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When students only have read a few poems, in exclusively academic contexts, they often approach poetry with what the li...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I am very sick today so came up with a manifesto of what is really important to me:

1. Nobody knows what poetry is for. I think it is for something of great importance; that it is not trivial. The best formulation I've come up with is that it is supposed to "kick you in the ass with its transformative power." The motto for my other blog was: ""The very existence of poetry should make us laugh. What is it all about? What is it for?" (Kenneth Koch). Another formulation would be just as good as mine, but I won't budge on the idea that it is something transcendent. Koch's aphorism allows us to fill in the blanks.

2. It follows that the reading of poetry is a spiritual exercise. For me, what poetry is about is the experience of awe. I only really care about poetry, or music, or art, that offers this sense of wonder about being alive in the first place. If you've never felt this reading a poem then you need to read someone else's blog and leave me alone.

3. This should simplify things, but it doesn't, because mystic poetry might not do this. Or other poetry, that is not mystic, might lead this way as well. Even a poetry that seems to set itself off from awe might lead there anyway. There are no road maps, no system of correspondences that allow for the "translation" to occur. You still have to learn about poetry in all the conventional ways, even in the ways that are clearly idiotic but that others have found useful.

4. A lot of things that we think are important about poetry, though, might not be. The things that make a poem acceptable according to an institutional requirement; the arguments that academics might want to make about a poetic practice in relation to other social formations. These things might be important, or not, but we can tell if they are important by whether they have to do with the purpose we think poetry has.

5. All the prosody, the style, everything to do with the language of the poem, is part of the awesomeness of poetry; it is not unimportant. But we can care about it in unimportant ways if we give it the wrong emphasis. The awe of poetry comes from the poetry itself, not from its awesome subject matter.

6. There are poets who write poems, and have a decent, acceptable, style, but don't seem connected at all to anything related to the awesomeness of poetry. There are critics who make nice arguments about which poetry belongs in which category. I have done that myself. A lot of this has nothing to do with poetry and can be safely ignored.

7. The style of the poem is really a weakness: I mean the grab-bag of things that the poet knows how to do, and depends on to get through the writing of the poem. A good poet should be able to write without a style at all, responding to the situation without using anything used before. This is not possible, of course, but it is desirable. We wouldn't need poetry set off from anything else if this were happening more. We would still need a word to point to the poem and say: "this is it."


Thomas said...

Isn't the wonder of poetry that transcendence can be achieved with such meagre means? Just some marks on a piece of paper, after all. To me, the ass-kicking is always the moment of apperception, when I'm forced to see myself. In general, I think a poem is a piece of writing that occasions such experiences. A poem reveals the reader as a person (in lyric poetry) and as a people (in epic poetry). And Koch is right, of course: it has to make you laugh.

Hope you're feeling better.

Leslie said...


Dulce hogar sin estilo, fabricado
de un solo golpe y de una sola pieza
de cera tornasol. Y en el hogar
ella daña y arregla; a veces dice:
«El hospicio es bonito; aquí no más!»
¡Y otras veces se pone a llorar!