Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No more poems about poetry

I've posted this elsewhere a year ago and would have been happy to let the archive swallow it whole until retrieved, but the subject is an arguement that cannot be settled, and it seems that I'm not yet done thinking about it. The immodest musings on meta-poetics are posted here where new readers might find something to either cheer for or sneer at. I am assuming , of course, that there are those who are interested in my half wit opinions and can stand my careening sentence structures. -tb

April, hardly cruel with its longer days and constant sunshine, does not seem so cruel in Southern California these days. T.S.Eliot, author of the fateful phrase that would be oft-cited sans context or coherent application, would doubtlessly agree with that assessment had he come through months of rain, gloom, mudslides and general grayness. The burgeoning of spring, the blossom of flowers, a quadrillion butterflies taking to the air, with all this you couldn't help smile and think life in April was worth waiting for, that this is a month worth savoring every sunny nanosecond of daylight for.

Grim facts do emerge in the month in spite the manic-cheer leading of the previous paragraph, the sorry and necessary fact that Federal Income Taxes are due by April 15, though one can absorb this philosophically however much it hurts to pay out what's due; death and taxes and all that. It is such an inevitability that it's pointless, you'd think, to have anxiety attacks over the fact. It is part of the texture of the day, a constant recurring weave in the tapestry of life. And all that.

A worse occurrence , a worse sin of existence, is National Poetry Month, where we will have the usual suspects , those few poets whose names are known by the mainstream reading public, engage in all sorts of self-congratulation and puffery , all in a grandiloquent attempt to sell poets and their work to a larger crowd of book buyers. Besides the fact that it doesn't work--those who don't buy poetry books, or care not to read poems at all are not likely to start the enterprise merely because Robert Pinsky or Billy Collins provide soothing assurance that poems are good for the digestion--what irritates me is the oncoming onslaught of poems about poetry. Readers are invited to observe poets attempt to make love to themselves in any number of verses where poetry is the subject.

Poetry against poetry is an amusing theme the first time you do it, but the contrarian stance can't mitigate the general obnoxiousness that it remains poetry about poetry all the same. Beyond the fact that it's usually a self-congratulatory clustering of poets praising themselves on being the "antennae of the race "(Pound's dreadful hubris-choked flourish), it illustrates a grating, even willful failure of imagination. "Failure" is perhaps too dramatic a word. "Laziness" would be a better fit.

Poets, regardless of their politics, religious beliefs, spiritual nuance or circumstance of gender, race, or even intelligence, have an over all need to deal with the world around them, to grasp experience as something raw and full , and then compose a poem about it all when there is something on the mind worth recording and revealing to a curious audience; it ought not carry the reminder that the author is a poet having the experience and who wrote the poem the reader currently holds, presumably reading.

It detracts from the job at hand, it dilutes, and it practically demands that the reader be grateful for the privilege to be in the presence of a soul more sensitive and attuned to life's nuance than him or herself. The promise of self-reflective art, brought to us in the Sixties by Godard and the sleeping sickness called Structuralism, was that once we understand the mechanisms and devices that form our ideas of meaning beyond the conventional, we will then be free to address social relations in words that would empower the reader to change society—to make a better world, to coin an odd idea.

Not much of that has happened in four plus decades, but the habit remained in poetry beyond the flesh-eating foisted on the art by those who misunderstood , I think, what L=A=N=G=U=A =G= E Poets were up to and centered their career making verse their subject matter. The Language Poets, one should remember, considered language as their starting point , with the work of Rae Armentrout, Barret Watten, Ron Silliman, Bob Perleman and others , in various ways and strategies, interrogating, contesting and disassembling entrenched assumptions and conventional wisdoms about tongue we define and hang our perceptions on. Theirs was a project to witness contradiction, paradox and ambiguity, to take up the modernist task of fashioning a rhetoric that vibrates and gives way to the unpredictability of events and experience and perception. Not to everyone's taste or thinking , but Language poets, I'd say, are interested in maintaining poetic dictions as a resource the writer and reader can take themselves beyond the increasingly inane pronouncements of the publisher's preferred vocal style.

What's happened in the wake of these writers is a fungus that's seeped into the marrow of the Body Poetic and given a generation of poets a way to write without having to make some greater sense of their experience. Less disguised, this means that many poets are seduced but the surface sex and sizzle of an antifoundationalist theory and are with pages of alleged verse that hasn't a single communicable notion in them. There is in all this maze traipsing a lack of ideas; nothing seems to be said about being in the world in details or nuance that makes the prospect convincing . Craft and style are essential to honing emotional content into something greater than mere confession or less appealing forms of monomania--I'm not wholly enthralled with the idea of poetry being a substitute for therapy or group-groping apologetics--but the continual emphasis on poets and poetry as subject matter represents a flight from the standard practice of poetry as an extraordinary way to fathom that unexplainable condition of being human. Carpenters who talk about hammers and nails only don't get houses built. Poets writing poems about poetry aren't being poets at all, but is rather being dime store Hamlets practicing meditative poses in the perfume counter mirror, so much erudition impaled with the spike of their own cleverness, afraid to wander through the door and perhaps have an experience.

Marianne Moore's "Poetry" is widely anthologized and often cited, and it shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: IT'S A POEM ABOUT POETRY!! She rather handily summarizes an array of cliches, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion.

Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet.Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without it's application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.

Novelists, playwrights , and journalists have had their mediums rightly demystified over time so that the title itself--novelist, playwright, ET AL--does not by association inoculate a writer against proper judgement; criticism, as such, deals with these scribes as craftsman , and the larger issue, literary wars and preferences aside, is how well an author writes, with how well they are doing their job.

The mystique remains,somewhat, for the poet and it is one that a good number of poets, good, bad and resoundingly mediocre, seem to want perpetuate. Moore, I think, had whimsy in mind when she wrote her piece, but the impulse to have poetry as the subject matter of new work keeps the medium unapproachable for many for no real advantage other than what appears to be vanity and status. There's a tendency to keep the edges of poetry blurry, smudged, indistinct as to the terms one is given to talk about poets and their work. One in this area doesn't want to give the whole game away.

Enough. Enough. If a poet has something besides themselves and their gift to share with us, please, let's read it, let's hear it, let's compare notes about life in this world. What poetry has lost in large portion is the capacity to evoke a sense of invisible structures behind the details of everyday life that , given the occasional hunch or flash of inspiration, could be sensed however momentarily and provide the reader with some extra energy to live fully another few hours on this plain in the attempt to make the world yield more beauty and fairness, and in it's place has come, in equally large portion, a self-consciousness that brings attention back to the poet as-arbiter-of-meaning, a broker of slippery signs who is so conceited (knowingly or not) about their nominal privilege and power that they can well dispense stanza after stanza of mirror-gazing narcissism without risking their standing over the minuscule dominion they lord their constructed value over.