Odd Words August 12, 2010Posted by Mark Folse in Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
Is poetry relevant? Is poetry dying or already dead? Or is it simply boring? That’s the question that started this train of thought, a blog post by Elisa Gabbert on The French Exit. Which leads me to ask: do we really have to have this conversation again? I mean, what about them Saints and is Tommy’s food really as good as Irene’s if he once cooked for her? Who wants another beer or glass of wine?
I always tested with a high aptitude for math and attended summer school between 8th and 9th grade to cram algebra so as to set me on the path toward calculus, the Grand Theory and Everything, a mountain I managed to slide down pretty quickly back into plain old if a train leaves at six math class. I only excelled in the class where our good Christian Brother teacher would frequently over or under dose himself on insulin and nod off, allowing us to make all tests open book.
I fell off the path to math stardom because math is boring. Don’t stop reading and go straight to the comments to correct me and tell me how Sister Mary Fibonacci changed your life and you were the first woman engineer hired by NASA or to reach full professor at Berkley or MIT. We are discussing matters of taste and proclivity, about and presentation, and context. Math may be no more boring for you than I discovered Symbolic Calculus to be in college. Logic without numbers was fascinating.
We are talking, however, about poetry, so don’t encourage my tendency to get off topic. I could spend 20 minutes on Google and present you a full menu of references on the topics of “ss poetry dead?”, “is poetry irrelevant” or “does poetry matter”? We’ve gone a long way from The Beats 1959 cover of Life magazine to a 2003 article in Newsweek announcing the details of poetry’s wake and internment. If you’re reading this far, you may disagree with these routine assessments.
Some of this is simply boil over from the amount of confessional poetry we’ve all read because there’s so damn much of it in the late 20th century list. Navel gazing angst, however well reasoned, is not original enough to advance you in the department or even to make much difference to people who would stop to read such thoughts. It can get, at times, pretty boring. Another problem is the tendency of some poetry to be intentionally obtuse and difficult, to structure itself in ways that grammatically and sometimes typographically resemble the sort of Odd formulae you can find by Googling “famous math problems” trying to remember trying to remember the name Fibonacci.
I read a fair amount of poetry, some of which is boring to me, because I want to understand what made it seem sensible to some publisher to put out a $25 hardback edition of a 120 page book or why a university would award it a prize. Like mathematics (or car mechanics or diagnosing computer problems, the last of which I did for a living for quite a few years) the challenge is to take it apart and understand what makes it tick.
If you read enough poetry, you will run across enough that takes the first instruction (“Sing, Goddess”) and with a one, and a two and a three takes you away to that place in the brain and soul where that other impractical art–music–tingles the spine and tightens the skin in ways simple evolution did not intend or at least did not require. No sonnet or saxophone solo ever put a wildebeest on the spit to feed the woman and children, but somewhere along the way we developed other needs as primal is food or sex.
I think poetry suffers, at least in part, from a bad image. Consider rap and hip-hop: even the nastiest gansta misogyny and murder stands clearly in the fish bone diagram of the history of poetry and the people writing this stuff are as famous as Whitman and Frost were once, are raking in the millions. I’m not suggesting you start referring to your colleagues down the hall as ho’s or wearing swaggering gold chains. Just that you consider that there are people listening to the words as much as they did in the days when Bob Dylan (or Dylan Thomas, for that matter) could claim radio air time.
Traditional poetry: the scene of readings and chapbooks, and the lucky bastards who have the time to put together a manuscript and get it noticed, is what is dying of boring irrelevance. And it need not, should not be. Some people lament that the world of Twitter and Facebook is sapping our attention span, making literature (or even the basic act of reading) difficult. Perhaps that is true to some extent. Many of us are never free from our social networks or, via our Blackberries, entirely untethered from work. I have two wonderful novels on my bedside I am trying to work through but I am struggling to find the time and attention they deserve. I don’t think I’ve rewired myself to make myself incapable of finishing Robert Coover’s amazing John’s Wife or to get through a critical read of Richard Katrova’s Mystic Pig for a “last book I loved” piece to submit to the Rumpus. Mostly is a matter of time. Between a soul sucking job that pays the mortgage that houses the family so that there are televisions everywhere and all the other appliances of modern life, I don’t have the time.
I do, however, manage to make time for poetry. It’s much easier to give serious attention to one or two on lunch break, or in the small windows of time between dinner, the bills and bedtime.
Consider this: for people who use those tools for purposes other than selecting tonight’s sushi restaurant, these media are also training our brains to look for satisfaction in the condensed. I think in a world where Facebook, SMS and Twitter intersect the explosive growth of Soduko there is place for poetry, or at least certain styles of poetry. There is so much kinetic energy in the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa or John Berryman, masters of taking simple English and charging the page with the crackling energy of a Tezla coil, each poem a wonderful puzzle for those who rip their newspapers open to tear into the crossword or Soduko page.
