November 21, 2010

Louise Bogan, Consultant in Poetry, 1945-'46

(My series on the Poet Laureates (Consultants in Poetry) continues below with a review of Louise Bogan’s aesthetic and works. By way of introduction: Bogan was a notable poetry critic at The New Yorker for almost forty years. In her reviews, she refused to mince words to spare anyone’s feelings, not even those of her friends. The practice of writing “negative” (or critical) reviews of books of poetry is so out of fashion today that honest criticism has all but disappeared. Contemporary critics and editors evidently think of poetry as a small, precarious raft floating on an ocean, crowded with a handful of castaways. The smallest of criticisms might unbalance the raft and result in the drowning of everyone. This ill-conceived attempt at self-preservation has resulted in a glut of Pollyanna reviews, and a general inflation of praise. Unsurprisingly, the number of “positive” (or sycophantic) reviews has caused readers to flee poetry. Soft-handed critics cause the disillusionment of readers and writers, alike. Of course, the bitter critic, too, may pursue self-serving agendas; I do not suggest that we confuse negativity with honesty. But if poetry is ever to escape the boutique it has become ensconced in, the escape must begin with critics and editors. I like to think Bogan would agree.)

The obscurity and obsessiveness of Louise Bogan’s work is often flirtatious and only sometimes consummatory. The reader departs her poems in a fog, disoriented by the brightness of her voice and the obliqueness of her song. At her best, Bogan produces lines that conjure up Rilke or Yeats: “I burned my life, that I might find / A passion wholly of the mind.” She is capable of disarming frankness, though she often recoils from the exposure, retreating into a tangle of abstractions and symbols.

She is a syntactical savant; her lines are garden paths that become mazes that becomes thickets. Other than the occasional reference to classical mythology, her work is devoid of proper nouns; the scene is generic and only populated by the characters “I” and “you.” Unlike Robert Penn Warren who used the “you” to huddle the reader nearer, when Bogan addresses the “you,” the reader is certain that she is speaking over their head to someone out of view. Bogan's obsessions are unapologetic and often sophomoric; she is a proud broken heart, but keeps her psyche on a short leash, as evidenced by her limited sentiments and sardonic gestures.

Bogan’s poems are difficult and bullish. The reader who persists is rewarded with moments of profundity and wonderful turns of phrase, as is evidenced by her poem, “Question in a Field.”
Pasture, stone wall, and steeple,
What most perturbs the mind:
The heart-rending homely people,
Or the horrible beautiful kind?
While there are revelatory moments, especially related to the subjects of beauty, love, and the nature of femininity, Bogan’s preference for abstractions and symbolism keeps readers at arms length, and the arcane qualities of her voice and subjects make her appear priggish. She seems a poet who aged but did not grow; a poet who fears exposure but who is still drawn to the burlesque show.

Bogan favored a narrow stripe of themes, and is probably best remembered as a poet of classical myths. In truth, her poems about Medusa, Cassandra, and Leda are good, but they don’t transcend the genre. If, for example, you don’t know that Zeus transformed himself into a shower of gold and (inexplicably) raped Danae, the conclusion of her poem “Stanza” makes no sense.

And the truth of the matter is, Bogan chiefly used myths as a way to encrypt her favorite theme. The most pronounced theme in her poems is love, and more particularly the life-cycle of the relationship, from initial flirtation, to the torment of the daily domestic negotiation, to the inevitable abuses and collapse of passion, to the recovery there from. While her poems lack personal detail (and do so defiantly), the quality of her poems about relationships suggest that they originate in experience rather than observation. From “Portrait:”
What she has gathered, and what lost,
She will not find to lose again.
She is possessed by time, who once
Was loved by men.
Often her poems on the subject of love will be developed or resolved by allusions to nature. Unlike Warren, Bogan handles nature as a symbol, an emotional alphabet, rather than as an essence of location or an object deserving study. When her poems turn towards nature, it often seems merely a gesture: a feigning attempt at perspective. But the strength of Bogan’s poems is not their perspective, but rather their lyrical, metrical, and syntactical obsessiveness; qualities well represented in her poem, “Simple Autumnal.”
The cone, the curving fruit should fall away,
The vine stem crumble, ripe grain know its sheaf.
Bonded to time, fires should have done, be brief,
But, serfs to sleep, they glitter and they stay.
Despite her preoccupation with love and nature, Bogan was no romantic. Indeed, Bogan offers a criticism of romanticism which seems to herald the feminism of the ‘60s. In Bogan’s hands, romanticism is characterized as a poetic ornament of chauvinism: a formalized process of dehumanizing a woman to produce a misogynist ideal. In her poem “The Romantic,” Bogan illuminates the true romantic process:
In her obedient breast all that ran free
You thought to bind, like echoes in a shell.
Allusions to claustrophobia and seclusion are often employed by Bogan to characterize the oppression of women. In “Women,” Bogan combines the claustrophobic trope with her characteristic sarcasm.
Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.
Bogan seems at her bristling best when she addresses the domineering nature of men. The oppression of women cannot be curtailed by love, because it is the idea of romantic love which essentially legitimizes the oppression. The failure of a relationship is often attributed by Bogan to an insidious misogyny, as in her poem “For a Marriage:”
She gives most dangerous sight
To keep his life awake:
A sword sharp-edged and bright
That darkness must not break,
Not ever for her sake.
Even so, Bogan is the first to admit that reason and knowing do not inoculate a person from passion. She explores the baffling compulsion of love in her poems, “The Alchemist,” “The Crows,” and “Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom,” which includes the lines, “Heart, so subtle now, and trembling,/What a marvel to be wise,/To love never in this manner!”

Much of her poetry is not so coherent. Often her verse is turned opaque by abstractions and lyric, leaving readers with a sense that they are reading an awkward translation of a non-English poem. On such occasions, reader’s can easily discern the tone and gist of the work, but it is difficult to not feel that Bogan is being coy. In her ironically titled poem, “Didactic Piece,” she concludes with the riddling lines:
We wait, we hear, facing the mask without eyes,
Grief without grief, facing the eyeless music.
Such moments suggest that Bogan is bearing down on her poem much as she is bearing down on us. In her attempt to purify her poem of self-reference and exuberant error, Bogan’s work begins to seem inhuman. Bogan is easiest to enjoy on the rare occasions when she allows herself a little liberty, as is the case with “I Saw Eternity,” “Poem in Prose,” and “Several Voices Out of a Cloud,” which should be enjoyed in its entirety, and which notably concludes with the bad-ass lines:
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
And it isn’t for you.
This poem alone is enough justification for Bogan being made Consultant in Poetry. Her verse may have been repressed and arcane and labyrinthine at times, but she was fearless. I admire those who can be bold despite their vulnerability, and Bogan is a great example of such bravery.

October 22, 2010

Robert Penn Warren, Consultant in Poetry, 1944-'45

(Robert Penn Warren has the distinction of being on the list of U.S. Consultant/Laureates twice. In fact, he would become the first poet to occupy the station after the title was officially changed to “Laureate” in 1986. The following entry in my series on the U.S. Poet Laureates focuses primarily on the poetry that he wrote before he became the third Consultant in Poetry; I’ll write about his later works once I work my way to his second term. Warren’s career as a fiction writer and critic are equally estimable, but not discussed here.)

By 1944 when he became the Consultant in Poetry, Robert Penn Warren had established himself as a poet who wrote for an American audience as if it were culturally and historically distinct. Whereas previous Consultants, Auslander and Tate, seemed to be bridegrooms of the English poetic tradition, Robert Penn Warren shared a bloodline with Whitman and Stevens. Though Warren's early work lacked some of the yop, he carried on Whtiman’s investigation of American identity and culture, in all its metaphysical and moral weirdness. His use of Southern lore and landscape is more human and fraught than Tate’s often moral and bucolic portrayals. And though Warren’s poetry is at times inscrutable, the idiom that he wrote in was generally more popular than previous Consultants. If Auslaunder was an occasional poet, and Tate was an academic, then Warren was as an empathist fascinated by the inconsistencies of human nature. Though Tate and Warren both belonged the coterie of Southern poets called the Fugitives, Warren emerged as the greater outlaw.

Probably the most remarkable quality of Warren’s work, especially in the context of previous Consultants, is his choice of subjects. Warren writes about summer vacations, mass murderers, mama’s boys, Mexican border tourism, and doctor’s visits, describing each with an outsider’s sense of awe but with the astuteness of an insider. In his poem “End of Season,” Warren explores the American vacation, the national urge to tourism, and how these escapes are, at their base, a denial of mortality.
...the annual sacrament of sea and sun,
Which browns the face and heals the heart, will seem
Silence, expectant to the answer, which is Time
In his poem “Pursuit,” Warren revisits the American vacation, but to this he adds the modern doctor visit, depression and alienation. In this case, the vacation is a prescribed cure to feelings of malaise and anxiety, though one which cannot really solve the vacationer's underlying dread.
Till you sit alone-- which is the beginning of error--
Behind you the music and lights of the great hotel:
Solution, perhaps, is public, despair personal
While other poets were writing about grand abstractions, institutions, and landscapes, Warren was writing about individuals disoriented by their place in modernity. Warren often employed the universal “you” on the occasions that he wrote about common cultural experiences, but it is an inclusive gesture rather than a divisive one; Warren seems to include himself among the universal other.

One of the challenges one experiences while reading Warren’s work is that he is alternately sincere and ironic, which makes his tone sometimes ambiguous. This poetic choice doesn't seem to be the result of dishonesty or ambivalence but rather the honest sentiments of an empathetic man. The conflicted tone reflects the difficulty and integral contradictions of his subjects, which leaves readers, as often as not, without a tidy moral sum at the conclusions of poems.

