Sometimes the Futility of Poetry is a Weight
Another reason I am not posting as much is that I’m not writing as much, and much of what I’m writing has no home in the critical/critique sphere. I’m doing ever more haiku, haibun, and prose-poems, and those forms are still not generally accepted or understood by most American poets; neither in terms of history nor of practice.
A third reason is that I’m focusing on compiling essays, and haven’t felt a lot like focusing on poetry lately. I remain astounded by the ways people play at creativity, and don't take it seriously, rather than viewing it as a way of life.
Poetry comes and goes for me, I’ve said that often enough; this is a period where I mostly find words totally inadequate to express what I’m experiencing. After my father’s death, it might take me a long time to write about it in any way but factual or reporterial; which is strong enough writing, for now.
And so I return to the issue of self-esteem and self-confidence in my writing, wherein I don’t feel the need to seek approval, or even feedback. I know what I’m doing right now is good, important work: I’m exploring some things that are new to me, and I am immersed in those writings in ways that don’t require critical feedback. Which has its uses, but also has severe limitations. One of the worst of those being that you often don’t get readers who understand you, when you’re pursuing these new roads. Very few get it. Even fewer can follow along the entire journey. Still fewer want to go along with you, down that new road; those are the ones you keep close at hand, but you don’t necessarily need them to offer you critiques on your writings, so much as you need them to hang around just to know you’re not alone.
Writing about my father’s death in some kind of false and artificial, cheap and sentimental “poetic” fashion is anathema, sickening to contemplate, and not likely to ever emerge from my pen. I’d rather keep silent than commit that kind of writerly sin. If I never write about it—if I never write anything worth publishing again—at the moment, I don’t care. It’s not where I’m at, and it’s not what writing is all about.
Too many poets focus on the public aspects of poetry, which amount to little more than popularity contests; far too few poets continue to quietly go about their work, even if no one notices, pursuing the roads they feel have opened before them, that they must travel down, privately rather than publicly. Maybe something will emerge later that the public will hear about; but that’s not why the journey is taken. It has nothing to do with applause, approval, or even conviviality. It has everything to do with following the personal vision, and following one’s bliss. If anyone catches up later, and likes what they see, that’s gravy; but it’s not why I do this, and never has been.
This ventures into that territory where artforms other than poetry—non-verbal, non-linguistic artforms—have the edge over poetry, which after all remains tied to the word. So I have been turning back to music, and to sound design. I spent a few hours editing audio files on the studio computer. It becomes far more emotionally satisfying for me to work in artforms that are non-verbal, for now, because words can’t contain what I want to put out, and words lie and cheapen the depths of it all. They are inadequate containers. Maybe someday that will change, and I’ll write again, as I said; but I don’t mind waiting a long time for that day to come, and I don’t mind, right now, if it never came.
It always has cycled back around before; it has always come back. But it does go in cycles, big loops where the creative force moves between mediums, and right now the cycle moves me away from the inadequate vessel of the word, and towards the more expansive vessels of music and photography.
I realize, too, in reading a lot of poetry and dialoguing about poetry lately, that I mostly an unmoved by what I have been reading. I realize, further, that I see a huge amount of striving behind the poetry I see online, and in print. Striving to impress. Striving to excel. Striving to exceed, in some cases. A lot of people dedicate a lot of their energy to employing a medium of expression that ultimately can never fit it all in, and which betrays genuine experience by being too small to encapsulate it. They work really hard at being writers. They write a poem a day. They write in new forms they’ve discovered or invented. They spend huge amounts of energy defending what they do. And nobody pays attention, or cares.
The grand futility of it all is both alarming and soothing. After all, if no one really cares, you can do whatever you want to do, and work to better yourself via poetry as a vehicle of self-expression, and if you never produce a great poem, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to justify. At the same time, the sheer volume of mediocre poetry being produced these days is staggering. There’s never been more poetry available, in print and online, and most of it sucks, relatively speaking. I find myself indifferent to most of it simply because the quantity vs. quality ratio is so very skewed. I’m not claiming to be a great poet; yet I do feel confident about the avenues I’ve been exploring in my own poetry, and I do think I’ve done some good things. It’s my corner of the world. You're welcome to visit, but treat my home as your inn, not your house.
I realize too how very seriously so many of these poets take what they’re doing—all without realizing that most of what they’re putting out there is unpolished and unfinished: études, sketches, studies, not finalized work. Sometimes that seems to dominate. Despite Paul Valery’s famous comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned—a comment which does contain real insight—far too many poets seem to me to be lazy about pursuing quality and excellence, while at the same time far too zealous about pursuing technique and craft for its own sake; and also far too zealous about writing practice itself. The poetic world is tilted out of balance. It feels like these poets are putting their energy into the wrong aspects of writing poetry, and neglecting the more essential, core aspects of the practice. Most poets over-produce, never realizing, again, that most of what they’re producing is not final polished work, but largely throwaway. I don’t claim to be innocent of this error, myself. Nonetheless it seems like misplaced striving, rather than genuinely productive striving.
My opinions on these matters are unpopular amongst the poetic mainstream. Sometimes you feel like a prophet, speaking truths no-one wants to hear, which is guaranteed to reduce one’s popularity in many quarters. No-one likes to be told they’re naked emperors.
The bottom line is that there is so much effort being put into all this, that you’d expect the end results to be so much better than they are, based on sheer effort alone. Unfortunately, creative work never functions that way: there is no direct and predictable correlation between effort and quality. If there were, all polished and technically perfect poems would be great, and all poems achieved by riding the lightning of random inspiration would be crap; yet the truth is demonstrably the opposite.