Turning a New Leaf

Not since Barack Obama has the United States been represented by the will of the majority—and by that I mean the majority of voters. I’m happy to say that with the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Government of the United States once again reflects the will of the people. I no longer need to write:

We in the United States, as in any other country, aren’t always represented by who governs us. So long as you afford to others the dignity and respect for life and liberty you would afford yourself, it doesn’t matter to me where you’re from, what language you speak or what truth you believe in. You’re welcome here.

I look forward to a government that no longer treats the dignities of fairness, tolerance and compassion as weaknesses, that no longer considers truth, reason and civility to be unnecessary inconveniences. I look forward to the United States once again rejoining the community of responsible nations. We have work to do as regards the climate; defending human rights; and serving as an aspirational example granting no legitimacy to corruption, tyranny or authoritarianism: the insistence that the rights and freedoms of the individual—freedom of thought, speech and association—are self-evident and paramount.

The deep thoughts of Louise Glück

So Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature and can now join the ranks of such literary giants as Bob Dylan (who, I’m told, writes songs on the side); nominated by the same committee who, at their most tone deaf, nominated Peter Handke just last year, a man who is/was a supporter of the genocidal mass murderer Slobodan Milošević (having offered to testify in his defense) and who sprinkles his literary output with implicit defenses and denials of the Bosnian genocide. (When this was pointed out by Handke’s many critics, the Nobel Prize bristled with their own denialism.) This isn’t a group of people whose literary judgement, let alone political judgement, I hold in high regard, but the bauble that is the “Nobel Prize” is apparently irresistible. But I also confess that I don’t hold any literary awards or prizes in high regard, finding them to be popularity contests and (too often) politically-driven sideshows meant to burnish and aggrandize the agendas of the prize givers.

But what about Glück’s poetry? Apparently each Nobel Prize comes with a brief quote explaining why the award was given, in Glück’s case it is: “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” A quote which is about as anodyne and generic as you can get. It also reminds me of the great scene in Shaffer’s play Amadeus when Mozart is asked what he thinks of Salieri’s music: “One hear’s such sounds! What can one say but, Salieri?”

Salieri’s music is also unmistakable.

But what to make of “austere beauty”? I have some opinions about that; and it was this absurdly gushing post that pushed me over the edge. The writer calls Glück’s poem Crossroads a “subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.” And that was only after the equally gushing title: “Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to the Love of Life at the Horizon of Death”. As it turns out, Glück’s quote-unquote “serenade” is all of 13 lines. If there’s anything austere about Glück’s poetry, it’s in weeding out anything that might be called poetry.

Crossroads

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

Or another poem by Glück:

Intentions

The memories of my family outings are still a source
of strength to me. I remember we'd all pile into the car — I forget
what kind it was —and drive and drive.

I'm not sure where we'd go, but I think there
were some trees there. The smell of something
was strong in the air as we played whatever sport we played.

I remember a bigger, old guy we called "Dad."
We'd eat some stuff, 
or not, and then I think

We went home. I guess
some things never leave you.

Just kidding. The latter poem is not by Glück. But if you notice striking similarities that’s because there are striking similarities. The latter poem is a Deep Thought from Saturday Night Live’s “Jack Handy”. Let’s take a look at what these two “poems” have in common.

The first is that both poems are “austere”. Neither poem avails itself of the language that historically made poetry poetry. A ways back I wrote a post offering a definition of poetry drawn form Poetry.Org, a site that beautifully summed up what poetry has traditionally been in a single paragraph:

Poetry… is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.

1.) Both poets, Glück and Handy, write verse purely for its notional and semantic content. Neither attempts to exploit the aesthetic qualities of the English Language.

2.) Both poets dwell in generic abstractions.

In Glück’s poem, she starts out by telling us that she remembers what love was when she was young, then follows that with (practically speaking) bullet point abstractions that strike me as a poet too lazy or too unimaginative to actually describe what love was like.

…so often foolish in its objective…

Love is “foolish in its objectives”, she writes. A commonplace that appears at least once in every Elizabethan play ever written and is the groundwork for many of Chaucer’s stories (who actually bothered to write stories based on the truism).  Though Handy forgets what kind of car he piled into, he at least gives us something more concrete to imagine.

…its choices, its intensities...

Glück then reminisces about love’s “choices” and “intensities”, whatever those are. They were apparently demanded in advance—and vaguely. And then, further drawing us into her soft-focus haze, Glück states that “too much was demanded in advance” but apparently it was nevertheless not too much that could be promised. Did you catch that? I suppose there are readers who will make hay out of this seeming contradiction. It strikes me as a mistake or unearned pretentiousness. As with the rest of the verse, one can’t be certain. The more that one reads Handy’s poem, the more it reads like a satire of Glück’s poem, and in its way it is. He too can’t remember anything, but assures us, in his vague way, that it was all very important. He thinks there were some trees and remembers smelling something.

…so fearful, so violent…

Glück continues on her vague way, and perhaps now we get a sense for what the Nobel Prize Committee unwittingly meant when they said that she makes the “individual existence universal”. Glück’s landscape is so bland, vague and generalized that she all but wipes out “individual existence” in a Gaussian blur. She writes that her soul has been ‘fearful and violent’; and we as readers, I suppose, are meant to decide what Glück means. To paraphrase William Logan, she passes the burden of making meaning from the poet to the reader. At any rate, she doesn’t tell us. She assures us that she’s forgiven it’s “brutality” (don’t ask) and then descends into such a haze of imprecision that the reader has no idea who the “you” is in: “my hand moves over you cautiously”.  It’s anyone’s guess and everyone’s guess is surely valid.  She could be referring to her body, to her soul, or to a lover’s body or soul—or to the reader themselves. The lines that follow in no way clear up who she is universally referring to as “you”.

…expression as substance…

By the final stanza abstraction all but abstracts abstraction. Glück doesn’t want to give offense (for what?) and leaves it to the reader to construct whatever reasons the soul or body would have for taking offense. She is only “eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance”, though we have no idea, at this point, who is speaking or what is meant by “expression as substance”. Could it be the soul who touches the body or the body who touches the soul? Who is speaking? And who will miss who and why? Will the soul miss the body, rather than the earth, or is it the body that will miss the soul, once that conduit to earthly sensation departs the body? I suppose there are some who will laud this confusion as intentional and part of the poem’s genius, but that strikes me as the Fallacy of Imitative Form (in which a poet defends the confusion of the poetry by claiming it enacts the confusion of the narrator). As William Logan succinctly wrote of her, one gets the impression that she’s “a poet used to meaning more than she can say,” and Crossroads is certainly a pristine example of this kind of imaginative deficit. Apparently, Glück is so moved by her experience of the earth that she can’t muster a single concrete example. But I guess some things never leave you, right? Rather, the earth is little more than a hazy abstraction that her soul has, “I guess” (as Jack Handy might put it),  been brutal with. In her poem The Traveler, and in a self-revelatory moment, Glück even acknowledges as much, writing that “I treated all experience as a spiritual or intellectual trial.”

