Brilliance

“Probably some of us were taught so long and hard that poetry was a thing to analyze that we lost our ability to find it delicious, to appreciate its taste, sometimes even when we couldn’t even completely apprehend its meaning. I love to offer students a poem now and then that I don’t really understand. It presents them with the immediate opportunity of being smarter than I am. Believe me, they always take it. They always find an interesting way to look through its window. It presents us all with a renewed appetite for interpretation, one of the most vibrant and energetic parts of the poetry experience.”

—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Lights in the Windows”

Nothing is new anymore, the death of poetry, etc.

I’ve been leading a workshop on poetics at The Writer’s Center for a bit. It’s afforded me the opportunity (and impetus) for going back and rereading some foundational essays that I’ve read and not thought much of since. In a lot of ways, I’ve been surprised, surprised again by them. I’ve reloved Amy Lowell, found common ground with Frost, watched Marianne Moore play nicely with the boys and struggle with herself, and witnessed Williams’s own failings to adequately describe “the measure” in poems.

But it was probably Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect” that I found most interesting. I have a generally low opinion of Pound, mostly informed by his failures as a person than a poet, although I also feel that he had an undue influence on American poetry of the last century. But, then again, he’s in large part responsible for the rise of Modernism and the practice of poetry we all engage in today–whether we write in Modern or postmodern tradition today, we are still contending with Pound’s edicts whether we like it or not.

I don’t know if it’s my attention span or my intermittent readings of poetry, but I feel often disappointed by what I encounter in the world. I want something to surprise me, and lately I’m rarely surprised. I’m looking for a formal surprise, I think. I want a poetry that inhabits something new. It need not be about something new, or using language that is new, but I want its shape, its space, its form to be something new.

I don’t like it when people use the term “form” too narrowly. So often it implies “pattern,” which is think is unfairly limited and does not account for all the formal considerations a responsible poet must make. Rhyme and meter are elements of pattern. Stanza breaking can be patternist, but most often it is a formal concern, as is line length, as is white space, text shape, etc.

I started working on a little thing that isn’t poetry yet, and I’m thinking of how I can take this received form, which rises from reality television and the form of the synopsis, and make it more poetic. I want the poem to begin and end in delight. If there is wisdom there, then take it. If not, leave the poem happy, leave it having been dazzled or surprised. That’s all. I’m not smarter than you. If anything, I might remind you of what you already know to be true.

"Sounds like a good, cool guy until right about here"

That’s the brief note marked by the former owner of my copy of Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. It appears here:

Hired to talk about literary matters, Pound could nt resist the opportunity to promulgate his political views. His broadcasts were self-indulgent and digressive to the point of incoherence, but there was no mistaking his devotion to fascism, his hatred of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his virulent anti-Semitism. (Pound’s talks were so chaotic and bizarre that some Italian officials suspected he was an American spy broadcasting in a secret code.)

Poets Repeat Themselves

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet,”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has even been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. (Langston Hughes)

Replace Negro with queer, white with straight, see also discussions on various blogs about this context.

Poetry’s Mythology

Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom.

(More when you follow the link.

I didn’t know where to start in responding to this. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an essay about poetry so flagrantly couched in privilege while wearing such privilege on its sleeve, as if it belonged there.

Mr. Parini cultivates a portrait of himself as, one might say, someone unfettered by the overall demands of what it means to be a poet who, you know, works. Who has a family, a house, a life, who does the dishes and has to walk the dog and such. Who might not have time to eat a square breakfast before running to the train to get to a job where there are few moments of pause, if any. And who then arrives back home near or after dark, hungry, beleaguered, thinking of poetry only as a last resort and, even then, reluctantly.

And too, I think there’s masturbatory aspect of criticism here wherein poetry begets poetry. That one must lead a life steeped in verse in order to produce it. (I half-agree.) I just don’t understand why poetry consider poetry outside of other forms of literature, or music, or art. Why can’t we replace “poetry” here with “rock music”? Or, that my fervent television viewing habits, involving Lost, reality shows, and Buffy can’t be considered foundational materials for a quirky little chapbook like The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon?

I suppose I’m saying my fear is that living along the lines outlined in Parini’s essay would lead many poets down familiar paths toward familiar poems and poetics, in a way that risks little and cashes in frequently.

But isn’t it more fun to sit quietly in the dark, wondering what else is in the room with you–and more importantly, which of you will strike first?