A Selection of Essays by Jack Butler
Preface, The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman
There is a strong narrative element in my poetry. I like to set a real
physical scene, evoke the character of the weather. I like to tell what happened
and who happened and what they said when and why I think so and what will
probably happen next.
I love philosophizing, but to me it is just another thing that people do,
like eating and making love and sawing a board in two. Or while eating and
making love and sawing. It is not, for me, the be-all and end-all of poetry.
Poems can be a fancy way of having a good laugh. They are a way of talking
back to dead people. They can be prayers, but they very seldom are, since
genuine prayer must be unselfconscious. They may be heartfelt curses. Or songs,
or riddles, or jokes.
They do not seem to bear up well as the vehicles of a continuing overwhelming
seriousness, although this is a serious age. We have serious moonlight, we dress
in serious rags, we go after serious perks.
Irony is useful in small doses, like quinine. I don't care for it as a major
element of style. It cheats anger of its force and pleasure of its integrity.
Ironic self-awareness is defensiveness, not exploratory, which makes it a
curious choice of vehicle for the avant-garde.
I write formal poetry a great deal of the time because it has always been a
pleasure to do so, and it has never been a bondage to do so. But then, I allow
myself small freedoms. The rule for wild blackberries is five-petalled florets,
but there are occasional sports with four or six. The chief delight of form,
after the music, is surprise: the opportunities, not the closures. There is a
degree of freedom in not having to invent the guitar while you play it.
And freshness and spontaneity are matters of character far more than they are
matters of technique. Nothing that it keeps will make a lively mind boring.
Nothing that it abandons will make a boring mind fresh.
An As-Yet Untitled Essay On The Perils And Pitfalls Of Poetry Submissions
Recently I was rejected by an influential poetry magazine which has published
several of my poems in the past. The rejection was kind, considerate, personal,
and shall we say not unexpected.
I wrote a letter of response.
You're right. I knew better. But I sent it anyway. Now I propose to compound
my folly by turning the letter into an essay.
Just so you know where this is coming from.
"Thank you for your kind letter," I wrote, or words to that effect.
It means all the more because it was not required, and because you took
the time despite being so buried under work and manuscripts. Thanks also
for your generous statement to the effect that your inability to respond
was "Doubtless my fault, not yours." I would be very surprised
if you actually felt that way, since it would be hard to keep your sanity
as an editor if you did. But I appreciate the salve to self-esteem.
I sip my fresh coffee and look at the incredible morning sunlight on
the snowy mountains and mop the floor and let the dogs back in. I think of
your civility. There are all sorts of pleasures and letdowns in life. Who
can disentangle them? Who's complaining?
But I would like to speak of poetry for a while, secure in the
knowledge that you will read the following only if it entertains and
The editor had written in his rejection that since the magazine was receiving
so many thousands of manuscripts for each issue, they were forced to limit
submissions to once a year, four poems at a time.
Four poems a year. And the odds are extremely long against those four. I
wrote that I would probably continue to submit, in the way that others play the
lottery--waste of money, but hope is a pretty thing.
It's pretty much the same for all the top magazines, I wrote.
The top few must receive hundreds of thousands of poems a year. Thing is,
it's hardly different for the smaller journals. Every editor now tells me that
she or he is buried under thousands of submissions.
Questions come to mind.
Like for instance, who the hell are we kidding?
This is a preposterous situation. There's no way it's functional. This
googolplex of wannabe poets throwing themselves at magazines like rotting salmon
hitting the falls--even if we suppose that we all have worthy talent, we must
ask ourselves how, buried in such a slithering cascade, any editorial staff
could truly exercise appreciation, judgment, selection?
I have no doubt that these magazines must receive thousands of poems a year
just from poets who can actually write the language a little. Poets of some
accomplishment, and never mind the tens of thousands of hopelessly crippled
manuscripts. You know the ones I mean. The ones who come up angrily to you after
readings and jam their manuscripts at you, or the more timid, who only after
knowing you a while will let it slip that they are poets, too, and would you
take a look at their collection. Which you faithfully read in either case,
realizing that it is the job of a real poet in this culture to be an audience,
not to have an audience. And you can come up with nothing to say.