3.) Both poets are “poets” of sentiment, sentiment being defined as “a thought prompted by passion or feeling; a state of mind in view of some subject; feeling toward or respecting some person or thing…” Whereas Glück takes sentiment as the endpoint of profundity, Handy sees it as the starting point of satire, calling his poetry “Deep Thoughts“. The line between the two is very, very, very thin, so much so that whereas others gush over Glück’s profundity, I see Deep Thoughts.

Beyond Crossroads, reading Glück’s other poems is a field trip into a mediocre world of generic abstractions., redundancies, clichés, platitudes and dull similes. In her poem “In the Café” one finds such redundancies as “new discoveries” (because “discoveries” aren’t already, by definition, “new”). You will find fields that are flushed with “dawn light” because you might otherwise think that dawn and light are two separate events. In Reunion you will find prosaic and well-worn adjectives like “deliciously wry”, “eager openness”, “broad tolerance”, “profoundly different”, “hovering terror” — the stuff of run-of-the-mill writing. Or the platitudiness, deep thought, closing her poem The Past:

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

A variation on the question: Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? — a transparently pretentious reach for profundity that, at least to this reader, crosses into Jack Handy territory.

All in all, Louise Glück’s literary reputation will no doubt go the way of so many honored and esteemed poets of that long ago Victorian Era—whose names are no doubt at the tip of your tongue. She has and will have her defenders and close readers who are and will be deeply moved by her poems, poems like practiced flower arrangements whose”poetic insights” appear in all the proper and expected places. She’s light reading. Her profundity is that of rhetorical and narrative gestures rather than real profundity. She expects little to nothing from her readers and, like so many of her generation, treats poetry as nothing more than conduits of sentiment—precisely the kind of pretense so beautifully skewered by Saturday Night Live.

Related:

 

The Racist Trope of Stephanie Burt

So I wonder what readers would think if they began reading a review that opened like this:

Jazz is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Jazz  can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you hear jazz, and it depends on what piece. To quote a young performer, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat jazz is how we let only old black people have it.” What’s true for jazz in general is no less true for particular kinds of techniques and forms. And if that’s true for modern music and for music in new forms, it’s no less true for music in earlier forms—blues most of all.

They might start looking for the exit. And yet this is exactly the rhetoric with which the Harvard professor, poet and critic Stephanie Burt begins her Slate review of Terrance Hayes. She writes:

“Poetry is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Poems can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you read them, and it depends what poem. As America’s youth poet laureate, Kara Jackson, has recently written, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat poetry is how we let only old white men have it.” What’s true for poetry in general is no less true for particular kinds of poems, techniques, and forms. And if that’s true for modern poems and for poems in new forms (say, those that resemble text messages), it’s no less true for poems in very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all.”

In quoting Kara Jackson, Burt dispenses with Jackson’s intent, and uses her quote as a springboard for an entirely different argument. The point Jackson was making was that in growing up, she wasn’t just exposed to the poetry of “old white men”, but to poetry written by poets like her—and speaking to her own experience. But Burt has an agenda. She uses Jackson’s quote as a stepping stone with which to overlay another layer of identity politics that is as old and trite as mid twentieth century politics: the association of artistic expression with skin color and political affiliation. It’s venal and insidious.

But first to Jackson’s comment. I get it. In a country that is struggling with racism to the degree that the United States is, where a black couple picnicking at a public park has a gun drawn on them, where racial profiling by police remains endemic, where the leaders of our institutions and government continue to fan racism for political gain, I do get it and I don’t doubt I would have written the same in her position. On the other hand, I hope she someday feels that Shakespeare doesn’t belong to old white men any more than Duke Ellington’s piano or Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet (simply because white men invented the instruments). But maybe she already does. Burt, on the other hand, is a Harvard professor and should know better.

Burt begins innocently enough, almost with something like a disclaimer, applying Jackson’s comment to “poetry in general”, then to techniques and forms, then to “modern poems” and “poems in new forms”.  All this begs the question: How exactly does Burt square “modern poems” and “poems in new forms” with “old white men”? Forgive me for thinking so, but Burt’s rhetoric is either poorly considered or disingenuous. Everybody knows who’s being referred to by “old white men” and it’s not Eminem, and it’s not “modern poets” writing in “new forms”. But Burt makes clear what she really means by old white men (and what we all already know), writing: “very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all”. Yes, all those sonnet writing, old, white men like Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Keats, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Maria Smallpiece, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rosetti— Wait…what?

But anyway, during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, one of the rationalizations used to defend free verse was that traditional poetry was the work of the oppressor: white, European, imperialist, bourgeoisie males. Never mind all those women writing traditional poetry. Never mind that America’s first published poet was a woman. Never mind that the world’s first novel was written by a woman. Never mind that the earliest poet recorded by name was a woman. Never mind any of that. Traditional forms and techniques are the oppressive artifacts of old white men. And it’s not enough for woke critics like Burt to specify gender, but it’s also important to include age and skin color. And in case there was any room for doubt, Burt spends the next paragraph enumerating the sins of old white men: rhyming, couplets, the volta. Just to emphasize how old those white men and their “techniques” are,  Burt writes: “you probably also know that they’re centuries old.” So much for modern poets and techniques.

According to Burt, anyone who writes a modern sonnet is, by definition, ‘talking back to the past’ because, you know, you can’t write a traditional sonnet without being oppressed by the past. And having established the oppressive, old, white identity of a sonnet, Burt can then laud Terrance Hayes, a black poet, for having written “a primer on how to reshape an old form”.

To be clear, what bothers me is not that Terrance Hayes chooses to write free verse sonnets, but that Stephanie Burt chooses to laud Hayes’ poems as a rejection and reshaping of “old white” poetry. This is just as venal and insidious now as it was in the mid-20th century, and that’s because it associates artistic expression and medium with class, race and political ideology. There’s no question but that the content of a sonnet can be used for political ends, but the traditional medium of poetry—meter, rhyme and form—has nothing whatsoever to do with race, class or political affiliation. Traditional forms are a tool, no different from a piano or a trumpet.

And why is it venal and insidious? Because Burt’s comments perpetuate the very ideologies, like racism, that she’d surely claim to disown. She arbitrarily inserts identity politics into otherwise neutral modes of artistic expression and medium; such that choosing a mode of expression, no matter the artist’s race, is to affiliate oneself with a given political ideology. It is, among other things, a racist trope (why else mention skin color?) intended to exert control over the terms by which art is discussed and created. By negatively associating one kind of sonnet with old whites, her intent is to elevate the poetry of Terrance Hayes (insofar as he rejects the sonnet’s more traditional “white” medium). Frankly, Hayes’s poetry isn’t well-served if this is the only way Burt can find to compliment it.

Why associate a given mode of artistic medium and expression with gender and skin color? There’s simply no justification for it. Let artists, and young artists especially, decide for themselves how to use the artistic mediums available to them. Writing a Shakespearean Sonnet verses a Hayesian Sonnet is not a political/ideological statement. It’s a matter of artistic expression.

