heresies of poetry

What can a government do when it no longer meets its targets, but rewrite the manifesto, claiming that previous objectives were the product of circumstances that have been overtaken by events? Matters take a more ominous turn in totalitarian regimes when scapegoats have to be found, branded as enemies of the state, and punished accordingly. But in both cases there is a need to move the goal-posts, to evolve new formulations and to engage in a good deal of sophistry to demonstrate what is obviously not the case.

Quality Today

I have tried to illustrate the range and diversity of contemporary work, though much is only minimally poetry. In general, the names appearing on official poetry sites are indeed those of better poets, but they can be represented by such indifferent pieces that we wonder what standards are being applied. Copyright problems may be one explanation, but there are certainly not the cash problems that restrict what provincial picture galleries can acquire. Translation tends also to be smoothly professional, and gladiatorial in its promotion, but the results do not always tell us why the original is so good. Theory is something of a muddle, failing to make sense even to its advocates, a fact made all too clear by empty classrooms {1} and internecine squabbles. {2} Poetry has become the soft option of writing courses, and 'poet' is almost a term of abuse in some literary circles.

Progress in the Arts

Axiomatic in many poetry books and articles is that poetry must move on, that newer is necessarily better, an assertion clearly at odds with the historical record. Did Aeschylus, Euripedes or Sophocles {3} improve on Homer, {4} and did the Alexandrians {5} improve on those playwrights? Antiquity did not think so. Did the Latin poets of the Silver Age {6} improve on Virgil, Lucretius or Catullus? {7} Again the answer is obvious, and European poetry did not achieve real splendour again until the Renaissance. {8} Sanskrit literature saw a great flowering in Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, both of whom wrote with moving simplicity, and then grew increasingly clever and ornate until it became unreadable to all but a small caste. The great poetry of the Chinese was written in the Tang dynasty, and these poems were still serving as models a thousand years later. No one has written better Arabic than al Muttanabbi {9} or better Persian poetry than Ferdowsi or Rumi. {10} We don't have to believe in Spengler's {11} or Toynbee's {12} cycles of history to see how assiduously the second-rate has been promoted as answering to contemporary needs. Science, industry, governance and host of other disciplines do make progress, but the arts deal with the more permanent aspects of human nature.

Personal Development

Whenever there is evidence to judge, we find that great poets develop, widening their themes and improving technique so as to deal with more taxing themes. In general, however, the Moderns have not developed in this way, but simply switched from one approach to another. Lowell's confessional mode may have been a relief from his high formalism phase, but the poetry wasn't better. Pound, Larkin, {13} Hughes, {14} Hill, Ginsberg, Merrill, Heaney and others have not become more accomplished, but somewhat repeated themselves: distinctive work, but not sufficient to place their later collections among our treasured books.

The Evidence

No doubt the above will seem uncalled for, and possibly ill-advised, given the self-admiration of the poetry world, and the reach of its publicity machine. As starting actors are told: never criticize the leading names.

Anyone frequenting workshops and writing circles will know that writers are overwhelmingly sincere, and I suspect that many participants, their heads filled with scraps of modern theory and reviewing, will genuinely not grasp what I am trying to say — perhaps any more than did readers of Dana Gioia's essay a decade back, {15} the extended controversy notwithstanding. {16} Where I differ from Gioia is in trying to find reasons outside the purely literary: sociological, biological, historical.

First: how is it that everyone except your author (and perhaps Gioia and his followers) has got it wrong? Where is the evidence that standards have fallen, or (worse) been deliberately lowered so that a moribund art can pretend to be in business as usual?

I have tried to show what is troubling about the present scene: the standard of the work, reviewing, the poetry institutions themselves. Much of the evidence is to be found in other translations of the workshop section, which I will introduce here through a digression into painting, which may highlight some aspects of the creative process.

Representation in Painting

Painters aim for a pictorial reality, one that gives employment and direction to their lives. Aesthetics is a difficult field, but, leaving aside abstract art, a painter has generally two needs to fulfill: that of creating a plausible representation of the outside world as it appears to most people, and that of creating a satisfying work of art. Both are challenging, but the second is the more imperative when we remember that 1. paintings are representations of reality that give order, value and significance to objects or scenes depicted, 2. the objects and scenes become available in this form through the medium of depiction, and 3. the objects and scenes are themselves of visual interest — both through previous paintings, and the value society places on them per se. Even in the simple matter of colour, artists will distinguish between pictorial color (color needed to make a picture) and perceptual color (everyday experience of color: as it actually is), and except in some contemporary art, will need to work in both, recasting their sensations in pictorial terms. {17}

