A while back I was rejected by an influential poetry magazine which had published quite a few of my poems in the past. The rejection was kind, considerate, personal, and shall we say not unexpected.
I wrote a letter of response.
You're right. I knew better. But I sent it anyway. Now I propose to compound my folly by turning the letter into an essay.
Just so you know where this is coming from.
"Thank you for your kind letter," I wrote, or words to that effect.
It means all the more because it was not required, and because you took the time despite being so buried under work and manuscripts. Thanks also for your generous statement to the effect that your inability to respond was "Doubtless my fault, not yours." I would be very surprised if you actually felt that way, since it would be hard to keep your sanity as an editor if you did. But I appreciate the salve to self-esteem.
I sip my fresh coffee and look at the incredible morning sunlight on the snowy mountains and mop the floor and let the dogs back in. I think of your civility. There are all sorts of pleasures and letdowns in life. Who can disentangle them? Who's complaining?
But I would like to speak of poetry for a while, secure in the knowledge that you will read the following only if it entertains and interests you.
The editor had written in his rejection that since the magazine was receiving so many thousands of manuscripts for each issue, they were forced to limit submissions to once a year, four poems at a time.
Four poems a year. And the odds are extremely long against those four. I wrote that I would probably continue to submit, in the way that others play the lottery—waste of money, but hope is a pretty thing.
(As it happens, I never again sent them anything, or for that matter sent anything unsolicited to anyone else. Started thinking about the implications of that word, “submit,” and decided I didn’t like the position.)
It's pretty much the same for all the top magazines, I wrote.
The top few targets must receive hundreds of thousands of poems a year. Thing is, it's hardly different for the smaller journals. Every editor now tells me that she or he is buried under thousands of submissions.
Questions come to mind.
Like for instance, Who the hell are we kidding?
There's no way this preposterous situation is functional. This googolplex of wannabe poets throwing themselves at magazines like salmon flinging themselves upstream to mate and rot—even if we suppose that we all have worthy talent, we must ask ourselves how, buried in such a slithering cascade, any editorial staff could truly exercise appreciation, judgment, selection?
I have no doubt that these magazines must receive thousands of poems a year just from poets who can actually write a little, poets of some ability, and never mind the tens of thousands of hopelessly crippled manuscripts. You know the poets I mean. The ones who come up to you after readings and angrily jam a sheaf of papers in your direction; or the more timid sort, who only after knowing you a while will let it slip that they are poets, too, and would you take a look? In either case, you faithfully read the proffered material, realizing that it is the job of a real poet in this diseased culture to be an audience, not to have an audience. And after reading the work, you can come up with nothing to say.
These latter manuscripts are hopelessly mangled in one way or another: In syntax or sense or music, their creations are born dead and you cannot find the language to tell the authors that pity be, though we all are equal in the Lord's eyes, I'm sorry, but son or ma'am or creature-get, you just can't write.
Such efforts comprise most of the incoming that bombards every possible outlet today. A few of these people get through, by sheer persistence perhaps, perhaps because of ignorance or friends in the right places.
Nobody can explain them, but there they are, powers.
And as I say, I don't even mean these people. I mean the next rank, people who can actually use the language a bit. The ones for whom a knack, a twist, a quickness with the word came early. People who imagine that they, being poets of some accomplishment, deserve the loftiest of publications.
Forget the first batch. There are thousands of competing writers, even if we limit ourselves to the set of those who actually have some talent.
How is it possible for any editor to allot sufficient time to even the somewhat talented? Poetry, in our fashionable prattle, is outside time. Poetry requires absorption, contemplation, a timelessness of spirit. You can't read poetry fast. Right. There's 86,400 seconds a day. When I'm depressed, I think there's at least that many wannabe poets in the U. S. alone.
(Maybe that number isn’t so ridiculous: It would represent fewer than one in 2500 of our adult citizens. Personal experience can only be anecdotal, but I would swear the frequency of wannabes is higher than that.)
Ours is an age of uproar and output, not of listening. Everyone must be heard. We prove we exist by yammering constantly. We are compelled to prove what we know by voicing it, anxiously, rapidly, constantly.
Every voice is equal, and each of us is convinced the universe is unjust if we are not able to make our wailings and clever remarks heard above the general din, the hideous swirl of the polybabble.
What a condition, to be an editor and to be the object of so much desire. Surely one is forced to erect formidable barriers. But perhaps it is not so for the editors I submitted to. Perhaps they revel in the rivers of word and thought that tumble across their desks. I am not so generous.
In my opinion there is very little good poetry published today, much less great poetry. I read, when I can stand to, the effusions in the magazines. Everywhere I see, under the most prestigious of names, banality, archaisms, solipsism, (and from those who rail most loudly against such lapses) clumsiness, bathos, a refusal of rigorous thought, and an almost totally hermetic practice. One cannot believe that all of these authors are intentionally fraudulent.
So why is the poetry so, so—well, so cottonpicking bad?
No, worse than bad. Way worse. Boring.
Why does bad poetry happen to good people? Why isn't sincerity and suffering and a clear complexion and planetary sympathy enough?
Maybe I'm wrong. That's the simplest explanation.
But if I’m wrong, why can no one explain to me, in clear and precise language, exactly what it is I'm not catching on to? I'm not tone-deaf, and I'm not stupid about people, forms, change, or the truly original.
Maybe there's a brilliant and shining world of new music and feeling out there, a world I simply can't perceive. Perhaps I am a living fossil who lacks the new perceptive apparatus. Perhaps. I read this on a book-jacket:
. . . she breaches the chasms that appear to divide “experimental” poetics, classical fragments, Romantic aphoristic debris, and Oriental glimpsing of the ineffable.
Maybe you don’t think it’s fair to pick on a book jacket quote. Why not? Aren't poets supposed to be masters of language? Would you willingly allow yourself to look ridiculous, even on the cover of someone else's book?
Besides, this quote is from one of the most famous of the famous, the master anointing a protégé. It is, in other words, designed to sell me something. I get real serious about language when somebody tries to sell me.
Notice how the author of the quote—Jorie Graham, if you must know—tries to have it both ways: To the lesser-minded, of course, those archaic chasms "appear" to divide radically disparate realms of poetic endeavor. But only to the lesser-minded, it would seem, not to the cognoscenti.
Notice that the classical is in fragments, and that the Romantic is debris. Lovely to know all these things, of course, and one is so learned for having absorbed them. That's the implication, I believe. One has absorbed them and passed them over in favor of the ineffable and therefore whole and superior East. But one really is quite the authority on all of it.
Again, questions arise.
Like what the hell is "Romantic aphoristic debris"? Must have missed that seminar in those days of oppression as an M. F. A. student.
And isn't the entire last phrase clumsy? —"Oriental glimpsing of the ineffable." Not merely clichéd but downright heelbroke clumsy?