In “Letter from a Coward to a Hero” Warren turns his talents to the prickly subject of war. He does not comment on war in the abstract, nor does he pound out another nationalistic ode to valor, rather the poem is styled as a personal address to an unidentified soldier. In that address, Warren confesses his own dislike of guns and violence, and describes the causes of war in diminutive and mundane terms. What is often painted as glorious, he describes her as fragmented and chaotic.

Later in the poem, Warren describes the heroic soldier, home from the war, adrift in a suburban life, sitting up late at night. That poem concludes with the soldier contemplating what may be a piece of shrapnel that nearly killed him or the medal awarded for his heroics:
You are what you are without our aid.
No doubt, when corridors are dumb
And the bed is made,
It is your custom to recline,
Clutching between the forefinger and thumb
Honor, for death shy valentine.
On reflection, a reader may understand that when earlier in the poem Warren writes “I think you deserve better;/Therefore I am writing you this letter,” he is speaking both of how a nation honors its soldiers and that tricky concept of “honor” itself, which seems here little better than a memento, a trinket, upon later reflection. The grandiosity of the hero is struck from the scene, and we are left to consider the residue of the man rather than the brief, heroic act.

Warren doesn’t create straw-men characters in his poems; if there’s ever an easy target, it seems to often be himself: he is the dupe, the coward, the bumbler. Though he is often self-conscious, he does not lose a sense of his proportion to the world. When he describes seeing an old beggar while touring Mexico in the poem “The World Comes Galloping: A True Story”, his sense of perspective is succinctly expressed:
We could not see his history, we saw
And he saw us, but could not see we stood
Huddled in our history and stuck out hand for alms.
This reveals one of Warren’s greatest qualities: his honesty. Exaggeration is both easy and common in the genre, and necessarily so: the condensed nature of the poem requires, on some occasions, a heightened delivery reminiscent of a stage actor’s. But Warren rarely exaggerates to swell a point, unless it be to comedic effect, and even when dealing with his favorite themes of mortality and time, he animates his ideas with simpler anecdotes and characters.

When Warren writes with some pomp or grandness, it is often to great effect. In his poem “History,” Warren addresses the imperviousness of time and a culture’s increasing indifference towards historical knowledge. The poem ends:
In the new land
Our seed shall prosper, and
In those unsifted times
Our sons shall cultivate
Peculiar crimes
Having not love, nor hate,
Nor memory.
Though “History” concludes with a clear moral, this is seldom the case with Warren’s early work. Warren’s work shows a preference for the aside, the wink, and the abrupt about-face: poetic moves which sometimes make his poems difficult to unravel. “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” a fourteen page poem, takes a sprawling family history of poverty and deviance and lands it on the pinhead of “luck” and a arresting implication of the reader. It is a baffling conclusion to what had been a relatively direct parable. “The Return: An Elegy” reads like a schizophrenic episode as two voices intrude upon each other and bicker with themselves, and never seems to entirely develop outside of the moody symbolism.

Warren’s obscureness seems a symptom not of his “genius,” that all too common excuse for oblique writing, but seems an outgrowth of the same empathy that makes his work so honest and compelling. Warren captures the empathetic experience in which there is no clear hierarchy of subjects, no unified perspective, and few conclusion are drawn. The sometimes confusing result asks the reader to sift through the equally emphasized (or understated) objects and symbols, to consider the idea or event from multiple perspectives, including the universal or historical lens, and to embrace the ambiguity of the experience. As a result, reading Warren can be exhausting.

Much of Warren’s early work is formal, with consistent patterns of meter and rhyme, and though his rhymes are inventive and his lyric pleasing, the music of his poems seem tertiary to the associations and the meaning. His poems churn as much as they turn, and while the poet’s biography, his mortality and tics, are never very far from the margins of the poems, the reader never feels the claustrophobia that came to characterize later confessional poets. Perhaps this is because of Warren’s charming honesty, his ability to converse without complaint, his habitual inclusion of the reader, and his skill for never letting the landscape, the immediate and present world, leave the reader’s mind for very long. Warren expresses his ability and limitations best in his later poem “The Letter About Money, Love, or Other Comfort, If Any” where he writes:
[I] discovered I had a small knack
for honesty, but only a passion, like a disease, for Truth
I take this as explanation for why his early poems sometimes baffle and why I still leave them with a sense of having had a sincere and meaningful experience.

September 23, 2010

Allen Tate, Consultant in Poetry, 1943-'44

(What follows is another installment in my series of posts on the American Poet Laureates. I've undertaken the project for my own education; any instance in which I sound authoritative should be regarded with suspicion. Further, I have limited myself to study of the primary texts (the poems) with only minor supplements from biographers and critics. If any musing contradicts the reality expressed in the superior scholarship of others, it is doubtlessly the result of my ignorance, not their error.)

Reading a poem by Allen Tate is like navigating a museum: each phrase, each line, requires scrutiny as a distinct item in the museum’s collection, and when the poem in its entirety is considered, the reader, like a museum goer, is suffused with a sense of history, tradition, and an appreciation for craft which provides the spontaneity of inspiration with a skeletal frame. The museum is not trying to be obtuse, but the coherence of a museum is not the same coherence of a story or a play.

You do not run through Tate’s museums. You do not scan or skim. You stroll, you dally, you sit on a bench and puzzle it out.

In contrast to Auslander’s populist verse, Tate’s formal and carefully metered poetry is often uninterested in accessibility or amiable subjects. Similarly to Auslander, Tate seems a traditionalist, a romantic, and a preservationist.

Indeed, Tate is often an epideictic poet: he uses rhetoric and irony to praise and blame the various subjects of his careful meditation. He is also a didact, spending some time instructing us on the finer sinews of history: classical, American Southern, and modern. He is sometimes a grump, but rarely is he unlikeable: his dislike of industrialization is faceted and political; his praise of nature and the pastoral is not misty or grand; his meditations on youth are frank and affecting. “The Swimmers,” for example, is a profound characterization of the horror that strikes us in our youth when we are exposed to violence before it is blunted by repetition, contextualization, and the rationalization of our social machinery. It’s also a most striking account of the aftermath of a lynching, and it shows Tate's own developed sense of race.

Despite these loose observations on the content of his work and despite the fact that he was an accomplished critic, Tate was never, it seems, as concerned with the content of his poems as he was with their meter, rhythm and form. Perhaps this preoccupation can be best elucidated by the poet himself as he describes his excitement at striking upon a manner for translating “The Vigil of Venus:”
...then I suddenly knew that I ‘had’ it. I had it, that it to say, in language that somewhat resembled English and in a metre that the English language can be written in: plain iambic pentameter, with anapaestic substitutions for the frequent falling rhythms of the original. The Latin is in trochaic septenarii, seven-footed lines with, at the end, an extra syllable which is usually accented, making eight accents...
Tate’s enthusiasm for meter and form, which far outstrips my own, sometimes makes his verse sound like complex machinery, and indeed his poems tend to wind and unwind rather than “turn.” Contributing to Tate’s “unwinding” verse is his miserly use of commas, the absence of which often requires a certain willingness among readers to live with the disheveled sentiment and the ambiguous dictum.

I have every confidence that Tate knew what he meant. I, however, being of reasonable analytical ability and fair patience, often have only inklings, guesses, and, on occasions, angry gestures of despair.

Tate’s poetry is staid and ironic. Even when he is criticizing a man or his practice, Tate maintains his decorum. This calm sounds, I think, sometimes aloof to modern ears:

Didactic Laurel, loose your reasoning leaf
Into my trembling hand; assert your blade
Against the Morning Star, enlightening Thief

Of that first Mother who returned the Maid.

But Tate’s tone conjures both the Southern culture in which he was raised and the classical education he received. What may seem like pretense is actually his pedigree.

He was Consultant in Poetry (what later became referred to as "Poet Laureate") from 1943-44, and it was around this time that he wrote the poem, “Ode to Our Young Pro-consuls of the Air.” The Ode stands in contrast to Auslander’s blithely patriotic verse, though Tate’s tone and form in this case somewhat resembles Auslander’s (and the popular) aesthetic. In the Ode, Tate expresses what could not have possibly been a popular sentiment: namely, that poets were not lackeys of the state, that the polaristic nature of military conflict was antithetical to the moral and rational mind, and that the refusal of poets to act as fonts of propaganda had never hastened any military conflict, past or present, and critics who said otherwise were more the coward than the reflective poet. Tate harps on the cultural characterization of war, its ubiquity in boyhood toys, and its over simplification in historical review. He also concludes the poem with the most acerbic of adjournments:
Take off, O gentle youth,
And coasting India
Scale crusty Everest
Whose mythic crest
Resists your truth;
And spying far away

Upon the Tibetan plain
A limping caravan,
Dive, and exterminate
The Lama, late
Survival of old pain.
Go kill the dying swan.
This seems brave to me, and it seems an interesting and hopeful precedent to set: the laureate is not the nation’s ad man.

One of Tate’s most beloved saws was the defense of (and conversely, the assault of) Romanticism. Tate, a Romantic seemingly in the tradition of Wordsworth and Blake, vies in several of his poems to characterize the institution. His poem, “To the Romantic Traditionalists,” insinuates that inferior romantics are superficial (or perhaps, metaphysical), mystical (as opposed to religiously observant or at least faithful), and cavalier in their handling of morality and mortality. Like Auslander, Tate uses the poetic form to comment upon and direct the poetic tradition. Like Auslander, Tate calls folks out. But Tate’s treatment of the poets he addresses is more severe. In “Winter Mask,” Tate seems to chide the late Yeats as a minister dismissed from the room of a dying man:

I asked the master Yeats
Whose great style could not tell
Why it is man hates
His own salvation,
Prefers the way to hell,
And finds his last safety
In the self-made curse that bore
Him towards damnation:
The drowned undrowned by the sea,
The sea worth living for.

