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

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.

out of the mainstream…

FenceSo I got a press release via email concerning the launch of Fence Magazine’s digital edition. There are both individual and institutional subscriptions available.

The press release that I received comments that Fence was “First conceived by Rebecca Wolff in 1998, each biannual issue of Fence pulls together an eclectic selection of poetry, fiction, art and criticism, seeking to shed light on literature that goes against the mainstream.”

So that piqued my interest. And then I got to this:

“Founded in 1998 by Rebecca Wolff, Fence is a literary journal that publishes both experimental and avant-garde original work as well as critical and journalistic coverage. Published bi-annually, it seeks to encourage writing of poetry and fiction that might otherwise have difficulty being recognised as it does not conform to the mainstream. Its book publishing arm Fence Books, which was launched in 2001, publishes poetry, fiction, critical texts and anthologies.”

And that’s where I lit my bridge-burning match. Here’s the thing: If a publication is going to claim they’re devoted to publishing original work that doesn’t “conform to the mainstream”, it’s nothing short of risible to state or imply, in the same paragraph, that their primary focus is on experimental and avant-garde poetry.

As I wrote to the publicist, the notion that “experimental”, close-quotes, or “avant-garde”, close-quotes, poetry is in any way out of “the mainstream” is to be in utter denial or to be breathtakingly ignorant of the last hundred plus years, starting with Poetry Magazine’s claim to do just that in 1912. To whit:

“The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions.”

And from Fence’s website:

“Founded in 1998 by Rebecca Wolff, Fence is a biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art, and criticism that has a mission to redefine the terms of accessibility by publishing challenging writing distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence rather than by allegiance with camps, schools, or cliques. It is Fence‘s mission to encourage writing that might otherwise have difficulty being recognized because it doesn’t answer to either the mainstream or to recognizable modes of experimentation.”

Both of them state that they will be free, almost using the same words, from any allegiances or alliances with camps, class or schools. The thing is, Harriet Monroe, writing for Poetry Magazine in 1912, could, some some legitimacy, make that claim. Not Fence Magazine. I mean, if you’re restating, almost word for word, a founding resolution (written over a century before your own) you can’t very well claim to be undefiled by any agenda.

  • You are the clique.
  • You are the agenda.
  • You are the mainstream.

Again, and to whit, I have two directories of poetry publishers. The first is The Directory of Poetry Publishers 24th Edition 2008-2009. If I turn to the subject index at the back of the book, there are 85 publications listed under Avant Garde. That’s huge. But more sought after than Avant Garde? Wait for it… Wait for it… Experimental. 91 publishers are looking for “Experimental” poetry. When you combine these two subjects they represent the most published poetry of any other subject, including Free Verse at 180 publishers, the single most published verse “form” in the directory. How is that not mainstream? If you really want to be out of the mainstream, try writing and publishing a sonnet. In The Directory of Poetry Publishers, there are only 29 publishers interested in your work, compared to 180 publishers of Free Verse and 176 looking for avant garde/experimental poetry. So, traditional poets net 29 listings, while all those poorout of the mainstream” avant-garde and experimental poets net three hundred and fifty six combined listings.

And then there’s Poet’s Market 2017.  Poet’s Market doesn’t have subject headings for Experimental, Free verse, or Avant Garde,  etc… (since that’s presumably assumed) but their subject index still reveals what really is, in point of fact, out of the mainstream. Want to go there? Then write erotic poetry. That’s experimental. That’s avant garde. According to Poet’s Market, you have six, yes (6), publishers to choose from (seven if you write and speak Russian). The Directory of Poetry Publishers lists 31 publishers of erotica (less the Russian language publisher). Two more than if you write sonnets! In fact, if judged by Poet’s Market, the most non-mainstream poetry you can write is erotic and traditional poetry. (And if you really want to go rogue then write erotic, traditional poetry—write an erotic sonnet.) Is Fence listed as publishing erotic poetry in either publication? No. Traditional poetry? No.

Want to read a poet out of the mainstream?

Go to the top of my blog and click on My Poetry. You will even find erotic poetry in the mix.

So, Fence is about as mainstream as you could possibly get, probably more so than the American Poetry Review. All that said, and setting aside their spurious claim to the cutting-edge, I wish them well. Their presentation and the benefits of the digital format are well worth a look if you enjoy mainstream poetry, art, and articles.