Leave the ideological tropes of the mid-twentieth century in the mid-twentieth century.

    What are English Language Haiku?

    One of the reasons I wanted to write my post on Representational Poetry was as a prelude to this post, asking the question: What are English Language Haiku? I originally toyed with the idea that English language haiku are like Representational Poems, in that appreciating them depends on a familiarity with the precepts and aesthetics of Japanese poetic tradition. I changed my mind and both posts changed as a result. The ideas are also influenced by a conversation I’ve been having with Michael Dylan Welch.

    Hakuist or Haiku Poet?

    To use the term Hakuist is fraught. When I first started writing haiku I briefly corresponded with the late William J. Higginson, an influential writer and editor of English Language Haiku. He didn’t like the term Hakuist, saw no reason to use it, and preferred (as do other poets) the sobriquet: Haiku Poet. But this has always struck me as awkward and begs the question,  then why not Sonnet Poet, Free Verse Poet or Blank Verse Poet? Or just Poet?

    Part of the reason is the perhaps unstated feeling that writing haiku is a different undertaking than just writing poetry. And along with that, there are rules that apply to the writing of haiku that don’t apply to ‘western’ poetry. What are those rules? You’ll have to consult a millennia of Japanese poetic tradition and culture. You might want to know the difference between yugen, wabi, sabi, shasei, karumi, mono no aware, and iki for example. And why is that important? Because there’s a sort of split in the way English language haiku are appraised.

    Is an English haiku-like poem to be appraised the way any other western poem is appraised?—or is every English language haiku, in a sense, a translation? I lean toward the former, that poems written in the English language may be haiku-like but they aren’t haiku and cannot be appraised like Japanese haiku. Which is to say, for instance, that I’ve never read a convincing defense of English language haiku within the context of the Japanese literary tradition.

    Japanese haiku aren’t just a kind of empty “three line form” that can be imported. They’re intimately bound to the way the Japanese language is spoken and written, their literary tradition and philosophical culture; these facets cannot be imported and cannot be superimposed on an English speaking public. For western poets or critics to appeal to Japanese tradition in defense of their poems is an admission that their poetry has, in one way or another, failed.

    But, you say, times change and new aesthetics arise. Every great artist builds on the aesthetics of the past while traditions introduced from other cultures renew and define the history of art and literature. The sonnet wasn’t originally English, after all, but an Italian import. In fact, apart from the limerick or Anglo Saxon alliterative poems, almost every English poetic form is, at some level, imported. But what we seldom did, and never with success as far as I know, is to import the literary and philosophical valuations of another culture (like those out of which the haiku developed). Ben Jonson, perhaps, tried when he attempted to import the classical unities into Elizabethan drama. Dryden followed suit but their efforts were largely ignored and didn’t produce compelling literature on that basis.

    But if applying Japanese precepts like wabi, sabi, or karumi to western poems is a dead end, then it’s fair to ask: what is a successful English language haiku?

    Aesthetic relativism being alive and well, one answer might be that if a poem has value to you, then it’s a valuable poem. That’s okay. But that doesn’t mean a poem has literary value. You may just have poor judgment. The more interesting question is this: What makes a poem valuable to a preponderance of readers? Why do we value the haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson above others?

    So, by the end of the year, I’ll have written around fifteen hundred haiku. Individually, I think a handful of haiku might be collectible—maybe—but if they have any literary value, then it will probably be as year long cycles—each a sort of seasonal narrative. Having written so many, I have developed a sense from what might constitute an effective and powerful haiku. Inasmuch as the best Japanese haiku survive translation, they do so because they transcend their own literary and cultural points of reference. Likewise, the most memorable English language haiku will have merit for the same reasons. Among the finest Japanese examples, the following by Issa comes to mind:

    In this world
    We walk on the roof of hell
    Gazing at flowers

    Or this by Buson:

    The piercing chill I feel:
    my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
    under my heel.

    (The poem was written while Buson’s wife was alive and well, and that tells you that Buson saw haiku as poetic craft rather than a daily transcript of zen-like experiences.)

    Or Basho’s final haiku:

    Sick on a journey,
    my dreams wander
    the withered fields.

    A western reader needs no understanding of Japanese literary culture or tradition to appreciate the effectiveness and beauty of these poems. It’s the reason that I reject the assertion that haiku are somehow “extra-literary”; that they require a specialized knowledge to make them work. Or, inasmuch as this is true for any poetic form, it’s not more true for haiku. Haiku work for the same reason any poem works. But the Japanese are naturally going to value some haiku that we won’t if only because of the literary allusions and cultural references unavailable to us. Basho’s famous haiku of the frog jumping into the pond is an example.

    old pond
    a frog jumps into
    the sound of water

    You wouldn’t think a frog could be a turning point for Japanese literature, but you might if you were knowledgeable of the way poets treated frogs prior to Basho. The effectiveness of Basho’s most famous haiku is also bound up with what might strike a westerner as fussy and arcane discussions of Zen. Take the following from here:

    Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case. ¶ In Bashô’s haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal’s energy and immediacy. Plop!

    None of that is going to register with the vast majority of Western readers.

    But there are English language haiku that accomplish the same within the context of our own culture. The following haiku-like poems by Richard Wright are better, and have more depth, in our own literary tradition, than Basho’s haiku.

    In a drizzling rain
    In a flower shop’s doorway,
    A girl sells herself.

    In the falling snow
    A laughing boy holds out his palms
    Until they are white.

    The first haiku is a masterpiece. I think of an Edouard Léon Cortès painting, grey streets slicked with rain, and a Parisian flower shop. I can’t say why except that I know that Wright had moved to Paris by this point in his life. The real power of the haiku is in its association of the girl with the flowers being sold in the shop—herself like a flower. The rain that nourishes the flowers paradoxically adds pathos to the girl’s condition. Neither the girl nor the flowers were ever really meant to be sold or to even be there.

    The second poem is apt to have less meaning to a Japanese reader. The astute Western reader, knowing that Wright was black, will immediately grasp the allusion to race (and our history of racial tensions and Wright’s own struggles) when the laughing boy’s hands turn white. The observation would be far less striking were the boy’s hands white or were the poet white. In short, Wright’s haiku does what the greatest Japanese haiku do in their respective culture.

    Attempts to overlay Japanese precepts on English language haiku include not only aesthetic precepts like Wabi, Sabi and Karumi, but also syllable count, the use of metaphor, seasons words (kigo), the absence or the inclusion of the poet within the haiku.  There is a school of poets, for example, who dismiss English language haiku because they don’t follow the 5/7/5 syllable pattern of Japanese haiku—despite the fact that counting syllables in Japanese is very different from the same in English. Other poems are dismissed for their use of metaphor despite Japanese poets clearly exploiting metaphorical ideas. Conversely, western haiku that otherwise fall short are defended for their adherence to a given Japanese precept. This is no way to critique or defend English language haiku.

