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

On Vermont’s Poet Laureate & Reputable Publishers

 

A new anthology of Vermont Poets will be published in 2017. The anthology will be curated by Chard DeNiord and Vermont’s previous Poet Laureate, Sydney Lea.  The anthology, by Green Writers Press, will be a wonderful opportunity for the poets included and I wish them all success and a wonderful reception. And that would be that—if not for the Poet Laureate’s utterly baffling qualification:

“After seven months gathering poems from round the state by poets who have published at least one book of poetry by a reputable publisher.”

Wut?

To be clear, Vermont’s current and previous Poet Laureates are within their rights to apply whatever criteria they want. They could have written: We will only publish poets with fuscia book covers. That’s their business. They could have written: The self-published need not apply; or bloggers; or they could have used the slightly more dismissive 90’s sobriquet, “Vanity Press”.

Okay, too bad for me and others like me. The mystery is why Vermont’s Poet Laureate felt compelled, in the Close-Up section of the Valley News, to use the term “reputable publishers”—implying that all the rest are disreputable. It’s an entirely gratuitous comment. Are their disreputable publishers in Vermont? Who cares? And since when have readers ever demanded poems that were reputably published? Don’t readers read for quality, or am I mistaken? And it’s dismissively insulting, besides. Based on DeNiord’s prior defense of Academia  (and Sydney Lea’s revelatory dismissal of me as a self-published poet) I think I know what he has in mind.

Sydney Lea’s pedigree (Vermont’s prior Poet Laureate) includes professorships at Dartmouth College, Yale University, Wesleyan University, Vermont College, Middlebury College, Franklin University Switzerland, and the National Hungarian University. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. The current Vermont Poet Laureate’s pedigree includes Master’s Degrees from Yale and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He’s currently, according to Wikipedia, a professor at Providence College and has been a Poetry Fellow at Sewanee Writer’s Conference (The University of the South) and an Allan Collins Scholar in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (Middlebury College). Is it any wonder Vermont’s Poet Laureate glowingly praised the previous Poet Laureate’s “New England Review”?  We can assume the latter is a reputable publisher.

For all aspiring poets and bloggers in Vermont, your current and prior Poet Laureates’ attitudes are clear. You’re not welcome if you’re not reputably published. Forget it. Let’s not forget that Vermont’s current Poet Laureate compared the Internet to weeds. And if you expect to be a Poet Laureate, or just want a little back-scratching, it’s pretty clear in what circles you’d better start circling. Don’t think you can get anywhere by publishing your own works.

For instance, we can speculate that both Poet Laureates would have turned their noses up at William Shakespeare’s first book of poetry, Venus and Adonis, published in 1593. The wildly popular book was discouraged at Oxford University (students reportedly hid it under their beds) because Oxford academes considered it distracting and pornography. In a word? — disreputable. And both Vermont’s Poet Laureates might have felt quite at home with the aristocrats (and Puritans) who considered the whole playgoing  business disreputable. Certainly, neither poet laureate would have touched Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Though scholarly debate continues, the publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, is thought to have disreputably acquired the poems. If true, thank God for disreputable publishers.

Neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given New England’s Emily Dickinson a second look. Not only did she not publish a first book, but when her poems were finally published, and posthumously, the whole affair was anything but reputable.  Ironic that Mr. DeNiord should opine, in a previous Valley News article, that there might be other Dickinson’s out there. I can’t fathom how either poet laureate would ever discover her.

And Robert Frost? DeNiord discusses Robert Frost’s Mowing, but doesn’t mention that the poem was written in 1900. The poem wouldn’t appear in print for another 15 years. In fact, a first book by Robert Frost wasn’t “professionally” published until 1915, when he was 41 years old (nearly half his life behind him); and only because he had left New England (which had ignored him) for England. If DeNiord and Lea had been around in 1910, they wouldn’t have given Frost or Mowing a second look.

Frost’s first book was a self-published collection of poems called —Twilight. The book contained the poems: My Butterfly, An  Unhistoric Spot, Summering, The Falls, and Twilight, and was a gift to Eleanor Frost. Thank goodness he only printed two copies, neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given him the time of day for that unsavory little book. And then there’s Walt Whitman— self-published and who disreputably reviewed Leaves of Grass under pseudonyms. And then there’s EE Cummings, another self-published poet and, incidentally, no great friend of academia. But I sound like a broken record.

What a shame that Vermont has somehow chosen two Poet Laureates so utterly tone deaf and hostile to an otherwise thriving community; and who intentionally or otherwise confirm every cliché of a literature curated by an elite, ivory tower cabal. (I’d be surprised if DeNiord ever advocated for a return to poetry in Newspapers.) Vermont’s poets deserve better.

DeNiord closes his Valley News article noting that Frost, in Mowing, combines “two opposites, dream and fact”, and then admiringly goes on to comment:

“While contradictory  on the surface this line [The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows] captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald — perhaps American’s most poetic prose writers — called ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence.. the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I’d have to say that Mr. DeNiord ought to try that test. Or if he has, he hasn’t been doing so well. He might, for a little while, consider the possibility that great poetry has, can, and will continue to happen in the most disreputable of places. He only has to look.

upinVermont | September 11th 2016

My ongoing feud with Vermont’s Poet Laureate

Chard Deniord’s latest submission to the Valley News.