(By the way, would somebody tell me what an “experimental” poem is? In science, one performs an experiment to get at the facts, and the experiment is either repeatable by others, or it is worthless. Somehow I don’t think that’s what’s meant by the word “experiment” in poetic circles.)
The theory that I just don't get it accounts for some of the facts. But when I run into this sort of twaddle I will admit no more reliable guide than my own sense of things. (There were a few okay poems in the book, actually.)
Saw a poem about a drowned girl some time back. It was by another famous author, was a celebrated poem, and appeared in a very well-known magazine. In it the drowned girl served merely as a vehicle for yet another dissertation on the woes and longings and alienations of the poet.
Not only the poet but also apparently nearly everyone who read the piece saw no emptiness of spirit, no fatuity, no lack of respect.
Some time ago I came across another poem by yet another celebrated poet in yet another famous magazine, a poem in which the narrator shops at a roadside produce stand. The piece (free verse, naturally) reeked with contempt for the poor country boy who was minding the stand.
Anyone who grew up dirt poor knows how literal the phrase is: Dirt is all you have, and what you can make it produce is your only fortune. So a smartass intellectual pulls up, and when he gets out, looks right through you because you aren't cultured enough. As an artist, he's intent on the perfection of the produce and hip to beauty in a way you couldn’t possibly be—
Suffice it to say, I saw a different story than the poem’s author did.
The best modern work resembles the journal excerpts of perceptive and genuine people. Journal entries may be valuable, as the unfolding awareness of a good mind is always valuable. But as a substitute for poetry?
What might be forgiven in a journal—laxity, awkwardness, stumbling thought, errors of fact and music, the failure to provide the surge, the swing and courage of magnificent speech—is not forgivable in a poem.
Perhaps I quibble with terminology. If a thing is worth reading, what matter whether we label it a poem? It wouldn't matter, except that these genetically-modified creatures crowd out the real stuff. (And once again—I speak only of the best of the current work, not the whole tedious umwelt.)
Imagine what the unceasing blather of bad poetry has done over the last seventy years to the American ear. Loud rock and roll was not the problem after all. That only caused a physical deafness, not a mental one.
It is my misfortune to have fallen in love, as a boy, with the cadences of the great English poets. You take your roots where you find them, and some of my roots go back five and a half hundred years in this language. Five or six hundred years is no small heritage. Doesn't mean I buy into the cruelties, the ignorance, the injustices. In my opinion they exist in any heritage.
Compared to those many centuries, this other, this parade of current attitudes, this contemporary gallery of naked suck-ups to an emperor who doesn't even exist, this antic caper is hardly even diverting. Much less poetry.
What is it, then?
Years ago I came across a fitting term. The writer described the pathetic and shrunken striving of contemporary poetry as po-biz. The analogy is exact, I think, especially in the implied comic comparison to Hollywood. Po-biz has all the posing and display, it has the star system (with a few influential campuses serving as studios), but not the glitz, money, or influence.
I found the term in American Poetry Review—ironic, since at the time APR was itself the world's most prominent po-biz sideshow. (Perhaps the magazine has improved. I quit reading it after a few issues those many years back, finding them inane and painful. Not only was the poetry unreadable, but the essays were garbled and ungrammatical. Why, I thought, would I want to read the declamations of poets who can't even write decent prose?)
A lover and I once subscribed, briefly, to Poets & Writers. (Apparently the editors feel there is a distinction to be made.) Every month the magazine featured photos of up-and-comers, together with one-line examples from their work. You might expect that one line to be the best the poet had to offer, but most of the lines reprinted were distressingly inept. The thing that gave us the most (and meanest) merriment however was the neediness apparent in the photos, the desperate conviction that this appearance indeed represented poetic renown.
I felt as though I were gazing into the Phantom Zone.
Is it that hard to comprehend that accomplishment is not proven by plaudit nor determined by consensus, that if you are greatly concerned with how others see you, you probably mistake the truth of your own nature?
How to Be a Victim
I know a successful contemporary poet, one who for a while won award after award (lately the critics have been cruel—I confess to a degree of schadenfreude at seeing the envious consume each other). The poet pretends to likeability and enthusiasm (she possesses an ear-curdling guffaw), but is in my opinion entirely fraudulent. Since I dislike her so intensely and the dislike perhaps clouds my judgment, I will not supply her name. (I actually admire a few of the poems.) In her first book the poet attributes current personal dilemmas to a minor trauma at birth, surgically corrected soon after. The poet claims equal kinship because of this early suffering—explicitly, not merely metaphorically—I’m not making this up—with victims of oppression everywhere.
The cult of victimhood: Every poet today must be a victim, and must therefore concoct, if he or she has not personally undergone radical suffering or glaring injustice, a theory which establishes such victimhood. (Naturally, we must also ally ourselves unceasingly with genuine victims. They make good cover, and they also make good props on which to hang our theories.)
I heard a MacArthur winner read. The stuff was so awkward and ingenuous I would have had trouble with it as a freshman composition, and it was extremely condescending to those who were not of the race and opinions of the author. Perhaps I bridled because I am a redneck by nativity and upbringing, and the work was riddled with tossed-off denigrations of rednecks as a class. I agree that rednecks in general have caused the more grief, but I couldn't help thinking that if I had said similar things about the author's kindred—which I would never have even imagined doing—I would have been reviled.
But it wasn't so much the self-centeredness posing as enlightenment that offended me, the thoughtless assumption of correctness, the carelessness.
It was the way she adopted the stance of the victim to cover for her lack of talent. This stuff was not even competent at a juvenile level. It attempted mature themes (childbirth in the raw, for example) and failed miserably.
Way over the top.
Talent is the dirty word nowadays.
Talent doesn't make you a good person. It doesn't necessarily even make you a star. On the other hand, if you don't have talent, you can be a star, and you can be a very good person. But you can't be a very good poet.
Easy to say the fault was in me. But that lack of talent. Okay, she was using the language of the oppressors. Like there's any of us who don't. (I’m part Scot, part Irish, part Welsh, and part Cherokee, but I write in English). I'm not here to argue colonialism or appropriation. Such discussion is bogus. Language doesn't work by those rules. It makes its own rules, goes its own way. Language is the gift of the ages but the property of the individual.
I have, on occasion, been a victim. When I have been one, the only thing I wanted was not to be a victim any longer.
Nobody who knows anything about being a real victim imagines it improves character or sharpens talent. Yet here we have the spectacle of swarms of swaddled children aspiring to the saintliness of shared suffering.
I suspect this is so because we conceive the voice of the victim as being beyond reproach—having been wronged, one is automatically always right thereafter, and safe from all consideration of liveliness or grace.
Who wouldn't want to speak from such a secure platform?
But who wants to actually earn it? Not me. Injustice borne does not nobility confer, to put the matter in an antique and hexametric fashion.
