Monday, January 17, 2022


  A query came my way recently which asked a perennial question from the crowd that doesn't "get" poetry: why do people bother to write boring poetry? The question had a tangible snorting contempt to it. For him, I'd wager that he finds all poetry dull, crushingly so. But my answer was this: 

Why does anyone make boring art, since you’re asking. Poets who write boring verse are most of the people who fancy themselves wordslingers of that sort—quantity diminishes quality. It seems that most of the poems one comes across from new poets in whatever forum—magazine, open reading, workshop, high school newspaper, university press— are pretty much eccentric minds with pedestrian sense of language application who want to capture big ideas, big emotions and big spiritual concepts in pathetically clunky sentences , often choking their best ideas to death with overworked metaphors , unmusical similes and a fatal lack of self awareness whether what they spend so much time writing is something an actual reader beyond their circle of friends might want to read. 

We also suffer from the tone-deaf experimenters who want to be abstract, avant garde and boldly innovative who haven’t the slightest idea of how to be interested in an opaque way. John Ashbery, Bob Perleman, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein—they were hard to understand as poets go, but they were lively , innovative and striking in their styles and habits of phrase making, and they are the exceptions to the idea that most avant gard poetry, as such, is abstract for its own sake and therefore useless and a grind. Consider also that there are bored and therefore boring readers of poetry who render judgements that typically amount to “meh”. These folks are a species of glum Gusses and Gussies who might as well be flipping the TV channels .

Poetry without strict meter or rhyme is hardly formless if it is done well, since I think the aesthetic of the early modernists, from Whitman through Eliot, Pound WC Williams and up through the present day was to model cadences on the inflections of real speech. Idealized speech, of course, but speech all the same as the inspiration for jettisoning the mathematical formulations that dominated serious poetry.
There is something in the best of lines of non-rhyming, unmetered poems that gets at a number of verbal nuances that might otherwise not be available to a poet concerned with adhering to a conventional approach. As with metered verse, we have concern ourselves over which poets have an ear, a musical sensibility that can select the right words for a difficult perception to get across, and who know when to pause, to construct a high, frantic rhetoric, when to calm down, when to stop talking. Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara , Thomas Lux, masters of free verse, geniuses even, are every bit important to the history and extension of poetry and poetic gesture as were the usual suspects lurking in the ranks of the older dead white males.

We do have blather, of course we do, we have pompous and amorphous spewing of pretentious , slender lined tripe that is hideously dreadful, but this, I think, is the case for poetry in general, regardless of era, style, aesthetic, politics; most poets are awful and what they write deserves a can of gasoline and a match. The point of it all, among other points to consider and define, is discussing what makes for a good unrhymed poem. I would present Creeley and Thomas Lux as examples, and I would go as far to maintain that John Ashbery, Ron Silliman and Ishmael Reed are no less perfect examples, though of a more expansive, abstract leaning. It's a big subject within a bigger tent.

Entertainment has virtues and cannot be discounted altogether; we seek to have our senses engaged in some worthwhile way. Art, among many others near intangible things it gives human beings, brings us pleasure and is often times sensual in- itself, plain and simple. I do have a love of clear, vivid poems with sharp, precise imagery, but there is quite a lot of pleasure I get from reading poets who are less conspicuous in what they're doing. I like Eliot, Stevens, Dickinson, Silliman, Perelman, Armantrout, Oppen, Bishop. Not everything that is difficult is diffuse, though much of what attempts a more abstract language is merely diffuse and deadening pretentiousness. Like everything, there are those excel in particular styles, and there are the majorities who are merely rattling their keyboards against their belated desires of anthologized glory.

