The Racist Trope of Stephanie Burt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    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

    Sunday

    • The poem that follows has spilled blood. I’ve put just about everything else aside to write it these last few months. It’s a refutation. I won’t tell you of who or which poet but any reader familiar with poetry will recognize its inspiration. I didn’t want it to just be a pastiche. That is, though it hews closely in form and rhetoric to its inspiration and though I’ve adopted the original poet’s way of thought, imagery and elusive argument (even his liking of antiquated words and syntax)  I wanted the poem to be mine. That’s hard. Readers who remember my last poem will see that it still lingers with me in my final stanza. But. Done. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. Enjoy. As for me: On to other poems that have waited patiently.

     

    1

    The apostasies of a woman’s lips
    On an afternoon at the hotel.
    The orange sun brings her colluding with
    Persimmons on a Sunday beneath the palms
    Of Santa Cruz. Upon a bed sheet lies
    A dissolution of desires saying
    There’s this and only this; and that if afterward
    The waves confide in the brutal architecture
    Of consummation there will still be evenings
    Under the umbrellas of Capitola,
    The large procession of its lighted buildings
    Where women walk in splendor; evening colloquies
    Of a green harbor and the dimming waves—
    Dimmed for the contemplation of the women
    And contemplating on the women walking.

    2

    Why should her beauty not be worldly?
    What is to her the fixed divinity
    Of the high, gold-enameled angel, wrought
    In her own image, never rising nor
    Descending? What to her her coterie
    Of holy emblems? Shall she find no comfort
    In earthly totems? Nothing is divine
    And there is nothing that is not divine
    Both in her and without her: autumn’s frail,
    Confiding sky, the heart’s divide beholding
    The sky; the uncharted snow’s descent, hers
    Upon her lover’s bed. These are the measure—
    Her soul creating and created by
    The world: the pomegranate’s stain before
    The blackbird’s consuetudinary cry.

    3

    Mary had her immaculate conception,
    No lover bruised her thighs, nor any sweet
    Soil lingered there; she moved with unstained feet
    Among the winemakers—a miracle,
    Walked among generations undisturbed,
    In holy revelry, until our own
    Discerning, unabashed, surmised descent—
    The earth’s blood rendered with our own; where even
    The priests discerned it in Galapagos.
    Shall we be mute? When was it ever
    Other but that a woman’s gait be broken
    By the shapeful bounty of a man’s motion?
    When was it ever other than that we
    To each other are all the paradise
    We’ll know, of love, of sorrow, consummation?

    4

    She says, “I am content he wakes me, questions
    My sinews when the morning’s sun first salts
    The odorous sheets. But in my lover’s absence
    Shall swallows not contend?—the plum not taste
    As sweet?—the berry?” Inasmuch as autumn
    Exhausts the yielded fruits of summer,
    The turmoil of the sun is unabated.
    Even as lilacs cool beneath the moon
    Desirous roots divide the earth, confound
    And undermine. No edifice endures
    As the body will endure—no cloister,
    Cathedral, academe—as blood endures;
    As the ecstatic foison of the sun
    Abides within the lover and beloved,
    Their impassioned breaths annealing their tongues.

    5

    “Becalmed,” she says, “and the body wearied,
    I choose to contemplate the spiritual.”
    From eros springs desire, being desire;
    The mother of the sacred and profane—
    She populates our dreams; proffers the apple
    Flavoring lips and thighs, that although tasting
    Of ecstasy, tastes too of bitterness,
    And loss; yet nonetheless we eat: no fruit
    Spits forth the seed until the flesh be parted;
    Until the green calamity of April
    Is reaped by August’s laboring sun. Late hour—
    The women lie with men; eros spreads
    The evening’s garment over them. If otherwise
    The soul know no respite but this, though suffering,
    Though weary, what more than to love—and be loved?