Several years ago I was with a group of writers who described themselves, in conversation, as victims of oppression. They were generally young, and one or two had some degree of reputation. Why were they victims of oppression? Because our materialistic culture marginalized them, it turns out.
This was the actual phrasing.
Oh come on, I said. None of you are hungry. You all have a good place to sleep. Nobody's going to throw you in jail for speaking out. That, I said, is not oppression. So your culture, by and large, doesn't give a damn what you're up to. So what? That's frustration, not oppression.
(The reaction was as might have been expected. Didn’t I make it clear at the outset that I don’t always show a good sense of self-preservation”)
It's the spoiled child who interprets denial as punishment.
And isn't there a difference between being disadvantaged and being a victim? The borderline may be indistinct, but then borders usually are.
I do not attend readings of contemporary poetry if I can avoid them, because they are typically sentimental, amusical, and witless. One might forgive any of these flaws, but not all three together. There will occur, at these readings, whenever the poet produces yet another tragedy caused by those terrible oppressive wrong-thinking others, a wavelike nodding of heads: Yes, yes. We're all in it together, we the wronged, we who drift in sacred communal truth.
(One has the impression of a flock of those clever toys, the little fake cranes who dip their beaks over and over into a glass of water . . .)
There will occur the predictable laughter at the predictable mockery of the predictable villains. The drawn-out mutual sigh as we arrive at the clever tender moment, the predictable epiphany of love or vision: Awwwww . . .
The book I mentioned above contains yet another recounting of the horror of having had a father (whose only cited crimes are that he was somewhat louder and rougher than the frightened child would have wished).
Okay. Terrible fathers abound, granted. Beastly fathers. Unlike the poet, however, I have been a parent. I have raised children to capable and healthy adulthood. I know from experience how difficult it is to strike the correct balance. I know that there is a reason, a necessity for the gruffness and roughness of the male of the species, the tough bark of even a good father.
Perhaps this father deserved the obloquy. I could not tell from the poem. I suppose this sort of accusation without evidence is permissible nowadays because of the received contemporary doctrine that males are inherently tyrannical, the cause of all the evils of what is usually described as Western civilization. (Never mind that its philosophical origins lie in Greece and Israel.)
And if you think I make an apologia for brutality, you're a sad case.
Two kinds of poetry
To quote from a preface: Freshness and spontaneity are matters of character far more than they are matters of technique. Nothing that it keeps will make a lively mind boring. Nothing that it abandons will make a boring mind fresh.
There are two different impulses toward poetry nowadays. One is the impulse of the calling. That impulse implies dedication, learning, the sense that one serves a fine principle, a venerable though not antique mystery.
Most poets will tell you theirs is this first impulse.
The other impulse is the impulse to self-expression—which latter seems to me the impulse ruling po-biz. In this approach, poetry is not distinguished from therapy, and the highest good is, as I have heard one poet say, "following your own mind." The poem under discussion was admitted to be plodding and ungainly—and yet it was good because the poet was faithfully following his own mind. In a recent magazine article, the poet I dislike so intensely produced a lengthy essay claiming that the essential virtue of poetry was self-expression.
Her essay was wordy, highly abstract, and interlarded with a seemingly endless sequence of references. In my opinion—but you know that this essay is all my opinion anyhow, my opinion elaborated and adumbrated and pitched in what I hope is pleasing rhetoric, but still only my opinion—whenever we want to make a silly contention look less preposterous, we resort to reference, allusion, and quotation. Surely precedent will resolve all question of import?
Intellectual hijinks aside, the argument boiled down to the statement that somehow the effort of creating a fantasy self in words was holy—no doubt because the culture is so repressive (she was one of those). What it did not address is why the devil a reader should care about the self-expression of another.
What if you learn to express yourself and then discover that you don't possess a self of any particular value?
I believe that self-expression is fundamental to art, but that it is not what distinguishes good art from bad, or lazy dull art from accomplishment. The work of having a decent self is essential to all humans, artists or otherwise, and the performance of art does not excuse us from that obligation.
The self-expression vision purports to be highly democratic, and is therefore difficult to counter. Everyone has a voice and every voice must be heard. Who would deny the proposition? Nor may we speak forthrightly about anyone else's bad poetry, because to do so is to be antihuman, unfeeling, uncaring.
Another frequent element of this sort of poetry is its breast-beating declaration of truth-seeking. I call it the poetry of sincerity. Contemporary poets frequently attempt truth directly, without intermediary, from sheer purity of vision. Their poetry wishes to be judged on its declared compassion, its declared earnestness. A poet I once had the misfortune to know, a fellow who considered himself a leading avant-gardist, once described it as the poetry of "high seriousness." I replied, in a brief essay, that I would take low comedy every time. (Another prejudicial-to-the-career seizure of wit.)
To him, the fact that I wrote formal poetry put me irrecoverably beyond the contemporary pale. (“Pale” means “fence,” incidentally, a contraction of “palings,” or stakes, which word itself originates from the Latin for tree, and is still preserved in names like “palo verde”—or “green tree.”)
“Don’t get me wrong,” he declared, beaming with a sense of his own great-heartedness, “I think formal poetry should still be written.”
“Thanks for the permission,” I said.
That same poet spoke fondly of “organic form,” a phrase which has always baffled me. Is it oxymoron or redundancy? Shouldn’t we be able to tell?
In any piece of writing, the author may claim anything he or she wishes, may declare solidarity with the most high-minded of principles. I judge people on what they do, not on what they say they do. One makes moral choices when writing. Those choices are the only directly observable behavior in the poem. If you are childish in your thinking and shameless in your desires and urgent in your need to pretend that you are neither of the former, the result will show in your poetry. You will choose language according to the same principles that you choose life, and the results will be perfectly visible.
Understand this, bad poets. You are perfectly visible.
One modern poet, whom I will cite by name since his position is so secure that I can do very little damage, has declared that the age of monumental poetry is over. That poets now must abjure the ego.
I believe that Robert Bly means "memorable" when he says “monumental.” If I am correct, this is fallacy. The dictum is widely and uncritically accepted as truth, though it is not so widely practiced. It is an ironic proposition, since the very poets who are most fervent with regard to self-expression tend to assume that their poetry is, somehow, devoid of ego.
Ego is necessary. I wish the poetry I read to have been written by a healthy human and not a cipher. Without a healthy ego, who would have the strength to endure in the art? Our misprision is that the choice is either ego or selflessness. Only vanity imagines defeating the ego.
For many poets nowadays those two words, "vanity" and "ego," probably mean the same thing. How pitifully such peut-etres apprehend their own tongue. Vanity does not mean self-regard, but foolish endeavor, endeavor without hope of outcome. Self-regard is neither right nor wrong, but accurate or inaccurate. Ego is necessary, as the model and governor of the being.
If you look in the mirror, at least your eyes are open.
