Friday, January 05, 2007

The Home Improvement of Poetry

A few years ago, I worked for awhile as a graphic designer for the people who publish the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library; you'll even find my name in some of the books' credits pages, under the title "Production Artist." The books are heavily-illustrated step-by-step project guides, designed to lead the relative beginner through various kinds of home repair, remodeling, and improvement projects. They are essentially craft manuals and design guides, with no pretensions towards architectural inspiration or innovation. As such, they are the best in their field. (I grant I could be biased.)

So what are we to make of former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's how-to-write poetry manual, The Poetry Home Repair Manual. The name of the book gives away the game. A title like that evokes Tim Allen's clueless macho TV-remodeling-show host. It's a title calculated to appeal to the masses. And that's exactly what's wrong with it—and with Kooser.

Kooser consistently urges poets to be aware of their readership. He says, I favor poems that keep the obstacles between you and that person to a minimum. He openly states his dislike for poetry schools that employ deliberate obscurity for its own sake, language experimentation, classical allusion, or versified philosophical statement. He recommends that poets use concrete, naturalistic imagery that is sensual and specific, embodied and local. So far we agree.

Kooser is also scathing about the poetry establishment (of which he is a paid member, one notes), disliking those literary journals chock full of poems that are little more than anecdotes made to look like poems . . . tricked out in lines of verse. It’s not unusual to find a volume of poems that consists of . . . fifty or sixty minute narratives. Again, so far we agree.

His attitude towards publishing is also largely a healthy one. He recommends that the poet Relax & Wait, to cite the title of one chapter in the book. He recommends that poets have low expectations about fame and fortune: A poem published in one of the very best literary magazines in the country might net you a check for enough money to buy half a sack of groceries. He reminds us, too, that a poem must be equipped to survive in a largely indifferent world. This is all true.

But then Kooser begins to talk about the poet's persona, and this is where he gets into serious trouble. It is hard to resist the idea that Kooser is talking about his own use of persona. He recommends that poets think about the authorial personality they wish to project with their poems. (As though poets were part of celebrity culture, requiring spin and PR to set just the right message in the media.) Kooser contrasts his man of the people authorial personality with those poets whose overly clever or snobbish persona turns readers off to the whole project of poetry. Kooser's message is simple, even simplistic: any writer who feels superior to their material will write distant, off-putting poems, whereas respect for one’s subject, even if it is mice scurrying for shelter in a plowed field, will engage readers. Kooser stretches for the poetic subject to also include respect for the poetry audience.

Ignoring for the moment the danger of pandering to the masses, rather than writing from one's unique experience, with this kind of poetry project, I find this appeal to respect to be vapid. The charge will be made, no doubt, that I am in the camp of those who prefer complex, obscure poetry to naturalistic, plain poetry. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I have written about it here. Although I basically agree with the drive towards clarity and concision in poetry, and away from cryptic obscurity, there is still something about Kooser's stance that comes across as smugly ant-intellectual: Hey, look at me! I'm of the proletariat, just like all you truckers and beer-guzzlin' unwashed masses! It comes over as disengenuous precisely because Kooser is very intelligent and intellectual about his posture of being anti-intellectual and anti-inteligentsia. It's a nice acting job, and it's a skilled mask and persona—but I wonder if Kooser believes in it, himself.

Kooser gives the game away when he starts pointing out, with deft accuracy, how to achieve technical mastery in poetry. Packing exposition into the title, and all the other technical aspects of writing poems, he handles very well, and has good advice on how to do it. The problem is, how do you reconcile that with the "man of the people" persona he projects in his more political comments about the nature and function of poetry in culture and society? He sure knows all the tricks, that's for sure. He gives most of them away in his chapters on expectations and how to get published. It feels at times like P.T. Barnum giving away all his trade secrets. It's an insider revealing the inside secrets of the publishing game, and we all benefit from that. Or do we? And how exactly do we benefit? Is the desire to get published the main reason to write? Or is writing, the act itself, the main reason we write?

Kooser, in his technical chapters, heavily emphasizes proper grammar and the mechanics of craft. These indeed are the "how-to manual" sections his aptly-named book.

Grammar über alles in poetry? No. If grammar and syntax matter so much, if they were meant to be the same in poetry and prose, poetry would sound just like prose. Oh wait! It does! Nevermind. 'Nuff said. "Grammatical correctness" as Kooser addresses it, as necessary for writing poetry, is a red herring, a way of distracting the reader when the poet really has nothing to say. "Anecdotes made to look like poems," indeed; this is exactly what results when poets start thinking they have to use prose rules when writing poetry. You lose the heightened speech that leads the reader into the embodied experience.

In his proliterian social agenda for poetry, that he lapses into in the more opinionated sections of the part, Kooser would have us believe that any idiot should be able to read and understand any poem, any time. He proudly gives us his litmus tests for social correctness, and they amount to presenting beer tastes on a champagne budget. Now, perhaps Kooser's basic premise is sound when he says that poetry shouldn't be deliberately obscure, and should communicate with its audience—that audience implicitly being defined as the non-professional-poet reader, as opposed to one's fellow poets—but he takes it too far, and it is not believable.

"Communication" über alles in poetry? That's another red herring, a symbolic target that stands in for, all too often, pandering to the audience: giving them what they want and are already comfortably familiar with. It is the opposite of Bertolt Brecht's statement that  art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. Probably the truth lies near the middle point between these two rhetorical extremes. Sure, you have to think of the audience, at some point. But if you set out thinking of the audience first, before you ever start writing, you're never going to write a single surprising thing in your life; it will all be familiar, known, and in the end, unmoving. Which is not an inaccurate description of much of Kooser's own poetry. At least he practices what he preaches.

Of course, giving the audience what it wants is the mark of a successful (professional) showman, and Kooser is nothing if not a successful showman. Again, one wonders if he actually believes his own act, or if he doesn't snicker at the rubes, backstage, when the house lights are turned down. It's hard to tell how genuinely Kooser himself believes the story he's selling.

Kooser also discusses growing up in hardscrabble Nebraska. Many writers grew up in poverty, and dire circumstances. It's a common stereotype that hardship breeds artistry: as though suffering led to better art, and you gots to pay your dues, to sing the blues. Well, there's truth to that, of course. But spinning gold from flax is a showman's trick. Everyone has a hard life, to one extent or another, in one arena of suffering or another. From a certain standpoint, everyone had a bad childhood; it's what you do with it now that matters. Using your daily life in your work is all well and good, but if it doesn't take either the poet or the reader out of that daily life, or deeper into it, then it's mere confessionalism. Some poets do the confession routine better than others, it's true. Some disguise it better than others, too.

By Kooser's very own standards of sincerity in poetry, I find Kooser's poetry insincere. He's Billy Sunday in the revival tent. It's bread and circuses time down to the grudge deathmatch, and Ted wants to be the referee. It's a gathering of stage magicians, to compete to see who's the best showman, and who can most deftly saw the girl in half, and put her back together.

Sorry. No sale.

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Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

I love how bad and boring poets will pontificate for pages on how one should go about being bad and boring. Looks like I didn't miss out on much with this book.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Not a thing, I think.

Also, I'm pretty sure Tim Allen is a lot smarter, as a person, and as a stand-up comic writer, than the characters he portrayed on his "Home Improvement" show. Kooser is smarter than he portrays himself to be, too, I think—which is why he comes over as disingenuous and hiding behind a mask of proletarian values.

7:49 PM  

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