    6

    Is there desire in paradise? How else
    Do lovers speak? How else if never thigh
    To thigh; if mutual labor never dust
    Their sun-regarded flanks? Is her apron
    Forever burdened by the unbruised fruit
    And his swagger never altered being
    Perplexed by hers? What purpose to a man’s
    Proportions or a woman’s where without death
    They never need make love, give birth, or nurturance?—
    Yet it was never us in paradise,
    But paradise in us—in us the dreamt of
    Elation of an ageless afternoon
    Discovered in a kiss—nor the shores
    Of an elysium but our perishing whispers
    At midnight. Paradise is in desire.

    7

    Sinuous and orgiastic, the women
    Wheel and cant devotion to the Earth
    Not in dominion but as Earth might be,
    Its curling waters thrumming in the heart,
    Its seasons churning in the blood of hips
    And groin. The moon descends among them, fierce,
    Unveiled. They voice the cunning of the river
    That kneads the dour root and rubs against
    The skin of April’s melting, women not
    As goddesses might be, but goddesses
    Themselves in whom the summer’s revelations
    Are consummated. Even afterward
    Though autumn breaks the year end’s faltering gait
    Their own describes the memory of the dew
    That slaked their feet; the lilt of the summer’s liquor.

    8.

    She hears, among the startled flight of thrushes,
    Girls cry: ‘The porch of Ithaca is not
    Our resting place, but ours are voices rising
    From every shore.” The chaos of our being
    Is all the world we know: not the sun,
    Or dinted summer fields, a midday’s rainfall
    Or skimming swallows, not the course of autumn
    Altering the braided grasses; but they take
    Their drink from us; berries their sweetness from
    Our mouths; the wind that scuffs the evening’s waters
    Our breath and longing. Where the starlings flock
    Above a dangling moon—where black as words
    They slip the knotted cords of verse, arising
    Out of the discourse of desire—the mind
    Arises and, containing them, is made whole.

    Sunday
    February 2nd, 2019 by me, Patrick Gillespie

    November

    ·

    There’s nothing left but overall
    Remnants of what had once been fall;
    Even where a week before
    A leaf or two blew through the door
    The dwindling days have turned to soot
    The little traveling underfoot.
    ·
    Snow will follow soon enough
    Careening through the unmown scruff
    Of jimson weed and bush clover,
    Nothing apt to be covered over
    With just a midday’s squall—but soon
    Winter will stay the afternoon.
    ·
    Then who will afterward remember
    The few days readied since September?—
    The ghostly sighs of thimbleweed,
    The bony knuckles of the reed,
    Whole fields of startled hair turned white
    Before the year end’s stricken flight.
    ·
    I wouldn’t ask but that I know
    It’s not just seasons come and go.
    When ice gives way to watercress
    And all of April’s loveliness,
    Remember, though the days are few,
    November has its flowers too.
    ·

    ·
    ·
    Pussy Willow Branch (Reduced)·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·
    ·

    ·
    by me | January 8 2018

    ·
    ·


    ·
    ·

      This is my first audio recording using my new YETI microphone. My reading of the poem is just okay, but then I’m never satisfied that way. Best that I never hear myself. The poem itself is one I started not in November of last year but the year before, with a haiku. I finally devoted the time to finishing it.

    Interview with Alice Gilborn

    What’s the first poem that made you feel it belonged to or in Vermont?

    alice_gilborn-smallIf I could pinpoint a particular poem that made me feel that it belonged to Vermont, it would be “Hands Deep,” about a moose that trotted out of the wetland behind our house in Mt. Tabor and across our yard. Although I’d lived in the Adirondacks for 28 years before moving to Vermont, I’d never seen a moose, only tracks once; they were rare, unlike black bears. Coming to Vermont was like sliding south from wilderness to rural, and sometimes there seemed to be little difference. “Hands Deep” was actually published in Blueline, a literary magazine that features writing about the Adirondacks. A second  “Vermont” poem was one I wrote not long after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 called “Apples and Stones” and published in Bloodroot.

