Saturday, February 13, 2010

Poets Really Need to Just Grow Up

So here's an irony:

I was just banned from a poetry board by a (former, apparently) friend, essentially for calling him on his crap, and refusing to be a sycophant. In other words, I was doing exactly what he had invited me to do. I had been absent from all online poetry boards for over a year when this friend asked me to return to his board, and begin to post and comment on it again. I had left all online poetry boards behind due primarily to the personal and hostile nature of normative interactions, and secondarily due to the complete lack of useful criticism I was receiving on my writing. Fawning praise that doesn't tell you where the poem fails is just as useless as hostile attacks, ad hominem or otherwise, that say little more than "This sucks." At least have the guts to tell me why it sucks. Otherwise, you can't expect to ever improve their craft.

So I was asked to rejoin the community. Only to be formally banned from it. He asked me to come back, and speak truth to silence, once again. Then pilloried me when I did just as he requested. Merely because I wasn't a toadie, a sycophant, or a worshipful slave. Does this story sound familiar?

It ought to.

It's the same rules that applied to sandbox wars during recess in kindergarten. It's the same level of maturity, insecurity, and doublethink that one typically finds between cliques in grade school—which is to say, no maturity at all.

The saddest part of all is that poets who act this way towards others—paranoid, alienating, turning on their former friends—are their own worst enemies, and don't even seem to know it. The saddest truth is that this sort of personal infighting dominates much of the critical discourse currently visible in public media, be it online or in print, in which poetry criticism is acted out. What some call "PoetryWorld," as though it were a theme park, is rife with discord and damnation.

This same (apparently former) friend who has just banned me was once very fond of quoting the saying, The reason the fighting in poetry criticism, as in academia, is so vicious is precisely because so very little is at stake. Those with the turf guard their turf zealously against all threats perceived or actual. Those invested in the power struggles within criticism, as in academia, can be quite vicious in their vituperation. Needless to say, I find this all very ironic.

And it's so pointless.

At this moment, I should be finishing writing a paper I am to present tomorrow morning at a (mostly populated with academics) conference about the poet Robinson Jeffers. My job tonight is just to pull together the final draft from my notes, to present them tomorrow morning. I should be doing that right now, rather than this.

Yet in the context of recent events, and the context of presenting a paper at a conference for the first time in decades, I cannot help but pause to consider whether any of this means anything.

Of course, it does not. It means absolutely nothing. Nothing is less important.

I was going to go read my own poems at an open reading tonight sponsored by the conference, and then go to dinner with the gang—I was looking forward to the reading, and had prepared for it—but due to logistical problems and miscommunications surrounding conference housing and registration fees, I ended up having to drive to the next city to get a hotel I could afford to stay in, after a long day of stressful driving around in between conference sessions. So I have chosen to take care of my own bodily needs, which are at their limit for the day, and take care of my health as my first priority. I will get my presentation organized tonight, no problem—after a few hours of necessary downtime. My health comes first, before all other considerations. Period.

None of this matters, either. None of it is memorable, none of it worth writing about, and all of it will eventually be forgotten, down the road. In awhile, probably by tomorrow afternoon, I'm not even going to care anymore. I don't hold on to grudges anymore—I can, but I choose not to. That's a hard yet enduring lesson that's been learned in the past few years, among all the other lessons that were the fallout of life-changing experiences: Live in the present moment, and don't cling to the past.

Nonetheless, all this is of a pattern. It speaks to the lack of grounded and centered pragmatism that poets, academics, and poetry critics all share. It exemplifies just what is wrong with the poetry "community" these days—and why so many would choose to opt out of it. As I have done, again. Actually, getting banned from a poetry board is a badge of honor: not only did I get under their skin and make them actually think about things, I also enacted the role of prophet once again: as Robinson Jeffers himself says in a poem, You and I, Cassandra. Those who speak truth to silence are often pilloried. So I have good company in my exile, and no regrets.

It's all rather silly, ennit?

Which is the problem in a nutshell.

Maybe when PoetryWorld chooses to grow up, the general public will take it seriously again.

I'm not holding my breath, meanwhile.


A couple of hours later, with some judicious editing—mostly pruning and trimming—the paper is done, and ready to present. I hope it falls within the time limit; but I've made it a bit modular, in order to be able to leave off a paragraph if my time is cut short.

At some more relaxed moment in the future, when there's time, I might revise and post the essay here. It's nice to be able to say one accomplished something like giving a paper, even if in the grand scheme of things, it's not that big a deal.

Post-Postscript (a couple of days later):

In the ongoing drama of the saga of my banning, there have a flurry of emails from concerned citizens. Fear not: all is well. I'm over it. Actually, I'm relieved and freed. Nothing could be better. One of my closest poet friends, who I spent the day hanging out with today, broke into a big grin, shook my hand, and gave me a loud "Congratulations!" I'm sure that in the vast nebulae of personal politics I am being portrayed as some sort of villain, while the perpetrator is portraying himself as an innocent victim. Yeah, right. Actually, it makes me smile. Congratulations! You've been possessed by your personal-ego's shadow! You win a prize! Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate! Well, enough. I've already moved on.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think when it comes to my own views on poetry I’m pretty intractable. I don’t get a lot of what people, many of them clearly intelligent people, are doing with their words but I have to go with Voltaire on this one: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” Do I wish everyone wrote poetry like mine? No. I wish a few more would to give me something other than my own stuff to read but that’s about it. Different is not bad, it's just different. I doubt there are two poets out there more different than you and I but we get on fine. I wouldn’t want to be you but I’m curious why you are you and to see how you respond to things. And you’re not the only one. Perhaps I lack the passion most people assume goes with being a poet. I think it’s more that I’ve learned from other fields of life that people with strong opinions take some shifting and doing what’s right is different to doing what’s best for you. I’m right-handed but I use my fork in my right hand. As a kid no one forced me to change and why should they? I eat just fine.

It’s hard to stay completely clear from people like the one you describe. You know full well that when someone says, “Now be honest,” they don’t want you to be too honest. Do what I do, not that I’m not criticised for this too, and select one thing to comment on, a pointer in the right direction, and leave it at that. I’m not saying that someone like him doesn’t want to improve their poetry because I’m sure they do but what I suspect they want to do is get better at doing what they’re doing and not move too far to the left of the right. And once bitten, twice shy. It’s not worth it.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Kerstetter said...

I don't know anything about poetry boards or where 'PoetryWorld' is, nor anything about the academic world. But as someone who has been an active blogger for the past year I see what I might call a downside to the group psychology involved in commenting on each others' creative work. There's just not enough honest constructive criticism, and way too much stroking of egos. If I had to guess why I'd say one reason is that bloggers are often a bit too concerned with collecting followers and scoring points in some sort of social media game. What to do about it? I sure don't know. But in my own comments I endeavor to be frank, constructive and always cordial.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, you're right on target about the gap between what people say, and what they really mean. Yet what choice do we have but to take people at face value? Even if I could read minds, I'd probably choose not to. Someone's private agenda is not something I can know until I run afoul of it. So my big thing is that I'm more at home when people say what they mean, mean what they say, and walk their talk. Those are the values I do my best to live by, online or in the real world. In terms of the poetry, I agree that different is just different. This interaction with this person, though, had nothing to do with poetry, really. It was as usual about ego.

Mark, I think those are good insights. I'm with you about ego, and also about giving comments that are frank, constructive, and cordial. Thanks for the thought.

7:47 PM  

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