Jan 31, 2010

Poetry: What Is It?

We Real Cool - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

the singer

the stand-up

a scene

Dadgummit, Brenda, in your comments last time, you've steered me completely off course. My response to you got so long that I'm turning it into today's post.

So the Richard Wilbur poem waits at least another day, and the shorter, but not simple Gwendolyn Brooks poem goes up today. It's famous enough that many might already know it, but it's poetry, it's rock-hard, it's musical, and it has something to say, maybe something quite daring.

But first, here again is "The Ineffable" by Bilgere or "Brenda's guy”:


What I find, as I do with so much of the "School of Accessibility," is that most of the poem could just as reasonably have been prose. Why has the poet chosen to break his writing into lines, chosen to call them verse? In Bilgere’s “The Ineffable,” I think the piece became poetry about 70% of the way into itself. Or, let’s say it becomes a poem somewhere in the last stanza.

That endless set-up, in language that’s actually prose, is true of many poems out there today. Some, of course, never do become poetry. Maybe that's OK; it's certainly popular. But if I go to poetry, I want frequent nuggets that will stand up to examination by a competent, demanding gemologist—let's say at least a nugget every three lines (this mathifying is absurd, I realize, but bear with me).

What do I mean by a nugget? As Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Bilgere’s lines have appealing, witty images, and I like its overall theme about fantasy. I've been the victim of that kind of self-deception, and I know others who have. But I see no reason that the piece could not, should not, be a prose short story.

In fact, we now have additional categories: flash fiction, sudden fiction, prose poem, ultra-talk. So why forcibly break one’s words and sentences into lines trying to be, claiming to be, poetry? Does the writer have that much contempt for prose? It can be as deep and as moving as poetry, and it pays better, by a lot.

Let me repeat: I enjoyed “The Ineffable.” I have some respect for its way of couching important psychology in humor. But I doubt that I’ll ever admire it the way I do so much of Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Keats, Frost, Plath, Dylan Thomas, or more recently, Seamus Heany, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, Kay Ryan, and on and on. In their work I find a gift in almost every line, the kind that Emily Dickinson said would blow off the top of your head--that's when you know you're in the presence of poetry--not at the end of a long, prosy build-up, which can resemble a joke on Comedy Central.

Let’s go there. As I’ve said before, I respect a lot of stand-up comics. I’ve recently realized how much they have in common with poets, alone on a stage, risking everything in what they say and the way they say it. But should we call them poets? Of course, in their case, “comedian” doesn’t have the clout of “poet” (or “physician,” or “philosopher” or “taxidermist”); but let’s then get a new word for stand-ups rather than stealing “poet” from the poets.

In the same light, why not write fiction and call yourself a fiction writer or novelist? I don’t get it.

Can we have narrative poetry? Yes, of course. But remember, Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is narrative. Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a story. Surely there's no doubt that they are poems. Ditto Browning's "My Last Duchess," since Brenda mentioned it.

Also, I did refer to vast shades of grey, where Frost might be at times (but that's most likely to happen only if we don't hear his rhythms, which is most likely to happen in his blank verse poems). Even Whitman’s bombastic chanting and repetition are closer to what we usually mean by “poetry” than many of today’s poem-chats.

The whole matter is treacherously subjective. One person's music is another person's drone; one person's verbal gem is another's piece of gravel. But I’m not sure the issue of conversation and prose, on the one hand, compared to poetry on the other is sufficiently prominent and honest. There was a flurry of commentary and challenge a few years ago, when Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland and others were rising to prominence, but the topic seems to have evaporated.

It’s understandable that poets don’t want to challenge each other much on such debatable grounds; their status in our culture is too precarious for them to fight among themselves. But I think the talk—dare I say the “conversation”— could be more thorough and probing than it is, at least as far as I know.

Of course, the flip side of that coin would be universities that fire their writers-in-residence because they don't belong to this or that school of verbal aesthetics. There's no winning. That's why we turn to poems like "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks:

We Real Cool - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

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Brenda's Arizona said...

I always thought of the "romantic" period of poetry - the Keats, Shelly, Byron, Wordsworth - as competitive. They knew of each other, and they knew they were all in the same profession of writing poetry. And they were all a bit manic? But in my mind they were competitive. Why?

Now days, I read the prose poetry. You ask why don't these authors just write prose? Hmmm. Bilgere's story would be awfully short. Maybe good for a New Yorker piece? Or to accompany a photo essay in Vanity Fair? But other than short stories in such journals, where/when do adults read short stories? I do enjoy picking up the anthologies "Best short Stories 2007", etc... but I doubt readership is huge. As a poem, the thought is short, sweet (or not), concise, easily read, and it makes a great filler. And his 200 words are filled with imagery. I swear I know this barista - I saw her at St. Arbucks. And at Paradise Bakery. And at Ground Central. I picture her "guy" could be this poet. Both are proud of their conquest - for awhile.