    From where do you think this notion of Vermont-ness arises?

    My particular notion of Vermont-ness came at first from what I read and then what I noticed. Stories and poems described landscape, climate and community–and of course those Vermont icons, maple syrup, Holstein cows, and autumn colors. I realized, though, when we moved here, that Vermont was not necessarily represented by Vermont Life or the Vermont Country Store, nor was it the Vermont of John Gardener’s October Light or an Annie Proulx novel. Gentrification of small towns and villages often disguise poverty; behind a genteel second home sometimes lurks a trailer park. The hard bitten, independent native Vermonter has his or her counterpart in the native Adirondacker, even down to the accent, and indeed, many in the two regions came from the same Yankee stock. But there are differences in place; the Adirondacks seems isolated and wild; Vermont, lonely and pretty. The mountains are rounder here, towns more numerous, lakes fewer (if we don’t count Champlain), there are more farms, and more trees have leaves rather than needles. Just as many rocks. There’s a greater sense of community in Vermont than in the Adirondacks, probably because more people come from all over, though ethnic diversity is not a main feature of either place.

    Does your experience of Vermont arise from anything that might be called “a tradition” of regional poetry? Can Vermont give claim to a “regional poetry”?

    Vermont seems to have a tradition of regional poetry beginning with Robert Frost, but I’m sure there were poets before him who could qualify as regional poets. There are lots of poets in Vermont, and poets writing about its people, landscape, and events are certain to convey a sense of Vermont as a region. Sometimes the term “regional,” though, is a convenient way of organizing the literature of a certain piece of geography, the South epitomized by William Faulkner, or New England by Melville and Hawthorne. On the other hand, because a poet happens to live in a particular place, doesn’t mean he’s a poet of that place.

    What the two volumes of Birchsong are attempting to do is to explore the very questions you ask: Is there a tradition of regional poetry and can Vermont claim one?

    There’s that saying in Vermont: Just ’cause a cat has her kittens in the oven don’t make ’em biscuits. By this the old nativist means: Just ’cause you’re born in Vermont don’t make you a Vermonter. To which I’ve always responded: Just ’cause there’s a biscuit on the table don’t mean it come from your mother’s oven. But I suppose the same could be said for poetry. Just because a poem’s baked in Vermont, doesn’t make a biscuit. Some of what you’ve written goes some ways toward answering this next question, but what poems do you find yourself choosing from the many submitted?

    At this point it’s too early to see a particular pattern or to display an editorial preference in our choices. Based on our experience with the first volume of Birchsong, however, we leaned toward poems with original imagery, not too abstract, and accessible to a variety of readers. We steered away from overly abstract, philosophical, edgy, academic and obscure poetry in favor of those poems that reflected nature (Vermont), situations, or character with new metaphors, whether lyric or narrative. All forms of poetry were welcome, whether free verse or formal, as long as poems were well written and had emotional appeal. One thing noticeable for its absence, though, was humor. I may be going off on a tangent, but I think the distinction between light verse and serious poetry is a false one; after all, poems all arise from the same source–human expression, or an attempt at it. The vehicle for this just happens to be a poem, whatever its form or intent.

    As the manuscript began to take shape, we had to consider other things, such as balance, and this was tough when we had to throw out four perfectly fine poems about blue herons because we already had one perfectly fine poem about one. Then there was layout; sometimes it was necessary because of space to break a line, or to break it in a place where the poet did not intend. We always asked the permission to do this. A poem with each line centered created its own problems–it’s not to be encouraged. And there was always the decision about how much blank space we should leave. Could we devote a whole page (mostly blank) to two haikus by a single poet, when each page cost roughly $10.00 to print? Some journals print poems by different poets on one page–we didn’t want to do that. Choices were/are myriad.

    Any thoughts on the late John Ashbery?

    I really can’t say much about John Ashbery because I’ve read very few of his poems. Some lines resonated; others were a puzzle. I liked his mix of the homely and sophisticated.  As happens, his death makes me want to read more of his work, which I should have read when he was alive.