These manuscripts are hopelessly mangled in one way or another. Syntax or
sense or music, their creations are born dead and you cannot find the language
to tell the authors that pity be, though we all are equal in the Lord's eyes,
I'm sorry, but son or ma'am or creature-get, you just can't write.
These are most of the manuscripts that bombard every possible outlet today. A
few of these people get through, by sheer persistence perhaps, perhaps because
of ignorance or friends in the right places.
Nobody can explain them, but there they are, powers.
And as I say, I don't even mean these people. I mean the next rank of poets,
people who can actually write a little. The ones for whom a knack, a twist, a
quickness with the word came early. Poets who imagine that they, being poets of
some accomplishment, deserve the loftiest of publications.
Forget the first set of poets. There are thousands of competing writers, even
if we limit ourselves to the set of those who can actually write a little.
How is it possible for any editor to allot sufficient time even to these
poets? Poetry, in our fashionable prattle, is outside time. Poetry requires
absorption, contemplation, a timelessness of spirit. You can't read poetry fast.
Right. There's 86,400 seconds a day. When I'm depressed, I think there's at
least that many wannabe poets out there, poets of some competence.
Probably more. You slice the pie.
Ours is an age of uproar and output, not of listening. Everyone must be
heard. We prove we exist by yammering constantly. We are compelled to prove what
we know by voicing it, anxiously, rapidly, constantly.
Every voice is equal, and each of us is convinced the universe is unjust if
we are not able to make our wailings and clever remarks heard above the general
din, the hideous swirl of the polybabble.
What a condition, to be an editor and to be the object of so much desire.
Surely one is forced to erect formidable barriers. But perhaps it is not so for
the editors I submit to. Perhaps they revel in the rivers of word and thought
that tumble over their desks. I am not so generous.
In my opinion there is very little good poetry published today, much less
great poetry. I read, when I can stand to, the effusions in the magazines.
Everywhere I see, under the most prestigious of names, banality, condescension,
archaisms, and from those who rail most loudly against such lapses, clumsiness,
bathos, a refusal of rigorous thought, and an almost totally hermetic practice.
One cannot believe that all of these authors are intentionally fraudulent.
So why is the poetry so, so--well, so cottonpicking bad?
No, worse than bad. Way worse. Boring.
Why does bad poetry happen to good people? Why isn't sincerity and suffering
and a clear complexion and planetary sympathy enough?
Maybe I'm wrong. That's the simplest theory.
But if this is so, why can no one explain to me, in clear and precise
language, exactly what it is that I'm not catching on to? I'm not tone-deaf, and
I'm not stupid about people, forms, change, or the truly original.
Maybe there's a brilliant and shining world of new music and feeling out
there, a world I simply can't perceive. Perhaps I am a living fossil who lacks
the new perceptive apparatus. Perhaps. I read this on a book-jacket:
Maybe it isn't fair to pick on a book jacket quote. Why not? Aren't poets
supposed to be masters of language? Would you willingly allow yourself to look
ridiculous, even on the cover of someone else's book?
" . . . she breaches the chasms that appear to divide 'experimental'
poetics, classical fragments, Romantic aphoristic debris, and Oriental
glimpsing of the ineffable."
Besides, this quote is from one of the most famous of the famous, the master
anointing a protégé. It is, in other words, trying to sell me something. I get
real serious about language when somebody tries to sell me.
Notice how the author of the quote tries to have it both ways: To the
lesser-minded, of course, those archaic chasms "appear" to divide
radically disparate realms of poetic endeavor. But only to the lesser-minded.
Not to the author of the quote.
Notice that the classical is in fragments, and that the Romantic is debris.
Lovely to know all these things, of course, and one is so learned for having
absorbed them. That's the implication, I believe. One has absorbed them and
passed them over in favor of the ineffable and therefore whole and superior
East. But one really is quite the authority on all of it.
Again, questions arise.
Like what the hell is "Romantic aphoristic debris"? Must
have missed that seminar in those days of oppression as an M. F. A. student.
And isn't that whole last phrase clumsy? --"Oriental glimpsing of the
ineffable." Not merely clichéd but downright heelbroke clumsy?
