Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation

I recently published (posted) a poem that was radical in several ways, not least of which was that it was in a style and "voice" new to me. I myself was surprised by it. Having been through a series of life-changing experiences lately, a lot of the poetry I am writing now is unlike any I've ever done before; it's brand new territory, even to me. I don't claim it's any good, but it is where I am going these days, and I've never seen the like. (I'm sure there must be precursors, although exactly who and what I do not know at the moment.) It is exploratory poetry, unusual, experimental in form and style, often hard to tell where the line (if there is one) between prose and poetry falls, and occasionally uses very non-standard syntax, grammar, and form.

I posted the poem, and it was almost immediately viciously attacked. Not for any issues of content, but primarily because it was in a style and form of writing that was objected to because it didn't fit certain modes of writing familiar to all, that the attacker questioned because it "hard to read."

The objection was essentially a moral one—I will venture that any time anyone uses the word "should" in critical writing about literature, they are essentially moralizing. The objection was, why would I choose to use long unpunctuated lines when standard punctuation and syntax could be used? and why would I "make it hard on the reader" by doing so? Why make the reader "work harder than they need to"? Why not rewrite the poem in a more conventional style, with more conventional punctuation, line-breaks, and grammar? In other words I should completely re-write the poem in a more "acceptable" style; in fact, why didn't I do so to being with.

The objection was raised that sticking to normative orthographic conventions makes it easier on the reader, and the poem is difficult enough as it is. I find this particular objection doubly laughable. I think I can safely say I've internalized the rules of grammar, syntax, and orthography rather well by now—having been at various times in my career a professional proofreader, typographer, book and magazine designer, and almost every other job in the print-publishing industry since the invention of desktop publishing, and before. (In fact, I started with lead type, graduated to film, and got in on DTP before it even went public, nationally.) So, when I choose to break "the rules," you can generally assume it's intentional, and thought out.

The objection was then raised that such an orthographically-challenging poem (the objection was misunderstanding the fundamental difference between orthography and typography) would never get published in any of the mainstream, well-known poetry venues, either the print journals, or the larger online journals. To which my reply was: Why would I want to? Fame and fortune all hardly the poet's lot, no matter where they publish. Doesn't it, rather, make more sense to write what you want to write, then go looking for a good home for the poem? The decision to write to please others, or to tailor what one writes in order to match up with what has previously been published in a particular venue has always seemed to me to be rank pandering, and exactly the wrong reason to write—in poetry; in essay, or in commissioned occasional pieces, matters are different, of course.

What I am is someone who writes what they write, not because of any ideological or intellectual driving force (no manifesto required), not because it's something that I planned or set out to write with the intention of using an experimental style to really piss off the reader, but simply because when I write it sometimes comes out that way. I write to discover as much as to express. Of course, I've long since given up caring that many poets never believe me when I say things like what I am about to say; I gather that it's so far outside their own experience that they can't imagine it. But here's the truth: I never plan a poem. I never plan a poem with an intention to say something. I never set out with an outline or argument clear in mind, or jotted down in notes. I never build a poem like an engineering project—which is one reason I rarely use established forms, but tend to invent anew with each poem. I don't write poems from the head alone. What I do is listen to those inner voices, where creativity emerges, inside, and pay attention to what comes forward. Not everything I write in a poem is a conscious choice. I don't set out to "control" every aspect of the poem, nor would I want to. You don't have to believe me.

Frankly, if I seem to over-state the case for adventure, unconformity, and experimentation in poetry, it's usually an attempt to balance out a huge dearth of all those things in the poetry I am reading, almost everywhere. Most poetry is conformist, even when it doesn't want to be. Most poetry is overly planned out in advance.

I write to discover, and sometimes that means surprising myself, too. Cocteau once said a very wise thing about this: We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar. His point was that, regardless of any ideology or preference we might hold, or what we might believe about our own work, this is simply a psychological truth. Something really new can be as disconcerting to the writer as it might be to any hypothetical reader.

I am not particularly enamored of the avant-garde for its own sake. I do not seek to write to deliberately challenge the reader. I despise puzzle-box poetry, that must be "solved" as if it were a math problem. I have no use for poetry that seems to be obscure just for the sake of being obscure. My intention is not to offend, challenge, or deny the reader access to the poem. If that happens, however, I am not likely to do anything about it: you can't please all of the people all of the time, not even if you write lame pandering doggerel.

I reject ideology driving poetry. Period.

Ideology of any kind, conservative or progressive, avant-garde or reactionary, tame or "experimental."

I am in fact. if you've been paying attention, very critical of much contemporary avant-garde "postmodern poetics," such as Language Poetry—I find most of that, along with the poetry of John Ashbery and Jorie Graham and their ilk, to be vapid and superficial. (I've been working on a long critical essay about LangPo for awhile now; more on that later.) It's like mediocre Chinese takeout: tasty, but you're hungry again in an hour. I am the last person to be taken in by newness for newness' sake—neither am I taken in by form for form's sake, or tradition for tradition's sake, or radicalness for radicalness' sake. They all have their place, and their value. The problem is when any such position ossifies into an ideology or philosophical vice.

It is fair to say, however, that I am generally an aesthetically forward-looking artist, who usually prefers to look at the future rather than the past; on the other hand, since the past has a huge influence on what will become the future, I also read a lot of history, art history, and the history of ideas. I particularly enjoy reading the history of technology, and the history of the arts.

What I am enamored of is quality writing, in whatever genre, style, or content that I find. Period. What I am not is a cheerleader for any given ideology, methodology, practice, or style. All kinds and styles of poetry have merit, and all of them also suck. Great poetry can be found everywhere, and so can bad. Period. That the bad always outnumbers the good is so obvious it hardly needs to be re-stated.

Returning to experimentation, orthography, and so forth, perhaps using a more standard orthography would disrupt the run-on flow of the poem in question, which is one way to represent stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps a century or so of experimentation in non-standard orthography in order to more accurately represent, in typeset text, different states of consciousness was all a mistake, and should all be thrown away? Or perhaps those new developments in orthography should be embraced as possible tools for writing

I'm not saying that all things written in non-standard orthography are good—but then, most sonnets suck, too.

Tools are tools. For this poem in question, this radical style seemed best—truthfully, it just came out that way, and I chose not to change that aspect of its style during revision. Since I strongly believe that the form and style of a text should support, present, enhance, and create a transparent container for the text, I chose this form and style to match the content, in this piece. I make no claims that this was a great poem; it probably will never see the light of day outside of a small circle. But I also made no claims that I desired this poem to be seen outside that circle.

Personally, I don't find it laborious to read unpunctuated text. Then again, I have practice and experience in reading such texts, since I've read a great deal of the avant-garde literature of the past century or so. I also read a lot of other poetry, too. I also write poems in a lot of other styles, too.

As for the pressures of making the reader work a little harder (or just a little harder than he or she might want to, at the moment), I have no problem with "difficult" poetry. Most poets don't, it seems to me—except when they complain about poems in styles they find radically incomprehensible.

Which again seems to be a moral objection rather than a technical or thematic one. I agree that bad orthography can be an impediment to the comprehension of a poem. But what I call "bad" orthography usually refers to a lack of proofreading, bad font choice, or thoughtless layout. (Exemplified by virtually the entirety, which has singlehandedly set back visual and type design a good thirty years.) Or, perhaps, I am not challenged by "difficult" orthography to the level that some are, because I have read a great deal more non-mainstream writing than most formalist or mainstream poets do. Or perhaps because I've done a lot of typesetting, and can read most texts even upside-down. The result of long practice, in other words.

But let's get to the moralizing:

it is difficult to disbelieve that the objections that were raised to my provocative, radical poem were raised about the poem's very existence. The attack carried an overt, perhaps unforgivable, tone of righteousness. It did come, after all, from a neo-formalist. Surprised? No, I wasn't either, really.

You have the right to say my poetry sucks. You might even have the right to say that any poem sucks simply because it's hard to read. But you don't have the right to assume that your personal orthographic values are inherently "good," which was the implication, even if they are time-tested and traditional. Being in a large group of people who share the same opinions doesn't guarantee that those opinions are correct, or even useful; that's simply arguing for conformism at its mindless lowest common denominator. I shouldn't even have to mention how mob rule usually ends in tragedy.

Labels: ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd love to see this poem!

this is the problem I have
with most poetry/worshop forums/sites
there are always somefolks there
who will rewrite your poem
to their specifications
"you're title SHOULD be . . . "
and they all tend to be
mediocre writers themselves!


8:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Some of them are actually good writers, though. In which case, I tend to find them blinkered in their attitudes more in their ability. There are actually a few poets I have met out there, who I would call neo-formalists, who are very good poets. Where the problem comes in is when they moralize about what poetry should be—jsut as you say.

There can also be a serious problem about cliquishness when you find a board that's dominated by formalists, and you write like I do. LOL It's a bad fit. On the other hand, there are many more boards to go play on.

11:56 AM  
Blogger S. Kearney said...

That was a great last line, Art. I like poems that come out of the compost heap, dependent on the variety of what's been stacked on top ... or not. How boring if they all followed the same course. I would also love to read that poem.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Seamus—

Thanks! The poem itself may be found here, titled Kenosis.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the unpunctuated flow
suits it perfectly

I really like this, Art!


7:51 AM  
Blogger S. Kearney said...

A very satisfying read, Art. Alice Notley came to mind when I read this one ... no grammar, phrases packed on one line, some with verbs, some without. I like her poems a lot for their space and lack of restraint. I find your poems here have that same feeling.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting poem. I agree with your tenets on moralizing. I find the unpunctuated style difficult to read, but I can work through it. I don't mind poetry that makes me think outside the box. In my mind, that's what poetry is supposed to do. I am much better with such poems when I know the author employed such devices purposefully rather than merely by accident. Thanks for explaining your thought behind it.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Unfortunately, we don't always get to know what the writer was doing, or intended, or their level of intention. Sometimes they tell us, usually they don't. I get caught on that a lot, because my poems get labeled as experimental, but people don't know that what I do is intentional. How could they? They don't know me.

On top of which, a poem, if it is its own universe, must fail or succeed on its own. If it requires footnotes, or an explanation, or an identity check, it probably hasn't succeeded as a poem.

On the other hand, lots of poets out there reject the prose-poem out of hand, which I do not. I like the ambiguity, the uncertainty of form, the mystery of it.

10:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home