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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Friday, July 29, 2016

An even worse poem

WHAT IS POETRY? JONATHAN’S THEORY

Poetry is a special language, elevated and
strange, rarefied, ethereal, exalted,
prophetic, visionary, different. Kenneth Koch
thought so, though his poetry is hilariously
funny, backing into that ecstatic language
rather than seeking it head-on.
Poetry is ceremonial, with a gravitas
suited to special occasions. Hermetic
and difficult to understand (though
Koch’s is not), archaic or suggestive
of archaic cultures. In short,
poetry has to be poetic.

That’s one theory. But Eliot’s
patient etherized on the table is un-
beautiful. Williams wanted the
speech of immigrant Polish mothers
in his poetry. Ginsberg wrote of being
fucked in the ass by saintly motorcylists. And
Frank O’Hara’s practiced a studied casualness in his
Lunch Poems, with the tone of an intimate diary
or conversation. Think too
of Jaime Gil de Biedma’s “words of the family, warmly worn out.”
Or Creeley: “As I sd to my friend because I am always talking,
John I sd which was not his name.” So modern
and contemporary poets
often seek the anti-poetic,
like Nicanor Parra’s anti-poems of course,
breaking down the barrier between
special uses of language and
ordinary, instrumental ones. The
barrier so important for Mallarmé, for example,
almost like the fourth wall in the theater, which
modern playwrights also tore down. The reason is that this
hermetic ideal ends up seeming somewhat
solipsistic and uninteresting in its own way, cutting poetry off
from a lot of things poets might care about, since
poets are human beings and not merely soulless artisans of
an arcane dialect. Poetic language understood
as Mallarmé did might even
cut them off from the ecstasy of
their own poetic vision. Some poets

continue to use language more
formal than that of every day
conversation, more lyrical, avoiding
vulgarity. Some would never use word vomit or can opener
in a poem, for example. Some use
a neutral vocabulary, free of both elevated and
colloquial registers, and some don’t seem
to care about language at all.
I don’t care for those poets, but who am I to say?
Dull or surprisingly good poetry can be written in
all of these modes. I know something about this
after thinking about it since 1971.

Still, simply breaking down the barrier
separating these special poetic languages
from other uses of language
doesn’t always work. Doesn’t poetry still
have to “charge language with meaning,”
as Pound said, in some way or another? So
everything anti-poetic or conversational, everything
vulgar is there in a poem
because of its poetic charge. Just think for a moment about
why Ginsberg’s motorcyclists are “saintly.” Koch sought
the ecstatic romantic tone of Shelley but
without symbolism and a lot of other
baggage he didn’t need anyore. We all know idiots
who think a Frank O’Hara poem is easy to write, or that
all poetry should be accessible to everyone.

Really, the enemy is not one particular
kind of poetry or the other, but
dullness. Poetry is the supreme exercise
of the human intelligence and imagination, not
a minor genre of "literature"
about the poet's personal feelings, so any
conception of poetry that cuts
off any part of this
from consideration is vile. I once wrote
that it should kick you in the ass
with its transformative power,
and I meant it. Of course Emily Dickinson said
it should make you feel like
the back of your head was taken off
and I believe that. Koch said "the very
existence of poetry should make you laugh, what is
it all about, what is it all for?"
Think about that for a while. This is not the
cheap laughter of dismissing something, but
the ecstatic laughter of wondering why anything
exists at all, the awe of being alive.
That is what poetry is about.

If you have heard me
criticize poets who I think put forward
this deliberate limitation of imagination or intelligence as their agenda,
I won’t apologize. They are like those music teachers
whose real agenda is to stop children
from playing music
because they are not talented enough. Koch thought
that they should be strangled,
in poem called “Fresh Air.”
There is enough violence in the world
so let’s just say their punishment
should be having to read their own poetry
aloud to each other
for years
in the dreaded sing-song “poet’s voice.” Poetry
can be as bad as you want it to, as I think
I’m demonstrating in these poems, but if it’s dull
or just sort of ok in a
lukewarm way, you should just
start again with a fresher
conception of everything
of which it might be capable.

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