Arguing with poets
“I try to presume that no one is interested in me. And I think experience bears that out. No one’s interested in the experiences of a stranger—let’s put it that way.” Billy Collins

Then why are there so many books about poets, as opposed to books about poetry? Too many people are interested in strangers, and for the wrong reasons. They assume that every poem comes from the poet’s life and that the more they learn about the biography the better able they will be to understand the poems.

To understand, to explain. Aye, there’s the rub. Too many readers see poetry as something that needs to be explained. This is particularly true of English teachers and their students. There isn’t a formula or a chart or a handy seven point list for the explication of poetry. Many have tried to create such things, but failed.

One cannot separate the life from the work. If someone calls a book “To My Mom” it might be interesting to know something about mom.

Collins isn’t a stranger. He is a person and some people are lucky enough to know the person. He is also a persona, a felt human presence in his poems. All of us can know that presence. We just don’t need to know Billy Collins’ favourite breakfast food.

“It’s so pleasuring to recapitulate the body’s innate rhythms in the sounds a poem makes—it’s almost like listening attentively to the heart beat and not just making a diagnosis but knowing that you are hearing a life being sustained.” Rafael Campo

What are the body’s innate rhythms? The most obvious is the iambic beat of the heart. That foot has been the workhorse of the English language poet for centuries. The inspiration/exhalation cycle of the lungs is another rhythm. Less regular than the iambic, the breath rhythm captures the rise and fall of human passion. Depending upon a person’s emotional state the breath can be fast and shallow, long and slow, quickening and subsiding. American poetry in much of the twentieth century made use of the breath rhythm (and still does).

Birth, growth, death combine to make the ultimate long view cycle. The great poems of epic and religion, the myths that underlie so many cultures flow with this cycle.

“This sounds strange but being queer made creativity easier for me if only because I was shunned, forced outside the acceptable, respectable world, and writing was something I turned to in that imposed solitude, for writing was an actual place I could go to where I was free.” CA Conrad

So many poets seem to be people who are outsiders in one way or another. Conrad hits on the irony that exclusion can grant freedom. Who sees a country more acutely than the person in exile? Another irony is that success in writing can lead an outcast back into respectability, though the return to acceptance often does not happen until after, usually well after, the poet is dead and unable to reap the fruits of success.

It is easy for those of us who can admire a poet and who have not been outcasts to think that the suffering was a small price to pay for the poetry. This is a very selfish way of looking at it, that someone else’s martyrdom to intolerance is justified by my enjoyment of the poetry. That Conrad can say that his exclusion freed his creativity shows that there is consolation in poetry for the poet as well as for the grateful reader.

You, quote, find your voice, unquote, when you are able to invent this one character who resembles you, obviously, and probably is more like you than anyone else on earth, but it is not the equivalent to you.” Bill Collins

The poet’s “real” voice is an invention, a persona or mask that he or she puts on when making poetry. The selection of one’s mask ought to be done as seriously as any other piece of attire. Slovenly dressers are likely to choose (or do they fashion?) ill fitting and slovenly masks. A bad mask can reveal too much of the face behind it or it can be too covering, and muffle the voice.

 Resemblance is not identity. The mask is a simile. It is “like” the poet, but it is not the same as the person wearing it. The best mask is the one that causes the reader to forget that a mask is present at all. The reader must believe in the voice of the poem, which is not to say the reader must believe everything the voice says. Willing suspension of disbelief is not gullibility.

“The poem, I’ve always felt, is an opportunity for me to create an integrated whole from so many broken shards. I suppose that may be why I’ve been drawn so irresistibly to so-called received forms, to meter and rhyme.” Rafael Campo

The forms are the glue that bind the shards together. The shards are the coloured glass of the mosaic arranged into a poem, an “integrated whole” assembled by Campo.

We all have shards. We all can learn the mechanics of the forms. But we all cannot integrate the two into anything meaningful and technically sophisticated.

