Arguing with poets
“Poetry is everlasting. It is not going away. But it has never occupied a sizeable position of the world’s business and probably never will.” A.R. Ammons

Poetry does not occupy much of of a position in the world’s commerce, but all of the world, and much more than that, is poetry’s business.

Billions and billions served, but nobody mistakes a Big Mac for fine cuisine, Important people snigger at poets and poetry and then disappear into the grave like a Big Mac down a junk food lover’s gullet. The poetry remains. And new poetry is constantly being written. Foolish young people, people who could have been dentists and plumbers, choose to be poets. The fact that so many smart people choose the unlucrative profession of poet is reassuring.

“most lyric poems lead to some acknowledgement of death” Mark Strand

This sounds right. I am not sure if it is empirically true, but I tend to associate lyric with music, brevity, fleeting feelings, and fleeting lives. The lyric catches the experience as it flies through time toward obliteration. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. “Cold pastoral”. “But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me”. These and lines like them are the high points, the defining tenor, of the lyric form.

Yet lyric poetry is not grim or morbid. It tends to be able to retrieve something from time’s destructive forces. The Grecian urn is still there, in London, long after Keats’ death. Lucy “lives” in the poems Wordsworth penned about her. Death stops for Dickinson and performs the stately pageant that gives meaning to her imagined end of life.

“Poetry is an echo asking a shadow-dancer to be a partner.” Carl Sandburg

This does not sound like a promising situation: two insubstantialities trying to come together to do something. Yet the image is arrestingly illustrative of what poetic language can do, because our mind’s eye can see the echo bowing to the shadow-dancer in an invitation to dance.

You cannot explain Sandburg’s statement any more than you can explain a poem. You can describe a poem, you can dissect it down to its parts, you can paraphrase it, but you cannot explain a poem. Labels are not the poem; historical context is not the poem. The seventeenth century background does not explain the poem.

For centuries humans have occupied themselves with creating and reading the inexplicable. The hope is that they will continue to do so for a long time.

“One does not want a poem to serve anything; the liberating god of poetry does not endorse servitude.” A.R. Ammons

A lot of poets would disagree, but they would be wrong. Poetry is not propaganda. It is not a sermon. Saying exactly what it is can be a lot harder. The poet is free to write or say whatever he or she wishes. So, first of all, poetry is freedom. Freedom comes with responsibility. Should a poet choose to serve someone or thing, the poet cannot choose wisely. The decision to “serve” is already a mistake. The subsequent decision as to what will be served is a decision to compound a mistake.

The Milton who is accused of being of Satan’s party is an example of how servitude can backfire. Milton was too much of a poet to give up on an interesting character.

Poetry’s “higter purpose” is poetry itself. Poetry does not exist to fight sexism, racism, homophobia, capitalism, or socialism. Poetry exists to be free.

“In a good poem nothing is ordinary … One way of accomplishing this transformation from familiar to arresting is to use tropes.” Rachel Hadas

At first this sounds like something from an unhelpful book on learning to be a writer: “use tropes”. Tropes do make writing arresting. They do transform the ordinary. They can also create God awful “poetic” poems that sound like they were written by a callow Keats wannabe.

Poetry is often a highly exceptional use of language in the guise of ordinary speech. But it does rise above the ordinary when figurative language explodes in our brain just a microsecond after our eyes have passed over it. We often do not realize just how brilliant it is until we back up and take a second look. Close reading can be very rewarding. Such reading is as impactful as our first unstructured pass over the language. It can give the reader a deeper appreciation of the subtle work that the poet has put into a piece. We do not offer enough appreciation to poets for the intricacy of their work.

“The language of a poem is meant to be meditated on .” Mark Strand

At first, I thought this said “mediated,” which would also be a good thing. “Meditated” does not mean “analyzed” nor does it mean “thought about”. Meditation involves the entire body. It is not limited to the brain. It is a state a person enters into.

