Friday, February 12, 2010

Tough Guys Don't Write Sissy Poems

Someone mailed me a poem by poetaster William Espy as their way of saying that poems are, by default, a pompous, elitist and obnoxious breed of ineffectual human; I assume the sender was tired of reading my posts on matters large and small. They thought they could put me in my place, a deed for which I'd be obliged to have them accomplish. Often enough I have no idea if I'm coming or going, of whether I'm advancing an argument, or retreating from something I've already said. If someone asked me where I was coming from, I'd have to answer that I didn't know; I misplaced my map of misreading. But enough of that, here is the Espy verse I was sent:

YOU'D BE A POET, BUT YOU HEAR IT'S TOUGH?


You'd be a poet, but you hear it's tough?
No problem. Just be strict about one rule:
No high-flown words, unless your aim is fluff;


The hard thought needs the naked syllable.
For giggles, gauds like pseudoantidis-
establishment fulfill the purpose well;
But when you go for guts, the big words miss;
Trade "pandemonic regions" in for "hell".

…Important poems? Oh…excuse the snort…
Sack scansion, then -- and grammar, sense and rhyme.
They only lie around to spoil the sport --
They're potholes on the road to the sublime.


And poets with important things to say
Don't write Important Poems anyway.


Copyright © 1986 Willard R. Espy




I'm not crazy about the Espy poem for the usual reason, it rhymes , it clanks, it clicks, you can here the parts move as you read it. And, despite the notion that Espy is a public poet, accessible, readable, "gettable", this remains a less-loathsome example of a loathsome narcissism among poets in general, a poem about poetry. It is ironic that a poet who bucked the tendency of Modern Poetry to be abstract, coded , enigmatic and self referential would choose to exercise their whimsy on his own medium. This habit, whether requiring an extreme hermeneutics or graspable after first read, is an elitism that has done much, I think, to keep potential readers away from the investigating the craft.

It might have something to do that poems like these are the ones that become heavily anthologized or reprinted in various places by editors who are attracted to works that would rather gavotte among it's particulars rather than chance a subject matter a reader would recognize and, in turn, interrogate. The potential reader, wondering if poetry has anything to say to them, picks up a volume and comes across like this, and places the volume down again, thinking that the poets are thumbing their collective nose at those unfortunate enough not to have had good English teachers in high school.

It doesn't really matter who writes Poems About Poetry--Language poet, School of Quietude, whimsical rhymesters--it's a sad, involute habit. His readership, though, is not the Ideal reader, the nonspecialist who potentially is interested in poetry and the stylistic perspective the art might bring on how ideas and experience intermingle, but rather other poets , who, as a class of professional, are not likely to change their ways. We have, in essence, something that's more an inter- office memo or motivational talk to boiler room of smile-and-dial telemarketers. It's a clever, wind up contraption that , in it's own way, forsakes the mission of any poet, regardless of aesthetic preference: to be in the world. This is as much an Ivory Tower as anything more elliptical , diffuse. What distinguishes it is the noise all it's moving parts make in their scraping attempt to achieve an effect/

2 comments:

  1. Your idea of the nonspecialist poetry reader is -- while not entirely untrue (think of somebody like Steve Fama, a prison rights lawyer, or Jack Krick, who works in IT and is a major volunteer for the Electronic Poetry Center) -- mostly a dangerous fiction. It's always an argument for dumbing down the work and the thing that makes poetry poetry (regardless of which tendency one enjoys) is that it uses its assets to their utmost. Indeed, that is what linguist Roman Jakobson called The Poetic Function.

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  2. I overstate, perhaps, but my gripe against Espy is that he attempts to put "difficult" and "academic" (both terms meant as pejoratives) poets in their place by writing A Poem About Poetry; I am not against difficulty, I am not in favor of dumbing down poems in order to attract larger readerships, and I don't think the non-specialist reader insist, as a class, that poets have their wear as unadorned as sports writing. The gripe is against the poet who cannot get away from making Poetry their principle subject matter, by name. Not that each poem about poetry is, by default, wretched; there are bright and amazing reflexive verses indeed, but they are the exception to the rule, the rule being that a medium that ponders it's own form and techniques and ideological nuances too long becomes tediously generic. The problem, it seems to me, is that some writers who haven't the experiences or materials to bring to draw from will wax on poetry and its slippery tones as a way of coming to an instant complexity. Rather than process a subject through whatever filters and tropes they choose to use and arrive at a complexity that embraces the tangible and the insoluble, one instead decides to study the sidewalk they're walking on rather on where it is they were going in the first place. I rather love ambiguity, the indefinite, the oblique, the elusive, and I do think poetry can be ruthlessly extended in it's rhetorical configuration to encompass each poet's voice and unique experience; the complexity I like, though, has to be earned, which is to say that I would prefer poets engage the ambivalences and incongruities in a sphere recognizable as the world they live in. First there was the word, we might agree. But those words helped us construct a reality that has a reality of it’s own, and I am more attracted to the writer who has tired of spinning their self-reflexing tires and goes into that already-strange world and field test their language skills.

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Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.