Not Dead Yet, but Not for Lack of Trying

Poetry may not be dead yet, but we’re certainly on a path to talk it to death.

from the New York Times 7/28/14

Is Poetry Dead? Not if 45 Official Laureates Are Any Indication

More poetry matter from the New York Times 7/18/14

Does Poetry Matter?

And a response from the Los Angeles Review of Books 7/21/14

How Much Does Poetry Matter? 

 

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Sense and Instability: Attack of the Hip Non Sequitur

In the current issue (Jan/Feb 2014) of the American Poetry Review, Joy Ladin savages a Matthew Dickman poem in her essay called Emperor of Ice Cream. The point of the exercise wasn’t to beat up on that poem—the poem was just a handy example used to help her make her argument. The essay looks at the current fashion of hip non sequitur sort of poetry—poetry that, in her words, is “sense optional.” See also: Ashbery.

While parsing Dickman’s Bougainvillae, Ladin raises a number of important questions pertinent to poetry today. In coining the term Hip Non Sequitor she’s given a name, or maybe a category title, to much of what is populating the popular poetry journals.

While she never comes out with a clear judgment-making statement, it’s seems clear that she’s more on the side of sense than non sense. In fact, her most damning statement at the end of the essay suggests that the trend to abandon sense in poetry is the reason so many readers have simply abandoned poetry. “As such meaninglessness becomes ever more common in published poetry, readers stop expecting poetic language to have any relation to sense, which means that poets need worry ever less about it.”

So that’s it? We shouldn’t expect much from poems. She suggests that in such poems, the reader’s search for sense, and lack of finding it, “give way to boredom.” Exactly.

The author isn’t arguing, and neither would I, that poems have to mean in the same way as conversational text or other text, such as prose fiction, do. But so often poems seem to be hiding behind a defense that since they don’t need complete sense that they won’t even bother trying. Just throw the words up into the air and see where they land. There’s a serious lack of responsibility going on in that method. On the other hand, some poems prance around in motely, proud of their senselessness, relying on some higher poetic Morse code that only they understand (see Rae Armantrout and Duran Duran for more on that). “It’s meaninglessness masquerading as meaning,” as Ladin writes.

I won’t begrudge any poet the right to write the kind of poem he or she wants to write, but I reserve the right to not care about them. If meaninglessness is the object, I can get that without reading the poem. For me, poetry itself involves a quest for meaning, for connection. Poetry is largely built on metaphor which seeks to connect one thing to the other thing in order to help the poet (and the reader) make sense of the world. That’s the point, or at least a pretty important one. (yes, I’m oversimplifying, but this is just a short bog post after all)

By the way, I happen to like a lot of Matthew Dickman’s poetry. My copy of his book All-American Poem is full of dog-eared pages and underlined passages, but while the Dickman poem in question has some lovely moments, Ladin was spot-on with her overall critique.

Connect and follow on twitter @UnIambic

The Great MFA Debate Continues

” Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. ”

 

From Get a Real Degree by Elif Batuman at The London Review of Books.

“He’s either a simpleton, a liar or both.”

I can’t help myself. More on master-of-none James Franco. Read the take-down here 

But who do we blame, him or the people that make him possible, his enablers? Here’s what Ian Belknap says:

My problem is with the people who ostensibly believe in the arts, as Franco claims he does, who then erode the value of art from within. If it was just some idiot making bad art — well, there is no end to bad art. No, my qualm is with the access to an audience, resources, publishing and galleries by people like him.

Nature Poets Write the Worst Titles

happy treeIn my graduate school workshop I was labeled the Tree, River, Fish guy because most of my poems had some combination of those elements in them.  I’m not sure exactly how that happened, or how I got in the habit or writing about situations that generally fell in the category of nature poetry, but here I am, 20 years later, still doing it. I like fishing, camping and generally staying away from crowds, so maybe that’s how a nature poet is born.

I’m also drawn to poets who’s subjects overlap mine (though that’s hardly a prerequisite for a poet I like), but it happens. I’m hoping to teach a short class or reading group on “nature” poetry at Musehouse someday, if I can convince enough people to sign up. If you’re interested, and in the Philadelphia area, let me know.

While collecting ideas I came across an anthology, Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary Nature Poetry. From the title it seemed perfect—I could probably use this for a text for the course, but I think it’s out of print and the press out of business. I picked up my copy used.

Anyway, after Amazon delivered my copy, I opened the book to see who and what was inside, and was struck by the titles. No, it’s not that they were spelled wrong or employed gratuitous profanity. They were boring.

Boring.

