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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Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Bible Study" by Tony Hoagland, Poetry Magazine

from Poetry (March 2015)
poem found here

First lines:
Who would have imagined that I would have to go
a million miles away from the place where I was born


returning to the definition of poetry


The previous post, about the moment from Frozen, was meant to set up a theme for upcoming posts: texts with instances where attention to detail – or the lack thereof – has a discernible effect upon the experience and reception of the text. But you take what you get. "Bible Study" perhaps could be used to that end, but I find it might find greater use if brought as an example (or test case) for the theme that was overtly present in many of the posts over the last year: that of the question of "what is 'poetry'?"; more specifically, the verse-prose, poetic-prosaic axes that I began discussing in the post about the work "Hymn to Life" (another text found on the electronic pages of the Poetry site).

I have said it before but it bears repeating: The single most troublesome event for me in writing this blog is the use of the words poetry, poem, and poet. Since I have not (and will not) take time with every post at the first use of either word to give once again definition as they are used on this blog, it is assured that most people, when they read these posts, will wholly – and I mean entirely – misread the words. The words play within two contexts: the popular and the literary ("literary," here, as in the academic or "serious" discourse about literature). Within popular usage, it is fair to have "poetry" be defined, to be blunt, as any text that visually looks like poetry (or, even, any text that seems like poetry to the speaker). After all the popular discourse is not based in theory or participant in criticism.[FN] The word can rightly serve a most general purpose.

[FN] As well, the word function primarily within the nomic – are mostly generic, convention driven – and the discourse of poplit seems only infrequently, less so genuinely, to be concerned with the aesthetic. But that is another discussion.

But in discourse about literature qua literature, the use of the word demands some degree of basis. Early last year (if not late the year before) I had started an essay that examined four essays that appeared in Boston Review: an initial essay and three responses. The angle of approach was to show how there was such little care within the four essays as to the use of the terms poetry and literature, such little effort to use those terms out of some critical grounding, that not only were the three responding essays unable to truly engage the ideas of the first in any meaningful way, but all four of the essay suffered greatly – if not debilitatingly – in their own arguments, once you but gave thought to the meanings (or, recognition of the absense of meanings) of the terms they each used.

The essay collapsed for its own weight and was put aside. Though, I might come back to it and see if a machete might salvage it, for it speaks to an important point: you have to know what you are talking about if you want your work to survive any scrutiny. This applies also to what I consider the target audience of this blog: if you want to take writing poetry seriously, then you have to have an idea of what "poetry" is; an idea of "poetry" of more value than a surface generalization.

The question of the nature of literature as an aesthetic object – what Barfield calls a "poetic" text – has been central to my own engagement with literature and literary theory pretty much since I first seriously entered the field. The issue of the difference between "poetry" (as a general term) and prose was generally for me of no great importance: the primary focus (as regards literary value) was for me the poetic modality, be the text called 'poetry' or 'prose.' It was not until I started the project of this blog, in which I was immediately confronted with the issue of what texts could legitimately be brought under examination without diluting the subject matter, that the question of 'what is poetry' came to the surface. For the most part I dodged the issue by (1) arbitrarily focusing on texts written in verse (or claiming to be written in verse); and (2) addressing singular issues within the domain of the aesthetic without going deeply into explication of the theoretical grounding of the aesthetic. (I do most of that in the essays I put in the Cabinet, my web site.) Though, that trend too had its exceptions.

I generally try to avoid using the words poetry or poem except within a mostly empty, labeling use. (That is, letting the word be defined by the example, not the example by the word.) This is why I tend to use the word "text" in place of the word "poem": I do not want discussions about aesthetic literature to be limited by the reader to texts in verse (nor to believe that I am myself so limiting): which is one of the conclusions pointed to by Barfield's two axes: whether a text is written in prose or verse says nothing about whether the text is poetic or prosaic.

It is for me an important avenue of understanding. The negative side of a generalist definition of the word "poetry" is that it creates the environment where writing anything with a resemblence to verse is considered being "poetry." But that is not the case within the contexts of this blog. A text may be "poetry" in the loosest sense, but that does not mean the text falls within the category of examples of poetry as an aesthetic endeavor.

