History & Money, Lawyers & Politicians

My kids are currently in grade school. They’re learning all about the various wars, the soldiers, women and children collateral damage, and the heroic politicians and lawyers who saved us all. Just look at our currency. Way back when I was a child in Europe, before the Euro, European currency was (and somewhat remains) a colorful and lively affair, DE30much different from the pompous self-importance exuded by our own US currency. Here’s what a 5 Mark bill looked like in Germany (before the Euro).

The site, banknotes.com, which offers a collection of currencies from around the world (and the site from which most of these images come), identifies the image on the bank note as a “Portrait of a young Venetian woman (“Junge Venezianerin”) (1505) by Albrecht Dürer.” There are two things I love about the bank note. The first is that it’s a smiling woman (remember? — there are women on this planet too?) and the second is that the banknote honors an artist – Albrecht Dürer. Imagine that! An artist! Not a white, male politician, banker or lawyer. sacagaweaWhen is the last time our politicians deigned to put a woman on our currency? There’s the Susan B. Anthony, but my favorite remains the Sacagawea dollar.

There’s almost a smile there. She’s beautiful. She’s a mother. There’s a child. She’s native American. (Whenever I played cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indian along with idolizing Daniel Boone.)  As far as I’m concerned, Sacagawea, along with any number of great Native Americans, — men, women visionaries, chiefs and medicine men — deserve to be, permanently, on our currency. There’s not a single native American honored on the Fifty State Commemorative Quarters. (Remember the Indian head penny and nickel?) Likewise, there’s not a single artist, writer, architect, scientist, poet or composer (and I’m not sure there ever has been). Since its politicians (and by extension lawyers) who get to decide who and what’s important, they naturally conclude that they, in fact, are the most important members of our society. American’s politicians crafted their currency in their own image. Do we really need George Washington on the quarter and the one dollar bill? Washington, for all his good qualities, was also the owner of 135 slaves who played fast and loose with the law despite and during his (eventual) objection to slavery. He could have freed his slaves at any time, but chose not to, unlike his wife, who freed all the slaves she inherited some 12 months after Washington’s death. Washington’s status wouldn’t have been possible without his slaves. I’m not saying Washington doesn’t deserve to be honored, but what about Frederick Douglas? Douglas was, so I’ve read, greatly responsible for persuading and hardening Lincoln’s stance against slavery. Far as I’m concerned, Douglas deserves to be on the quarter. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, ‘I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.’”

Such are the ideals that have made and continue to make our country (and any country) great. By comparison, here is what the Confederacy chose for their currency:

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Alabama, Central Bank, $10, October 1, 1857

This image comes from the online article Beyond Face Value: Slavery Iconography in Confederate Currency by Jules d’Hemecourt. Here is what d’Hemecourt writes about the 10 dollar note:

“When Baldwin, Ball & Cousland–another group of Northern printmakers hired by Confederates–produced a $10 note for the Central Bank of Alabama, it unabashedly presented detailed scenes of slaves picking and baling cotton beneath the reassuring bulk of the original Confederate capital of Montgomery, suggesting official protection of the slave system. Most telling of all is the inclusion of the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, whose presence serves as a reminder that the greatest of all American presidents to date had been a Southern slaveholder, and, by implication, a supporter of the Confederacy and the perpetuation of the slave labor system. No symbol was more potent to Americans than that of George Washington, and throughout the war, Confederate and Union printmakers alike would claim his image as their own.”

In its currency, a country reveals what it values, it’s expectations and its ethics (and, at worst, propaganda). It’s telling that US Currency ignores the ordinary women, men, craftsmen, laborers, poets, writers, architects, artists and scientists who, arguably, did more for this country than all but a handful (a small handful) of lawyers or politicians. Interestingly, Among Lincoln’s earliest ambitions was the ambition to to be a poet. Lincoln’s favorite poem was Mortality by William Knox. Lincoln said of it:

“I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”

The value that Lincoln placed on language, the necessity of its beauty, and its power to persuade can’t be overstated. Lawrence Weldon, who heard Lincoln recite Knox’s poem, said of Lincoln:

“The weird and melancholy association of eloquence and poetry had a strong fascination for Mr. Lincoln’s mind. Tasteful composition, either of prose or poetry, which faithfully contrasted the realities of eternity with the unstable and fickle fortunes of time, made a strong impression on his mind.”

Lincoln’s awareness of poetry, inasmuch as poetry itself encapsulates a recognition of the beauty of language, rhetoric, style and its concomitant powers of persuasion, are unmatched by any other President (let alone American politician) and would eventually result in one of the greatest political speeches ever given — the Gettysburg Address. Nothing so encapsulates Lincoln’s genius and gift for rhetoric and language. But to really appreciate Lincoln’s awareness and ambition as a poet and writer, read Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.

So, I may like Lincoln for reasons other than that he was a lawyer and politician.

Here are some of my favorite bank notes (retired and current) from around the world:

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DE46German: Clara Schumann was a composer and concert pianist, wife of the great composer Robert Schumann.

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DE44German: The brothers Grimm, collectors of the Grimm fairy tales, known round the world.

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FR157French: A. de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince. See him?

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DK44Denmark: Hans Christian Andersen.

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GB377BEngland: Sir Isaac Newton (Shockingly, England omits Shakespeare, only the world’s greatest poet & dramatist; but somehow made room for Sir Edward Elgar. Really? Elgar?)

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BE149Belgium: Belgian surrealist artist René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967)

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IT118RItaly: School of Athens by Renaissance artist Raphael.

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RU275Russia: The Bolshoi Theater

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NO41Norway: A woman and writer Camilla Collett (1813-1895).

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EURO500The Euro: Most of these, but for Newton (which was retired for separate reasons), were replaced by the Euro. In an effort to avoid arousing nationalist rivalries, the Euro doesn’t feature personalities (absolutely no politicians) but pragmatically showcases architecture — all of it quite beautiful.

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DDR29DDR: The only retired currency (that I know of) that featured a poet, and a truly great one at that, was printed by the DDR (former communist East Germany). Unfortunately it’s hard to know what part of Goethe’s prominence was cynical propaganda and what part a genuine honoring of the poet.

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In 2011, the Israeli cabinet approved currency featuring four poets and writers. The result?

IsraelInterestingly, the new currency was met with some outrage. As the linked article states, “No Sephardic or Mizrahi figures were chosen for this new series.”

“This morning’s approval is a symptom of the government’s behavior toward the Mizrahi public,” [Shas MK Aryeh Deri] said. “Mizrahim are excluded from the Supreme Court, academia, the media, the Israel Prize, the current government, and now it’s reached our banknotes.

Netenyahu’s reaction was to suggest “that the next figure to appear on an Israeli banknote be Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher.” But the article argues this is unlikely to happen. Which explains why the Euro chose to stick with architecture though, in my view, they could have also featured a great painting, the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the blackboard scrawling of Neils Bohr or Einstein (without offending anyone). Such personalities are universal figures who collectively elevated mankind unlike, let’s say, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambition (despite what one may think of him) indisputable resulted in the deaths of millions (by some estimates).

And that brings me back to my children’s education.

What is taught as history is generally the history of warfare. Children learn about the nation states of classical Greece, their politics and strife, but little of its architectural, philosophic and artistic innovations (at least in my own experience and judging by my own children’s education). History seems to be the study of conflict, not innovation or creativity.  Who decides what appears in our public school textbooks? The government. And that governance sometimes amounts to little more than a handful of (ironically) anti-government, elected, authoritarian, ideological, school board officials in Texas.

Politicians are naturally going to see history in their own image — a history of ideology (religious and political), conflict, strife, winners and losers. As goes the political ideology of those in power, so goes the history lessons and textbooks. Currently, my children’s history class (7th grade) divides history into five currents: Geography, Desire for Power, Technology, Values, Economics.

Geography: An advantageously location will encourage economical prosperity.
Values: A culture’s religious beliefs can profoundly affect economic growth.
Economics: Dependent on its economic and political systems, prosperity may or may not be sustainable.
Desire for Power: Economic prosperity breeds ambition (economic and political) and potential conflict with other rival nation-states.
Technology: By technology, we mean weaponry. Economic rivalries inevitably breed arms-races as economic, political and geographic exigencies are disputed.

Are these the forces that drive history? They beautifully define what drives politics and politicians. I wouldn’t argue that they don’t matter, but I personally find the most important forces in history to be philosophical, inasmuch as philosophy eventually became science and that it was science, thought, exploration and innovation that created the world we live in.

  • In Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Modern Science, Michael David finds the origins of modern science, in part, in the ancient classical Greek tragedy of Sophocles.

It was ideology and fundamentalism that destroyed the library of Alexandria. It was the ideology and fundamentalism of Islam that brought the brilliant mathematical innovations of Arabic mathematicians to an end. It was ideology and fundamentalism that nearly finished Galileo. Where freedom of thought (freedom from ideology) predominates, civilization flourishes. This is probably not the kind of history a good many Texas school boards would like (being populated, as they cyclically are, by rigid ideologues and religious fundamentalists). Ideology and fundamentalism are, by nature, authoritarian, and are traits that sit comfortably within (and gravitate toward) just about any religious context, and which frequently ignore or are in conflict with the liberal teachings of peace, love generosity and forgiveness. The problem is that most religions provide a ready toolbox for the ideologically and fundamentally minded — beginning with an unquestioning deference to authority.

What would I offer as the driving forces of history?

I think, first of all, that asking the question like this predetermines the answer because the word history is already rife with associations and assumptions. It’s how we’ve been educated. How about this question: What are the driving forces behind art, culture, innovation, cooperation, peace, prosperity? Instead of putting the emphasis on warfare and governance (and glorifying some extremely unsavory figures) we might teach children how human beings managed to get along and prosper (sometimes despite those forces).

I don’t expect everyone to agree. Many will remain much more interested in the world’s Cromwells than in its Aristarchus’s, Platos, Shakespeares, Bachs, DaVincis or Mozarts. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be and that they don’t have their place, only that our De facto starting point doesn’t have to be Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Charlemagne, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and any number of other egomaniacs, sociopaths, psychopaths and mass murderers — the inevitable biography of history, it seems, if history is reduced to nothing more than Geography, Values, Economics, Desire for Power, and Technology.

