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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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Lost Civilization" by Henry Hart -- Poetry Daily, 10/26/13

from Familiar Ghosts (Orchises Press)
poem found here

first lines:
Wine festered at the bottom of my skull.
            Wind blew the night's big ideas off the trees.


the structure of the content


How content is structured -- which is includes what content is included -- is as important to poetry as is poetics, just as it is important in any art form. In fact, I do not think it too far afield to talk about content in literature in the same manner that we talk about composition within the visual arts: a scene does not a sophisticated painting make. It is what you do with the scene.

In prose writing, one of the common errors of people just entering writing is, when writing from life, to include information (and to write it a certain way) because "that is how it happened." The error derives from the desire to narrate: the lower the sophistication of the writer, the more that narration tends toward reportage, or the exact narrating of the facts and the facts alone. Sophisticated writing, however, does not lie in the facts -- even in the "facts" of fiction. Facts and details are but tools to the greater composition. So also narration itself. Aesthetic writing is not narration: it is creating a unified piece (of whatever size and shape). The result of writing is not the story or the scene (or even the idea), but the poem, the short, the prose poem, the seven-hundred-page epic, the whatever.

When Pound and the Imagists made the statement

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

as their second rule of poetry, they were stating what is to more sophisticated readers an obviousness. Something that does not belong reads like something that does not belong to a sophisticated reader. For example, if you start something and then drop it -- let's say you start a poem describing a dress, and then that dress never returns to the poem -- you have created an event in the poem. A sophisticated reader will notice that you spent lines talking about a dress, and they will notice that you then never again talked about the dress. They will look for a reason why. And if they cannot find a reason why, for both aspects, that moment will read like a mistake. And superfluity is a mistake.

[FN] "A Retrospect," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound.

Another example, though this is not purely contentual: take a book that has maintained narrative point of view of one character, which suddenly shifts to the point of view of another character for a short moment. An attentive reader will notice that shift, and will wonder why it exists. If they cannot find a reason why, then that shift reads like a sloppy mistake. Which might be excusable in pop novels, which can be filled which such errors. But if you are striving for something literary (in the meritorious sense of the word), if you want your work to be enjoyed by sophisticated readers, it is something to be avoided. In writing, then, the question must be asked: did the content within that shift, need to be included in the text?[FN] If it did, then it needs to be reworked to fit within the composition of the text.

[FN] Within the fantasy genre, there is a somewhat famous example of this with Stephen Donaldson's The One Tree, which is book five of two three book series, all of which were written from the viewpoint of the main character. When first written, The One Tree included an very large chapter from the viewpoint of a secondary character -- which, his editor (I blieve) pointed out created a problem in the reading. Attentive readers would notice and, more importantly, feel the shift, and the chapter would feel like something that did not belong. So it was removed (and later published in the short story collection Daughter of Regals). And it had to be removed, because it would have read like an error, however the intent, or however important the content was to the work as a whole.

If such errors are noticeable to attentive readers in novels, imagine how glaring they can be within the short framework of poetry. In fact, when you read discussions of classic poetry by critics, one of the more common negative critiques you see of otherwise praised poems is "that stanza really should have been left out; it does not contribute to the poem (and, thus creates problems)."

Indeed, much contemporary poetry is marred by this problem. Frequently I see on these sites poems where the first three, four, five stanzas offer description of a scene that really offer nothing to the idea that orients what follows. To make up an example, take a poem that is about the poignant memories felt by a person when they walk across a bridge, that bridge being deeply tied to a past and lost love. The poet might begin with four verses describing the bridge. (Or even, four verses describing one past event on that bridge.) But simply because it is the bridge does not mean it contributes to the poem. The energy of the poem is not the bridge, nor is it the memories: it is the poignancy of the memories, which are experienced not in the past but in the present. As such, if the purpose of the description of the bridge is not to developing poignancy, it will probably end up being irrelevant to the poem, and thus superfluous to it -- and to an attentive reader it will read like that.

