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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"Dominion Over the Larger Animal" by Sophie Cabot Black -- Poetry Daily, 5/7/2013

from The Exchange
poem found here


First lines:
How many times I have provided
For your death; the apple turned one way


abstraction and pretty emptiness

— reformatted 9/30/15

Before I forget: that semi-colon in line two is incorrect. There is no reading that validates its very ungrammatical presence. It should be a colon, or a dash.

It is curious to me how, for as long as I can remember classes that even touched on poetry writing, or listening to people speaking about poetry writing, or reading about poetry writing, one of the primary rules has always been "abstraction = not good." It is, actually, one of the few rules of poetry one comes across that may be universal. And yet, so much contemporary poetry is little more than abstraction, or, in their concreteness, little more than "breath leaving," as this poem (inadvertantly) puts it.

When you read through this poem it may sound pretty, and may seem to be saying something emotionally deep or profound. But any actual effort or attention to the content of the poem reveals quite the opposite. Look at all the phrases that are either empty because of their abstraction or lack of concrete content:

How many times I have provided for your death;
To hold your head as if this mattered,
to say what I think essential into your ear,
to watch the eye look everywhere to find what it does not know it looks for.
To fasten you down in the one place where no one can say anything more,
being nothing else but breath leaving,
To believe I know what will happen next,
as if I understood all I was capable of.

None of these phrases bring any degree of substantiality to the poem. The ideas in each of them are paper thin -- indeed, they read more like paraphrases rather than poetry. Or, they read like what might be jotted down on a draft page, with an arrow pointing to it and a comment "This is the idea: can you flush this out? make it real?"

And it is not like these lines are even building upon each other, with whatever construction materials they have to offer. At best, this poem can be described as a quick and shallow run through of some event, pointing toward some intended emotional effect (though, for myself, whatever I come up with I recognize I am the one in fact supplying the majority of the energy and ideation, not the poem). This poem, ironically, can very well be described as "nothing else than breath leaving."

Now, I dislike talking about "schools" of poetry in terms of their being "schools," mostly because the word is so inconsistently -- if not inaccurately -- used. One of its worst characteristics is that people think -- and students of literature are, unfortunately, taught -- that "schools" are momentary things. That they come up, the notion of poetics (or literature, or art) that they promulgate lives for that moment, and then both the school and the idea dies. Yes, "schools" can be loosely divided into two groups, and one of them very much is far more faddish that scholarly. But where that body of work seems to gain credibility if it can muster identitication as a school, the other body of "schools" suffers for the term. These are the group of people that are identified not by some passing fad in the arts, but in that they all are exploring some fundmental aspect of their art, concentrating their creative efforts upon that single aspect. They suffer in that people identify them as a school, and, then, when their time is past, so their ideas are discarded as well.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Modernism. Modernism is spoke of today as though it was a passing moment in literature and the arts, and their ideas have now also become something of the past. Yet, when you really come to it, the central idea of Modernism -- whether in poetry, literature, art, or music -- was the exploration of the art object as and aesthetic object: which, when it comes to it, is the core idea of the arts.

(Hopefully, you ask here "but is that not always the idea of the arts? No, in fact. Primarily, the cultural idea of the arts is, actually, the faddish idea: art should be made according to the customs and rules of the art-world at that time. In fact, while Modernism is generally identified with the early 20th century, the Modernist project actually began much earlier, with the Romantics; and, much of the Modernist's theoretical efforts were aimed at pointing at the universality -- in time and place -- of their core beliefs. But I am digressing, so . . . .)

Objectivism also is such a school. (In fact, it is a branch of Modernism.) The objectivists, in essence, recognized the necessity for concreteness in poetry, and in their creative explorations took that necessity out of the loose concepts of a fundament and into the more directed ideas of a school (as it were) of poetics: putting in their explorations high emphasis upon the object, upon the poem as object, and upon the subject of the poem as object. But now that the era of the school of Objectivism is passed, that does not mean their ideas also slide away as some mere moment in poetry. The fact still remains: concreteness is a necessary element to the aesthetics of poetry, and that cannot be brushed aside without detriment. What has ended is only that broad moment of hyper-emphasis upon concreteness.

Of course, how that concreteness is brought to the fore is another issue altogether; and it is in that question and exploration that concreteness moves out from a general, fundamental concept and into the practice of poetry.

Unfortunately, contemporary poetry is riddled through with a plague of abstraction. (This is in no way the first moment of it since I began this project: it is merely the first time I directed my attentions to it.) Efforts toward eliminating this one bad habit alone would do much to improving the state of poetry in English today.

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