Standing By Words
Many poetry workshops and organizations sponsor "A Poem A Day" rallies, wherein participating poets are invited to write a poem a day and share them. Poetry readings multiply in number for a month. Poetry is given a higher public awareness profile for a month, after which most non-poets go back to completely ignoring it. Schools often teach a month-long unit on poetry study and writing.
I rarely take any of this seriously. I have in the past, when I was involved with online poetry workshops, occasionally participated in poem-a-day gatherings. But as I have often pointed out, I write when I write, and when I write on demand it usually sucks. I can recall perhaps two, maybe three, poems written by myself during poem-a-day rallies that were worth salvaging, rewriting, and finishing.
Always excepting haiku, of course, which I can pretty much write on demand—which are also pretty much the only kinds of poems that I can write on demand. I'm not really sure I can explain why haiku come easily to me. Perhaps it's the result of lifelong immersion in their aesthetic. It's true that when I'm sorting through photographs, as for example I am still doing after the recent roadtrip out West, I often am spontaneously moved to write poems to go with the photos. More often than not, those poems written to photo prompts are haiku. This is also of course a variety of ekphrastic poetry: written in response to visual art.
I've managed to ignore National Poetry Month this year for most of the month. Now, however, I find myself reading as I often do books of poetry criticism by poets. This is actually some of my favorite reading: books by writers about writing. I have quite a stack of such books, which I add to from time to time. So, this year, what I will do to memorialize National Poetry Month is give some excerpts and quotes regarding books on poetry by poets.
Wendell Berry is one of our greatest living writers. A national treasure, his books are on a special shelf in my library next to others I feel are essential reading. He is a poet, a novelist, and an important essayist. His viewpoint is rural, conservative in the sense of conserving what is good and real and true, and rooted in his day job, which is farming. Many of his poems are accessible windows onto the philosophy of rural life, and the way of the earth. At times Berry seems to reflect a very deep land-based, earthen, belief system, something that all people who have lived close to the land have shared, regardless of whatever religion they nominally follow. The flow of seasons and the life of the land is a deeper system than received beliefs.
I have been reading Wendell Berry's book of six long essays about poetry, Standing By Words. I find reading Berry's essays on poetry to be essential, even when I disagree with them—which I do moderately often, finding them to be even reactionary at times. Rural myself, I am not as traditional as he. Yet Berry's voice is one of those you must encounter and deal with, regardless of whether you end up agreeing with him or not. He must be confronted and reconciled. Reading Berry helps you figure out your own stance, your own values and opinions. He is incredibly well-read, has a good grasp of the history of literature, and thoughtfully explains his positions. His writing is among the clearest of essayists', his thinking always presented without affectation or unnecessary device. There is an elegant simplicity in his writing that one can learn from, simply by reading.
Although Berry's opinions do feel to me sometimes to be reactionary and anti-modern, overall his views on poetry are congenial to my own approach and attitude. When he writes about what has gone wrong with contemporary poetry, I often find myself in agreement; although I may not always agree on the historical choices that led to the current situation, nor with his proposed remedies. We share a concern with where poetry may have gone off the rails, even if we don't always agree on how to restore it to life.
The basic premise of Standing By Words is encapsulated by a quote from the book itself:
My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps one hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.
Berry makes the connection between the debasement of artistic language and the debasement of general language usage, from broadcasting to the political sphere, where the loss is particularly toxic. Politicians who one day say one thing, the next day say something opposite and deny that they ever said what they said before—in other words, blatant unabashed lying—are prominent and obvious more so than ever. The obfuscation of clarity that is the essence of bureaucratic writing has led to deliberate misuse of language. If you don't feel you can trust people in positions of authority to tell you the truth anymore, you are not alone. Berry is not making causative connections here; rather he believes that both artistic and general language have become debased from the same root causes, which are inherent to and reflected by the Modernist enterprise: social fragmentation, the loss of moral center in culture, the sense of uncertainty about what really matters in life that began with the Industrial Revolution and reached a peak of global insecurity in the 20th C.
None of this is strictly necessary. We have taken fragmentation and disconnection and disjunction and existential angst to be the norm. In fact, Berry argues, they're relatively new phenomena, and are connected with the changes in culture that began during the beginning of the radical changes in technical craft, when the agrarian norm morphed into the new urban industrial norm. With the rise of the Romantic period in the arts, there also arose the romantic myth of the solitary, suffering Artist. (Starving Artist, Lone Misunderstood Sensitive Artist, and all the other variations on the theme of Artist-as-Other.)
In the essay "The Specialization of Poetry," Berry writes:
History certainly offers examples of unhappy or obsessed or mad poets, but it offers more examples of poets who sang or wrote in the exuberance of sanity, health, wholeness of spirit. One instantly credits Ann Sexton's statement that "Pain engraves a deeper memory," not because one believes it invariably does, but because one senses, in the modesty and brevity of the sentence, the probability that it sometimes does. . . . One is simply aware of too much joyous poetry that has been the gift of the Muse, who apparently leaves the ratio of pain and joy to be determined by the poet. To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come too close to desiring and cultivating pain. There is, I believe, some currency to the assumption that a fragmented, diseased people can make a whole and healthy art out of their fragmentation and disease. It has not yet been done.
This is a refusal to accept that all artists make art primarily from their wounds, which is one of the most toxic myths about creativity ever. It can be laid squarely at the feet of the Romantic period, wherein the suffering genius artists was first given us as a stereotype. Yet art that endures isn't the art of pain and suffering, it's the art that exalts. Pain is not ignored, nor denied, but it isn't the end-point. There is transcendence.
The danger may not be so much in the overcultivation of sensibility as in its exclusive cultivation. Sensibility becomes the inescapable stock in trade of the isolated poet, who is increasingly cut off from song and story because the nature of these is communal. And isolation, or the sense of isolation, is moving much of our poetry toward the tone, rhythm, and structure of what Mark Strand calls "not overly excited discourse." This is what Denise Levertov calls "an unexampled production of notations: poems which tell of things seen or done, but . . . do not impart a sense of the experience of seeing or doing, or of the value of such experience. . . ." The union of overcultivated sensibility and undercultivated verse cannot produce song. It produces—not prose—but the prosaic, unessential prose. The art does not press hard enough against experience.
Human life is a full range of sensibilities, a full range of experience, of emotion, of the creation of memory. To stay in one mode—fragmentation, disconnection, disjunction, expressing as it all too often does urban angst and Modernist disassociation—is to neglect all the others. To write poems in only one mode means incompleteness. What Levertov is talking about is the same thing that Adrienne Rich talked about: rather than being something written about an experience, a poem should be an experience. When art doesn't press hard enough against experience it becomes virtual, itself disconnected, and doesn't recreate an experience in the reader, it just tells us about one.
Song is natural; we have it common with animals. For humans, it is also artificial and traditional; it has to be made by someone who knows how to make it and sung to someone who will recognize it as song. Rhythm, fundamental to it, is its profoundest reference. The rhythm of a song or a poem rises, no doubt, in reference to the pulse and breath of the poet, as is often repeated, but that is still too specialized an accountingl it rises also in reference to daily and seasonal—and surely even longer—rhythms in the life of the poet and in the life that surrounds him. The rhythm of a poem resonates with these larger rhythms that surround it; it fills its environment with sympathetic vibrations. Rhyme, which is a function of rhythm, may suggest this sort of resonance; it marks the coincidences of smaller structures with larger ones, as when the day, the month, and the year all end at the same moment. Song, then, is a force opposed to specialty and to isolation. It is the testimony of the singer's inescapable relation to the world, to the human community, and also to tradition.
Obviously I would appreciate any musical definition of poetry. (Even though I have at times questioned the many, many times that poets look to music for their definitions and terminology of discourse—not because I think that's wrong in any way, but because it soundly refutes the arguments that some poets make that claim poetry to be a "higher," more abstract artform than music. If poetry is actually more abstract than music, why do you need music's language to discuss poetry? Which becomes the more fundamental artform, then?) Obviously I am likely to agree that poetry needs to have both song and meaning. Well, I do mostly agree.
At a basic level, the entire cosmos is singing: every atom in the universe is vibrating, and according to M-theory even the subatomic particles that make up atoms are vibrating strings of matter/energy. The tiniest level of resolution of scale in the Universe, the smallest particles on the smallest level, are not a void but rather a dancing foam.
Everything in the Universe is vibration: this has been said not only by theoretical physicists but by seers in every religious tradition. The universe is frozen music: what we perceive as solid matter is in fact just slower-moving energy, but everything is still vibrating. Song is the basic organizing principle of the Universe: "in the beginning was the Word. . . ."
Where i do not agree with Berry is his implication that rhyme is therefore fundamental to poetry, because it shares its nature with rhythm. Rhythm, in poetry, is usually called meter. (Again, we're stuck in terms borrowed from music theory.) It can indeed be argued that rhyme, in some conceptual or literal form, is essential to poetry. It can be just as easily argued that poetry is not limited to requiring rhyme, especially where that usage is superficial and literal, blatant and clichéd: you do not create new music only by imitating old music, despite a reverence for tradition. It can be argued that music is organized sounds in time—and that definition can also apply to poetry—without requiring any other aspect of sound that we commonly associate with music. Tradition is defined by cultural expectations of normative forms. But cultural expectations are local, and both musical and poetic traditions vary widely across the breadth of the planet, and over time. The breaking of normative forms to discover or invent new ones is inherent to the creation of new art. Traditions are not static; they never were. Every tradition was once an invention; it is only time that makes it seem to have been always, eternally existent.
Actually, I agree with Berry that poetry that functions purely on the sounds of language, ignoring what that language refers to, to be mostly meaningless. I like pure sounds, I even like language as pure sound, and I've composed music that uses words as its constituent sonic components. But poetry on the page that is purely language-oriented poetry is sensibility rather than sense, to use Berry's own terms. It is exactly the kind of poetry that he finds lacks song and story. On this we agree.
But even more suggestive of the specialization of contemporary poets is their estrangement from storytelling. Typically, one can find this debility cited as a virtue and a goal.
I agree with that, but Berry goes on to a long discussion of narrative, particularly the loss of narrative used in poetry over the past century. This is where Berry sometimes gets a bit reactionary for my taste. In lauding tradition, he sometimes tramples on innovation. He is right to point out that the new does not have to replace the old, but can coexist alongside:
Why is it necessary for poets to believe, like salesmen, that the new inevitably must replace or destroy the old? Why cannot poetry renew itself and advance into new circumstance by adding the new to the old? Why cannot the critical faculty, in poets and critics alike, undertake to see that the best of the new is grafted to the best of the old? Free verse, for instance, is a diminishment of the competence of poetry if it is seen as replacing traditional prosody; it is an enlargement only if it is conceived as an addition. Freedom from narrative is a diminishment—it is not even a freedom—unless it is included with the capability of narrative among the live possibilities of poetry.
This is a plea to not throw the old out in favor of the new. I agree with that, yet at the same time I don't privilege tradition over innovation. I don't reject the new in favor of the old. I think there is room for both, and innovation does indeed add to the tradition. It doesn't have to replace it.
But this is where Berry gets interesting, for me. I have written before about the re-enchantment of poetry, of art, about bringing the soul back into work that often seems too dry, too intellectual, too disconnected from anything but the idea of the body, rather than body itself.