Digital Launch of Fence Magazine

John Ashbery Dies

AshberyMost of the news outlets I frequent have commented on the death, yesterday, of John Ashbery. The Guardian quoted Harold Bloom’s declaration from the mid 1970’s:

“No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.”

And now we get to find out. The Library of America, back in 2008 , impatiently decided to declare his canonical status while the canonball was still warm in the canon. (They’ll have to re-issue the second book to include whatever poems he’s written since.)  But it’s never been for the poet’s own generation to immortalize a poet. They nearly always get it wrong.

History is replete with dozens and dozens of Ashbery’s crowned in their day and forgotten the next. For example: William Cowper. Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time. Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”. Who reads Cowper these days? What about Robert Southey? He was widely read, more popular than Keats, Shelley and, arguably, Byron, and was poet laureate for 30 years, from 1813 until his death in 1843. There’s no doubt that Library of America would have published a two volume collection of his poetry in 1835. He would have been awarded a Pulitzer (though the Nobel would have gone to some singer). Who knows? My point is that contemporary fame is no guarantee. In fact, it’s very often a sure sign that the poet is a minor poet—anthologized at best and forgotten at worst. Why? Because any given generation tends to lionize the poets who speak most directly to their immediate concerns and aesthetic principles (almost always devalued and superseded by the next generation). They’re “of an age”. Jonson (who, in his day, was more highly regarded than Shakespeare) nevertheless recognized Shakespeare’s genius. He put it this way:

He was not of an age, but for all time!

Is Ashbery for all time? While every other eulogy rightfully notes his lists of awards, his reputation among contemporaries, and his influence (like Cowper’s), I remain skeptical. I don’t doubt that Ashbery, like Cowper and Southey, will always have his readers and fierce partisans, but I suspect his legacy will be that of a once highly regarded but minor poet. Being esteemed by professional colleagues simply isn’t enough once they follow the poet into the light.

I do think Ashbery deserves to be anthologized and it’s fair to call his poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror a masterpiece. I admire it too. Would that he had written more like it. Similarly, it’s fair to call Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, his masterpiece. Minor poets do write masterpieces which deserve to be read and remembered.

Nearly all the friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve discussed Asbery read him for his reputation rather than the lure of his poetry. Few have read any more than a handful of his poems or more than a single book. And less can remember any. The problem is typified by the reviews, at Amazon, of Library of America’s first Ashbery. The problem isn’t that they’re mixed, the problem is that there are only six. Library of America’s second Asbery book has none. By way of comparison, Library of America’s Wallace Stevens has 29 reviews; their Robert Frost has 36 reviews; their Walt Whitman has 623.

The critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke once suggested it was better “not to try to understand [Ashbery’s] poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music”. And that’s because the semantic content of Ashbery’s poems is indecipherable. But for the rare exception, there simply isn’t any. But the comparison to music is a poor one. Music has its own recognizable syntax and grammar—chord progressions—no matter the era. When the music ignores those expectations, listeners generally ignore the music. A rough equivalent to Ashbery, for the music listener, might be Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgard Varèse. Try their musique concrète. There’s also the Beatles’ Revolution 9 on the White Album. No one does covers of Revolution 9. Right?

Well. Long live John Ashbery. May he inspire many a future poet.

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

“Stranger Things” & the Duffer Bro’s Epic Mistake

Just taking a brief time out to express my admiration for Stranger Things, but also my great disappointment. Imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had killed off Watson in the third story, or if JRR Tolkein had bumped off Samwise.

We still, probably, would have two great works of literature, and no one would think of them in terms of what could have been. But the same hasn’t worked out so well for the Duffer Bro’s Stranger Things. The difference is that everyone from mural artists, to Jimmy Fallon, to essayists and countless viewers know exactly who went missing. She left a hole in the plot and heart of the series the size of Indiana.

Barb.

Someday the decision to serve up Barb as “monster fodder” may well be viewed as one of the single most epic screen writing mistakes of all time. I say that based on the seemingly universal reaction to the character’s death and the near complete obliviousness to her absence among the town’s police, the high school students (who can’t even remember who she is), and the bizarre indifference and nonchalance of the character’s mother. Even Nancy, ostensibly her best friend, seemingly has to remind herself that Barb is also missing.

