The HyperTexts

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 interests you.

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:

" . . . she breaches the chasms that appear to divide 'experimental' poetics, classical fragments, Romantic aphoristic debris, and Oriental glimpsing of the ineffable."
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?

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 everywhere.

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 excoriated.

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 bumble.

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 inaccurate.

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 sincerity.

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.

Temporal provincialism

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 humanity.

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 English.)

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 voice.

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 coffeebar newsstand.

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.

The HyperTexts