Statement of Philosophy

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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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part III.1

This is Part III of the essay. Here, things get much more directed toward the poem itself. Also, the essay turns more directly toward the normal subject of this blog: the writing of poetry. Within Part III, this will be primarily how pop poetry is written, and, equally importantly, is read. This essay is, after all, about the U.S. poetry culture as a culture of pop poetry. But to me this section is not terribly unlike a normal post here: only much longer, and a bit more academic.

Because this part is centered upon analysis of the poem itself and of the "meaning" of the poem, it is more grounded than the previous two parts. Unfortunately, because I don't want to continually repeat what I previously said, there is to me the sensation of moving a touch too quickly at times. But, I don't think it too serious a flaw.

Part III ended up very long, so I decided to split it in two. But in that there is no firm breaking point near the middle, I'm posting the two parts back to back, split at what is merely a convenient spot. It ended up a curious debate with myself in what order to post them -- one of the intriguiging aspects of things like blogs and tumblr is that the order of the posting is the opposite of the order of the reading. I decided in keeping the already established order, so that the "next" buttons follow through.

To be clear, there may be a pause but there is no true section break at the end of this post -- the train of thought continues directely into the next post. To note, with the posting of Part III here, Part II is now up on the website.


In Part II I gave links to a small number of pages that are set up as support to the essay (including links to the poem as it stands on Verse Daily and the original post). Here they are again:

Hopefully you find this interesting not only as a discussion about pop poetry, but also as an exploration of writing poetry. Section IV will bring this all firmly into that latter idea.

Here are the other parts are posted on this site:

  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation
  • Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation (1st Half)


Before continuing, I want to give a moment to the poem itself, to set up what follows. A little effort here might save much effort later.

I take "Spook House" to be fairly stereotypical, contemporary poem; it finds its identity quite comfortably among the greater mass of poetry seen today. Though, it is larger than your average fare (51 lines). It is written, as are most contemporary poems, as sentences broken up into lines. Even as prose the sentences are not terribly interesting: the only real wordplay in the poem occurs at the end of the first stanza, with the mirrors; there is no rhyme or metrical attention; aurally and semantically it is at best non-descript. In fact, when written out as prose (which can be seen here), issues are readily appear, as with the opening lines:

The first I heard of Dante was at the county fair when I was ten, Dante's Inferno slashed in red on a black [. . .]

The visual "slashed" clashes with the aural "heard," and the use of the comma does not make for a smooth read. This is probably apparent to most attentive ears even when read as lines, but is more apparent when put as a sentence. The use of a comma is actually quite conventional: though, I would argue it is a convention that has arisen out of poor writing, as a means and reason to escape the need for and use of colons and semi-colons (and, even, dashes), things which make writing (poetry and prose) a bit more difficult. The line breaks offer little in refutation of that they are mostly arbitrary, used mostly (but not entirely) to keep the lines to similar lengths: over all they show no consistent justification, and in conjunction with the ordinary sentence structure no real poem-wide evidence that lines were being crafted rather than line breaks applied. That is also quite generic within contemporary poetry. Except for the first stanza, every stanza is a single sentence and a mostly independent thought. The one variation from that is where the sentence of the second stanza begins in the last line of the first. Here also there seems no real justification for the premature appearance of the sentence, or valuable effect from it: the poem works better with the words being left in the second stanza. (Indeed, if I wanted to really parse it out, I think it would be not too difficult to show that the stanzas were written as sentences: that is, the breaks came with the periods, not vice versa.)

There are other moments of mild semantic sloppiness. For example, the two "buts" (line 35, "But there wasn't," and line 45, "But I'm thinking") attempt to conjoin ideas that are not really in a "but" relationship. Also, there are points where the wording of sentences is questionable, as with the Ferris wheel stanza:

I wanted to go on the Ferris wheel for [. . .] how it reminded me of a queen I saw in a movie once, raising her head to meet the eye of the executioner.

The comma is problematic; the semantics are a bit wobbly. Also, ideationally, it presents a bizarre reason to "want[] to go on" the Ferris wheel. As a reason it turns the boy into a rather morbid, if not unconsciously suicidal individual: not the intent of the poem.