But, as with much of Tate’s poetry, the ending sentiment is not entirely clear. I like Tate best when he begins to lose his temper or when he allows flecks of cynicism to spangle his verse. “The Ivory Tower,” “To the Lacedemonians,” and “Two Conceits” are each, in their own ways, chinks in Tate’s cloak of inscrutable and swift associations. At his most obscure, Tate's writing is like a door without hinges:

O Pasiphae! mother of god, lest nature,
Peritonitis or morning sickness stunt
The growth of god in an unwholesome juice,
Eat cannon and cornflakes, that the lamb,
Spaceless as snow, may spare the rational earth
(Weary of prodigies and the Holy Runt)
A second prodigious, two-legged birth.

Even to his contemporaries, Tate was regarded with a cocked eyebrow. He is often now called a poet’s poet, a dubious distinction which has not, apparently, been continued. His work is increasingly omitted from college-level anthologies; if he is remembered at all, it is for his poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” which is obscure, difficult, and finally insufficient. He has become a poet’s poet’s poet, irrelevant to a generation which discounts form and prizes innovation, a generation which is suspicious of tradition and prizes tribalism.

To the pedestrian readers of poetry, Tate must sound generally dour, pessimistic, and severe. The clime of his poems is dreary in description and effect. It is his sound, his meter which is finally most memorable because his meaning is so often laced up with a knot at the top, middle, and bottom.

September 8, 2010

Joseph Auslander, Consultant in Poetry, 1937-1941

Joseph Auslander wore the laurel of Consultant in Poetry from 1937 to 1941. He spent four years in the hot seat, published a dozen-something books, including a couple of novels, and was a regular contributor of poetry to the Saturday Evening Post, and for all his tapping at the national consciousness, for all the marks he made on our common cultural wall, Auslander has been almost entirely forgotten.

I wanted to correct this error, but I have been unable to produce much of a reason for recalling the man or his work. If anything can be gleaned from sifting through Auslander’s poetry it may be that writing to and from a conservative present hastens one's induction into the unfossilized past.

Auslander’s work can be generally characterized as starchy verse expressing inflexible sentiments. Cliches, in Auslander's poetic cornucopia, are treated as finished dishes to be served under silver bells rather than the over-boiled vegetables that they are. In 1936 he was the last poet to use "unshriven" in a poem without smirking.

Auslander contributed poetry to the Saturday Evening Post over the course of three decades, his poems often buried between columns in the center of the page. The poems that appeared in the SEP were generally short, formal homilies which generally addressed patriotic, military, or religious themes. His broadly circulated poetry is short on sentiment, but long on wind, as demonstrated by these later lines in his poem "Christmas Catechism:"

Can the bells of Christmas banish
Horror camp, inhuman lust?
Can the scars of hatred vanish?
Can Faith quiet our distrust?
Can the Dove of Christendom
Dwell with the Atomic Bomb?

It is difficult to discuss his work without being snide. But Auslander was at least sincere and purposed, and his causes, such as religious tolerance and human rights, were generally noble, though occasionally jingoistic. Of course, his work is also pompous and clinking, but this is made, perhaps, forgivable by the fact that Auslander was interested in neither lyricism nor the ambiguity of metaphor. Rather, he created instructive verse which employed simple rhymes because they would adhere to one’s memory most firmly. The imperativeness of his writing reflects his profession; he was a teacher for much of his career, filling lecterns at both Harvard and Columbia.

The poems that appeared in the SEP were populist and occasional, patriotic and religious, and Auslander's longevity at the post suggests that they were favorably received by the readership. By comparison, the poems in the book More Than Bread (1936) were by and large preoccupied with the dullest of poetic subjects: poetry. Over a dozen of the poems in the collection reference poetry, poets, and/or the poetic tradition directly, including the poems “Poet and Spider,” “To The New Poets,” “To the Poets Who Fly Left,” “The Poet Purses His dreams” and the catastrophic free verse poem, “I Am Poetry.” In every case, Auslander is sermonic in his insistence that 1.) Poetry is form, and 2.) Poetry is being ruined by a new generation of poets who don’t understand that poetry is form. Auslander laments “our raucous time,” “our restless hour,” and “these amorphous days,” as being incapable of producing or appreciating formal verse. He touts the genius Keats, Coleridge, and Heraclitus, and often worries about the lack of music in the new generation's poetry.

The poem, “I Am Poetry” deserves a little more attention if for no other reason than it seems unique to Auslander’s work, being written in free verse. It is also arguably insane.

Each of the seventeen stanzas begin with the phrase, “I am Poetry,” and each stanza proceeds to catalog the ubiquity and grandeur of poetry, which is apparently a snake-oil cure-all. Complicating this exuberance is the question of the speaker. The “I” here seems to be Poetry personified. Of course, it may also be read as the personification of the poem (a very postmodern move on Auslander’s part).

Or the “I,” most troublingly, may be Auslander himself. This reading is supported by the lines, “I confront you with Keats,” which seems to come directly from the poet’s mouth, but is then complicated by the line, “I am Poetry/And I am the vision/Without which the people perish,” which seems a little extreme, and “I am taller than the Empire State Building,” which seems hysterical. A careful reader will notice that the poem references several tropes from earlier poems in the collection, suggesting that either Auslander is flattering himself or that he is an unimaginative poet who believes there is some poetic weight left to the phrase, “I lift the heavy heart/With a rainbow or a leaf,” which is, coincidentally, how he concludes this six page poem.

To call Auslander’s poetry “light verse” would be misleading because it is so often leaden, sermonic and bleak. But when he veers into lighter subjects, such as love, the result is so awkward and feckless that it seems self-mocking.

Love will never be found
By searching here and there;
Love is all around,
Nowhere, and everywhere,
And nowhere abound.

One year after publishing this poem Auslander was appointed Consultant in Poetry.

August 31, 2010

On the Laurels of the Laureates

A few years ago, I opened my literature classes with the question, "Who is the current Poet Laureate of the United States?" Almost uniformly, I was answered with, "What's a Poet Laureate?" A few enterprising students responded with the names of poets they knew, Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. It was easy for me to supply the correct who to my question because I'd cheated and looked it up, but it was much more difficult for me to answer the what of their response.

The Poet Laureate is chosen by the Librarian of the Congress, presumably after consulting a few back issues of the New Yorker. The Laureate collects a modest annual salary of $35,000 and for this wage, is required to present their lyrical mastery once over the course of the year. The Laureate often elects to do some civic laboring to promote the value and humanity of Capital-P-Poetry, but they aren't required to do much more than pursue their work, and that at their leisure.

The first Poet Laureate wasn't called a laureate but a "Consultant in Poetry," a post that was first filled in 1937 by Joseph "Saturday Evening Post" Auslander. "Consultant" sounds both bureaucratic and inconsequential, sort of like the "Assistant Producer" designation of movies, but it was a title held by some lauded poets; Bishop, Williams, Frost, and Lowell all sported the modest "Consultant" moniker. This fame of personage, however, has not always been the norm for the post. Most of the Consultants appear to have been elected by a process of spinning a bottle at a New York party. I'm looking at you, Leonie.

Then in 1986 the Consultant became the "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," a title which not even a Laureate's mother could deliver without smirking. For means of comparison, the first British Poet Laureate was appointed in the late fifteenth century by Henry VII, and he, Bernard Andre, wrote mostly in Latin. I don't mean to suggest that we Yanks should feel insecure about the length of our laurels.

It's hard to argue that the Laureate is the most prestigious or gifted or productive of poets. It's hard to argue for their cultural relevance as poetry continues to be a kind of cultural charity supported by grants, prizes, benefactors, and academies. The Laureate isn't required to write poems for inaugurations or ceremonies, though they sometimes have, so it's hard to argue that they act as a formal poetic voice to the country. What, then, is the Laureate? How are they chosen? Do we need one? Does having a Laureate do poets any favors, or are we performing an autocoronation without a kingdom? Why is our current Laureate an 82 year old who lives on top of a dead volcano in Hawaii?

Quick now: who is it? Who is the Laureate?

I have many questions, many suspicions, and one or two prejudices, but only piddling experience on the subject of Laureates. So I'm going to look into it. I'm going to read every one of the Laureates, starting at the beginning with Joseph "Precious Moments" Auslander, and I'm going to log my findings here as crooked proof. I have no intention of producing a fair or entire portrait of these men and women, but I will give them a reasonable read, and I will place all of my remarks in the cowardly brackets of irony to stave off any earnest or academic discourse.

August 23, 2010

Clique to Enlarge

Pretentiousness is the religion of cliques; it is forceful and insensitive, formal and slow to change. The closer we cling to a clique, the more we must denounce our own proclivities, our strangeness, our tastes.

Pretension allows for many sins but few virtues. We denounce ourselves, and the denouncement makes us fierce advocates of the church of our clique. A shared pretension gives distinction and security to clique members, but it is a uniform distinction and a restrictive security. No one in a clique has any real respect for anyone else in the clique because it is well known that all players are frauds to some degree, and besides, membership doesn't rid anyone of the competitive urge. We still crave distinction within our sphere of distinction. This is the nature of the Pharisee: to be alone at the center of devotion, to ascend upon a faith that is shared but not real.

The common element of all cliques is that from even a modest distance they seem absurd to an outside observer. The observer will see a delirious mob of people all pretending to be unique and alone.

August 9, 2010

The Music in the Skipping Record

I’m not a fan of biographies, especially when the subject of such navel unravelling is a poet. I am not interested in being the article that eclipses the noun. And that is what a poet is: an article. A particle. The poem on the other hand, if it’s any good and fantastically lucky, is the immortal spirit. It is not, after all, the thought of Keats coughing blood onto his pillow that make me buzz. It is his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Much as I have never taken to biographies, I often shudder at the autobiographical poem. For me, a poem which explicitly makes the author known has always had a waft of advertisement to it. Autobiography is exaggeration, and a poem that exaggerates only ever wins half the reader’s confidence.

