poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Simple Competence

Zapruder was right about one thing: we don’t have a good vocabulary for talking about the choices most recent and contemporary poets make in getting from one line or one word to the next. The thing is, it’s a problem, not for readers, but for folks trying to learn to make poems.

It may be true that some study of technique enriches the experience of an art for a member of its audience, but most people I know have had the experience of falling head over heels in love with some new piece of music, some sculpture, some novel, and partly for its strangeness. Nobody I’ve ever heard of has ever just sat down, with no preparation, and made a significant work of art. Jazz players have to know harmony and modes in their bones; the difference between first and second chair in a major orchestra is several thousand hours of practice; orchestration requires years of difficult study; painters — well, painters, even Picasso, before we learned to love abstract art — painters spend long days all their lives drawing obsessively, studying the lines of their teachers and predecessors. The Beatles played 1200 live shows before their first hit song.

What on earth, besides cultural studies, do all those thousands of MFA students in poetry study?

That’s unfair, I know. But just what is the vocabulary we can use to discuss competence in making, say, line breaks in non-metrical poetry?

It’s not hard to define a competent English-language sonneteer — such a person can consistently manage pentameter and rhyme so as to present something coherent and interesting within the constraints of the form without doing violence to the patterns and rhythms of speech.

There’s nothing at all mysterious in that definition, nothing that itself cannot be clearly defined, except perhaps “interesting.” It’s a fairly low bar, I believe at about the same level intended by such faint praise as “competent landscape painter,” and subject to the same sneers from the School of Phlogiston and whatever is its equivalent in the visual arts. Still, it is something. Here’s J. V. Cunningham’s magnificent answer to those sneers:

For My Contemporaries

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

Despise me not!
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.

But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

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3 comments

1 Patrick Gillespie { 03.27.09 at 5:11 pm }

Way back when, when I was in college, a fellow student poet was always going on about establishing a methodology for his line breaks. It was an exercise in futility. Besides, there’s already a method that works- meter.

//But just what is the vocabulary we can use to discuss competence in making, say, line breaks in non-metrical poetry?//

Oh… there’s no end to the rationalizing… the supreme irony, which I failed to point out at the time, was that as soon as you identify any sort of “system” or “aesthetics of line breaks” you’re no longer writing free verse.

2 Mike { 03.27.09 at 7:26 pm }

Patrick, you’re absolutely right. But the consequence is that it seems to me a damned sight harder to consistently make good poems in free verse than it is in meter. No sure guide, no method, and you’re on your own at every line break, and it takes a talent different from mine to make it work.

3 Patrick Gillespie { 03.28.09 at 6:54 am }

//it seems to me a damned sight harder to consistently make good poems in free verse than it is in meter//

I don’t know if I would put it this way, as it implies that a good poem is a metrical poem * because* it is metrical and that *because* free verse isn’t, it will probably never be as successful.

It’s probably more fair to say that free verse poetry is a different type of poetry altogether, and one that can’t be held to the same standards as metrical poetry. It must be held to a different set of standards (usually content oriented). One is either sympathetic with those standards or one isn’t.

As for myself, I think much of it ought to be called Prosetry. I suppose there’s a negative connotation to that but… consider that many free poets, like Moore, pointedly and didactically distanced themselves from anything that typified the poetry of the previous 1000 years – so why continue to use the name “poetry”? – somewhat hypocritical.

They want to overthrow the dynasty but still wear the King’s clothes.

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