I know I don’t always write the best titles for my poems, but I do take them seriously. I do sometimes struggle with titles, change them several times and think hard about what work they do or don’t do for my poem. To see a book full of “nature poems” with titles like The Deer, Landscape, Spring, Wish, Meadow… you see where this is going. And it keeps going like that… 300 pages worth of poems with one word titles. Open up a field guide to the birds of North American and look at the index. You’ll find as much creativity there as in the table of context of this poetry anthology. Should I go on? Annuals, Wave, Chimney Swifts, The Birds, The Bees (I confess that I have a poem called The Bees too), The Mouse, Cold, Turtles, Slug, Song , etc.

The worst two, from Marvin Bell and Cornelius Eady: Nature and Nature Poem.

But there are good titles here too, a few: I Stand Beneath the Mountains with an Illiterate Heart, A Little Heart to Heart with the Horizon, Lion of God in Vermont in May, The Snow Monkey Argues with God (a David Huddle poem, and one of my favorites in the book), Kicking and Breathing, Protecting the Children from Hurricanes, In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel (I’ve admired this Stanley Plumly poem for years) and so on.

When I was sending a book manuscript around to friends for opinions, one friend told me to look at my titles, because he believed there were only a few that attracted enough attention to warrant a stranger opening up to that page.

Is that what a title is for? In the Musehouse workshop I run, we had a discussion about titles last week. Some, we decided, were necessary to set the stage, establish a place or situation, like the titles in these poems:

In the Nursing Home by Jane Kenyon

She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.

She has stopped running wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed’s dry.

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

Turning Forty By Kevin Griffith

At times it’s like there is a small planet

inside me. And on this planet,

there are many small wars, yet none

big enough to make a real difference.

The major countries—mind and heart—have

called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler,

no one remembers him well. All

decisions are made by committee.

Yet there are a few pictures of the old dictator—

how youthful he looked on his big horse,

how bright his eyes.

He was ready to conquer the world.

Some titles serve to capture a theme, contribute to the mystery, create (or even upset) a sense of context or a hundred other things. There are no rules. But there are a lot of lazy titles out there. Apparently nature poets are some of the worst offenders. Of course some of these boring, single word titles may be a lot more than is obvious at first look when attached to the poem—when used right, a simple title can cast a larger shadow than the word itself. But you’ve got the read the poem, do the math, to find out.

Also, read this post where Jane Hirshfield shares some of her thoughts on nature poetry.

Who Put the Washington Post in Charge of Poetry?

Today the Washington Post published an article by Alexandra Petri that asked, Is Poetry Dead? The article was a response to Richard Blanco’s poem at President Obama’s 2nd inauguration. I get that Petri didn’t like the poem. So what? But what bothers me more is she somehow decided that she’d been granted the power to decide what poetry is supposed to be, supposed to do, for everyone else.

It’s a stupid and ill-argued article, but it’s also a reflection of what so many narrow-minded people probably believe about poetry. The article makes ridiculous and incorrect assumptions, but my guess is it’s not that far off from what a lot of people were thinking while Blanco recited his poem. Why is that? Why does Petri insist that poetry needs to change something? Does Petri even read any contemporary poetry (I doubt it)? Does Petri understand the enormous variety of poetry flourishing in the US right now?

Possibly even more important–how has an attitude like that spread? Has poetry moved away from popular society or has society moved away from poetry? Was poetry dumped by its girlfriend or the other way around?

But wait, there’s more. John Deming wrote an open letter response on Coldfront. You have to read it.

The Trouble with Poetry Readings

Donald Hall recently wrote some observations on the ubiquitous poetry reading for The New Yorker. I won’t summarize it for you—read it for yourself here. It’s long, but worth your time.

It also got me thinking about all the readings I’ve done and attended.

I’ve been doing a lot of readings the past two years. Some sprung from an award I won. The award apparently got my name out to a few people I didn’t know previously (which is easy, because I know hardly anyone). Then early this year my first book came out, so I actively courted readings in the hope of selling books (sometimes it worked, sometimes not). When I’m not doing readings (which is most of the time) I try to attend as many as my schedule allows. Here I attempt my random observations on poetry readings.

 ***

My first “real” poetry reading was (I think) D. Nurkse at Bucknell University in the mid-80s. I was a student at nearby Bloomsburg University, and one of my literature professors, who I occasionally drank with, took me to the reading. Around the same time I also heard Harry Humes there. It may even have been the same reading. Not sure. Either way, I got some books signed.

 ***

 Since I go to a lot of readings I have a lot of signed books. Most poets try to write something nice (“thanks for the support…”). At that first reading, Nurkse just wrote his name at the top of the page like he was signing a math exam. After a reading at Bucks County Community College in the early 90s, where I was teaching at the time, Jack Gilbert not only signed, but also drew a little picture in my copy of The Great Fires. I try to write something funny, but often just scribble so people assume it says something funny.