Painting must also, of course, 'to speak to us', i.e. represent the world in more intriguing, beautiful, resonant and powerful ways than appears to our plain eyes. Unlike photographs, paintings are never a slice of life, therefore, and even photographs need selection of subject, focus and viewpoint, and decisions later on print size, tone and colour balance. But in painting, as soon as charcoal or paint is applied, aesthetic concerns press forward with their requirements, forcing the painter towards a balance or resolution of many and often conflicting hopes. Yet the originating impulse, which led the painter to say 'I must paint that', cannot be left behind but must be transmuted by craft into something more vital, moving and representative. To simplify enormously, paintings continually strive to both draw elements in their more vivid freshness from the world outside, and to enhance their representation through the elements of composition, tonal balance, colour harmonies, dissonance, paint handling, etc. within the canvas area.

Painting and poetry may be different activities, but the parallels are obvious enough. Literary theory can lose itself in semantic tangles, but does remind us that speech and writing are by no means self-obvious and instinctive matters. Whatever we do, we have first to select words to represent the world in some fashion, and then employ those words to achieve a successful poem. These two axes of representation and craftsmanship are not mutually independent, since the form of our exposition in part determines what we can represent of the world. Nonetheless, we should be able to place any poem somewhere on the two axes of representation and craftsmanship.

Varieties of Representation

How can we know if we have represented something properly? How do we know that our representation has any real and independent verity, since all we have is multiple takes, by different individuals at different times with different outlooks and intentions? There is no gold standard of truth in the arts, but as a guiding principle, I will suggest that art aims for a truth as it appears compellingly present to us at a particular moment in a particular work. We have to feel that whatever is being expressed there is genuine and sincerely held, however much we realize later that it is also calculated, incomplete, wrong-headed or just nonsensical. Philosophy aims at universality, to find things that always true, in all possible worlds, but art is more constrained by time and context.

Though one axis of literary criticism is representation, any simple classification will probably be inadequate. There is no prime reason why an original should be better than the conventional piece, and what is dismissed as trite is largely the mainstay of the entertainment industry: stock characters in stock situations. The terms are pejorative, and obscure the point, which is that poetry has many ways of regarding and representing reality. We could group these, simply and provisionally, as follows:

truth to multiple vision (Pound)

truth to significance: extended allusion (Heaney)

truth to the occasion (Auden)

truth to the everyday (William Carlos Williams)

truth to the creative moment (Beats, Open Form)

truth to imaginative possibilities (Crane)

truth to visual impressions (Prynne)

truth to the tradition (Du Fu, Kalidasa)

Dimensions of Craft

Craft also has its complications. Many contemporary styles, which lift the living speech of everyday people unsullied into the fabric of the poem, allow selection and arrangement but little 'polishing' of individual words. All the same, we could perhaps 'graduate' the craft axis as:

rudimentary: experience overwhelms the wording: amateur/'beautiful thoughts' poetry.

workmanlike: words match but do not extend experience: Creeley

accomplished: words appropriate but point to further depths: Pound

over-accomplished: Wilbur

precious: words so refined as to replace experience: Darío

In short, craft is not an end in itself, but something subservient to intention and circumstances.


Back to the argument: second. Perhaps your author is not presenting evidence, so much as displaying his own failures to appreciate the subtleties of contemporary work. Everyone has their preferences and blind-spots, but in Prose Based Poetry and elsewhere I point out many excellences in free verse work that seem not to have been noted before. Freer forms are more difficult to write in, and the more worthy of praise when they do succeed.

So (thirdly) it's theory then? Your author is poorly read in the newer forms of literary theory? Possibly so, but a summing up does look critically at its current strengths and shortcomings — clarifies, weighs and applies it in supporting pages. And shows where the alternatives lie, which other books and sites do not. {18}

Perhaps (fourthly) he's in a time-warp, and won't accept that poetry today has to be new. But who has shown that to be the case? Or argued for it without having their own work to promote? Different in subject matter and style, perhaps, but intrinsically different? To judge by website traffic, serious contemporary poetry is rejected by 99% of poetry lovers, and even its practitioners do not buy each other's books. {19}

Rewriting the Rules

So, after many digressions, we come back to rewriting the rules. Where is the evidence that poetry movements switch from one half-conceived aim to another, denouncing as heresies what was self-evidently true only a few decades before?

First there is the simple history. Refer the two sites listed below {20} {21} to see how mutually contradictory have theory and its associated poetries become.

Then we can look at what modern poetry does with old forms, failing to use them properly while pretending it wasn't really trying.