    What then, are your feelings regarding trends in poetry? Are you satisfied with the current state? Status quo? Negatives? Positives?

    It seems to me that poetry is already going in many directions and that’s good. More and more people are losing their bias and fear of reading it, and more and more poems are being written. If you don’t like them, there are others that mirror your preferences and experience.  At the moment, formal poetry and rhyming poetry are out of favor, though still available if you look hard enough (especially poems for children), and trends will change. Of course there’s a great range in quality, from bad to excellent. There seems to be an ample amount of confessional poetry, a trend perhaps started by Sylvia Plath, and many poems featuring the poet herself or himself as star attraction. These have been around for a good part of the 20th century and beyond, more of a school than a trend.

    My suggestion to anyone wanting to write poetry, as well as to read it, is to find some poems using a traditional form, such as a sonnet or a villanelle, and write a poem in that form. After enough imitation, you’ll find your own voice and the style you’re comfortable with. Writing a poem is like building a boat–eventually you’ll have a finished vessel which you hope will float; you won’t see all the parts it’s made of, but you know that they’re there.

    A trend to oral poetry is also good, I think; it goes back to its roots. I don’t have much experience with poetry slams or mixed media presentations, though they sound interesting. But I do think poetry should be read as well as heard. The best solution is to have both: the poem, and the poet reading it. Readers vary, however–they can be riveting, or they can be flat, overly dramatic, hard to hear, or inclined to stumble. Their written work is often a better representation of their skill than their spoken words.

    Lastly, your thoughts on the current state of publishing? Internet vs. traditonal publications?

    Judging from what I see at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, poetry in book form seems to be thriving. Many journals publish poetry (Poets and Writers prints periodic lists). There are also contests that offer cash prizes and publication though you must pay an entrance fee. It’s wise to research these. My observation, however, is that traditional literary magazines and small presses are in short supply in Vermont, thus Birchsong is trying to help fill the void. Internet publications help; the Vermont literary magazine Bloodroot, formerly a print journal, is now on line. Poetry published on the internet may have wider circulation than traditional publications, especially to a dedicated readership, but linking up an audience with the poems they want may be harder. You can always have a copy of a print publication on hand. My own preference is to read poems in traditional print form rather than on line because I don’t like looking at a screen–I enjoy the feel and heft of a magazine or book, turning pages at random, and putting it on a shelf where I can find it. But that may change.

    December 13th 2015

    I’m watching my wife and daughters rehearsing the Christmas revels. I sit in the back row. The players are dressed in Scottish kilts and regalia. They sing a combination of Christmas carols and traditional Scottish tunes. I’ve always loved the unadorned music of the Irish and the Scots. Must be in my blood.

    ·

    I see a little girl,
    Across the street she skips.
    I wonder who someday
    Will be the one to kiss her lips.

    I see a little boy
    Who runs in circles round.
    I wonder who she’ll be
    Will turn his spinning upside down.

    Let happiness be theirs
    Though sorrow’s in every smile;
    Their world be free of cares
    If only for a little while.

    ·

    I wrote this on the spur of the moment–tonight. And I can’t write anything that’s not a little bittersweet. I’ve been reading Buson’s haiku, different yet as memorable as Basho’s. They can be very simple–and sometimes deceptively so.

    ·

    under
    ····the Milky Way—the roadway
    ·········home

    ·

    Once again I’ve come home too late at night. I may sleep in a little, again.

    ·

    37: December 13th 2015 | bottlecap

     

     

    Whispering under the floorboards… send out the sun.

    In my most recent job, I replaced a rotten sill on an old New England house. Since I’m not the one with claustrophobia, my job was to crawl into the crawlspace, through an opening too small for inhalation. What did the sill look like? It didn’t take long to decide. A very, very bad decking installation under a standing-seam eave meant that all the roof’s water was redirected into the wall and onto the sill. A solid old 6×6 sill had been reduced to mulch.