There is nothing wrong with writing about yourself, but it is so much more interesting when you don’t. When we write about ourselves slantways, we entice folks nearer to our little campfires. We have to write about the world and strangers directly because we are more responsible when we do. We exaggerate the lives of others less because telling their story requires imagination, and imagination has an evener hand than confession.

Though I do not think of Keats very often, his poems have put their fingerprints all over me. I think of his poems because they are helpful: their order, their language, their sentiment, their humanity. They help me think straight and feel straight. His poems are little preserves of his way of thinking, the connections he drew, the preferences he held. Preservation is, of course, the soul of autobiography; the poem is a kind of syntactical autobiography.

Some folks think in the forms, rhythms, and language of a poem. We call it poetry because if we called it, “pretty thoughts that I organized for others,” who would be interested? We act like poetry is a calling; we treat our poets like priests or we hope to be treated like priests. But it isn’t a calling; it is the residue of internal patterns. Which I find endlessly more charming and encouraging than any mystical mutterance.

All biographies are autobiographies. It is the biographer’s ethic and penchant and history that is the final revelation. Biographical criticism, in particular, would be improved if critics included in their works pictures of their father and mother. If they want to play Freud, let them play Freud nudely.

August 3, 2010

Poetica Exotica

Sometime in the last century, poetic language changed. It went from being sermonic, florid, and familiar, to being obscure, petty, and obtuse. Poets, especially those serving the canon, shifted meaning from the poem to the individual words.

Chalk it up to the Modernists, if you like; I tend to point the finger at Yeats because he made language a religious experience, but the esoteric poetic has lost little of its prestige in recent decades.

The result of this shift has been a homogenization of lyric, a messy divorce from readers, and an explosion of crossword puzzles posing as poems. And still, ask a poet to define poetry, and almost uniformly they will begin by ruminating on the distillation of language and the righteousness of every word. The pompousness of this definition is infectious: young poet logophiles pour out erudite absurdities, while established poets seek out unused and unusual words to make turgid sentiments seem new.

The subtext of this preference for exotic language is that poetry does not exist in the vernacular, the cultural, the relational. Rather, poetry lives in the academy, the Hermetic, the dead. The chief amusement that poetry offers readers now is a linguistic faddism. Observing the vogue-cycles of poetic words is good sport. "Sepulcher" is out, "moxibustion" is in.

When a sophomore writes an essay that is furious with arcane synonyms and academic jargon but which signifies nothing, I am sad because they have mistaken intellectualism for thought. When an amateur guitarist buys a $3,000 Les Paul so he can play a three-chord Eagles song for his girlfriend, I am sad because he has mistaken the tool for the effort. When parents name their child Archibald Marzipan Dewlap the Third, I am sad because the kid is going to be kicked around the playground.

Poets worry that a critique of the current poetic will necessitate a dumbing-down of their work, but let me be the first to assure you that the current poetic can't get much dumber.

July 27, 2010

The How-To Cult of the Wroter

I would really appreciate a how-to-write book which begins with the following disclaimer: “More than likely, you don’t like to write; you just want to be a writer.”

The authors of these how-to-write books generally omit the following disquieting points:

1. Feeling like a writer has nothing to do with being a writer. Self-esteem is the product of repeated failure, self-doubt, honest assessment, and repetition of the proceeding steps. Any direction as to how you should prepare yourself emotionally for the creative moment is irrelevant because the authors of such directions are probably not psychologists or behaviorists and certainly do not know you. How-tos that tell you how to become inspired is as ridiculous as me telling you how to feel on your birthday and then you trying to feel that way. Feelings are your business, figuratively and, if you are a writer of even rudimentary ability, literally.

2. Most of us are not an expert, not even on the subject of our own lives. The relative homogeny of our experience, which is generally articulated by media cliches, gives each of us a false sense of expertise. Most of us, with only a glancing understanding, may feel like an expert on an impossibly broad spectrum of subjects, from the superiority of the American version of The Office, to the presence of life on Mars. Writing what you know is not the same as having something to say.

3. Understanding other writers and their process does little to improve our understanding of ourselves or the world. Unless our aim is to impersonate, we would be better served reading the United States Tax Code than any how-to-write treatise. A writer writes a book about the mystical process of writing for the very pragmatic reason that they need money and are out of ideas for writing anything else. Except Rilke. He gets a pass on his charm alone.

4. We are told that writers must play all of the following parts: writers, editors, agents, publishing consultants, marketers, networkers, and spokespeople. Many how-to books will outline the process of publication and success with breezy simplicity, when in truth the process of publication and success is absurd, capricious, and often unique. Getting published is much like losing your virginity: many people have very specific ideas about how it should go but the moment itself follows no script. Writers must be writers. The market is glutted with great networkers and expert marketers, but there are very few writers anywhere on the bookstore shelves.

Tellingly, many writing how-tos often share a common tone and idiom that is reminiscent of a devotional. It is common for the authors of writing-instruction-books to adopt the idiom of religion (especially Eastern religions which still smack of exoticism to Americans) in their efforts to mystify a relatively simple compulsion which has been learned for generations through the still-simpler process of: 1. Reading great works and 2. Writing copious amounts of mediocre crap.

Based on the evidence of the how-tos, I can only assume that would-be writers are incapable, uninspired, and uncommitted to the task. Apparently, would-be writers must be goaded into the ritual of work, reassured as to their writerly purpose, and cajoled into creativity and inventiveness.

I recognize that all of the above is hypocritical given the frequent content of this blog. I sometimes extoll a process; I sometimes explicate the deed. Don’t listen to me. And don’t buy any more books that tell you how to be a writer. They’re essentially pornography for unmotivated wroters.

July 13, 2010

The Uncanny Canyon, Part 2

I've been trying to figure out why increasingly I get more enjoyment from watching a B-movie than the latest Scorsese, why "production value" sounds more and more like a euphemism for "inhuman," why reality television continues to be popular despite the glut of elegies sung by a host of cultural critics. The same critics might explain the persisting popularity of actor-free TV as a failure of taste or evidence of cultural collapse: the coming Second Dark Ages.

The mistake that many cultural critics make is arguing that reality television is inferior because it is obviously fake; it is artificial. The "actors" are just amateurs emoting under the "direction" of producers, working through crisis after crisis in the stead of a plot. It is a mockery of writing, direction, production, and acting. It is dishonest.

But reality television is popular for precisely the opposite reason. It is popular because it is more human than the staid sit-coms, more honest than the morbid and cynical cop shows, more relatable than the Cheshire-hearted anchors. Reality television, like community theater, has no reverence for the illusion or the artifice; reality television is drunk on the goofy and inconsistent, the insecure and petty humanity of its characters. The artificial elements are obvious, and seem, if anything, the butt of a joke. More important than story, or production, or direction is emotion: that elusive, irrational, and utterly human quality.

The "uncanny valley" creeps us out because we are being shown artificial structures which are trying to approximate humanness. Reality television, on the other hand, delights (and sometimes frustrates) because it shows us humans playing with artificiality, with fraud, with pretension. By doing so, they forefront their humanity.

B-movies are delightful not because of their story or staging. I don't laugh and grin while I watch because I am superior to these "amateurs," these deluded auteurs and their cast of bumbling, unpaid friends and colleagues. I'm not laughing at their obvious humanity, but rather I heehaw because the B-movie is one long poke at artificiality, a jab at the tidy perfection of the shadows we're used to seeing on the wall. The greatest B-movies are more human and inspiring than anything that's ever won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Or put another way, most studio movies are advertisements posing as art. A B-movie is humanity posing as an advertisement. It is wonderfully subversive, an uncanny zenith.

July 10, 2010

The Uncanny Valley is a Canyon, Part 1

The "uncanny valley" theory describes the human response to robots and computer generated characters which are designed to appear human. The emotion which results from an encounter with an almost-human robot or figure is one of general dread and distrust. (The "uncanny valley" response could also explain why some people are disturbed by mannequins, wax statues, or dolls; all of which, incidentally, are represented in the horror film genre.)

We have evolved to have an incredibly nuanced sense of humanness. We aren't easily deceived by mimics or approximations. Near-human is not human enough.

Interestingly, designers' attempts to close the uncanny valley (that is, to produce a non-creepy synthetic human) are closely tied to film making: that increasingly artificial and inhuman art form. Obviously, computer generated graphics and digital characters are not entirely new and so cannot be wholly responsible for the artificialness of films. CGI is but one contributer to the cinematic nauseous dream. Consider, for example, the increasing artificiality of time in movies. It is no coincidence that our impatience with the pacing of older films has increased as modern film editing has abbreviated each image and moment. Or consider the artificiality of the actors themselves; certainly, this is not a new phenomenon in Hollywood, but it seems ever more pronounced. (I find it fascinating that the majority of attempts to bridge the uncanny valley are made by emulating unnaturally beautiful women; similarly, it isn't by coincidence that the pinnacle of beauty is an actress sculpted to look like a heroine for a video game.) And what are the endless parade of remakes and sequels if not artificial stories?

"Independent" cinema, as a counter point, would be defined ideally by its "humanity," centering on characters, philosophical meditations, settings, relationships. This human address often strikes audiences as pretentious and ostentatious. The box-office hero is more human than the plodding indy flick. I would like to raise my glass to the independent film, but it has increasingly become a product-based genre, a vehicle for Hollywood stars to show off their acting chops, a self-congratulating waddle through the most sophomoric of revelations. There are of course exceptions.

My point is, we are so immersed in the artificiality of cinema that the inhumanity of computer generated characters seems almost inconsequential. I am stupefied by the broader fraud. My identity, physicality, and emotionality, respond to and reflect this uncanny canyon in a thousand different ways.

Ultimately, this is the problem with artificiality; the more we are exposed to it, the more we begin to emulate it. Essentially, the process works the same as socialization, but unlike socialization, which brings you into a large and tangible landscape of interactions, artificialization prepares us to interact with vistas, scenarios, and persons that are not real. I am poised to be a hero in a plot and on a planet that do not exist.

