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Friday, May 22, 2020

Time for another poem I wrote a while back

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 motorcyclists. 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. Some poets 
continue to use language more 
formal than that of every day 
conversation, more lyrical, avoiding 
vulgarity. Some would never use the 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 undull poetry can be written in 
all of these modes. 

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 Romantic 
baggage he didn’t need anymore. 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, so any 
conception of poetry that cuts 
off any part of that 
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 makes you feel like
the top of your head has been taken off,
or was it the back? 
If you have heard me 
criticize poets who I think put forward 
this limitation of the imagination as their 
main agenda, 
I won’t apologize. They are like those harsh 
music teachers
whose agenda is to prevent children
without talent from playing 
music by discouraging them
when they are still young. Everyone 
should play music or sing, in my 
opinion. Koch thought that they 
should be strangled, in a 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 a 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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