The task for ego is not to disappear, but to understand itself as model and governor and become accurate and therefore useful.
Yet poem after poem pretends to lose the ego, in fellow-feeling, in right thinking, in getting back to nature. In sincerity.
Love the modern echoes that shopworn phrase takes on, by the way: "Getting back to nature." Like the salesman or clerk who says he’s going to “get back to you” on the phone. I don't recognize the nature these poets have gotten back to, though. And what of the puffed-up assumption that one may choose to accept or reject nature, and one is virtuous for accepting?
Nature is in charge, not the poet.
The ego does. That's what it's for. The point is to restrain and control ego, to learn courtesy and consideration without losing the quick of personality. It’s a difficult lesson, maybe, but respect and courtesy, because they require continual effort, continual thought, continual practice—discipline, in short—are truer than sincerity. The appearance of sincerity costs nothing.
Discipline requires your life.
And humor is the splendid tool of courtesy, not its violation. Precisely because humor, and humor alone, has no rules of combat, it is democratic. Precisely because it answers to no master, we are equal before it, and it gives a sense of proportion. Precisely because we agree that in humor, and humor alone, there are no rules, our vivifying differences need not be wasted in murder.
I am guilty of deriding (that is to say, laughing at) "guru" poetry. I much prefer the stance of the entertainer. Seeing oneself as a guru, one feels superior to one’s audience—the poet knows all, experiences all, interprets all, and the reader is only required to listen, entranced and enlightened by the gentle fall of wisdom from on high. The guru strives to be vatic first and poetical second.
The entertainer appreciates the audience, depends on the audience. Certainly there are entertainers who have contempt for their audiences. They, like the bad poets, are in the wrong profession, and should be delivered.
The guru stance is an affectation, not an artistic choice.
But how could I wish the benefits of poetry denied to anyone? Even further, how can I wish that another human fail in his or her chosen career? I do not so wish, as a matter of fact. Come to poetry however you want to.
But for god’s sake, come to it to learn.
For me the past is vital. As I say, in English there are more than five hundred years of language to revel in—a poet has, if he or she wishes, all those possibilities to hand, is not limited to the narrow alternatives of the present.
As a poet, my heritage, like it or not, is the language I grew up speaking. It is not an evil heritage, nor a harmful one, nor one that has led me to unjust or disrespectful treatment of other humans or other creatures. As a heritage it includes vile behaviors, wicked characters, touches of nobility, and thoroughgoing perplexity. Without excusing anything that is inexcusable, it is fair to say that the heritage of the English language is generally neither better nor worse than the heritage of any other language. To assume differently is to assume that humans are not human regardless of differentiation. It is to assume that any sizable subgroup will not demonstrate all the characteristics of the species as a whole.
I think rather think the reverse is true.
How many times have you had it explained to you, from how many forums, that we have to have a new language for poetry because we live in new times? The argument gets more technical than that, but that's what it boils down to. Ezra Pound said "make it new" something like 75 years ago. I say stop making it new when it's new enough. If things have changed so much that a "new" poetic language is necessary, why can we still understand Elizabethan syntax with so little exposure, so little training? No, quite the opposite is so. With a few minor exceptions, such as the disallowing of poetic inversion, English syntax has not changed appreciably in the last four hundred years. (I refer to both the syntax of written English and the syntax of spoken English.)
If an inhabitant of the Bronx were somehow translated to Elizabethan times, I believe that he or she would have as little difficulty understanding the local dialect as in understanding contemporary Cockney. It would be a matter of a few days’ tuning of the ears, and everything would click.
A friend and I have been discussing the self-described “post-avants.”
(The name strikes me as hilarious: Years ago, amused by the thrashing about of critics who tried to distinguish “modern” from “contemporary” poets, some of us saw the problem coming. We proposed such categories as “post-contemporary,” “recent,” “post-recent,” and “neo-post-recent.” To my ear, “post-avant” sounds a lot like the terms we came up with back then.)
We must all establish ourselves as unique, of course, different from all those who have preceded us. The post-avants, as I understand the matter, declare that History has produced a great deal of evil, and we must consequently do away with all its outdated structures. (I suppose they would also be willing do away with living in homes, the printing press, hospitals, democracy, even language itself.) Not for them the shoring up of fragments against ruins.
Problem is, the rhetoric sounds awfully familiar. It sounds, in fact, despite the professed rejection of their modernist predecessors, exactly like the rhetoric of every avant-garde since les imagistes.
And the theory is bunk anyway. There’s no such thing as “History.” There’s the recorded behavior of people (not necessarily accurately recorded). And humans have certainly committed cruelties and iniquities. But there’s no active principle labeled “History” whose dictates must be obeyed.
If the concept of history has any meaning, it has meaning only when taken to describe an emergent property of the complex phenomenon of the species. But if history is emergent, doing away with the forms will not do away with the behavior. The behavior will emerge again from the phenomenon.
There’s an important difference between freshness and novelty. I prefer the fresh. In my opinion, the real task before a contemporary poet is not to create a "new" speech, but to use that language which we still have mostly in common to revive the ear and the spirit and enlighten the judgment.
Our times are difficult, but by what species of aggrandizement may we assume they are more difficult than any times before?
Why is it so common for groupthink poets to speak down to those who disagree, when they do not themselves possess knowledge, but are possessed by attitude, by a tide or general current that lifts them and lets them go?
When I began in poetry, I was sixteen. I was smart then, and am not less intelligent now, after nearly fifty years of devotion. What a joke it is to meet a poet who assumes that because I do not share his or her unexamined assumption I have neither wit, learning, nor plain humanity.
But these are, all too often, the teachers of our students.
These are the academics. As anyone anywhere in academia can tell you, university-land is rife with groupthink. At any institution, a dogma prevails, and vicious political battles are fought over the dogma.
Sometimes the dogma is larger than any single institution.
Still, you may object, there are differing dogmas. Competing dogmas. No one dogma prevails. Isn't that fair?
Not the point. The point isn't which dogma is correct, though that is how all our battles are fought. The point is that no dogma is correct, in the same way that every poll is slanted by the questions asked, in the same way that no formal mathematical language can be both consistent and complete.
The point is that academia is the province of dogmas, of groupthink. Strange that such tradition- (not to say hide-) bound and rule-driven behavior begets such a relentless modernism, such a scorn for the past.
Most of the contemporary poets I know (and I know quite a few, one way and another) are abysmally ignorant of their own poetic history. Few read and understand any poetry except that of their contemporaries, Whitman and Williams being the two most common exceptions. Or Blake. Blake is okay because he was a radical, and though much of his work is careless or inane, he defied the system and loved Frank Sinatra, especially the song "I did it my way." Also he's okay because Alan Ginsberg said so and sang some of his songs.
Do I really have to protest that I admire much of Blake? I carry a good deal of him in my memory, which I consider the highest compliment.