July 2, 2010

The Technology of Ghosts

Reading a book is the closest I get to conversing with a ghost. Reading is like a seance, and just like any seance, it is difficult to discern how much of what is experienced is me talking to myself and how much is the ghost of the writer whispering in my ear. Actors have a significantly different kind of immortal presence; they are both less substantial and more imposing. Much like the light of the projector their image leaps from, the actor can never touch us, but our faces can reflect their light.

Reading a book is a different kind of haunting, a more subtle and intimate exchange that does not exist (even in reflection) within the physical world. To read is not to be possessed by the writer, but to be possessed by the words. The voice that is generated by our reading does not seem disembodied; quite the opposite, it feels very centered inside of us. And while the voice is not wholly our own, neither is it entirely the voice of the writer. Rather, that voice we hear is the amalgam of two voices, is both purely the writer's and purely the reader's. In this way, the voice of a book is a ghost unique to each reader.

When I try to express my feelings about a book I've read and loved, Invitation to a Beheading or To Kill a Mocking Bird, I'm often frustrated by how ephemeral and fleeting the experience was. I will remember the emotions, but I can no longer feel them distinctly; I will remember the intimacy, but I no longer feel the voice's presence in the room.

June 29, 2010

The Humanity of Hacks

Thomas Hardy had a genius for inventing characters. He did this in a way which bucked the trends of the time. While his contemporaries were creating characters by mixing flaws and virtues, Hardy created characters by their inconsistencies and contradictions, presupposing that no woman was purely an agenda or a prayer book, no man was only a monument or a villain. For Hardy, humanity was about struggle: self-defeating behaviors, rallies, and relapses, and the only truly wicked thing in the world was a prudish, mechanical society that expected a demure, dispassionate consistency, as inhuman as it was impossible.

Your average hack writer, your Crichtons, Koontzes, and Baldaccies, are hacks because they are only capable of producing two characters, rigid in their consistency, both of which seem inhuman as a cartoon, insipid as a corporate mouthpiece.

The first, and most common character, is the stoic. The stoic, tortured by some personal (and unarticulated) calamity, generally involving the death of a spouse, child, parent, or partner, is portrayed as silent and indifferent except for, perhaps, a crude obsessiveness that likely takes the form of an urge for revenge or “redemption.” The unemotional facade of the stoic is meant to imply an ocean of turmoil and complexity churning just beneath the bland, steely-eyed surface. But the stoic’s actions, their few words, their revelations, and their “redemption” lack any individuality, any psychological consistency, any humanity. The stoic is merely a mechanical device, a conduit through which the plot moves.

The stoic depends on the reader to supply the emotional details, and this is why the stoic is always defined in the context of some generic human calamity. The hack presupposes that death is meaningful, or that suffering, being universal, is universally understood. This is, of course, at odds with the purpose of art: to expound upon our understanding of the human experience and condition. The hack spends all his time explaining the simplest of things, what happened, leaving it to the reader to supply the infinitely more difficult why.

The second hack character is the sentimentalist. The sentimental character is just as devoid of humanity as the stoic, but as opposed to being emotionally white-washed, the sentimentalist is sopping with emotionalism. The sentimentalist often stars in stories that turn on relationships and romance, and can be defined by the purity of their moods, the simplicity of their revelations, the tidiness of their desire. If the stoic is making a feint for humanity by concealing, the sentimental character feigns humanity with an excess of exposure and emoting.

Sentimentality is often confused with fondness or nostalgia, but a better definition of sentimentality would be selective emotionality, selective memory. Sentimentality is socialization made flesh and blood; that big phony that we sometimes become at a fancy party or a family reunion is the heart of the sentimental character. The sentimentalist will inevitably be “redeemed” by some absurdly simple maxim: follow your dreams; believe in yourself; forgive and forget.

Both characters almost always enjoy a succinct and crude redemptive moment. The stoic breaks down crying that his son’s death was not his fault; the sentimentalist is able to like herself without the love of a man. These revelatory moments are so potent and attractive in their simplicity that the human reader/viewer will feel a sympathetic elation, an experience not unlike a sugar-rush. But the elation we feel turns to depression when we find that the revelatory moment, the character’s redemption, is unadaptable to our experience, our life.

Hack writing is a rewarding read because it whispers the familiar, preferable, simple lies of what it is to be human. It is as addictive as it is, in high enough doses, deadly. The hack has a singular talent for making me a stranger to myself, turning me into the Great and Powerful Oz while my true self hides behind the curtain: a shriveled and humiliated old man.

June 21, 2010

The Absurdity of Violence

This post is a little out of character for the blog, as it has nothing explicitly to do with poetry or writing. It is, however, partially the product of many years spent studying and teaching Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est."

Violence is the manifestation of the absurd. If one watches a Three Stooges short, Five Corners, and A Clockwork Orange in succession, one could be forgiven for thinking that violence is a amoral comedic form. Furthermore, the “realistic” violence of military epic films is easily parodied by action films, cartoons and creature features because the violence of the original is absurd. The sentiment that is drawn out of us is often changed by the context of the violence we are exposed to, but this effect is a product of our socialization; violence is still quintessentially absurd.

Absurdity may be defined as the disruption of human integrity, order, and reason. The Amazon jungle is not integrally absurd, but may appear so to a New York socialite dropped out of a plane. Violence is absurd because it breaks the order of the body and the emotional and cognitive integrity of the victim, and it is absurd because it breaks the civic order, the rudimentary agreements of coexistence. Furthermore, the violence enacted by the individual is felt by the society, and vice versa. By way of analogy, when a father physically abuses a child, the entire order of the family is disrupted.

When a society begins to feel threatened by films, books, cartoons, and video games which reflect the absurdity and mindlessness inherent in violence, it is because the society has invested much into legitimizing and moralizing violence. Put another way, Grand Theft Auto makes the hearts of American politicians quake because it may be seen as a scathing parody of America’s domestic and foreign policies which rely so mightily on the mystification of violence.

There are many political and cultural factions which attempt to organize and legitimize violence. Institutions as diverse as the state, family, and religion have molded violence into a legitimate expression of a reasoned and moral public or individual. Through the kaleidoscope of various ideologies, violence can be alternately heroic, patriotic, passionate, just, and even moral.

At this point, proponents of violence will often trot out the epitome of righteous and responsible violence, World War II, arguing that violence is required to stopper greater violence. In response to this I would first say that World War II has been white-washed with moral simplicity; broad historic strokes have been used to cover individual acts of violence in an effort to dehumanize some of the victims of violence.

Secondly, we should recognize that war attempts to preserve one order through the disruption of another’s order. War is a contest in which the goal is to be the one who gets to define and sanction the absurdity or murder, rape, and the mutilations of body and spirit which proceeded. The violence on either side is made no less absurd, regardless of the virtues later applied. The order that war aspires to preserve is made absurd and irrational by the act; enlightenment is not the profit of bombs.

This is important to understand because domestic and urban violence, though enacted by an individual, is often perpetrated on the mistaken belief that violence can beget meaning and order: a woman can be taught by abuse, a man can rectify a slight by murder, one can establish one’s virtue by fighting. But destroying someone else’s order, physical or emotional, does nothing to improve the order of the perpetrator of the violence. As with war, an individual may create a narrative of what the violence accomplished, but the absurdity of their narrative is obvious to outside observers.

When a society attempts to use violence to legitimize, moralize, or organize itself (or its image), it becomes an absurd society: an entropic, disordered collection of contradictions and postures which, unchecked, will cause the society to collapse into fascism or revert to tribalism. Cartoons, slapstick, and splatter-films don’t, as a matter of course, legitimize violence; instead, they are often an expression of dread, a reflection of the absurdity observed in society. We must remember that the parody of violence in games, movies, and cartoons do not enact violence. These media do, however, provide us with an important touchstone for discussing the sanctioned absurdity of a violent society.

This is not to say that violent films and games are not sometimes pornographic or exploitative. Neither do I mean to engage in arguments of what constitutes self defense and the sometimes necessity of intervention. Rather, I mean to say that violence is always an absurdity to the victim of the violence; the order we create to explain the violence is also, necessarily, tainted with the absurd.

June 15, 2010

To the Editor (Part 2)

Some weeks ago I posted one of my poems to this site, "Life is Like a Train." Unlike the other poems posted here, this was a previously unpublished work. By posting the poem, I have made it ineligible for submission to a great majority of poetry publications. The poem has lost its virtue by this very modest exposure.

The existence of this standard policy among the publishers of poetry of not reprinting "published" work is evidence that they misunderstand their present role in the promotion and distribution of poetry. In the past, successful publishers of poetry were most concerned with discovery, unity, and exclusivity: poems were discovered by editors and plucked from obscurity; the poems were bound together into a unified and unalterable artifact; the poems were exclusively debuted to an elite readership of subscribers. But this is no longer a formula for success.

Like the record labels of the last decade, publishers of poetry are clinging to an outmoded system which will invariably result in their irrelevance. In the context of the current internet culture, exclusivity is difficult to ensure; it does not preserve but rather suppresses interest. The unchanging artifact (printed journal) has given way to the viral, the user-altered, the meme, the parody. Discovery has been eclipsed by sharing.

In response to these changes, many journals have created static and often abbreviated electronic reproductions of their print journal, or, if they have gone entirely online, have mimicked the essence of the old pulp and glue fetish by producing a linear, inalterable site. In addition to these "advancements," they've expanded their rules about what constitutes an unpublished work, thereby cementing the hierarchy of publication: print trumps pixel. Online readers, the logic goes, are less legitimate readers, and so online publications are less legitimate works.

Publishers have changed the curtains but have not opened the windows. Accessibility and interactivity are still strangled out. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of publishers behave as if the community was there to support them and not vice-versa.