So, I admit I’ve vastly simplified the issues (it’s not my area of expertise) but I just wanted to sketch out some ideas.

Let me know what you think.

I’m one of those people that think Thomas Edison and the light bulb changed the world more than Karl Marx ever did.” Steve Jobs

Up in VermontJanuary 5 2014

On a Definition of Poetry

“It’s Not Poetry if it Doesn’t Rhyme”

This is the title of a recent post I was reading, and it got me thinking. First of all, it’s a definition of poetry. It defines poetry as something that rhymes and if taken at face value, excludes almost all the works Shakespeare and Milton. They mainly wrote blank verse. More usually, readers who say this are using “rhyme” figuratively. What they’re really saying is that poetry without form on a definitionisn’t poetry. Form includes rhyme and meter. So, what someone is really saying is that free verse isn’t poetry. Apart from whether the definition is wrong or right, that led me to wonder why definitions are important.

Do definitions matter?

There’s no question that definitions change over time, but we nevertheless have them. Not too long ago, the definition of planets was revisited and Pluto was demoted to a proto-planet. There was disagreement, but not the kind we might have gotten had certain kinds of poetry or poems been demoted to proto-poems (though I think some should be).

But here’s why definitions matter: Without them, no one could excel. Mastery and achievement wouldn’t exist.  For example, if not for definitions, sports wouldn’t exist (let alone the Olympics), hence the reason for Robert Frost’s famous quip: Writing free on a definitionverse is like playing tennis with the net down. Every rule, in a sport, is a definition that defines the sport. Baseball is defined by its number of outs, bases, players, etc… Once one begins fiddling with the rules that define baseball, then it ceases to be baseball. If there were no rules to baseball, tennis, or basketball, then anyone could play them and everyone could make up their own rules and everyone could be a Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. For my own part, the first thing I would do is to lower the basket so I could dunk the ball. I’d also make the basket a lot bigger — but only for me. I know I’ll make any number of enemies by following this up with the obvious analogy: There’s no difference between lowering the basket (or the net) and writing without rhyme. There’s no difference between giving yourself 12 outs, instead of 3, and writing without meter. Writing poetry without rhyme and meter is vastly easier. So is dunking a basketball when the hoop is only six feet off the ground. The fact that the NBA would never change the rules for all the wannabes means that the rest of us get to see who the real pros are.

Does that make some kinds of poetry better than others?

Does that mean that some things that are called poems, really aren’t?

Yes and yes. Would you prefer watching basketball with or without rules? Having rules that defined poetry allowed a wide variety of poets to excel. Games are nothing more than a defined way of playing and kids love games. Why? Because games give kids a chance to be better than the next kid. Rules give kids a chance to be competitive, to excel, to accomplish and to master.

on a definitionWhen I was growing up in the seventies, poetry was taught with a nebulousness that made clouds look decisive. Poetry was a feeling. There were no rules; and you can still find those Deep Thoughts right up to the present day. On About.Com, Mark Flanagan, apparently tasked with defining poetry, comes up with the following chestnut:

“…defining poetry is like grasping at the wind – once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.”

The end result of “deep thoughts” like these is that I lost interest in poetry. Who wants to play a game without rules? I decided that poetry was the dumbest art form on the planet. If I saw a game being played willy-nilly, I’d think the same thing. It’s a peculiar thing that the prior generation’s effort to make poetry something “anybody can do” ruined it for children like me. It was only when I began teaching myself about poetry that I learned the truth. There is a definition of poetry. It isn’t easy. You can’t neatly sum it up in a Miriam Webster’s entry, but there is a definition and there are rules. That’s when I got interested in poetry. First, I wanted to learn the rules. Next, I wanted play by the rules. I wanted to prove that I could do it. Next, I wanted to excel. I wanted to master the mystery. Even the seemingly diminutive haiku is defined by centuries of tradition.

Is a definition of poetry useful?

Some readers may object that poetry can’t be compared to sports. The point, however, is not to compare poetry to sports, but to compare a definition of poetry to the kinds of rules that define a sport, or music, or architecture or carpentry. If you don’t have a definition, then you don’t have a game. If you don’t have a game, then who’s going to watch?

Definitions, like rules, are useful because they give us a way to ascertain the skills of the players. They allow us to judge how the player is doing. mechanics-imageOne of the hallmarks of the contemporary poetry critic is his and her complete avoidance and non-discussion of the aesthetics or mechanics of poetry. The vast majority of contemporary criticism limits itself to the content of poetry. Why? Because, as with Flanagan’s quote above,  contemporary critics and poets have convinced themselves that defining poetry, to quote Flanagan again, “kind of leaves you feeling cheap, dirty, all hollow and empty inside like Chinese food.” However, in order to critique the mechanics/stylistics of a poem, you have to have a definition of poetry. Can’t be any other way.  And you have to have a definition of what constitutes mediocre or good writing.

During a dispute back in 2009, England’s Poetry Society offered the world this definition of poetry:

“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

In other words, poetry is anything you want it to be, and they do mean anything. Poetry Magazine, for its part, has taken to publishing comic strips, among other things, and calling them poems. What all this means is that if everyone can make up their own rules/definitions, then there’s no way to judge the skills of the poet or the accomplishments of the poem. If there were no rules in Basketball, then a player like Michael Jordan could never emerge. Or how about gymnastics? We would have no means or vocabulary with which to contrast the poor gymnast with the great gymnast. No Tiger Woods could emerge because everyone would be a Tiger Woods. They’re all playing their own special game of golf and the critic has no way to compare or contrast.

Without a definition of poetry, you can’t have criticism of poetry. In truth, you can’t even have poetry because if poetry is anything, then it’s also nothing. Or, as Syndrome put it in the movie The Incredibles: “If everyone’s a super, then no one is a super.” Anyone who can’t define poetry certainly shouldn’t be teaching it. What exactly would they be teaching? A definition of poetry is not only useful, it’s crucial. Individuals and organizations who fail or refuse to address a definition of poetry do a disservice to the reader, to poetry, and to the next generation of poets. Out of curiosity, I googled the following: “definition of poetry” “Poetry Foundation”. I found nothing straightforward. The fact that the Poetry Foundation, the premier (and self-appointed) curator of American Poetry doesn’t offer a definition of poetry (or even a denial that a definition is possible) is a disgrace.

What about it then?

Where can you find a definition? There are all kinds of quips and one-offs by a variety of poets.

Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes. –  Joseph Roux

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to d o this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life. – Matthew Arnold

I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. – A.E. Housman

Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. – William Hazlitt

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. – William Hazlitt

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. – Salman Rushdie

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of the joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. – W.S. Merwin

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. – Robert Frost

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. – Perrcy Bysshe Shelley

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. – Plato

Poetry is a search for ways of communication; it must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen. – Fleur Adcock

Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass. – Vladimir Nabokov

Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. – James Branch Cabell

Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. – John Keats

All poetry is misrepresentation. – Jeremy Bentham

Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them. – Dennis Gabor

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.   – T.S. Eliot

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation. – Robert Fitzgerald

The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.  – Robert Penn Warren

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick . . .. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. – Christopher Fry

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. – Mary Oliver

Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination. – Ishmael Reed

Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. – Adrian Mitchell

Prose—it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication”; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. – Joyce Carol Oates

Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. – Carl Sandburg

Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. – William Wordsworth

Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary. – Kahlil Gibran

Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat. – Osbert Sitwell

The essentials of poetry are rhythm, dance, and the human voice. – Earle Birney

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. – Thomas Gray

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. – Paul Engle

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.  – Edgar Allan Poe

Poetry: the best words in the best order. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. – Robert Frost 

on a definition

And there are far more at goodreads. You might think  there’s nothing very useful in all these quotes, just poets being cute and clever, but there is, actually, a subtle commonality that runs through some of them.  “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” What does Roux mean? That poetry isn’t just the clothes of the workaday, but language that is elevated whether through meter, rhyme or the figures and schema of rhetoric (and these include metaphor, simile, and all figurative language).  Hazlitt, “…the universal language…”; Keats, “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess [and] strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts…”; Thomas, “You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words…“; Fry, “…the language in which man explores his own amazement…”; Oates, “…private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web…”; Sandburg, “…a search for syllables…”; Birney, “The essentials… are rhythm, dance…“; Engle, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power…”; Poe, “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words…”; Coleridge, “the best words in the best order…“; Frost, “what gets lost in translation…”

What all these have in common is the idea of poetry being defined as a way of using language. Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes . Rhyme and meter are the most extroverted expressions, a display of a languages ability to produce repeated sounds and rhythm while the many rhetorical figures, such as simile, hendiadys, anthimeria, puns  and verbal metaphor (and figurative language in general) are a more introverted play with language – using words to express ideas that are unexpected and novel. Prose, inasmuch as it also uses these techniques, can be poetic, but the aesthetic aims of prose and poetry are different.

Think of Robert Frost’s final quote, which I deliberately put at the end: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Because of poetry’s emphasis on linguistic play, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Something as basic as a pun, a staple of many haiku, is lost  unless both languages are lucky enough to share puns. The wholesale disregard of rhymes, internal or otherwise, when translating  into free verse is another example. on a definitionMeter is much easier to reproduce, but does any English meter really reproduce the music of Chinese meter or Latin quantitative meter? How about onomatopoeia, alliteration or assonance? These are all essential to poetry, but are nearly impossible to capture, altogether, when moving from one language to another. Poetry truly is what  gets lost in translation.

So many writers, poets and organizations seem pathologically afraid to exclude anyone. But rather than doing the art form a favor, their unwillingness to exclude so much as the ingredients list of Mac & Cheese has done and continues to denigrate the very art form they claim to cherish and encourage. I personally have no qualms drawing a line in the sand. If all a writer is doing is lineating prose, then it’s not poetry or, at best, it’s bad poetry.  If the writer does nothing more with language than what I expect from an IRS instruction manual, then it’s not poetry. Content, in my view, is secondary; and that will probably rub a lot of poets and readers the wrong way but unlike, at least, the public stance of numerous poets and organizations, I think it’s worth having some idea, some rules, that define what poetry, and great poetry, truly is. It gives the next generation something to fight for or against.

