Arguing with poets
“Interviewer: ‘When you’re not on tour, when you’re at home, do you have a regular working schedule?’ Volnesensky: ‘Never’”

Do you have a favourite breakfast cereal?
What brand of shirt do you wear?
Do you smoke?
Who cuts your hair?
How many miles per gallon do you get?
Who did you vote for in the last election?
Are you, or have you ever been, a vegan?
Why don’t your poems rhyme?
Have you ever had a real job?
Do you write standing, sitting, or lying down?
Do you write in the morning, the evening, the afternoon?
Have you ever measured out your life in coffee spoons?
What smells like victory to you?
Is poetry dead or only resting?
How can you write with all these cats around?
Do you carry a gun?
Are you happy to see me?
Is a cigar ever really just a cigar?
Who put the bop in the bop shebop shebop?

“Art can’t be done by somebody else, it has got to be done by the artist” William Stafford

So what does this do to all the critical writing about influences and mentors and social factors? Does the art embody the spirit of the age, or just the expression of a single frail artist?

I can see what Stafford is getting at. There is a lot of pressure to minimize the role of the artist in contemporary theory. Language is not spoken, language speaks: the poet is mere conduit. Or, we have so much language around that we do not need more: we just need curators, whom we will call poets, to preserve it, forgetting that the phone book already “curates” our phone numbers.

Of course, we cannot have poetry without poets.

“the language they think of as democratic anti-elitist are really the scraps of the English language that have dropped from the feasting tables of the oligarchs. This sort of ordinary-language poetry isn’t democratic at all: it’s servile. Yes, servile.” Geoffrey Hill

The narrowing of poetry’s vocabulary to one and two syllable words used in casual conversation is a bad thing. Not all poetry need sound like a telephone call, no more than it need sound like “The Faerie Queene” or “Paradise Lost”. But, the fear of sounding too “educated” and the desire to sound like “regular folk” can impoverish the language of poetry.

Hill’s vigorous use of “servile,” repeated, might seem excessive. But it is servile to feel the need to select words based upon the pressure of peers with depleted vocabularies, even if they constitute the majority of the poet’s society.

“The creative process doesn’t necessarily have answers, other than it wants to be creative. That’s its job.” Lola Lemire Tostevin

Is Tostevin arguing “art for art’s sake”? I do not think so. Certainly her poetry isn’t written in that vein. Rather, she is putting forth the idea that creativity is a natural urge, a force of nature almost. Creativity does not require a practical justification, though it may have practical consequences. Its job is to not have another job—i.e. to make money, justify a political cause, proselytize for a religion. It could have the effect of contributing to those other, irrelevant jobs, but they are not its raison d’être.

One can see why so many politicians, priests, and plutocrats want to either control or banish poets. I could add Platonic philosophers to the list of alliterative villains. Valuable brainpower is being diverted from their preferred enterprises and focussed into “useless” and even “dangerous” poetry.

“When you make a building, the form must be sound—sound forever. And I think it is the same in poetry. Yes? It is like architecture.” Andrei Volnesensky

Volnesensky sounds right, but only because “form” is undefined. Does form mean something like heroic verse or the sonnet? Is he referring to intellectual development? Emotional decorum? What?

How can a poem not have form, anyway? It is written in a language that has rules of grammar and spelling. One assume the words were not chosen in a random way by drawing them out of a hat, for instance. Even if they were, somebody picked the words that went into the hat.

Most buildings fall into decay eventually. Architecture is not the same as building. Some solidly built structures are also among the ugliest.

Yeats hit it on the nail when he asked how “can we tell the dancer from the dance,” the form from the content. Volnesensky’s poems might well have sound form, but that form was built simultaneously with the content. It is their unity or lack thereof that will determine if the work remains “sound forever”.

“Take away a poet’s public life by critical edict in a time like ours and what do you leave him? Not, certainly, himself.” Archibald Macleish

Macleish was probably writing in response to the edict of New Critics that poetry was not an expression of the “self” but, as Eliot put it, an escape from the self. The poem was an object that existed separately and apart from the poet. The edict contained a false either/or premise—that the poem was either an expression of self or was not related to it. The situation is both/and. The poem does exist apart from the poet and can go on for centuries after his or her death, but it is also related to that poet’s existence, a reflection and outgrowth of it.