The miscalculation is so egregious that Jimmy Fallon can make a joke out of it.

We may laugh, but there’s truth behind every joke. And the truth is that the Duffer Brothers screwed up, epically; and their reaction has been of the deer-in-the-headlights variety. They had no idea Barb would be so popular. They tell us that there will be “justice for Barb” in season 2, but that’s like footnoting a flawed novel. The damage is done. And they weakly rationalize their decision to kill the character by explaining that Nancy needed a motive to involve herself in the “search”, but they could have accomplished the same by sending Steve into the upside down.

Then we would have had Barb and Nancy searching for Steve—my heart breaks at the lost opportunity. Instead of a story about a girl clinging to her venal  boyfriend (and, yes, the show has taken some deserved heat from feminists), the writers and the Duffer brothers could have and should have recognized in Shannon Purser, the actress who portrayed Barb, a far more compelling narrative and star. When they killed the character of Barb they killed the show’s heart. Instead, we have a brilliant and incredible 80’s themed, horror movie, theme-park ride, but it’s a ride without heart. Steve is never very compelling and Nancy’s continued fawning over him is both unconvincing and conventional. The relationship between the boys is cute and endearing, but it lacks the counter-balancing depth that a relationship between Nancy and Barb might have had.

I know there will be disagreement but one only has to Google Barb and Stranger Things to understand that such voices are a minority—and that tells you something. You don’t even have to be a writer to recognize when other writers screw up. They did, and royally.

They sent the town off looking for a boy with whom viewers had few reasons to connect (at an emotional level) and perplexingly killed off the one character they so beautifully captured with just a few light and deft touches—the one character with whom we emotionally bonded and with whom we identified. Indeed, the one descriptor that appears barb2.jpegagain and again is real. Why did she feel real? Because the other characters, to a greater and lesser degree, all align with  their predictable and conventional tropes—the predictable friendship of the outcast boys, the boy-crazy Nancy, the haggard and divorced chief of police with the (wait for it) deceased child, the  over-the-top and clichéd bullies.

Barb stood out because her character didn’t belong in this coterie of the popular, the obsessed, the naive or the damaged. She was just—Barb. We recognized that instinctively. We knew immediately that she was loyal, caring and smart. What a story it could have been if she had joined Nancy in a search for Steve.

Feeding her to the monsters will always be the Duffers brothers epic mistake.

Just ask Jimmy Fallon. While the Duffer brothers obsessed over Will, the rest  of us obsessed over Barb. That tells you something went very, very wrong—both in the character’s demise, in the story telling, and in the way the script treated the character afterward. Praise Stranger Things for everything it does right, but it’s also irreparably flawed. A great series could have been incomparably better.

When Barb was lost to the demogorgan, so was my heart.

upinVermont | September 6th 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

Why I tossed all my Rumi

 

RumiApparently, Leonardo DiCaprio is being tapped to play Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the widely read Persian mystic poet. The choice of DiCaprio is being met with accusations of Hollywood “white-washing”, never mind that most Persians and Iranians are pale-skinned, that Rumi is historically portrayed as a fair-skinned middle eastern man and that contemporaries reportedly described him as pale skinned. That said, I’ve never been a fan of Hollywood and even if Rumi was “pale-skinned”, that doesn’t mean he looked like an Irishman. It would be refreshing if the producers or directors had actually tried to find an actor from that part of the world.

But, setting that aside, I tossed all my Rumi.

In general, I’d rather read haiku. Why do I mention haiku? Because their brevity strangles a poet’s temptation to turn poems into homiletic tracts. In the case of Zen poems, for example, brevity would otherwise prevent the usual inscrutable allusions (Buddhist tracts) that drive barn nails through the delicate butterfly that is poetry.

But even the most spiritually pedantic verse can be ameliorated, if not made transcendent, by the skill of the poet. It’s the difference, even if illusory, between verse written for the sake of its content versus content devoted to the making of poetry. Compare just about any free verse written in the last century to Keats’s odes. Modern verse is generally as utilitarian as prose and, sans lineation, indistinguishable. That’s because free verse, like prose, is a medium for communicating content and little else.

And that brings me to Rumi. Rumi’s poetry was emphatically not free verse.

