THE SKITTERY POEM

The skittery poem is not new, so let’s stop pretending it is.

The attempt to create movements, schools, and trends is antithetical to art and poetry—this is what the narrow critic does, and when the poet lets himself be defined as such, he is doomed.

The art itself—what its actual material existence can do most aptly and profitably in whatever circumstance it happens to find itself—should determine the poet’s path, not some narrow, blockheaded trend.

It’s not that the art-trend is bad; it’s not real.

If you want a solid, level-headed, “scholarly” analysis of The Skittery Poem, Tony Hoagland’s piece in Poetry from a few years ago is probably the best: “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.”

The key here is “fear of narrative.”

Hoagland quotes Carolyn Forche:

Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for the promise of successful closure.

This is nicely said.  Yet, here is a classic case of the poet forced to surrender her craft, which happens to include “narrative,” to a vague formula: “the history of our time.”

Let us assume that this broad, critical term, “history of our time,” has meaning, and somehow does inhibit “story” and “progress,” “completion,” and “closure”—more than other historic “times.”  Should a poet’s ability to compose a poem ever be diminished by historical theory?   If so, why?  Why should a moment of history—even if we can prove this moment’s legitimacy in imposing itself on art’s ability to do what it can do—take precedence over the potential achievement of the poem?  Should poets surrender to moments of history?  Is that what art, in itself, or, over time, is meant to do?

But can we assume that the “history of our time” somehow negates “progress” or “closure?”   First of all, how can any “historic time” be more sensitive to “closure” than other “historic times?”

Or imagine, for a moment, how “progress” was viewed by countless previous ages fraught with superstition, wars, and plagues?  How many poets, in retrospect, should have given up “progress” in their poems?  Would that have been proper?  Would such a fiat have been good for poetry, or good for mankind?  So why should we put that yoke on ourselves?  To put it simply: history isn’t finished, is it?

We also have the “information overload” argument: TV!  The internet!  Technology!  How can we have “narrative,” when we are bombarded with so much trivial and vastly changing information?  But didn’t 13th century libraries have a lot of information?

Are citizens today really that informed, or not informed, as the case may be, compared to other ages, so that we can definitely say, “OK, you should write this kind of poetry?”

Who has the authority to say “our time,” or “television” validates, in any way, a certain kind of poetry?   Why should this idea ever be taken seriously?  Isn’t it finally just social science babble, the droning of a half-informed pundit enjoying the sound of their own voice?

Do you think your world is that different, poet?  Are you sure you are not just whining?

Now, to be fair: the poets of The Skittery Poem no doubt believe they are expanding poetic expression, even if they don’t buy the “history of our time” stuff—so yes, the movement could be just about the poem and what it can do.

Aesthetically, narrative can be a problematic burden, its anchor just too weighty. 

But this problem is not new—every writer since the beginning of writing itself has had to ponder how much, and what kind of narrative is necessary.  It has nothing to do with the time we live in.  I wonder how many Poetry MFA students have read Plato’s Symposium, which begins by staring narrative right in the face:

Concerning the things about which you ask to be informed I believe that I am not ill-prepared with an answer. For the day before yesterday I was coming from my own home at Phalerum to the city, and one of my acquaintance, who had caught a sight of me from behind, hind, out playfully in the distance, said: Apollodorus, O thou Phalerian man, halt! So I did as I was bid; and then he said, I was looking for you, Apollodorus, only just now, that I might ask you about the speeches in praise of love, which were delivered by Socrates, Alcibiades, and others, at Agathon’s supper. Phoenix, the son of Philip, told another person who told me of them; his narrative was very indistinct, but he said that you knew, and I wish that you would give me an account of them. Who, if not you, should be the reporter of the words of your friend? And first tell me, he said, were you present at this meeting?

Your informant, Glaucon, I said, must have been very indistinct indeed, if you imagine that the occasion was recent; or that I could have been of the party.

Why, yes, he replied, I thought so.

Impossible: I said. Are you ignorant that for many years Agathon has not resided at Athens; and not three have elapsed since I became acquainted with Socrates, and have made it my daily business to know all that he says and does. There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. I thought that I ought to do anything rather than be a philosopher.

