Sunday, October 25, 2015

10 Thoughts on Poetry and Why I Can't Write It (Except When I Can)


I spent the better part of this morning looking at the last bits of poetry I have written—most of it composed last year and some of it this spring—and felt a sick feeling.  It is becoming clear to me that I ought to never write poetry again.  That is, assuming anything I ever wrote approximates poetry. 


I get into modes when it comes to writing and reading.  I am not in poetry mode at the moment.  Lately, poems strike me as dull or overly labored, thus, embarrassing in their effort.  I mean both the poems I write and the ones I read, the ones that come my way almost daily via subscriptions to Poetry Magazine or Poem of the Day emails or my Facebook feed.  I peek at these poems, yawn, scratch my head, look for a nice stretch of unbroken lines to savor.


I have always written.  Mostly poems though often stories and essays and personal bullshit and even a play.  The idea being that a writer ought to just fucking write and not worry about genre definitions.  That made sense to me.  My stories and poems shouldn’t really be all that dissimilar.  I get it—people want to stretch themselves and do something different and frequently that means they will try to write differently, but all too often I feel they are overly loyal to the idea of a genre and, subsequently, stifle some of their voice.  I know that a poem ought not to be a mere story with line breaks and the occasional rhyme, but I don’t necessarily think it wise to sacrifice voice and perspective when writing a poem.  But I’m starting to think one of two things is possible:

a. I am wrong and my poems are shit because they do not do what poems should do and all my proclamations are ridiculous and a bit disrespectful to the tradition of poetry.

b. My poems are unique and my voice is fun and interesting, but, sadly, I am not following the trends of American poetry (which I find to be dull and obnoxious) and, as a result, no one in the poetry community is willing to give a fuck about my poems just as I do not give a fuck about theirs.   

Scenario a is more than likely true, though my few supports claim the second possibility is accurate.  It’s nice to have supportive friends, but damn if I don’t worry that the ten years I’ve spent writing poems have been a waste of time. 


I have the memoir coming out really soon.  That’s exciting and, having reread the thing many times, I do feel that the book is enjoyable, albeit solipsistic.  But it’s a memoir—how it could not be a little solipsistic? 

Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more solipsistic than a poem.

I wrote a book in prose, hoo hum.  It makes me think of Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.  The poets in that book were hilarious, self-important young people who would say things like: I suppose I may one day commit the sin of writing prose.  This statement suggests that prose is inherently conventional, turgid, lifeless, a betrayal of the true writer.  This sounds like something a pretentious young poet would say.  But in my heart I wonder if I have indeed sacrificed the poet within me by committing vulgarity of writing a prose book.


Here’s the thing: I have tried to publish a book of my best poems for the better part of a decade.  No one’s bitten.  The best poems I have are available in small journals or are languishing in the odd corners of the internet, and maybe that’s where they belong.  Maybe I ought to see that the writing on the walls is in prose, not poetry.  Maybe I will never break into the community of published poets because my poems are too silly, trying too hard to be funny, too full of puns and bad gags, too concerned with love (no one I know who publishes is writing about that subject), too grouchy, not linguistically inventive enough, not bothering to find new ways of expressing old ideas, too direct, too open and not sufficiently coded.  Geesh, Vince, where’re the fucking metaphors?  Where’s the elliptical image that has little to do with the next elliptical image?  You have a poem about your dog?  You actually wrote a poem about the World Cup?  How many times can you write poems about cities?  You’re too obsessed with minor poets like Ciaran Carson and Brendan Kennelly to write like John Ashbery and Jorie Graham.  REAL POETS!  AMERICANS!  C’mon, you’re not Irish—quite trying to be Paul Muldoon.  Get surreal.  Emulate Celan.  You might be onto something if you could take your humor and your casual style and be more like Koo or Hoagland and write poems as flat as the pages they’re printed on.  Those are the kind of funny poems we want: clever, precious poems full of hip irony. 

But I can’t do these things.  And this is not a rant meant to imply that so long as I refuse to do these things the poetry elite will ignore me.  No, my failure is on me, not anyone else.  While I do think it would easier to get a book out were I to conform to the trends of the day, which to me are intentionally obscure poems and cute and clever bullshit, I know that hard work, revision, and ongoing submission to publishers is the only way to reach my goal.  Maybe the publisher for me is out there, but where?  I look at the journals and the presses and I get turned off.  I’m starting to think that I don’t really like poetry because what the publishers publish does so little for me.


I started reading Guff by Brendan Kennelly, a hero of mine.  Three pages in, I was happy as hell in a way that I have not been lately.  All the poems I have tried to read as of late have bummed me out to the nth degree.  But not Kennelly.  He’s a constant source of joy.  No one I know reads him.  Obviously he is incredibly popular in Ireland—even Bono name checked him—and I am sure some other Chicagoan knows his work, but he writes poems similar to Nicanor Parra’s antipoems.  Parra, another hero, is better known among my few remaining contacts in the poetry scene.  But I doubt he’s regarded as being more than a prankster.  I guess if you’re not writing about menstruation or the trials of parenthood, it’s tough to be taken seriously.  (Okay, that’s not fair, but it felt good to type.) 


If there is a group of poets I feel a kinship with, while admitting to being nowhere near their genius, these be they:

Brendan Kennelly
Nicanor Parra
Ciaran Carson
Patrick Kavanagh
Ernesto Cardenal
Frank O’Hara
Yehuda Amichi

If there be a group I admire and will never come close to resembling, these be the names:

Anna Akhmatova
W. B. Yeats
Walt Whitman
Cesar Vallejo
Seamus Heaney
Li Po
Rachel Zucker

If there be a list of poets I admire but don’t always understand, whose work is elusive yet pleasurable most of the time, here they are:

Joyce Mansour
Mina Loy
Medbh McGuckian
Vicente Huidobro
Ingborg Bachmann
Robinson Jeffers

If there be a gang of poets who I do not care for (save for a poem here and there), this them:

Paul Celan
Robert Frost
Jorie Graham
John Greenleaf Whittier
Carl Sandburg
Sylvia Plath
Harryette Mullen
Allen Ginsberg

I’m stopping the last list because it could go on indefinitely. 


I wrote a poem today.  Not great, but it has potential.  I then looked over the last edits to the memoir.  Not great but it is as done as it’s going to ever be.  Both pieces of writing—different genres—made me laugh.  The one person guaranteed to read everything I write is my lovely esposa.  And she likes both my memoir and my poems.  I found my ideal reader.  And I married her.


Some people yearn for wide recognition.  I’m happy that a few people come across my scribblings and react.  Who knows, maybe I’ll find my way back to poetry eventually.  Maybe next year.  In the meantime, I’m going to see if Guff continues to amuse and delight and, who knows, inspire. 


“A poem is a useless thing.”  I wrote that.  It borrows from Wilde, so sue me, but I stand by it.  I make useless things.  What joy!