 ***

 As Hall notes in his post, many poets butcher or drown their poems at public readings. That’s why I have trouble remembering so many of the readings I’ve attended. Jack Gilbert was quiet, but he had a seriousness to his reading as if he was re-experiencing the poem in front of us. Thomas Lux punches his poems out like a nail gun. Robet Hass–I know I saw him in Philadelphia, but have no memory of what it was like.

 ***

 Robert Bly often repeats himself at readings (not in the same way my grandmother used to repeat herself). He seems to truly enjoy the process of reading aloud, and when he comes to a line he likes (or thinks you should like) he says it again. Sometimes that means he reads the whole poem again just because he enjoys doing it. I like that, though I wouldn’t try it myself. You’d just call me insufferable.

 ***

 I don’t know if I’m a good reader. I read my poems out loud all the time—as I’m writing, revising or just reading my poems over again. I walk around the house at night doing that. I’m not sure what my poems should sound like or what I should sound like. I recently had one audience member complement me on my reading style, and at the same reading another person asked me why I read my poems “like that.” I’m not sure what “that” meant. My wife says I hunch over when I’m reading.

 ***

I envy people who have a strong reading voice–like a radio voice. Southern poets have a clear advantage. A southern accent makes any line sound cooler. I don’t think a southerner ever said that about a Yankee accent.

***

 I have a personal rule: At every poetry reading I must buy at least one book (if books are for sale). If no books are for sale, then I at least buy something from the host venue (coffee, beer, muffin, whatever…). I’m always shocked when I see a crowd of 30 people show up for a free reading, and the poet only sells 3 books. That’s shameful. Books are cheap, and we need to support each other. I’ve been that poet. I once drove more than two hours for a venue where I was invited to be the featured reader. Only about 10 people showed up. One bought a book. The venue complained that I brought in my own bottle of water (I’d just come in from a pizza place), made me throw it out and buy another bottle of water there. Remember, most poets are unpaid for readings. Selling a few book copies is all we’ve got to pay for the gas and pizza.

***

At that reading I traded a copy of my book with another poet for his book. Trading books with other poets is cool. I do that whenever I can. Also, if you like the reading, offer to buy the poet a beer, especially if it’s me.

***

Should poets be paid for readings? If you’re Donald Hall, then of course you get paid. I’ve been paid about four times in my life for readings. One was a public library. Once was at a university, and it paid nicely (and included dinner). If you work at a University, please invite me to read. I’ll be gracious.

***

At most readings, the host or venue treats the visiting poet very nicely, but there have been times… At a reading I did in Skippack (at a coffee shop that no longer exists), I got the impression that my presence was an inconvenience to the manager even though I was invited. The shop didn’t want to move any seats to accommodate a reading, didn’t want me to read too long because a guitar player was coming later that evening, and I was expected to pay for my one cup of coffee. Luckily, only about three people came.

***

Sometimes you can tell when half the audience is only there for the open reading after the featured poet. They spend the whole time heads down, shuffling through their own papers, tapping on a phone… then jump up for the open period. Those people suck.

***

When a host says you get 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, does that mean you automatically get an extra 10-20 percent extension? I seem to see that a lot. Sometimes I mind. Sometimes I don’t. Usually the times I mind are when I’m last in line out of a series of readers and find out that now I’ve only got 4 minutes because we’re out of time.

***

Applause. People should know by now that they don’t need to clap after every poem. Maybe an occasional spontaneous burst, but not EVERY poem. Save the applause to the end.

***

I admit that my mind wanders during poetry readings. Unless the presentation is especially engaging (or it’s Donald Hall), I sometimes have trouble focusing, especially on long poems. Maybe that’s why I don’t write long poems. If any of you out there see that look in my eye while you’re reading, I’m sorry.

***

At a reading at an art gallery I was impressed with how closely the audience was paying attention. Their eyes never seemed to waver from me at the front of the room. After the reading I realized that behind me were two life-size nude portraits , one of a lovely women and one of a very interested man.

***

Sometimes I wonder why no one wants to sit in the first row when I’m reading. I don’t think I spray when I speak. Lately I’ve been trying to sit up front so I get a better view for taking videos with my phone.

***

It’s late, and I’ve run out of ideas. Please add your own thoughts to this. If you want to hear me read, I’ll be at the Good Karma Cafe on Dec 2 with J.C. Todd.

Grant Clauser’s newest Book, Necessary Myths, can be found at The Broadkill River Press