AROUND THE POETRY WEB PART 2

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The World to the Poet: Who the hell are you?

Alexandra Petri, on her Washington Post blog, had the following to say about poetry, and it does pack a certain punch:

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco said that America’s story is his story.

If that’s the case, America should be slightly concerned. Mr. Blanco is a walking example of the American dream — as he eloquently puts it, “the American story is in many ways my story — a country still trying to negotiate its own identity, caught between the paradise of its founding ideals and the realities of its history, trying to figure it out, trying to ‘become’ even today — the word “hope” as fresh on our tongues as it ever was.”

He has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.

I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.

Still I think there is a question to be asked. You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?

Can a poem still change anything?

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.

Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.

Or is this too harsh?

We know, we think, from high school, the sort of thing a poem is. It is generally in free verse, although it could be a sonnet, if it wanted. It describes something very carefully, or it makes a sound we did not expect, and it has deep layers that we need to analyze. We analyze it. We analyze the heck out of it. How quaint, we think, that people express themselves in this way. Then we put it back in the drawer and go about our lives.

The kind of poetry they read to you at poetry readings and ladle in your direction at the Inaugural is — well, it’s all very nice, and sounds a lot like a Poem, but — it has changed nothing. No truly radical art form has such a well-established grant process.

I understand that this is the point when someone stands up on a chair and starts to explain that poetry is the strainer through which we glimpse ourselves and hear the true story of our era. But is it? You do not get the news from poems, as William Carlos Williams said. Full stop. You barely get the news from the news.

All the prestige of poetry dates back to when it was the way you got the most vital news there is — your people’s stories. “The Iliad.” “The Odyssey.” “Gilgamesh.” All literature used to be poetry. But then fiction splintered off. Then the sort of tale you sung could be recorded and the words did not have to spend any time outside the company of their music if they did not want to. We have movies now that are capable of presenting images to us with a precision that would have made Ezra Pound keel over. All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better. But naturally we still have government-subsidized poets. Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.

“Poetry is dead,” playwright Gwydion Suilebhan tweeted Monday. “What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.” There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible. The constraints of meter have long been abandoned. What is left? It is a parroting of something that used to be radical. It is about as useful as the clavichord. There is no “Howl” possible or “Song of Myself.” There is no “The Waste Land.”

As someone who loves print books, I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong. I want to hear the case for poetry. It is something that you read in school and that you write in school. But it used to be that if you were young and you wanted to Change Things with your Words, you darted off and wrote poetry somewhere. You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution. Now that is the last thing you do.

These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it. But if you want a lot of people to read it, or at least the Right Interested Persons, there are a few choked channels of Reputable Publications. Or you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks.

Or am I being too harsh?

Something similar could be said of journalism, after all.

And whenever people say this about journalism, they note that people have an insatiable hunger for news. Journalism in its present form may not continue, but journalism will. It will have to. Otherwise where will the news come from?

And this might be the silver lining for poets. The kind of news you get from poems, as William Carlos Williams has it, must come from somewhere. And there is a similar hunger for poetry that persists. We get it in diluted doses in song lyrics. Song lyrics are incomplete poems, as Sondheim notes in the book of his own. If it is complete on the page, it makes a shoddy lyric. But there is still wonderful music to be found in those words. We get it in rap. If we really want to read it, it is everywhere. Poetry, taken back to its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen.

But after the inaugural, after Richard Blanco’s almost seventy lines of self-reflection and the use of phrases like “plum blush” — which sounded like exactly what the phrase “poem” denotes to us now — I wonder what will become of it.

I don’t know where the words that will define us next will come from. But from Poetry Qua Poetry With Grants And Titles? Hope may be as fresh on our tongues as it ever was.  But is poetry?

Here’s probably the most damning observation, because it’s specific, mundane, and true:

The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit.

About fifty years ago, the production of poetry entered college—and is still there.

This quote is troubling, too, but less so, since it is not really specific, mundane, and true, so much as speculation about the way poetry used to be.

Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.

