THE SKITTERY POEM

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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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