To quote Salman Rushdie again:

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

Take a position. Define poetry. Write by that definition. It doesn’t have to be mine. Don’t, whatever you do, buy into the bloodless notion that anything and everything is poetry. Poetry isn’t like the wind. As any Japanese poet will unhesitatingly tell you, the wind is like the wind.

Britannica and a definition of Poetry

There are a few sources which have tackled the definition of poetry. I’ve appended a definition provided by Poetry.Org. Their definition was originally copied from Wikipedia (since changed). Wikipedia’s current entry is less a definition than a historical overview. However, one of the more interesting entries is Britannica’s.

on a definition

Britannica’s entry on poetry begins with a primal scream of terror presented with a stiff upper lip. Don’t try this at home. Only the British can do it. The article’s author writes: “This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry…” As anyone knows, there are two reactions when terrified — fight or flight. Britannica opts to fight. The editors begin their definition by roundly upbraiding the reader. Did you really come to Britannica expecting a definition?

“People’s reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if a man asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so…”

Did you get that? Let me translate: “If you came to the Encyclopedia Britannica looking for a definition of poetry, it’s because you have an agenda and the august editors of Britannica will not, I say will not,  be a party to your filthy crusade. So there.” Apparently, the author of the article never got the memo: Definitions are what Encyclopedia’s do. Encyclopedias aren’t supposed to cop attitudes when readers come looking for information.

Britannica next offers a rebuttal to Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation:

“And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized Version of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.”

So, after having informed the reader that no definition will be forthcoming, the editors (without a hint of irony) assert that the Bible (or an unspecified part therein) is poetry. All it takes, it seems, are a few thees and thous. What the editors apparently fail to consider is that the “poetry” of the King James Bible may not be the “poetry” of the original. The King James Version, in fact, was not a new translation done from scratch, but a revision of The Bishop’s Bible 1568 and the Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 among others. Besides that, there is considerable dispute as to the faithfulness of the King James Bible.  It’s quite likely that the King James Bible is better and more poetic, written during the glory of Elizabethan poetry, than the original. It might be more accurate to call the King James Bible a transliteration rather than a translation. Bottom line: try translating the King James back into Greek and then we’ll talk.

Britannica then follows this up with a curious revelation:

“When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose.”

How this is relevant to a definition of poetry isn’t exactly clear.  For example, when people are presented with passages of iambic pentameter, they regularly misread it (see Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning), reading it like prose. Are we therefore to conclude that there’s no difference between blank verse and prose? Both studies probably say more about the “people” than about poetry or iambic pentameter.

Even so, despite the opening disclaimers, provisos and exculpatory cautions, Britannica sides with Justice Potter Stewart (Jacobellis v. Ohio), when it essentially uses the obscenity test (or was it pornography?) to define poetry. To whit: “We know it when we see it.” The editors of Britannica therewith offer up there choice piece of “pornography”:

“Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:

Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv’d with his wife.”

on a definitionImmediately following this, the editors finally reveal their true colors:

“It might be objected that this little verse is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Not only that, you might recognize a common theme: “It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts…” There it is again — language (and form too). This little ditty is a poem because of its language, because of the way it exploits language, not for its notional and semantic content (which is nonsensical), but for the language’s aesthetic properties — the rhyme (parallel sounds) and the meter (accentual). Poetry exploits the properties of language (independent of the poem’s content) to inform and elevate the semantic content. This is what distinguishes  poetry from prose. This, traditionally, has been poetry’s reason for being. Prose may be poetic, and display some of the same techniques as poetry (though never end-rhyme or refrains), but that is not its aim or reason for being.

How much should we expect definitions to change?

My guess is that if any objection is to be made, it’s that definitions change. Get used to it. Okay, but then what is it now?

It used to be that if it didn’t rhyme, it wasn’t poetry. If rhyme is understood in its broadest figurative sense (in the sense of a work of literature concerned not just with the content but with the aesthetics of language itself), then I’m still inclined to agree. I’m not willing to concede that on a definitionanything and everything is or can be a poem. Either that, or I’m content to call the uncooperative poem a bad poem or, if we want to be trendy, a proto-poem— a minor and lonely object that’s kind of interesting but didn’t quite have enough material to become a full blown poem.  In fact, I’m really liking that term.

I think it’s okay that we hew to an understanding of poetry that has worked for hundreds and thousands of years, the nervous self-indulgence of the twentieth century notwithstanding. And we can change our definition of “rhyme”, in its figurative sense, to include the figurative language available to free verse — assonance, alliteration, and all the rhetoric that has always been more common to poetry than prose. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg is chock-full of rhetorical figures and schema, lest you think that rhetoric only applies to fusty medieval manuscripts (and Walt Whitman’s poetry too). I’d be willing to say that Ginsberg’s poetry, figuratively speaking, has got “rhyme”.

Anyway, the next time somebody is having their kumbaya moment, proclaiming that poetry is like the wind, or a butterfly or that a definition would crush the delicate flower that is poetry, you can come back to this post for a draught of bitter.

Poetry is hard as hell.

Continue reading

The Vanishing Poetry Section

booksI’ve been noticing a trend. My sampling is unscientific but others are welcome to chime in. I went Christmas shopping with the family today and stopped at my favorite Montpelier bookstore (two used and one new) — Bear Pond Books. Here’s what I can tell you: the poetry section is evaporating. I mentioned the fact to the bookstore clerks but (unsurprisingly perhaps) they didn’t really want to talk about it. I notice the same behavior in other bookstores. Curiously, even when it was patently obvious that the poetry section was a pitiful shadow of its former self, the store employees acted as though they were utterly unaware of it. I can imagine two reasons why. First, what business wants to admit that they’re losing business or under selling? Second, perhaps other customers have noticed the same trend? Maybe owners are fed up with having to explain to those who actually buy poetry that their two percent of the public does not a profit make.

Whatever the reason, facts are facts. Bear Pond Books used to have a glorious poetry section. There were some 18 shelves stuffed with poetry – about 70 square feet of wall space, and these weren’t books sitting on the shelves with their covers displayed. No. Spines only. Today, the bottom shelves are empty. Three of the shelves are nominally empty. They are filled with books facing forward — seven or eight books to a shelf. In all, there were maybe 4 shelves worth of poetry. I’ve noticed the same trend in a variety of local bookstores. The poetry section at the Norwich Bookstore (also locally owned) could fit in two shoe boxes. Borders went out of business but before it did (and long before bankruptcy was being contemplated), it’s poetry section shrank from a glorious dozen down to three or four shelves — stock stuff: greeting card verse, a handful of contemporary poets curated without a shred of conviction, and yellowing anthologies. The poetry section died an ugly death.

The only store still offering anything substantial is the Dartmouth Bookstore (Barnes & Noble in disguise). Hanover is a college town and a bookstore catering to Dartmouth College can’t respectably scant the “literature” section even if the books aren’t selling. Academia doesn’t trouble itself with unseemly considerations like marketability. They don’t have to. All they have to do is double tuition rates every few hours.

And that brings me to my posts Let Poetry Die and Let Poetry Die: Redux. (The latter being a rewrite of the former.) Much to the horror of some, I suggested that poets survive or starve on the basis of public reception — market forces. As it is, I argued, poets have to answer to no one but themselves and they have proven themselves utterly incapable of assessing (or unwilling to assess) merit in poetry. I have to admit (and this will also horrify some readers) that I’m taking satisfaction in the poetry section’s slow and ugly death. If this is what it takes to weed the garden, then I’m all for it. Many publishers will say that they publish poetry not because it sells but because in some soft and obscure cockle of their heart they feel obligated. This mercy-publishing has to stop. There’s a broad swath of poets, an era (from moderns to the present) that needs to fade into the same oblivion as the Victorians. We might be seeing that. Finally.

My 2¢: I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready for some fresh air. It’s not that I want poetry to die, but that I’m done with the same tired names. Maybe publishers will actually start looking for poets who sell. If they can’t find any, then I’m okay with that. Somehow, to me, that’s less irritating than 70 square feet of obligation and good intentions. We all know where the latter leads. It’s the devil’s paving.

Poet Laureate Announced

The next Poet Laureate of the United States will be Natasha Trethewey. By what standards Trethewey was elected escapes me, but much about contemporary poetry escapes me. William Logan characterized Tretheway’s poetry in an article for the New Criterion this way:

As soon as you know the premises of Trethewey’s poems, you know everything: they’re the architecture of their own prejudices. Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.

I, myself, wrote a post on Trethewey not so long ago. No sense in rehashing what I’ve already written.

What’s clear — judging by the poetic standards of those awarding today’s prizes, titles and MFAs — is that contemporary poetry has little to do with anything called poetry in prior centuries. Regularly, poets and poems are recognized that show little understanding of line, imagery or linguistic ingenuity. A reader of my blog recently commented that Shakespeare’s great soliloquy To be or not to be, when boiled down, is mundane. He’s right and he’s not the first to say so.  The originality of Shakespeare’s To be or not to be  (or Keats’ Ode to Autumn or Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening) is not in what was said, but how it was said. This used to be what separated poetry from prose. Writer’s used prose when what was said mattered; and writer’s used poetry when how it was said mattered. One could lean toward the other, but the distinction was understood.

That used to be true.

Modern standards seem to make no such distinctions; and so we get flavorless free verse. Poets win Pulitzers and are elected Poet Laureate for writing lineated paragraphs that are politically and socially topical and fashionable. And that brings me back to my reader’s comment. Each age’s criticism of Shakespeare (and poets in general) reveals more about the age and its critics than the poets. After a hundred years when prose has come to dominate literature and has redefined poetry in its own image, the observation that the content of Shakespeare’s To be or not to be is mundane tells us how and why poetry is being read in our own era and, perhaps, how and why a writer like Tretheway could become America’s Poet Laureate.

Stop SOPA/PIPA

When Shakespeare was authoring plays, his play along with those by any other playwright, had to be approved by the master of revels—the Queen’s censor. The cost of doing so was born by the production company. Writing a play that flirted with morally or politically subversiveness was a dangerous game that could lead to torture and imprisonment.

