WHAT IS POETIC VALUE?

The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.

16 Comments

  1. vangiggles said,

    July 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    shelley did not sell his writing because, like you said, he had no readers. knott does, you dolt. shakespeare’s sonnets are very interesting, but he made his money from the plays. the sonnets were just fun for him, so what? i actually paid for my edition of them, which i read pre-internet, in addition to every play that i have ever seen i’ve paid good money to see, except for, i think…. a free in the park, amateur rendition of romeo and juliet. you are the crass, romantic fool, mr brady. i am just being honest. now, stop insulting bill knott’s poetry. he writes better than you, is much less obscure than you think. i’ve paid for most of his stuff as well, and would enjoy paying at least a tank of gas for a truly excellent new and collected hardback that he certainly deserves to have done, similar to others in his generation.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 18, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      van,

      But now we are back to the first question: Where do readers come from? How does a poet get readers?

      How am I insulting Bill Knott’s poetry?

      You are “just being honest.” Yes, I guess you are.

      You paid for a book. Good for you!

      Brady

  2. vangiggles said,

    July 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    since you need help reading your own post, this is an insult, a lame and somewhat veiled one, but nevertheless, an insult…..

    “Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

    His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      Van,

      I imagine all would have a different opinion of Bill’s poetry. That’s mine.

      Your entire animus seems premised on the fact that you once paid for Bill Knott’s poetry—and now others are reading it for free.

      Maybe you’re losing sleep over this. I’m not.

      Tom

  3. vangiggles said,

    July 18, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    your opinion is an insult. as a person who adheres directly to the truth, i rarely have trouble sleeping.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 18, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      An “insult?”

      Really?

      To say that someone has a “brilliant and original mind?” To say that some of this “brilliant and original mind’s” poems work and some don’t?

      That’s an “insult?”

      What’s your opinion?

      That he’s God and all his poems are great?

      • vangiggles said,

        July 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm

        i’ve already given my opinion. if i pay for something, it must be good. i’m rarely disappointed by something i’ve paid for. that would be stupid.

        “brilliant and original mind but….” is like saying he’s a weird guy who writes okay poems. don’t bother.

        you are not being sincere. you don’t adhere to the truth. that’s not what you are about. you are more about provocation. provocation is not really the province of truth.

        • powersjq said,

          March 15, 2014 at 6:54 pm

          I think in this instance you may have confused adherence to the truth with having accidentally superglued some naive opinions you borrowed from the internet to your face.

  4. noochinator said,

    July 18, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    The below list is from Wikipedia
    Of published books by poet Bill Knott—
    I assume he got paid for at least some of them—
    Yes, poets don’t usually make a lot,

    But the books can still be purchased,
    At Amazon and similar sites—
    Or read on a screen, but I tend to think
    That paper beats screen dead to rights:

    The Naomi Poems: Book One: Corpse and Beans (1968), Follett, under the pseudonym ‘St. Geraud’

    Aurealism: A Study (1969), Salt Mound Press. (chapbook)

    Auto-Necrophilia; The _____ Poems, Book 2 (1971), Big Table Pub., ISBN 0-695-80188-0

    Nights of Naomi (1972), Big Table (chapbook)

    Love Poems to Myself (1974), Barn Dream Press, Boston, ISBN 0-7752-0139-2 (chapbook)

    Rome in Rome (1976), Release Press.

