The Minimalist Poet | A Place to Start

What inspires this first post (of several I hope) are the various bloggers and vloggers, in German and English, who were initially inspired by Minimalism, vloggers like Matt D’Avella and Anthony Ongaro at Break the Twitch. I’ve also enjoyed recent articles like Kyle Chayka who criticize the more (ironically) insipid and commodified aspects of “minimalism”, close quotes. She writes: “The literature of the minimalist lifestyle is an exercise in banality.” Hopefully, I can avoid that.

Since Minimalism isn’t solely about how many forks and spoons one owns, I thought I’d explore what the aesthetic of Minimalism might mean to a poet, even if it risks being ahistorical and anachronistic. If you’re not familiar with minimalism, the best place to start is probably with The Minimalists. You can watch a trailer for their autobiographical movie here. At the heart of minimalism is the belief that neither possessions nor the pursuit of possessions will bring you happiness. There’s freedom in loving what you have and only having what you love. And there’s a freedom in living a life that costs less. All possessions come with costs that can be anything from the obligations of ownership to the debt incurred by their acquisition.

There are some minimalists who go so far as to limit their possessions to 100 items or less, and why not? But for most, I think, minimalism means knowing the difference between the meaningful and the superfluous; and that will be different for every person. And as far as that goes, Minimalism is hardly new. If you go back to Stoicim, the Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, you will discover that his writings and beliefs are eerily similar to current Minimalist literature, right down to their own version of mindfulness and the implicit moral “goodness” of fewer posessions. As Wikipedia writes: ” According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself…” Modern Minimalism can easily be understood as a modern variant of stoicism.

I originally started this post meaning to define minimalism the way one defines good poetry verses bad. But if there’s one lesson for Minimalists, it’s that there’s no one right or wrong way to simplify ones life. There’s not a set number of possessions that defines minimalism. And while Minimalism may seem like a lifestyle only the well-off can afford, living beyond ones means is hardly the province of the rich. Too many allow themselves to be defined through their possessions rather than by self-possession. As The Minimalists like to say: Love people, use things; the opposite never works. How does one define a possession when writing poetry? I would say it is when the poet makes a possession of his or her poem: when the poet treats the poem as a storehouse rather than a meeting place, when the poet is unwilling to give ownership of the poem to the reader but dictates to the reader how the poem should be interpreted or how the reader should feel.

Just to start out with, and to demonstrate that this concern with possessions and lifestyle is hardly new, I thought it might be interesting to read opinions from two of our most famous Elizabethan poets—Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. If there’s a cynical difference between Hellenistic stoicism and modern Minimalism, it’s that the former rationalized the reasons we shouldn’t want (and were better off without) the kinds of possessions we weren’t about to get a hold of anyways. Call it Sour Grape Minimalism: The “Didn’t want it anyways and am morally superior with out it”-Minimalism.” Current day minimalism assures us that we shouldn’t want (and are better off without) all the possessions we did actually managed to horde. Ultimately though, the goals of Stoicism and Minimalism are largely the same—to be happy with less.

Shakespeare most directly addressed his opinion on excess in the character of King Lear:

    O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars 
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—

  [Act II, iii 261-267]

Beyond the contradictory testimony of his poetry, we know nothing of Shakespeare’s personality. We only know through legal documents that while he lived frugally in London, he became, as Bill Bryson put it, “one of the most conspicuous men of property in Stratford”. His bequest included four houses. If he lived like a minimalist in London, perhaps to avoid taxes, he was no minimalist in Stratford. Back then, a lack of property and possessions most commonly meant a short, if not brutal, life of servitude. In Elizabethan England, if you weren’t the hustler, then you were the hustled. But in his art?—poetry? If he were alive to day he might have written:

Allow literature not more than the words needed, and poetry is as cheap as prose.   

The line between traditional poetry and prose, in Shakespeare’s day, wasn’t remotely as stark as it is today. But maybe you get the drift?  Traditional poetry has been stripped of what made it “gorgeous”—meter, rhyme, figurative language, metaphor, form. But insofar as semantic content goes, all these traditional techniques are superfluous. Stripping poetry of this superfluity hasn’t made it beastly, but it has made it prose. So my own approach to minimalism (as regards the aesthetics of poetry) is to keep some of the clutter around. Shakespeare, for his part, did more than keep some clutter around. His earlier works were baroque in their excess, their puns, their extended conceits, and convoluted eddies into, for all intents and purposes, plays within plays.

 So makest thou faith an enemy to faith;
 And like a civil war set'st oath to oath,
 Thy tongue against thy tongue. O, let thy vow
 First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
 That is, to be the champion of our church!
 What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
 And may not be performed by thyself,
 For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
 Is not amiss when it is truly done,
 And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
 The truth is then most done not doing it:
 The better act of purposes mistook
 Is to mistake again; though indirect,
 Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
 And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
 Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.

