Ended up eschewing multiple invites for fun times tonight, so as to decompress a bit and catch up some writing. Blog writing, creative writing, letter writing. I have notes scribbled down from my week for things I haven’t had a chance to compose. I’m a busy man, public servant that I am. My free time comes at a premium.
I had read this article earlier in the week, courtesy of the inimitable Bookninja. It concerns today’s glut of published poetry. The fact that so many poems are being published today, more than ever, and the fact the standard of quality is pretty low across the board. I’m having a hard time, honestly, deciding if the article inveighs against amateur poetry, novice poetry, publishing in general, or… I don’t know what. I think the point is rather semantic, in either case.
Here’s a little chunk of the author’s thoughts:
Who is writing all this poetry? In quieter times, the art’s only significant promoters were English professors who focused on reading poetry for its own sake. Today colleges across America have hundreds of programs devoted to teaching men and women how to actually write the stuff. Those in charge of undergraduate and M.F.A. programs have cast themselves in the role of poetry-writing cheerleaders who are busy assuring tens of thousands of students that they are talented poets who should expect their work not only to be published but to win awards as well.
The notion that writing and performing “poetry” is the easiest way to satisfy the American itch for 15 minutes of fame has spilled out of our campuses and into the wider culture. You can’t pick up a violin or oboe for the first time on Monday morning and expect to play at Lincoln Center that weekend, but you can write your first poem in May and appear at an open mike in June waving a “chapbook” for sale. The new math of poetry is driven not by reader demand for great or even good poetry but by the demand of myriads of aspiring poets to experience the thrill of “publication.”
Clearly the situation is dire. The article goes on to break down this modern poetic glut in terms of numbers, and, as anyone who watches the news knows, numbers are proof of any point that one might wish to prove.
One of my first jobs out of college was proofreading amateur poetry for one of the country’s (at the time) largest vanity presses. It was the most execrable job that I’ve ever performed, and this is considering my experience in tech support and bill collecting. You simply don’t know the depth of the tepid, cliche, trite pablum that the typical amateur produces. Poems about sunsets were frequently the good ones. Each stanza was a tribute to the fundamental lack of taste, education, and experience of the amateur.
So, I get it. I really get what this guy is getting at. It wasn’t until, some years later, after dating a poet that I began reading poetry again in earnest. Jaded I had become.
But. And I have a but. While I agree with the author’s general sentiment, this begs a question I’ve been wrestling with:
To what extent should art be participatory?
It’s that simple. But good luck with it.
The author makes a comparison to picking up a classical instrument and expecting to hammer out a few magnum opuses in a few months. I don’t think that’s fair. We all speak English. We don’t all play music instruments. That analogy would be more appropriate if I were to, tomorrow, decide to make my name known as a German poet, not knowing a single lick of German, save for (fittingly) schadenfreude. We’re all amateur poets in English, at least in some vague perhaps platonic sense. But that doesn’t mean that our drivel, or even our wit, is publication worthy.
There was this other article I read, and it was a few weeks ago, so I lost track of it, but it was some academic type railing against Rock Band. The essential argument that he laid out was that people who play Rock Band feel like they are playing music, and this is one of the greatest fallacies of our digital generation.
I disagree. I do, to be sure, lament the decline of musical skill that our culture has suffered. There was a day when instruments and sheet music were present in every home. Song writers actually made money off of sheet music. Real money. And folks at home would, if they wanted to hear a tune, pick up an instrument and play.
Yes, it is sad that those days are gone. But I’m a practical man. As enriching as experience with a musical instrument is, it’s very hard to find the time to dedicate to such pastimes these days. So, wouldn’t it be okay if we had a game where people could, if not really play the instruments, play along? No, it’s not original. But the point is that people are participating in music. And they’re doing it in the home, which I think is one of the most important parts of it.
The author of the unlinked article made a snide comparison early on to a chess master, suggesting that a chess master who considered himself an adept military strategist would be absurd. Yeah, no shit! And when people say that they’re good at Rock Band, they quite specifically mean the video game. The author, in despising this verisimilitude of music has himself confused skill with the one for the other.
After reading this snob’s article, I couldn’t help but think that if he had met, in person, a legendary chess master, he would have been flattered. He would tell everyone he knew about it. But if he met a Rock Band champ (I guess they have tournaments for that?), he would revile him and mock him (or her!). How much difference is there, really, between the two? Both are highly abstract participatory activities.
I think maybe I’m getting a tad off track. Or maybe not. I’m talking about participation here. Whether it be music or literature. I think that the quick and easy nature of the participation is a distraction here. It’s easy to blow off someone’s “15 minutes.” But that’s really a red herring. Isn’t it enriching for a culture to participate in its artistic community, regardless of how it might manifest itself in these confusing, fast, modern times?
So I come back to publishing and poetry. Should amateur poets be encouraged? I doubt you’ll see too many amateurs comparing themselves to the likes of Eliot. Maybe the novices. So is it okay that they suck so bad? Should we find a way to embrace this unfiltered aesthetic?
On a certain level, I think I’m playing with a question in my mind that asks, how much difference is there, really, between a karaoke night and an amateur poetry slam? Why should we embrace karaoke so readily, yet bring such a higher set of standards to the poetry reading? I guess I should be comparing an open mic night to the poetry reading, on the presumption that there will be original works performed. But still, you get the idea.
There’s a lot more to the discussion than that. I’ve not touched on academics at all, nor the fact that the general public would be pressed to name even a 20th century poet to save their lives (including many of these amateurs). Many would probably think that William Carlos Williams was a brand of paint or deck furniture.
Anyway. I will leave you with this gem by Galway Kinnell, which you can read at its official internet posting here. At that shitty old proofreading job that I had, one of my coworkers had this exact same job that Kinnell adumbrates and sardonically pokes at. The closing line is killer though and is a disguised lesson to said amateurs. Their inability to make such fine linguistic distinctions such as that captured in the last line are what keep them so (poetically) trapped.
The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students
Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:
I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say everything I thought
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils
as new, God-given impulses
you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.