Consider an anonymous poem such as “The Wanderer”. We do not know who wrote it or what the details of his life were. We cannot even say with 100% certainty if the poet was a “him” or “her”. Yet we know the environment in which the poet lived, the values he espoused. They are inseparable from the poem. Poems do not exist in a Platonic purity; they are not self contained machines that run on perpetual motion. Every Greek urn was intended to hold something.

“It doesn’t make any difference—it sounds like a brutal thing—to me whether the authors are alive or dead. It’s their poems I’m reading.” William Stafford

I am not sure why Stafford thinks his statement sounds “like a brutal thing,” because it is not. He does not say he wants specific people to be dead. He just says that the poem is more important to him than the author.

Too many people think that knowledge of a poet’s biography will give them special insight into the work. Perhaps, but only after they have taken the effort to read the poems with care and respect. If I know that a writer was a bad parent or a cheque forger, should that decrease my liking for a poem that I admired before I had such knowledge? I do not think so. Aesthetic judgment is separate from moral judgment. From his biography, Ezra Pound’s biography shows that he was a lousy human being. That does not alter the fact that he wrote some wonderful poems. I know many wonderful people who can only write lousy poetry.

“To look for originality at all costs is a modern condition. In our time, the writer wants to call attention to himself, and this superficial preoccupation takes on fetishistic characteristics.” Pablo Neruda

To be “original” and “innovative” is the modern rage in everything. These adjectives, as well as phrases such as “new and improved,” drive commerce. And many arts—film and painting for example—are big business. Poetry is not big business, but it has been infected, indirectly, with the spirit of commerce. Poets know they are not going to get rich or even make a minimal income from their work. They are mostly idealists. One would have hoped that with their constant regard for the language that they use to build their poems, they would be alert to this linguistic bleed. But many are not. Their minds have been colonized.

If only Pound had said “make it anew” instead of “make it new”. He meant for younger poets to renew poetry by ceasing to imitate and repeat their immediate predecessors and to make all of poetry their source of influence: to revive poetry by breaking free of temporal limits. Today’s poetry is caught too much in the world of immediate, temporary recognition based merely on originality.

“For the proponents of conceptual literature…the writer cultivates a collective ‘thinkership’—an audience that no longer even has to read the text itself in order to appreciate the importance of its innovation.” Christian Bok

That last word, “innovation,” is a weasel word. Its favourite environment is among government flaks and chamber of commerce boosters. It originally meant something like “deviation from religious orthodoxy” and was a pejorative, but now it is the darling requisite word that can be attached to any product when it is introduced to the marketplace.

“Conceptual literature” is, thus, the ultimate innovative product, so innovative, in fact that you do not actually have to engage with it. “An audience no longer has to read the text itself”! They just think about it, whatever the “it” is. The poem becomes the actual black box puzzle, its contents out of sight, but somehow still in mind. Does one open the book to see if the pages are not blank? Perhaps that will be the next step in conceptualism: a blank book in which one writes one’s own thoughts. Truly innovative!

“I was under the mistaken modernist belief that there was an unbreakable connection between value and difficulty, so I wrote a lot of impenetrable poetry.” Billy Collins

There is the poetry that has something complex to say and is itself expressed in a complex and difficult manner. And there is the poetry that challenges us to see things anew by expressing the ordinary in difficult and extraordinary syntax. There is the poetry that appears to be simple and direct and clear, but which carries implications that unfold and unfold until they dwarf the apparent simplicity of the poem.

As Collins implies, there is no direct correlation between value and difficulty in poetry. The modernist movement degenerated into “professor poetry.” It was not necessarily all that good, but it required a reader with one or two humanities degrees to unpack it. Often the package was empty.

Immature poets, seeing that the professor liked this kind of poetry, would conclude that this is what real poetry is. Grownup poets move beyond their professors.