In Poetry Today, Anthony Thwaite {22} called attention to James Fenton's gift for voice, for writing poems that were grim, funny, political and popular at the same time. True enough, but the verse in this example trips along oblivious to its theme: i.e. is deliberately insensitive so as to mock any pretensions that poetry has to do something more: {23}

God, A Poem

'I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud-

'Or whatever the phrase is.
The fact is In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.

'You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You're a drawing-pin caught in my sock.
You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I'd have thought would be firm as a rock,

'You're a serious mistake in a nightie,
You're a grave disappointment all round-
That's all you are, ' says th'Almighty,
'And that's all that you'll be underground.'

From God, A Poem by James Fenton

A similar strategy is Wendy Cope's, with her parodies of contemporaries and a tongue too sharp to be mistaken for light verse. We have returned to formal poetry, only we haven't: {24}

Engineer's Corner

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering --
You're sure to need another job as well;
You'll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You'll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There's far too much encouragement for poets --
That's why this country's going down the drain.

From Engineer's Corner by Wendy Cope

And with Tony Harrison's Long Distance II we have emotion kept at bay by the very ineptness of the verse: {25}

Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

From Long Distance II by Tony Harrison. Selected Poems. Penguin Books. 1984

By posing as amateur poetry, Tony Harrison's piece is having its cake and eating it. Formal poetry is back, but only teasingly, with lines to make us wince if the poet were serious — as though his still raw love were such a crime.

And finally a few quotes:

Nonetheless, the work of both Bloom and Perloff have circulated academically in ways that may legitimize and exclude certain writers and modes of writing. Both have their limits. Bloom reductively dismisses much 20th century writing, while Perloff tends to claim that certain tendencies in poetry are specifically 20th century creations. In Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum (1995), we see a hyberbolic example of a good-guy/bad-guy account of the poetry field. As a historical narrative of how power circulates in the poetic community, this book is highly useful. He traces much of the division in the American poetry scene of the last 50 years to a split over who was heir to the Pound throne — on one side there’s Berryman and Lowell and on the other there’s Olson, Zukofsky and Duncan. This division can be traced through the battle of the anthologies in 1959-60, and many of the "big names" of the last 35 years, in their official pronouncements at least, have thrown their chips either on one side or another (despite the calypso singers laughing at them). {26}

But Perloff wants to bastardize the considerable musical achievement of John Cage, rendering it a theoretical referendum on the agenda of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Perloff’s dependence upon the critical dimensions of Cage’s work seems to be the problem endemic to all L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry -- their criticism IS more interesting than the poetry (music) itself. Their attempts to blur the distinction between poetry and criticism acknowledge as much. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as well as most post-modernist poetry is dissipative -- entropic would be a borrowing that would get Gross and Levitt’s blood boiling (which reminds me of the funny story of how John von Neumann convinced Claude Shannon to make a trope of the term, entropy, in Shannon’s foundational paper on Information Theory.) {27}

Related to the fetish of “imagery” is another phobia, the phobia against abstraction. “No ideas but in things.” This is someone’s provocative flash which has somehow turned into a dogma, and as such is just as onesided and dangerous as the kind of abstraction gone berserk whose consequences we all know. Unless we allow ourselves a certain degree of abstraction we are faced with a series of unrelated concrete phenomena which we cannot put together. Unless we put things together we cannot comprehend them. The obsession with the concrete can mean a suppression of thought. Indeed, in the obsession with “imagery” one may discern an unconscious parallel to the state of mind which the visual media work hard to induce. There, too, and increasingly in recent years, viewers are bombarded with sequences of images that never add up to anything. One knows for what purpose this is done. {28}

According to the typical academic understanding of the work of poets since the 1960s, both the critic and the poet have been freed from the restrictions of craft; the poet, they seem to say, is no longer a liberator, but the liberated. Thus ironically contrary to what Heidegger and Rorty have recently hoped, today's poets are not liberators; many of them claim instead what appears to many to be nothing more than a petulant personal liberation, which they fail to understand is their historical birthright. It is almost now a standard chapter of a poet's life that she or he describe some struggle and eventual emancipation from the constraints of form or the confines of a particular verse-genre or critical ideology, whether imagism, formalism, new-formalism, new criticism, or the local dogmas of a university workshop. {29}

Free verse is another loaded term. Again, one might ask: free from what? . . . Timothy Steele, in his masterful study Missing Measures, points out that Eliot, Pound, Ford & Co. confused idiom with meter in ways previous verse revolutionaries such as Dryden and Wordsworth did not. One wonders how tools which had assisted in producing the riches of the English language suddenly came to be seen as constraints; this would be similar to a carpenter seeing nails as constraints because they keep the house from falling apart. Regardless, the term soon came to imply freedom from verse. . . Initially, this definition sounds nonsensical: free verse claiming to be free from verse while still asserting it is poetry. . . . By the time one reaches the Nineteenth Century one can find as fine a thinker as Matthew Arnold making the imbecilic statement that Dryden and Pope were masters of English prose rather than poets. . . Therefore something written in verse is not necessarily poetry. It is not that large a leap to hold that if something written in verse is not necessarily poetry, poetry does not need to be written in verse. {30}