          [Act III, Scene I] 287-

And Shakespeare goes on like this for another twenty five lines. The link to this site actually explains, in equally convoluted modern English, what Shakespeare is trying to say. He could have simply said: Keep your vow to the church. Instead, as was the fashion of the day, he wrote an extended conceit that is, in essence, a kind of play within a play. Shakespeare literally must have seen the world as a stage. Not only did he observe human beings as characters in their own dramas, but the very words they spoke were like characters on the stage of their psyches, competing for dominance. Shakespeare regularly personified inanimate objects with motive and desire. In the conceit above, Shakespeare makes faith an enemy to faith, a kind of character competing against itself. Then he makes the vow a character who, as if in a morality play, first performs his promise in heaven (on heaven’s stage)—champion of the church—only to be perplexed by the moral ambiguity of dueling vows. In the conceit, the vow becomes a character in and of itself, directed or misdirected against itself by the King.

None of this is minimalist and Shakespeare was criticized for his excess by none other than Ben Jonson, his friend and colleague.

I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech.

And he continued:

Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

In Jonson’s example, Shakespeare’s excess leads to folly. But there’s more to it than that. Jonson adhered to the Aristotelian notion of the three unities:

  • unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

In a sense, you could interpret this as Jonson’s effort to prune what he perceived to be the excesses/maximalism of his fellow dramatists. He didn’t care one whit for Shakespeare’s flighty Prologue wafting audiences from England to the fields of France, or for the Prologue of The Winter’s Tale who not only ignored unity of place but unity of time. He critiqued Shakespeare’s maximal prologues in his own “Introduction” to Bartholemew Fair.

So, in temperament, at least, Jonson was very different from Shakespeare, and it’s interesting that we have a passage from one of Jonson’s plays that can stand in almost direct contrast to Shakespeare’s King Lear.

             Who can endure to see
The fury of men's gullets and their groins?—
What fires, what cooks, what kitchens might be spared?—
What stews, ponds, parks, coops, garners, magazines
What velvets, tissues, scarfs, embroideries,
And laces they might lack? They covet things—
Superfluous still; when it were much more honor
They could want necessary. What need hath Nature
Of silver dishes or gold chamber-pots?—
Of perfumed napkins, or a numerous family
To see her eat? Poor and wise, she requires
Meat only; hunger is not ambitious.

[The Staple of News Act III, Scene 4 45-55]

Jonson starts with “who can endure to see” men’s avarice or, in so may words, the fury of their gullets and groins? Then asks, who can bare to see the cooks and kitchens that might be spared (if they weren’t so avaricious), and what stews, ponds, etc., they could just as easily go without—”they might lack”. We covet superfluous things, writes Jonson, when it were of “more honor”, morally and ethically, to only lack and pursue what is necessary—”They could want necessary”. (“Want”, in Elizabethan parlance, more commonly had the meaning “to lack”. ) Then he asks who has need of gold chamber-pots (a fad that continues into modern times)? Jonson, it would seem, also considered a “numerous family” to be a superfluous luxury. Nature, being poor and wise, needs only meat. Hunger, says Jonson, is not ambitious but something necessary and for that reason virtuous. What does a human being need besides their next meal? All the rest is ambition and vanity (gold chamber-pots). Shakespeare’s King Lear would answer that such a parsimonious attitude toward human potential makes a “man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s”.

To be fair to Jonson, the words of the Second Peni-Boy are those of a character in a play, just like Shakespeare’s words are those of King Lear’s, but given what we know of Shakespeare and Jonson, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to read a bit of themselves in what they wrote. Whereas Shakespeare wasn’t about to be embarrassed for the enjoyment he took in his success and acquisitions, Ben Jonson, the rough and plain-speaking bricklayer’s son had a strong distaste for pretension of any kind, and made fun of Shakespeare, among other reasons, for his desire to obtain a coat arms. Non Sans Droit said Shakespeare’s freshly acquired coat of arms, meaning “Not Without Right”. In Jonson’s Every Man Out of his Humour, the socially ambitious fool Sogliardo is a country bumpkin, newly arrived in the city, and eager to show off his freshly purchased coat of arms. Another of Jonson’s characters recommends that Sogliardo use the motto, “Not Without Mustard”.