But if po-biz types read the work of the past, they read it and speak of it with learned condescension, and to prove how widely read they are. As Flannery O'Connor had a chilling and benighted character say with regard to a legend of monks who slept in their coffins: They wasn't as advanced as we are.
I may deserve the pillory of American poetry for suggesting such a thing, but is there anyone else out there who finds Whitman a bit of a gasbag? I read him with pleasure, with admiration for his gusto and accomplishment in revitalizing the discourse. But he was no Dickinson, no Yeats or Browning or Thomas. Attempting his longer poems, I find myself skimming, settling on the juicier bits. I get the idea quickly, and soon become unaccountably weary, and wander outside to look up in perfect silence at the stars.
It seems to me that the contemporary popularity of Walt and the Doc owes to the impulse of self-expression. The message usually taken is that one may write any way one wishes, and that whatever occurs to one is automatically poetry. (If one has any doubt, resort to syntactical repetition.)
Once I heard a discourse on that most familiar of Stevens poems, "The Emperor of Ice Cream." (By the same poet who professed “high seriousness.”) The poem was, by his standards, a respectable antique, an example of his taste and learning, and evidence of his breadth.
Trouble was, he didn't know that “concupiscent curds” referred to the ice cream in preparation, or that the poem is a story or at least vignette, that it was possible, if one possessed simple linguistic awareness, to tell exactly what sort of social level and what sort of neighborhood comprise the setting. (Hint: The events do not occur within the country-club set of a small town).
I don’t mean to tar all authors with the same brush. Certainly many of the poets I aggregate conduct feuds among themselves and argue interminably over minor differences. Nevertheless, they show a commonality of behavior.
The current supposed revolution in poetry dates from Pound if you look at it strictly in English, and from more than a hundred years ago if you look at it as a global phenomenon. How long does a revolution have to last before it is no longer considered revolutionary?
How many read Pound nowadays? Well, I do. But he was deeply confused, and I have known only one human who could make sense of the Cantos. (That human, a fine and learned man, died in 1983. I still miss him.)
The avowed intention of every contemporary poet I have read or spoken with is to return poetry to the language of the people. Say eighty years of this in the U. S., and fewer non-poets read poetry than ever. Is it not safe to assume there has been some mistake? Some slight misapprehension?
During a television special on jazz, Winton Marsalis commented that every avant-garde jazz artist felt he or she had to reinvent the musical language or be meaningless. The unintended result, he said, was that fewer and fewer people listened to jazz. Isn't this always true of the avant-garde? Doesn't it always boast that it wants to freshen the language of the art, and doesn't it always and rapidly degenerate into hardened doctrine?
In physics, there is the principle that the faster something moves, the more like a particle it appears to an observer, and the slower it moves, the more like a wave-form it will appear. There’s a similar cultural effect. The more intent on velocity, the more determined to be in the van of those hustling to get to the future first, the more narrow-minded and the less broadly aware.
This is the misunderstood doctrine of innovation. Let's face it. Few humans are capable of true innovation. That sort of ability is rare indeed. It is genius, and for all our book-jacket encomia, genius is not common. Nor is innovation worthwhile unless necessary. Dante wrote La Divinia Commedia, so the rap goes, in the language of the people. He had to. It was time.
But contemporary poets cannot claim the language of the people. Oh, they use the same words and some of the same syntax. But the run of their language is not the run of any conceivable human speech. It is either a fractured, tormented, twisted mock-up, or it is, conversely, impossibly lazy.
And it isn’t accurate, really, to say that Dante wrote in the language of the people. He wrote in his language, with wide knowledge of the past, adapting the vernacular to classical forms. Dante wrote, not in the language of the people, but in a language the people could follow because it moved the way their own speech moved. But he elevated their speech, he gave it glory and cadence and greatness. It’s quite another thing to use vernacular obliquities in order to disguise one's own lack of talent or lack of an ear for genuine talk.
Music and poetry
I have confessed to writing formal poetry. As I have put it, there is a freedom in not having to invent the guitar while you play it.
I see skill with formal poetry as rare and valuable, a knack that should be nurtured like guitar-picking, not as something that should be mandated. It’s beautiful stuff when it’s handled well, but not many are born with the aptitude. Actually, only about half of my poetry is formal, and even that is deeply informed by modern cadence and diction (just as my nonformal work is subject to the influences of a long love affair with the sonnet, the villanelle, blank verse, ballad stanza, terza rima, ottava rima, tetrameter couplets, and all the beautiful rest).
Nevertheless, that half has been enough for the “high seriousness” poet and his like to brand me reactionary and backward-looking, despite a political outlook that would horrify John McCain, let alone Rush Limbaugh.
Well, so much for them. As far as I’m concerned, unmusical poetry is a contradiction in terms. Music is the energy which transforms poetry and carries it into the being. Do we really wish, Robert Bly and abjuration of the ego notwithstanding, to utter unmemorable speech? If a poem is not memorable, how are we to care about its truth or honesty? Its supposed sincerity?
What has happened to the concept of poetry as song, song made from speech, the sheer singing exhilaration of language? Talk talk talk, we have today, and not very lively talk at that. When was the last time you read a poem in which the words fell like the ringing of bells, in which the poet simply sang?
If you speak of the music of poetry, most think you mean formality, and by “formality” most think you mean accentual-syllabic meter.
For my purposes it has been useful to distinguish three basic musical strategies (with of course infinities of combination and variation): 1) the music of syntax itself (every syntactical phrase is a tune—if it weren’t, we couldn’t recognize its grammatical function when we hear it); 2) jazzy riffing and improvisation, clearly melodious though impossible to formulate (comparable to DeBussy’s La Mer in music per se—no readily identifiable structure, but music nonetheless, according to the principle that music is what we recognize as music); 3) and formal measure.
By formal measure, I do not mean accentual-syllabic exclusively: In what follows I will describe a couple of attempted meters that simply do not work in modern English and one that does—in addition to the venerable four-beat strong-stress—but that has not yet been successfully defined.
One of the ones that doesn’t work is syllabics. The English ear does not register the number of syllables across the length of a line. I enjoy the work of Marianne Moore, but my enjoyment is a result of her wit and the quality of her phrasing, not her syllabic meter. The counting of syllables is more nearly an arithmetical and cerebral endeavor than a physical attention.
Another meter that has been attempted but fails is "quantitive" or what I prefer to call durational measure. I am convinced that rhythm in English is modulated primarily by sensitivity to levels of stress. We register the relative length of phonemes, especially vowels—long vowels are hugely important in the work of Dylan Thomas, not at all in the work of Emily Dickinson, for example—but only roughly. We do not distinguish them accurately or pay them enough attention to use them as a system of measurement.
Robert Bridges was the most notable poet to attempt a metric based on quantitative measure, but despite a creating a few musically appealing oddities, he was never successful in joining his measure to meaning.