“The Mathnawi is in Persian. Mathnawi (Arabic), or Masnavi (Persian), means ‘rhyming couplets’. The title is a reference to its poetic form – each line of verse rhyming with one preceding or following it. All the couplets share the same meter and there are 25,618 of them in six books.” Rumi’s Works

Also quoted at this site:

“When Rumi explains a subject, he begins by telling a story in order to clarify his point. Then in the middle of the story, he relates certain wisdom and truths. He produces such peerless couplets that the reader is astonished. These couplets that he recited in a state of ecstasy remind him of another story. So he begins a new story and then finally returns to complete the first story. This way, stories within stories follow each other.” [Italics and underlining are my own.]

[Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought, Şefik Can]

And pertaining to the meter:

“The rhythmical patterns of his lyrics have not yet been analysed in detail, but even at first glance they reveal a predilection for comparatively simple patterns. The meters often chosen have a strong hiatus so that the two hemistiches are divided into four parts, sometimes with internal rhyme, thus resulting in something very similar to Turkish folk songs. In many cases one has the feeling that his poems need to be read according to word stress rather than quantitative meter. Whether they are written in short, light meters or in long, heavy lines, one often feels that they should be sung.”

[Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel]

And pertaining to the many forms Rumi used, the author writes that “almost all the poems are in Persian. There are 3229 ghazals, 1983 quatrains and 44 tarji-bands”

It’s for the aforementioned “astonishment” that I read traditional poetry. Put simply, I read poetry to be astonished: astonished by the conjugation of meaning, form, rhyme, and meter into a seemingly inevitable whole. I read poetry, not just for what a given poet is trying to communicate, but how the poet does it.  It’s for that reason that reading a translation in free verse by Coleman Barks, among others, turns Rumi (for me) into pablum fit for greeting cards and fortune cookies.

With Passion

With
passion pray. With
passion work. With passion make love.
With passion eat and drink and dance and play.
Why look like a dead fish
in this ocean
of
God?

The above was translated by Daniel Ladinsky and what follows by Coleman Barks.

Quatrains

Don’t let your throat tighten
with fear. Take sips of breath
all day and night. Before death
closes your mouth.

There’s no love in me without your being,
no breath without that. I once thought
I could give up this longing, then though again,
But I couldn’t continue being human.

Barks seems to think it’s all about the message. I’ve read that Barks accompanies readings with beating drums, dimmed lights and other theatrics meant to induce profundity and enlightenment. Those in attendance reportedly swoon. My own take is that if you put enough sugar on corn starch, any child will eat it.

And as far as these translations go, they land on the percussion-less page like sacks of flour. The verse is indistinguishable from the prose of any modern day new age hokum and I’ve read lots of new age hokum. I eventually grew out of it, preferring the mysterious and suggestive to the prescriptive; imagery that asks the reader to inquire; and, at the very least, the mundane elevated by the transcendent deceit of great poetry.

I blame translators like Barks and Ladinsky, and all the translators who think that conveying the spirit of the original only refers to the content—the message. I’ve written this before, but if modern translators can’t be bothered (and I know its hard) to capture in some measure the traditional forms in which the poems were written, they’re only translating half (if that) of the original. Consider the quote above: It wasn’t the message that reportedly astonished Rumi’s contemporaries, but the ‘peerless couplets’. Then as now readers had probably already heard much of what Rumi had to say; it’s just that, like Shakespeare, he said it so well—so beautifully.

For me, and until Rumi is translated by a poet worthy of him, his poems sound like nothing more than glib and facile greeting card homilies. There’s long been a successful market for this kind of new age fatuousness, but I don’t think it does Rumi’s poetry any justice. A translator like Barks may be credited with popularizing Rumi’s message, but he’s done nothing and worse for Rumi’s poetry. He’s turned it into the literary equivalent of elevator music, taking readers just a few flights above street level—and nowhere near heaven.

I’ll return to Rumi when he finds a poet and translator worthy of him.

On Poetic Neglect

  • This article was written in response to an article by Vermont’s poet laureate.  I submitted my response to the Valley News this evening but who knows whether they’ll publish it. It willfully and disdainfully exceeds their 350 word limit (as regards letters to the editor). If link rot sets in, let me know.