Rewrite Pound's line, changing the focus from cause to effect:

Words that do not contribute to the poem will read like they are superfluous, mistakes, or just sloppy writing.[FN]

You have to think writing from the side of the reader. You cannot simply go "well, it's good enough for me," because a reader who is looking for a sophisticated read will reject the poem out and out. "Good enough" is a basic quality of pop poetry, which constantly demands of its readers nothing. In fact, pop poetry demands of its readers the opposite of "demands": it demands that readers do not read closely, do not read attentively, do not read deeply.

But then, the audience for pop poetry "demands" poetry that does not at all ask them to read closely, or read attentively, or read -- or think -- deeply. For the fun of it, Pound again:

The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain WHATSOEVER on his habitually slack attention. (The ABCs of Reading)

Read it not from the viewpoint of condemning readers of pop lit, but from what it is saying about the writers of pop lit.

Which has taken us to far more extreme idea than I wanted to apply to today's poem. So take a moment to pause and backpedal before we continue . . . . .

"Lost Civilization" is made up of nine stanzas, three lines each. (I like how the stanzas and lines are constructred, and the use of the indent of the middle line.) The action and scene of the poem concerns the participants in a Christmas parade. The first three stanzas are set-up: they establish the narrator and the situation. At the third line of the third stanza, the poem moves to description of the members of the parade.

There is a blurring as to whether the stanzas are describing the parade members getting read to start (as at the beginning, with the llama and "Dogs lines up") or the actual parade in motion (as at the end, with "We marched past"). Which is excellent. There is nothing more boring than a writer taking time (taking the reader's time) to explicitly state something like "the parade started" when there is absolutely no reason to do so. In fact, it is equally boring -- and rather unaesthetic -- to intentionally describe events in tic-toc ordering if there is no reason to do so.

Stanza 8 is the narrator after the parade. Stanza 9 . . . . well, let's hold off on that one for a moment. You are going to have to hang with me because I am going to back door to it.

The description of the parade and its members works fine as what it is. It is description. And, one could successfully write a poem that is nothing but a narrator's description of such a scene, without ever having to break from it, the pleasure of the poem being reading how the poet created one person's interpretation of a scene. Let me say that more directly since it is exactly to the point: the joy of poetry is how the content is given, not the content. So, it quite possible to have a poem whose content is only the description of a parade: it is the resulting poem that is what will create the pleasures of the text.

But then there is the first stanza, which attempts to establish the scene in an expanding motion: moving from the close-up of the narrator's skull out to about as far out as you can go with the stars. There are the ideas of wine festering and frostbite that I believe are meant to be taken into the scene. But I am left asking, why did the poet not simply develop those ideas within extended moment of the parade? Why this opening stanza that goes all the way to the stars? That idea does not exist from that point on. (Well, perhaps loosely within the final stanza.)

And then there is the second stanza. In my first readings I had problems with the second stanza that may have diminished but never went away. Between stanzas 1 and 2 there is a sudden and very pronounced jump: stanza 1 opens the poem with the broad-brush scene setting, then, WHAM, full shift to

Be kind to animals was mother's mantra.
            Do your duty was father's.

What does that at all have to do with the first stanza? How is it at all related?[FN] With the radical shift from scene to event, I now fully expect the rest of the poem to be about the narrator's mother, or homelife, or such (what with the entrance of the father). Or perhaps to be about social mores. But, then, WHAM:

Their ghosts breathed on my rear-view mirror.

The parents are dead. So that is not what it is about. Looking forward in the text I don't find answers to my questions. Do the ideas of "be kind to animals" or "do your duty" ever again appear? Not that I see, except in a tangential sense: "animals" relates to the llama, etc. in the parade, and "duty" can be said to be stating why the narrator is there in the first place. It does not seem to go any farther than that. So, the poem is jarring read through those first couple of stanzas. What follows does not really follow out of those first stanzas.

[FN] The question points forward and backward, which is to say the answer does not have to lie in the first stanza, but can lie later in the poem. For me, though, no answer can be found outside of tangential connections.