At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen’s [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain’s Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen’s counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries. [John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, Page 31]

The comparison is not between “piracy” and moral and political subversion (though comparisons can be made) but the near absolute power exercised by the Master of the Revels. The bill presently being pushed by powerful industry and corporate interests is a similar, extra-judicial power grab. As the saying goes: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Passing this bill would give industry and corporate interests the same powers (over me and you) that the Master of the Revels (and government censors throughout history) have enjoyed and exercised. Art and learning thrives through the sharing of ideas and, yes, even the theft of ideas; but a balance must be struck. There are far better ways to control piracy.

A key provision of the bill would give copyright owners the power to stop online advertisers and credit card processors from doing business with a website, merely by filing a unilateral notice that the site is “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property” — even if no court has actually found any infringement.

The immunity provisions in the bill create an overwhelming incentive for advertisers and payment processors to comply with such a request immediately upon receipt. Courts have always treated such cutoffs of revenue from speech as a suppression of that speech, and the silencing of expression in the absence of judicial review is a classic prior restraint forbidden by the First Amendment. [Laurence Tribe, Constitutional Scholar]

The freedom of expression found on the internet is unique in human history; and because of that freedom, powerful interests, both private and public, are threatened. The bill gives the U.S. government the ability to block sites using methods similar to those enjoyed by the Chinese Communist Party, and for this reason the bill is opposed by human rights organizations and a variety of legal scholars.

For now, the Internet belongs to you and me. Help keep it that way.

“Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”

  • The title is the search term that brought a visitor to my blog.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the teacup that is poetry, the question stirs up tempests. Many rationalizations for the rejection of rhyme have been given, some are genuine but just as many, I think, have been disingenuous. Some of the most absurd rationalizations have been sociopolitical. Formal poetry, and by extension rhyme and meter, has been saddled with accusations of being unpatriotic (Diane Wakoski ~ American Book Review May/June 1986), patriarchal (Adrienne Rich, Deinse Levertov, Diane Wakoski), nationalist (starting with Whitman wanting to break with the poetic tradition of the “Old World”), and whatever other -ism suits whatever chip a poet or critic carries on their shoulder.

“As long as the States continue to absorb and be dominated by the poetry of the Old World, and remain unsupplied with autochthonous song… so long will they stop short of first-class Nationality and remain defective.”

The quote above comes from Walt Whitman’s 1888 version of A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads. Whitman’s reference to the “Old World” was code for what Whitman considered the “European” tradition of meter, rhyme and form. The chip on Whitman’s shoulder? — his poetry wasn’t as widely read as he thought it should be (compared to the rhyming and metrical Longfellow). The following is from Ezra Pound’s preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915.

To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

That last line, “In poetry a new cadence means a new idea“, is pure Romanticism. The 19th century created and enshrined the artistic paradigms of genius, creativity and originality, concepts that were less clearly defined in earlier centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kant wrote that “genius does not follow rules”.  Pound is essentially saying the same thing. A “new cadence”, by definition, breaks from the past and presumably from any rules – such as rhyme or meter. The ideal of creativity is restated as the “new idea”.

Pound’s contemporaries absorbed his argument and transformed its tenets into the free verse of Modernism.

For a time though, two competing visions of poetry were at war. Pound, from the outset, framed the debate when he referred to the “old moods” of traditional poetry, echoing Whitman’s nationalistic “Old World”, along with his insistence that free verse is a fight for the “principle of liberty”. Pound’s rhetoric takes on unmistakably political undertones. Disagree with me, he seems to warn, and the fight will be political; and that, as time passed, is how many poets justified their rejection of techniques like rhyme – through the politics of race, gender, and class. Any new artistic movement must validate itself; and, it seems, the best validation is political.

So, my first answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is to answer that the disappearance of rhyme resulted from the desire to reject what had become the stifling tradition of Victorian rhyme and meter (which is what Pound was chaffing against). And because no artistic revolution goes unchallenged, the rise of free verse had to be defended (forcefully in some quarters) by portraying advocates of traditional poetry (and by extension the techniques of meter and rhyme) as reactionary, conservative, patriarchal, etc… In other words, it’s not the poet, it’s the poetry at fault; it’s not me, it’s you.

I don’t find any of these rationalizations against traditional poetry convincing or compelling; however, it can be equally stated that the political arguments against free verse were just as absurd. To some, free verse came to represent anarchy and moral degradation. I don’t buy those arguments either.

It’s the Poet, not the Poetry

It used to be that a poet’s meter and rhyme were what weeded the poet from the poetaster. Walt Whitman changed that. Whitman was not a talented writer of meter or rhyme, but he proved that being a great poet and a talented formalist were two different things.

With that in mind, there is an implicit confession in Pound’s revolution that many poets don’t care to admit or discuss. Implicit in Pound’s manifesto is an admission that the vast majority of poets just are not good at rhyme or meter — the problem with Victorian poetry was only partly it’s subject matter. The worst of it was the sing-song, amateurish quality of its lines.

Though it is better to cast free verse as a triumphant “new idea” rather than an admission of defeat, Pound’s manifesto nevertheless implicitly confesses that rhyme and meter are hard, that even the Victorians don’t do it well, and that most poets would be better off if they just didn’t try (or, as he more favorably put it, that they be “liberated” from the expectation). Of course, Pound didn’t put it that way publicly. He did so privately with T.S. Eliot:

Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.” It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from “Gerontion” and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

From On The Composition of The Waste Land by Richard Ellman

Says Pound, Pope did it better. The problem, Pound tells Eliot, is not that he is using rhyme and meter, but that he isn’t that good at it.

The truth is, the vast majority of free verse poets are not good at rhyme or meter (possibly none of them). And to be fair, the majority of formalist poets are also not that good at it. The majority of readers don’t know that, yes, the  majority of contemporary poets aren’t good at rhyme or meter because those poets are sensible enough not to try it. (Rue the day that a poet like Ron Silliman tries to write meter or rhyme.) And it is a far more pleasant thing that rhyme be rejected for trumped up reasons than that the poet admit he or she isn’t good at it.

There are exceptions. John Ashbery, for one, has gracefully stated that, if he could, he would write traditional poetry, that he likes traditional poetry, but that his talent lies elsewhere. I have had many free verse poets tell me, in private, that they have tried to write rhyme or meter, that they admire it, but that they lack the talent for it.

So, my more fully honest answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is that poets aren’t good at it.

It’s not that poets “don’t write rhyme” because they reject it, but because they’re not, and never were, good at it. If you are writing poetry that rhymes and uses meter, be good at it. (Just as poets recognize their own limitations, they’re especially good at recognizing the limitations of others.) If you don’t “write rhyme” well, criticism will come where criticism is due. The best poets recognize good rhyme and meter when they see it. At worst, traditional poetic techniques are slighted for ideological reasons, and even envy.  Until you can tell the difference, ignore everyone and write what’s in your heart.

If your interest is in reading modern traditional poets, a few of us are around.

I’m always ready to recommend a few. Every heard of Duncan MacLaurin? He’s a poet about the same age as myself. Take a look and see what you think. Click on August/September 2011 Snakeskin 179, and look for MacLaurin at the top left. A pdf of MacLaurin’s poetry is available, along with a selection of eight at The Hyper Texts.

Vanity

Genius

Back when I was in college, I sat with three other poets in a pub. The question came up, what’s greatness or genius in poetry? Each of us expounded and each of our definitions were incompatible. A woman sitting with us, leaning back and bored with our posturing, ended the discussion with a nice observation. She said: Each of you is defining genius in your own image.

No, I wanted to say, I really am impartial; but she was right.

It’s a curious thing when full grown editors and publishers, who should know better, dismiss self-published poets and authors as Vanity Publishers. The implication is that editors are impartial judges. Yet every day that they approve a sheaf of poetry, their decision is an unrivaled act of vanity. They might respond that the writer who self-publishes, like the defendant who represents himself, has a fool for an editor, but that hardly exculpates their own vanity.

The Best Poetry in America

One of the most stratospherically presumptuous publications in the world is David Lehman‘s The Best American Poetry Series. There’s no anthology that so glorifies the vanity of Lehman, its editors and poets. The series is more accurately titled, Me and My Favorite American Poets, but one doesn’t have to be a marketing guru to guess why it isn’t.

The title is absurd. I’ve seen enough reactions to the series to know how many readers find the contents tear-inducingly dull and tedious. But don’t disregard Internet Rule 36. It applies to real life too.

No matter what it is, it is somebody’s fetish. No exceptions.

There are always going to be readers who, like the editors, consider the anthology’s poems unassailably great. Don’t be swayed. The editors have no more claim to what’s best than all those editors of dusty and yellowing anthologies from the early 20th century. They’re filled with aging Victorian poets who are strikingly similar to the poets gathered in current anthologies. They epitomize the aesthetics of an era.

The Academy of American Poets Website, for instance, claims that the series “remains one of the most popular and best-selling poetry books published each year”. I love science. Whenever I read claims like this my inner skeptic sharpens his knife to a fare-thee-well. First of all, you know you’re in trouble when you see the phrase “one of”. I tried to confirm this through independent sources, like the Nielsen Bookscan, but no list confirmed their claim.  But here’s what I found at the Poetry Foundation. Apparently, the qualifications are as follows: It is among the best-selling poetry books when sales are broken down into contemporary poetry, children’s poetry, poetry anthologies and small press poetry publications (and only when the anthologies, “published each year”, are considered as a series). In other words, it is among the most popular and best-selling books among A.) poetry books B.) poetry anthologies C.) during the year it is published D.) in America.

A triton among minnows (given that there just aren’t that many anthologies to compete with).

Given this sublist of sublists, for how many weeks, in each year, was The Best American Poetry (BAP) listed as a top seller?  2010:10. 2009:17. 2008:14. 2007:18. 2006:19. This represents 5 different years for five different anthologies (each year a new anthology is released). That means that The Best American Poetry: 2006 anthology doesn’t appear as a top seller after 2006. (That’s the reason for the qualification: “best-selling poetry books published each year“.) Taken singly, and once their year is up, they’re neither best-selling nor popular.

Let’s consider the lists from 2006-2010: 260 weeks.

