I was thinking about poetry for lack of anything else to do a matter which is almost always a mistake and I realized that I don’t like much of what’s passing for the art in today’s university writing programs. I am in no way remarkable for holding this view but what’s somewhat revealing is that I’ve arrived at the position over the past ten years. I didn’t feel this way two or three decades ago.
I have a suspicion about curmudgeonliness. People used to be branded over the hill at 30 and 50 is the new 30I’m told so perhaps my approbation about contemporary poetry is related to my age and my obvious irrelevance viz the youth culture.
But then again I have suspicions about easy thinking and I’m forced to reject the subjectivity of my age: I’m called to admit that I find poetry writing is mostly for shit in today’s university creative writing programs.
What has happened?
Two things are fairly certain: we have decadent new formalist poets who are teaching young poets to write even more decadent rhymie dimey stuff and we have decadent language qua language poets who are teaching students that poetry is entirely about language. Both groups rely on life support systems of their own making–theories of verse and theories of linguistic aesthetics–for indeed the professor poets have to pay their mortgages somehow.
For the sheer hell of it I’m now going to make up two examples of these respective modes. I am doing this ex cathedra and in true spontaneous fashion. Here’s the neo-formal poem as sanctioned by the academies:
Jesus in the Desert
However he got there, he was a darkling bird
Half man by turns, open to wind
As any wing though driven fast his word
Was no longer sure, the mind
Was there a fickle thing.
Blah blah blah.
Here’s the second major category:
Always the mirror stems
Culled from sand
They are the book.
I can scarcely go on. As you can see both these examples are without ardor. There’s nothing of the man or woman who was drawn to write words on a page and there’s nothing of human love or the instincts of or pertaining to love.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
For the sake of argument here are some opening lines by a Finnish poet, Turkka Suominen that I’ve translated into English, lines that have swing:
Columbus: what were you thinking?
I was the one who found India.
Odysseus: I’m the only one who got home.
There’s a human being there. She’s playing. In a few more seconds she’s going to riff on what its like to be a working class woman in a dark country. She’s going to write about sweeping other people’s floors. She’s going to fantasize about heaven. She is daring to be a singular loving chancey brash someone on a bleak day. And by the end of her poem she’ll be lighting a cigarette with a lover.
I need to feel the human price of language to call the thing a poem. Here are some lines from a first rate prose poem by Robert Bly entitled “Visiting Emily Dickinson’s Grave with Robert Francis”–the human price of their visit and the poet’s appreciation of the life that is inadequately memorialized by physical facts comes forward to us: .
Robert Francis has moved, since his stroke, into town,
and he takes me to the cemetery. A black iron fence
closes the graves in, its ovals delicate as wine stems. They
resemble those chapel windows on the main Aran island,
made narrow in the fourth century so that not too much
rain would drive in …. It is April, clear and dry. Curls of
grass rise around the nearby gravestones.
The Dickinson house is not far off. She arrived here
one day, at fifty-six, Robert says, carried over the lots
between by six Irish laboring men, when her brother
refused to trust her body to a carriage. The coffin was
darkened with violets and pine boughs, as she covered
the immense distance between the solid Dickinson
house and this plot…
The distance is immense, the distances through
which Satan and his helpers rose and fell, oh vast
areas, the distances between stars, between the first
time love is felt in the sleeves of the dress, and the
death of the person who was in that room…. the dis-
tancebetween the feet and head as you lie down, the
distance between the mother and father, through
which we pass reluctantly.
Though this is a prose poem the whole thing “swings” and we’re caught in the crazy Gnostic dance that is performed where sunlight meets the shadows. I could say more but I won’t because if you can’t see it you can’t afford it. Nor will I say who are the leaders of contemporary university sponsored decadence. I myself can’t afford it. Of course the more singular question is why our teaching poets are so afraid to write about any damned thing that relates to what they used to call depth psychology. My suspicion is that both the groups I’ve mentioned are all too convinced that human feeling is simply quaint. Feeling is the resort of uncomplicated people. That’s what they invariably say though the terms are disguised. If your writing expresses ardor then you’re not avant garde enough. That’s how its bruited about in the corridors of the MFA programs.
This is why I’m standing on the outside. Some of the best poetry that’s happening in the United States is located in neighborhood venues where the slams and hip hop are found. And of course wherever you have some proximity to the humbling matters of physical struggle or working class endurance, there you will find it.