This is central to my critique of contemporary poetry culture. If anything with line breaks is accepted as being "poetry," of being "poetry merit of discussion," then the word "poetry" has no real meaning as a literary term. Because, as Barfield points out, line breaks only denote a verseform. Again, it says nothing about what is for Barfield – and for most every major poet in English back all the way to Chaucer – what is truly the key question: not is it verse or prose, but is it poetic or prosaic. Indeed, the more you recognize that within their thinking, the more you see that their use of the word capital-P Poetry – poetry as the apex of literature – you realize they are rarely concerned of the material, and definingly concerned with the poetic.[FN]

[FN] I have had the thought to start collecting the evidence to this statement. Recently I have seen it in Pound, Eliot, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Ford, Whitman, Emerson, and Stevens; and previosly in H.D., Williams, Bunting, and elsewhere. Though I have also had the thought that it is a nonsensical task, as the idea is almost ubiquitous within the writings of the major poets in English – especially with the Modernists. What might be more interesting is collecting instances of how conteporary poetry culture has chosen to ignore this dominant idea; even, how every stagnant poetry culture ignores that idea.

In the posts since the "Hymn to Life" post, I have not infrequently attempted to point back to the idea of the two axes of the arts, but did so mostly in a theoretical manner. I am hoping, with future posts, to keep this idea to the forefront (if not explicitly). For, when it comes to it, the question of "what is 'poetry'?" is a non-question, unless, like me, you prefer to use the term to signify not only texts written in verse, but also texts of the poetic rather than prosaic nature. The greatest poetical works in English fall under those two categories. Thus, if one is to take up the study of writing "poetry" seriously, then not only does that mean studying both the material issues of verse and the ideational issues of the poetic, but it also means cutting out of the discussion texts that are neither one, the other, or both; or, using them not as example but as counter example.[FN]

[FN] Keep in mind also that "verse" does not require line breaks.

For example, while Coleridge praised Southey's poetry as some of the best in his time, he nonetheless still made the distinction that Southey's poetry was primarily poetry of Fancy and not poetry of the Imagination. In our terms, he is saying that Southey's poetry is brilliant verse, but it is primarily prosaic verse, and thus falls short of what Coleridge raises as the highest form of literature (and the arts): poetic verse, which is to say literature that is both working artistically within the medium ("verse") and symbolic rather than mechanical in its ideation ("poetic").[FN]

[FN] Again, it cannot be over-stressed: "verse" does not require line breaks. That is a more important point (if given through a narrow statement) that you might recognize. For it moves away from a definition of verse based on the traditional example: 'classical' meter, rhyme, lines breaks, and stanzas. The Modernist shift away from 'classical' meter was not in any way a break from verseform: indeed, they continued to stress verseform, as with Eliot's and Pound's dicta that a student of poetry should learn formal verse before they move into free verse. Of course, the reverse is equally true: simply because your texts have line breaks does not speak for sophistication in verseform. Indeed, I would argue, most contemporary poetry speaks of a total break from considerations of verseform entirely, and is far more prose than verse.

And this has become a very long introduction, so let's get to the text.


It is free verse. There are only two places where I sense any aural structuring. The more obvious is the fourth stanza, where the first three lines end in the slant rhymes "summer"/"supper"/"corner." (We'll come back to these lines.) Those rhymes are emphasized through the lines being of a similar length, and each ending at a period. There is also a similar effect in the first two lines, though I could wholly believe that the aural effect appears by accident. Most of the lines are complete phrases, but that is not really saying much.

The beyond that, the poem shows no diction beyond what would be heard in normal prose. And, it can be written as paragraphs without any real change to its effects. In fact, I think changing the stanzas to paragraphs while also breaking up the rhymed stanza into paragraphs makes for a better text. (I also make a punctuation change that borders on correction, whether line breaks or no.)

Who would have imagined that I would have to go a million miles away from the place where I was born to find people who would love me? And that I would go that distance and that I would find those people?

In the dream JoAnne was showing me how much arm to amputate if your hand gets trapped in the gears of the machine. If you acted fast, she said, you could save everything above the wrist. You want to keep a really sharp blade close by, she said.