By 2010,Good Poems for Hard Times, by Garrison Keillor, had appeared in the top ten for 224 weeks. This means that Keillor’s book was 11 times more popular than Best American Poetry’s 2006 anthology (which only appeared in the list for 19 weeks over the same period of time). Thats right, 19 out of 224 weeks. Once the year was up, the anthology vanished from the top ten.

What if we add all the anthologies together?

As a series, The Best American Poetry has appeared 78 times (out of 224 weeks) in the top ten list. That means Keillor’s single anthology is still 3 times more popular than five (5) separate editions of Best American Poetry. The Best Poems of the English Language, by Harold Bloom, is just over 2 times more popular than the entire series over 5 years. Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds, which was only published in November of 2009, was already in the top ten list 57 weeks by the end of 2010. This means that, in one year, Collins’s single book nearly equaled the record of Best American Poetry’s over five years!

I think that helps put things in perspective.

If the Academy of American Poets is going to tout sales records, then Garrison Keillor, Bloom and Collins all know more about good poetry than Lehman or his editors. But all artists, critics and editors define greatness in their own image. When they pick the “best” poetry, they’re creating an anthology in their own image. The Best American Poetry series is itself no more than a very partial exercise in vanity.

The other moral is that if your poems didn’t or don’t appear in Lehman’s anthology, count yourself lucky.

The guy you want to impress is Garrison Keillor.

Your Poem & an Entry Fee

I’ve always been of two minds when it comes to competitions. On the one hand, the individuals and organizations who offer them want to encourage what they value. That’s cool. However, to the extent that they encourage, all competitions have an agenda. There’s no such thing as an award that celebrates what’s “distinguished”. That claim will always come with so many provisos and stipulations as to render it suspect, if not laughable.

Poets win competitions and grants because their aesthetics best appeal to the vanity of the jurists. In a very real sense (and in all competitions) jurists are awarding themselves. They define what’s distinguished and exceptional in their own image. And that’s what bugs me about grants, competitions and awards: not that they do it, but that they assume the mantel of impartiality by using words like these and best of.

There’s no such thing as impartiality.

Don’t ever berate yourself if you don’t win the approval of anthologists or jurists. These platforms aren’t so much about you or your poetry, but the vanity of the editors and jurists who have created them. Maybe your poetry will strike a chord, maybe it won’t.

Are there other poets and editors who have a better sense for good poetry than you? Probably so.

But try to sort out what is, and isn’t, impartial.

Thinking Aloud

Pulitzer Prize Poet Natasha Trethewey

This was part of the header in an E-Mail I received announcing Natasha Tretheway’s upcoming reading at the University of the Vermont.

I had never hear of Tretheway so, given a Pulitzer prize, I was curious to find out more. The first thing I did was to look up some of her poems. I was disappointed. I then looked up the Pulitzer Prize — more disappointment. The Pulitzer Prize website looks cheap and washed up, in desperate need of a makeover. (Any number of free WordPress templates would do the job if they can’t afford a professional.) I also found no clearcut criteria for what constituted a Pulitzer Prize. After 10 minutes of searching, here’s all I could find on the Pulitzer website:

  • The award in poetry was established in 1922 and that for nonfiction in 1962.

There you have it. Wikipedia was only mildly more forthcoming:

  • Poetry – for a distinguished volume of original verse by an American poet.

And that’s that. No explanation for what constitutes “distinguished”. “Original”, I assume, excludes translations and me submitting North of Boston under my own name. Here’s what Pulizer’s own website offers us for Trethewey:

  • For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Not much to go on. Who were the jurists?

  • Cynthia Huntington, professor of English, Dartmouth University (chair)
  • Rafael Campo, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • Claudia Emerson, professor of English, Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, University of Mary Washington

All of them appear firmly ensconced in academia — no reason to disqualify them, but also no reason to trust their judgment. Cynthia Huntington was a New Hampshire Poet Laureate and I found the following poem at Orion Magazine, called All Wet and Shine:

It sounds like the cracks and clicks of the house settling
as the room warms in morning, it sounds like a fan
whispered up. It tastes of wood smoke—sweet and then stale.
It looks like the curve of a mountain
under streaked sky, and everything pale blue
just before sunrise, everything translucent,
even stone. The stone is blue, it tastes, after all,
like tea in a glass cup, it feels like wanting a
blanket on your lap, nesting, hovering around
a wound, no a break, where the mountain opens,
wanting to heal, to soften the gap, to close it (….)

This kind of poetry isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see why others would enjoy it. The first strike against it, for me, is the free verse. It’s flavorless compared, for instance, to Ferlinghetti. All free verse is prose, but some is more like prose and some less. The free verse of Whitman, T.S. Eliot or Ferlinghetti is less like prose and, in my view, the more interesting because of it.  That’s a personal bias, I admit. The imagery is vivid, but there’s nothing innovative. There are no similes that give me pause. What do I mean by that? Consider the beginning to Frost’s Hillside Thaw:

To think to know the country and now know
The hillside on the day the sun lets go
Ten million silver lizards out of snow! (….)

Frost’s simile as striking and arresting. Or consider these opening lines to Frost’s Hyla Brook:

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow)—

The simile, Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow, is a show stopper. You might think it’s unfair to compare Huntington to Frost. I don’t. She’s a former New Hampshire Poet Laureate and is a professor of English at Dartmouth University. Huntington’s poetry is the poetry of competence but, in my judgment, not much more. After reading All Wet and Shine, I walk away thinking that I’ve read something poetic, but not what I would call poetry. Here’s another poem by Huntington, Curse One: The Wraith:

You are a small shape of death crouched among leaves.
The twist of your red mouth is the torque of poison.
Tangle of leaves, spill of leaves, slow rot of leaves. . .
Misery, ruin, iniquity. You are the scuffling thing in dry grass.
Rodent, snail, the curly-legged spider, centipede, rat snake.
I see you by the back-hooded barbecue in November, brooding
like the smoke of burned meat. (….)

The poem works harder, but offers no insight beyond the cleverness of its invective.  It’s fun. It’s vivid, but it’s not something I want to go back to or memorize. Our second judge on the list is Rafael Campo – a professor at Harvard Medical School. Curiously, the brief bio doesn’t mention why he was sitting on the panel. But, in case you didn’t know, he also writes poetry. An example can be found at Poets.org:

The Distant Moon
by Rafael Campo

I

Admitted to the hospital again.
The second bout of pneumocystis back
In January almost killed him; then,
He’d sworn to us he’d die at home.  He baked
Us cookies, which the student wouldn’t eat,
Before he left–the kitchen on 5A
Is small, but serviceable and neat.
He told me stories: Richard Gere was gay
And sleeping with a friend if his, and AIDS
Was an elaborate conspiracy
Effected by the government.  He stayed
Four months. He lost his sight to CMV. (….)

Like Huntington’s verse, the free verse is flavorless. One could just as easily write it as a paragraph. There is nothing particularly poetic about the poem – no imagery or simile stands out. This reminds me of a passage I once read by, I think, William Logan. I can’t remember but I’ll write my own version.  It goes something like this:

The muse of poetry does not reward the deserving. The muse of poetry is fickle, mercurial and coquettish. If she were just, she would pour her elixir into the mouths of the wizened bishop, the statesman in times of war and the war-weary soldier, the struggling mother and the bereaved father, or the doctor at the Harvard Medical School whose hands finesse life from the grip of death. She doesn’t. Banality is strewn through the poetry of the deserving. It is the theme of Amadeus. Why did God favor the vulgar creature who was Mozart, rather than the vastly more deserving Salieri? Why did the muse of poetry favor the short-lived John Keats, rather than the hundreds of poets who extinguished their long lives in obscurity? As it is, the Harriet Monroe’s of the world tried to right that wrong. Organizations like the Pulitzer Prize give right of judgment to the deserving — the department chairs, the doctors and the distinguished laureates — but the muse of poetry will have none of it. She is as willful as ever. The verses of the deserving, whose lives are rich with experience, she scorns with undeserved banality.

Campo’s poem ends with the embarrassingly banal: In the mirror shines/The distant moon.

Claudia Emerson is not only the holder of the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, but a Pulitzer Prize winner herself. If I had to choose a favorite among the three, I would choose Emerson. A nice collection of her poems can be found at Blackbird: An online journal of literature and the arts. Even so, I find her verse flavorless, barely rising above a well written paragraph by any fiction writer. Her poem, Pitching Horseshoes, begins:

Some of your buddies might come around
……..for a couple of beers and a game,
……………..but most evenings, you pitched horseshoes

alone. I washed up the dishes
……..or watered the garden to the thudding
……………..sound of the horseshoe in the pit,

or the practiced ring of metal
……..against metal, after the silent
……………..arc—end over end. (….)

These are straightforward, unvarnished statements of fact. Once again, there’s nothing poetic. Anyone could have the same conversation and arrange their statements with the same cascading nod to formality. There is nothing extraordinary or even memorable about her imagery.  Another of her poems, Surface Hunting, assumes the same first person voice addressing a generic you. The poem appears to be syllabic — seven to eight syllables per line — but the choice doesn’t feel, in any sense, organic.

You always washed artifacts
……..at the kitchen sink, your back
……………..to the room, to me, to the mud

you’d tracked in from whatever
……..neighbor’s field had just been plowed.
……………..Spearpoints, birdpoints, awls and leaf-

shaped blades surfaced from the turned earth
……..as though from beneath some thicker
……………..water you tried to see into. (….)

The most compelling poem that I could find was Bone. The verse remains flavorless but the imagery comes nearer to the poetic:

It was first dark when the plow turned it up.
Unsown, it came fleshless, mud-ruddled, nothing
but itself, the tendon’s bored eye threading
a ponderous needle. And yet the pocked fist
of one end dared what was undone
in the strewing, defied the mouth of the hound
that dropped it. (….)

Unfortunately, the poet’s descriptiveness is lost in confused obscurity. What is the reader to make of the “pocked fist” and what is the “one end” and how did it “dare” and what was “undone/in the strewing”. The “pocked fist” must be the end of a bone but the rest is something the poet seems unable to effectively control or communicate. I’m sure there’s an explanation; however, the skilled poet manages to compress and still communicate. There’s a favorable review of her poetry by Randy Marshal called Platform: An Introduction to Claudia Emerson, but Marshal’s writing is vapidly academic. He writes:

By virtue of their formal range alone, these poems transcend mere confessionalism, to say nothing of the poet’s uncanny ability to craft absurdly, breathtakingly perfect metaphors from the raw material of her own witnessing.