Campo leaves out that which no one has adequately explained, though many have tried. As the late Robert Kroetsch asked, “how do you grow a poet?”

“if a given form loses energy, becomes entropic, then I try to feel my way to a new form that embraces or embodies where that energy went.” Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

Very few poets can do the same form over and over again with the same level of performance. Even Alexander Pope, a master of the heroic couplet, could lose energy.

The challenge of the new—especially when it is chosen and not imposed—is energizing. Think of Yeats in his old age. Think of Al Purdy when he stopped trying to be Alfred Wellington Purdy.

I admire Bessenbrugge for expressing tentativeness with respect to her process. Knowing that the energy is gone is half the battle. Finding it again in a new form is the other. Energy is never created or destroyed: it just changes form.

“Poetry/Exceeding music must take the place/Of empty heaven and it hymns.” Wallace Stevens

Which art is supreme? All have claimed the position at one time or another. Plato would banish poetry from his Republic because it rivalled philosophy, his field of endeavour, for control of people’s minds. In the nineteenth century Walter Pater had said that all art aspired toward the state of music. And religion has always claimed supremacy over all human activity, artistic or otherwise.

Stevens, in a few lines of poetry, rejects the claims of music, which it exceeds, and heaven (i.e. Religion) which, to the atheist Stevens, is “empty”. The first claim, about music, is simply an example of an ongoing sibling rivalry among the Muses. The second is new and unparalleled in the history of poetics. 

Today, poets are not so confident. They work under a burden of historical guilt. Poetry has been sexist, racist, a cultural product of capitalist society. But poets can break their art free of the power of these negative forces, just as Stevens liberated it from religion.

“But art isn’t about worldly truth. Art is about how it feels, even for those poets, and I am one of them, who feels ideas as tangible expressions of emotions.” Marvin Bell

Where else can truth, if it exists at all, lie but in the world,? Are ideas tied to facts? Not always, just the ones that are worth something. Bell’s extreme subjectivism is extremely annoying. Some ideas could be expressions of emotions, but I think it would be more accurate to say that some poems are tangible expressions of emotions. An idea is usually a part of a thought process and not an emotional one. Discovering an idea can possibly give rise to feelings of excitement, elation, or even dread.

Poetry holds up a mirror to reality. It shines a lamp that illuminates the world. Bell’s equating of idea and emotion makes it easy for people who want to set poetry aside from real life, to deprecate it as emotional ejaculations of narcissists who abandon “worldly truths” for that which makes them feel good.

“When we allow language to behave differently, it reveals truths, often truths which implicate or complicate, us as speakers or agents of language. That’s a remarkable resource to be aware of.” Tracey K. Smith

How do we allow language to “behave” at all? Could it be that it is the poet who behaves “differently” with the language? A skilled and intelligent poet can uncover things in language that surprise, implicate, complicate, what have you, both the poet and her audience. That is how and why new poetry is created.

Curatorial poetry, one branch of conceptual poetry (the dead end branch) can amuse for a time, but it does not have significant impact or any significance at all, because there is no authorial investment to add value.

To get back to Smith, language is too big for anyone to allow or disallow it anything, but language does not create poetry spontaneously. There always has to be a poet at work shaping it.

“Art will only cease being national the day that the whole universe, living in the same climate, in houses built in the same style, speaks the same language with the same accent—that is to say, never.” Guillaume Apollinaire

Even those who reject a nationality are coloured by traces of that which they reject. To be “national” is not necessarily to be nationalist. A cosmopolitan person has a knowledge of several languages and cultures, including the culture in which he was raised. 

There is the scene in “Dirty Rotten Basterds” to be considered, the one where the Englishman posing as a German gives himself and his comrades away with a single gesture. Such is one’s national character—it is there behind the disguises and the affectations.

The national identity crosses all other categories. English romanticism is not the same as German. There is a Canadian literature, a French literature, and so on. Anyone can read any of them.