    When I first began writing haiku, the only thing I knew about them was from a handful of translations, foremost among them the series of books by R.H. Blythe. Fortunately for me, I suppose, I didn’t much care for Blythe’s opinions, but very much enjoyed his translations. To the extent that western writers of haiku ignore all the noise concerning what the Japanese would or wouldn’t do, I think that’s good and encourage it. And if one reads an anthology like Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, the impression is that  western poets are doing just that.

    Good.

    We have our own tradition now (a hundred years isn’t bad) and a thousand plus years of poetic tradition perfectly capable of sorting the good haiku from the bad without reference to the Japanese. Our haiku are our own and I like them like that.

    upinVermont | April 20th 2019

    On Representational Poetry

    The painting at right, if you can call it that, is quite famous, but only in the right circles.

    If you’re not already familiar with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. then you may wonder why these are considered worthy of a museum wall. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to have to accept the critical construct from which their value is obtained.  That is, the artwork’s importance exists entirely within the critical framework from which it arose. Another way to think of it is that the artwork gives value to the critical construct, making the critical construct the work of art rather then the other way around and, in truth, much art of the 20th century probably falls under this rubric. “Modern” art never stopped being representative, but rather than immortalizing lovers, wealthy merchants or aristocrats, 20th century “abstract” artists immortalized ideas, values, schools of criticism and conceptualizations. The long and short of it is that without an appreciation of their historical and artistic context, Rauscheberg’s artwork is little more than nice canvasses on which to actually paint something. Or, to put it another way, without the accompanying essays explaining White Paintings, Rauschenberg’s work is meaningless. The same can’t be said for the Mona Lisa. No one disputes that the painting is of someone and it’s valuation can proceed from that alone (without a knowledge of DaVinci or the painting’s historical context).

    The problem for poets is that poetry is about ideas and has been from the get go. But nothing kills a poem like turning it into a lineated five paragraph essay. 20th Century poets got around that (whether successfully is up for debate) by turning their poems into (to coin a phrase) Representational Poetry. I would prefer to call it Conceptual Poetry, but that parking place is already taken.  So, thinking big: One might divide poetry from the 20th century onward into Notional and Representational Poetry. By far the vast majority is the former.

    Notional, among it’s other definitions, is defined as:

    Consisting of, or conveying, notions or ideas; expressing abstract conceptions.

    In, On a Definition of Poetry, I defined poetry as being more than it’s notional or semantic content. Poetry also emphasizes linguistic form, like rhyme or meter (as found in any Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme). Both traditional and free verse poems are notional but only traditional poetry emphasizes linguistic form. Representational Poetry, as I use the term, diminishes or entirely dispenses with the notional intent of language. You could think of Representational Poems as paintings painted with words. If Representational Poetry can be considered a continuum that starts where Notional Poetry breaks down, then I would argue that the most successful Representational Poet of the 20th century is John Ashbery.

    He still uses recognizable words and one may understand individual phrasal units, but Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ashbery’s most famous poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is the best known because (if we accept close readings) it’s one of the few Ashbery poems that can be explained as a Notional rather than Representational poemwhich is to say, I have read analyses of Convex Mirror that explain the poem in terms of a congruent whole—as having a unified meaning. Another example of this sort of “weak” Representational Poetry, might be Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman (under the rubric Language Poetry):

    The phone is for someone.
    The next second it seemed.
    But did that really mean.
    Yet Los Angeles is full.

    Naturally enough I turn to.
    Some things are reversible, some.
    You don’t have that choice.
    I’m going to Jo’s for. []

    An example of “strong” Representational Poetry” might be what’s called Typographic Poetry (and I’m guessing that Concrete Poetry falls into this spectrum):

    bauhaus-kurt-schwitters-typography

    Wherein even the minimally notional content of syntactic units, such as we find in Ashbery, is dispensed with. A similar example of concrete poetry from here:

    O Pulsar

    O Pulsar (The Pulsar), 1975, Augusto de Campos

    In keeping with the definition of Representational Poetry as poetry that discards the notional intent of language (or verbal significance), consider Wikipedia’s definition of Concrete Poetry: “an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance.”

    So:

    • Representatoinal Poetry isn’t to be confused with Visual Poetry, Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry or Picture Poetry (all being notional) which, if you’re the Poetry Foundation, is nevertheless precisely what you do. If you’re the Poetry Foundation, you call George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, written in the 17th century, an example of 20th century “Concrete Poetry”.
    • The Princeton Encyclopedia defines Visual Poetry as follows: “In Visual Poetry, in the strict sense, the visual form of the text becomes an object for apprehension in its own terms…. Among devices for creating visual form that written language furnishes the poet [not available to oral poetry] are lineation, line length, line-grouping, indentation, intra- and inerlinear white space, punctuation, capitalization, and size and style of type. ¶ In general, the visual form of a poem may be figurative or non-figurative; if figurative, it may be mimetic or abstract.”
    • Free Verse is Visual Poetry in that free verse relies on its typographic appearance, unlike traditional poetry, to define it. Traditional poetry (arising from oral traditions rather than typographic traditions) relies on the audible effects of meter and rhyme to define it.
    • Representational Poetry is Visual Poetry that dispenses with the notional intent of langauge.

    Representational poetry has far more in common with a Rauschenberg than Shakespeare. Appreciating the representational poetry means having a knowledge of the critical school and/or concepts which gave rise to it and which the poetry is “representing”. If you haven’t read up on Concrete Poetry, for example, then an example of the same is probably going to look like somebody’s bored doodling. That said, some representational poems can be appreciated as aesthetic works of art in and of themselves, as with “O Pulsar” (above) though, as a work of art, it may or may not be to your taste.

    So, one reasons for this post is as a way to hang your hat on the efforts of an artist like Ashbery or de Campos. If you’re trying to read Ashbery as a notional poet, then it’s little wonder that your efforts will end in frustration if not exasperation. One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art. We view art, we don’t try to read it.  That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.

    If one treats words,  phrases and language as a sort of painter’s pallet with which to turn pages into canvasses (divorcing words and phrases from any sort of notional congruence) then it’s a legitimate question as to whether such “poems” can be considered successful. But then that brings us back to the standards by which we judge such poems—as Notional or Representational? And if the latter, then that requires knowing something about the history behind the poetry. Like the blank canvass of a Rauschenberg, is the accompanying essay enough? To quote the critic William Logan:

    “If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.”

    Do Representational Poems, like the blank canvasses of Rauschenberg, have any  legitimate value if judged by standards other than their own?—if judged by standards other than those that gave rise to and define them?

    Only time will tell.

    upinVermont | April 19th 2019

    •  

    The Search for Meaning in a New Generation of Poets & Readers

    So this post began with a number of titles, none of which I could decide on. The essence of my post is this: Why is Instapoetry so popular? But I didn’t want to limit this to instapoetry. I think there’s a fundamental shift in what readers are looking for in the 21st century. I was tempted to set off the youngest generation against establishment poets, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s a formal establishment so much as an established and shared set of aesthetics that have been taught, practiced and accepted by poets going back several generations now. And I think it was summed up, to a degree, by Vermont’s poet laureate, Chard deNiord. I asked him, in a public setting, to consider the success of instapoets like Rupi Kauer. Mr. deNiord has, in the past, taken a dim view of self-published poets, let alone poetry on the world wide web. So how to explain the success of a poet like Rupi Kauer, whose books sell in the millions?