Well, he said, jesting apart, tell me when the meeting occurred.
In our boyhood, I replied, when Agathon won the prize with his first tragedy, on the day after that on which he and his chorus offered the sacrifice of victory.

Then it must have been a long while ago, he said; and who told you-did Socrates?

No indeed, I replied, but the same person who told Phoenix;-he was a little fellow, who never wore any shoes Aristodemus, of the deme of Cydathenaeum. He had been at Agathon’s feast; and I think that in those days there was no one who was a more devoted admirer of Socrates. Moreover, I have asked Socrates about the truth of some parts of his narrative, and he confirmed them. Then, said Glaucon, let us have the tale over again; is not the road to Athens just made for conversation? And so we walked, and talked of the discourses on love; and therefore, as I said at first, I am not ill-prepared to comply with your request, and will have another rehearsal of them if you like. For to speak or to hear others speak of philosophy always gives me the greatest pleasure, to say nothing of the profit. But when I hear another strain, especially that of you rich men and traders, such conversation displeases me; and I pity you who are my companions…  (Jowett, trans.)

Narrative is based on memory, but all poems, even those that would discard narrative entirely in order to live in a vivid present, have memory as a poem, since they are temporal. Narrative is always in issue, then. 

As Dante puts it in the very beginning of his Vita Nuova:

In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read, there is a heading, which says: ‘Incipit vita nova: Here begins the new life’. Under that heading I find written the words that it is my intention to copy into this little book: and if not all, at least their essence.

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9 Comments

  1. David said,

    February 21, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Or imagine, for a moment, how “progress” was viewed by countless previous ages fraught with superstition, wars, and plagues? How many poets, in retrospect, should have given up “progress” in their poems? Would that have been proper? Would such a fiat have been good for poetry, or good for mankind? So why should we put that yoke on ourselves?

    By the same token, the poet should resist the yoke of “progress” being put upon himself. Reactionary poets have souls, too.

  2. marcusbales said,

    February 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Tony Hoagland writes: “We have yielded so much authority to so many agencies, in so many directions, that we are nauseous. When we go to a doctor we entrust ourselves to his or her care blindly. When we see bombs falling on television, we assume someone else is supervising. We allow “experts” and “leaders” to make decisions for us because we already possess more data than we can manage and, at the same time, we are aware that we don’t know enough to make smart choices. Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself. In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like—and is—an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest; the refusal to conform to a grammar of experience which is being debased by all-powerful public systems. This refusal was, we recall, one of the original premises of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.”

    This seems pretty reasonable to me. My response to the people writing that skittery kind of poetry, who have the ‘attitude’ Hoagland identifies, though, is “Oh, grow up!” This is not merely ‘skittery’ poetry, it’s tweenie poetry — the poetry of people who are starting to ‘get’ sexuality intellectually but who haven’t hit intellectual puberty yet. The response to the world that this kind of poetry offers is similar to that of the little girls dressed for a sexuality well beyond their ages by their mothers. These poems have no connection to any authentic vitality; instead they offer the nasty provocation by the pre-pubescent. It creeps out adults — at least adults whose tastes are for the adult world. One wonders abotu the editors who sort of pervily wink and nod and award prizes to this kind of thing.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Bales,

      Your intellectual/sexual analogy of skittery poetry as tweenie poetry: nice!

      I don’t know if Hoagland’s formula is reasonable, however. Compare a poor soul today “entrusting themselves to a doctor” and “watching bombs fall on TV” and allowing “experts” to make decisions for them to someone living in Italy during the Black Death. Who is more helpless in the face of those things which supposedly engenger ‘skitteriness?’

      Tom

      • marcusbales said,

        February 22, 2012 at 6:17 pm

        You’re right, I was too much in agreement with this:

        “Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself.”

        that I let Mr Hoagland slide this bit of bullshit past me:

        “In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like—and is—an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest…”.