On Poetic Neglect

Having just read Chard de Niord I can’t help remarking that this is yet another “it’s not me, it’s you” article by a contemporary poet. He establishes his thesis from the get-go writing that it’s not anything “toxic that’s overcoming them: It’s neglect.” Who’s neglect? Well, obviously, the problem is the reading public. Who else is going to “neglect” poets? He then writes that 99 percent of his incoming freshmen couldn’t name a single contemporary poet.

Mr. de Niord’s comments could have been taken straight from my own article at Poemshape, called Let Poetry Die; written for the Wall Street Journal several years ago. What Mr. de Niord left out is that 99 percent of his students could probably name a poet who wasn’t a contemporary. How about Mother Goose? Shakespeare? Keats? Frost? Eliot? Or even William Carlos Williams? If they didn’t know the names, they could probably recognize their poems. They can in my experience.

Mr. de Niord goes further, noting that “very few Americans outside the minuscule poetry community… read and write poetry as a secret discipline.” This is self-exculpatory and circular. In other words, the implication is that if Americans were reading and writing more poetry, then contemporary poems would be more popular. On the contrary, it’s possible that many more Americans are reading poetry than Mr. de Niord’s reasoning would suggest—they’re just not that into contemporary poetry. Mother Goose and Shel Silverstein continue to sell quite well, as do the Modernists, the Romantics and Shakespeare.

Mr. de Niord then writes: “I often see fright, shame, and even disdain on people’s faces when I tell them I’m a poet” Speaking for myself (being a poet too), when I tell others I’m a poet I’m usually met with warmth and interest and sometimes, in the interest of full disclosure, pity—but never shame or fright. Is it my debonair good looks, my wit, my insouciant flair?

But Mr. de Niord isn’t done blaming the victim. He writes that “schoolchildren, as well as high school students, often feel stupid during their first, second, and third encounters with poetry.”

For the record, my own experience (and that of my peers) was generally the opposite. By our third encounter we had all but confirmed our suspicion: contemporary poets were fools. If we let the instructor conclude that he was the smart one in the room, it was because we knew who buttered our parsnips.

The most telling rhetorical question in Mr. de Niords’ article though, is the following: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” The question is its own answer. It’s precisely the “memorable expression” that is missing from contemporary poetry. To combatively paraphrase another obscure poet: The fault, dear Brutus is not in our audience, but in ourselves, that we are neglected.

It’s not the readership who has neglected contemporary poetry, but the poet who has neglected the reader. Who knew, after a stultifying generation of Victorian metrical poetry, the 20th century would inaugurate a stultifying century of naval-gazing free verse? Is it possible that contemporary poets aren’t read because they’re just not that good?

I recently exchanged email with a freshly minted graduate student who told me that his instructor wouldn’t allow him to write poems with rhyme (or presumably meter). Is it any wonder the contemporary audience doesn’t look to contemporary poets for memorable language or the memorable expression? When is the last time readers turned to a contemporary poet knowing they could find a passage like this?

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

At least in some academic quarters, the poetics of the last hundred years has apparently turned into an orthodoxy rivaling a religious creed. It’s high time contemporary poets stopped blaming their audience and maybe it’s high time aspiring poets stopped thinking they need to go to school to write poetry. Was William Carlos Williams sitting in a workshop when he wrote The Red Wheelbarrow? As Mr. de Niord pointed out, he was too busy being a doctor.

There’s plenty of poetry being read. It’s just not “contemporary” poetry. My own blog, which primarily examines traditional poetry, has had almost two and half million visits from readers around the world. Readers are fascinated by the memorably expressed poems of the Elizabethans, Romantics and Modernists.

And it’s long past time poets blamed a “utilitarian, capitalist culture” (among other excuses). Mr de Niord might be interested to know that I engage, every day, in wonderful conversations about The Red Wheelbarrow, Hamlet, and the meaning of Ozymandias. I’ve even done so on an airplane. The first is by a modernist, the second an Elizabethan and the third a Romantic. Maybe contemporary poets simply lack the talent to write memorable verse?—or are too ossified by orthodoxy? At the very least, they might evince a little interest in the kind of poetry Americans are reading instead of equating a disinterest in contemporary verse with a general neglect of poetry.

upinVermont • June 3rd 2016