    Mr. deNiord’s response was what one would expect (and he’s hardly alone in his criticism). He answered that while Kauer’s poetry, and by extension Instapoetry, is popular, it lacks subtlety, imagery, metaphor, narrative capacity and irony. The durability of Instapoetry, he argued, will be short-lived.

    For the most part, what Mr. deNoird said is true. Instapoetry does lack the figurative language, metaphor and irony of established poetry if only because of its brevity. In the case of Kauer, even when she writes longer poems, her efforts are lackluster at best. So what is it about her poetry that has earned her, and continues to earn her, a success that’s the envy of her critics?

    The answer, as I wrote in my earlier post Of Instapoets & Instapoetry, is that she and other instapoets aren’t so much writing poems, but proverbs.

    “My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.)”

    And what do proverbs do? Proverbs are meant to instruct. They are pithy pieces of didacticism. The online Collaborative International Dictionary of English defines a proverb as follows:

    “1. An old and common saying; a phrase which is often repeated; especially, a sentence which briefly and forcibly expresses some practical truth, or the result of experience and observation; a maxim; a saw; an adage. -Chaucer. Bacon. [1913 Webster]”

    Now the interesting thing is that this, across cultures, can be applied to the best and most memorable poetry produced by those cultures. When you think of Elizabethan Poetry, the Sonnets of Sidney, Spencer and Shakespeare are nothing if not proverbial. The Shakespearean Sonnet’s final couplets, as perfected by Shakespeare, offer us one proverb after another. Consider Sonnet 129:

     The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    Is lust in action; and till action, lust
    Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
    Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
    Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
    Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
    Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
    On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
    Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
    Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
    A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
    Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

    The final couplet could easily be made a proverb or instapoem. Elizabethan poets liked to make arguments. Donne’s poems are full of argument, debate and point making. When the later metaphysical poets weren’t busy making sly arguments in shorter poems, they’re longer poems were bestowing instructive narratives upon the reader. The Sonnet itself, is essentially a poem of argument, and that tradition was carried through, for the most part, to the end of the 19th century. That said, it was the early 19th century, with the Romantics, that one begins to discern a less didactic, instructive, or proverbial intent in poetry. Poets like Keats begin to put greater emphasis, in effect, on projecting the poet’s subjective experience. For example, there’s no argument being made in Keats’s Ode to Autumn. There’s no debate or didactic intent. Though the period in which he lived helped to create Keats, Keats innate genius allowed him to translate his subjective experience into great poetry. I think one could argue that Keat’s last poems created the template for the poetry of the next two centuries. Helen Vendler wrote a whole book on Keats’s Odes, and Ode to Autumn, and still couldn’t explain why it’s a great poem. We innately recognize and feel the genius behind the poem, but ask any reader what point or argument Keats was making, and the whole poem begins to feel like a zen koan. Can a poem be great without making any point whatsoever? Keats’s poem speaks to our experience of the world—and our experience of the world exists happily without the need of explanation or justification. One could even go so far as to argue that Keats’s aesthetic removed God from poetry. That is, rather than find truth in God, as with so many poets before him, Keats found truth in beauty—that is, our subjective experience and enjoyment of the world.

    Without turning this post into a book length thesis, I would argue that the poetry of subjective experience, Romanticism, became the dominant mode of expression in the 20th century. (The Victorian era, meanwhile, was the last gasp of a didactic aesthetic that had lasted hundreds of years—a didactic bent that was, perhaps, closely allied with the by then rigid formalities of meter and rhyme.)

    The problem is that by the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, what Victorian Poetry was to the didactic impulse, contemporary free verse was to subjective experience. We have seen a hundred years of poetry that has been reduced to, in many ways, the equivalent of mood music. I recall attending writing classes in which students, upon being asked why they wrote a given poem, couldn’t answer the question. They might defiantly answer that their poems didn’t need a reason. And these students are now in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and they’re still writing poems, I would argue, that are little more than naval gazing travelogues of their own emotional terrain. I recently looked at a copy of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. His massive book, and it is massive, struck me as nothing more than an aimless reliquary of a poet’s meandering inner life. Like anybody cares. (And apparently not that many do.) It’s no secret that poetry since the modernists has been a slow fade into irrelevance and obscurity. Could it be that nobody cares how poets feel about their feelings? Is it no longer enough for poets to share their inner (at the risk of redundancy) emotional landscapes? Is it possible that poets, by in large, just aren’t that interesting?

    And this finally brings me back to instapoetry and Vermont’s Poet Laureate Chard deNiord (and other critics of instapoetry) who, to a degree, rightfully point out that instapoetry is artless. Or as Rebecca Watts put it: “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.” So, again, why is that? Why is this “artless” poetry selling in the millions? The answer is that Instapoetry, for all its deserved criticism, is doing the one thing that poetry over the last hundred years hasn’t been doing: making an argument, offering pithy insights, and giving the reader a nugget of truth to walk away with. I’d say that Rebecca Watts misconstrues (self-servingly) the reason that poetry like Kauer’s sells. It’s not because its artless, which it is, but because Kauer’s poetry has a message. The handful of poems by Watt’s, those that I’ve read, don’t. They’re more like abstracted expressions of “interiority”. Likewise, when I read Chard deNiord’s poem Confession of a Bird Watcher, I find it to be a perfectly charming poem, artful in every way, metaphorically capturing the poet’s feelings about his feelings. To that extent, deNiord’s poem (confession is in the very title) is in many ways the pinnacle of 20th century poetic sentiment—the distillation of the poet writing about his own subjective experience. But if instapoetry’s success is any indication, the tide has turned. The poetry of the last few decades is already like the Victorian poetry written in 1919—a caricature of itself. Like mood music, the poetry is evocative but also all but meaningless. (To be provocative, I would argue that Keats transcended the relative “meaninglessness” of a poem like Ode to Autumn through the genius of his aesthetic vision; and few poets since Keats have possessed that kind of genius.) If instapoetry’s success is any indication, readers are looking for poetry that makes an argument, has a message and that communicates a meaning and significance beyond the poet’s own experience. They’re no longer willing to search for a poem’s meaning if that means divining what the poem meant to the poet writing it. The days of the self-absorbed poet are over.

    I suspect that as the 20th century recedes from memory, just as the 19th faded in the early 20th, we’ll see a resurgence of this new/old way of writing poetry. If they want to stand out though, instapoets are going to have to write more than three line proverbs (and some are). They’re going to have to turn their proverbs into artful poems. As it is, artless poetry with a message sells, but eventually that’s not going to be enough. There’s probably only room for a handful of poets like that, and I suspect those slots are already taken. Newer poets are going to have to write artful poetry with messages. Lucky for them, they have a millennia of poets (prior to the 20th century) to learn from.