Before we proceed to what does work, an assumption and a distinction:
First and foremost, no meter can account for all the rhythmic possibilities of a language. This is the same principle as Goedel’s theorem, which demonstrates that no formal mathematical language can account for all of the theorems possible in the given branch of mathematics. Language is primary; it’s language that gives life to its poetry and not the other way round. If a meter could account for all the rhythmic possibilities of a language, then it would be the only meter possible to that language and that would kill mystery.
Secondly, rhythm and meter are not the same. Rhythm is the fact, meter is the abstraction. It would be backwards to force meter in order to achieve rhythm, though that seems to be what most free verse poets think formal poets are up to. I agree with the free-verse poets to that extent: Rhythm cannot be forced. But I do not think it necessary to junk the whole genius of the intrinsic music of the language in order to correct the error. And while we are discussing meter versus rhythm, let us mention scansion: Scansion is like an x-ray of the rhythm. It sometimes helps the ear to draw a picture.
I suspect the editors of the Norton Anthology are correct about the way accentual-syllabic arose. When the Normans defeated the English, an essentially syllabic metric collided with a loud-stress metric, and the result was a sort of hybrid. Naturally the court language would be the language of the conquerors, and naturally there would be a great impulse to curry favor by adopting it. Naturally the ones who were most capable would be the readers and writers, the intelligentsia, who tended to be the court bunch. (By Shakespeare's time the assimilation was complete and a small-town butcher's son could become the greatest genius of his tongue.)
You can see an intermediate stage in Chaucer, especially in The Canterbury Tales, where, to a modern ear, there's a deal of uncertainty about how to say the lines, though they are clearly pentameter of a sort, heroic couplets in fact. My notion is that they still, in thrall to Norman French, enforced the meter, as a clumsy reader of formal poetry will do today—When IN disGRACE with FORtune AND men's EYES—a strategy that now butchers the subtleties of accentual-syllabic. I don't mean they had bad ears for poetry, I just mean that enforcing the rhythm might have been their solution to an ambivalent metrical situation.
What the Norton does not do is propose a mechanism, a cause-and-effect sequence by means of which accentual-syllabic arose. It occurs to me that although we cannot count syllables in a line, we can easily count two or three syllables over shorter intervals. Perhaps what happened is that we began to count syllables in association with stresses—one or two before, or one or two after (a behavior which would have given rise to the four traditional feet of accentual-syllabic). Then we counted the numbers of such clusters per line.
There would have been other principles, more or less intuitive. Stress became relative: We may argue the relative stresses in a full line, but give us any three syllables in a row, and we have no trouble telling which receives the greatest stress. The short description of accentual-syllabic is that three unaccented syllables in a row are almost never allowed (except in modern variations, when there is almost always a pause between two of the syllables). Thus you could not have a trochee followed by an anapest—the first syllable of the anapest would be granted what has often been called "rhetorical" or "half-stress,” and the result would be catalectic trimeter instead of the intended dimeter.
It’s important to keep in mind that I am proposing a description of behavior, not arguing an esthetic rule. No capricious authority has declared that there can be no more than two unaccented syllables in a row in accentual-syllabic poetry. It’s just a function of that meter and the way we talk.
This principle explains why so many prepositions rise to assume the role of a stressed syllable in accentual-syllabic poetry.
“Substitution," by the way, is a horrible misnomer. One does not go through a poem saying, hmm, think I'll remove that iambic foot and stick in a dactyl. One instead forms the rhythm with feeling (“Music is feeling then, not thought.”), and it already includes variations from an abstract iambic norm.
And speaking of misconceptions: They used to say, when I was a novice, as though it were self-evident, that iambic was "the natural meter of English." It’s more sensible to suppose that since two-syllable feet are the most common feet and "rising" rhythms are typical of our syntax, iambic is the most common foot.
However it developed, accentual-syllabic increasingly dominated English poetry for some three hundred years—amazingly enough, without ever being successfully defined. (I feel a bit like Dan Brown here, secrets of the past and all that, but I promise the Vatican is not involved).
There is a reason.
Accentual-syllabic is easy to recognize physically, but the source of its rhythm turns out to require complex description. This is because accentual-syllabic music does not measure the way music per se does.
Accentual-syllabic is a combination of syllable count and stress count, and in accentual-syllabic, stress is perceived relative to the stress of neighboring syllables. So in it stress is not the unique source of beat that it is in strong-stress. That doesn’t mean it’s not essential. It is.
But what is stress?
Any sound may be described as a combination of four factors, or dimensions: Duration, pitch or frequency, loudness or intensity, and quality (which is actually nonlinear and not really a dimension at all, but never mind). Quality, I have said, is how we distinguish a violin from a violent cry.
Music per se measures time directly, dividing note-intervals precisely (with regard to each other, that is—a quarter note is not a quarter second, but a note that is a quarter of the duration of a full note in the same piece). Therefore music per se gets its rhythm from the subdivision of the time flow itself.
From, that is, one of the four characteristic dimensions of sound. It’s a little hard to even imagine “rhythm” except as defined by time. So it’s natural to expect that you get rhythm in poetry by varying the duration of sounds.
But you don’t.
(Which is the main reason quantitative measure doesn’t work.)
It turns out it’s impossible to correlate stress with any one of the four characteristics of any sound, and remember, without stress, no rhythm.
It turns out a stress can occur on a high note or a low note, on a short weak sound like “and” in the quote above from Shakespeare’s sonnet or on a long loud sound like “eyes” from the same line. After I realized this I wondered if maybe stress was the combination of two or more of the four characteristics in one sound. Loudness and pitch. Pitch and duration. And so on. My oldest daughter, who is ABD in linguistics at the University of Arizona, tells me that is in fact how linguists determine stress now, in a fairly empirical fashion.
A vector sum, I would imagine.
The somewhat startling and counterintuitive conclusion is that rhythm in English poetry is not measured by the subdivision of time at all. It’s a strange thought: the rhythm of accentual-syllabic poetry creates its own “time,” a sort of ghost time, but is not a rhythm in time itself. Time enters the music of accentual-syllabic poetry as color, not as measure.
When I finally understood this, it brought great clarity to a field of endeavor that I had been taught was hopelessly confusing.
I can now describe an alternate rhythm that would work in English rather succinctly. Remember that I claim there are basically three types of music inherent in the language? (Syntactical, jazz-like or improvisational, and formal?) The alternative I conceive and sometimes use (sometimes confusingly intermixed with more classical rhythms) is formal but not accentual-syllabic.
It relies on syntax and stress. The basic principle is this: you measure by paying attention to the highest stresses in a syntactical unit. There's a great deal of subjectivity, admittedly, since to some degree you determine what you consider a syntactical unit by the occurrence of stresses. But there is a great degree of subjectivity in any metric (a corollary of the fact that no meter can account for all the rhythms of a language).