Now I raise that hand to scratch one of those nasty little scabs on the back of my head, and we sit outside and watch the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis over western Illinois  –  which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.

Who knows, this might be the last good night of summer.

My broken nose is forming an idea of what’s for supper.

Hard to believe that death is just around the corner. What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?

I was on the road for so long by myself, I took to reading motel Bibles just for company. Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep, still feeling the motion of the car inside my body, I thought some wrongness in my self had made me that alone.

And God said, You are worth more to me than one hundred sparrows. And when I read that, I wept. And God said, Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?

And I looked at the mini bar and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.

And God said, Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.

So, on the material, verse-prose axis, this text is wholly prose with but superadded, purposeless line breaks. (I do not count "making it look like a poem" as a purpose. I consider it bad writing – or perhaps, at best, a non-accomplishment – to turn something into a "poem" that should be – or has no internal reason not to be – in prose.)

What then of the ideational, poetic-prosaic axis?

Looking at the text as broken into stanzas (not at my paragraphic rewrite) the poem divides into four parts: the first stanza, the second and third; the fourth stanza; and the final four stanzas. Although, the fourth stanza might be marked more for its disunity than unity. The broken nose line seems to function primarily for the "summer/supper" rhyme. Try it without the line (I stretch the context to read into and through the stanza):

                           . . . and we sit outside and watch
the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis
over western Illinois — which then subsides and cools into
               \ a smooth gray sea.

Who knows, this might be the last good night of summer.
Hard to believe that death is just around the corner.
What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?

I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread . . .

The line does connect to the poem; it is not free floating: it adds to the description of the moment of the two people sitting outside. But that is all it does: add description, if with a humorous tilt (and rhyme). As well, it is the only line of such humor in the text, which makes it stand out all the more.

As a line in and of itself it is not a bad line; though, it is very much a prose line (and on its own prosaic). But it is a failure on the part of the reader to judge the whole of a work because of the merit of some individual elements: ornaments do not make the work. Equally, it is a failure to judge the whole of a work, even when all the individual elements of the work speak some value, without considering how those individual elements coordinate within and function to the generating of the whole experience: a fist full of fragments, however glittering, does not make a whole.

Following that line, there is an inherent danger in critically approaching a work in a method that either examines the parts while ignoring the whole or that examines the whole while ignoring the parts. Such is the means by which mediocre or bad texts are whitewashed so as to permit a critical acceptability. Indeed, the very act of critically approaching the text carries the danger of endowing the text with more value than it merits on its own. The initial and requisite first question to any text being brought under critical examination – a question whose parameters and methodology is assumed from the start within the critical endeavor itself – is whether the text can sustain and bear out critical examination.[FN]


[FN] In this can be seen the functioning of sophistication as a non-quantifiable idea, as I use the word on this blog. A reader's critical acument will itself be congruent with their own sophistication as a reader of and thinker about literature. As such, in their own critical approaches to texts, the sophistication of that approach is not based externally but internally. Which seems an obviousness when stated, but that recognition is frequently ignored in practice, especially in more popular and poplit forums, where the mere success of having poetry published seems to grant a poet an immediate boost in their critical sophistication. But there is also another, important (pedagogical) point of recognition: a person's critical acumen is intimately related to their creative abilities. For example, a person who has never given thought to endjambement from a critical viewpoint will speak such absense of development of sophistication in their poetry. Which is actually only a stepping stone to my key point in this digression: a person's critical sophistication speaks directly to their development in literary sophistication. As such, even though writer X has only grown so far in their development of sophistication, their critical discourse will still be of value to other writers of equivalent or less developed sophistication. (I have found it nearly impossible to speak without using terms of quantification; but try to accept them only as generalities and not as establishing that there is some means of comparison between the sophistication of two persons except in how each is able to learn in discourse with and from the other.)

But here, within this discourse, the ground assumption is that we are primarily concerned with writing of the highest sophistication, as the the purpose here is a concern with learning to write with the highest sophistication. Thus, mediocre within the published world should be called mediocre; and bad must be called bad. As it should be outside of any pedagogical context.