Note, though, that approaching the question of relevance in the manner above is limiting our thinking to the order of presentation of the poem. You should look at issues from many directions. Here, the meat of the poem, the majority of the effort in the poem, is about the parade. So let's ask the question differently: do those lines contribute to the poetic description of the parade?. For myself, the answer is, No.

Now, I have seen this error happen because a writer was afraid to let their poem be, simply, description of event. They feel the pop poetry impulse to have some kind of profound statement within the text, succumb, and force one in at some point, whether the poem needs it or not. (I'm not saying that's the case here.) Aesthetic poetry is not about profundity. It can be profound, but it need not be. Because, in the fundament, it is about the experience of the text. And as a reader I am interesting in seeing what can be done with language. Thus, a poem that is -- contentually speaking -- simply a description of a parade, but which plays with describing that parade in a clever, poetic way, can be a quite enjoyable and potentially very successful poem.

In line with that paragraph, there is the final stanza:

After the first snow, the floats huddled
            in the parking lot
like a city buried beneath desert sand.

which to me speaks of a similar impulse: the pop poetry convention of closing on a profundity. There is -- and hopefully you noticed -- a break in the flow of the poem to me even sharper than those in the beginning. On one hand, there is a jump in time, both in shifting from the active parade to the still final scene, and in jumping from the present of the continuous first eight stanzas to some point in time much later. In fact, when you think of the blurring of the set up of the parade into the parade itself and even, slightly, into post-parade, the final stanza is a break in style as well. Also, there is a shift in the viewpoint: it reads as though it has moved from the narrator's point of view to a third person point of view. Finally, the final stanza brings into the poem a completely new idea. And in that it is attempting something not descriptive but philosophical, you have to ask, what does it at all have to do with the other similar moment, the second stanza, because no substantial flow between 2 and 9 is evident.

For me, then, the poem suffers from a disjuncture of content. There is (1) the opening stanza -- which is scene setting so it is not so bad (and would be quite alright if the "wine festering" was carried into the parade event). Then (2) there is the second stanza, and movement to put family and the past (or some kind of past, subjective commentary) into the present. Then (3) there is description of the parade, which is the best part of the poem. Then (4) there is the final stanza, which brings into the poem a whole new idea, presumably to create a kind of contrast and concluding ideational overtone.

Except, as with the bridge example, above, it is not enough to simply tack on an idea. The idea should serve the poem as a whole. And here, the two parts of the description of the parade and the final scene reads to me as two separate ideas merely abutted. They are parts of two separate poems: the description does not itself set up a contrast, and the final stanza does not contribute to the description (it makes its own, new description, not of the parade, but of a scene long after the parade is over).

(In fact, to me the phrase "After the first snow," speaks of gerry-rigging within the poem.[FN] It is forcing a connection between the parade and the last scene, when none actually exists. In fact, the time implied within the phrase "after the first snow" is far greater a time than ever would exist for floats within a parking lot. After a parade local parade, everyone pretty much takes their floats back fairly quickly after the event, if not immediately. Also, "The moon had frostbite" but the "first snow" does not occur until after the parade? Every time I read "After the first snow" I experience a sloppy jump in time.)

[FN] The same might be said for the title, that it is trying to gerry-rig an idea into a poem that does not, really, carry the energies of that idea. (Until the last moment.)

Finally, to me (and this is a wholly personal response), the worst part of the poem: the final scene is an excellent idea for a poem (requiring the poet figure out how to work out and create something out of the very present snow/sand opposition -- if not disjunction).

(Which, again, is not to say poetically describing a local parade is not an excellent idea for a poem. It is. And this poem goes far in that direction. A hundred odd lines of something sharply written and with the distanced humor of the eighth stanza would be an excellent read.)


I should make mention of the idea of digressions, which can be used to great effect in a text. But, recognize that simply calling something a digression does not validate its presence within the text as a whole. The "digressing" must be justified, or it reads like a sloppiness to a sophisticated reader. There has to be the play of intentional digressing, not just uncontrolled wandering. (Good digressions always have a purpose.)

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