The theory--that I just don't get it--accounts for some of the facts. But
when I run into this sort of twaddle I admit no more reliable guide than my own
sense of things. There were a few okay poems in the book.
I saw a poem about a drowned girl some time back. It was by a famous author,
it was a celebrated poem, and it appeared in a very well-known magazine. In it
the drowned girl served merely as a vehicle for yet another dissertation on the
woes and longings and alienations of the poet.
Not only the poet but also everyone else who read the poem apparently saw no
emptiness of spirit, no fatuity, no lack of respect for the greater grief.
Recently I read another poem by another famous poet--in a famous magazine--in
which the narrator shopped at a roadside produce stand. The poem reeked of
contempt for the poor country boy running the stand. Anyone who grew up dirt
poor knows the phrase is literal. Dirt is what you have, what you can make it
produce is your only fortune. A smartass intellectual pulls up in a fancy car,
looks right through you because you aren't cultured. As an artist, he's intent
on the perfection of the produce and hip to beauty like you aren't--
Suffice it to say, I saw a different story in that poem than the author did.
The best modern work resembles the journal excerpts of perceptive and genuine
people. Journal entries may be valuable, as the unfolding awareness of a good
mind is always valuable. But as a substitute for poetry?
What might be forgiven in a journal--laxity, awkwardness, stumbling thought,
errors of fact and music, the failure to provide the surge, the swing and
courage of magnificent speech--is not forgivable in a poem.
Perhaps I quibble with terminology. If a thing is worth reading, what does it
matter whether we call it a poem?
It wouldn't matter--except that these hybrids crowd out poems which
really are poems. And again--I am speaking of the best of the current
work, remember, a very small portion of the whole tedious umwelt.
Imagine what the unceasing blather of bad poetry has done over the last
seventy years to the American ear. Loud rock and roll was not the problem after
all. That only causes a physical deafness, not a mental one.
It is my misfortune to have fallen in love, as a boy, with the cadences of
the great English poets. You take your roots where you find them, and some of my
roots go back five hundred years in this language. A five-hundred year-old
language is no small heritage. Doesn't mean I buy into the cruelties, the
ignorance, the injustice. They're there in any heritage.
Compared to those five hundred years, this other, this parade of current
attitudes, this contemporary gallery of naked suck-ups to an emperor who doesn't
exist, this antic caper is hardly even diverting. Much less poetry.
What is it, then? Years ago I came across a fitting term. The writer
described the pathetic and shrunken striving of contemporary poetry as po-biz.
The analogy is exact, I think, especially in the implied comic comparison to
Hollywood. Po-biz has the posing and the display, the star system--with a few
influential campuses as studios--but not the glitz, money, or influence.
I found the term in American Poetry Review-- ironic enough, since at
the time APR was itself the world's greatest sideshow of po-biz in
action. Perhaps the magazine has improved. I read a few issues those many years
ago and found them inane, boring, and painful. Not only was the poetry
unreadable, but the essays were garbled and ungrammatical. Why, I thought, would
I want to read a poet who can't even write decent prose?
How to Be a Victim
I know a successful contemporary poet, one who is winning award after award.
The poet is an enthusiastic and likable person and a sincere person, and I even
enjoy some of the poems. But in the book the poet attributes current dilemmas to
a complicated birth trauma. The poet claims equal kinship because of this early
suffering--explicitly, not merely metaphorically--with victims of oppression
The cult of victimhood. Every poet today must be a victim, and must therefore
concoct, if he or she has not personally undergone radical suffering or glaring
injustice, a theory which establishes the poet's victimhood. (Naturally, we must
also ally ourselves unceasingly with genuine victims. They make good cover, and
they make good props to hang our theories on.)
I heard a MacArthur winner read. The stuff was so awkward and ingenuous I
would have had trouble with it as a freshman composition, and it was extremely
condescending to those who were not of the race and opinions of the author.
Perhaps I bridled because I am a redneck by nativity and upbringing, and the
work was riddled with tossed-off denigrations of rednecks as a class. I couldn't
help thinking that if I had said similar things about the author's
kindred--which I would never imagine doing--I would have been reviled and
But it wasn't the self-centeredness posing as enlightenment that offended me,
the thoughtless assumption of correctness, the carelessness.
