Friday, September 07, 2007

Poets Need to Get Back to Basics

I've been reading a lot of poetry criticism lately that is basically backbiting, kvetching, mean and venal. It's time to get past all the infighting, the rivalries, the petty bickering about what and what isn't "Poetry," or good poetry, or even art. All the sourness sours on us, in time. Not to mention that certain targets for ire come in and out of fashion; this week the critics hate Kerouac, next week they'll dismiss someone else. The whole poetic field is demoralized, and complains incessantly about how the audience has abandoned poetry, real poetry, in favor of something less worthy and less "pure." There is a real despair, not just about the lack of a real audience, but about the whole mission and purpose and function of poetry: no-one seems to know why we do it anymore. There is a flailing for a lost center, several traditions that were thrown away without regret but now are missed, and there is a real yearning for some new tradition to adhere to—but no-one can adhere to any of the current offerings because they are suspicious of the motivations behind such projects.

There's a real truth to the comment I've heard more than once with regard to literary criticism: Perhaps the reason poets argue so much is precisely because there's so little at stake.

Enough. It's time to grow some lungs, folks.

It's time to return to poetry's first, best function, which is not criticism, but praise. Enough with the nay-saying, it's time to return to yay-saying. Tell me what turns you on about literature; you've certainly wasted enough ink telling us what turns you off. Try this, if you dare: for just one week, say nothing negative—see if you can manage that. It will more of a challenge for some poets than others, because thinking negative has become a habit for those poets, just like any other pattern of thinking that you practice too often.

Poetry is praise. Poetry is not denigration. Poetry builds up, it doesn't tear down. That's what satire does, and while satire can cloak itself in poetic means and techniques, it can never teach you to praise what you love. Poetry makes things new, even old things that seem to have died. Poetry needs a live breath in it, a living breath with which to in-spire it: inspiration means to breathe in. All the latest -isms and schools and manners in poetry have built-in sell-by dates, and so none of them last very long: they have expiration dates, but no inspiration. Poetry is not a competition, not even for the legacy of funding or grants; poetry needs to be confocal, and cohabit with everything else that is life-giving instead of life-denying. Poetry needs to remember its shamanic and magical and mythopoetic origins; poetry needs to remember that it used to be the language of sacred communication. No matter what you believe in, believe in something, or your poetry and your soul will become stale and stagnant.

Poetry is praise. No modern poet says this better than Rilke:

Praising is what matters! He was summoned for that,
and came to us like the ore from a stone's
silence. His mortal heart presses out
a deathless, inexhaustible wine.

Whenever he feels the god's paradigm grip
his throat, the voice does not die in his mouth.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
opened on the hills of his sensuous South.

Neither decay in the sepulchre of kings
nor any shadow that has falllen form the gods
can ever detract from his glorious praising.

For he is a herald who is with us always,
holding far into the doors of the dead,
a bowl with ripe fruit worthy of praise.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 7

And even in the shadows, praise. There is room in praising for the soul's dark night, for kenosis, for the emptying, the sinking and cooling into the void and the abyss. There is room for darkness, for the Shadow, because within the darkness is the seed of the light, just as within the light is the seed of darkness. At the heart of each lies the other, about to be manifest.

Only in the realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint,
that it be clear upon the very stone

that bears the arch of triumph and the alltar—
Look: around her shoulders dawns the bright
sense that she may be the youngest sister
among the deities hidden in our heart.

Joy knows, and Longing has accepted,—
only Lament still learns; upon her beads,
night after night, she counts the ancient curse.

Yet awkward as she is, she suddenly
lifts a constellation of our voice,
glittering, into the pure nocturnal sky.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 8

And poetry needs passion. Poetry needs passion instead being cerebral. Poetry needs the caring heart, now, more than it needs another school of intellectual constructivism. Poetry requires passion, as much as it requires breath.

This is what Rumi says about passion (translated by Andrew Harvey), and it is a poem you should print out and put up on your refrigerator, where you can read it every day:

Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion.
Passion is the supreme alchemical elixir, and renews all things.
No-one can grow exhausted when passion is born,
so don't sigh heavily, your brows bleak with boredom and cynicism and despair—
look for passion! passion! passion! passion!

Futile solutions deceive the force of passion.
They are banded to extort money through lies.
Marshy and stagnant water is no cure for thirst.
No matter how limpid and delicious it might look,
it will only stop and prevent you from looking for fresh rivers
that could feed and make flourish a hundred gardens,
just as each piece of false gold prevents you
from recognizing real gold and where to find it.

False gold will only cut your feet and bind your wings,
saying "I will remove your difficulties"
when in fact it is only dregs and defeat in the robes of victory.
So run, my friends, run fast and furious from all false solutions.
Let divine passion triumph, and rebirth you in yourself.

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Blogger Will said...

I start teaching again this week and will be taking this positive attitude into the classroom.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In an interview with Bill Moyers in The Language of Life series, Carolyn Forche said, “When I was reading and gathering poems written by poets of the twentieth century who had survived conditions of extremity—wars and imprisonment—I prefaced the gathering of these poems with some lines from Bertolt Brecht: ‘In dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.’”

6:39 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

To which Andrew Harvey, among others, might reply:

"Yes, well, the singing in dark times doesn't all have to be dark. It can be about the light, too, and inspire us to get out of the dark."

For myself, I think it's a real mistake to believe that poetry HAS to be about what's right in front of you, in some literalist, marxist-materialist-logical-positvist way: sing only about what you can see. I've written a long thread about Visionary Poetry on this blog, for example, which is about transcendance as much as it is about immanence.

Most political poetry (and Brecht's poems haven't endured well because they too suffer from this) makes the mistake of thinking that all writing is about current events—i.e. current political, social, moral, etc. events—and while those are important to write about, perhaps even in poetry, such writings tend to have a short shelf-life. They're topical for awhile, then current events move on, and the poems mildew and dessicate. (Forché's own poetry has problems along these lines, just as Brecht's does.)

It's an excuse to say the poems written in dark times will only reflect those times. It's an excuse that refuses to rise above the fray, and it's a justification for a certain kind of spiritual laziness that wants to avoid the hard work that is genuinely required of one, if one indeed aspires to rise up, lift oneself up, and transcend one's narrow times, and become more universal and awakened.

So the times are dark. You can wallow in that, or you can get a flashlight.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Mots du Bugsy said...

The use of metaphors tohavethe symbols of evocation speak to our inner and mundane consciousness so we can travel across the bridges of conceptions to the blissfields of our sublime enlightenment of ourselves and our reality.

10:04 PM  

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