    But while I was under there, I saw some very old fragments of a newspaper still glued to the bottom of the building’s old hemlock or pine floorboards. There was just a slender scrap left. All the rest had fallen off and disintegrated in the dirt of the crawlspace. I carefully pulled off the remaining fragments and brought them, perhaps for the first time in a hundred years, into the light of the sun. We had all wondered how old the building was – when it was built.  Anything that might have identified the paper itself, or the date, was gone. Some other scraps hinted at news from New York or Boston. But here was the fragment of a poem – a little clue.

    The fragment praises the sun. How quieting to think that a song like this had been hidden away in a dank darkness for so long.

    Send out the sunlight it sings again and again.

    So, as a kind of gift to this little fragment, here is some sunlight (and as a gift to the song’s author, surely long since received by a different kind of light).

    Send out the sunlight! ’tis needed on earth,
    …                                       afar in scintillant mirth
    …     more than gold in its wealth-giving worth!

    And it’s last words before it vanishes…

    …send out the sun…

    There will surely be some librarians among my readers. Take a look. If you ever discover the name of the poem or the author, leave a comment. In the meantime, a little fragment for the sun – after so much darkness.

    From up in Vermont
    June 5, 2010

    Self Publishing: What Publishing Used to Be

    Remember Dipthong?

    How about the artist formally known as Prince?

    Know why he changed his name? Because he was trapped in an onerous contract with the label who “published” his music. Here’s how Wikipedia sums it up:

    In 1993, during negotiations regarding the release of Prince’s album The Gold Experience, a legal battle ensued between Warner Bros. and Prince over the artistic and financial control of Prince’s output. During the lawsuit, Prince appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek. Prince explained his name change as follows:

    “The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the 130px-Prince_logo.svgLove Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros… I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name.”

    Warner Bro. finally severed its contract with Dipthong and the public cheered. This year, Dipthong is self-publishing his songs from his own website:

    On January 3, 2009, a new website LotusFlow3r.com was launched, streaming some of the recently-aired material (“Crimson and Clover”, “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me” and “Here Eye Come”) and promising opportunities to listen to and buy music by Prince and guests, watch videos and buy concert tickets for future events. On January 31, Prince released two more songs on LotusFlow3r.com: “Disco Jellyfish”, and “Another Boy”. “Chocolate Box”, “A Colonized Mind”, and “All This Love” have since been released on the website.

    Dipthong isn’t alone. A number of better known bands, like Radiohead, are increasingly severing their ties with the music industry (their publishers). Meanwhile, up and coming garage bands are “publishing” themselves on You-tube, distributing their own MP3s, promoting their own digital albums and printing their own CDs.

    So, back in 2006, while Slushpile.Net can write a post entitled Why People Hate Self-published Authors, the responses to the post oddly sidestep the question of perception (which is what the post is all about). Whether or not Slushpile believes Indie publishing, for example, is the same as self-publishing, the perception of most listeners is not so refined. People don’t hate self-published bands or musicians even when they, mistakenly or not, assume they are self-published. Readers don’t hate self-published authors or poets. That’s sheer nonsense. Readers, if they hate anything, hate bad music, bad literature and bad art, but that’s separate from self-publishing.

    The public s is always ready for good music and good literature.

    They don’t care how it ends up in their hands.

    So why the double standard? No one sniffs about “self-published bands” and yet that is precisely what many musicians are doing. They are self-publishing. Their version of  self-publishing might be a couple hundred dollars worth of studio and audio software, and maybe a decent webcam. And where, I ask, are the patronizing posts by bloggers and other musicians warning them that, without a producer and label, they’re headed for mediocrity at best, or worse, derision? They may be out there, but they’re drowned out by the public. Maybe times have changed since 2006?

    Substitute editor for producer and publisher for label.

    You get the idea. While bands are eagerly exploring ways to publish and disseminate their own work, poets who self-publish are treated like wayward children.