    All in all, I’d say we’re finally seeing the beginning of the end of 20th century poetry (and I couldn’t be happier to see it go). Time for something new and different. I look forward to poetry that, to paraphrase Frost, stakes out its lover’s quarrel with the world.

    upinVermont | March 13th 2019

    The Future of Poetry

    futureSo off and on I’ve been getting emails from aspiring young poets. They all suffer from the same flaws—inexperience, mawkish sentimentality, guileless clichés, the urge to tell rather than to show, and a lack of humility. I was no different at that age—and that’s a good thing. A certain arrogance, impatient, defiant self-confidence, and heedlessness is good and necessary when you’re young.  For the record, I’m no less self-confident now, but perspective and a sense of humor have done wonders for my other and sundry sins. Age, ideally, has that effect on us.

    I remember being furious with criticism of my poetry.

    My first reaction was always to conclude that my critic was a damned fool and couldn’t recognize genius if their lives depended on it. I then consoled myself with the indisputable analogy that I, like Keats and Beethoven, was misunderstood in my own time. (With maturity, I’ve limited my analogy to Keats.) But that kind of youthful anger and indignation is also a good thing if the poet channels it. After a suitable period of rage, I would recognize the kernel of truth in the criticism (and the only thing worse than being criticized is being correctly criticized). The good kind of rage is the kind that makes you determined never to be criticized like that again. That’s the way to improve.

    As I’ve written before, the most devastating and corrective piece of criticism I ever received was from Thomas Lux, who said of my youthful poetry: “There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically.” And in the interest of full disclosure, this is the poem that prompted the comment:

    Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
    Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
    Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
    And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
    Gone are the pinks of the water Lilly
    Adorning the lake’s azure reflection;
    Gone the deep lucence of a turquoise sea—
    Wistful memories to ease dejection.
    ··Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees
    Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
    Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
    Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
    ··The shadings are stark on a winter’s day
    ··Though budding colors are never far away.

    I have a hand-written book full of poems like these—and worse.

    At that age Keats was already writing his first masterpieces. I was falling behind. But it’s a lesson every young poet needs to learn—and until they do the advice is like a Zen Koan. What does that even mean? There are other pieces of advice that are like that, one that I just offered a correspondent: “The art of writing about yourself is to not write about yourself.” There’s a lot of experience that goes behind that koan, but the day it makes sense it will strike like satori.

    But the coolest thing about the poetry I’ve been getting are the rhymes and rhythms of hip hop. Given the moribund ubiquity of free verse, it’s good to see literary poets once again playing with language. But here’s the challenge: How to combine the rhymes and rhythms of hip hop (where beat and performance drive language and content), with literary poetry in which content shapes the rhyme and rhythm? And how will young poets combine the dense figurative language of literary poetry with the direct and explicit momentum of a hip hop lyric? I hope that some among the youngest generation take it on. He or she will have to have a foot in both worlds, in Eminem and Shakespeare.

    I see the potential. We just need a poet with the arrogance, impatience, self-confidence, heedlessness and genius to take it on.

    upinVermont | January 22nd 2019

    The Life in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

    mary oliver

    Angel Valentin for The New York Times

    I started this post with a different title, but death is an illusory thing. What’s important about Mary Oliver is the life in her poetry. She put the earth in her lines more so than any poet since John Clare (or the Japanese poet Issa). Both poets, and there are surely poets in other languages, were careful and loving observers of the natural world, and found within it our humanity.

    She was also, as far as I know, the only English language poet of the last 50 years able to make a living as a poet. That is, she wasn’t a glorified “court poet” under the protective patronage of a college or university press. She actually sold the poetry she wrote. The reasons for that are many, and none of them foremost, but all parts whose sum exceeded the whole. She was comprehensible, nearly always created a time and locale in her poetry, and possessed a gift for the furtive and original metaphor. Her best book, in my opinion is What Do We Know, and so I’ll take most of my examples from there. The book has always struck me as feeling like a unified whole, an encapsulation of her art, more than just the latest collection.

    But for an example of the kind of furtive metaphor of which she was a master, here is the opening to Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks:

    What is so utterly invisible
    as tomorrow?
    Not love,
    not the wind,

    not the inside of a stone.
    Not anything.
    And yet, how often I’m fooled—
    I’m wading along

    in the sunlight—
    and I’m sure I can only see the fields and the ponds shining
    days ahead….

    The first two verses are fairly ordinary, but we already get a feel for where we are—wind, a stone, and her musing on the inside of a stone. She already plants our feet on earth. But then there’s that furtive metaphor, “wading along in the sunlight”, a line that would never occur to the vast swathe of contemporary poets, and the reader breaths the clear waters of Oliver’s poetry.  She will talk about ponds, and her poet’s imagination infuses her lines with the metaphors of water. She continues:

    I can see the light spilling/like a shower of meteors

    And later her legs are “splashing over the edge of darkness”. It’s figurative language like this that enriches her poetry and is the lifeblood of poetry. The magnificence of earth, and life on earth, makes itself felt not just in description but in the very lineaments of her figurative language. This was a trick of Shakespeare, Keats and T.S. Eliot. And you will find it in all of her poetry (all italics are mine):

    the palavering wind/is walking/through the pines [p. 48

    The death went into her
    like lightning
    in slow motion,
    it mashed her knees,
    it ruined the red glove of her heart [p. 49]

    The latter prepositional construction is a kind metaphor for which Oliver possessed a genius. Even when her imagery skirts the clichéd, she finds ways to breathe unexpected life into the commonplace:

    the snowy tissue of clouds pass over [p. 5]

    Or describing rainfall:

    …I fall to my knees and then the flowers cry out, and then the wind breaks open its silver countries of rain

    Or when describing the sea:

    oh bed of silk,/lie back now on your prairies of blackness your fields of sunlight

    In any other context “fields of sunlight” would be clichéd, but as a description of the ocean Oliver breathes new life into the collocation. If she had simply written  “snowy clouds”, one might rightly call it clichéd, but the collocation “snowy tissue of clouds” breathes just enough life into the commonplace that the reader pauses. And when describing a hummingbird she writes:

    He is a gatherer of the fine honey of promise… [p. 14]

    Most other poets would have written “promise of honey”, but how easy to give new lungs to the trite and clichéd with a little turn of phrase. There’s much that her generation could have learned from her, but didn’t.

    The gentleness of her poetry can belie her clear-eyed and unflinching assessment of decay and death—and that dying can be cruel. Describing an owl:

    …this beast of a bird
    with her thick breast
    and her shimmering wings—
    whose nest, in the dark trees,

    is trimmed with screams and bones—
    whose beak
    is the most terrible cup
    I will ever enter.  [Beauty, p. 13]

    She could as easily be describing Baba Yaga. And None of this describes the owl but describes what was in Oliver, and in us, who see the owl.

