Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Another Post About Poetry

Not long ago, I wrote a blog post intended to get non-poetry readers to give the old form of written art a second chance.  I know it worked on at least one of my three readers, so there’s that.  But I felt dickish almost immediately after posting it.  Who the fuck am I? 

That got me to thinking a bit more about poetry, specifically the kind being written these days and in this country.  (I only know about poetry from other countries based largely on what gets translated, which is likely the best work, so there’s reason to believe that other countries are producing just as much crap as the US of A.)  Much of the work that has made its way to me via recommendations, workshops, curiosity, and, not long ago, slogging through submissions is bad.  This stands to reason: a lot of written work is bad, especially when it's in embryo.  But some of it is quite good and impacting.  Again, nothing new.  (Whenever I hear someone say that music or literature or films were better decades ago I call bullshit.  Only the good stuff survives.  For all the great music of the '60s there was a considerable amount of junk.)  Still, I do worry that I am seeing a lot of mediocre work celebrated.  Or even when the work is better than mediocre, there often seems to be a snarky, clever conceit to it that dooms the poem to being a temporary pleasure at best.  As I always say, cute and clever lose the race. 

A while back, I wrote this letter to Poetry Magazine, a publication that inspires very mixed feelings from yours truly.  The essay to which I was responding was centered on criticizing the work of Dylan Thomas, though the real savaging was of E. E. Cummings.  Now, I am all for slaughtering sacred cows, but when the knife is wielded by a guy whose book is named after a silly movie, and whose work seems to be of the kind that stretches for irony and preciousness, well… fuck him.  Dylan Thomas was guilty of composing some pretty maddening lyrics, poetry with a capital P.  But he wrote “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, so he’s got a fixed spot in the pantheon of greats.  Ditto Cummings who is often playful to the point of annoyance but who penned more than a few poems that have elevated human existence. 

And this is maybe the real issue I have with contemporary poets: they are often too scared to write anything that isn't removed from emotion, too busy relishing the experiment more than the poem.  They are skilled at the workshop, the exercise, the clever reference, and the detached gag, but they lack the guts to put themselves out there.  Their work is amusing but hollow.  So much of the stuff I've seen masquerading as poetry seeks to do little more than amuse briefly, signal to the initiated, and validate the author while doing little for the reader.  Think of what Steve Coogan said about jazz music and the band having more fun than the audience.  This is what contemporary poetry can often be and this is why few outside of the MFA crowd go out of their way to read poetry.

And this seems to be the case.  (Obviously there are exceptions to everything I am stating here—this is fucking blog, for Christ’s sake.)  Whenever someone sees me reading a book of poems, they seem to tense up.  Oh… poetry.  That very difficult, rarely rewarding, utterly confusing, intentionally coded nonsense I am supposed to appreciate. Um... where's my iPhone?  Sad, really.  But when I read the latest wokshopped convulsions with line breaks, I can totally understand why some readers shrink from the challenge. 

I may have written something like this already (I don’t reread old posts very often), but I do feel the need to state that I am not opposed to poetry that is funny, difficult, complex, or challenging.  It is not always the job of the writer to make it easy on the reader.  But goddammit, if you are going to make things difficult you’d better have a reward at the end.  And too often I see poetry that is mere wordplay and evasion without an intellectual or emotional core.  Basically: I need something to hang my hat on if I am going to give a damn. 

I also ought to state that I not the greatest poet alive, despite my regular insistence to the contrary, and that I do indeed write slight poems that will not—in fact are not meant to—echo throughout the ages, and that funny or clever poems have their place and I more than anyone realize that.  BUT… if that is all you ever try to write than you are not much of a poet. 

Roberto Bolaño, who was not much of a poet but was a great novelist, said that were he planning a bank robbery he would take with him “true poets” as they were the most “valiant” of people.  Now, this is perhaps debatable, as is the meaning of the great writer’s statement, but I take something from this along the lines of: the true poet is brave enough to put in a poem what others would shy away from saying.  They are unafraid of being serious, even when being funny.  They do not detach from their work.  They put it all in there: themselves, their lovers, their enemies, their god, their breakfast, their dreams, their guts, their all.  And they fear not retribution or ridicule. 

I may not be a true poet, but I’m not afraid to try to be one. 

So I’m going to close by sharing this poem, which is lovely and ought to be read and understood and enjoyed by damn near anyone.  It is neither difficult nor simple.  I like it, mostly for the last line.  This is the job of the true poet, in my opinion, a duty shirked by too many poets today.  Get to work.