There is no reason why entertainment cannot be the height of art, truthfully. Some of this depends on what entertains you; criticism, in a sense, is the attempt to determine the art within entertaining items and to define or defame those terms as best as we possibly can. It is very subjective and can lead us into blind alleys where vague absolutes irresolutely bark at one another from their respective tethers. Critics and philosophers have debated the utility of art since The Republic and before, and aside from some inspired manifestos about how the surest art will revolutionize and utterly transform the human experience with the material and spiritual realms, the consensus, so far as my academic and independent readings, is that art's basic function is to create joy, i.e., pleasure, entertainment by any other term. In those terms, art is hedonistic by default, created and sought out because it pleases the creator and the observer. What moral/philosophical/sociological/political insight or "lessons" the art conveys or that one discerns is merely incidental. Aesthetics, of course, is not a philosophy, but merely a kind of inquiry--it is a practice that can be attached to virtually any moral or philosophical undertaking. Hedonism, though, is not a philosophy at all, and I don't recall reading any serious defense or affirmative presentation of the "do your own thing' approach in over four decades.

I like ugly, imperfect, ambiguous art, especially poems, but I also love form, elegance, an ordered pairing of opposing things that once, brought together, gives us a sublime thing indeed. The problem with insisting that a poem should be "beautiful" according to a standard imposes limits on what the poet can do with a work and, in effect, implicitly dictates that a work adhere to requirements that are ill-suited for an emotion, an idea, an event, an experience that would motivate a writer to compose some lines. What gets to me is a poetry that gets across what the poet attempts with a mastery of techniques that are true to themselves, not an ideology. The elements that seem to break away from the phrase making one expects and combine with a writer's honed instincts for developing a rhetoric that allows a poem to stop you for a moment, ponder the phrase, parse the image, appreciate the shifts in tone and sound as layers are added, and appreciate the unexpected places where the stanzas stop, where they jump to, where they land. Beauty, for me, is a vague and useless term when applied on such a broad scale--as I mentioned before it's more compelling to discuss how successful don't think the artist delivers a set of redecorated clich├ęs about affirming life that experience proves to be patently false. Yes, the artist ought to challenge expectation, and the audience would need to a

Monday, January 10, 2022


 I’ve been reading Michael Davidson’s superb anthology of George Oppen’s verse, Collected Poems, forcing me to the keyboard to ponder some connection with Wallace Stevens, with whom he shares an obsession with how the human personality tries to speak to those things that will never let themselves be revealed.The massive solitude in Oppen's work, wholly devoid of Romantic despair, seems an intrinsic part of his recognition that the Earth itself can never be known.Oppen is connected to Wallace Stevens, I think, in that there is awareness that language has the habit of taking on the personality and delusions of the speaker and thus disguises nature, "reality" under layers of wordy assumptions that miss the mark of the mystery of experience. Stevens, though, exults in his search and wonder, and views the finalizing that eludes him as occasion for joy, wonder, a reason to intensify one's attention on the very nature of being in the world; Stevens thinks it enough for the witness to be staggered by the realization that existence is absent of final, metaphysically fixed perimeters, and that one should relish the more profound miracles in the details of their own senses.Oppen comes to know his loneliness, and there is in his work some longing for old myths that gave comfort to a restless mind. Oppen, though, denies the lure of nostalgia and presses forward on some path that has an end only beyond his own death, that language will be restored to it's ability to correctly assess the world and ourselves in it, and avail us with some ideas of assembling a world that operates on good acts and deeds and not a high rhetoric that amounts to sighing, whimpering and casual bad faith, in Oppen's estimation.

In the broadest sense, Objectivist writers, following Zukofsky's lead, developed styles that evolved from Imagism, but sought to come up with a kind of unblinkered epic poetry that wasn't hampered the symbolic obscurantism. The idea was to write, according the poet's personality, a verse that presents concrete things and realities not for making them mere props for some metaphorical system whose results wind up with dead tropes and foregone conclusions that reaffirm only bad faith, but rather gloried in those things and their uniqueness.