Poetry will always exist in a misty past with names like Homer and Dante and Shakespeare hovering and glowing, and a more recent past with names like Whitman (yawping in that mist) and Dickinson (whispering).  As recently as the ’60s, we had the iconic Robert Frost reading at the Kennedy inauguration.  That’s in the misty mist, too. Fame hangs back in the past, accusing—with its haunting voice like the sound of many waters—poetry today.

Petri’s chief complaint, however is this: “Can a poem still change anything?” and here we get the revolutionary Marxist angle:

As someone who loves print books, I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong. I want to hear the case for poetry. It is something that you read in school and that you write in school. But it used to be that if you were young and you wanted to Change Things with your Words, you darted off and wrote poetry somewhere. You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution. Now that is the last thing you do.

Talking revolution in cafes?   Really?  This is what poetry is for Petri?

When she writes, “These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it,” doesn’t she know about communism’s “long march through the institutions,” or that “everyone can write” “revolutionary” sentiments, too.   When she identifies poetry with “revolution” and “change,” her critique becomes even more quaint, if that’s possible, than poetry, her subject.

Sure, “change” may be what we want, but when it’s characterized by “You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution,” she’s pumping mist into mist.

Petri, in romanticing “barbaric yawp,” probably doesn’t realize what a bookworm Whitman was, and that as far as his fame goes, he was barely read for years in America, and his reputation was rescued by other bookworms (Emerson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, F.O. Matthiessen, numerous college professors) and there was no “revolutionary” meetings in “cafes” when it came to Whitman.

Scarriet readers are up-to-speed on all of this.  Here’s just one recent example (note the use of actual poems):

Edna Millay and Edgar Lee Masters: They Suck!

Petri wants “change,” but how does she know poetry doesn’t exist to prevent “change?”  Is change, willy-nilly, all the time, what we want?

Now let us look at a typical MFA graduate’s rebuttal to Petri:

Dear Alexandra Petri,

I am writing in response to your attack on American poetry  in your Washington Post blog today.  Throughout your piece, you forward assumptions based on your own lack of exposure and allow these to stand as truth. I know it is just an opinion blog, but people have been convinced by less, and despite your “blog voice,” I sense you might really believe what you are saying. I will also assume you are sincere in stating: “I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong.” So I am glad to let you know that poetry is fine. In fact, it is thriving. Let’s look at your charges:

“You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?”

Your generalization does not specify what kind of “change” you mean. Literal political change? That’s what you go on to suggest. Along with “revolution.”

Be serious. Congress can barely do that. Look what hell the president has to go through to do anything. But you attack American poets. You name none of them except the one you happened to see on TV, and you suggest his whole career is irrelevant to everyone because it is irrelevant to you. And apparently it is irrelevant to you because he does not live up to some high school ideal.

A requirement of political change is too much to ask of any artist. Kurt Vonnegut said in 2003: “every respectable artist in this country was against the war [in Vietnam]. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

There’s also Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky: “Ever since art has existed, mankind has always strived to influence the world through it. But on the whole it has always failed to have much social or political effect. I think now, looking around me and also looking back, art cannot really affect social development. It can only influence the development of minds. It can work on our intelligence and on our spirit. But for changing things, there are greater social forces than art. After all, practically all human endeavor has as its aim the changing of the world.” (thanks Jason Bredle)

You claim poetry isn’t “vital.” I will try to explain. A sponge and dish soap are vital to me because they make change in the kitchen. To me, at least, poetry is vital because it has a similar effect on the life of my mind. Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, once said that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost never enacted legislation. But he continues to provide clarity. Poetry is very helpful to people for whom superstition is not enough.

More than 2,000 books of poetry are published each year in the U.S. But how many of these did you account for before making your harsh judgments? Have you read Timothy Donnelly? Anne Carson? D.A. Powell? Rae Armantrout? Dana Levin? Nathaniel Mackey? That’s off the top of my head. Here are forty from last year alone. And thirty from the year before that. And the year before that. I could go on.

Poetry changes things every day for many thousands of people in this country. (You claim “six.” I guess that is a “joke.”) So many of these poets are devoted not only to their craft, but to publishing magazines, to starting presses, to finding their way in a thriving, diverse, multifaceted, multi-talented, international community. You say contemporary poetry “is a limp and fangless thing.” Have you read Skin Inc.? Our Andromeda? Black Box? Fragment of the Head of a Queen? The Glimmering Room? Angle of Yaw? Unless these are the kinds of fangs you have in mind, in which case, I’m sure I could drum somebody up for that too.

