Friday, July 3, 2009

Poetry is for grumblers

It's hard to write good poems, period. I have to admit that I've generally little or no use for most rhymed and metered poems, basically because there are so very few poets who are able to compose as such without seeming like they sacrificed emotion for a metronome and a rhyming dictionary. It is not something that pleases my ear under normal circumstances. Free verse, in turn, is in large part willful obscurity and arbitrary line breaks where the point is to disguise one’s lack of anything interesting to say.

The drone replaces the metronome, and a Cuisinart of unconsidered images and arty inferences take the place of an interesting arrangement of materials that, though quite different, find an atmospheric and tonal coherence in the hands of the genius, that rarest thing among us all. The dirty little secret is that most poems written by most poets are mediocre, substandard, self satisfied little noise machines composed by scribes who are, to some degree, either delusional or self-aggrandizing.

I have to include my own poems among the verses that were written by someone seduced by his vanity , the ones I wrote and still write that attempt a short cut to genius by a sheer force of personality."Force of personality", though, is being grandiose in retrospect. It's more accurate that at the time, in the late seventies and through the mid-eighties, when I sobered up and saw much of my effort for what they were, slack, cryptic and untested by a discerning ear, I had the confidence of a kid who thought poetry was the place to hang all my entitlement fantasies on. I was lucky, in the main, that there were some superb readers of my stuff who weren't hesitent to make particular note of the crap I wrote and to highlight what it was I actually good at. I even listened to some of the advice, to measurable effect.


There seems to be few places where a good poem, confident of it's parts, neither chintzy nor baroque beyond human use. I've just put down a volume by new formalist poets, those who insist on rhyme and meter, and found most of the stuff stiff, and then I opened up a volume of Jori Graham and got p.o.'d all over again, abstruse, ungirdled swill. So yes, it's hard to do well, but half the point is in the search.


It's a gross over generalization, to tell the truth, and unfair to all the serious, well intentioned poets who attempt to come up with something that simultaneously references tradition and adds something original, daring, as yet unspoken into the mix. The quality of the line breaks interests me the least ; form, I think, follows function, to borrow Louis Sullivan's dictum for his architecture. If the writing is good to begin with, inspired by an idea that sets the mind blazing with a head of bold, fulsome language and that language is tailored, adjusted, made new and perverted in ways one hadn't thought imaginable, then the line breaks take care of themselves, almost on some macro-instinctual level. For me line breaks, in free verse, are the equivalent of a musician's note selection during an improvisation--the phrases, the pauses, the gradual introduction of the dramatic arising from the simply and sweetly stated-- and a writer with that sense of where and how sentences and their words can best display underlying melodies , meanings and less obvious inferences can arrange his or her words with a surety of place a solid idea can give them. Line breaks are the least problematic part of a poet's task.

I distinguish between difficult poetry and the obscure--Eliot, Ashbery, Stevens, Clayton Eshelman, Robert Kelly, Ron Silliman are difficult, for example, with the implication being that there are some things the writer has been thinking about and considering for awhile, Poetry is the vehicle, aside from criticism, that the sort of problematized perceptions they want to get across and interrogate . Obscure poets, I think, are correctly called "vague", the implication here being that there seems to be an awful lot of effort spent buttressing banal brainstorms with a morass of references and closed-off syntax that seems not just evidence of incompetent writing, but purposeful. Ann Carson, Jori Graham and a good number of others seem more careerist than inspired, and their work seems more inclined to keep their allure as deep thinking poets in tact rather than spark something magic in someone else's imagination.