And my opinion as submitted to the Valley News:

After his last essay in which Chard Deniord blamed readers for poetry’s neglect, his most recent essay “Swimming in the drowned river” opts to specifically address the dazed and confused—whom he calls the “lost and intimidated” (because, you know, poetry’s 6.7% favorability rating says more about the reader.)

But okay.

He forthwith veers into a defense of academia. He tells us that “the so-called ‘professional poetry bubble’ resonates more as a ‘facile shibboleth” and then, without the faintest hint of irony, demolishes his own assertion with a list of largely academic publications (that have “cornered the market”) and a number of poets who, I suspect, made it on the list because Mr. Deniord networked with them in an academic setting—[cough] Dartmouth?

But not content to defend academia (which is all well and fine) he once more lays into that ugly little step-child: the self-published (and that wretched hive of scum and villainy—the Internet). He writes: “Desktop publishing and the Internet have now made it possible for anyone who wishes to publish their poems to do just that.” And in the very next sentence equates the whole unseemly business with weeds in a garden (presumably a superbly coiffed Harvard Yard).

Deniord can’t think of a single Vermont poet besides those in academia or those published by “professional” editors (as opposed to, his words, “amateur editors”). Nope. Not one. No, Sir. Not a single, solitary Vermont poet. All Mr. Deniord can do is to hope that the work of “those geniuses who are writing beautifully but secretly, like Emily Dickinson… comes to light in time” (presumably published by a “professional” editor in a glossy first edition). Then maybe Deniord will notice. (Never mind that it was a professional editor who was oblivious to Dickinson’s genius.)

But here’s a thought: My favorite discovery, when renovating a house, is an old newspaper. If I’m very, very lucky, I’ll find a poem. If our Vermont Poet Laureate really wants more readers, why not use his position to get poetry back in the Valley News? Why not? Don’t send readers off looking for semi-demi-annual poetry anthologies. Give them something with the news.

upinVermont | August 15 2016
Limited to 360 words by request of the Valley News.

Make It Memorable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

upinVermont | June 28th 2016

Vermont Poetry Update • April 6 2011

Vermont Poetry Update

[The Vermont Poetry Newsletter & Update is not issued by me but by Ron Lewis, by whose permission I post this. ]
  • Dear Poets: Two quality poetry events have come to my attention immediately following the last VPN (Vermont Poetry Newsletter). As the next VPN is planned for April 22 (estimated date), I felt you should be made aware of these unusually fine readings. ~ Ron Lewis

Sun, Apr 10: Misty Valley Books, Main Street – On The Green, Chester, 4:00 p.m..

 

Full House at Misty Valley Books

Susanne Dubroff and Chard deNiord. Don’t miss this reading by two wonderful poets. Susanne Dubroff will be reading from One Remaining Star, recently published by WordTech Editions, and is a second collection of poetry by Dubroff. Daughter of a German mother and Russian father, Dubroff’s family left pre-war Germany when Adolf Hitler, in his steady rise to power, declared Jews “staatenlos” (stateless).The family’s emigration followed a circuitous route, finally bringing them to America when Dubroff was 8 years old. Her twin mother-tongues, German and Hebrew, were only later followed by English, which her mother was never comfortable speaking, even in this country. Perhaps this early splicing of tongues was a contributing factor, Dubroff wonders, to her first becoming a translator of poetry (Rene Char, from the French; Gustavo Adolpho Becquer from 19th century Spanish) and then, a poet herself. One Remaining Star is a collection of poems that deserves to be read. Chard deNiord will be reading from The Double Truth, published in 2011 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. No less than Ruth Stone, Vermont’s current Poet Laureate, says, “Whether the language is rough and obscure or delicate and precise, this is Chard deNiord’s finest book. Philosophical and passionate, he poses this question: within the enigma of life, how can we know? And who will not remember the ecstasy of love when reading his lines” . . . We were in two places at once like a wire, stretched out between the cathodes of our desire. So bare and live the ether hummed like a swarm inside the air.” Peter Campion adds, “Very few contemporary poets render, as uniquely as Chard deNiord does, the sheer wonder of being. Our world shines up from his lines and sentences with all its original splendor and strangeness. In deNiord’s spectacular gaze, old binaries of reality and dream, bitterness and love, joke and revelation, fuse into a beautiful whole. deNiord is a visionary and The Double Truth is a vital book. Info, 875-3400, info@mvbooks.com.

Thu, Apr 28: St. Michael’s College, St. Edmund’s Hall, Farrell Room, 1 Winooski Park, Colchester, 7:00 p.m..

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. Join in a reading from The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, the acclaimed 2010 (Norton publishers) book co-edited by SMC poet/professor Greg Delanty. Poets included in the anthology who will read include David Cavanagh, Greg Delanty, Major Jackson, Jay Parini, and Elizabeth Powell. SMC Associate Professor of English Kerry Shea will read Old English versions of poems. Sponsored by The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW).

Ron Lewis
Editor, VPN