It was the stance of the victim covering for a lack of talent. This stuff was
not even competent at a juvenile level. It attempted mature themes like
childbirth in the raw and failed miserably, went way over the top. Bathos and
Talent is the dirty word nowadays.
Talent doesn't make you a good person. It doesn't necessarily make you a
star. On the other hand, if you don't have talent, you can be a star, and you
can be a very good person. But you can't be a very good poet.
Easy to say the fault was in me if it hadn't been for that lack of talent.
Ok, she was using the language of the oppressors. Like there's any of us who
don't. I'm not here to argue colonialism or appropriation. The discussion is
bogus. Language doesn't work by those rules. It makes its own way.
I have, on occasion, been a victim. When I have been one, the only thing I
wanted was not to be a victim any longer.
Nobody who knows anything about being a real victim imagines it improves
character or sharpens talent. Yet here we have the spectacle of swarms of
swaddled children aspiring to the saintliness of shared suffering.
I suspect this is so because we conceive the voice of the victim as being
beyond reproach--having been wronged, one is automatically right, and therefore
safe from all question of talent or liveliness or grace.
Who wouldn't want to speak from such a platform?
But who wants to earn it? Not me. Injustice borne does not nobility confer,
to put the matter in an antique and pentametric fashion.
A few months ago I was with a group of writers who described themselves, in
conversation, as victims of oppression. They were generally young, and one or
two had some degree of reputation. Why were they victims of oppression? Because
our materialistic culture marginalized them.
This was the actual phrasing.
Oh come on, I said. None of you are hungry. You all have a good place to
sleep. Nobody's going to throw you in jail for speaking out. That, I said, is
not oppression. So your culture, by and large, doesn't give a damn what you're
up to. So what? That's frustration, not oppression.
It's the spoiled child who interprets denial as punishment.
And isn't there a difference between being disadvantaged and being a victim?
The borderline may be indistinct, but borders usually are.
I do not attend readings of contemporary poetry if I can avoid them, because
they are typically sentimental, amusical, and witless. One might forgive any of
these flaws, but not all three. There will occur, at these readings, whenever
the poet produces yet another tragedy caused by those terrible oppressive
wrongthinking others, a wavelike nodding of heads: Yes, yes. We're all in it
together, we are the wronged, we are the ones who drift in sacred communal
truth. I have learned to despise that mindless nodding.
There will occur the predictable laughter at the predictable mockery of the
predictable villains. The drawn-out mutual sigh as we arrive at the clever
tender moment, the predictable epiphany of love or vision: Awwwww . . .
The book I mention contains yet another recounting of the horror of having a
father (whose only cited crimes are that he was somewhat louder and rougher than
the frightened child would have wished).
Okay. Terrible fathers abound. Beastly fathers, and I do not doubt it. Unlike
the poet, however, I have been a father. I have raised children to capable and
healthy adulthood. I know from experience how difficult it is to strike the
correct balance. I know that there is a reason and a necessity for the gruffness
and roughness of the male, the tough bark of even a good father.
Perhaps this father deserved the poem. I cannot tell. I suppose this sort of
accusation without evidence is permissible nowadays because of the received
contemporary doctrine that males are inherently tyrannical, the cause of all the
evils of what is usually described as Western civilization. (Never mind that its
philosophical origins lie in Greece and Israel.)
And if you think I make an apologia for brutality, you're a sad case.
Two kinds of poetry
There are two different impulses toward poetry nowadays. One is the impulse
of the calling. That impulse implies discipline, learning, the sense that one
serves a fine principle, a venerable but not antique mystery.
Most poets will tell you theirs is this first impulse.
The other impulse is the impulse to self-expression--which latter seems to me
the impulse ruling po-biz. In this approach, poetry is not distinguished from
therapy, and the highest good is, as I have heard one poet say, "following
your own mind." The poem under discussion was admitted to be plodding and
ungainly--and yet it was a good poem because the poet was faithfully following
his own mind. In a recent magazine article, a highly-regarded poet produced a
lengthy essay claiming that the essential virtue of poetry was self-expression.