Zukofsky, along with Charles Olson, sought to expand the aesthetic into the social areas, the geographical, into areas the names of which define us relating to nature and the world humans build within it. Where a modernist like Pound (rather than Stevens) sought to legitimize the poet as an insurmountable authority on the exactness of nature and meaning and hence establishing him or her as an arbiter of Power, Oppen's wanted to use his poetics to make the discerning habit of mind, the ability to use language in unsentimental ways, to the general population. This would have been his ultimate gift of love, and there is a tone in his writing that I get, sometimes, that he is aware that such revolutions are started in one's lifetime but often not finished. I've no doubt that he wished that what started as a preferred compositional practice would grow into a self-renewing alignment of the population's right-sized perception of itself within Nature. Some of that loneliness might as a result abate. Zukofsky, Oppen and the work of the Objectivist Poets, as such, are a huge influence on the work of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, whose ranks include that charged inversions, reversals and redirected practice  of Ron Silliman, Rae Armentrout, Bob Perelman, and Michael Davidson himself. It's a stretch to refer to these poets as a school or movement at all, which is why I preface the remark with the tired qualifier "In the broadest sense...."

These poets come at time when the American modernists were getting older and their ideas had been assimilated by a younger generation. The poets share some similar attitudes regarding poetic language and the quest for unassailable truth, but calling them a coherent movement is a stretch, as you say; literary critics, needing to classify styles and writers, pounced on "Objectivism" as a the term to use, and in fact wrote the manifesto, in the form of their varied systematized remarks, that Zukofsky et al never got around to composing. The poets were off into the American wilderness, distinct in style, attack, voice. Oppen's attraction to the general attitude with the Objectivists, to compose a phonologically responsible poetry, is understandable, but his personality and his style are his own, after the association. It might also be said that Oppen's poetry is the best of this generation of writers

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, unlike what's been called Objectivistism, was an actual poetry movement, replete with manifestos, several anthologies, and an intimidating backlog of criticism and commentary by the poets themselves addressing what are conspicuously shared ideas and aims, stated succinctly as this: the theme of Language poetry is language.It was an inevitable development, I'd guess, coming out of the Sixties new left affiliations, and riding in along the tide of structuralist -inspired art where making a consumer aware of the art's own mechanisms and intentions, was a common card to play; along with the writings of Ron Sukenic, Barthelme, and the films of Godard and Snow, Language Poets seemed to think that exposing the mechanics of syntax and grammar would make readers aware of how they're being manipulated.Not a bad idea, perhaps, but it's something that expressed whatever was interesting it had rather quickly. Lately, it seems a more strong addition to a poet's resume so they can acquire an academic position. Not surprisingly, there are younger student poets who've been seduced into this style, and one prays they move from the semi-Marxist psycholinguistic braying of that peculiar school and find their own voice, through which they can trust the authority of their senses.William Bronk is a good companion poet to read along with Wallace Stevens, as both concerned themselves with our ideas of a world unspoilt by skewed perception. Both were poets you could imagine walking among their gardens and cities of perfect forms, the ideal types and not the inferior , material imitations, chancing some thoughts beyond the gravity of the actual planet.

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World
William Bronk

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.

For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.

Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?

Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space.

Helen Vendler asserts in her review of  the recent  "Selected Poems" that Stevens disguised his true hurts and sorrows with symbolism, merging his high, English inspired cadences with a Yankee's habit of plain speak. His was a seamlessly expressed struggle between the ideal relationships among things, or the ideas of things finding harmony among their distinct qualities, and the tense world he must return to. He was a vice president of an insurance company, after all, an institution designed to protect and amend the quirky happenstance between gravity and clumsy people.

Bronk seems to be in one world who is constantly thinking of the other, and here suggests that it is our ability to coin words or vary our linguistic references to known, quantified qualities that recreates our world constantly, in terms of a musical score, with beats, rhythm, a narrative line that flows or gets jagged according to the tone each moment might take. And it is that skill, developed through various layers of frustrated experience and states of monotonous torpor, that we can again think of what we see as too familiar and what we see as alien and strange as intrinsically exciting, full of intrigue, it's own vital elements we can learn about and learn from. We come to think of the world in other words and not by the clinical terms they're assigned by dictionaries. This availed Bronk to see that light in the street he trudged every day, palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in from say, the sea, a purity of space. Our language needs to remain vital and up to the task of re-inscribing conventional experiences, lest we miss the whole point of having senses to begin with.