Friday, December 21, 2007

Stations of the Poet

Reading a lot of poetry, certain trends come to one's notice. Patterns that seem typical of a lot of poets. Recycled ideas re-discovered for the first time: as old as time, as new as each new poet's discovery.

Many if not all poets seem to go through a phase of playing-with-words. Often their poems are very cleverly titled, and very clever within, full of linguistic spice and clever constructions. Playing-with-words is like learning to draw: you're testing the limits of your tools and your hand-skills, and learning to expand your skills and your conception. It's a way to stretch one's techincal skills, and learn the tools.

But like learning-to-draw, playing-with-words may produce a lot of studies, but not much in terms of finished pieces. In the end it is a dead end unless the poet can mature beyond the student phase and begin to write with passion and honesty, having integrated the tools. Playing-with-words can produce cleverness, and helps support technical craft, and may be a good stage to go through. As long as you don't get stuck there. Draw every day. Write a poem a day. But don't think that every drawing or poem is a finished masterpiece.

Do all poets go through this stage of learning to write? It appears not; unless some poets destroy their "student études," as a matter of course. Looking at a poet's juvenalia is interesting, to see where their major themes may already have been present, early in their career, if not fully-formed or maturely-developed. Sometimes you can see the roots of their mature work in the juvenalia; more often, though, it's simply just recycled re-discoveries, at best imitative of one's influences. Did we all write a Poe or Keats pastiche in our teens? Did we all go through a Rebellious Artur Rimbaud or a Suicidal Sylvia Plath phase, in our youth?

I think about this when I see so many poems that are so cleverly titled, or cleverly punned, that they make me both laugh and raise my eyebrows. This is my usual response to what we might call the Playful Wing of Language Poetry, exemplified by Charles Bernstein. It's not bad stuff at all. But it's also not very deep.

It never lets you in. It doesn't move you on more than the purely intellectual level. (Which for some poets, like some other people, is perhaps all there is.) You never get a sense of the real person lurking behind the mask of persona. Well, persona is safer for the poet who would like a little privacy. That's understandable, and probably forgiveable.

The opposite of never-being-let-in is poetry that lets you in too far, and you end up with Too Much Information. This oppositional wing of poetry is of course the contemporary confessional lyric poem, which has come to dominate a large percentage of contemporary poetry, and is perhaps over-taught in the workshops and MFA programs. It's all about "self-expression." But self-expression is a mark of immaturity, of adolescence, of infantilism. It too may be a necessary stage many poets go through. Which brings us back to the Rebellious Rimbaud and Suicidal Sylvia poets: every teen Goth poet seems to go through this phase. It's hard to take seriously, because it's about as threatening as puppies growling.

Cleverness is fun, but it's not very rewarding. Maybe it can be rewarding to the poet longer than it is to the reader. Maybe cleverness is simply a phase many poets go through, on their way to something better. (The sooner, the better, one feels.) Maybe Goth poetry is also a phase. Maybe Language Poetry itself is, in the end, a phase. It certainly has the hallmarks, in that it's an in-crowd, cliquish phenomenon that doesn't let a lot of fresh air in, or new bodies, new poets, new generations. Maybe the confessional lyric, as silly as it can be, has more durability, more appeal, because it's apparently more honest. (Even though it's no more so than any other poetry: the persona of the poet in the poem is still a kind of mask.) But confessional poetry, too, seems immature, in the end.

All these phases strike one as immature, in the end. Because they don't lead anywhere. They don't often see past themselves, with rare exceptions.

Where does it all lead? I'm not sure.

Rumi had to drown his books in the fountain, like Prospero, the day he met Shams, in order to become awakened—and only then did his poetry amount to anything. Other poets only begin to write their most beautiful and complete works in their rooted age. Eliot's Four Quartets are a summation in ways The Wasteland never could be.

I don't know where it leads. But I'm sure it does lead somewhere worthwhile.

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Blogger J.R.Pearson said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this.

I also think it is hard to tell where you are in your stream of development. Personally i am still experimenting but I also know poets who have been writing for 15-20 years who are constantly doing the same. Taken with your words here they would still find themselves in the midst of the "adolescent phase" poetically.

With some i don't find that hard to believe. I can relate to what u have said tho, I am looking for what works (I often think of it as correct to the form, function, experience, etc.) and helps to translate the experience from reality to words. The poem is an experience. If u read: the wood flowered; the prose should open delicately. I am striving in this area. Perpetually attempting.

I enjoy LangPo and think it has uses. It may be similar to metaphor: too much and the poem suffers.


2:31 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

HI, J.R.—

Some interesting thoughts. I like your analogy of LangPo being similar to metaphor: too much and poem suffers. One could substitute "technique" or "theorizing" for "metaphor" and the results would be the same.

One thing that most LangPo does not leave much room for is silence.

I agree that the poem is itself an experience. I do agree that's what a poem should be, but I do not agree that LangPo is any kind of experience but mental, verbal, intellectual.

6:14 PM  

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