In accentual-syllabic, the line from the Shakespearean sonnet is unquestionably intended as iambic pentameter. But in the alternative meter, it might be heard as a three-beat line: "When in distress" is a syntactical unit in which the last syllable of “distress” is (appropriately) the strongest stress; "with fortune" is a syntactical unit in which the first syllable of “fortune” is most strongly stressed; and "and men's eyes" is a syntactical unit in which “eyes” is the dominant stress. The sentence, "I wanted to ask about the physics of the situation” is clumsy and broken in accentual-syllabic. But heard in the alternative meter, which I guess I should come up with a name for, it is clearly a four-beat line, and not clumsy at all: "I wanted," "to ask," "about the physics," and "of the situation" are feet.
This may be something like what William Carlos Williams meant by "the American foot," but he never delivered specifics, so it's hard to tell.
I find it deeply interesting that the difference in the two metrics is a matter of how we choose to listen, but that both ways of listening are allowed by the nature of the language itself.
One of the strengths of this alternative meter is that it allows almost perfect rendition of the movements of speech, allowing a poetry that carries all the directness and versimilitude of prose. A weakness is that variation (again, not substitution) is impossible, precisely because almost all syntactical units are allowed—there’s nothing to vary to. The contrapuntals of accentual-syllabic are not achievable.
Perhaps this meter simply reduces to my first category, syntactical music, since every syntactical phrase has a dominant stress. Even if this is so, units of syntactical music have never been used as formal measure.
So what kind of poetry do you like?
The generation of poets who were considered established and whose works I admired when I was a young poet included Miller Williams, James Whitehead, James Dickey, Alan Dugan, and W. D. Snodgrass. Miller is simply the most accomplished formalist of that generation, a poet who casts what appears to be ordinary language in precise rhythms and exquisite forms. Few know of Whitehead’s poetry, but he wrote fine formal narrative poetry in the sixties and seventies, when almost nobody else was doing it.
Dugan wrote dramatic and luminous work, sometimes cruel. I remember a poem about building a house in which the carpentry becomes self-crucifixion. In the fashionable bitterness of the time, the narrator phrases the search for love as an appeal for someone to help him nail the other hand. The poem of his I remember most clearly is “The Branches of Water or Desire,” a beautiful imagistic and musical fugue that means as powerfully as a dream but eludes easy summation.
Snodgrass wrote formal and informal poems. I remember his book Heart’s Needle, about losing a child to divorce. I remember a poem in which creepy surgeons who could be mistaken for academics amputate the fierce god Garuda’s wings, muttering as they finish, “Yes, yes. One of ours.”
His most famous poem is probably “April Inventory,” long and brilliant and mordantly witty, the excellent nonce form handled with grace. I love the poem in spite of the fact that the grammar of the opening lines of the eighth stanza (“I have not learned there is a lie/ Love shall be blonder, slimmer, younger,”) contradicts the meaning. It’s obvious he means he has learned there is a lie (and just why it is obvious in spite of the grammar is a fascinating question).
When I speak of poets my age and younger (I hope the category is not too broad), I must necessarily speak only of those I have read. Some of those I read have critical reputations and publish frequently and in notable places. Some are practically unknown. In general, as you can probably guess, I have not gotten my ration of contemporary poetry from the magazines. Mostly I have quit reading the magazines, any of them. There is a whole world out there, and most of it is not on the map. Reviews do not appear to predict what I will like. Quite a few, those that trade in the usual vacuous assumptions, turn me off.
Larry Johnson is the last of the fearless lyricists, forcing language so that it squeals like bent steel. One of my favorite of his passages comes from the poem “When I Die”: “When I die let a bright ship leave for Sirius./Let them say his words were buffed chalcedony.” For a good selection of Larry’s work, you can buy his book Veins from David Robert, publisher.
I went to workshop with Leon Stokesbury and Frank Stanford and Sam Gwyn, and those guys are good. Leon began with irony and syllabics, but he’s a master of form when he wants to be. One his lines that I quote to myself over and over goes, “There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ And it will drag your ass right out to sea.” (And remember, when I quote, it means there are countless other examples I might have chosen.)
Frank was a boy genius, raised in riverside delta work camps and stoned on poetry. He flashed and thundered and poured down rain.
Sam is the best poetic satirist of the twentieth century, bar none. Not that he is not capable of plain feeling and straightforward music, but nobody even comes close to his marriage of wit and form. His ear is a marvel.
Johnny Wink has a poem titled “When Jesus Walked the Waters.” The first line, in its entirety, is “How?” The poem goes on to ask, in a tone of great reverence, “Did you adopt a surfer’s stance, oh my Lord,/ Or perpetrate a ghostly surface/ Six inches or so below the waves,/ And slosh along, a weird pedestrian?” Johnny is, I think, a Christian, but it would be fair to say he has questions. He does not question the miracle. He simply inquires, gently, into the exact nature of its manifestation, for even a miracle must occur in a specific way. It can’t just sort of happen.
Johnny’s poetry is mostly not available, except in one out-of-print book called Haunting the Winerunner (read the title poem—a wonderful treatment of a misunderstanding involving a Weimaraner). There must be thirty or forty lines of his in that book that stop me dead in my tracks: “Movies aren’t like life. They have endings.” Or “infinity of in within.” (Count the ins.) By way of full disclosure, I have been friends with Johnny for forty-five years and wrote the preface. By way of accuracy, I note that most of his best poetry has occurred since that book, and is not collected. You can probably get hold of Johnny through Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where he teaches.
I think of Frederick Turner and Frederick Feirstein together because I came to know them together at the first national conference on formal poetry, but they’re very different. They were leading lights in the New Formalism of the eighties and early nineties. Fred Turner is Founders Professor of Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, and probably the living man whose catholic knowledge of both science and the humanist tradition most amazes me. He has to be the most knowledgeable man alive. He’s a translator and the author of what seems like a dozen books on the actual nature of metaphysical things like truth and beauty and hope, stunning unions of sense and pattern. His poetry is almost always formal (though he knows forms from languages and histories you have never even conceived of), controlled, clear, honest to a fault, exact, moving. He has written an epic poem on the terraforming of Mars, if that gives you an idea.
Fred Feirstein is a psychiatrist in Manhattan who came to poetry through drama, and whose poems not infrequently feature actual back-and-forth dialogue (I’m talking different speakers here, folks, differentiated in their voices, and yet the whole joining in the liveliest of heroic couplets (The Cocktail Party). Lately he has been joining meter, rhyme, nursery tales, and a certain late-in-the-life-of-the-species angst.
Paul Lake, who teaches at Arkansas Tech in Russellville, Arkansas, is the author of several volumes of poetry and two extremely witty novels, one literary, one a fable, and has won the Porter Fund literary award. He’s the best out-and-out narrative and formal poet I know. He has an easy mastery of both talk and cadence. You know instantly when you begin one of his poems that you don’t have a thing to worry about, all your esthetic interests are in good hands.