Maybe poetry isn't supposed to be so easy? 'We Real Cool' has tons of imagery, too. Again, I have seen these adult-like kids hanging out. And Brooks' poem even rhymes. But, as you ask, why not write it as a short story? We'd learn more... why do they die young?

Do I have a 'word limit' in my response? I apologize for running off. I can't wait to read what you say of William Carlos Williams "This is Just to say". Is it poetry? Or should he just have left a sticky note on the fruit bowl?

As I always end: MORE!!

PJ said...

I like Bilgere's poem precisely because I know it's a poem. As a short story I might learn some unflattering facts about the two people, or be led astray by subplot. In this way, I feel immersed in the moment and can relive my own personal musings - and without guilt. After all, it's a secret, internal dialogue, and no one gets hurt even though there's an element of danger. Is he already attached? Isn't she portrayed as a little dark and scary?

Brenda's Arizona said...

Good points, Paula! I see her as intimidating, but I'd want to try to be her friend, if she'd have me. I also see her as one who has had her share of guys, and her ankle tattoo and nose piercing prove she is an individual. Having to write this all in prose would take many paragraphs - the poem described her in a verse.

I think I know the guy. He likes having the presence of an 'edgy' girlfriend. Until one day he wants to meet his friends without their eyebrows raising at 'her'.

Gosh, this poem is a novel!!

Barbaro said...

I don't see Whitman and Dickinson as opposites. Why? I guess b/c they both have emotional intensity, and that, as much as anything, is a definition of poetry--or any art. Obviously there's got to be a formal element too, else everyone in Haiti, every teenager, and everyone in a moment of rage or crisis, would be a poem.

At their best, Hoagland, Collins, Olds, and many others near that level of passion-on-the-page. At their worst, they're enter-key-junkies. I do think you have to "earn" line breaks; otherwise, you're just wasting paper, and most advertisements, billboards, even text messages would be "poems."

I've never been a huge fan of "We Real Cool," but I won't argue with its status as classic, in part b/c if fits my other definition of poetry, "that which I can recite." Poetry began as a mnemonic, and even though we live in a world of cheap paper and even cheaper web-posts, that shouldn't stop us from holding it to the old standard: if it doesn't stick in the ear, it doesn't deserve space on the page.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro and all,

A couple years ago at a poetry conference, Dorianne Laux--who seems to me somewhat in the Sharon Olds tradition--spoke on the importance of memorization. She made the good point (I almost said "pint" there) that we think nothing of memorizing songs; we even do it without trying. Why not the same with poetry? A poem should, after all, have a very sensory, physical component, and that can be fully absorbed only by reading aloud, over and over, which means the reader is well on the way to memorization and internalization of the poem.

I think Barbaro has touched on a partial response, or elaboration: the poem has to offer stuff that invites or compels memorization, makes it worth the effort.

In their treacherous collusion and outrageous, stubborn, adolescent rebellion, I must say that the renegades and provocateurs, Brenda and Paula, are convincing me there's more to the Bilgere than I saw at first. The overall scene(s) and some of the details might stay with me, and the theme is certainly worth a poem. But it still doesn't blow off the top of my head. Or the bottom.

By the way, I read 3 or 4 of Bilgere's on Writer's Almanac, and his manner, or sensibility, or aesthetic, or whatever, is consistent.

I've just been introduced to Steven Dobyns' poetry at another conference, and his approach is at least somewhat like Bilgere's--a long, full prosy wind-up before the pitch. But by the time Dobyns' (best) hardballs reach the plate, they can decapitate you. You better duck. But you don't want to duck. I have felt that with Sharon Olds' poems several times.

I don't feel much of that DANGER with Bilgere's smiling, chatty work. I don't feel that much is at stake.

(Hope I never meet this guy).

Jeff M said...

What's a poem? Mmm, it's an assembly of words written and/or spoken whose main purpose is to compress meaning into a glass shard --- and then cut you with sympathy.

Jeff M said...

Of course, songs are poems; and with that, our memorization of them shows that verbal recitation is still alive and important to us. As time goes by, art and the means to express it change --- once we memorized Byron and Whitman, and now we memorize Ice-T and Bon Jovi.

Then again, I'd say we are a bit inferior to, say, the ancients, who, in one example, are believed to have memorized Homer's works and could perform them in one sitting.

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, you know I agree with your images of shards and cutting. In spite of the oral tradition, I squirm a bit when I hear that poems are the same as songs. In addition to your guys, there are Dylan and Leonard Cohen--and probably countless others I don't know about. But so many song lyrics are so oversimplified compared to serious literature. I guess if we agree to add in the musical component, it might even out? (Did I hear you saying "Duh" there?). As always, you leave us plenty to chew on.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oh heck... Jeff has stunned me with his description of poetry. "to compress meaning into a glass shard --- and then cut you with sympathy." OUCH!