In sum, it is a poem whose poetics sit near the middle of the bell curve. Some people, for the loose wording, might argue it sits somewhat below average. I would argue that that degree of attention is the average. At least, that is the acceptable average . . . . and here I cannot help myself but go to Pound, whose condemnations of pop poetry are among the best written ever:

Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.[FN]

But then, as I am arguing here, and speak on the blog, that deception is the very purpose and nature of the culture of pop poetry.

[FN] "A Retrospect." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 5. An essay that should be required reading and re-reading within poetry circles. That and "I gather the Limbs of Osiris" (in Selected Prose 1909-1965).

If I may digress, I find it an odd (and yet not at all odd) thing that Pound is so absent, if not -- as with Cleanth Brooks -- actively avoided within contemporary poetry and professional creative writing circles. It is difficult to defeat the statement that Ezra Pound knew more, understood more, explored more, and demonstrated more about creating beautiful things out of words in English than any other person in the twentieth century. Pound is one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century poetry in English: even for the many places he falters. (In fact it is argument for, not against the above that he ultimately considered the Cantos a botched effort.) But then, there is little place in pop poetry or postmodern poetics for statements like the above, or like Imagism's

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.[FN]

which is bedrock to all writing of any sophistication. Such is the nature of the nomic, however: one must not permit authorities in contradiction to one's own. So, rather than engage the ideas of Imagism, pop poetics dismisses them entirely, quietly sweeping it under the rug, using accusations of "dead white men" to justify the broom.

[FN] Ibid.

That is not a passing slight: that is yet again pointing out a predictable and commonplace act of a nomos of pop poetry. (Though, I admit, it does speak some bile.)


I said at the end of the previous section: "where reading depth into shallow poems is a way of life." It is a statement far more literal than you might think, in that shallow reading is, within the contemporary culture of poetry, indeed within any nomic culture of literature, literally a way of life: the common path, the shared avenue, the main street of the culture, the thoroughfare created so that all will walk it, see the intended shops, buy the intended goods, and thus justify the paving of the thoroughfare, which keeps people on the intended walk, etc. Ironically, it is following the straight and narrow.

Which is not so bad a metaphor, as it speaks the expectation within the culture of literature to not stray from that main boulevard. Their want is to continue within the save and accepted (acceptable, accepting), not to adventure out and beyond. (At least, not impertinently out an beyond.) The point of the texts is not to present something newly created for the engagement of the individual; it is to present texts that fit and meet pre-existing expectations. Reading within the nomic modality is not about the experience and engagement of texts, but about the want and expectation of the known and established. Writing nomically, thus, is writing out of and to the conventions of the societal mass. In neither instance is success as regards the text found within the text itself: it is found in the texts meeting and reproducing conventions and conventionality: in its performing of the nomos. Thus, genre: which is the establishment of conventions whose purpose is to reign texts into a known classification and the known expectations of experience and meaning. (Genre is inherently opposed to the aesthetic, and vice versa, something which has been said many times by many people.)

As such, reading shallowly becomes a requisite act of happy life within the nomos, as reading deeply inherently opens the doors to experiences and engagements that will clash with the modality of the nomos. Reading deeply, engaging the text on its own merits and presentation, is reading aesthetically, in the modality of individual engagement, which is to say the modality of cultural heresy: it is an affront to culture to say that Lloyd Weber is little more than orchestrated pop music, or that the current Billboard #1 is musically and lyrically addlepated, or that the New York Times best-seller list mostly charts interchangeable and literarily forgettable fiction, and that the New York Times Review of Books functions mostly to elevate the interchangeable and literarily forgettable to something ostensibly better, to legitimize the belief of those in the nomos that the books are of cultural merit, that they are not at all mediocre, or worse, and, in turn, that mediocre, or worse, is actually quite good enough for the crowds on the thuroughfare, and for the authors and poets the crowd upholds, favors, and acknowledges as the artistic authority.

Just as it is an affront to the culture of poetry to say that contemporary poetry is dominantly pop.

The writer's side of reading shallowly is, then, writing shallowly, writing to convention. (Which is, conveniently, much easier to do than creating ideational depth.) Sophistication is necessary only to the degree the poem can carry the generic expectations of readers. Quality exists as an external marker, generated not by the being of the poem itself but by the nomos that governs its identity. In turn, emotional/intellectual satisfaction -- the reassurance of intellectuality, of individuality, of societal morality, and of those higher qualities we ascribe to literature and the arts -- are satisfied when authorities ascribe to the poems such cultural markers (and in the reader being able to then perform those markers for others). Even the emotional experience is sourced outside of the text. (Again, Hallmark is ample demonstration. Or Lifetime Movie Network if you need something else. Or the performative moralities of such shows as Blue Bloods, or the pseudo-intellectualism of such as CSI.)

It is through reading depth into a poem that such conventions like what I call "emotion bombs" find their effectiveness. (To remind the reader, an emotion bomb is the sudden appearance of what is essentially a tag line for emotionality or philosophicality or social relevance, through which the reader is cued as to the intended poignancy or potency of the poem. A common example is a poem that is primarily first person narrative about another individual, which is of a sudden interrupted with a line such as "but she is dead now." Poignancy and depth is cued by that single line: there need be no ideational buildup within the rest of the poem. In fact, the rest of the poem need not even interact ideationally with the tag line. The reader sees the line, "but she is dead now," and through it knows they can safely apply to the poem conventional and culturally accepted emotionality as to the loss of a loved one. It is on such types of reading depth into that Hallmark hangs its entire livelihood. If you want to add political resonance, you frame the tag line within the context some contemporary conflict. It can also be used to impersonate intellectual depth, as with a dropped allusion.)

Of course, reading shallowly does not require a nomic text. Aesthetic texts as well can have nomic meanings "read into" them (or, more accurately, "read onto" them), can have their aesthetic engagements supplanted with meanings more appropriate to and more desired by the cultural nomos: a process wholly dependent upon shallow reading. One such example is H.D.'s Trilogy, which suffers greatly in reception for its critics' insistence on anchoring it in biographical and Feminist meanings. But the task of engaging Trilogy on its own terms is far more difficult than the easy, conventional approach of appeals to biography or cultural criticism: the latter does not require an in depth understanding of the text. In fact, I would argue with Trilogy it requires the ability to completely misread a text, since Trilogy is openly condemnatory of nomic reality, including such biographical and Feminist readings, readings which are wholly rejected by the text itself, if one were only to read it. Not only its content, but its structure and poetics are argument in its own being to that end. But we do not talk about the aesthetic nature of a brilliant work: it is far more important we use that book to create and condemn patriarchic relationships between Hilda and Sigmund.[FN]

[FN] Venting a little bile there as well. And I should point out that when I say "Feminist" there I mean a specific culture of literary and cultural criticism: that which was called to critique by Wittig, or Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics. That manner of criticism is wholly nomic in its nature; where as Queer Theory as coming out of Wittig and Sedgwick, is aesthetic in nature. Whether it is still is I refrain to address.

All in all, shallowness as the way of life. Read shallowly and you will never doubt your faith. Write shallowly, and you will fit right in as a performer of the faith. Let conventionality rule you, and the world is your generic oyster.


One more (very brief) digression: In that I am now returning to the poem and the Replies, I want to give reminder of the parameters of this essay in effort to avoid any misdirected emphasis. First, it is the default condition that any culture will sediment into a nomos and will thus function via the modality and nature of a nomos. It is not supposed but assumed (and safely) that the culture of poetry in the U.S. is no different. Second, there is no proof to be found in the individual text: this is demonstration, an example through which one can then observe the greater culture of poetry. So while I will here focus on "Spook House" and the Replies particularly, it is important here to remember that the actual subject is not the poem or the Replies but the culture of pop poetry, of which they are both representative and performative.

There are two currents within the Replies as regards defense of the poem itself: (1) that concerning structure and unity, and (2) that concerning thematics and ideation. I begin with structure and unity.

Looking to the original post, the word unity occurs only once, the word structure six times. All of them are in reference to the "war" line (stanza 5) and the discussion of emotion bombs: what a bomb is, how it works in a poem, how the "war" line operates structurally within "Spook House," and, in turn, whether the "war" line is thus a bomb.

The answer to that last question is both yes and no. On the "yes" side, the poem sets up the war line as an emotion bomb in that the poem structurally sets up the line for far more emphasis than any other part of the poem. It occurs in a one line stanza; it is the only one line stanza: visually, it sticks out from the poem. And not only is it a one line stanza, it is a one line sentence: aurally, then, as well. Finally, it begins with the attention-drawing "But." Now, I do argue the "but" in that line is a semantic error, because the but-relationship in that poem creates an absurdity.[FN] Nonetheless, as written, that "but" creates emphasis. In fact, in combination with the other factors, it focuses the flow of the poem upon the idea of war. And in that the ideas of war, hostilities, combat, refugees, or the sort are frequently -- and very generically -- presented in pop poetry through emotion bombs, the line very much fits the character of a bomb.

[FN] Combining stanzas 4 and 5 you get this idea: This was the summer of the suicide and of drought; but there wasn't a war then. Notice, it is not "there wasn't the war yet": which would make the line something marking the time of the scene. It is simply "but there wasn't a war then." Which, using the "but" as a "but" should be used, means "there was suicide and drought, but at least there wasn't a war." Which does not work.

On the "no" side, however, there is the fact that death does appear throughout the poem. So there is some tangential ideational presence of the "war" idea (through the commonality of death) in the poem even before the presence of the bomb. Indeed, the combination of the presence of death coupled with the structural emphasis on the war line makes it very easy to read the final lines of the poem –

but I'm thinking of how we entered
the Inferno two at a time
in little cars on a greasy track,
how a bar lowered across our laps
and two black doors swung open
as we watched our friends
before us disappear around a dark curve.

-- as a description of young men going off to war, and of the impending death of the young men of the region served by the fair.

There are two primary moments as concerns unity and structure in the Replies, found in the openings of the first two. The first we have already seen in the above discussion on authority (I will again give full context):

I find your fixation on structural unity quaint. It seems as if you've read nothing on poetics published since The Well Wrought Urn. You might consider updating your poetics to include at least the last quarter of the previous century. You might not find postmodern poetics compelling, but some familiarity with it would perhaps at least save you from looking like an ass.

How does it perform as an argument as to unity? Exactly as I described the nomic shallow reading/writing of poetry. There is no real argument. Despite Myers's own want for proof, argument is replaced with generic performance, with convention-locused meaning-making: which is to say exactly would be expected by the audience of the culture of poetry. The oft used Well Wrought Urn is brought out as recognized symbol for "uptight poetics of the past"; the phrase "postmodern poetics" is trotted out as symbol for "poetics of the now"; the argument is won. The critique of the poem's unity is defeated without presenting ideas from out of either the post, the Well Wrought Urn, or postmodern poetics -- which is yet wholly sufficient to the task at hand, and wholly demonstrative of shallow writing/reading. What has happened is a call to accepted contemporary conventionality: postmodern poetics = good; The Well Wrought Urn = bad; ergo any discourse on unity or structure is outdated and meaningless, and any poem that emulates postmodern poetics is meritable. Argument by cultural cue.[FN]

[FN] Do not let the simplicity of the moment be deceptive or permit dismissiveness. You can see this very thing performed continually on established poetry blogs and in critical books. There are, simply, in these texts, more words offered to justify the attachment of the cultural meanings. But in the end, it is argument primarily by symbol. It is another example of shallow reading, necessitated so frequently because the argument is, in the end, untenable should the content of the sources actually be engaged. One example might be the condemnation of books such as Fussell's on the grounds of it being an argument for the superiority of formal verse, which postmodern poetics has "obviously" defeated. Except that were the ideas of the two texts (the “quaint” critical text and whatever text of postmodernist poetics) actually read deeply, the result is far more than often (1) the defeat of the accusation against the quaint from within the quaint because its words were never actually engaged and the accusation is found, once engaged, untenable; and (2) the defeat of the accusation against the quaint from within the postmodern poetics, because there was never really an argument present in the text, only appeal to cultural “truth” via nomic symbol.

Indeed, the argument itself is supplanted by cultural symbol, meaning, and performance. This is seen even in the Replies in the attempt to ground the structure argument in proof out of the poem, as happens in the Reply 2. The irony of it has no small humor:

Your concept of unity is so narrow and wooden as to be absurd, as if every poem that mentions death must offer a death's head in every line. I can well imagine the kind of mind-numbingly boring and predictable verse in which such a concept of unity must result.

I don't think anyone could derive narrowness or wooden-ness from my words on unity and structure. Indeed, I speak of unity and structure from an organic viewpoint of the poem: that is, that created out of the medium of the poem and evidenced by the poem itself. Which is the opposite of narrow and wooden since the nature of a poem's unity will always reside in and be spoken by the poem itself. But, from the other side the statement, from the nomic side, there is very much a way that an organic concept of structure can be narrow: when it interferes with the nomic application of meaning to the poem. When a person is unable to defend their poem based on a kind of poetics -- which is actually to say when that obstructive poetics is not jiving with the poetics that does justify the merits of the poem -- then those obstructive poetics must obviously be too narrow and too wooden. (Again, actual engagement between the two poetics is avoided: shallow reading over deep reading.)

Notice the characteristic of the accusation of narrowness and woodenness: it does not let everyone and everything into the fold. Which is the very direction toward which nomic modality will generally move: it will establish itself in mediocrity so that as many as is possible can participate in the social group and perform the truth of the nomos: a necessity for any stable, nomic culture. Thus why those that stray from the nomos are demonized: they are no longer of the social body; and, more threateningly, they have espoused an idea that threatens the valuations that define and give order to that social body: pop poetry through and through. The action here is the same as that seen above with emotionality, only directed at poetics rather than the person themselves: it is the poetics that is here stripped of authority and demonized -- called quaint and outdated -- thus reaffirming the rightness of postmodern poetics and the value of the poetry of postmodern poetics. The authority of postmodern poetics has been affirmed, therefor the poem is "good" -- in more than one sense of the word. Were the poetics to be one that gave esteem to the 1% to the detriment of the 99%, the nomos would never exist far beyond the circle of that 1%, if it could exist at all.

In the Replies, the degree of surety in this performance of nomic characterizing and defining is abundant -- as regards both the quality of the poem and the invalidity of the original post. It is demonstrated in the previously mentioned expectations revealed in the opening words of Reply 2: "I think my response may have been too subtle for you" (as described in the previous section). It is overwhelming in Myers's attempt to ground his defense of "Spook House" in the poem itself. That defense, if read shallowly, succeeds, because it performs what it needs to perform: it gives the readers the meaning of the poem and the justifications to the acceptance of the meaning of the poem. Reading the poem deeply, aesthetically, however, the argument fails in its own absurdity and shallowness -- particularly in that moment offered above. I will give it again:

Your concept of unity is so narrow and wooden as to be absurd, as if every poem that mentions death must offer a death's head in every line. I can well imagine the kind of mind-numbingly boring and predictable verse in which such a concept of unity must result. [etc.]

Absurdity: When you look at the poem, there can be found sixteen references to or images of death in the first six stanzas of the poem[FN]: eleven direct and five indirect references, to which you can add a final scene that is itself a commonplace -- if not even trite -- reference to death (that of "we watched our friends before us disappear around a dark curve"). Doing the math, it comes out to only one death's head every two-and-a-half-lines: still plenty enough to make a puzzle out of how Myers does not himself see what is an ever-present, dominating idea within his own poem.

[FN] Eleven are mostly direct (lines numbers are given):
Dante's Inferno (3)
slashed in red on black (3)
blinking eyes of the damned (7)
executioner (23)
killed himself (31)
drought (32)
earth cracked and flaked (33-4)
war (35)
dead grass (37)
gravestones (38)
crows (39)
In such a dominant context of death, others -- things not uncommonly used as tenors to the idea of death -- enter the list:
livestock (5)
manure (18)
shrieks and groans (25-6)
bleats from sheep (27-8)
Finally, there is the nude woman/rebel flag mirrors, discussed below.

Shallowness: His own poetics avoids -- and voids -- such evidence and readings:

Your insistence that it must be a "poem generally about death" reveals an understanding of theme barely on a level with Cliff's Notes.

There is for Myers no such teeming population of death's heads in "Spook House" (oh! I forgot the title: seventeen). The reason is that the intended meaning -- the meaning established through the authority of the poet (as confirmed through the poetics of the nomos) -- supplants any meaning generated by the poem itself. What is actually in the poem is irrelevant: what is relevant is the attached meaning and the poetic conventionality that justifies the meaning. Specifically, in this case, in the authority of the author's ascription of meaning:

If you had bothered to think about the poem for a moment, it might have occurred to you that, rather than being simply a poem about death, it is a poem about the trauma and uncertainty of entering adulthood: the naked woman, the rebel flag, the suicide, the drought, the war all standing as emblems for that uncertainty regarding sex, politics, death, livelihood, war and other adult concerns.

The whole of it is important, but we have to break it up. (Obviously, we are now into the second current of the defense, that of ideation.)


Next: "III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation (2d Half)" -- here

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