The essay was wordy, highly abstract, and interlarded with an endless
sequence of references. In my opinion--but of course you know that is all this
essay is anyway, my opinion elaborated and adumbrated--in my opinion, whenever
we want to make a silly opinion look less ridiculous, we must resort to
reference and quotation. Surely precedent resolves all questions of import.
Intellectual hijinks aside, the argument boiled down to the statement that
somehow the effort of creating a fantasy self in words was holy--no doubt
because the culture is so repressive. What it did not address is why the devil a
reader should care about the self-expression of another.
What if you learn to express yourself and then discover that you don't
possess a self of any particular value or freshness?
I believe that self-expression is fundamental to art, but that it is not what
distinguishes good art from bad, or lazy dull art from accomplishment. The work
of having a decent self is essential to all humans, artists or otherwise, and
the performance of art does not excuse us from that obligation.
The self-expression vision of poetry is a highly democratic one, and
difficult to counter. Everyone has a voice and every voice must be heard. Who
would deny the proposition? Nor may we speak forthrightly about anyone else's
poetry, because to do so is to become antihuman somehow, uncaring.
Another frequent element of this sort of poetry is its breast-beating
declaration of truth-seeking. I call it the poetry of sincerity. Contemporary
poets frequently attempt truth directly, without intermediary, from sheer purity
of vision. This poetry wishes to be judged on its declared compassion, its
declared earnestness. I have heard it described as the poetry of "high
seriousness." I replied, in a brief essay, that I preferred low comedy.
Flippant, admittedly. But pointed enough to repeat here.
In any piece of writing, the author may say anything he or she wishes about
himself or herself, or declare a belief in the most high-minded of principles. I
judge people on their behavior, not on what they say about themselves. With
regard to writing, the only actual evidence of behavior (and therefore
character) that we have is in the writing itself. One makes moral choices
when writing. Technique is not merely technique. It is also behavior, the only
directly observable behavior in a piece of writing. I trust an author based
not on what the author says but on the author's integrity of handling.
If you are childish in your thinking and shameless in your desires and urgent
in your need to pretend that you are neither of the former, the result will show
in your poetry. You will choose language according to the same principles that
you choose life, and you will be perfectly visible.
Understand this, bad poets. You are perfectly visible.
One modern poet, whom I will cite by name since his position is so secure
that I can do very little damage, has declared that the age of monumental poetry
is over. That poets now must abjure the ego .
I believe that Robert Bly means "memorable" when he says
monumental. If I am correct, this is fallacy. The dictum is widely and
uncritically accepted as truth, though it is not so widely practiced. It is an
ironic proposition, since the very poets who are most fervent with regard to
self-expression tend to assume that their poetry is somehow, devoid of ego.
Ego is necessary. I wish the poetry I read to have been written by a healthy
human and not a cipher. Without a healthy ego, who would have the strength to
endure in the art? Our misprision is that the choice is either ego or
selflessness. Only vanity imagines defeating the ego.
For many poets nowadays those two words, "vanity" and
"ego" probably mean the same thing. How weakly such poets apprehend
their own tongue. Vanity does not mean self-regard, but a foolish endeavor, one
without hope of outcome. Self-regard is neither right nor wrong, but accurate or
Ego is necessary, as the model and governor of the being.
If you look in the mirror, at least your eyes are open.
The task for ego is not to disappear, but to understand itself as model and
governor and become accurate and therefore useful.
Yet poem after poem pretends to lose the ego, in fellowfeeling, in right
thinking, in getting back to nature.
Love the modern echoes that shopworn phrase takes on: "Getting back to
nature." Don't recognize the nature these poets have gotten back to,
though. What of the puffed-up assumption that one may choose to accept or reject
nature, and one is virtuous for accepting? Nature is the actor, not the poet.
The ego does. That's what it's for. The point is to restrain and
control it, to use courtesy and consideration but not to lose the quick of
personality. It is a hard lesson to learn, but respect and courtesy, because
they require continual effort, thought, and concern--discipline--are truer than
And humor is the splendid tool of courtesy, not its violation. Precisely
because humor, and humor alone, has no rules of combat, it is democratic.