    Selected and Collected Poems (1977), SUN

    Becos (1983), Random House, ISBN 0-394-52924-3

    Outremer (1989), University of Iowa Press, ISBN 0-87745-255-5

    Poems 1963-1988 (1989), University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 0-8229-5416-8

    Collected Political Poems 1965-1993 (1993) Self-published chapbook

    Sixty Poems of Love and Homage (1994) Self-published chapbook

    The Quicken Tree (1995), Boa Editions, Hardcover ISBN 1-880238-24-1 Softcover ISBN 1-880238-25-X

    Laugh at the End of the World: Collected Comic Poems 1969-1999 (2000), Boa Editions, ISBN 1-880238-84-5

    The Unsubscriber (2004), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-53014-9

    Stigmata Errata Etcetera (2007), Saturnalia Books, ISBN 978-0-9754990-4-7

  5. Gary B. Fitzgerald said,

    July 19, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Dear Mr. vangiggles:

    I am very impressed by your insistence that poets make money from their work and not give it away for free. As a result, I am hoping that you might assist me in selling my work. I am completely broke and God knows I need the money. Maybe you could help me in obtaining a big fat book deal with a major publisher and sell my poetry. Maybe we could sell a million copies and get rich! I’d be happy to cut you in with a percentage.

    Oh, wait! You mean that you don’t know the first thing about the publishing industry?

    Oh, wait! You mean that you don’t understand that there is no market?

    Oh, wait! You mean that you don’t realize that businesses don’t invest in products that have no market value?

    Oh, wait! You mean that you don’t have a clue about what you’re talking about?

    Now I’m getting the giggles, son.

    Moron that later.

    • Anonymous said,

      July 19, 2013 at 1:26 am

      Vangiggles has no critical discrimination, either. He believes if he buys a book of poems, all the poems in that book are equally good!

  6. Anonymous said,

    July 25, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Mr. Scarriet,

    You do not have to be Bill Knott’s friend if you wish to “pick his brain”, just read his poems! What else do you care to know from him? Travel tips, dinner suggestions, his opinion on gun control? To favor this “original mind” over the poems it creates.. how is that possible? He is a poet, someone holed up at home doing little else than writing poems, publishing and revising constantly, posting working drafts daily. Name another poet, today, who is equally or more prolific, who I can commit to and be provided something new to read tomorrow, and the day after. “He’s a rare mind who can make you stop and think”. Stop and think about what? How his life’s work sorta sucks? So wouldn’t that make his mind quite unattractive? To watch someone whittling away pathetically at a medium they have yet to (and not much time left to) master? I do not see the separation, especially in his case. The brain is the work. And 15 minutes with Bill Knott, I should hope we wouldn’t waste it all talking.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      I sense a trace of maudlin self-pity here: “Stop and think about what? How his life’s work sorta sucks? So wouldn’t that make his mind quite unattractive?”

      Not at all. Why should his thoughts that make me stop and think lead me to contemplate how “his life’s work sorta sucks?”

      Look, whatever is food for thought is good, even if, yes, it leads one to contemplate how this poem would be better if it were an essay and stopped trying to hide in the murk of modernist verse.

      All thinking is good. Knott makes me think, and in the ease of conversation I could follow more where I want and not have to accept the windings of poetic obscurity.

      Perhaps this makes me a selfish bully. Maybe it does.

      People think poetry means you can hide from the teacher and make all sorts of answers that are wrong-but-that’s-OK. That’s why most poetry is obscure: from hiding and sloppiness and cowardice.

      No, poetry has quite a different obligation: to be known all at once and immediately by the whole class.

  7. Giavanna said,

    March 15, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Scarriet may want to know that Bill Knott, a grab poet, indeed, died on March 12 — complications related to heart surgery.

    • Giavanna said,

      March 15, 2014 at 6:48 pm

      How embarrassing: A GREAT poet, though he’d have a ball with a “grab poet.” Sorry!

  8. thomasbrady said,

    March 16, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks, Giavanna,

    We did see on our Facebook account the news of Bill Knott’s passing. We did have the pleasure of a little written exchange with Knott on Scarriet. I think it was Alan Cordle of Foetry who first brought Knott to my attention about 10 years ago. Knott was in one of Scarriet’s March Madness competitions and made it to the Sweet Sixteen and then was knocked off by Philip Larkin in a trouncing. Larkin was smart and never obscure. Writing obscure poetry is rather easy, perhaps even easier than writing bad, but easily understood poetry.

    Tom


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: