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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Thursday, October 3, 2013

"A Fold in Time" by Ann Lauterbach -- Verse Daily, 9/29/2013

from Under the Sign (Penquin Books)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Not to swerve off the road
dust runs in the family

 

asking the question: "why should I read this?"

-- framing paragraph and minor text additions, 10/8/2013
 

Let me add a statement for framing. If you read the following -- or the header question -- as pointing to a specific answer, that is not the intended end. The end here are the questions. The nature of this poem is a good one for prompting questions. What is important here is that to be honest with your own poetic explorations (as reader and writer), these questions should be asked.

Yes. The very nature of blog speaks that I believe there is not enough critique -- and I mean critique as in questioning -- of contemporary poems. But there is another side to it: There is also not enough -- not nearly enough -- defense of poems.

Of course, I am talking about poets defending their poems. If a poet is serious about poetry they should be able to offer with their poetry justification, purpose, the reason why we as intelligent readers should be interested in the poem. Indeed, it might be argued that the very definition of serious poetry (I mean serious in intent, not in tone) is that the poet has an aim, a purpose, an exploration of poetry qua poetry with whatever they are working on at the moment. (That is, there primary projects; not every throwaway ditty.[FN]) Far too much poetry these days is written simply because the poet had an idea and broke up some lines. But, then, any poet, writer, artist, has little ideas, little moments of exploration that result in no more than sketches in notebooks (or posts on facebook). Except, with artists they stay in the notebooks. While it seems with poets everything is worthy of submission -- and acceptance. It's a poem; it looks like other poems; that's good enough. So maybe it is more correct to say far too much praise is offered to poetry simply on the merits of that it is poetry. (The "I wrote a poem! Praise me!" syndrome.) It seems the half of the time the line break is a thing meritorious in and of itself. It's a book of poems; I'll slap some praise on its cover. Where ever is the question on the part of the critic of "Why should I care? Why should this deserve my time? Why should I speak the name of this particular poem, this particular book of poems, rather than that of some other?"

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[FN] Though, it could be argued, and I would indeed argue it, that even in the throwaways there will still be some sense, some taste, some echo of those major explorations occupying the poet's mind. And I should say, these explorations need not be "I'm going to change the face of poetry on this planet!" explorations. They can be quite simple and fundamental: "I'm exploring the relationship between syntax and line breaks," for example.
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It is the "rather than" in that last question that is important here. For example, I have Broch's Death of Virgil on my shelf, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, waiting to be read. And Nightwood wanting to be read yet again. Why, dear poet, should I read, instead, your book of poetry? And if you are now saying "but they aren't poetry" you have both wholly missed the point and understand little about literature -- get ye back to the classroom. But to appease you I will say I have a Keats's Complete coming in the mail. Zukofsky's "A" on the shelf. And it's been a while since I have given serious time to good Mr. Stevens, who always has much to show me. Why should I instead spend my time on your poetry?

Simply saying "it is poetry" is not at all reason enough.

What about saying "I was experimenting with something"? Now there is something that will catch my attention. But not "I was experimenting with the emotionality of post-war refugee displacement." That's not an exploration of poetry. That's an plot abstract.

The burden in not solely upon the poet. The the burden lies equally -- and perhaps even more onerously -- upon the reader. The reader too should defend the poetry they praise. Even, they should defend the praise itself.

"You should read this."

"Why?"

"It's quite moving."

Which is not at all a reason to read something. I don't mean that in a sarcastic sense, I mean that in a literal, categorical sense. "It is moving" is a description of the text. It bears as much relevance as to the merits of the text as saying "it has a bit with a dog." Nightwood is moving, and that is not at all the reason to read it. Yet, if you look about, you will that most comments offered in praise of poetry texts are of this nature, and wholly devoid of any consideration of poetic quality. They are, in their splendiferous and erudite accolades offering little more than what is the least and minimum bar for the success of a work:

"It's a really moving tale.

"It's a story about a women who plummets into a world of despair. I would hope it was moving. If it wasn't it would really suck."

Here's another justification for certain poems that I've come across not only in criticism in magazines but also in academic books: "John Cage (or Silliman, or whoever) did something similar with his poem 'X.'" Which is justification for nothing. Just because someone has experimented with the idea does not mean it has poetic energy beyond that one experiment. The "Walking Through" poems pretty much end in their poetic curiousness after the first time. Repeating the experiment with another book offers nothing that was not present in the first go, and there is no reason to read beyond that first go.

In truth, I would say even the first go of the "Walking Through" poems had nothing to offer, outside, perhaps, of something mathematical about the texts. But that is what Cage did -- he experimented. He continually was asking "I wonder what happens if I do this?" And, sometimes, there is much to take from it. But, other times, there is nothing, except to say, "that's what happens." Which does not make the experiment itself pointless. It does, however, remove most of the validity of the person who decides to walk their way through John Grisham, thinking they are being creative.

Defend the poem. Defend the book. To others, and to yourself. With the book in hand, ask: Why should I spend my time, energy, money reading that book of poetry? That is the question I ask every timey time I visit the poetry section of a book store (indeed, any section). Book after book I pick up, each will get the same question: Why should I spend time, energy, money on this book, because two shelves down is a pocket copy of Howl which I know I will enjoy and study and learn from to my last days? Why does your poem deserve my time?

But let's go even beyond that: this is also the question you should be asking of your own poetry, if turned about some: Why should someone else spend their time on this poem? Is it really worth their effort to read it? (Does it even take effort to read it?) And this is not a question that is limited to people of highly developed skills and sophistication. This is also for the beginners and curve climbers. You need only consider your audience. For example: "I've shown my poetry to my three friends for over two year now. Why should I now show them this new poem? Is there here anything new? Any development of sophistication they will see? Any exploration they will find interesting on their own?[FN] Even, more basically: Why should I, myself, bother writing this poem? Am I learning from the effort? Or am I just writing the same thing I've written a hundred times before, once again?

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[FN] It is important to find readers who can themselves appreciate these questions. A writing group is nothing but a social group if no one is trying to impress everyone else. No one improves if no one is being challenged.
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They are very good questions. Of course, the secret of them is the "whys," and in probing those whys. "I want to explore the idea of the stanza." Ok, good. But, now, what does that mean? Does it mean you are merely going to write different stanzas, like a child rolls balls of different sizes out of clay? Or are you going to do the work? Study? Explore? Draft? Throw away drafts? Be critical of yourself?

The poem I'm look at with this post is a good test case for all these questions, as spoken both by readers of poetry and writers of poetry. The poet is obviously exploring something here -- or, at least, trying something different. Too many readers will read such a poem and, merely because it is different, give it praise. But they don't really address the fundamental questions: What is the poet doing? and, Is it successful? You have to answer the first question to at all be honest in your approach to a poem. And you have to answer the second question to at all be honest with your own sense of poetic appreciation and sophistication.

So what is the poet doing here? Obviously she's working something with short lines and disjunctive phrasing. But that's just a surface description. How is she organizing the phrasing? What effect is she hoping to generate? Does it work? Does it work better in some places than in others? Does it work worse in some places than in others?

Whether the poem is successful to you or not, is what she is doing something you find interesting? It is a very old and very true adage that there is far more to learn in failures than there is in successes, whether those failures are your own or someone else's. (Though, perhaps it should be said, it is far easier to learn from failure than it is to learn from success.)[FN] As such, there is much value in exploring a poem that you find fails, but whose experiment you find interesting -- especially if that experiment opens a path for your own poetic explorations. But you have to ask and answer the questions: If you can see the experiment, but the poem does not work for you, why? Where is the failure? Try to narrow it down; don't just leave it at "I find it jarring." Why is it jarring? Is being jarring a bad thing? (That is, is it just a matter of taste? or is it an actual failure of poem's making?) But also the other way: if the poem does work for you, do you truly see what it is trying to do? Did you read it deeply enough, or did you just run across its surface? Is there something there far more sophisticated? And, if there is, and it succeeds for you, what is it, and why does it succeed in this particular poem?

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[FN] I confess, I practice this far more with images than with poetry (but, then, then I don't like spending money on books filled with poems I will never read). The favorites section in my tumblr rolls contains pictures that I want to save not because they work so well, but because they don't. And in their failure, they are pointing out paths to exploration and success.
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Does this poem demand time and effort in its rereading? Behind that, what particularly about this poem demands such? Does the pay-off of the poem merit the time and effort? (That is, is it a lot of work for not very much?) Does the poem honestly demand the time, or does it but offer the illusion of complexity? That is, is the complexity a sham, intended to make the poem look sophisticated when, really, it's not? Is it little more than the attempt to copy some style of contemporary poetry? or is there some genuine creativity in the poem? Does a slow and careful reading give the reader anything beyond what is granted in a quick reading? Or, turning it around, is it a false reading to look at the poem as complex, and really the poem just has a simple thing to offer, once you find the flow?

Looking more specifically, the lines are short. Does what the poem wants to do succeed with short lines? Or should they be longer? Does the visual structure of the two-line stanzas add to the poem? Is it being used to make the poem look like a contemporary poem? Or, is there a pragmatic function to the stanzas -- even, simply, does it read better with the breaks as such? Is there an ideational function to the stanzas? Or does the ideation mostly ignore the stanza breaks? Also, something I always have to ask myself, is my personal distrust of such stanza forms getting in the way of my reading of the poem? That is, are there issues of taste here?

How about the wording? Is it substantial enough? Is there enough solidity to sustain the short phrases? Or do too many of the phrases lose strength for their lack of ideational substance? If only a few do, is that crippling to the poem, or is it but a minor flaw?

I could obviously go on and on. I won't give answers, that's not the point, here. The point is the idea of exploration, and willingness -- and, moreso, the necessity -- to approach poems critically. You gain nothing if you approach every poem as though it is good, and accept it for what it is, whether or not it actually is good. When you do, you not only waste your time reading things of little value, you will miss the value in the poems that have it.

Explore your poetry. Defend the poetry you read. Demand that your poets defend their poetry for you. Be willing to say to a book of poems by an author you enjoy, "Are you offering me something different? Or have you stopped teaching me, and now just doing the same old same old?"

Here's a radical idea: start asking it of the editors of your poetry rags: "Why should I spend $15 and however much time on your magazine, when Howl, is sitting right there? What have you got to show me? What have you got to teach me?"

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