Saturday, July 25, 2009


It was perhaps prophetic that the turning point in my decision to leave The Poetry World and strike off on my own was a poem called Kenosis. It was significant that the responses I received about that poem, and others written around the same time, were contradictory, even reactionary.

It's been a process of letting go, of emptying: of kenosis. It's the living Void, the experience of emptiness, of nothingness. By living, we mean, continuing, exultant, sinking and cooling.

I continue my process of emptying by desiring less and less to categorize my writing into those bins labeled Poetry, Prose, Essay, whatever. Let's just call it Writing. In the same way that I care less about defining what I write as Poetry, I find myself aware that the standards and concepts by which reviewers and critics judge Poetry mean exactly nothing. More precisely, those standards by which Poetry is labeled and judged don't always apply to the marginally-poetic-if-not-Poetry writings that I make when I am writing in a spiritual-poetic-mythic mode. One dismissive critique of this species of writing has always been, "Well, it might have something interesting to say, but it's just not a well-written poem." Yet, if the same critic had judged the writing as Essay, or Prose, they would have accepted the writing more readily. I'm not interested in explaining or justifying a poem. If you think it doesn't work as a poem, or if you just don't like it, then unless I get from you a real reason for why you feel that way, I have no obligation to even respond.

The important point here is: writing is not automatically made better by being confined to one style or form. Or by being confined at all, really. Writing that is not necessarily intended to be Fine Art Literary Writing doesn't necessarily need to be judged by those literary standards. When I write something kenotic, my personal purpose in writing is cathartic, revelatory, even visionary. Because I have to. I do my best to always write at the highest level of quality that I can achieve, on any given day. I don't throw a piece of writing away if it has successfully expressed something important, just because it's not my best writing. Heretical as it is to say these days in The Poetry World, sometimes content really does matter. I might recognize that something I wrote isn't my best writing per se; but if it does what I needed it to do, that might be enough. I'm not rationalizing slacking off here; quite the opposite. What I'm saying is: it might not be possible to write great fine-art literature on certain topics; and, that doesn't mean one should avoid writing on those topics; and, given that does the best one can on any given day, one has to accept that not all days will one be writing at the same high level. It goes in waves. Sometimes you might take a break, then write again on the same subject, till you get it right.

Which leads us towards the existential questions: What makes a poem a poem? What makes a poet a poet?

It's not just enjambment, the breaking of the line, by whatever criterion the line is made to break. I've written before that prose-poems don't really need to be defended against or for "the death of Poetry." Prose-poetry is simply another, equally valid mode of writing.

Once again I find myself in a lifelong situation of walking a definitional line, being an insider/outsider, being both/and rather than either/or. If some critic or poet or reader thinks something I wrote is not a poem, that's fine; they're welcome to call it whatever they want. It's not my box they're trying to put it in. I'll just continue to write what I write, and go on. I don't require to be named, or categorized, or even noticed.

When you go through a life-changing experience, or sequence of experiences, your art is going to change. You can try to force it back into the known and familiar boxes, or you can leave the door open, the windows open, and let whatever breeze moves through your house flow through, emptying out the old stale air, bringing in the new.

Empty the self to find the self. —a saying found in almost all meditation and contemplative prayer traditions

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

What makes a poem a poem? I think, and part of me hates myself for saying this, that a poem is a poem because I say it is. But, that aside, why call it a poem in the first place? Why, as you suggest, do we not do away with such terms and be happy with simply 'writing'? I've been thinking about this at the moment and I have a few notes jotted for a blog (which may or may not materialise) but what I'm thinking about is that when we know we are looking at a poem we switch heads.

Think about your vacuum cleaner, it has different heads for different jobs, well when I know I'm looking at a poem I'm expecting that I will be expected to look beyond the surface of the words. I'm not, even in the simplest of poems, expecting that what is on the surface will be all there is to the piece. With prose I am expecting to be told a story of some sort or other. Yes, there may well be subtext and many of the clever things that poets use but they will be diluted by the sheer quantity of the words I have to wade through. There are always exceptions but as I general rule of thumb I would say that about sums it up.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"Switching heads" is a great analogy. It fits well with what I mean when I say switching between mindsets, or changing worldviews. When we look at a poem vs. a piece of prose, I think we do indeed switch heads; I absolutely agree. We look at the writing with a different set of expectations, filters, and ideas (ideologies).

It's a good rule of thumb, indeed.

Of course one thing I like is writing that breaks down these distinctions, or dissolves between them, making the flow of the writing move between any and all of the supposedly separated categories.

2:50 AM  

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