue that poetry itself is judgmental is insane.
But this objection is insane. It ignores all that we have previously and rigorously said: Human social activity is judgmental and poetry belongs to human social activity; a person is either superficially judged, or not, and to escape superficial judgment is good and noble and pure, of course, but the escape is immersed in judgment—even if poetry were a harbor of escape in the sea of judgment, it still exists in that sea.
The social judgment aspect exists in the context of how we started the essay: “what do you do?” We are not talking about a single instance of an amateur writing a poem for a beloved to woo the beloved (but even this involves broad judgment: oh how sweet!); we speak of the act of writing poems again and again, as a vocation: a poet as professional calling. “What do you do?”
And just as people are wrong that poetry is not a judgmental activity, they are also wrong in their common belief that the poet and the poem exist in separate universes. They do not. I refer to the ubiquitous idea that a morally bad person can write good poetry. No. This is not true. They cannot.
And why is it not true? Why is it true that poet and poem are intimately related on a moral level?
Because writing poetry, if it is good poetry, and passes the test of being a real social activity, is reflected in what the poet “does,” in the most thoroughly social sense imaginable—as if that question asked at a cocktail party could be really answered in four or five hours. Here’s what I as a poet “really do,” as a person in life, without which there were no poetry produced by me at all.
Journalism is not poetry, and this is why Plato feared the poets, because good poetry hides, and journalism should do the very opposite. If someone asks what a journalist “does,” the answer is simple: observe and report facts—journalist and journalism will both be judged by their accuracy; any attempt to distort this simple formula should immediately raise suspicions.
When poetry acts like good journalism—not hiding, but reporting facts—it’s not good poetry for the simple reason that it is not poetry.
What the good journalist “does” is to observe well—and this involves being “on the ground,” talking to the important participants, etc. A complex, winding path is followed, and the hidden often has to be unearthed. A good journalist will produce good journalism, based on the simple question: “what did you do?”
Poetry is not journalism. However, a good poet “does” the same thing—observes and lives/exists in a winding path—and this is why, just as journalist and journalism are the same, poet and poem are the same.
Left wing critics fall over each other adoring the poetry of right wing poet Ezra Pound, saying the poet and the poetry are two different things. The politics aside—far left and far right are perhaps the same, etc—we mean to demolish this false idea once and for all.
The poet and poetry cannot be separated, in social, judgmental terms.
The poetry exists because of what the poet “does,” not as a poet, but as a person, traveling, observing, loving, hating.
In attempting to define what the poet does, we exclude the “bag of poet’s tools:” rhyme, meter, language, etc as a factor. We reject the notion of a poet/person over here and his or her impersonal technique over there.
This may elicit howls of protest from the formalists—but we are not denying technique (those who read Scarriet can attest to this); we are saying the fruitful use of technique has nothing to do with the availability of said technique, since all poets are more or less acquainted with technique—acquiring skill with technique cannot be separated from what the poet “does” as a human being on the winding path of life.
The record of a life which cannot be judged superficially—that is, poetry—uses poetic technique (rhyme, meter, etc) to keep ordinary judgement at bay. If the technique is not predictable and banal, it will ensure a life presented in a manner profound and original— since it runs parallel to, and supports, the prose meaning.
Nor has this anything to do with the tricky idea that “form is an extension of content,” except very indirectly—the poet (the poet’s life) is far more important to the poetry than “form” or “content,” and this is the common sense, yet radical, point we are making. The poet’s life propels its telling into modes which are emotionally rich—and all poetic technique is merely the material means to heighten emotion, so the poet regards emotion through the lens of technique without having to really focus on technique. He is reaching for the emotion he wants to reproduce, and uses rhyme, for instance, as naturally as if he were speaking a language or playing an instrument he knows how to play.
The really important thing is this: the poet must have a fortunate and unusual life, in which experience is not harsh enough to crush the organs of judgement, but on the other hand, the experience is not so vapid as to never stimulate them.
This criterion alone leaves few individuals who are suited to write excellent poetry.
The moral judgment is always short on information with which to judge, since the situation judged is often layered and complex—precisely since it is life, and not the moral judgment—yet both need one another for civil society and sanity to exist. The moral judgment and the layered private life will always be opposed and never be able to rest side by side in harmony. Moral art is where this oil and water are forced together, and this also makes the great poet rare, since the individual who is both highly judgmental and also a “sinner” in a deeply justified manner—many-layered, sensual, and private—is also rare.
We spoke of hiding: the unusual incidents of a poet’s life—complex, bizarre, lovelorn, passionate, odd, eerily fated and coincidental—must be expressed in a manner which hides the trivial particulars in a unique fog of philosophy—the fog resembling a cold, sustaining fire which comfortably incinerates all that is useless, mundane, haphazard, and boring, allowing the primitive aesthetic (as it lives in nature) to sparkle and gleam, to descend and rise into beautifying shadows, at the poet’s will.
If the poet recount starkly the most bizarre yet universal love affair the world has ever seen in a journalistic memoir, leaving in all the details—this purging will provide a resting place for journalistic sentiment and knowledge—and deprive the world of a wonder by stating it too clearly.
But if, instead, a particularly vivid incident from the poet’s life is hidden in poetry, in which the poetry expresses the hidden elements as hidden (by technique) but manifests to the reader the beauty, both moral and sensual, of the true incident, poetry will result.
At our inquisitive cocktail party, the question “so what do you do?” will not intimidate the poet—if he listens, and really responds, to the question.
We said poetry is not journalism, and yet they are both something people “do,” within, and in response to, nature.
We finish our essay with a poem by Paige Lewis, which we think successful—and note how the poem exists because of a certain winding path of experience and reflection practiced by the poet, almost as if she were a journalist and acute observation were the test of both her, as an actor, and her result (the poem), the two things existing as one—a journalist might even begin a report from the field with the key thematic line of her poem:
“We are only remembered as cruel when what we harm does not die quickly,”
but this morally ambiguous advice surely needs to “hide” in poetry to live; otherwise a journalist uttering this “truth” could find themselves labeled a murderer with a handy excuse.
Another thing to note is that without Andy being observed, we can easily imply the poem wouldn’t exist; that Andy is responsible for the poem, and that’s what a poet “does;” they let things in, just as the journalist does, who counts themselves lucky by what they happen to see: a boy who eats tadpoles!
You need to be on a winding path to see this, whether journalist or poet. You notice things: morally and clearly if you are a good journalist, amorally and cloudily if you are a good poet.
The poem below can be summed up:
Cruelty is quick, for what is caught is eaten. Kindness is hungry—and slow.
We want our journalists to be quick.
We want our poets to be slow.
And now we’ll close with the poem:
The River Reflects Nothing
This morning I watched a neighborhood
boy throw his model plane into the air
with his right hand and shoot it down
with the garden hose in his left. My
hands have never been that quick. When
my mother lived by the river. I lived
by the river. I knelt over it with legs red
and pebble-dented. Reaching in, I pulled
back empty fists and it always seemed
like a trick, those tadpoles all green-glinting
and shadows, but Andy could catch them,
could make the squirming real in his
palm before he swallowed each whole.
We are only remembered as cruel when
what we harm does not die quickly. I
don’t know how long it took the tadpoles,
but I know I was trying to say I’m sorry
when I leaned down, pressed my mouth
against his stomach and said, If you’d
just let me catch you, I’d let you go.
(“The River Reflects Nothing” by Paige Lewis, published in Ninth Letter)