And there is probably a place for poetry that is not so much puzzle as the simple pleasure of a clever painting, an ordering of the universe in a constrained place that lights the pleasure centers like a line of coke. My idols Everette Maddox and Charles Bukowski come to mind. Much of their writing is incredibly accessible and yet has the ability to convey tremendous emotional complexity in a simple twist of irony or humor. Even the sometimes surreal shorter poems of Federico Garcia Lorca can be deceptive simple and powerful at once, making them at once accessible and at the same time great poetry.
William Carlos Williams also comes quickly to mind, back from a time when poetry was published in the columns of popular magazines outside of the New Yorker. My own writing tends toward the simple rather than the intentionally complex and my goal is simply to shake your tree once or twice until all the lights come on, and I admire writers who can do this. Poetry must speak not just to the reading scene regulars, buy-the-feature’s-book crowd but should speak–as Whitman would have us do–to that mythical Everyman (and woman).
I think if poetry wants to succeed and reclaim some space in the newspapers and public consciousness of literate America we all need to back away from the procryptic mimicry of M.F.A poetry, the sense of the difficult and formulaic I get when I fall behind on Poetry Daily and find myself catching up two weeks in Google Reader in one sitting. I just read the book of someone whose work I absolutely fell in love with when the author visited New Orleans and I purchased her first book. The new volume, however–the product of a major university prize and published in hardcover at $25 bucks by a major house–simply didn’t delight me in the way the first small press paperback did. Don’t get me wrong; its a wonderful book and I marvel at it the way I once did electrical schematics as a young boy, the intricate mapping I had trained myself to read and could wonder over for hours at how that careful draftsmanship represented a transistor radio. What the author’s second book did not accomplish was to invoke that sense of wonder you experience when you plug in the Christmas tree or at the first burst of fireworks. If poetry doesn’t want to be boring and irrelevant, it needs to recapture that.
Writers need to step back from what is ultimately the academic impulse to write for the seminar audience and peer-approved publication, to learn to listen like good story tellers to the voices at the bus stop and at the coffee pot for the line that sizzles and burns like a fuse and leads ultimately to that explosion in the brain that that can’t be contained by its casing. That doesn’t mean you won’t go back and revise, or reject some of your first impulses. I love Kerouac but struggle through some things. First thought, best thought is sometimes worthwhile but not a mathematical axiom. I only suggest that you start from the awen, the possession by the impulse to write whatever the trigger, and that you take as your model not the last book you read or seminar you attend but the millions of turns of phrase your mind has been storing away your entire life, that you work from the primitive impulse to build what you need from the materials at hand, the same impulse that allowed us the leisure our other primate cousins never managed, to sit around a fire under some simple shelter with full bellies and tell stories and sing songs.
If poetry (and literary fiction for that matter) were to consider these simple suggestions its irrelevance or whatever today’s worrisome word for it is us could be reversed. Whether your prefer the New York Times Sunday Crossword or the simpler pleasures of a well written song lyric, I think there is room between the Sokudo box and the crossword puzzle for a poem, that the colonization of places like Facebook by small (and often online-only) journals offer an opportunity to lure back an audience with work that stops you with its unexpected turn of phrase and makes you read it again trying to trap the magician in his trick, or simply for the same reason men turn to watch an attractive woman receding down the street.
§ Not much going on this week in the August heat, but the Maple Leaf features Poet Dennis Formento reading from his work backed by jazz musicians, followed by an open mike.
§ Since it’s a bit slow and I’m distracted by the very early hour of the morning and the sond et lumiere show of the tropical storm that wasn’t outside, we’ll pull a reverse Peabody and climb into the way forward machine and remind you of the book launch of A Howling in the Wires on Thursday, Aug. 26 at Mimi’s in the Marigny, a not entirely self serving thing to do since all net proceeds go to Hana Morris, widow of one of the contributors and mother of their three young children. Yes, if you don’t rush to our website now to pre-order your copy that guilt is just going to gnaw at you all day.
§ Dave Brinks and Megan Burns are keeping 17 Poets! dark for our book launch (bless ‘em) but planning a big celebration of the fifth year of our recovery Sunday, Aug 29 at 5 pm at the Goldmine Saloon, called the All-Hands-On-Deck Poetry, Art, and Music Fundraiser. Featuring music by Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr and the Zydeco Twisters , poetry, multi-media performances and a silent auction including work by George Rodrigue. All Proceeds will benefit the nonprofit: Protectourcoastline.org $15.00 Donation at Door
I’m going back out to watch the street fill by lightning flash. Try not to get your book wet, because with any luck when you get to work all the computers will be fried but the lobby coffee shop will miraculously have power. One can only hope.