Is poetry really just that? Have I just been hit over the head with a reality that I don't like???

Oh my, oh my. All the semesters of reading and analyzing poetry... all the midterms and finals that were essays written in the little 'blue books' bought at the univ. bookstore... all the times the prof. asked for analogies of a Keats poem to Wordsworth... all the time, I should have said they are both to cut me into a glass shard --- and then cut you with sympathy...

Jeff, your comment is so much more true than the pages I wrote in those blue books. I am stunned.

Should poetry really be reduce to one simple shocking thought?

Banjo52 said...

Of course, there can be that memorable sweetness and simplicity too. A few days ago Brenda referred to "This Is Just To Say," which in turn reminds me of Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating," posted a good while back (3 months ago?).

Can it be enough to recreate (report on?), simply but accurately, a moment or image of sensory beauty or ecstasy (or their painful opposites)--which might be my version of Brenda's "one simple shocking thought."

Again I think of Dickinson's comment about a poem blowing off the top of your head. Maybe at the other end is Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility." Or MacLeish's "A poem should not mean / But be."

Major, major poets dispute among themselves. So I think Brenda ought to hang on to those blue books and see how much of their content she agrees with today.

Jeff M said...

"Should poetry really be reduce to one simple shocking thought?"

Well, the type of "shocking thought" aside, why else write poetry? Why else read it but to jar our wagon wheels from our ruts?

Brenda's Arizona said...

But poets write to express their love, their lust, their misery, their happiness, their pain. Often it isn't to shock us or anyone out of their rut - it is to lament something, to express the beauty of the rut.

But the shocking poems are totally fulfilling!

Jeff M said...

"their love, their lust, their misery, their happiness, their pain."

These are precisely what shock us most. "Shock" is broad, and the lives we live and the way we express our lives to others --- that's specific, like a glass shard on a cold cement floor. Art, in whatever form it is expressed, is meant to thread the human experience.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Ahh, I was thinking of shock as in W's "shock & awe". Sometimes I want a poem that is like a long lost friend - one who just shows up and the conversations start like he was never gone.

Jeff M said...

"Sometimes I want a poem that is like a long lost friend - one who just shows up and the conversations start like he was never gone."

Yes, I see what you mean, but that would be shocking as well --- a good shock, a rustling in the soul, a trip of the spirit, something that would jar you out of the normal rhythms.

Banjo52 said...

I wonder if we're getting hung up on the violence in words like "shock, shard, cut" and E.D.s notion of poems blowing off the top of one's head.

I the modifications by Barbaro, Jeff and Brenda above--getting our wagon wheels out of their ruts, which might not require a shock or even a jolt, just a constant revisiting, prying, looking from different angles. But it will (always?) involve, as Barbaro says, emotional intensity AND some concern with form--a framework or the right "platform" (word courtesy of Gothpunkuncle) for enacting that intensity.

And Brenda's point about poems or passages as companions we return to for conversation and even comfort, in various tones and levels of intensity--I've certainly been there plenty of times. It adds a dimension to what we are thinking, feeling, and observing (or that huge word, "witnessing") to tweak one's own perspective this way or that--and simply the awareness that someone else has been to a place similar to ours--or is challenging us to see and handle that place in a different way.

Every poet I've read or heard seems to agree that poetry, in one way or another, ENLARGES our perception and our experience, whether by comforting or challenging.

Maybe we need specific examples of all that people have said here, examples of a (cherished?) poem or passage or line and the situation or experience in our lives that it's affected. Too touchy-feely? Too personal?

Banjo52 said...

Paragraph 2 above: "I LIKE the modifications . . . " sorry.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Aha, Jeff, I see even more what you are saying about being 'jarred' out of normal rhythms. The realization of the old friend visiting could jolt/shock one awake from the mundane.
Just like visiting 'mom & dad's' for the holidays - everything old is new again. And it is a shock to realize what family routines I have carried with me vs. which ones I have abandoned.

B52, you asked for specific poems? Obviously some ee cummings just shock the hell out of me. Yet one of his (I carry your heart...) is of great comfort. Shel Silverstein's 'What if" is one we used to read as kids. It is a comfort, too, tho I have long ago outgrown the need to be reminded - yet I still need to be reminded! "Fire Caught" by Langston Hughes...
But the repeated WCWilliams on the 'Plums' always always shocks me!!!

ENOUGH! Yet I love this. MORE.

Brenda's Arizona said...

And we haven't even discussed Dorianne Laux. She is new to me! B52, more on her?

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