I think some poems can be meditated, but not all poems. Strand’s method would work with shorter poems—haiku, for instance. It would not work so well with “The Rape of the Lock”. The proposed precept is yet another example of a one size fits all approach to poems that does not work, because poetry is such a large and diverse enterprise. People are people, but everyone’s fingerprints are unique. So it is with poetry.

“a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action and so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action” Anne Carson

This is quite a Romantic way of looking at how one reads a poem. Wordsworth gave us “emotion recollected in tranquility”; Carson delivers mental action recreated by the reader. Can this reader actually re-experience that exact same “action of the mind” that Carson says is captured on the page?

I find this approach disturbingly linear and sadly controlling. What is to guarantee that the reader is to experience the same “action” as the writer? The inevitable conclusion is that every reader will have the same journey “through the action.” How de we account for divergent readings of poems? Must be faulty readers. Or perhaps a poorly captured action of the mind?

Yet there is also a basic truth in here. The writer does capture something of his experience on the page. The reader does share in or partake of that experience. Perhaps the flow of energy is not as one way as she presents it.

“Poetry … Is a defence of the individual against all the forces arrayed against him. Every religion, every ideology and orthodoxy … Wants to reeducate him.” Charles Simic

It sounds paranoid, but Simic’s statement is true. Human life is a constant struggle toward understanding and against intellectual enslavement. Massive forces want to tell us what to think and how to be in the world. Since a poet is one who speaks his/her mind and struggles to express the truth of things, the poet has to break free from religion, ideology, and orthodoxy.

Poets are not alone in their paranoia. Philosophers, musicians, and artists are in the same boat. They pursue a vision. The more the vision deviates from some official line, the more they are hounded and derided by people who want to shape mass thinking to their own ends.

“Classic” writers are safely dead. Some of them can be co-opted for the use of the ideologues. Those who cannot are conveniently forgotten. People of an independent mind most constantly rediscover and keep the classics alive. Readers too can struggle in defence of the individual.

“The first step, I think, and that’s why it’s in my poetry, is to make us love the world rather than fear for the end of the world.” Gary Snyder

What does “to love the world” mean? Snyder hints that courage is involved. To love the world is to not fear its end. At first, Snyder seems to have put forth a non sequitur. One can both love something and fear its end. One can especially feel this way about another person.

Perhaps faith is also involved—faith that the world is not on the brink of destruction. So far, we have avoided total annihilation. Big deal. Avoidance is not a virtue.

If we love something we are more likely to fight for its survival. Snyder would write a poetry of affirmation of life. Once the fire of love is kindled, we are less likely to let it go out. To preserve something out of love rather than out of fear is a big step forward.

“Poetry is the tracing of the trajectories of a finite sound to the infinite points of its echoes.” Carl Sandburg

It’s the quality of the poem and not the worthiness of its subject that counts. Can there be a good poem about a forbidden subject?

There is at least one great poem, Celan’s “Todesfuge,” about the Holocaust. What subject, if any, is too terrible to write about? Poems about terrible subjects in which, say rape or torture are praised are unlikely to be successful or good, though in theory they could be. It is doubtful that readers could get past their disgust to find any satisfaction in the poem.

It is disturbing, but true, that some people get pleasure from child pornography. Films or photos of this type are not “good” in any sense that Larkin means.

It seems that  he was thinking about the idea of decorum of subject. Conceptual poets live to inject formerly non-poetic subjects into poetry: weather reports, DNA sequences, etc. Since the Romantic movement, poets have been continuously expanding the range of subject that are deemed acceptable for published poetry. I suspect there were always “secret” poems kept in the bottom drawer and not shared with the reading public. It turns out that Eliot had some. All manner of social realism and déclassé topics are now OK. Shelley could write about an incestuous father, though he wisely set it in a foreign country and in an historical period, as if to say this kind of thing happened far away and long ago. There are some subjects that just do not work in poetry.