Annie Finch is one of the best under-fifty poets I know, the editor of a number of anthologies including an anthology of women’s formal poetry. Peggy Shumaker writes a refreshing contemporary line, unafraid to whip common expression into surprising shapes. She is by no means a formalist. The last I knew of her, she was teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but that was fifteen years ago, and she has been married since. She might even have changed her name. David Dooley is not a formalist either. He almost single-handedly kept narrative poetry alive in the eighties. He writes a meaty poetry, rich with character and observation. Michael McFee writes a sturdy, eloquent line and explores the past—his own, his family’s, the land’s—with elegy, economy, modesty, and courage. He’s published pretty frequently in Poetry, among others. His books include Colander, Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board, and Plain Air.
I have read exactly one poem by Alan Shapiro, who works with Michael McFee at the University of North Carolina, a poem sent to me by Greg Brownderville, but that one poem, “Country Western” is so fine I’m certain he’s worth following. I love the way he shorts the ballad meter to such tremendous effect in the concluding line. Beautiful.
Kirsten Mustain is one of the few bright spirits in Oklahoma. A fine novelist, she edits a daily paper and has a bachelor’s in creative writing from the College of Santa Fe. She too, is a close friend. A yogini and one of the true wild hairs, literate without being literary in the stuffy sense, she sometimes writes the brutally honest music of a hated former love banging his motorcycle though the alley, sometimes meditates or celebrates the spirit in nature, sometimes flashes storybook fragments of familiar myth and legend as counters in a rapid-fire interrogation of our fondest assumptions and deepest certainties. She has published in a few magazines, but if you want to read her work, it would probably be quicker to visit her blog—just do a search for Kirsten Mustain.
John Freeman is a talented formalist most of whose poetry is not strictly formal, but whose stately cadences, naturalistic intensity and detail, and clarity of thought make the question irrelevant. He most memorably describes, in order to counter the reductive thought and narrow imagination it offers, an archetype of the age: the rational empiricist. I can recommend Illusion on the Louisiana Side and In the Place of Singing, and he has gotten better since.
Scott Standridge once wrote a sonnet a day for a whole year. You can find the record on the internet under the name The Sonnet Project. Some of them are pretty good. He loves horror fiction and has created what is, to my thinking, a splendid new mini-genre, the horror sonnet.
I’ve had the chance to read a good bit of William Wright’s poetry, and I am impressed. It’s good to know that the passion for saying it just right moves as powerfully as ever in at least a few people. His language is urgent and full of energy. The very roots practically writhe, and they certainly live and breathe. The rivers run rapid and full of ghost. Because I admire William’s work so much and assume that talent finds talent, I am certain I will like Dan Morris’s work, and trust their taste: I would think that Town Creek is a good place to keep up with what is real in poetry, with writers who care about their subject and respect their language.
Greg Brownderville is a blazing intellect and thoroughly genuine mensch who absorbs languages to keep himself sharp, meditates continually, and documents the folklore of Africa, native Americans, or his own Arkansas Delta cotton country in his prose as well as his poems. A master of rhetoric and rhythm, Greg can pound out hardhitting pentameter, tight sonnets with a real kick at the end, or gravelly free-verse as authentic as his characters. He publishes pretty well, is a hell of a blues singer (his band was called Root Music) and got his degree in writing from the University of Mississippi.
You can find a good sample of his work in Deep Down in the Delta.
I can’t close without mentioning my good friend, the wandering Shakespearean actor, film director, script writer, cocksman, and poet, now touring China in flames and glory, Joe Graves.
If even I, who have made no particular effort to keep up, can think of so many, surely there must be ten or twenty or a hundred times that many more who keep the faith. Poetry is in good hands then, and it’s probably silly to waste time worrying about bad poets and poetry. But you have to admit they make easy targets and it’s fun.
You notice I have not said anything about the political views of the good people I talk about above. Trust me, they’re all over the map.
Speaking as one who is both a novelist and a poet, I would say that any decent modern novelist employs, hundreds of times in a given book, all of the devices of the typical contemporary poet. What the “poet” usually does is isolate a strategy, repeat it ad infinitum, and declare the mannerism a voice.
David Dooley and Paul Lake notwithstanding, where have all the narrative poems gone? What about the building of character through speech and dialogue? (Real character, not some pale narrator whose psychology is either not explicable in human terms or is the vague poetic ghost of the author.) Or a related question: What about dramatic situation? Do lyric poets really so misconceive the value of drama that the only plot they are capable of is that of the poet having an experience and commenting on said experience? (What Greg Brownderville calls the poet-speaking-into-void dramatic situation. Oh how thrilling.)
I want words to live by, words that commend themselves to my memory. And by memorability I do not mean we remember there is such a poem and so may find it and read it from time to time. I mean that the poem is alive inside us. No book necessary. I carry thousands of lines in my being, and that’s a pittance compared to what my ancestors could do.
There’s just no way to possess a poem other than to memorize it. It is then a part of you, indissoluble until you yourself dissolve.
I heard a Nobel Prize winner read. Although he has written well in the past, this piece was incredibly static and dull. Intended as a long Homeric narrative, it was instead windy undifferentiated description, page after endless page of wordy scenery. No story, no characters, no surprise.
Just huge chunks of attitude and vatic pronouncement.
Naturally the audience applauded, having attended the reading of a Nobel winner. As the “high seriousness” poet said afterwards, "Wasn't that kicking? I mean, the sheer presence of the man." I would have preferred the sheer presence of poetry, but this time I was smart enough to hold my tongue.
There is one allowable discourse today. It is vague and simplistic, impossible to pin down, but recognizable by its zeitgeist. One may read it, if one does not mind being bored to tears by the iteration of loaded words and concepts, the fuzzy thinking, the disjointed syntax, the sheer numbing repetitive sameness, in every poetry rag on the shelves of every hip coffee-bar newsstand.
By contrast, the poetry that I enjoy is neither stupid nor rigid. It is a poetry that may be read and appreciated by any intelligent reader, whose techniques are observable directly and do not require extended commentary to explain why they are so wonderful, so earth-shatteringly exploratory. It is also a poetry which may be instantly distinguished from prose.
I do not believe that human apperception has changed so radically that what worked before, and has always worked in all cultures, no longer works. I do applaud adaptation, change, the sort of lightning that bestows freshness and a quickening of relevance. I am convinced that poetry is a physical art, a sort of performance, a motion within the body. The poetry I love gets to me physically—it dances, and I cannot resist dancing along with it.
The poetry I love is poetry in which talent counts, wit counts, laughter counts, courtesy counts, true wildness counts. It is a poetry of courage and not sniping, a poetry of grace as much as earnestness, a poetry in which no poet may hide his or her limitations, because there are, actually, standards.
It aint po-biz, that's for sure.