Post Number: 201
|Posted on Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - 10:06 am: ||
What’s Wrong with Poetry Today
(What May Be the First of What Could Be a Lengthy Series)
I subscribe to the Academy of American Poets’ emailed “Poem-A-Day.” Today’s poem was “Electricity,” by Geoffrey Nutter, from his book Christopher Sunset, published by Wave Books.
Much of the poem is a list of detritus found along a riverside. Some readers object out of hand to “list poems,” but that’s not the problem here. Instead, here’s what sent my hand slamming into my forehead: Among the items in the list are “rusted aluminum pull-tabs” (line 7). I could put this phrase into context by quoting the poem in its entirety, but context is irrelevant here. The simple fact is that aluminum does not rust.
This unhappy condition can be caused by any number of viruses. Let’s examine the possibilities:
• Ignorance. It’s possible the poet has no formal education in science or metallurgy. We know most poets nowadays develop in the hothouses of university MFA programs. Although it’s possible to write good poetry without any great knowledge of science (or any other discipline), it’s an obstacle that poets must overcome. The autodidacts among them are most likely to succeed. It’s worth noting that at Black Mountain College, Charles Olson didn’t teach “poetry writing.” Instead, the curriculum was heavy in science, history, philosophy, vegetable gardening, woodcutting, roofing and repairs.
• Lack of observational skills. Anyone who has sifted through debris, cleaned out a garage or basement, or worked a roadside or riverbank cleanup should know that aluminum doesn’t rust. We pick up the old baked beans can and get rust on our fingers. We pick up the old beer can, and while it may be filthy, it doesn’t leave a red stain. While poets may get away with having no or limited specialized knowledge, they are doomed to failure if they don’t pay attention to their own sensory inputs. (And yes, I know, aluminum does corrode. But it’s a different physical process and it doesn’t present itself as a reddish-brown powdery substance. There’s no way you’d look at corroded aluminum and think “rust.”)
• Imagination trumping information. Let’s face it, it’s easier to imagine picking through that stuff on the riverbank than actually to go there, observe it, and then depict it. And anyway, isn’t mere depiction reductive? We’re writing Poetry, not taking Polaroids. Shouldn’t poetry be expansive enough to ignore the laws of nature and the world as we know it? The accomplished poet (or any other artist) uses phenomena to inform his or her imagination, and in turn the imagination transforms the materials. It’s what Heidegger termed the transformation of earth into World (and it’s why so much depends upon that red wheelbarrow).
It’s impossible to know which of these conditions may be afflicting Geoffrey Nutter. And perhaps this poem was an isolated flare-up in an otherwise healthy body of work. I’d have to read more, perhaps buy his book, to make a better diagnosis. Certainly, his publisher hopes I’ll do that.
Because this poem made it past at least one editor (probably more, if it previously appeared in a journal or anthology), at least one publisher, and of course the Academy of American Poets, I fear the prognosis is not good. (And we think our health care system has problems.)
"Entrapment is this society's sole activity...& only laughter can blow it to rags." (Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book III)
Staff Colin Ward
Post Number: 57
|Posted on Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - 06:53 pm: ||
Charles Olson didn’t teach “poetry writing.” Instead, the curriculum was heavy in science, history, philosophy, vegetable gardening, woodcutting, roofing and repairs.
There's the problem right there.
Post Number: 205
|Posted on Thursday, June 17, 2010 - 05:49 am: ||
Isn't this a little like saying "What's Wrong With Music Today," as if Music were homogeneous, and then offering up one song, say Miley Cyrus' "Hoedown Throwdown" as evidence of "its" decrepit condition?
(By the way, I think there's something wise in Olson's way of teaching, though at some point I suppose a curriculum of poetry might be in order.)
Post Number: 113
|Posted on Thursday, June 17, 2010 - 06:14 am: ||
As communicating via the written word is being devalued generally (not that people aren't reading lots of books, but the books they're reading are in many cases simplistic), it's hardly surprising that the quality of editing is declining apace.
