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January 31, 2003

Drum-Taps Poetry's share of the


Poetry's share of the literary market has been declining for years, to the point where most bookstores have only one or two shelves of poetry available for sale, and more than half that space is devoted to people who died years ago. There are various explanations why this might be, but the most cogent suggests the decline is because the prevalence of free verse. The general public no longer sees any value in poetry.

Many people dismiss modern poetry as they do modern art, as irregular rubbish.

Quick, name the most recent major poet you can think of. Unless you happen to a devotee of or participant in the remnant of the poetry "industry", you probably just named a dead guy, or Maya Angelou. Some of you may have also named Will Warren, who during his all too short time in the blogosphere likely reached a larger slice of the general public of than any of the current major poets, despite being quite unknown to the poetry industry. As the majority of a major poet's audience today is nothing but other poets, the appellation "major poet" has got to be one of the most misnomed of all misnomers.

So when editor of an anthology of 100 poems against the war says "I don't want to give the impression that we're just trolling for big names now, but there are a few very fine poems by well-known and lesser-known poets that will be added," what he means is that not only did he get 100 poems from people that you have never heard of, but that most of those poems were from people he had never heard of. Here's one from the anthology, by an actual published poet, Susan Gubernat.

Their men, our men, are pulverizing cities
into truckloads of human dust, bone splinters,
ash that floats back into red lungs.
And freeing them, for what? For laundry,
hiking up the burkah and venturing out,
the first time in years, to wade in a river,
to find, at the shallow end, their wavy
reflections in the mirroring waters.
One girl bunches up her skirt and stares
at her own pale legs extending down
into the riverbed into another, matching pair.
Her half-naked twin, attached at her soles,
looks up. They laugh, squeezing the invisible
muck between their toes. Her mother's broad
ass is captured in the photograph on page one,
millions will see her now, bent over, scrubbing
in the old way, against a flat, wet rock. This
is how we invade without apology, this display –
the backs of her calves, her loose underwear.
Our own homes are draped in flag cloth:
the windows and the doors some of us peer
out from now, furtively, in this other purdah.

I'm sure other poets consider Ms. Gubernat a fine poet, and this is a decent example of the current free verse rage, but the only difference between this and prose is that prose can't get away with breaking quite as many of the rules of grammar. Another problem, aside from the poet's conceit, is that poetry is meant to be read aloud, and not necessarily by the poet. That was one of the benefits of a rhyme scheme, in that once a person had read it through a time or two, a close facsimile of the original vision of the artist could be presented to an audience by anyone. A poet's popularity was thus not limited to the number of people he saw in person. Free verse, though it can be as valid an art form as more structured verse, has to depend on internal rhyme or repetition to achieve the same thing. Some free verse poems depend entirely on a colloquial speech pattern that is totally invisible when it is printed, and most poets will not deign to include directions such as "Read the following as if you were Scotty on Star Trek." In consequence, Free Verse sounds like shit when it's read aloud by someone other than the original artist, and pretentious when it is.

But it's easy to write in, so more and more people write in it, and consider themselves poets as a result. Not all free verse poets are inept or lazy, but as the anthology demonstrates, most are.

Shocking news, I know.

Another poetry trope is the idea that every word in poem is crucial to the whole, that without it the poem loses all meaning.

Poetry is craft when
You know that one word
Misplaced or unsubstituted
Or missing or spelt correctly
Can cause an entire poem
To eat itself, collapse.

That's one reason why the recent anti-war poem by Harold Pinter was widely seen as so bad. Changing the words to his little screed doesn't cause the poem to collapse, it just changes the meaning. (And produces a better poem, if I do say do myself.) One can replace words willy nilly when writing free verse, and it doesn't do a thing to the poem as a whole. It's like poking the Pillsbury dough boy.

As the poetry circle gets smaller, the easier it is for the self selected elite within the circle to define what poetry is, what is good poetry and who is an acceptable poet. It's a virtual certainty that the writer of these words would be drummed out of the club immediately

Thunder on! stride on, Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke!
And do you rise higher than ever yet, O days, O cities!
Crash heavier, heavier yet, O storms! you have done me good;
My soul, prepared in the mountains, absorbs your immortal strong nutriment;
—Long had I walk’d my cities, my country roads, through farms, only half-satisfied;
One doubt, nauseous, undulating like a snake, crawl’d on the ground before me,
Continually preceding my steps, turning upon me oft, ironically hissing low;
—The cities I loved so well, I abandon’d and left—I sped to the certainties suitable to me;
Hungering, hungering, hungering, for primal energies, and Nature’s dauntlessness,
I refresh’d myself with it only, I could relish it only;
I waited the bursting forth of the pent fire—on the water and air I waited long;
—But now I no longer wait—I am fully satisfied—I am glutted;
I have witness’d the true lightning—I have witness’d my cities electric;
I have lived to behold man burst forth, and warlike America rise;
Hence I will seek no more the food of the northern solitary wilds,
No more on the mountains roam, or sail the stormy sea.

Poetry, American poetry, has been kidnapped by the shallow and ignorant, by vain intellectual poseurs who have lost the connection to the common man that made Whitman and Kipling and Sandburg and Ginsberg great. It's as if the only movies produced had to first be approved by Alan Alda, Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand.

It's time to take poetry back from its self appointed judges, and move it back to into the realm of the human.

Which brings us to this. I want you to write a pro-war poem, and I want you to send it to me. I want 101 of them, and I'll post them as them come in. If you're worried about the quality of your poem, don't be. For the reasons I gave you above, they'll be at least as good as the ones in the appeaser's anthology.

Posted by Bigwig at January 31, 2003 01:03 PM | TrackBack
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