Timothy Steele in his book Missing Measures has traced the process by which the understanding that poetry was some thing more than language arranged metrically turned into the belief that poetry was something quite other than language arranged metrically, and meter, which until the late nineteenth century had been a sine qua non of poetry, was thrown out of the window. The same thing seems to have happened to paraphrasable meaning: the recognition that poetry was something more than its language's paraphrasable meaning has become the dogma that paraphrasable meaning is unpoetic, or at least that a poem approaches the poetic in so far as it is unparaphrasable. This would have been a very weird doctrine to anyone before 1800, and to almost anyone before 1900 (that is, in those now almost unimaginable days when large numbers of people besides poets bought, read, and cared about poetry). Even Coleridge, who was hardly the most stalwart advocate of poetic clarity, is on record as saying (in his Table Talk) "Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least." {31}

References and Resources

1. The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing. Briggs Seekins. Apr. 2001. Sobering view of the US poetry network.
2. Timothy Steele. Jun. 2000. Interview in The Cortland Review commenting on poetry cliques.
3. Ancient Theatre: Greek. Good list of articles and links.
4. The Homer Homepage. Steven Hale. NNA. Excellent material maintained by the Georgia Perimeter College.
5. Postmodern American Poets: Debauchees of Dew. Frederick Glaysher. 1985. NNA. Some parallels with Alexandrian poetry.
6. Silver Age of Latin Poetry. . Introduction, with links.
7. Golden Age of Latin Literature. Brief entry.
8. Renaissance Literature. Jack Lynch's listing of starting points.
9. Al Mutanabbi. Brief entry on Encyclopedia of Orient. NNA
10. Persian Classical Poetry. Biographies and exerpts.
11. Oswald Spengler: An Introduction to his Life and Ideas. Keith Stimely. 1978. Short article in Institute for Historical Review.
12. Arnold Joseph Toynbee. Richard Ganski. 2004. Biography bringing out main ideas.
13. Without Metaphysics: The Poetry of Philip Larkin. An Sonjae. 1992. NNA.
14. Ted Hughes homepage. Ann Skea. Good list of articles on Hughes' poetry.
15. Can Poetry Matter. Dana Gioia. May 1991. Original Atlantic Monthly article. NNA
16. Edge City Review: West Chester Poetry Conference. 1996. NNA. Summarizes attacks on Gioia's position.
17. Bridget Riley, Colour for the Painter in Colour: Art and Science. (1995).
18. Contemporary Literary Theory. John Lye. NNA. Excellent summaries and listings, but very uncritical: students at Brock University would not know of other views from this course.
19. The T.S. Eliot Prize: A Window on British Poetry Today. Jan. 2002. NNA. Modernist poetry and its minority status.
20. Literary Criticism & Critical Theory. T. Gannon. Apr. 2002. NNA. Very extensive listing of sites under main categories of literary criticism.
21. Timeline of Major Critical Theories in US. Warren Hedges. Oct. 1997. NNA. Useful summary of characteristics of literary criticism schools, many with extended listings.
22. Anthony Thwaite, Poetry Today: A Critical Guide to British Poetry 1960-1995 (Longman, 1996), 122-7.
23. God, A Poem. James Fenton.
24. Engineer's Corner. Wendy Cope.
25. Long Distance II. Tony Harrison.
26. Against Lineage. Chris Stroffolino. 2001. NNA. Article to appear in Spin Cycle: Spring 2001.
27. Who hired Bill Moyers to Destroy American Poetry? Carlo Parcelli. Article from Flashpoint Magazine, subtitled Big talk; Small Minds; Short Poems.
28. Volta: Toward A Century Of Real Inventions. Esther Cameron. May 2001. Essay from Bellowing Ark, Jan-Feb 2000.
29. From Petit to Langpo: A History of Solipsism and Experience In Mainstream American Poetics Since the Rise of Creative Writing. Gabriel Gudding. Excerpt of Overview: The Necessary Angel and Solipsistic Poetry appearing on Flashpoint Magazine.
30. The Loaded Terminology of the Poetry Wars. Robert Darling. NNA. Guest Essay in Expansive PoetryOnline.
31. Dick Davis, "Poetry: A Prognosis," New Criterion, April 2003. Q


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.