Precisely because it answers to no master, humor gives a sense of proportion.
Precisely because we agree that in humor, and humor alone, there are no rules,
our courtesies may stand, and need not be lost in war.
I am guilty of deriding--that is to say, laughing at--"guru"
poetry. Much prefer the stance of the entertainer, I have said. In guru poetry,
the stance is the stance of superiority to the audience--the poet experiences
all, interprets all, the reader should listen, entranced. The poet is vatic
first and wordsmith second.
The stance of the entertainer appreciates the audience.
I admit there are entertainers who have contempt for their audiences. They,
like the bad poets, are in the wrong profession.
The guru stance is a stance, not a manifesto. It cannot be argued out of
existence. No declaration will erase it as a fact.
It can only be erased by those who hold the stance.
I interpret poetry as profession, and the profession as language.
But how could I wish the benefits of poetry denied to anyone? Even further,
how can I wish that another human fail in his or her chosen career? I do not so
wish, as a matter of fact. Come to poetry however you wish.
But for godsake, come to it to learn.
For me the past is vital. As I say, there are five hundred years of language
to revel in--a poet has, if he or she wishes, the possibilities of all that
language ready to hand, not merely the narrow practice of the moment.
As a poet, my heritage, like it or not, is the language I grew up speaking.
It is not an evil heritage nor a harmful one nor one that has led me to unjust
or disrespectful treatment of other humans or other creatures. As a heritage it
includes vile behaviors, evil characters, touches of nobility, and thoroughgoing
confusion. Without excusing anything that is inexcusable, it is fair to say that
the heritage of the English language is neither better nor worse than the
heritage of any other language. To assume differently is to assume that humans
are not human regardless of their differentiation. It is to assume that any
sizable group of humans will not demonstrate all the characteristics of
I think that rather the reverse is true.
The ancestors shared their limits as we in our time share ours.
How many times have you had it explained to you, from how many forums, that
we have to have a new language for poetry because we live in new times? The
argument gets more technical than that, but that's what it boils down to. Ezra
Pound said "make it new" something like 75 years ago. I say stop
making it new when it's new enough. If things have changed so much that a
"new" poetic language is necessary, why can we still understand
Elizabethan syntax, with so little exposure, so little training? Quite the
opposite is true. With a few minor exceptions, such as the allowing of
inversion, English syntax has not changed appreciably in the last four hundred
years. (I refer to both the syntax of written English and the syntax of spoken
If an inhabitant of the Bronx were somehow translated to Elizabethan times, I
believe that he or she would have as little difficulty understanding the local
dialect as in understanding contemporary Cockney. It would be a matter of a few
days tuning of the ears, and everything would click.
There is a great difference between freshness and novelty. I prefer the
fresh. In my opinion, the real task before a contemporary poet is not to create
a "new" speech, but to use that language which we still have mostly in
common to freshen life, to revive the ear and spirit and calm judgment.
Our times are difficult.
By what species of aggrandizement may we assume they are more difficult than
any times which have come before?
Why is it so common for groupthink poets to condescend to those who disagree?
They do not possess knowledge, but are themselves possessed with an attitude, a
tide or general current that lifts them and lets them go.
When I began in poetry, I was sixteen. I was smart then, and am not less
intelligent now, after more than forty years of experience and work. What a joke
it seems when I meet a poet who assumes that because I do not share an
unexamined assumption I have no wit, learning, or plain humanity.
But these are, all too often, the teachers of our students.
These are the academics. As anyone anywhere in academia can tell you,
university-land is rife with groupthink. At any institution, a dogma prevails,
and vicious political battles are fought over the dogma.
Sometimes the dogma is larger than any single institution.
Still, you might object, there are different dogmas. Competing dogmas. No one
dogma prevails. Isn't that fair?
Not the point. The point isn't which dogma is correct, though that is
how all our battles are fought. The point is that no dogma is correct, in
the same way that every poll is slanted by the questions asked.
The point is that academia is the province of dogmas, of groupthink. Strange
that such tradition- (not to say hide-) bound and rule-driven behavior begets
such a relentless modernism, such a scorn for the past.
