Make It Memorable

  • Well, now I find myself debating both the current and former Vermont Poet Laureates.

In today’s Valley News Vermont’s former poet laureate, Sydney Lea, has come to the defense of Vermont’s current Poet Laureate, Chard deNiord. The latter half of Lea’s letter is of the Straw Man variety (which includes taking my high school opinion of contemporary poets out of context). He rhetorically asks, “if [Gillespie] means to stress current authors’ neglect of meter and rhyme…”, then proceeds to dismantle said rhetorical question. In fairness to Lea, the Upper Valley News stipulates that a letter to the editor be 350 words or less and its much easier, in such a short space, to dismantle ones own rhetorical question. To be clear: One can write memorable poetry without meter and rhyme and Mary Oliver, popular enough to support herself through her poetry, would be an example of that.

But far more interesting was Lea’s opening gambit, describing me as a Strafford Poet and “full disclosure”, he writes, “self-published”. To be honest, I’m not sure how to take that. Why does it matter? Evidently, the heat of Lea’s disclosure couldn’t so much as wait for the letter’s first verb. I too am left with rhetorical questions. Does he mean to imply that a person shouldn’t be taken seriously unless he has been approved by peers, academia, and select editors?

Was Lea’s observation a little ad hominem ice-breaker to warm up the conversation? I mean, why else mention it?

Interestingly, as of May 7th, 2016, there were 76.5 million WordPress blogs. 26% of all websites, globally, use WordPress. Further, there have been 2.5 billion posts. Of those 2.5 billion posts, fully 2.5 billion were self-published. And of that 2.5 billion some percentage is poetry. Even 1 percent is significant. My own blog, PoemShape, is a WordPress blog. I personally follow several dozen sites with “self-published” poetry, opinion and editorials. There’s some fabulous poetry out there that’s never seen the light of an editor’s desk.

But weren’t we just talking about contemporary poetry’s “neglect”, or was it “irrelevance”? Has Lea noticed that the Dartmouth Bookstore’s poetry selection, serving a college town no less, has shrunk to one little stand? The Norwich bookstore, last I checked, devoted maybe one shelf to poetry. The track record of published contemporary poetry (as opposed to self-published poetry) is hardly stellar. This, after all, is what started the whole conversation. (As an aside, the reading public might be interested to know that there are two genres literary agents will not consider and one of them, emphatically, is poetry.)

All this is to say: Yes, I’m self-published. 618 readers are followers and the blog continues to be read worldwide. Just today I’ve been visited by readers from the United Arab Emirates Turkey, Qatar, New Zealand, Trinidad & Tobago, India and the Phillippines. And this isn’t just me. There are countless writers self-publishing on the Internet, including a number of authors and poets among my readers.

If Mr. Lea’s “disclosure” was meant to be dismissive, then so be it; but he dismisses more than just me. He dismisses the entirety of the online literary project. I make the deliberate choice not to seek publication through a third party. I see no reason for it. My poetry is readily accessible, is read every day and more widely, probably, because of it. Not to get personal, but by way of comparison, where exactly does the reader go to stumble on Mr. Lea’s poems? Last I checked, and “full disclosure”, neither the Dartmouth Bookstore nor the Norwich Bookstore keeps his poetry in stock. Lea does, tellingly, have a blog on which he’s self-published a handful of poems.

Self-publishing isn’t only a 21rst century phenomena. While Mr. Lea singled out Walt Whitman for his “free verse”, he failed to observe that he was self-published. Not only was he self-published but Whitman used pseudonyms to write favorable reviews of his own poetry. T.S. Eliot self-published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. Shelley and E.E. Cummings were self-published. I count myself in good company. And as for John Milton? Lea includes Paradise Lost in his list of poems that “neglect” meter and rhyme. In fact, the entirety of Paradise Lost is metrical—Iambic Pentameter through and through. Lea’s mentioning the Psalms is also ironic given that, according to Biblical scholars, many of the Psalms (if not all) were characterized by meter and refrain. Whitman’s poetry? Some of the most rhetorically patterned verse since the King James Bible.

Mr. Lea writes that he agrees with me on some points, “not least that the obscurity of much contemporary verse is to blame for much of its neglect.” There’s plenty of verse that’s obscure, but that’s never been my argument. My argument is found in our current Poet Laureate’s rhetorical question: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” Indeed, where are the memorable expressions? By in large, the problem with contemporary poetry is not in its obscurity but in its generic blandness. Despite my favoring it, I ultimately don’t care if verse uses meter or rhyme, just make it memorable.

upinVermont | June 28th 2016

8 responses

  1. Thanks for taking time to explain all this. I don’t know how all this beef started, but it sounds important and you are right to defend online publication. And yes, all those self-published poets in history, lest we forget. I used to think that was “less, we forget” when I was a kid. And my sister used to drink water to “clench her thirst”. We proclaimed, but we didn’t know we were poets then, which is the big difference with the debate you outline. Intention is what counts. Knowingly saying this is mine and maybe it’s poetry. Reading this post it came to mind that most authors in the early days of books could only publish if they could persuade future readers to say “yes, I’ll buy if you publish”. They were called subscribers. Subscribers and printers came long before publishers. But today we’re just followers. And I happily follow you from Toulouse, France. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Gerry. I just think the whole notion that third-party publication is intrinsically better is self-serving nonsense. But if that’s the direction Lea was going, and I’m not sure it is, that’s a debate I’m more than game to have.

  2. Syd Lea’s books can be found locally at Long River Gallery & Gifts in Lyme, NH (www.longrivergallery.com), along with poetry by NH Poet Laureate Alice Fogel, and other local area poets. I’m not at all convinced that a poet need be published in the traditional hard-copy format with a book-length manuscript or a chapbook to be recognized as a poet whose verse has worth. The internet has changed all that. Those who hold to the notion of poetry in book form as poetry of value are quickly becoming dinosaurs, soon to be extinct. Online publishing, self publishing, digital media are all becoming the norm rather than the exception. Let’s recognize all poets for who they are regardless of how they choose (or are able) to publish. As for free verse versus poetry with meter and rhyme, these are things our readers will determine over time as either having value or not. For me, I prefer rhyme of all sorts, be it internal, slant, end, or otherwise It makes poetry more memorable and, thus, more easily conveyed verbally. Who can’t remember Frost’s rhyming poem, “The Road Not Taken” including its final stanza:

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    Bravo to Patrick for taking the road “less traveled by” all these years and embracing new technology to spread the good word about poetry well beyond the trajectory the printed word on paper might have. Soon, the majority will be traveling Patrick’s chosen path.

    • Thanks Dave. I removed your first comment and updated with your revision. And thanks for clarifying where Syd’s poetry can be found, locally at least. I hope they sell well.

  3. I read some of Lea’s poetry. Full disclosure: it’s not for me, he does nothing unique, wowing, nor clever. He’s being elitist without having elite skills, which makes his attitude as unoriginal as his writing, ha!

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