    Those who treat her poetry as little more than tittles for the gardening column of Ladies Home Journal fail to recognize the inner life of her poems. They’re not just about the natural world, but a kind of metaphorical landscape of her (and our) inner life. They do so humbly. They don’t invent a new grammar or syntax. The don’t contort themselves with typographic hand waving. She makes no grand claims for her poetry. Her poems are like prayers. And in the poem Praying, she all but describes the artistic principle guiding her poetry:

    It doesn’t have to be
    the blue iris, it could be
    weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
    small stones; just
    pay attention, then patch

    a few words together and don’t try
    to make them elaborate, this isn’t
    a contest but the doorway

    into thanks, and a silence in which
    another voice may speak.

    [Devotions, p. 131]

    That she made a living as a poet speaks to her appeal among readers who also avoid elaboration, who draw no contest between poets, and who enter poems as doorways into gratitude—and joy. There can be a plainly adolescent joy even in Oliver’s last poems. What amazes is that where a lesser poet’s effort inevitably unravels in flights of mawkish sentimentality, Oliver grounds her exuberance in our senses. She never lets the earth further than she can touch, or smell or inhale:

    Last night
    the rain
    spoke to me
    slowly, saying,

    what joy
    to come falling
    out of the brisk cloud,
    to be happy again

    in a new way
    on the earth!
    That’s what it said
    as it dropped,

    smelling of iron,
    and vanished
    like a dream of the ocean
    into the branches…

    [Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, p. 36]

    And if there are lines by which I’d choose to remember her I would pick the closing lines of the same poem:

    …my right hand
    was holding my left hand
    which was holding the tree
    which was filled with stars

    and the soft rain—
    imagine! imagine!
    the long and wondrous journeys
    still to be ours.

    Mary Oliver died January 17th, 2019.

    upinVermont | January 21st 2019

    Of Instapoets & Instapoetry

    So, last night I was contacted by a publicist hoping that I would interview an instragram poet by the name of Nicholas Denmon. I’m not familiar with Denmon’s efforts but am familiar with instapoetry and even bought Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. In case you’re not familiar with the term Instapoetry, it refers (if contemptuously in some circles) to free verse poems that are as little as two lines or as epic as twelve.

    Kaur

    They have nothing to do with haiku and at worst are little more than declarative sentences. At right is one of Kaur’s better known examples and typifies the ‘form’, if it can be said to have one.

    But what a kerfuffle I’ve missed these last six months. Turns out there are a number of poets and critics who have written some scathing reviews of Kaur’s poetry—and Instapoetry in general.  Foremost among them, as far as I can gather, is Rebecca Watts, who wrote a fairly damning review in PN Review.

    Momentarily setting aside Watts’s diatribe, I didn’t read Kaur’s book for its mastery of the arts of language and poetry. On that count, I think, a two or three line instaresumé would suffice. But she does have one skill set shared by other “masters”, and I use that term loosely, of the instapoem. Take the instapoem above. What’s clever about it is what makes it memorable. It’s a species of rhetoric, what’s called a figure of repetition. It’s an example of isocolon. Possibly also scesis onomaton and some other less pronouncable rhetorical figures I’m too rusty to recall. Isocolon is defined as “a rhetorical device that involves a succession of sentences, phrases, and clauses of grammatically equal length.” Strictly speaking, the two phrases aren’t of equal length, but close enough.

    The most memorable lines in poetry, let alone Shakespeare, are commonly pristine examples of various rhetorical figures. Here’s Shakespeare’s use of isocolon from Sister Miram Joseph’s compendium Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language:

    “Your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.” [p. 60]

    You might also observe that Kaur’s verse is an example of grammatic parallelism, something which virtually defines Walt Whitman’s poetry. The point I’m making is that part of what makes Kaur’s verse memorable (along with good inspirational quotes and add copy) is her knack for rhetoric. This isn’t something to be lightly dismissed. While her Kaur-2Instapoetry will never be confused with great literature, it’s worth trying to understand some of the elements that make it work and make it appealing. At left is another example.

    This instapoem pirouettes nicely, and meaningfully, on the pun of ‘spine’ (a pun is a rhetorical figure). While I’m in no way comparing Kaur to Shakespeare, this is the sort of game Shakespeare often played, and it works. Hence the appeal of Kaur’s poetry.

    Instapoetry can be, to a degree, a rhetorician’s playground. The best examples, and the most memorable, I’m willing to bet, are those that skillfully, if unwittingly, make use of rhetorical figures, puns, figures of repetition, amplification, balance, antitheses, etc… Although I’m not going to exhaustively review Kaur’s poetry to prove or disprove my point, my hunch is that her own instapoetry, as compared to her peers, is the most skillful in that regard, and is amplified by subject matter that is, in fact, meaningful to a great many readers: immigration, domestic violence, sexual gratification along with sexual assault. Out of curiosity, I googled Tyler Knott Gregson’s favorite poems and landed here. Many of these poems contain examples of rhetorical figures found throughout poetry, though not as condensed as Kaur’s. All this is to say that when I read Rebecca Watts’s criticism of Instapoetry, I think her criticism of the verse form is rather shallow. I’m tempted to write more on that but a sufficiently thorough and effective response to Watts can be found here.

    Among other criticisms, the most curious is the following:

    “From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords”

    This assertion deserves some skepticism. Above all, correlation does not equal causation. Just because these short verse forms coincide with social media’s ‘short-form communication’ doesn’t mean the former is a result of the latter. Are we to blame the entirety of Japanese literary tradition on the invention of the Internet?—the five line Tanka and the three line Haiku? But setting aside Japan, what about Martial’s epigrams? These are nothing if not instapoems.

    The bee enclosed and through the amber shown
    Seems buried in the juice which was his own.

    Compare the following by Martial:

    You never wrote a poem,
    yet criticize mine?
    Stop abusing me or write something fine
    of your own!

    To the much wordier Tyler Knott Gregson:

    Gregson-2

    And Ben Jonson also took up Epigrams. Was this turn to short-form communication also a result of social media?

    XXXIV Of Death

    He that fears death, or mournes it, in the just,
    Shewes of the resurrection little trust.

    [The Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, p. 16]

    Compared to Rupi Kaur:

    “when death
    takes my hand
    i will hold you with the other
    and promise to find you
    in every lifetime”

    Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers

    So, apart from its name, I’d argue that instapoetry isn’t anything literature hasn’t seen before. Despite Watts’s criticism of instapoetry as “artless” — “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.”— Kaur’s verse is firmly within the century-long aesthetic manifesto of free verse. The instapoem by Ben Jonson is metrical and rhymes. The instapoem by Kaur is free verse. If artlessness is a lack of metaphor, figurative language, meter (let’s say), rhyme, or any of the “Arts of Language” associated with poetry prior to Ezra Pound, then artlessness equally applies to the entirety of the free verse project. There’s really little difference, at all, between a poem by Tyler Gregson and one by W.S. Merwin. Merwin, of all poets, anticipates the “artlessness” of instapoetry (if it’s to be labeled “artless”). To be blunt, there’s not a single criticism that Watts levels at instapoetry that can’t also be leveled at Watts’s own poetry (let alone the poems in the same publication, in the selfsame issue, that printed her critique). Not one. To whit: A poem of hers, Turning, published at The Guardian begins:

    Now it’s autumn
    and another year in which I could leave you
    is a slowly sinking ship.