Most of the contemporary poets I know (and I know quite a few, one way and
another) are abysmally ignorant of their own poetic history. Few read and
understand any poetry except that of their contemporaries, Whitman and Williams
being the two most common exceptions. Or Blake. Blake is ok because he was a
radical, and though much of his work is careless or inane, he defied the system
and loved Frank Sinatra, especially the song "I did it my way." Also
he's okay because Alan Ginsberg said so and sang some of his songs.
Do I really have to protest that I admire much of Blake? I carry a good deal
of him in my memory, which I consider the highest compliment.
But if po-biz types read the work of the past, they read it and speak of it
with learned condescension, and to prove how widely read they are. As Flannery
O'Connor had a savage and blank character say with regard to a legend of monks
who slept in their coffins: They wasn't as advanced as we are.
I may deserve the pillory of American poetry for suggesting such a thing, but
is there anyone else out there who finds Whitman a bit of a gasbag? Read him
with pleasure, with admiration for his gusto and accomplishment in revitalizing
the language of poetry. But he was no Dickinson, no Browning, no Dylan Thomas.
Attempting his longer poems, I find myself skimming, settling on the juicier
bits. You get the idea quickly, and soon become unaccountably weary, and wander
outside to look up in perfect silence at the stars.
It seems to me that the contemporary popularity of Walt and the Doc owes to
the impulse of self-expression. The message usually taken is that one may write
any way one wishes, and that whatever occurs to one is automatically poetry. (If
one has any doubt, resort to syntactical repetition).
Once I heard a discourse on that most familiar of Stevens poems, "The
Emperor of Ice Cream." This was, by the standards of the poet doing the
talking, a respectable antique, an example of taste and learning.
Trouble was, the poet didn't know the concupiscent curds were ice cream in
preparation, or that the poem is a short story or at least vignette, or that it
was possible, by means of simple linguistic awareness, to tell exactly what sort
of social level is described and exactly what sort of neighborhood is involved
(the events of the poem do not take place among a small-town country club set).
I do not mean to tar all authors with the same brush. Certainly many of the
poets I aggregate conduct feuds among themselves, and argue interminably over
minor differences. I do believe, however that there is commonality.
The current supposed revolution in poetry dates from Pound if you look at it
strictly in English, and from more than a hundred years ago if you look at it as
a global phenomenon. Seventy-five to a hundred years is a bit long in the tooth
for a revolution, n'esce-pas?
How many read Pound nowadays? Well, I do. But he was a deeply confused
person, and I have known only one human who could make sense of the Cantos.
(That human, I am sorry to say, has died.)
The avowed intention of every contemporary poet I have read or spoken with is
to return poetry to the language of the people. Say eighty years of this, and
fewer nonpoets read poetry than ever. Is it not safe to assume there has been
some mistake? Some misapprehension?
Just the other night, during a special on jazz, one of the commentators said
that every avant-garde jazz artist felt he or she had to reinvent the musical
language or be meaningless. The unintended result, he said, was that fewer and
fewer people listened to jazz. Isn't this always true of the avant-garde?
Doesn't it always boast that it wants to freshen the language of the art, and
doesn't it always and rapidly degenerate into hardened doctrine?
In physics, there is the principle that the faster something moves, the more
like a particle it becomes to an observer, and the slower it moves, the more
like a wave-form it becomes. There is a similar cultural effect. The more intent
on velocity one becomes, the more determined to be in the van of those hustling
to get to the future first, the more narrowminded and less aware one is.
This is the misunderstood doctrine of innovation. Let's face it. Few humans
are capable of true innovation. The sort of vision which is actually capable of
restructuring human perception is rare indeed. It is true genius, and there are
not many of those around for all our bookjacket blather.
Nor is innovation good unless it is necessary. Dante wrote The Divine
Comedy in the language of the people. He had to. It was time.
But contemporary poets cannot claim the language of the people. Oh, they use
the same words, and some of the same syntax. But the run of their language is
not the run of any conceivable actual human speech. It is a fractured, tortured,
twisted speech, or it is, conversely, impossibly lazy.