Publishers, if they wish to attract readers and writers, must reinvent themselves as a portal, as a place for collaboration and interaction, as a showcase for popular (viral) poems. Instead of discouraging poets and writers from building a readership by posting their work, publishers should encourage writers to self promote; the reprinted/reposted poem will then bring to the publication an already invested readership.

I posted the poem for the simple reason that a couple of people asked for a copy. I prefer to respond to the readers I have at hand rather than to defer to the uncertain courtship of publishers. For the record, I'd do it again and for anyone who asks.

Ultimately, publishers seem to believe that it is their rigidity and rules which attract readers and funds. This is a little like believing people go to the beach to hang with the lifeguards. The lifeguards have a role to play, but it's the beach, man, that gets the people out.

(Read "To the Editor: Part 1")

June 8, 2010

Artificial Intelligence

Every once in a while a new technology comes along that changes the way poetry is written.

The printing press, for example, broadened the audience of poetry in England, formalizing and popularizing what had been, essentially, the courtesan's genre of flirtation and sniping. The press gave the poet access to an audience beyond the court, a means of transmission more reliable than the whisper and the hand copy, and so poems became less conceited and more likely to address cultural and political subjects.

The innovation of the typewriter allowed poets to essentially publish as they wrote, seeing iterations of the finished page emerge as they created. This not only made poets more (self)conscious of the published artifact and the poetic tradition which they addressed, but made them more aware of the poem's presence on the page. It's hard to imagine a poet like e. e. cummings existing before the typewriter, and it's equally hard for me to imagine Emily Dickinson pecking away at a keyboard.

The connections I draw in these examples are, of course, debatable, and none of these developments occurred in an historical vacuum; it may be argued that it was not the keyboard that changed poetry in the 20th century so much as World War II, or the explosion of academic institutions, or the cinema. The influence of technological change is probably miniscule compared to the influence of culture. But it seems common sense that the tools affect the craft.

And the constant of technological advancement has met, again and again, with the same generational suspicion. The young man's progress is the old man's entropy. I try not to think in polarities, good and bad, when it comes to change. I try not to say that autotuned hip hop songs are anti-musical farces written by cynical hacks and piped out the mouths of Horatio Alger-urban caricatures. I try not to then spit on the floor. In all earnestness, dismissal of change is often just fear of irrelevance; as the stock of the young rise, so will my stock fall. It ain't T-Pain's fault. It's these kids today.

So, it is in the shadow of this obese preamble that I finally come to my thesis: Google has changed for many how poetry is written. Google is often used in place of acquired knowledge, acting as a kind of meta-encyclopedia, expressing not only facts but incidentals, influences, and esoterica.

Using Google as a collaborative resource, referencing it during the drafting of a poem, does not expand the accomplishment of the poem, but makes diffuse the voice of the poem. Knowledge gleaned from study and experience expresses itself with a natural and relatable authority. But parroted trivia feels synthetic, and because it does not honestly relate the voice of the speaker, it addresses an audience without a single precedent. The result is a poem (or a story) which requires readers to use Google to reverse engineer the sentiment of the poem. In essence, the reader must use Google to translate the poem into an approximation of the poet's vernacular.

Let me give you a very basic example of how Google might be used in the drafting of a poem. While working on a poem which included allusions to physics, I was hung up on the word "wormhole." As someone who's read my weight in science fiction novels, I was familiar with the concept. Hell, I could've recited a fair explanation of how a wormhole theoretically formed. But I wasn't happy with the word "wormhole," especially in the context of the poem. It sounded bad; it sounded a little too Star Trek-geek. So I googled "wormhole" and came up with a synonym related to the concepts originators: "Einstein-Rosen bridge." Now that had a ring to it.

I added the phrase to the poem, polished it a bit, and showed it to a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the cosmological. Pretty quickly, he spotted the phrase "Einstein-Rosen bridge" and asked what it was. I told him to Google it.

A common piece of advice to beginning writers is that they should never use a word in a poem (or story) that they didn't know before they began writing the piece. Thesauruses are often eschewed for this reason (though they have their uses). Google has provided writers, among many other wonderful opportunities, the opportunity to feign experience and accomplishment with an ease and to a degree never before possible. But in doing so, poets bury their voice. Google gives ready access to synonym, analogy, historical allegory, and more facts than have ever been available to the layman before. It's tempting to be arch and say that Google is the steroids of creative writing, but it's actually more like expensive sportswear. I can spend two minutes and one hundred dollars and buy an authentic NFL jersey, but it doesn't mean I can throw a ball.

Of course, it's not as simple as any analogy. It's not simple because I believe in research, in exploration, in taking on the challenge of the poems I read. But creative writers have to be mindful that their voice, their ingenuity does not lie in the dug-up details, nor the reader's goose-hunt. Googling is not creative. It's deference.

June 2, 2010

The Empty Earth of the News Network

There are few American pastimes more cynical than watching the news cycle, that endlessly unspooling poem which moves from detail to image to joke to familiar cultural trope with such grace. The news, like a poem, is about language, the social baggage of a word, the smirk or smile of it. The news, like poetry, insists that the audience care. We must feel for China, Bangladesh, Chile, Haiti, the Sudan; we must accept the news as a long and human overture, a sewing together of innately noble strangers.

But the news, like much contemporary poetry, does not increase our sense of humanity. Instead, it inflates the unreality in the world, broadening the ghost landscapes of tragedy and misdeed. The world of the news is disingenuous, is full of primary emotions, mollifying repetition, staged reaction. And while we viewers carry around a sense of moral obligation to observe the hourly temple call of the News, and while we treasure the warmth of knowledge and humanity, we are left without focus, or confidence, or a sense that the world outside our usual dog track is substantial or, in its parts, perpetual. How quickly the earthquakes disappear from my neighborhood!

The news is a consumable that is chiefly concerned with being consumed. The news' self-awareness and self-promotion, its ostentatious morality, its comic book format and juvenile sexuality, and its trinity of emotions (outrage, despair, delight) have all been carefully combined to create an intoxicative and addictive product. The news cycle only desires continuation.

Too often contemporary poetry emulates the news, is self-promoting, supercilious, insipid, inhuman. The worst poem makes the world, its crises and glories, into a personal metaphor or gesture. The worst poem reaches into the dizzy, vast atom of humanity, and pulls out, again and again, proof of the poem, praise of the poet. Then, it is as if the world exists to decorate a verse.

What, then, is the point of a poem or the news? To articulate the world? To make it? To persist in and of itself? If we are asked to care for everything, are we able to care for anything at all? The best of poems create the very thing that the news exhausts: empathy and company. While the news alienates with information and ceremonial morality, the best poems reveal the intricacies of our tangled joints. We imagine we are isolated just as the news imagines the world. But our alienation is practiced; it is not intrinsic. We are iterations and reflections of one other. The news is not the world.

May 26, 2010

Revision, Part the Last: The Pencil Writes With Both Ends

I have said very little about the particulars of the process of revision, believing that you, and all poets, must decide how to discipline their own children. I can articulate my ideals, indulge in analogies, and chant for you a kind of poetic catechism, but the moment I say, "Begin by revising line breaks and work out to stanzas" I have been dishonest. There is no manual but the poem itself.

Yet, speaking very generally, I have found that I often do a poem more harm through addition than subtraction. When I revise by grafting many new lines to the original, adding ornament to statements and mist to once-clear scenes, I usually ruin the poem rather than improve it. Redaction, on the other hand, is often better to clarify, direct, and reveal the poem. This is because I tend to reiterate sentiments or images when I first draft a poem, stating and restating ideas or moves in an effort to express them more perfectly. This stuttering, I have found, is just part of my generative process. When, later, I return to these poems to revise, I begin by choosing the clearest iteration, the swiftest image in the bunch; the rest, I dump.

But my poems are frequently over-fleshed by more than stammering attempts. Often whole segments of the poem are empty or dead. These vacant passages in the poem fall into the following three rough categories.

The Dead Head
Many of my poems don't actually get underway until the third line or the third stanza. I usually identify these false starts by their vagueness, commonness, or writhing lyric. If, in those early lines, I refer to anything meteorological, seasonal, or address any of the common abstractions (Time, Love, Home, etc), I am almost certainly clearing my throat while already occupying the stage.

The Empty Belly
Sometimes, after a rousing start, a poem will begin to putter about thoughtlessly. Poems that are three pages long almost certainly do this at one point or another; they begin to include the reader in their infatuations, flitting about with confidence, if not beauty. In my own poems, these passages identify themselves by a stiffening or slipping of tone and the sudden abundance of irrelevant anecdotes and analogies. If I, for example, describe the lint in the clothes dryer as the hair-clogs of angel dogs, it's time to pack it in.

Poems of the Empty Belly test the social contract between reader and writer, where the reader asks again and again, Where are we going? and the poet replies only, We're almost there.

The Sleeping Foot
The exit of a poem is easy to miss, and often the poet goes rushing past it. Half of revision for me is the process of finding the true end of the poem, whether it comes in the fourth line or the fortieth. Conclusions are probably most difficult because of the pressure of both the poet's and reader's anticipation. A poem that has an Empty Belly may be forgiven if the conclusion is sufficiently arresting. But without conclusion, the poem is purposeless. And the exasperated reader feels that they have been waved over by the poet only to be told, "Never mind."

And yet, conclusions are the most exasperating part of the poem, requiring both purpose and deftness, directness and flirtation. If I have to write new lines during my process of revision, it is most often to correct the conclusion. Often, though, the conclusion of a poem exists in some imperfect state within the draft of the poem. We only have to, as Heaney's old saw goes, dig to find it.

If one of my drafts concludes with either a bundle of pretty words or a stack of polemics, I know I have run by the conclusion, usually buried some lines above.

Finally, while I suggest that poets consider writing with an eraser, I also would caution against, 1.) cutting without close-reading, and 2.) overwriting files. Don't remove too many organs. The difference between a surgeon and a butcher is whether they pull out the spleen or the heart.

May 18, 2010

When the Road Ran Out

We say we’re going online, but we go nowhere.