. . . our malaise, both in our art and in our lives, is that we have lost sight of the possibility of right or responsible action. Publicly, we have delegated our capacity to act to men who are capable of action only because they cannot think. Privately, as in much of our poetry, we communicate by ironic or cynical allusions to that debased tale of futility, victimization, and defeat, which we seem to have elected to be our story. The prevailing tendency, in poetry and out, is to see people not as actors, but as sufferers. . . . To how great an extent is modern poetry the record of highly refined sensibilities that could think or feel but not do? And must not this passiveness of the poetic sensibility force its withdrawal into the world of words where, for want of sustenance of action, it becomes despondent and self-destructive? . . .
In the last ten years there has been a reaction against this passivity. But for the most part this has produced only protest, which is either a gesture and not an action at all, or a negative action that either repudiates or opposes. The shallowness of protest is in this negativity; it is also in the short-winded righteousness by which it condemns evils for which it accepts no responsibility. In itself, protest implies no discipline and no correction. . . . That we have no poets who are, in that sense, public persons suggests even more forcibly the weakness of our poetry of protest. In his protest, the contemporary poet is speaking publicly, but not as a spokesman; he is only one outraged citizen speaking at other citizens who do not know him, whom he does not know, and with whom he does not sympathize. The tone of self-righteousness is one result of this circumstance.
The vast majority of contemporary poets never seem to even think about any of this, except perhaps to avoid discussing it. Sincerity is far less fashionable than irony and cynicism. Actually having something to say seems far less interesting to many than the fact that they want to express themselves about something, anything. One sign of the times is the retreat into narcissism, which leads us towards the self-absorbed self-confessional lyric. Another sign is the focus on technique over subject, which leads us to the word-games and puzzle-box crowd. Yet another sign is the (frankly neo-conservative) reactionary attitude of the neo-formalists, which is largely an attempt to simply roll back the clock of artistic progress, no matter what rhetoric they use to veil their purpose.
Berry's response is not to ally himself with the neo-formalists, despite his reverence for tradition, because he does not restrict himself as a poet so obviously. Rather, his response is flexible in form, fluid in approach, if essentially non-Modernist. Berry's poetry and attitude occasionally reminds me of Robinson Jeffers, in that both seek (or sought) a poetry for modern times that is not self-consciously Modernist, and do not believe that fragmentation and disjunction are necessary or sufficient. There is also an affinity in Berry's work for the pastoral tradition—which seems obvious, given Berry's agrarian roots, yet I don't hear it stated that way very often—leading back to the English pastoral poets, but also encompassing contemporary poets like Gary Snyder, William Everson, and Linda Hasselstrom. Poets who extend the oldest human values of all.
Elsewhere in Standing By Words, Berry speaks positively of Gary Snyder, who is one of the few poets who do succeed in making a new poetry rooted in the very old; Snyder has openly stated that his values are not Modernist, but Paleolithic, encompassing ecology, myth, bioregionalism, and human partnership with the land. (Which is one reason Snyder is one of my own touchstones as a poet.)
What Berry is describing in the passage above are the conditions of artistic mannerism, which I have also discussed before: the retreat from engagement with the world, and the simultaneous focus on the small and inward.
I think there's a hunger for the poetry that Berry describes. I see this partly in the revival of interest around poets engaged with the world, with social issues as well as ecological ones. Snyder has already been mentioned. But the revival of the reputation of Robinson Jeffers reflects this trend, as does the growing revival of interest in Jeffers' disciple William Everson. Hayden Carruth is another. On the same page as Snyder, with his interest in and promotion of deep ecological values and the relevance of Paleolithic myths and values to modern life, is Clayton Eshleman. There are others.
Despite the cynicism of many of the louder voices in contemporary poetry—one notices that this cynicism is often simultaneous with urbanism and the view that humanity is more interesting than anything else in the world—there is a growing re-enchantment with the older values found in the land. Wendell Berry speaks most elegantly of this. His ideas are well worth our discussion, even if at times his ideas seem reactionary rather than revolutionary. I have tremendous respect for him as a person, and a writer. I find myself enjoying his writing style so much that he can almost talk me into agreeing with him even in those areas where I don't. The world is more alive when he describes it. That too is a kind of re-enchantment, a valuable one.