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July 08, 2003

The Friends of Poetry

In one sentence, Slate's Jim Lewis explains why modern poetry sucks, though he doesn't realize it.

Modern poems are like Victorian children: They should be seen and not heard. The essence lies on the page, not in the air, if only because so much of the authors' effort goes into effects that can only be printed: line length, enjambment, stanza form—all these disappear when voice becomes the medium.

Poetry is at its heart a spoken art, one of the oldest human forms of ritualized expression. The way a poems sounds is integral to the form. Any person that ignores that in favor of arranging words just so on a piece of paper isn't a poet, he's the literary equivalent of a feng shui consultant. It's like trying to paint a picture without using a brush, oils or a canvas.

Here's an experiment. First, read the first stanza of DoggerelPundit's I am the very model of a modern Media-Journalist, his rewriting of William Schwenck Gilbert. It's a rigidly constructed artifice, yet it flows off the tongue as easily as a limerick.

Now try reading Sean Singer's "The Old Record", winner of The Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award (scroll down) aloud. The only way to recreate the structure is to wait 30 seconds between words, an affectation that makes the speaker look like a pretentious twit. This condition was once confined the aristocracy, which is why so few aristocrats are known as great poets. Sadly, pretentious twittiness is not the bar to the fellowship of poets that it once was. It is instead a precondition for membership.

The urgency that drives Singer's poems, and makes them exceptionally present to the reader, derives from an intuitive alliance with a creative principle which is more interesting than the poet's self or the poem's words. The vitality of Sean Singer's work, the singular intuition in which he will, I trust, continue to allow us to participate, flows from a deep source.

Mr. Singer is to be congratulated for conning $500 out of PSA's deservedly shallow pockets, but as a poet, he makes a great calligraphist.

Now, as an English major, I bow to no man in my appreciation of a steady flow of inventive bull, whether it happens to be bull disguised as poetry or bull disguised as a poetry appreciation, but to produce either of the PSA examples above and take them seriously requires a stunning amount of hubris, or a severe intellectual shallowness, perhaps both.

Modern poetry is in its Ross Geller phase, too blind to see the negative effect it has on most people, and too narcissistic to change. It would be much better off as Chandler, quick-witted yet lacking in confidence, or even dim but well-meaning Joey. Unfortunately, if poetry does change, what we'll probably get is Phoebe.

Not that it wouldn't be an improvement.

Posted by Bigwig at July 8, 2003 01:49 PM | TrackBack
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Surely we are long-lost siblings, Bigwig, because I agree with every single word you wrote here about modern so-called poetry.

Crap. All crap.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish at July 8, 2003 05:17 PM

Which is why I prefer to think of myself as a lyricist (or even a creator of doggerel) rather than as a poet.

Posted by: B. Durbin at July 8, 2003 09:43 PM

I heard a Historical Preservation Society recording of TS Elliot read one of his poems.

Interesting to see how the author wanted his rhythmic reading recited. (I love alliteration!)

Posted by: Hayes at July 9, 2003 01:38 PM

I'm not sure what makes you think that my poem suggests that sound is unimportant to me or to poetry. Just because the lines in "The Old Record" are not arranged on the left margin doesn't mean it isn't a poem.

In fact, the point of the poem is that sound is essential to the form and meaning. I'm also not sure why you think waiting 30 seconds between words is the way to read "The Old Record." I usually read it fairly rapidly to heighten and intensify the sounds in the poem. The lineation is intended to mimic the physical 33 1/3 record being produced, spinning, and finally producing the blues song at the end.

The poem doesn't have anything to do with the aristocracy, either. Allen Grossman and the PSA gave me the Norma Farber Award for the book Discography as a whole, not for the single poem. I certainly didn't con them out of the money. They gave me the prize fair and square. I wasn't even aware the prize existed before I won it.

If you understood more about how poems worked and read some more of Discography, I think you'd get pleasure out of them-- the entire book supports, proves, and confirms that sound is integral to poetry and suggests that most modern poetry lacks it.

Your criticism is uninformed criticism. Perhaps you are reading the poem improperly or perhaps you made up your mind that it was bad before you read it correctly. No caesura in any poem would be 30 seconds and nothing in the poem suggests that's the best way to go.

In terms of unconventional forms, I refer you to George Herbert, William Blake, or Charles Olson.

It's one thing to say you do or don't like this or that poem, but to say all "modern poetry sucks" is misguided. You could try being more subtle and and precise when you read literature.

Posted by: Sean Singer at August 16, 2003 03:02 PM

I too don't understand much of what Bigwig said. I am the very model of a modern Media-Journalist sounds stunted and stupid(maybe knowingly, but that doesn't keep it out of the category CRAP)

And as far as Singer, the only criticism I've had is the subject matter, jazz and blues(which are beginning to seem mined out these days). Otherwise, the patterning of sound is exquisite(at least sometimes).

Posted by: Joseph Garver at September 22, 2003 01:16 PM

Great Writer Jumps From Mountain

But he doesn’t sail downwards,
Bumping off its face as he falls,
Mauled before crushing
When he ‘lands.’

Nope: this time he sails off
And out, and so despaired,
Dazed the fella is, it
Takes a few minutes to
Realize he’s flying and passing
Birds and through clouds
And so on.

“It’s pretty damn cold
up here; fear
of death, and so forth.
No lights, no goggles,
And the damp, could
Freeze, and fall,
And the height.”

“My shirt, my coat, my
Gloves, warm shoes, wool cap
Are all missing.”

In the dark, most of the
Scary things are invisible,
And an explorer can go forward,
Rolling over muffled dangers.

“I know what you’re thinking:
I’ll just get sick of this struggle,
And think of falling,
And, thinking then of flying,
With the struggle of
Staying aloft, just drop
Down until ‘up there’ looks
So great again.”

Posted by: hart crane at November 12, 2003 11:29 PM

Harm and Dr.

Harm and Dr. Dentist rode
way through Hoodoo,
far past anticipated Weir,
nowhere near the water towers
that told them where, there,
were Springs, and over there, look,

The air lacked melody.
Both men had no water,
weren't quite yet
thirsty, but nevertheless
grinned, gave it their
best guess, and
pedaled on.

Death is bad when
there is no way away from it.
But these two were riding
away from it, anyway.
They were off
riding for paradise,
pleated with wind.

Posted by: hart crane at November 14, 2003 07:30 AM
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