    The first stanza is a declarative statement ending with a clichéd metaphor. In isolation, its virtually indistinguishable from any number of Kaur’s instapoems. That said, here’s a poem by Kaur:

    i know i
    should crumble
    for better reasons
    but have you seen
    that boy
    he brings
    the sun to
    its knees
    every night

    Kaur’s passage, “brings the sun to its knees”, is a much more original and powerful metaphor than Watts’s trite “sinking ship”. Watts does better, though, as her poem goes on. She makes an effort: “The air has developed edges”;  “…the brazen meadow no longer/ presumes to press its face to the window/ like an inquisitor.”; “even the river will evince a thicker skin”; “…my breath each morning will flower white…”; “all of summer’s schemes will fly like cuckoos”; “Bonfire smoke/ between us like a promise lingers.”

    How do instapoets compare? Watts personifies the “brazen” meadow (as an inquisitor via a simile) that presses its face to the window—an example of prosopopoeia. This isn’t bad, as far as things go, but the simile “like an inquisitor” gilds the lily. Compare this to an instapoem by K. Towne Junior:

    sometimes a heart must be
    broken to slip through the bars of
    its cage

    K. Towne Jr’s prosopopoeia is nearly identical to Watts. The only difference is that K. Towne Jr possessed the wisdom not to add the extenuating simile, like a prisoner.  Watts writes that “even the river will evince a thicker skin”. This and the metaphorical “the air has developed edges” and “my breath…will flower white” are, I think (again, being a little rusty), examples of catachresis. A good definition of catachresis comes from here:

    Catachresis is a figure of speech in which writers use mixed metaphors in an inappropriate way, to create rhetorical effect. Often, it is used intentionally to create a unique expression. Catachresis is also known as an exaggerated comparison between two ideas or objects.

    Do instapoets use mixed metaphors like catechresis? Here’s Tyler Gregson, even using the same imagery, combining catachresis and prosopopoeia:

    Gregson-3

    The parallels aren’t exact but close enough to say that Watts doesn’t do anything, as far as the “art” of poetry goes, that instapoets like Gregson and Kaur don’t. So either their verse is as artful as hers, or hers is as artless as theirs. And that begs the question, if artless poetry sells, why is contemporary poetry in such a miserable state? As it happens, a number of observers ascribe the criticism to nothing more than envy and resentment. How is it that an MFA graduate, having spent thousands to obtain a degree in the “art of poetry”, molders in the obscurity of barely read poetry journals while an artless versifier like Rupi Kaur, never published in an important journal and lacking the grateful connections afforded by academia, amasses a following of tens of thousands and sells over a million copies of her book? She hasn’t even been published <gasp> in the American Poetry Review! How is it that that once living synechdoche of everything the late 20th century poetry establishment stood for, the inscrutable John Ashbery, is already fading <understatement> into the obscurity of two (2) reviews at Amazon while rupi kaur’s Milk and Honey has already garnered five thousand eight hundred and eighty (5,880)? The establishment poets of the last 50 years are left like Anthony whistling i’th’marketplace, while the crowds run off to gawk at rupi’s riggish Cleopatra. And rather than give them pause, they have drawn the only possible conclusion: It must be because their poetry is so artful whilst the poems of the instapoets are so artless.

    Ask me and I would say that the free verse manifesto of the last hundred years has become the serpent biting its own tale. Poets can’t declare, as England’s Poetry Society did, that:

    “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.”

    Then point a trembling finger at instapoets proclaiming that their verses are not poems and their authors are not poets. But, to the embarrassment of pots and kettles everywhere, they do.

    My own opinion of instapoetry is that of amusement. It does take a certain kind of talent to write them—though maybe not poetic talent. I have a collection of books that I love, all of them collected proverbs. In Vermont, for example, we might say of some: He’s so crooked, he could hide behind a corkscrew. If we’re impatient: He’s slow as a hog on ice with its tail froze in. In my dictionary of American proverbs: A Wolf may change his mind but never his fur. Another proverb (worthy of Kaur): A friend by your side can keep you warmer than the richest fur. If you’re feeling put upon: The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Two other books I have: Shakespeare’s proverb lore, because Shakespeare loved proverbs and sprinkled hundreds throughout his plays (many of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are actually inspired by proverbs), and another is of English proverbs prior to 1500: Leave not an old friend for new. Prior to 1500 we might say: The habit does not make the monk. Nowadays we say: He’s all hat and no cattle.

    My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.) And you can trace that genius in other poets and writers. Kahlil Gibran, who Kaur reminds me of, was beloved by readers, considered a poet, and was a wellspring of proverbs:

    “You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore but let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of heaven dance between you.”

    Visiting a Pinterest site I came across this instapoem which, again, is really a proverb (and worth waking up to every morning):

    We are all bad in someone’s story.

    But if all this isn’t enough to mollify the critics of instapoetry, then the best I can do is to paraphrase one of Rupi Kaur’s poems:

    the world
    gives her
    so much pain
    but here she is
    making gold out of it

    La!

    You have no excuse.

    I’ve struggled with what to write, knowing that I can’t be silent. Joseph Brodsky once wrote that “what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” And that’s the problem. What does one write when one’s fellow citizens are responsible for the evils in one’s country?

    I look back at horrible events and passages in history and wonder if I would have had the guts to defy the wrongs and evils of a given time. To do so was easier in some times and places than others. To speak out against the evils of the Nazis, Kmer Rouge, Moaism, Stalinism or North Korea’s ‘dear leader’ meant and means certain death—for the lucky ones. We like to think the danger resided in a given leader, government or faceless ideology, but the greatest danger always resides in the citizen.

    The evil that tears nursing babies from a mother’s breast; that steals children from the arms of parents; that concentrates those children in cages is the kind for which there is no rationale, no justification, no excuse; and yet rationalizations, justifications and excuses are being daily expounded by America’s citizens—in homes, media, political office. Do we argue against the ideology or do we shame the citizens expounding it?

    In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt wrote:

    “Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

    I will not comply. I will not remain silent, if only so that my children’s children don’t ask why I said nothing. What is being done in the name of the law, supported by the citizens of the United States, is not just evil but banal in its malevolence—in it’s ignorance of the law and simple human decency. You might say we don’t live under conditions of terror and if so that merely argues you’re not the one being terrorized. You might say the law is the law. Then you are willfully ignorant of the laws that enslaved fellow Americans, laws that slaughtered tens of millions in Germany, Russia, Cambodia, China. Living in a civil society means tolerating insult. Living in a civil society means possessing the resilience demanded by freedom of speech and expression. Living in a civil society means stating unequivocally: If you continue to vote for and support—whether for prejudice, expedience or willful ignorance—a media, politician and party that continues to cruelly and maliciously victimize fellow human beings, don’t think that later generations will excuse you.

    You have no excuse.