Or

Abundantly populated as they are with a host of such multivalent avatars, Emerson’s new poems titillate and trouble, they cajole and instruct. Not so much through narrative or rhetoric, but with a deft, almost painterly lyricism that suggests as much as it asserts.

Or

Emerson returns to her technique of crafting very subtly linked imagery across the individual texts that, paradoxically, encourages acute analysis and amazing synthesis with the same set of gestures. The result is prismatic and, just as a prism deconstructs a ray of white light into its component wavelengths, the poems in Figure Studies refract and attenuate various ad hoc aspects of gender through Emerson’s poetic rendering of different scenarios and contexts from which that unifying idea derives its power. They tease out macro from micro; they make effects explain cause.

Got that? What’s so interesting about the review is that it reveals what is esteemed among, as Frost put it, “the critical few who are supposed to know”.  Theirs is a rarefied air, completely divorced from the “general reader who buys books in their thousands”.  One gets a sense for how these three poets became Pulitzer Prize jurists and why they chose Natasha Trethewey. This is how many of these poets write and talk to each other in academic exchanges. Don’t believe me? A while back I came across a book called American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan Poetry Series), I commented on it at Amazon and selected a few choice quotes. Here they are:

“Central to Spahr’s work of moving the poem away from poetry’s implicit emphasis on individuals and toward collectivities is the understanding that collectivities are often composed against a constitutive outside.” p. 144

“Morris effectively valorizes somatic experience to dispossess and repossess the language of identity. This is no hairsplitting intellectual argument…” p. 226

“As the remainder of this essay will demonstrate, the “cobbled solutions” Wheeler devised in her own attempts to invigorate poetry’s radical cultural force involve foregrounding, both formally and in her poems’ content, the contemporary “problems” of “steamroller” consumerism/commodification and of artistic assimilation so as ultimately to recast them as opportunities and resources.” p. 306

“In other poems, performivity asserts the constructed identity over the essential self when poems speak from the male voices of Casanova…” p. 58

“She tests the potentials of the work she samples in relation to their points of contact and fracture — where the palindrome meets the merry-go-round. What happens to both structures upon contact and what futurities are proposed at the point of contact?” p. 284

This is the language which circulates among contemporary poets. This is the intellectual arena in which aspiring poets will succeed or fail. Marshal’s review, like those above, is revealing in that he spends the lion’s share of his effort examining the contents of her poetry. What is it about. When he turns to more mechanical aspects — simile, metaphor, figurative language — he is reduced to bland and unexamined generalities:

Crafted in staggered couplets and tercets (which Emerson has noted were “modeled somewhat after William Carlos Williams’ triadic line”) the visual instability of the poems in “Divorce Epistles,” the book’s opening movement, helps the poet convey the themes of imbalance and dissolution that animate these texts.

Modern poets live or die on content, and so it’s no wonder that a self-interested cottage industry of fellow poets and “fellow” reviewers extol content. The mechanics of contemporary free verse offers little to nothing for the modern reader. In other words, there is little which separates one poet’s verse from the next or all of their verse from prose. There is little that separates one poet’s use of image or metaphor from another. They all seem to carve with the same chisel. This means that reviewers are forced to discuss poetry as if they were reviewing a short story or novel: content, content, content. The poet, like Trethewey, will be extolled because of what she writes about. For example, here’s an introductory from Octavia Books:

Trethewey found inspiration in Robert Penn Warren’s book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, in which he spoke with southerners about race in the wake of the Brown decision, capturing an event of wide impact from multiple points of view. Weaving her own memories with the experiences of family, friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the erosion of local culture and the rising economic dependence on tourism and casinos. She chronicles decades of wetland development that exacerbated the destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose citizens—particularly African Americans—were on the margins of American life well before the storm hit. Most poignantly, Trethewey illustrates the destruction of the hurricane through the story of her brother’s efforts to recover what he lost and his subsequent incarceration.

Notice that there isn’t one word about her skills as a poet. You will find this laudatory description  typical, not just of Trethewey, but of all (to my knowledge) contemporary poets who have achieved (among themselves) any sort of recognition. Are we to attend Trethewey’s poetry readings because her subject matter is deserving? Or is it because she’s a good poet? Evidence seems to argue for the former. There are numerous examples of poets being awarded recognition not for the quality of their poetry but because of their poetry’s subject matter and who they are. How do we know? Because poets have entered contests giving false names and ethnicities. Some of these poets won the competitions they entered; but when their identities were revealed, their awards were revoked. The question begs to be asked: If not the poetry, then what exactly were the jurists awarding?

The fictional Salieri of Peter Shaffer’s movie Amadeus would be well gratified by the 20th and 21rst century. The “deserving” are now rewarded. The Mozarts of the world, tactless creatures that they are, are relegated to obscurity. Write mediocre poetry; but if the content of your poetry is timely or, in some way, judged to be meaningful, you will succeed and be recognized. It’s not the stories of Mozart’s operas that make them great, it’s his music. The stories are insipid. Today? Not so. Those in the know don’t care about the music. They care about the story. The mediocre artist is avenged. Poetry’s coquettish muse has been vanquished.

Or has she?

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, let a lone a Greek muse. I suspect she’ll consign 9,999 out of 10000 modern poets to well deserved obscurity. Just give her time.

What about Natasha Tretheway’s poetry? It is exactly what one would expect. Here is the poem Providence:

What’s left is footage: the hours before
………….Camille, 1969—hurricane
…………………..parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
………….fronds blown back,

a woman’s hair. Then after:
………….the vacant lots,
………….boats washed ashore, a swamp

where graves had been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
………….moving between rooms,
……………………..emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house—
………….on its cinderblocks—seemed to float

………….in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
………….tying us………….to the land.
………….In the water, our reflection
…………………………………………….trembled,

disappeared
when I bent to touch it.

It bears an eerie resemblance to the poetry of at least two of those who sat as jurists. The verse is just as flavorless and the imagery doesn’t rise above the ordinary. The poem closes with imagery that is mawkishly obvious. But why the Pulitzer? Maybe because the content of her poetry is deserving?

To me, the conclusion is hard to avoid:  It’s not how your write; it’s what you write.

We Think in Metaphors

People often assume that metaphors are merely optional figures of speech whose purpose is to enliven expression and make it more poetic and appealing. The common assumption is that we could speak literally, but its more colloquial and comfortable to use imagery–unless we’re trying to be precise, in which case metaphors muddy up the idea being expressed. But according to research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and linguistics, metaphors are not just words or images that help describe a concept that already exists in the mind. Instead, metaphorical connection is the way the human brain understands anything abstract. The deepest metaphors are not optional or decorative: they’re a kind of sense, like seeing or hearing, and much of what we consider to be reality can be perceived and experienced only through them. We understand almost everything that is not concrete (even “concrete” is a metaphor) in terms of something else. In short, the expansiveness of our metaphors determines the expansiveness of our reality.

Joel R. Primack & Nancy Ellen Abrams
The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos p. 243

Something which all great poetry has in common, the poetry favored and enjoyed by readers over thousands of years, is metaphor. Shakespeare was the great master. His genius burst with with one metaphor after, each idea arising out with an almost fractal stream of associations.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket. [Antony & Cleopatra Act V Sc. ii]

Shakespeare is thinking big, so when Cleopatra is describing Antony, he has her say that his legs “bestrid [straddled] the ocean“. Once the word ocean has entered his mind, he imagines the waves. That leads to his next image and metaphor: his rear’d arm Crested the world. The word crest can be used to describe the crest of a wave. If you read Shakespeare carefully, you can actually see him thinking as he wrote. He was said to have been a very quick writer and exceedingly nimble in thought and jest. His writing displays that nimbleness of thought.

Now, with the crest of a wave in mind, Shakespeare was probably reminded of storms at sea. From the previous metpahor, a new one bursts forth. He writes:

As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.

The opposite of a storm would be the tunèd sphere. The earth’s orb was as much earth as water, and so Shakespeare, having been reminded of a storm at sea by the crest of a wave, finishes with rattling thunder.  The sound of thunder is preceded by the oppositional idea of tunèd or musical spheres. Shakespeare’s imagination, by this point, is deeply immersed in the metaphor of sea and ocean. From the peacefulness of the tunèd spheres (and by association a calm ocean) he makes the imaginative leap to the metaphor of Antony’s delights being dolphin-like.

But Shakespeare’s imagination isn’t entirely swept into the ocean’s currents. Antony’s richness of character is like a bounty. There’s no metaphorical winter in Antony’s bounty and that leads Shakespeare to compare his bounty to an Autumn that grows the more by reaping.

Once this association and metaphor has been lodged in Shakespeare’s mind, the poetic thought process reappears in the final lines. Not only that, but Shakespeare was a master of wordplay. When Shakespeare uses the word crest in the earlier portion of the speech, crest can also refer to the emblems used to decorate a helmet or armor. This double meaning stays with Shakespeare so that, a few lines later, he writes that crowns and crownets walk’d in his livery. Livery can refer to a uniform, a sign or a mark related to a crest. This metaphor combines with the idea of a bounty, and a bounty, naturally enough, reminds Shakespeare of food and feasting. On what do we eat but plates. Once that image is lodged in Shakespeare;s imagination, another metaphor springs to mind, he writes:

…realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

The comparison of realms and islands to plates combines with the imagery of livery and leads to pockets, probably because Shakespeare has imagined the pockets sown into the livery of servants.

Shakespeare’s use of metaphor allows to see how the great poet thought, how his mind moved from one metaphor and image to another. Clusters of images appear like bubbles, each bursting from the previous image. It’s a manner of thought that characterizes all of Shakespeare’s poetry and is the property that makes his poetry great; and is the reason his associative genius places him heads and shoulders above his peers. Compare Shakespeare’s poetry to his sometimes collaborator, John Fletcher, and Fletcher’s poetry proceeds line by line, linearly rather than organically. Fletcher’s metaphors are built brick by brick or appear in isolation.

