Saturday, October 31, 2009

Note on a bad poem

Someone with whom I've argued with for years on Slate's Poems Fray forum some months ago posted an "original" "poem" , requesting , without qualification, any and all crtical comments. The poem was a cryptic attempt to merge science and math into a presentable metaphorical system, the result being, I thought, muddled, lecturing and undermined by the author's determination to make a sweeping generalization about the imprecise nature of existence and our limited capacity to know it precisely. Not a bad premise for a life's writing, of course, but execution is everything; the poetry still has to be good. The poem is here. My response is below. What follows in the thread is the author tripping over himself with backsliding and quease-inducing equivication.

The idea of imagining what machines might dream about , if they were sentient, has been done before, and the punch line as to whether they "dream of electronic sheep" is itself rather well known and branded by a specific writer, Philip K.Dick. His novel is "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep", which was the book on which Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner was based. Dick's title is an ironic reference to the plot, about self-aware androids violently considering the nature of their existence. Your use, I'm afraid, lacks irony and does not advance on the original idea, which is what an inspired borrowing should do.
The problem with taking a phrase or title so closely identified with a famous writer is that you are obliged to use the borrowing as a springboard to an entirely original work of your own, inspired by but very different from the inspirational source. Hemingway borrowed the phrase "for whom the bell tolls" John Donne for his book on the Spanish Civil War, and didn't merely insert it into a work at face value, for decorative purposes. The title made a suitable counterpoint for his succinct, gripping narrative of men trying to maintain "grace under pressure".

What you have here is not a poem, but a series of questions that are flat and rather ordinary bits of poesy one finds in many poetry workshops blue penciled off the page. You don't seem to be writing about anything; your passive tone is something you perhaps think provides your writing with a lyric sway and a spiritual lilt, but poetry , by the sorts of poets we discuss here, even the ones some of us don't particularly enjoy, have a tougher language. They are interesting to read at least in so far as they , for the most part, appear to be attempting to crystallize the best language for their experience, and the ideas that follow suit.

No ideas but in things.--William Carlos Williams wrote that and it's excellent advice to anyone trying to write poems . Your problem is that you want to write about abstract things, metaphysical things, mystical things, and desire to join the farther reaches of scientific hypothesising with dreamier theological daydreaming but you ignore the world of things, which is our senses can measure and experience with certainty. You rarely begin with the material, you rarely convey a theme that might be based on actual experience, you are hardly ever convincing in any emotion you suggest chiefly, I believe, because you start with a skewed idea of what a poem should be and tailor your writing to suit the template you've adopted.

I think you should junk the poem and try to write a poem about something that is solid, has density, is something a reader would recognize, and try not to insert an editorializing cliche or a vacuous "summing up" that turns you efforts into post cards and photo captions. You seem unable to get away from the tired phrase, the dog eared adage, the trite truism; you need to try very, very hard to transcend your worst habits as someone attempting to write poems. At present , they seem intractable.