As such, while it is possible to examine the "broken nose" line in regards to its function in the scene, asking, as is prompted by the context of this essay, does it function poetically or prosaically within the scene?, we must guard against whether, in asking that question, we have first satisfied that underlying condition: does the very act of asking and answering that question grant more to the text than the text itself merits? To say it another way, do we have to state overtly the context of the examination of the line, to make it clear that we are not operating under the normal assumption that, since we are critically examining this one line in the poem the poem itself as a whole establishes the value and context of that critical examination? That is, do we need to make it clear that it is only the line, and nothing else, that merits the examination in the first place.

More simply: might we be ignoring the faults of this poem by taking time to examine the possible merits?

The answer, as regards "Bible Study," is yes.

Of the four sections of the poem, the first (the first stanza) and the fourth (the fifth through eighth stanzas) cannot bear any critical scrutiny. Not only are they wholly prose and not verse (and prose of the most ordinary sort), and as such having nothing material to merit discussion, they are ideationally trite. The first stanza should not need explanation to that point. If you have read at all in the Hallmark section of pop-literature – or at all browsed the cutesy-quip section of posters – you have seen that phrase a thousand times over, and pretty much stated in that same way. There is nothing creative or even interesting about that first stanza.

The ending section begins in the fifth stanza with some narrative that is mechanically connected to the narrative preceding in the text. But it is wholly an empty narrating of fact. It breaks only at the final line which is but a trite jump from fact to emotion; and, though emotion, stated still through the modality of narrative fact. The rest of the poem has itself appeared a thousand times over in the Religious subsection of the Hallmark section of poplit. It is wholly banal ideationally (wholly conventional ideationally), and considering there is not even anything terribly interesting in the delivery banal prose at that.

There is nothing creative about those five stanzas, nearly fifty percent of the text, and as such our critical examination of the text is called to question. Is there any reason to examine, closely, a poem which, at first glace, shows itself as being half schlockwork? [FN]

[FN] It seems I have been able to connect to the last post.

I do not know how the answer is not "no." There is no amount of brilliance within the three remaining stanzas that could overcome those five stanzas.

Indeed, those three stanzas, though not as trite, do not on their own bear out any scrutiny either (except toward demonstration of the character of the writing). The only moment to which I want to speak is this part of the third stanza:

                           . . . and we sit outside and watch
the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis
over western Illinois — which then subsides and cools into
               \ a smooth gray sea.

First, appendicitis is not inflamed: an appendix is. Even if you read the text as eliding the phrase "as though with a case of" as in

and we sit outside and watch / the sun go down, inflamed as though with a case of appendicitis

it essentially says "inflamed as an inflammation." Second, if you look at a person suffering from appendicitis you do not see any inflammation. If you did, there would be a hell of lot fewer emergency appendectomies in the world. So the very comparison is daft. Third, appendicitis does not generally 'subside and cool.' It cues surgery. Fourth, the grammar falls apart.

and we sit outside and watch the sun go down . . . which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.

Finally, shouldn't it be "subsides and cools in a gray sea"?

It is bad writing.


So, let's go back to where we started: verse-prose, poetic-prosaic.

On the material question: "Bible Study" is wholly prose (with unnecessary if not poorly opted upon line breaks). On the ideational question, where it is not trite banality, it is but mostly a fairly empty (and thin) narration of facts, which sets it solidly in the prosaic. So though this is called by Poetry a poem, and, logically, by Hoagland a poem, it is neither verse nor poetic. It is prosaic prose . . . . but with line breaks.

Of course, there is that more fundamental issue. I did not bother demonstrating, fully, the prosaic nature of the text because there was no need to: the text from the start does not bear scrutiny. The only reason to scrutinize it is to point out that it is not very good at all. (Which, again, speaks first to Poetry magazine for publishing it and only then, for submitting it, to Hoagland.) Though – and in truth it is in the greater context of this blog that the following finds justification – "Bible Study" is nonetheless wholly acceptable within contemporary poetry culture, and wholly conventional "poetry."

Not, however, what I would consider "poetry." Not as a literary endeavor.

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