Whereas Shakespeare’s material positions increased, his poetic art was a steady trimming of his youthful excess. In a sense, and to use a current term, he decluttered his verse. Wolfgang Clemens, in The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery, devotes a book to describing just how Shakespeare does this—how Shakespeare learns to create the illusion of imagery arising organically from the circumstances at hand (subsumed by the drama of the moment) rather than as, in effect, an elaborated aside. To give just one example from Clemens’s book:

Exaggeration is characteristic of many of the conceits of the early plays. In The Two Gentlemen it is said of Proteus’ mistress:

She shall be dignified with this high honour—
To bear my lady's train, lets the base earth
Should from her vesture chance to steal a kiss
And, of so great a favour growing proud,
Disdain to root the summer-swelling flower
And make rough winter everlastingly. [II. iv. 158]

This conceit, too, is carried out for its own sake and for the sake of an exaggerated inventiveness. But what points to Shakespeare’s early period is not the fact that nature has here been violated, and that it is somewhat extravagantly demanded of her that she take consideration of a woman. For Shakespeare has also used this motif at a later time. When, for example, after the happy landing of Desdemona in Cyprus it is said by Cassio of the wild rocks and foaming seas:

Traitors ensteep'd to clog the guiltless keel,—
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona. [Othello, II. i. 70]

we have here, too, a violation of nature and a motif like that of Two Gentlemen. But the difference is that the image from Othello results organically from the joyous excitement over the rescue of Desdemona in the storm just experienced: the rescue appeared to the hard-pressed seafarers in a miraculous light, and Cassio rivets this imrpession with an image. But this organic relationship is still wholly lacking in the image from Two Gentlemen in which the two friends outbid each other with praises of their mistresses. And out of such mutual rhetorical rivalry grows the conceit.

The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery P.35

The decluttering of Shakespeare’s imagery from the early to the late plays is remarkable. It’s also interesting that so few modern poets are aware of Shakespeare’s innovation. While modern poets don’t avail themselves of the Elizabethan conceit, those few who strive to introduce some metaphor and imagery into their poetry (most contemporary poets write discursively) most often do so with similes and prepositional metaphors—conceits in miniature. They don’t arise organically but most often have the feeling of cluttering a poem’s momentum. As an example, one of our previous Poet Laureates, Charles Wright, begins his poem Archaeology

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to fin the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
    to glow in the dark like clockhands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
    all golden, all in good time. 

with a four line simile that is as long as a Shakespearean conceit, the kind of thing John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s younger contemporary, availed himself of, having learned only a little from his elder collaborator.

Getting back to Ben Jonson: Whereas Shakespeare, in a sense, decluttered his verse and created an ever more elliptical style, Jonson’s poetry gradually became less austere until, by the time he was writing his last and unfinished play “The Sad Shepherd“, his lines touch on the superfluous lyricism (with echoes of Cymbeline and Midsummer Night’s Dream) that might have been described by Lear as “gorgeous”.

Who had her very being, and her name
With the first knots or buddings of the spring,
Born with the primrose, or the violet,
Or earliest roses blown; when Cupid smiled;
And Venus led the Graces out to dance,
And all the flowers and sweets in nature's lap
Leap'd out, and made their solemn conjuration,
To last but while she lived!

        [Act I. ii]

Or Jonson’s description of the witch’s dell:

Within a gloomy dimple she doth dwell
Down a pit, o'ergrown with brakes and briars,
Close by the ruins of a shaken abbey,
Torn with an earthquake down unto the ground
'Mongst graves and grots, near an old charnel-house,
Where you shall find her sitting in her fourm,
As fearful and melancholic as that
She is about; with caterpillars' kells,
And knotty cob-webs, rounded in with spells.
Thence she steals forth to relief in the fogs,
And rotten mists, upon the fens and bogs,
Down to the drowned lands of Lincolnshire;
To make ewes cast their lambs, swine eat their farrow,
The housewives' tun not work, nor the milk churn!
Writhe children's wrists, and suck their breath in sleep,
Get vials of their blood! and where the sea
Casts up his slimy ooze, search for the weed
To open locks with, and to rivet charms,
Planted about her in the wicked feat
Of all her mischiefs, which are manifold. 

[Act II. ii]

If Jonson had been a minimalist, you might say that he made room for a cup of flowers and knick-knacks on his mid-century Swedish table. One might broadly say that Jonson and Shakespeare met in the middle—Shakespeare’s poetry became more elliptical and organic, while Jonson discovered a new and generous lyricism. (The Elizabethans also understood austerity vs. excess as masculine and feminine attributes, respectively. Shakespeare went so far as to dramatize the tension between austerity and excess in the characters of Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia. Coriolanus typified the ideology of Seneca in his verbal austerity while Volumnia typified, as Elizabethans deemed it, the hyperbole, excess and artifice of the Ciceronian, feminine style. Shakespeare later fused these contradictory ideologies—much to Jonson’s distaste—in the romances.) As far as Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd goes (and lyricism aside) there is still not one conceit or simile in the above passages and adjectives are few. They are gorgeous purely in their evocative and concrete descriptiveness. Jonson is still a “minimalist poet”, rooted in a broadly Senecan taste for the plain and masculine, but finds a place for the gorgeous within that ideology.

So, anyway, that’s my first post on minimalism and poetry—a very brief look at two of our greatest poets and their conflicting notions of the necessary and the superfluous, the austere and the hyperbolic. Hope you enjoyed.

upinvermont | January 7th 2020