The hilarity of the internet is that we read it like a book, scan it like a story, obsess over it like a poem. We lose ourselves. Worse yet for the book-lover, the web is full of people trying to impress. Why else would a young man ride a handrail down three flights of stairs on his groin? To impress.

This is abhorrent to the book-lover because the authors they love wrote for the same reason, only they articulated the reason more grandly and more complexly. The poet writes to impress; to impress his ideas upon us, to make an impression upon the page. (Isn’t that why folks reminisce about the typewriter, because it forcefully beat the letter into the sheet?)

Most dreadful of all, is that the ability to articulate the abstract, the mongrel idea, the duplicitous emotion is often overlooked. The internet is not a publisher, but an enormous broadsheet that we can begin to read anywhere. The book cover is lost, that binding that said, This, read only this. The editor is lost, that starchy critic who said, I know, I know. The publisher is lost, that robber that said, Mine, mine. Even many of the words have been lost, each a sacred suitcase of human experience.

But the reader has not been lost.

The web is postmodern without the games; it is not an exercise. It is the ur-book, written by a planet full of morons. If we are horrified, it is because we’ve been lying to ourselves or hiding inside the articulation of books.

Every generation finds evidence that their children will wreck the world, end the whole parable once and for all. But history is not an ascension. We aren’t running towards a cliff. We humans aren’t going anywhere. We’re still sitting in chairs and throwing our thoughts into the unknown. That dream isn’t new; it began soon after the first of our species spoke the first word.

Perhaps we are sitting down because have reached our destination. I don’t think we just arrived.

Not that you have to like where we were left when the road ran out.

May 14, 2010

Revision, Part 3: The Honest, Modest Host

We must be honest when we revise a poem. Drafts can be written out of hubris, inspiration, flourish, but poems are most successful when revised with honesty.

Honesty, here, is not an ideal, but rather an expression of perspective. What may be honest in one context may be cruel or inappropriate in another. Most writers are capable of addressing many perspectives: the perspective of the tradition, the scholar, the critic, the character, the voice, a particular social or economic perspective, a target audience's perspective. Before a writer can “honestly” revise, they must first decide whose perspective they are being honest to.

I don’t mean to suggest that “honesty” requires a perspective or audience of one. When I revise, I do not imagine a singular reader. Instead, I imagine something closer to a classroom full of students. Most teachers will tell you that one of the most difficult challenges of teaching is to address and engage the entire class: that great spectrum of ability and interest must be engaged all at once. A teacher has to draw in the most experienced and the most novice of students with the same lecture, or exercise, or discussion. Some teachers profess that they teach to the middle, or the top, or the bottom of the spectrum of ability, expecting the rest of the class to adjust accordingly, but I’ve never had success with targeting a single bandwidth of student. Instead, I constantly find myself translating and reiterating as I strive to express something that is both accessible to the inexperienced and challenging to the wiz.

Make no mistake, engaging the perspectives of an entire class is not the same as engaging everyone. I am still seeking to honestly respond to the perspectives of a particular band of readers when I revise a poem. Honesty in revision is often about decoding, clarifying, and directing the original germ of inspiration. Though I've used the analogy of a class to describe a diverse audience, I think it's a mistake for a poet to create a poem that reveals itself only after careful study. Great poems are accessible and also reward closer inspection.

This complex honesty, this deference to the audience, requires the poet to expect more of the poem than the audience. This is not to say the poet should respect the poem more than the audience, speaking down to them as if they’re a child. Instead, the poem should make reasonable demands. Reasonable demands show great respect.

Put another way, the poet is the host, the poem the home, and the reader the guest. The host’s house may be modest, or grand, a one room farmhouse, or a maze, but the more immodest the home, the more modest the host should be.

May 8, 2010

Interlude: Describing Marriage by Rehearsing a Divorce

Today, I'm taking a break from my posts on the revision process. I'll pick up that thread in my next post.

David Biespiel has an article on the Poetry Foundation site (originally published in Poetry's May issue) in which he bemoans the loss of political discourse among poets, bemoans the evaporation of civic awareness and accountability, bemoans the tribalism and isolation which has washed over the poetry and public landscapes. He bemoans a great deal.

While I don't disagree with Biespiel's central thesis, that poets have generally recoiled from the political elements of public discourse in favor of a bathroom sink love-fest, his easy culprit (the poet) and the unfocused grandeur of his solution (truth, power and suffering) suggest a lack of honest consideration.

An editor who uses anecdotal accounts of their interactions with submitting writers to demonstrate that writers are mercury-poisoned prima-donnas, is like a person who hangs out at a single's bar and then complains about the shallow conversation. The editor and the shallow writer share one thing in common: the shallow publication. Look, after thirty years of editors asking, nay demanding, that poets produce reflective, solipsistic, lyrical codes, you can't expect to clap your hands and turn all the poets into Robert Lowell. It doesn't work that way. Editors do more to shape poetry than poets.

Further, Biespiel (wearing his Poet hat, now) glances over the change that public political discourse has undergone in recent decades. Poets aren't the originators of our aversion to political discourse. Most everyone is ducking that particular chat, and has been for years. Political conversations seem to occur primarily in two modes, now: privately, between like-minds, and in the circus of TV news panels.

While discourse is on the defensive, activism is doing just fine. Activism, however, has come to mean "the public action of the frightened and ill-informed" and "smug, empty gestures to warm the heart of the giver." Biespiel, though he pretends to champion political discourse, alludes continually to activism, and not any activism, but "liberal" activism. His submerged point seems to be, "Where have all the Democrat poets gone?" That's not discourse, man, that's recruitment.

We're working our way out of the personal-is-political era, and working our way back to the communal-is-political. Not just poets, but many folks in America, increasingly feel an urge to reconnect, to commune, to converse. We are doing this not through activism, but through a reconsideration and rearrangement of our daily lives. Community is becoming more central to what characterizes a fulfilling existence. Conversations are opening up. I have friends who I disagree with all the time, and I really appreciate their presence in my life; I appreciate that discourse and I want more.

Biespiel, by connecting civic, public discourse to the most contentious and divisive of political issues, is essentially promoting something wonderful and noble in the terms of its most difficult eventuality. It's like describing the virtue of marriage by articulating the misery of divorce. Biespiel rails against the balkanization of the poet community, and then, without irony, he draws a line in the sand: "The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering. And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it." Apparently, there are two types of poets: the ones saving democracy and the ones who are indifferent to the potential super powers locked inside their words. As absurdly grandiose as this statement is, I don't disagree with his tacit point that writing poetry about poetry is not a good way to engage an audience.

I can think of no vaguer, more mushy exhortation than "speak truth to power and interpret suffering." If Biespiel had said, "Stop writing about yourself like you're some kind of lonely Christ, and go out and write about anything else on the face of this giant planet," I'd applaud. But no. He talks about truth and suffering. Just what poetry needs. More "truth." More "suffering."

May 4, 2010

Revision, Part 2: The Never Ending Poem

When I first began to write poems, I rarely revised. I would justify this lack of revision by saying that I preferred the spontaneity of a first draft. In truth, I rarely revised because I didn’t enjoy reading my work. This should’ve been a clear signal that I desperately needed to revise; after all, if I didn’t want to read my poem, how could I reasonably hope that some uninvested reader would?

When I finally began to revise my work, I inadvertently perfected the art of the endless poem. My process of revision was basically to revise as I read: to scan and tweak. As I read through the poem, usually for the first time in weeks or months, I’d pick at the language: the words, metaphors, syntax, and punctuation. Occasionally, I’d screw around with the line breaks. Then I’d pack the poem up and return to it after another few weeks or months, at which point I’d go through the same read-and-tweak process again. I might revise a single poem this way a half dozen times or more, and still never feel that the poem was resolved.

This, I’ve discovered, is the worst possible way to revise. The essential flaw in my method was that I wrote as I read, or, more accurately, I overwrote as I read. I restated the poem using language that I was presently infatuated with, only to later find those revised poetic flourishes tedious. The reason for this is that I, like many writers, am constantly falling in and out of love with words, phrases, and grammatical constructions. My most current fascinations with the language always seem the most striking to me. When I first write something, the language often glows like wet paint. But, like paint that has dried, the language later seems to lose its luster. I have to continually remind myself that poetry is more than poetics.

To revise successfully, I first have to be a reader of my own work. Not a critic, not a peer-reviewer in a workshop, not an editor; I have to be a reader. This is difficult for me. I critique in my sleep. I am a ninja critic, and by that I mean, I am more likely to think about the possibilities and implication of details than the present reality and effect of the work as a whole.

The first step of revision for me is reading. I read the poem, taking it on its own terms, flaws and all; I read it until I understand what it is reaching for, what it wants to be; I read until I am affected.

It is harder for me to read my work than to write it, but doing so saves me and the poem. It saves me from wasting time revising the language of a dead draft: not every draft becomes a poem. And reading saves the poem because it keeps me from just whitewashing every distinct idea or sentiment with a heavy coat of pretty words.

Revising as you read mostly results in the never-ending poem or the same poem written out a hundred different times, which incidentally, is sometimes called “a career.”

April 30, 2010

Revision, Part 1: Beyond the Muse

The writing community generally spends a lot of time talking and writing about inspiration. There are many how-to books and blogs that are mostly concerned with helping writers find something to write about. We have popularized a mascot for inspiration, the Muse. We talk about the rituals required to attract the Muse, the habits that frighten the angel off, and we generally accept that the uninspired writer is neutered, powerless, until the Muse returns.

Inspiration has become infused with religiosity: inspiration is to be revered but not questioned or altered. For the Muse of many, there is no audience, there is only the mysterious communion between the writer and the self. I take it for granted that a writer has something to say to people; we are students of the world and we share what we've taken in. I take it for granted, too, that a writer thinks in words, forms, models, images, and conceits. The writer can’t help it. I don't think that writers are helplessly waiting for the arrival of inspiration. I believe there is great power in revision, and that inspiration is, in part, the natural result of effort, reflection, and revision, not magic.