Night do not steal away: I woo thee yet
To hold a hard hand o’re the rusty bit
That guides the lazy Team: go back again,
Bootes, thou that driv’st thy frozen Wain
Round as a Ring, and bring a second Night
To hide my sorrows from the coming light;
Let not the eyes of men stare on my face,
And read my falling, give me some black place
Where never Sun-beam shot his wholesome light,
That I may sit and pour out my sad spright
Like running water, never to be known
After the forced fall and sound is gone. [John Fletcher: The Faithful Shepherdess]

Fletcher’s pathos inhabits a different imaginative world than Shakespeare’s. Fletcher’s passage is largely immersed in a single metaphor. Night is personified as Boötes, the constellation known as the herdsman. Boötes, or Night, is envisioned as having his hand on the reins of the Lazy Team. By Lazy Team (lazy referring to the slow movement of the stars) Fletcher may be referring to the constellations Equuleus, the little horse, and Pegasus.

The Wain, (known as the Big Dipper in North America) was, in some parts of Britain, commonly known as Charles’ Wain (a wain being a wagon). The wagon rides round the North Star in a “ring”.   Knowing all this, Fletcher’s imagery begins to come together, but it altogether lacks the associative brilliance of Shakespeare. He slowly builds his metaphor line by line. Shakespeare barely lets one metaphor sink in before he hatches the next. (Interestingly, Mozart’s musical facility flowed with equal freedom and he was criticized for it by fellow composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Dittersdorf said that Mozart’s melodic ideas moved too quickly. There was no time to savor a melody before Mozart’s pen eagerly inked the next.)

One final metaphor springs from Fletcher’s quill when he writes that his character will pour out his sad spright “like running water”. The metaphor is disconnected and feels almost

Elizabethan Dramatist John Fletcher

arbitrary. Fletcher had to work at poetry, being more of a natural born dramatist. Nowadays, when we read or perform Fletcher, it’s less for his poetry than for his drama.

The dramatist Phillip Massinger represents the tail end of the Elizabethan generation. He’s among the last  and also demonstrates the least poetry. His  imagery is stock. His use of metaphor rarely rises above the commonplace. Though he wrote blank verse, like Shakespeare and Fletcher, his language has the feel of elegantly and beautifully versified prose. Few modern scholars would consider him a poet.

The point of all this is that when we appraise the work of dramatists 400 years ago, it’s not enough that they wrote verse. The dramatists who were also poets were the ones who still transport us with their figurative use of language. Metaphor is the life-blood of poetry. Metaphor is what makes the sum exceed the parts. As Primack and Abrams wrote, “the expansiveness of our metaphors determines the expansiveness of our reality.” The expansiveness of our metaphors also determine the expansiveness of our poems. Modern poets who have abjured the use of metaphor for one reason or another seem to think they will be appraised differently by the generations following. They tell themselves that they live in a different era. But what we value in poetry hasn’t changed in the thousands of years since poems were first written.

Fall in love with metaphor.

Imbue your language with metaphor and your poetry will be inestimably larger than the page it’s written on.

On Linux, Software Patents, Shakespeare & the Web

My first love wasn’t poetry but computers. My first substantial work was not a poem, fable or story, but a piece of software written on the Apple IIe. Presently, my primary OS is Ubuntu and I keep partitions free just so I can ‘distro hop’. The term, if you’re not familiar with it, means trying out one distrobution of Linux or BSD (or any operating system) only to remove it as soon as you’ve got it working. Every so often, I use Windows. Windows is like a dependable pony. For the most part, you can trust Windows to keep a steady pace, but that gets dull after a while. I yearn for the unpredictable stallion, the temperamental, wild and maybe ungrateful horse that would just as soon kick you out of the barn; but that’s the horse that runs like lightning.

The beauty of Linux, if you’re not familiar with it, is the vast and varied community developing both the operating system and the software that runs on it. There are hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, different Linux distributions. At the core of every Linux distro is the Linux Kernel. The Linux kernel could be compared to an engine. That one engine is the same in every car, but every car that’s built around it is different, specialized and custom. Many countries produce their own distro. At present, I’m writing this on a distribution called Ubuntu – probably the best known distribution. Sometimes I use Fuduntu. The Turkish government is putting funds behind a beautiful linux distro called Pardus (which I’ve also installed). The Chinese have been developing Red Flag Linux. From Spain you can get Triquel. Each has its own peculiarities, advantages and even disadvantages. What’s incredible though, is that all of these distributions are free and they are developed by a community of programmers who might or might not receive remuneration for their work. They do what they do because they believe in the free and, most importantly, creative sphere entailed by the free exchange of ideas.

To me, there is a striking similarity between great poetry and great programming. They’re both a kind of literature. Great poetry and coding are both jaw-droppingly elegant. A great programmer can do, in just a few lines, what takes the uninspired programmer a thousand lines. Great programming is an art form. When you see it, the first thing you ask yourself is this: Why didn’t I think of that? Just four lines of code can match and outperform 200. When we read a great passage from Shakespeare or Keats, the effect can be the same. They can make the poetry look effortless and inevitable. The same could be said for music. Johann Sebastian Bach, my favorite composer, (in another time and place) would have been a programmer of unrivaled genius. He sets forth his musical ideas with precision and develops them with such a sense of simple inevitability that one could be forgiven for thinking that his music wrote itself.  Bach was God’s sewing machine and his cloth was sound.

What’s so unique about the Linux ecology (and without getting too specific) is the licensing under which the software is circulated. The license requires that anyone can look at the source code. In other words, any programmer is entitled to look at the work of another programmer and, hopefully, tweak and improve the previous programmer’s work. This is a supreme advantage when security issues arise. The openness of the architecture means that anyone — the little kid with a great idea to the computer scientist at CERN — can patch a problem. By way of comparison, all Microsoft software is closed source.  This means that no one — not the curious child, not you, not me, not the computer scientist — can look at  Microsoft’s code. If we tried, we would risk legal reprisals. Such is the case with the brilliant young man, George Hotz, who is presently being sued by Sony. When Sony initially sold their PS3, it was advertised as being Linux capable. This opened a wide world of exploration for kids, teenagers, and even the defense department. Why was the United States government interested in Sony’s PS3? Because it could run Linux. When the natural genius of curious youths opened a pandora’s box of problems for Sony, the corporation forced them and everyone who had already bought the units to disable the Linux functionality of their PS3s. In the meantime, Sony is seeking to brand George Hotz (and the other youths associated with him) as criminals.

The dispute is between the free exchange of ideas, exploration and innovation on the one hand, and a closed, litigious and insular development model on the other. Businesses, justifiably, need to protect their intellectual property. To do so, they’re increasingly using the software patent as a means to assert property rights not just over actual programming but ideas and concepts. (See also here.)

Now, you may be asking yourself, why is a poet talking about software patents on a web site dedicated to poetry? Consider the New York Times article by Scott Turow, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro: Would the Bard Have Survived the Web? You would think, with that kind of firepower, that the authors, one of them teaching Shakespeare at the University level, would have written a more persuasive editorial.

But their editorial doesn’t do justice to the phrase cherry picking. They didn’t just cherry pick, they killed the tree. They draw an analogy between copyright law and a certain kind of Elizabethan “paywall”:

“cultural paywalls” were abundant in London: workers holding moneyboxes (bearing the distinctive knobs found by the archaeologists) stood at the entrances of a growing number of outdoor playhouses, collecting a penny for admission.

Their use of the phrase “cultural paywall” is loaded. They seem to want to imply, without doing the work to support the contention, that the culture (and by that I assume they mean the great poetry and drama that we inherited from the Elizabethans) was only possible because playgoers were forced to pay for content. The analogy, as far as it goes, asserts that the web is a kind of modern day playhouse that lacks a “cultural paywall”. Therefore, no modern day Shakespeare could possibly make a living or “survive the web”.  Fair enough, but their argument is embarrassingly simplistic and glosses over a far more complex relationship among the poets themselves.

For instance, while they credit the very existence of Hamlet to the “cultural paywall”, they completely ignore or are collectively ignorant of the fact that Hamlet was probably a derivative work based on a play by Thomas Kyd. If the copyright laws had been enforced then, as they are today, Kyd would have sued Shakespeare for every nickel he was worth. Hamlet wouldn’t have been possible. In fact, Shakespeare had the reputation, rightly or wrongly, (and early in his career) for being a hack and a plagiarist.

Money changed everything. Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.

Yes it did. And if the Elizabethans had anything like our modern laws, money would have kept changing everything. Here’s what Robert Greene, a slightly older playwright, had to say about the young Shakespeare:

‘Base-minded men all three of you, if by my miserie you be not warnd: for unto none of you (like mee) sought those burres to cleave: those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange, that I, to whom they all have beene beholding: is it not like that you, to whom they all have been beholding, shall (were yee in that case as I am now) bee both at once of them forsaken? Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger’s hart wrapped in a Player’s hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey. O that I might entreate your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: & let these Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.’

Now, this is nothing if not a searing accusation of plagiarism. He refers to Shakespeare as nothing more than an actor, diminishing his role as an author, by calling him a Puppet who does nothing more than use

Robert Greene

the Anticks, the words and phrases, of the authors who have come before — “garnisht in our colours”. In a sense, the actor is the consummate plagiarist. That’s his job. He mouths the words of the author, but don’t confuse the actor with the author, says Greene.

Greene then goes on to prick his target with the point of his quill. There is an upstart Crow, he says, beautified with our feathers. Still don’t know who Greene is talking about? He drops a hint. He is a “Tyger’s hart wrapped in a Player’s hyde”. This is a sly phrase mocking a line  from Shakespeare’s early play Henry VI, part 3: “Oh, tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.” Evidently, the play and the phrase were well enough known that Greene assumed most literate persons (or playgoers) would recognize Shakespeare as the target. However, Greene’s not taking any chances. He next calls Shakespeare a Iohannes fac totum, a Jack-of-all-trades, who considers himself the only “Shake-scene” in the country. Greene all but removes any doubt as to the target of his barbs.