Your most offensive comment, though, is your condescending assertion about Mr. Blanco’s career and claim to be an example of the “American dream”:

 “He has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.”

I hope we’ve established that poetry is far from obsolete, and regardless, I know that no reasonable thinker on these matters would conflate popularity and artistic viability. Rejecting a whole genre, too, is critically insolvent unless you’ve experienced it to the point where you distinguish its good parts from its bad. Your complaint isn’t much different from complaints like “I hate hip-hop” or “I hate country”—they are always generalizations, and are almost always made by people who haven’t spent enough time listening. Which makes them irrelevant. Obsolete, even.

Yet you’ve got Mr. Blanco’s picture up on the Post, making him look like a shamed politician for performing an incredible honor—and not one the poet ever would’ve dreamed up for himself.

Lastly, you comment that in poetry these days, “you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks. Or am I being too harsh? Something similar could be said of journalism, after all.” Yes, something very similar could be said for journalism, and I don’t just mean in your piece—provocatively titled “Is poetry dead?”—which, I will reiterate, got a surprising green light despite its failure to include a single contemporary poet other than one who just spoke at a Presidential Inauguration.

But there are many, many more, and a very small percentage receive grants. We are here, and we plate your dinners. We teach your kids. We slave over works we know will receive no wide audience. We shoe your horses. We work in all kinds of offices. We write about all of this and none of it, and some of us do it really, really well. We find ways to make a living and still practice an art form that yields clarity and meaning. How is that not Blanco’s “American dream” in every sense?

Thank You,

John Deming

Editor in Chief Coldfront

MFA Poetry The New School

BA Journalism University of New Hampshire

John Deming hasn’t really made a rebuttal; naming poets and magazines and comparing poetry to a kitchen sponge is quaint and touching, but intellectually weak.  “We teach your kids.”  What does this mean?  It’s like saying, “Poets sometimes throw a football around the backyard. So there.”

Specifics.  We need specifics.

Now as to Blanco’s inaugural poem: it’s a list of observations (some of them very, very nice: the bird on the clothesline, the references to his parents) which seek a feeling of unity in the many, but there is no poetry; the desire for unity is stated, but not understood, the observations are just a list—which could be jumbled up in any order without affecting the whole.

We can’t say there’s a problem with poetry—if we don’t know what it is.

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7 Comments

  1. marcusbales said,

    January 27, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Identity Poetical
    For Richard Blanco and Lewis Turco

    Identity Poet:
    I am the very model of identity poetical,
    My bio and my craftsmanship are blankly antithetical.
    The more that I’m selected for my principal ethnicity
    The easier it is to gauge political felicity.
    I sort my varied heritage to pander and propitiate;
    I foreground this or background that: I emphasize and vitiate.
    And if you ever query me for qualities or references
    I’ll happily supply you with specific gender preferences.

    Chic Chorus:
    And if you ever query him for qualities or references
    He’ll happily supply you with specific gender preferences.
    He’ll happily supply you with specific gender preferences.

    Identity Poet:
    However you may orient you’ll find my echolalia
    Reliably in tune no matter who is inter alia;
    I’ll be a cheerful carnivore or modest vegetarian,
    Or find a distant ancestor Hawaiian or Bulgarian.

    Chic Chorus:
    He’ll be a cheerful carnivore or modest vegetarian,
    Or find a distant ancestor Hawaiian or Bulgarian.

    Identity Poet:
    Whenever I convince you I’m a mirror that’s reflecting you
    You’ll get a nice warm fuzzy from the image I’m projecting you;
    However odd your group may be, its ancestry meandering,
    I’ll find in mine appropriate identities for pandering;
    However far from mainstream sex your inclinations vexed you all
    My own will echo yours in ways surprisingly contextual;
    I’m pleased to be whatever I can be that I’ve inherited,
    So long as you don’t ask me what my poetry has merited.

    Chic Chorus:
    He’s pleased to be whatever he can be that he’s inherited,
    So long as you don’t ask him what his poetry has merited.

