Notice how every bad poet thinks s/he’s good?
When most people notice this folly, when this phenomenon is viewed from the outside, one thinks: I’d never want to be a poet: since every bad poet thinks s/he’s good, so the art of poetry must be like a drug which deranges the senses, maddens the ego, and makes one act as if all that is bad is good.
Unfortunately, this is quite true. Poets are vain and mad, and all bad ones are certain they are good. No bar blocks them. The steeds of their poetry ride higher than any obstacle; their wisdom conquers, their strategy is winning, their aim is true, their swagger impressive, their speech, whether humble or high, tricky or plain, winds its way into the best ears, their genius is… genius. No measure says otherwise. They are never out of tune. They are understood—by the select who ought to understand them.
The poet is the reeling drunkard of the intellect.
Very few (one in a million?) are fortunate not to fall under the intoxicting spell of poetry’s mania. Very few can practice poetry without looking like a jackass.
I, for instance, found poetry by studying the masters first (I wrote haiku at age 12 in school but didn’t try poetry again until I was 18, when I’d fallen in love with Shakespeare). Poetry was not a madness, or a drug, for me, but a saving grace, a clarity, an appreciation, a discernment, a joy. Poetry can do this, can it not? It can make one wise, or make one a complete jackass, depending on how one comes to it.
And every perfection can be parodied, so finally no poet can escape forever the donkey ears.
But they try.
Oh, do they try.
Poets should take cheer from the fact that parodies flatter as much as they wound—as do earnest attacks from other mere jackasses. But poets are especially paranoid about the jackass label today. Back in the day of Pope and Poe, the jackass label would come find you. Even in Jarrell’s day, it might come after you. But today, there are simply too many poets per critic; once, no poet was safe from a Poe; today there’s safety in numbers—almost no one is called a jackass anymore, even playfully. The honest review has been replaced by the massaging blurb. The atmosphere is one of frigid politeness. Poetry sites—such as Harriet and Silliman’s—have banned commentary—which is part of this trend. Let no unkind words come near the poets! The poets must be treated with respect: no honesty, please! Poetry communities bend over backwards to be nice. The good is not permitted to chase out the bad, nor is real debate permitted. All the sheep must be left to graze on their little plot of grass in peace, so they might fatten, and be awarded a poetry prize by the other sheep.
Americans are uncivil drivers, even though a slight mistake may cost lives, but when it comes to poetry, when a little honesty would improve things, the academic poets who rule po-biz are bland and civil to a fault.
Poets ripping each other to shreds is good for poetry, because ripping and tearing creates new parts and shapes; it’s much better incentive to receive real criticism than to never get it; if there’s no ripping and tearing, you get that one quilt which everyone handles gingerly; the same platitudes are sewn together in a feel-good exercise, everyone thinking alike because the quilt represents everyone’s desire to get along; being polite is the only way to keep the group-quilt-thing going.
For example, take a look at the big, fluffy quilt being put together over on Blog Harriet right now: lots of poets are contributing little essays and growing the quilt, a nice, big fluffy one. Here are some of the pieces of the quilt:
“Marjorie Perloff has claimed that a poet’s career is rarely made on one book, rather it’s the long and slow accrual of publications, activities, community service, and so forth that firmly establish one’s reputation. A perfect example of this would be the career trajectory of Charles Bernstein. While it’s hard to name Bernstein’s “best” or “iconic” book, it’s the decades-long tireless life in poetry which has made him one of our most important and beloved poets. His activities in support of poetry — be it his pedagogy, his work on cross-cultural poetics, his many volumes of criticism & essays, the founding of both the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound, his tireless advocacy for poets, in addition to his own poetic output — all add up to a remarkably solid career.” —Kenneth Goldsmith (4/6)
“Several complain about the fact that so-and-so is so popular and has received so much recognition and prizes because his/her mate is editor of one of the most influential magazines in the business. Others carp about the unfair influence of a long-surviving New England periodical that looks about as readable as mold on bread. Another group riles against that fang-burger who declared, in a major newspaper, that reviewing poetry was a waste of good printer’s ink and paper.” Wanda Coleman (4/6)
Careful to offend no one, the author mentions no one by name.
“The business of trying to write timeless poems reminds me of Langston Hughes’ declaration in a 1926 essay that a black poet who wants to be just a poet, not a black poet really wants to be white. Hughes makes the issue about the poet, and maybe unfairly distracts us by that gambit. But the really question has to do with the poem. That is what he is asking. He is asking how does one write a poem that is simply a poem and not a black poem? He has his own answers. For him, anyone who attempts to write a poem that is not black and that is simply a poem is unaware of the racial superstructure of American society in which “American Standardization” is essentially white.” Kwame Dawes (4/6)
Standardized, milk & water rhetoric washes over prickly politics.
“In response to this one’s continuous muttering of exhausted inane yap punctuated by some light bitching about being too currently pastly and futurely dumb to write any public speak, my three-week old daughter June put down her copy of Melmoth the Wanderer for a minute, though keeping on her headphones which were feeding her a shuffle of songs including, I think, if I’ve been accurately identifying what’s creeping into the air, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the Eric B. and Rakim number “I Ain’t No Joke,” the Townes Van Zandt version of “Poncho and Lefty”, “If You Don’t Cry” by Magnetic Fields…” Anselm Berrigan (4/6)
Does anyone else find this self-indulgent?
“Gillian asks about the line in the 22nd century, what will it look like and do. It’s a question that helps me get at another question that has been hounding me of late, one that concerns a certain strand of thinking that tends toward protecting poetry as if it’s an endangered species. This tendency seems to manifest itself in a concern for content, tone, or accessibility, but mostly it’s around the shape of the single poem; that short squirt, usually of formal verse, that many see as the primary, or originary shape of poetry, everything else being pale imitations or strange mutations or defacements of the latter.
Perhaps this is partly why my visceral response to your question, Gillian, is dismay. Not that I’m not curious as well, but because I wonder why we are so concerned with controlling poetry? Why, to such an extent that we want to worry about what the line will be like in the 22nd Century. Are we that afraid that if we let poetry run its course we won’t understand it in a hundred years? That poetry might evolve into something indiscernible to the Romantic soul?” Sina Queyras (4/6)
“something indiscernible”—like this essay of Sina’s—such a brave attempt to break Lord Byron’s heart…
So there you have it. These Harriet entries are boring and trite
Now a reader’s first impulse might be to think: this is bad. “Boring and trite?” These Harriet bloggers are accomplished writers and good people; why upset them, and make yourself look unfriendly?
But I am not these writers’ parents, siblings, or friends. I am a reviewer.
Imagine a society which, by law, has no reviewers and no critics.
Thomas Brady isn’t bad.
For a moment, you fell under the spell of the poet’s mania, there, didn’t you?
Do you see how easily it happens? How easily poetry makes you think the bad is good, and the good, bad?