Posts from — February 2011
Via Arts & Letters Daily, a wonderful piece in the The New York Observer about fact-and-grammar-checking of poetry at The New Yorker. I only regret the coyness about which Richard Wilbur poem was rejected.
February 21, 2011 No Comments
Stanley Fish‘s wonderful new book, How To Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, opens with Annie Dillard‘s account (from her The Writing Life, which I have to read now) of a conversation between yet another writer and a student. The student asks the writer “Do you think I could be a writer?” and the writer answers, “Well, do you like sentences?” Dillard goes on to recall a conversation with a painter friend in which he says
be he came to be a painter because he liked the smell of paint. Fish then poses the question of whether, for the writer, words rather than sentences are the equivalent of paint for the painter, and his answer is an emphatic No: lists or jumbles of words don’t do anything until they are arranged in sentences, allowing meaning to appear.
Similarly, the Forward to Tony Hoagland‘s Real Sofistikation: Essays on Poetry and Craft ends “If a vision of poetry comes through, I expect it reflects an allegiance to experience as much as to art; a love for the sinuous human voice, for elaborate sentences, and for a certain brashness of imagination.”
Poets are writers, and writers make sentences: sentences make sense of the world, even when they’re wrong, even when they’re mad. We can’t tell that they’re mad or wrong if they don’t make sense to us.
In my last post I claimed that MFA program poetry suffers because “making poems that generate interesting class discussions is quite different from making poems that move readers, even those that move readers to think.” I wasn’t in an MFA program, but I did an MA in English with a Creative Thesis (meaning my thesis was a collection of my own poems) and I attended and taught many writing workshops. Here’s how they work.
Everybody in a graduate writing workshop is smart and well-read and everyone there is aware of the fact. Those who happen to be poets are also aware that publication of poetry is almost entirely restricted to university journals and presses. They know that the 10 to 15 poems per month appearing in The Atlantic and The New Yorker combined are providing a living for precisely no one, that the 40 or so in Poetry do exactly the same, that even Richard Wilbur makes his living translating classical French theater; that the only remotely possible living remotely related to writing poetry is teaching poetry or poetry workshops; and they know that there are more workshop classes in writing poetry than there are classes in reading poetry because, while neither are required undergraduate classes, there are lots more people who think they can write poetry than there are people who want to read poetry and then write about it.
In such a workshop, students rightly expect the teacher’s and the class’s attention to be focused on the writing of the students in it. It soon becomes apparent that no matter how good a piece is, not much time will be spent on it unless there’s a lot to say about it. With traditional poetic technique not really on the menu (and sometimes actively discouraged—I’ve heard students be told they were “brave” for trying, not to write a sonnet, but to present one to the class), cleverness, allusiveness, and obscurity are attractive strategies both for writing and for discussing poems in the class.
People get amazingly good at the latter without ever writing a good poem, and sometimes they get so good at it that they can no longer recognize just how bad are the poems produced in this way, or how silly are such virtuosic acts of explication. Here is an example.
Some of you went there and read the whole 1800 words (and it is a virtuoso performance). For the rest of you I’ll quote the first line of the book’s first poem (presented in its entirety in the review)
alacrity at time and yet the hulkish ness
and point out that the dot appearing by itself two spaces above the quoted line is referred to by the critic as an “interpunct” only because, together with the Latin title of the book in which the poem appears, doing so allows that critic to claim that the all lower-case text of the poem is “a sort of inverse Roman capital.”
It is no surprise find this soon after:
The reader and his/her labor, the text seems to insist, echoed by one of the sequence’s 3 epigraphs: “It is as labor, and not as communication, that the subject in art comes into its own” (Adorno).
I don’t think it mean-spirited to point out that we never learn from this broken sentence what it is that “the text” insists about the “reader and his/her labor.” Such poets, and such critics, don’t give a damn about the reader, but they can damn-sure impress a graduate workshop.
And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.
February 13, 2011 3 Comments
In a comment to my post “Not a Manifesto,” Serge Kappler (his blog Common Ground is here ) raises two good questions: “why do you think that ‘A grant-and-university-supported art is an art with no consequence’? With some exceptions, the reading public does not buy poetry, good or bad. Why not?”
The short answer to Mr Kappler’s second question is that readers don’t buy poetry because damned few poets write poems for readers. It’s possible to make at least a lower-middle class living by working in a university writing program, but only a few handfuls of people in any language have ever made any kind of living solely by making poems, and making poems that generate interesting class discussions is quite different from making poems that move readers, even those that move readers to think. People have to make a living, and when one has paid a great deal of money and invested much valuable time in something, one naturally hopes to make a living doing something at least tangentially related to that investment. For poets today, the only such living is in the university, so the university is the writing program poet’s market. And there are prizes!
I think the above goes some way towards answering Mr Kappler’s first question, as well, though I should qualify my claim: it has no consequence outside academia. It certainly has consequences for those who live and work within the grant/university world.
But, as I said, there’s never been a time when most good or even most fabulous poets could expect to make a living doing nothing but writing poetry. Offhand, I can’t think of a single poet in English who did make such a living. The market for poetry has never been large, and poets have always depended on patronage, prizes, families, a day job, or some combination of the three. The sad reality is that even for most MFA students, that day job won’t be making poems.
So, if one can’t make a living making poems, why make them? The only thing I can tell myself is that I hope that, for a while, some people will remember some of the poems I have made and be entertained, or comforted, or challenged—affected—by those poems, which means that I must make poems people will remember if they happen upon them. I’ve got to change their minds, if only by adding a good line to their memory. It means that story is important, since story is how we make sense of the world.
In the MFA world, at least as it’s represented online and in the books pumped out by university presses in print runs of a few thousand for a prize-winning collection, it’s clear that narrative and memorability are very poor country cousins to allusion and theory. Most such work will disappear except as fodder for the dissertations of their authors’ and their authors’ friends’ students.
I started my non-manifesto by writing that even Sturgeon’s Law couldn’t explain the badness of most contemporary poetry, but it certainly applies to poetry written outside the academy. I’m quite sure that at least ninety percent of my own work is crap. But if I write poems for the musicians and dishwashers and machinists and bartenders and framing carpenters and programmers and public-school teachers I’ve worked and lived with since I left that PhD program 35 years ago, I may have the ghost of a chance of making poems that will live in some small way.
February 7, 2011 4 Comments