    Identity Poet:
    Since craftsmanship and excellence are both let go to pot right now
    My multiethnic poses make my readings very hot right now.
    I cut and pasted attributes until one day eventually
    I found that I was reading very nearly Presidentially.

    Chic Chorus:
    He cut and pasted attributes until one day eventually
    He found that he was reading very nearly Presidentially.

    Identity Poet:
    I write my grants explaining how I’m disadvantaged fearfully —
    They expiate their guilt and then I spend their money cheerfully;
    I copy out the grants in lines that ragged rightness glorified
    And know I’m doing something right since formalists are horrified.
    I’m easy if the audience is phallical or yonical
    So long as what I claim to be is taken as canonical;
    Transgender, straight, or gay I came to read to, not to marry ’em —
    I don’t care who they sleep with if they’ve paid my honorarium.

    Chic Chorus:
    Yes, straight or gay or trans, he came to read to, not to marry ’em —
    He won’t care who they sleep with if they’ve paid his honorarium.

    Identity Poet:
    There’s really nothing to it, it’s a metaphor, not mystery,
    Since everyone’s a victim in the distant mists of history.
    My claims for art are like my antecedents: theoretical;
    I am the very model of identity poetical,

    Chic Chorus:
    Our claims for art are like our antecedents: theoretical;
    We are the very models of identity poetical.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      Bales,

      You’ve outdone yourself!

      It’s honor to have your work on Scarriet—we are not worthy.

      Where did you learn to write like this?

      In an MFA program?

      I’d like to do an interview with you for our readers.

      Please talk to me about it!

      Tom

      • noochinator said,

        January 27, 2013 at 4:48 pm

        Yes yes yes yes, yonical!
        That’s what I want to be!
        I’m with Judy Chicago:
        The yon will set you free!

  2. January 27, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    On the occasion of his 70th birthday (August 25, 1988), the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was asked by The New York Times to write an article. He replied with the following poem.

    Beauty and Truth Revisited

    “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
    — John Keats

    I.

    Approaching now the fabled Biblic age,
    Again I take in hand my runeful pen
    To grace, perhaps disgrace, your grayish page,
    O, New York Times; to tell in tuneless rhymes
    The mournful numbers Threescore Years and Ten.

    Full half a century past I fed on Keats
    (And Plato); and their joint Truth-Beauty song
    Pierced me, that I leapt with recognition,
    Made it my creed, my guide to Right and Wrong.
    As decades rolled, a certain cynicism
    Would now and then invade; I compromised,
    I vacillated, learned to think white lies,
    And toyed with smart esthetic definitions.
    Socrates would have understood; this straying
    From the True Path was most deliberately
    And cleverly taught me by my wiser Elders —
    Not teachers, parents, but that cast of players
    Who practice that other art of Politics.
    I am far from being a politician,
    Fiercely proud to bear the name Musician;
    Yet I
    am a political man, I do protest,
    In the sense that I am, too, a religious man.
    For I count the artist to be a citizen,
    A politic contributor to the art
    Of living together in this lovely land
    And on this trembling planet. In that sense,
    The religious man is equally a part
    Of a polity, but one who understands
    That the polity shares in something greater far
    Than we can yet conceive. For want of a clearer
    Conception of the inconceivable,
    Beginninglessness, the lineage of a star,
    The key, the Ultimate Creative Mind,
    He calls it God. Thus Politics and God:
    Between those two concerns, somehow aligned,
    I, an artist, always reached out to both,
    In the certainty that humankind
    Could now invent peace; would recognize
    Greed for what it is; abolish war.

    II.

    And so I have lived my long and varied life
    Happily housed in music (work and play)
    And in close-held, heart-bound family
    (Including my most precious, long-loved wife),
    And teaching (which is learning) and in countless
    Loving friends. I have no grave complaints.
    I feel that I have lived five lives or so
    Already. By the grace of God. Although
    I am not quite content to die just yet:
    There still remains so much to be composed.
    But if I did indeed cease life today
    I would not beat my fists against the Fates.
    For I am the luckiest, and most blessed, and
    Most grateful person I have ever met.

