Everybody wants to be a poem (part one)

I actually had to remove the tag “poetry” (and related variations) from the tag surfer feature because of the sheer amount of people’s poetry that was showing up. Arghh. Something they should tell you early in life is

1) never post any poetry online, and
2) if you do, for God’s sake don’t let other people read it, and
3) never look for comments, criticism or advice online.

At least not if you take the writing seriously. It’s hard enough to reach the “outside world” when you are in a creative writing program, much less getting the internet mixed up with it.

    Writing, poetry especially, is such a weird thing; it is so deeply associated with “feelings” that people are hesitant to actually give criticism. The legacy of modernism and the Beat poets is that when we neither understand nor like a poem, that alone isn’t enough to disqualify the poem as having failed – i.e. being a “bad” poem.  In fact, in many cases it would only reinforce the idea that the poem is up to the status quo.

    Every year, I see more and more younger writers (“young” in terms of development, not age) who have not only embraced the notion that a poem must be this coded thing, but also seem unable to think otherwise (this symptom can largely be blamed on modernism, namely Eliot and Pound, in my opinion, though it is an arguable point). Nevertheless, the fact remains that poems are seen as these things that must be decrypted in order to reveal what the poem is “about.” And I do mean “about” – not “what does the poem mean?” – but what is it about, what are the specifics of this context, through what is meaning being given?

    A quick tangent; I’ve seriously given thought to doing a textbook (on writing) as my dissertation; however, I want to gear the textbook towards writers who have some experience (with academic workshops, contemporary writing, personal development, etc.), because most approach the subject from the perspective of a beginner. They leave you with a bunch of exercises and terms that you can use to talk about poetry, and maybe even create poetry, but they do not address the more abstract and deeply personal choices that factor into the writing process. There isn’t enough writing about writing, not anything of significance that is contemporary, not anything done by writers instead of writing professors. 

    To transition back towards my original point, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any kind of writing “guidebook” that I didn’t loathe and wasn’t completely useless; the one exception would be “The Triggering Town,” by Richard Hugo, which I really appreciated when I was younger – it was the first book to really address the relativity of nearly everything involved in the process of writing a poem. The book has a section on “Getting Off the Subject,” which I recall being very refreshing and pointedly uncertain; it talked about poetry “not” doing things, about the chasm between author and reader; it talked about how difficult it was to communicate the simplest of things, much less a feeling or emotion or some other cognitive abstract, in a poem. And to this I subscribe wholly.

    To me, poetry doesn’t involve the communication of weighty and large concepts and/or feelings, but rather very specific ones; I want to communicate to the reader at a maximum capability, and this goal only seems impeded by vagueness, by lack of specifics, by poetics in lieu of statements. I don’t want a reader to look at a poem and ask “what is happening in this poem?” If they can’t answer that question, then how can they possibly hear what the poem is trying to say? Yet still, both writers and readers, in general, have this expectation of a poem being beyond a simple, surface level of “understanding.” And people actually wonder why poetry is dead in contemporary culture.  And yes, for all those “poetry is not dead” cheerleaders for creative writing departments (or spoken word events), it is dead in our culture. Okay, perhaps not dead, but certainly of little consequence.

    But how can this be? How can “poems” be of little consequence, when they flourish online, when they create weekly events at bars, when they can be the field of study in the pursuit of a graduate degree? The answer is simple: poems haven’t disappeared, our criticism has. No one wants to look at someone else and say “you aren’t cut out to be a writer; do something else with your life and you will be much happier.” Not even me. Our answer to that is the workshop, academic or not, where we learn to talk about the varying degrees that those terms we learned in that textbook appear in the poem. But rarely do we talk about a poem in terms of value, in any manner.

This is pervasive, and evident in “top-tier” journals publishing issue after issue of forgettable, even unremarkable, poetry; these serve more as standards of what poems – or “publishable poems,” to be exact – should look like and feel like, rather than what what is being said. But that doesn’t matter, the average reader doesn’t read those journals anyway, and instead view a poem as either 1) a foreign and strange thing whose meaning is elusive and just “not for them,” or 2) something in a greeting card, that rhymes. Today, “real poetry” happens before an audience of writing academics, and in turn writing has become written to that audience. Poems no longer require value, only the application of poetics, and what goes missing is consequence.

Okay, I’ve used some rather large, abstract assaults to get around to one point: when I was younger, I used to believe it was a good thing to write every day; it created discipline, promoted productivity and growth, increased the familiarity of working with the medium. Now, however, I no longer think that.  My suspicion is that while it certainly may have benefits in terms of poem writing, it dilutes the importance of necessity in poem writing. As a writer, you are exercising how to create a poem, and you practice doing so over and over, and eventually you get really good at it; but in the process you don’t get any better at why to create a poem, at recognizing poems that want to be written, at the idea of a poem being necessary. Sensibility is neglected, and to me that is perhaps the most important part of poem making.

Enough rambling for tonight; there is other stuff I should have been doing, and my guilt and anxiety are taking over. Probably more rambling on this topic soon to come: lyrics are not poems (yes, even that song), the formalist conspiracy to control creative writing academia, and why there is no such thing as a poem at a poetry slam.


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