I think that we prefer to talk about inspiration and “The Muse” because it is often presented as an abstraction that cannot be critiqued. God knows, criticism is a tough pill to swallow, but reflecting on what we have written creates more ideas.

Writers, it seems, would be more helped by a protracted and nuanced conversation about revision. That’s where the craft is; that’s where poetry resides. Revision is not self-flagellation. Revision is a ferocious act of invention that any writer worth their salt will undertake. Revision is often uncomfortable work, work that requires honesty. But our labor has a clear result. It is through revision that we learn our aesthetic, identify our repeated moves, that we clarify our transmission, audit our intentions, and recognize an audience.

Over the next several posts, I’m going to explain how I revise, not because mine is the only golden path, but to inspire a broader conversation about craft. And, of course, I don’t mean to exclude inspiration from the conversation. Who ever said revision is without epiphany?

April 27, 2010

The Delight of Ruined Expectations

The act of describing one person to another is a dying art. If you ask someone to describe, for example, a friend of theirs who you don’t know, they will immediately look uncomfortable. Suddenly they are overcome with sensitivity; describing a person is, after all, political and personal. Political, because a truly discrete person won’t mention any distinguishing features beyond height (unless the person occupies either extreme) and hair (only in the vaguest terms), and certainly they won’t discuss body parts or race, though they will be secretly proud to have made the omission on both accounts. And describing someone to someone else is personal because we don’t want to half-disparage our friend by saying they have beautiful but teary eyes and an untameable haystack of hair. Describing a person if often used as a punishment which we inflict on those who we dislike: saying, for example, “That Cutie Parker has ape-arms and dog’s teeth.” Vivid descriptions have become more punitive than communicative.

And certainly there are occasions where we must pretend that we are all featureless, gray sock puppets. But this phenomenon isn't relegated to the office any longer. It's become part of the social contract. Many people would rather just present a photograph, and spare themselves the delicate negotiation of describing a person.

This is all a tragedy because having a person you don’t know described to you engages the mind in a wonderful way: I imagine what fills the gaps in the description; I fill in the missing parts with ideal faces or family faces or the faces of colleagues; I paint the body of the stranger out like an artist paints Orion onto his constellation; I guess.

Later, when I meet the person who has been described to me, I will be quietly surprised at how they look nothing like their description. But the surprise is delightful, because I realize that the person I’ve imagined looks like a mangled version of me. Who wants to have that expectation ever fulfilled? Who wants to meet themselves wherever they go?

In much of contemporary poetry, the task of describing a person’s physical appearance is frequently passed over. We are often presented with the disembodied “I,” or a tabula rasa nouns of “man,” “woman,” or “child.” Many of my poems fall into these categories, partly because I prefer to describe people by their action and thoughts, and partly because I often write about archetypes rather than individuals. There’s nothing wrong with omitting physical descriptions. But the omission is also, at least in part, the result of verbal habit. I rarely describe anyone anymore.

I find it interesting, though, that when poets decide to more fully describe the people who occupy their landscapes, the descriptions are often romantic, florid, and purple with praise. This may be because there is an intimacy to describing someone’s physical appearance, but it also seems to be related to the poetic tradition of describing the “classically beautiful.” These idealized descriptions are so prevalent as to merit their own sub-genre: the fair lady poem. While I enjoy some works in this mode, the descriptions tend to strike me as generic and dishonest.

There are those readers who suffer from Back-Flap Disease: the compulsion to begin a book by looking at the small author photo on the back flap. I’ve done this on numerous occasions, and, invariably, the act enables a slew of unfair conclusions: Isn’t she pleased with herself, or He smiles like a fraud. But if I read the work before I look for a author photo, I discover pieces of their face everywhere; I find their limbs and appendages strewn about the landscapes they paint; I assemble them and the gaps I fill in with myself. This is perhaps because poets are highly trained in the art of self description.

When I finish the book and finally look at the back flap, my expectations are never realized, but I am not disappointed.

April 23, 2010

Mr. Popular's Empty Dance Card

It’s a popular pastime among writers and academics to sit around and argue over the definition of Literature. It’s sort of our version of sports banter: everyone gets a bit hot when they’re talking about their team, but most of us don’t forget that it’s just a game. So with that in mind:

I love the wonderful snobbishness of the term “literary.” Like most snobbery, “literary” suggests superiority without specifically referencing any credentials. The word, popularly compounded with “journal” or “fiction,” typically infers:

1. The writer has read an undisclosed number of “literary” works, and produces work that emulates those works in some manner
2. The language is difficult or self-conscious, and sometimes referred to as “experimental”
3. The work is good, and its goodness will endure, and will be more appreciated once the people of the future receive the sparkling artifact

The term “literary” is used because it is a more politic and succinct than saying, “educated, obtuse, good writing which will be more popular with the unborn.” More ridiculous is how “literary” has come to be use as an antonym of “popular.”

This is ridiculous because Literature is, as I understand it, a product of reflective consensus; “Literature” is the laurel we bestow upon those works whose popularity has endured. So, we might say that literature is “really popular.”* We can argue that a work of Literature has endured because of merit, content, form, context, observer, academic/political agenda, or aesthetic, but all of these affect the consensus, not the work itself. The consensus is always evolving. Put simply, in defining Literature, it doesn’t really matter why these works are popular; sustained popularity equals Literature.

“Literature” is often misapplied as an objective evaluation: Literature is good; the best of what’s past. But we generally accept the fact that the most popular things are not necessarily the best, objectivity is often the ego in drag, and not all things from the past are good. Or, to state it more directly, there is some terrible Literature out there.

Functionally, a work of Literature offers a point of reference, a touchstone; it exists because it provides a useful common ground. Hamlet, for example, is Literature not because it is excellent; it is Literature because it is often visited, revisited, and discussed (that is, popular). One day, all traces of the play may disappear from the shelves, which will not make Hamlet any less excellent, but which will mean it’s no longer Literature. "Literature" is a state, not an innate quality.

Which brings us to the oft-repeated counterpoint that if Literature is the result of popularity, then Twilight, for example, is Literature. The answer to that is, we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t think the indicators are good. But maybe. Sorry.

Back to my original point: the term “literary” distances a work from the very thing that defines Literature. Essentially, when we say something contemporary is “literary” we are predicting the future: we are betting that a work will endure. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that “literary” works often attempt to speak to the future from the past, entirely neglecting the present.

*Academia often tries to stuff the ballot box of Literature by arguing for the relevance, superiority, or usefulness of a certain text. Academia certainly does influence what is popular, and so what is Literature, but academia often forgets that academia is fickle (influenced by fad and context) and influential, not instrumental. This last point is a bitter pill; academics often behave as if they own Literature and are its only portal. Because they commit their lives to the preservation, study, and enjoyment of Literature, their role is often exaggerated. But we must remember, the park ranger does not own the park.

April 19, 2010

In the Booth with the Wiretapped Priest

Sometimes I talk to myself about myself in the middle of a poem. Generally, I’ll be frustrated by some poetic conceit or image or idea, and will suddenly find that I am writing about myself, or explaining myself, or aggrandizing some recent slight, or romanticizing my reality. And suddenly there I am, loitering in the middle of an otherwise reasonable poem, ridiculous as the famous photoboming squirrel.

The problem is not self-reference, or observed details, or intimacy, but rather the agenda and purpose of focusing on the self. Of course, agendas will differ, but failing to recognize one’s own agenda does not mean that an agenda does not exist.

Flawed agendas, in my estimation, are those that disrupt the integrity of the poem, interrupt the poem-reader dialogue, or exaggerate the self. I won’t speculate as to the reasons, realized or not, behind these agendas; I’d rather focus on their effect. Here, I take for granted the purpose of poetry (to communicate, entertain, and examine), which is, of course, open to debate.

Poems that rely too much on autobiographical context often frustrate the integrity of the poem. Enjoyment of such a poem relies on a reader's ability and willingness to consider it in the context of the poet’s life. Explanations are required. Interest in the poet is required, and often an examination of the poet’s body of work is required. The reader arrives nowhere near the poem.

Dialogue in poetry allows the reader to enter and leave the poem in a unique way, and allows the poem to be new every time the reader returns, entering and leaving the poem in a new way. This dialogue exists partly because the reader changes, but also because the poem embraces the many-personed reader. For dialogue to occur, the poem must leave room for the reader, must address a broader experience, must have something of the world to show us. The promotional poem, the poem which makes an epic of the poet’s life, is no more a dialogue than a can of Coke.

The greatest bore is the poet who has looked into the world and found it all a mirror. Poets who aggrandize their life, exaggerating their injuries and heartaches, are chasing after celebrity, not poetry. The bore becomes a beast when the poet begins to make a caricature of human suffering to add gravity to their own plights. Poets who make lyrical references to genocide, plagues, famine, natural disasters, and wars in an attempt to add ornament to their sadness are engaging in bald exploitation. If I sound vitriolic, it's because I think that turning human suffering into a personal commodity is about as reprehensible as it gets.

The point is, when a poem relies on the poet talking to and about themself, the poet needs to be both terribly interesting and responsible. (People who, after thirty, still believe that they are interesting, often haven’t consulted their acquaintances on the matter. Family and friends may lie to spare your feelings, but an acquaintance will set you straight. Believe me it is better for a writer to be astute, analytical, imaginative, or empathetic. God help the poet who is an interesting character.)

My poems are often ruined until I go back and take out the talking-to-myself. Redacting the lines is often a delicate negotiation. I have to pet and apologize to myself, because I'm a sensitive flower. I mean to say, I have to talk myself out of talking to myself. My reason for talking to/about myself generally relates to laziness, and always to vanity.

And, my god, when I write a me-me poem, the whole thing stinks like a corpse.