William D. Dyes
Post Number: 56
|Posted on Thursday, June 17, 2010 - 07:10 am: ||
The overwheming emphasis when poetry is being evaluated seems to be placed on whether this poem is more 'intelligent' than that poem. Intelligence is more than an accumulation of facts and historical references or even the form of the poem. However, when present the least one can expect is that the facts and the references be accurate. Still, I don't read poetry and then go and verify every phrase that
seems to presume some bit of knowledge, even though the internet now makes that check easier (in some ways). Intelligence alone will not save us or our poetry. Is poetry today less intelligent than in the past. Maybe, but it seems intelligence is being allowed more 'kinds' or 'variety' now than in the past. And poetry, though to many may not be moving in a progressively 'better' direction, I think, it has become more 'various'. But ultimately if there is only good and bad poetry then intelligence too may not be as multidimensional as I think. But certainly there is more to poetry than its being 'wrong' or 'right'?
Post Number: 206
|Posted on Thursday, June 17, 2010 - 07:16 am: ||
The claim that people are reading mostly "simplistic" books these days may be apocryphal.
Mignon Ariel King
Post Number: 14
|Posted on Saturday, June 19, 2010 - 11:10 am: ||
In keeping with "write what you know" (and in keeping with my own addiction to writing about my favorite river) I think a poet should indeed stick his hand in debris by the water to see what debris it is if he's going to write about it. Seriously, how hard is that? In lieu of first-hand knowledge, research!!
William K. Gourley
Post Number: 38
|Posted on Saturday, June 19, 2010 - 01:53 pm: ||
in a workshop recently, a poet classified dolphins as "fish" in a very lyric, but wrong way. When questioned about this, the poet claimed no experience with dolphins, but because they swim, thought they should have scales, gills, lay eggs, and therefore, must be fish. This from a literate, accomplished adult.
A poet's worldview can be furnished with much that "ain't necessarily true," that surprises us, that makes us see in a new way, and that uses words to shape reality and even break it. When done creatively, with inventive intent and skill, I consider it art.
Lower on the scale, I place clumsy magical realism, vampire thrillers, and much of the current "action" filmmaking. These are just products of a different intent and skill.
At the bottom of the scale are the examples we have given: clash-with-reality images that result from a defective, or at least a different, knowledge base.
Some imaginary worlds we enter enrich us, some repulse, and some are so jarring they jolt us out of the poem/story. Some of these can be corrected with providing the artist with a gentle reality check. Some deserve handling as a teaching moment, some with humor, and some with despair.
Thanks for raising the topic.
Post Number: 10
|Posted on Saturday, February 26, 2011 - 01:23 pm: ||
If real-world ignorance were the worst of it, I wouldn't mind—much. That too many writers are whoring out (my apologies to honest sex workers) their æsthetic identity for audience reward reflects a greater—and to me, more disturbing—ignorance: the belief that art equals public acceptance. This, tragically and "traffically," erodes invention, innovation and individuation, which I see as the pillars of High Art.
Some—too many—writers will assume just about any position to earn reader reward (pick a currency); they even point to that as proof of worth. But will the reader respect them in the morning? Not much, unless the reader has been trained to believe that what's easily bought is worth more than what's harder-earned. And what has the reader earned, when the writer has pre-chewed and pre-digested a reader-customized mix and then kissed it into the reader's mouth? When, as a service born of fear of losing custom, the writer spares the client the manicure-scratching inconvenience of unzipping her or his own (much less another's) cognitive skirt or trousers? Æsthetic atrophy? Passivity? Addiction to generic, one-size-fits-all, lowest-sellable-level (barely above what anyone can do), instant gratification? Wow—can vending machines be far behind? Or are too many writers morphing into those?
And on the other side of that, writers who are as disinclined as readers to do any real work (i.e., learning craft, researching, looking for input, etc.) either borrow known "techiques," rely on delusions of "natural beauty" (chance—not self expression), or try a shotgun approach to novelty or pseudo-individualism (pose—as opposed to genuine, artful idiosyncrasy), in hopes of a profitable lay-down. If writing is to be whoring, then maybe we're looking to the wrong market sector for remediation: maybe we need better informed, more demanding clients. But that's probably a dead-end: customer ignorance is to be desired when the market reaches its most profitable LCD (lowest common denominator).
I guess anyone wanting more has limited choices, principal among which may be to search out higher-class hookers—or even better, writers who aren't hooking at all—who aren't playing harder to get (a marketing ploy), but are, along with their work, harder to get: whom the reader has to woo and win.