        The notion of “Well, then, I’ll hurt myself — that’ll show them!” is the essential tweenie attitude, isn’t it: the tweenie is aware of a problem only vaguely understood but deeply resentful of his or her own combination of lack of information and lack of control. It is the sheer tweenieness of ” the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making” that for me thoroughly invalidates the approach of both the skittery poets and tweenies themselves.

        With tweenies, though, you can intervene and help them grow up. What is to be done about skittery poets?

        • thomasbrady said,

          February 22, 2012 at 7:09 pm

          The notion of “Well, then, I’ll hurt myself — that’ll show them!” is the essential tweenie attitude,

          LOL Yes.

          • R said,

            February 22, 2012 at 11:38 pm

            A Strange Wild Song

            Lewis Carroll

            He thought he saw an Elephant,
            That practised on a fife:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A letter from his wife.
            ‘At length I realise,’ he said,
            The bitterness of Life!’

            He thought he saw a Buffalo
            Upon the chimney-piec e:
            He looked again, and found it was
            His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
            ‘Unless you leave this house,’ he said,
            “I’ll send for the Police!’

            He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
            That questioned him in Greek:
            He looked again, and found it was
            The Middle of Next Week.
            ‘The one thing I regret,’ he said,
            ‘Is that it cannot speak!’

            He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
            Descending from the bus:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A Hippopotamus .
            ‘If this should stay to dine,’ he said,
            ‘There won’t be much for us!’

            He thought he saw a Kangaroo
            That worked a coffee-mill:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A Vegetable-Pi ll.
            ‘Were I to swallow this,’ he said,
            ‘I should be very ill!’

            He thought he saw a Coach-and-Fo ur
            That stood beside his bed:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A Bear without a Head.
            ‘Poor thing,’ he said, ‘poor silly thing!
            It’s waiting to be fed!’

            He thought he saw an Albatross
            That fluttered round the lamp:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A Penny-Postag e Stamp.
            ‘You’d best be getting home,’ he said:
            ‘The nights are very damp!’

            He thought he saw a Garden-Door
            That opened with a key:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A Double Rule of Three:
            ‘And all its mystery,’ he said,
            ‘Is clear as day to me!’

            He thought he saw a Argument
            That proved he was the Pope:
            He looked again, and found it was
            A Bar of Mottled Soap.
            ‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
            ‘Extinguishe s all hope!’

  3. marcusbales said,

    February 23, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Oh that my lungs
    Anonymous, 1617

    Oh that my lungs could bleat like buttered peas;
    But bleating of my lungs hath caught the itch,
    And are as mangy as the Irish Seas
    That offer wary windmills to the rich.

    I grant that rainbows being lulled asleep
    Snort like a woodknife in a lady’s eyes;
    Which makes her grieve to see a pudding creep,
    For creeping puddings only please the wise.

    Not that a hard-rowed herring should presume
    To swing a tythe pig in a cateskin purse
    For fear the hailstones which did fall at Rome
    By lessening of the fault should make it worse.

    For ‘tis most certain winter woolsacks grow
    From geese to swans if men could keep them so,
    Till that the sheep-shorn planets gave the hint
    To pickle pancakes in Geneva print.

    Some men there were that did suppose the sky
    Was made of carbonadoed antidotes;
    But my opinion is: a whale’s left eye
    Need not be coined for all King Harry’s groats.

    The reason’s plain, for Charon’s western barge
    Running a tilt at the subjunctive mood
    Beckoned to Bednal Green and gave him charge
    To fasten padlocks with Antarctic food.

    The end will be that mill-ponds must be laded
    To fish for white pots at a country dance;
    So they that suffered wrong and were upbraided
    Shall be made friends in a left-handed trance.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 23, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      That’s not possible—oh no, no no!
      They couldn’t be Skittery 400 years ago!
      Skittery is now! And here’s my MFA…
      You see… that’s proof! I just received it…yesterday…

  4. noochinator said,

    February 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

    ANTIQUES

    Those quaint old worn-out words!
    Fashions in miniature:
    Pious, amiable, reserved, serene,
    Modest, sedate, demure!
    Mental poke-bonnets,—and no less effete,
    Why, even their meanings now are obsolete.

    Walter de la Mare


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