    III.

    Then why, today, do I find myself a-grumble?
    Perhaps because I’ve just read through the Times,
    And after fifty fighting, singing years
    Of seeking truth and beauty, nothing’s changed.
    Invent peace? Cut greed? Abolish war?
    Ah, woe is politico-religious me!
    August Gray Lady, art thou so unkind
    To tell me tales of such hypocrisy?
    The stinking smoke from George’s burning Bush
    Offends the civil mind, and stings the eye
    To acid tears. The very angels cry:
    “They lie!” Yes, wingéd witnesses, they lie.

    And as we watch the wheatfields turn to ash,
    While sinister silos harbor foul intents
    Under the offensive pseudonym Defense,
    The brain retreats from Keats, and turns to Nashe,
    To Thomas Nashe:
    In a Time of Pestilence.
    “Strength stoops unto the grave,
    Worms feed on Hector brave;
    Swords may not fight with fate;
    Earth still holds ope her gate;
    Come, Come! The bells do cry.
    I am sick, I must die.
    Lord have mercy on us!”

    Pray mercy in this Time of Pestilence.
    For even the Gipper must die, and so must I.
    But when I go, I pray there may be heard
    An all-embracing, brave four-letter word
    I blush to name, so oft do we abuse it.
    But let the letters speak; and bye-and-bye
    We may no longer hesitate to use it.

    The letters four are these: L for Learning;
    O for Oneness on this fruitful sphere;
    And then a V for Verity (Keats, be near!);
    The E — but not for Ends that scoff at means,
    Nor the military-industrial complex our Dwight D.
    Warned us not to call Economy —
    No! but a highly more courageous E
    That sings Equality — all, now, and here.

    These four spell (Oh say it, what the hell!)
    Love. Love, the synthesis of Keats’
    Great syllogism, where truth with beauty meets,
    For truth condones no Iran-Contragate,
    And beauty will abide no Holocaust;
    And truth despises Deaver, mourns for Meese,
    Chokes for Chile, prays Managua’s peace.
    While love falls ill, a wounded albatross.

    IV.

    Beauty is Truth is Art is Love: we learn
    From Keats’ Nightingale and Grecian Urn
    All we know on earth, and all we need to…
    …Oh? And is that truly so?
    And is there nothing more for us to learn?
    Like implementing Love, playing it out;
    Treasuring (not merely mouthing) truth;
    Sensing beauty, rather than selling it;
    Growing up, becoming the women and men
    Who can accept, acknowledge, who they are;
    Who can take the Four-letter Word and make it live
    By learning to give, to give, to give, to give.

    Fairfield, Conn., Aug. 8, 1988

  3. Drew said,

    August 9, 2014 at 2:20 am

    I just saw M. Bales riff on Gilbert & Sullivan above.
    Wow. It’s all happening at Scarriet…

    And yes – we are not worthy…

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      We see Bales on Facebook a great deal, where he wastes a lot of breath pontificating. Bales changes to a beautiful princess in the land of Scarriet.

  4. noochinator said,

    June 24, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    “Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.”

    Postal

    Amy, I was almost run down by a car
    after buying my lunch today.
    It was the postal police.
    I was almost hit by the postal police.
    This is not a joke.
    There is a police force dedicated to the postal service
    (the US Postal Service, mind you).
    They race around in cars,
    they chase down postal villains,
    investigate postal crimes
    unearth hidden postal agendas.
    Conspiracies that they bring to their postal lieutenants
    who summarily tell them to let it go, to stop obsessing,
    take a vacation, some time off, you’re too close to it,
    it happens to the best postal policeman, that’s what the lieutenants say.
    (Potato soup and a chicken sandwich, if you’re curious).
    I think you should apply, Amy.
    I think you would do well.
    I think they would give you a hat.
    Something jaunty that can handle your hair expertly.
    You’d cover the hat with stamps from every country in the world
    They would give you a pea coat, I think.
    Like the one that you’ve already got, but more policey.
    You would look fucking great in that coat.
    Not every country, mind you.
    Just the ones that sound like they have decent views
    of the country side
    and a healthy attitude towards outgoing, independent women.

    B.C. Edwards


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