If only Greene and Kyd had had a modern patent or copyright lawyer. Turow, Aiken and Shapiro can rest assured that, yes, money would have changed everything. Were Kyd and Greene the only playwrights who considered Shakespeare a plagiarist? Probably not. If Sidney hadn’t been killed, he probably would have wondered at the many echoes of his own sonnets in Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Shakespeare would have survived our modern legal system, let alone the web. The web would have been the least of it.

But there are more problems with Turow, Aiken and Shapiro’s cherry picking.Their argument dies an ugly death when they write that Elizabethan theater’s end,

came in the mid-17th century, at the outset of a bloody civil war, when authorities ordered the walls pulled down. The regime wasn’t motivated by ideals of open access or illusions of speeding progress. They simply wanted to silence the dramatists, who expressed a wide range of unsettling thoughts to paying audiences within.

I hope the irony of this final paragraph isn’t lost on advocates of free and open exchange. Turow, Aiken, and Shapiro, themselves state that the theaters were closed because the “regime” wasn’t motivated by ideals of “open access or illusions of speeding progress”. Nothing so describes the current attitude of corporations like SONY, Apple or Microsoft. They have no interest in “ideals of open access or illusions of speeding progress”, unless it serves their bottom line. (The censors during the time of Shakespeare, likewise, had little interest in permitting plays that didn’t serve their bottom line: power.) When open access competitively threatens the bottom line of modern corporations, they have shown a willingness to use and abuse current copyright and patent law to criminalize whoever is cramping their wallet.

How does this relate to poetry and literature?

Poets, like composers, borrow from each other. Händel’s organ concertos shamelessly borrow whole lines of music from Telemann’s Tafelmusik (Händel liked and admired Telemann). Mozart shamelessly plagiarized an entire opening melody from JC Bach in one of his piano sonatas — a melody from one of Bach’s piano concertos (Mozart befriended JC Bach while a child). Not only that, but Mozart’s first four piano concertos were all orchestrations of piano

JS Bach by Pascal Moehlmann

sonatas by other composers. Bach rewrote Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater as Psalm 51.  The Elizabethan poets and dramatists were constantly borrowing lines and ideas from each other. Shakespeare, Dekker, Middleton, Jonson, all of them  stole whole passages and ideas from  translators and historians like Holinshed and Thomas North. They stole whole scenes from the Spanish poet, novelist and playwright Miguel de Cervantes. The lost play “Cardenio”, thought to be a collaboration between John Fletcher and Shakespeare, was just such a play. Cervantes died in 1616, the same year as Shakespeare. If Cervantes had had a modern copyright lawyer, and had been aware of all the borrowing, he could have died a litigiously happy man.

What if all this went on today? It does. The performer Vanilla Ice was hit hard by Queen and David Bowie for borrowing something as slight as a base line. Such borrowing is embarrassingly trivial compared to previous eras. Try Googling the words Beatles and plagiarism. Every time a composer wrote a set of variations, and made some money from it, they were infringing another composer’s intellectual property. Beethoven wrote dozens and dozens of variations for quick profit and recognition and almost all of them (but for those based on his own melodies) would presently be considered “infringements”.

The real title of Turow, Aiken and Shapiro’s article should have been: Would the Bard Have Survived the Copyright? 9 out of 10 Shakespeare plays probably would not exist, including Hamlet, the play which the authors hold forth with trembling quill.

Yes, writers and authors need to protect their intellectual property, but there’s more to it. There needs to be a balance. I have put all of my poetry, this editorial, and other writings on the web. I have gotten no money in return. Nothing. On the other hand, if it weren’t for the web, nobody would be able to read my poetry or writing. Though I have sent my poetry to dozens of publishers, my poetry has never been published or accepted by an editor. If it weren’t for the web then the body of work represented by this blog would be unavailable to you. None of my poetry or blog posts would be accessible.

Would I like to earn some money from my effort? Yes.

But the ability to reach a world wide audience, even without remuneration, is also worth something. The fact that I can put my poetry and articles on the web means that other artists will be exposed to it. Maybe it will influence them? What if an artist or another poet borrowed from my writing?

Good.

But there’s another side to the coin.

While I want other artists to borrow and be inspired by what I write, there are limits. Some artists and writers issue their works under a Creative Commons License. While I like the principles underlying their licenses, they go too far for a writer like myself. They allow not just the creative reuse of an artist’s work, but allow the wholesale copying and redistribution of that work. Creative Commons claims that their licenses “maximize digital creativity, sharing, and innovation”, but I would dispute that.

If Turow, Aiken, and Shapiro have an argument, it’s that artists like myself ought to be entitled to something. I agree. But where is the balance? I would like Creative Commons to develop a license that would truly encourage creativity and innovation, not just wholesale copying. There’s a difference and the current Creative Commons licenses fail to recognize it, either by choice or because such refinement is beyond the scope of their licenses. That’s too bad. I wish there were a truly creative copyright available to artists like myself.

And that brings me back to Linux, the open source community and software patent law. Programmers are creating their own literature. However, the current software patent law (like copyright law in the arts), threatens to drastically undermine, if not destroy, the spirit of digital creativity, sharing and innovation that created modern computing. If it hadn’t been for Compaq’s reverse engineering of the IBM PC, the course of history would be far different. Ironically, there probably wouldn’t be a Microsoft. Microsoft exists because Compaq dared to reproduce IBM’s BIOS. Their breakthrough allowed any number of business to create PC clones and vastly expanded the market for Microsoft software. Innovation exploded. The burst of creativity is comparable to the burst of poetry and drama during the Elizabethan era.

The doors to the playhouse were a kind of paywall and they were a tremendous boon but they weren’t, in and of themselves, the source and reason for the incredible flowering of literature. Poets and dramatists, though they may have sometimes resented the borrowing, were free to draw from each others work. The genius of the age was made possible by a relatively free and unrestricted exchange of ideas. Marlowe didn’t patent Iambic Pentameter, his “mighty line”.  Sidney, Daniel and Spenser didn’t copyright or patent the sonnet.

If IBM had successfully enforced a patent on their BIOS, nothing would be the same.

Companies like Microsoft, Oracle, SONY and Apple, all in the forefront of software patent abuse, are precisely (and ironically) the companies who benefited the most from the comparative absence of  aggressive and abusive patent enforcement. It should come as no surprise that they are now vigorously (and hypocritically) using patent law to suppress the very opportunities that allowed them to topple IBM. They are our modern IBMs.

Writing software for computers is a creative art. The software that you use everyday is a precise kind of poetry and the computer is its unforgiving audience. I learned to write poetry, in part, by writing for my Apple IIe. I learned to use words efficiently, how to formulate an idea and how to elegantly structure those ideas. The FOSS community, the community from which nearly all Linux and BSD distributions arise, is one where curious children and computer scientists are free to engage their creative talents. To paraphrase Turow, Aiken and Shapiro, they needn’t fear that the “authorities” will order “the walls pulled down”; but the abusive use of patent law threatens to change all that. No individual in the FOSS community has the wherewithal to fight a corporation’s patent lawsuit; and with the alarming proliferation of trivial and over-broad patents, the odds of unintentional infringement increase exponentially. Patent abuse could strangle the FOSS community. They know that corporations aren’t “motivated by ideals of open access or illusions of speeding progress.” They know that, in many cases, for profit businesses would simply prefer to silence their competition, good and bad, worried by “a wide range of unsettling” innovations.

Would a modern Shakespeare survive in our current legal climate? I doubt it.

Though there are limits to such parallels, the current world of art, music and literature has lost much because of overly litigious and legalistic copyright enforcement. A movie like Sita Sings the Blues is breaking copyright law. If Nina Paley, the creator of Sita, had strictly followed the dictates of copyright law she could not have afforded to create her movie. And that would be a tremendous loss to our culture. Correction: Nina Paley writes:

Sita Sings the Blues is in complete compliance with copyright regulations. I was forced to pay $50,000 in license fees and another $20,000 in legal costs to make it so. That is why I am in debt.  My compliance with copyright law is by no means an endorsement of it. Being $70,000 in the hole reminds me daily what an ass the law is. The film is legal, and that legality gives me a higher moral ground to stamp my feet upon as I denounce the failure that is copyright.

Check here for the full explanation. You can be fairly certain that Shakespeare, were he alive today, would suffer much the same fate despite the posturing of Turow, Aiken and Shapiro. How many works of art have not been produced because of these very constraints?

In a similar vein, a balance needs to struck as regards software patent law. Behemoths like Apple, SONY and Microsoft are increasingly using and threatening to use patent law as a bludgeon. They greatly threaten the free exchange of ideas, innovation and creativity. Bad patents can be trivial. They can be “an idea” rather than an actual piece of code. This means that even if a company hasn’t written software, they can sue a programmer who has, simply because the programmer’s idea was similar.

By analogy, the equivalent would be if a poet patented a rhyme like red and bed.

Any other poet to use this rhyme would be violating intellectual property. Yes, software patents, apparently, really can be that trivial. If IBM had pursued the idea of the BIOS under patent law, COMPAQ could not have reverse engineered the IBM PC.

If I have an argument to make it’s that there is little difference between creating software and the creation of poetry, novels, plays or music. A balance needs to be struck. Software is its own literature.  There should be some degree of protection but also an allowance for creativity and innovation. A patent or copyright, as Turow, Aiken and Shapiro would have it, can be thought of as a paywall, but abuse can turn these paywalls into the very opposite of a “cultural paywall”. They can easily stifle and kill a culture’s creative impulse. It’s this fact which the authors overlook, either deliberately or through ignorance when they vastly oversimplify Shakespeare and the abrupt closure of England’s 17th century playhouses.

I’m a believer in the free exchange of ideas for the purposes of art, creativity and true innovation.

Nearly all of my poetry is here, published on the web and free.

All my articles are free.

Greene, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson and Middleton all thrived because there was a balance, if at times uncomfortable, between what was considered private and public. While they might have resented some forms of plagiarism and the unauthorized distribution of their plays, they also benefited from the same. If there was one place where Shakespeare would currently survive, it would be the one place most like the free-for-all that characterized the Elizabethan notion of intellectual property: The Web.

Who knows, maybe Shakespeare would have a blog.

And it would be a good one.

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