It is not accurate, really to say that Dante wrote in the language of the
people. He wrote in his language, with full knowledge of the classical,
adapting the vernacular to classical forms. Dante wrote, not in the language of
the people, but in a language the people could follow, because it moved
the way their own speech moved. But he elevated that speech, he gave it glory
and cadence and greatness. It is quite another thing to disguise one's lack of
talent or lack of an ear for actual human speech in vernacular obliquities.
So what kind of poetry do you want?
It may appear so, but I am not advocating universal formalism. In my own
practice, only about half of my poetry is formal--and that formality is deeply
informed by modern cadence and diction, as my nonformal work is subject to the
influence of a long love affair with the beautiful forms.
Speaking as both a novelist and poet, I would say that any decent modern
novelist employs, hundreds of times in a given book, all of the strategies of
the contemporary poet. What the contemporary poet usually does is isolate a
single strategy, repeat it ad infinitum, and declare the mannerism a
Where have narrative poems gone? (Yes, I know one or two who still write
them.) What about the building of character through speech and dialogue? --Real
character, not some pale narrator whose psychology is either not explicable in
human terms or is the vague poetic ghost of the author. What of the sense of
deep music, what of memorability? What better test is there, Robert Bly
notwithstanding, than memorability?
Truth and honesty in poetry are not matters of technique, as I have observed
before, but matters of character. If the poet is true and honest, the poem is
much more likely to be so. If the poet is not, no theory will help.
On the other hand, if a poem is not memorable, how are we to care about its
truth or honesty? Its supposed sincerity?
What has happened to the concept of poetry as song, song made from speech?
The sheer singing exhilaration of language. Talk talk talk, we have today, and
not very lively talk at that. When was the last time you read a poem in which
the words fell like the ringing of bells, in which the poet simply sang?
I want words to live by, words that commend themselves to my memory. When I
speak of memorability, by the way, I do not mean that we remember there is such
a poem and so may read it from time to time. I mean that the poem is alive
inside us. No book is necessary for referral. I carry thousands of lines of
poetry in my head, and that is a pittance compared to my ancestors.
There is no other way to possess a poem than to make it a part of your
memory. It is then a part of you, indissoluble until you yourself dissolve.
Incidentally, the automatic assumption is that poets of my stripe (whatever
that may be) are conservative, even reactionary, unsympathetic. Politics doesn't
prove anything, but most people who know me and my history consider me radically
liberal. (I consider myself a free thinker.)
Heard a Nobel Prize winner read. Although he has written well in the past,
this piece was incredibly static and dull. Intended as a long Homeric narrative,
it was windy undifferentiated description, page after endless page of wordy
scenery. No story, no characters, no surprise.
Huge chunks of attitude and vatic pronouncement.
Naturally the audience applauded. They had been in the presence of a Nobel
Prize winner. As a member of the audience said, walking out, "Wasn't that kicking?
The sheer presence of the man."
I would have preferred the sheer presence of poetry.
There is one allowable discourse today. It is vague and simplistic,
impossible to pin down, but recognizable by its zeitgeist. One may read it, if
one does not mind being bored to tears by the iteration of loaded words and
concepts, the fuzzy thinking, the disjointed syntax, the sheer numbing
repetitive sameness of it all, in every poetry rag on the shelves at the hip
The poetry that I imagine is neither stupid nor rigid. It is a poetry that
may be read and appreciated by any intelligent reader, whose techniques are
observable directly and do not require extended commentary to explain why they
are so wonderful and so earth-shatteringly exploratory. It is a poetry which may
be instantly distinguished from prose.
I do not believe that human nature has changed so greatly that what worked
before, and has always worked in all cultures, no longer works. I do believe in
adaptation, in change, in the sort of vision that brings freshness and
contemporary relevance. I am convinced that poetry is a physical art, a sort of
performance, a dance within the body. The poetry I love gets to me
physically--it dances, and I cannot resist joining the dance.
The poetry I imagine is one in which talent counts, wit counts, laughter
counts, courtesy counts, true wildness counts. It is a poetry of courage and not
sniping, a poetry of grace as much as earnestness, a poetry in which no poet may
hide his or her limitations, because there are, actually, standards.
It aint po-biz, that's for sure.