Feb 19, 2011

Coleridge Again and the Question of Group Poetry

So much for Elkhorn city. Back to poetry we go. I intend this to continue some of the ideas posted last Tuesday, February 15, so here again is Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight."

Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

How important are quiet and solitude in the self-exploration and study of the world required for creative writing? After all, serious writers—even the funny or entertaining ones—are aiming for some kind of larger Truth, among other targets. (Don’t ask them to admit that; it sounds embarrassingly self-important. But good writers and good readers alike know it’s a fact).

So I guess my concern grows from the groupiness I see—or imagine—in today’s American literary scene, where M.F.A. programs and writers’ conferences proliferate like bacteria. Some bacteria are good for us, and I’m not about to argue against pairs or groups thinking and talking about what writing should and should not be. If you hear enough responses, your own amorphous answer will be forming, whether you want it to or not. (If it’s not amorphous, if you think it has solidified, it’s not the answer).

Also, I’m hearing over and over at conferences and readings how writers gathering at a site form a “tribe.” I’ve heard “You are my tribe” more than once in the last few years. I guess that’s guess cozy and supportive, but it also feels uncomfortably trendy.

(By the way, I'm not very worried about these tribes being exclusive—it’s anybody’s guess which came first, the tribes going off to their own corners, or mainstream society’s drop-kicking them there).

So, yes, writers and artists are isolated, under-valued people who need group support, a sense of family, and a community of benevolent but frank critics. What I see or imagine at these events is a social bonding that might be worthwhile and reasonably honest, but is also deceptively kind—students and teachers alike. It feels like collective flattery, an inflated, artificial sense of excellence and self-importance among beginners and veterans alike. I'm not sure when meaningful collegiality becomes frat-boy chumminess, but I think we ought to be asking the question.

Can I prove it's a problem? No, but I try to remember that the prolific Yeats, who is surely on everyone’s Top Twenty List, probably has no more than 20 poems that are indisputably great. Of the writers who are celebrity teachers at these events, how many have produced a body of work or single poem that will be read, remembered, studied, admired 50 years hence?

I say that only to add some realism and perspective to the discussion, not to be mean. The writers themselves are probably all too aware of how tenuous their current status is, but I'm not so sure about the students, who might be ages 18 - 80 at conferences. Are they grounded in the reality of how mortal their work probably is? And even the work of their esteemed mentors?

Around ten years ago, in some office, I came across a year's worth (1969, I think) of Poetry Magazine, then and now one of America's most prestigious places to be published. I was amazed to find that only about 5 - 10% of the poets represented in that year's twelve issues were names I recognized. Other, more serious poetry scholars and zealots might spot more, but even so, it's bitter food for bitter thoughts.

More tomorrow or soon.


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