    Meanwhile, the irony of bloggers sniffing about the self-published seems to be an irony universally (from what I’ve seen) unacknowledged and unexamined. How many self-published articles are there about the pitfalls of self-publishing? I can’t be bothered to count. They serve as their own best examples of what can go wrong.

    The way it used to be

    In the old days, the Elizabethans for instance, there was no established copyright law. Any play or poem that was popular and unpublished was a prime target for a printer. Many scholars assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets were published without his permission, by Thomas Thorpe. Plays by Jonson, Webster, Middleton and others were frequently printed without their knowledge or approval. A playgoer (or actor), with a good memory, might transcribe a play for a printer. Many “corrupt” copies appeared. The most famous example, perhaps, being from the Bad Quarto Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

    Hamlet To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
    To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
    No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
    For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
    And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
    From whence no passenger euer retur’nd,
    The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
    The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
    But for this, the ioyfull hope of this,
    Whol’d beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
    Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
    The widow being oppressd, the orphan wrong’d;
    The taste of hunger, or a tirants raigne,
    And thousand more calamities besides,
    To grunt and sweate vnder this weary life,
    When that he may his full Quietus make,
    With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
    But for a hope of something after death?
    Which pusles the braine, and doth confound the sence,
    Which makes vs rather beare those euilles we haue,
    Than flie to others that we know not of.
    I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of vs all,
    Lady in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembred.

    Had the Author Himself Lived (Heminge & Condell Preface First Folio)While some scholars argue that this was an early version, most ascribe this passage to poor memory. The bad quarto comes from 1603, published by the booksellers Nicholas Ling and John Trundell, printed by Valentine Simmes.  (See Wikipedia for more information.) The printer, no doubt, was eager to make some profit from a very popular play.

    A Note on the Folio introduction by Heminge and Condell: What’s so fascinating about the brief introduction to Shakespeare’s first folio (and something that, to my knowledge, no other scholar has commented on) is the implication, possibly, that had “[Shakespeare] himself… lived” he would “have set forth, and overseen his owne writings.” One frequently hears scholars question why Shakespeare showed no interest in publishing his own works, seemingly disinterested in his own literary heritage. But this impression may not be true. Shakespeare would surely have known of Jonson’s effort to publish his own folio. They were friends, colleagues and rivals. The impression that Heminge and Condell give (men who knew Shakespeare intimately) was that Shakespeare intended to self-publish his works. His death seems to have been unexpected by all.

    For all intent and purposes, a writer’s work was public domain the moment his words spilled from his brain. Anything he wrote was fair game if he did not, himself, self publish. Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson, wasn’t about to let his hard labor become the catalog of an unscrupulous printer. The loss of profit to Jonson and his troupe was bad enough, but Jonson had other reasons. He was proud of his work. Jonson lavished tremendous care to make sure the text of his plays were clean and elegant. He was a bricklayer’s son but he wanted to be remembered as a great poet and dramatist. And Ben Jonson was, as far as Germaine GreerI know, the first self published poet to issue a collected edition of works and who wasn’t also a member of the nobility. Ben Jonson’s folios, published in 1616, treated his plays as serious literature, rather than ephemera. His folio possibly and probably served as an inspiration to whoever subsidized the publishing of Shakespeare’s plays (1623) – most scholars credit Shakespeare’s colleagues with the effort, but Germaine Greer argues that while Shakespeare’s colleagues may have assembled the plays, it was Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway, who actually subsidized the printing of the First Folio (an argument that appeals to me). In any case, the first folio was effectively self-published. Jonson knew that if he wanted his text printed cleanly and professionally, he had to do it himself.

    Here is how the Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the free-for-all:

    Publication of drama was left, along with much of the poetry and the popular literature, to publishers who were not members of the Stationers’ Company and to the outright pirates, who scrambled for what they could get and but for whom much would never have been printed. To join this fringe, the would-be publisher had only to get hold of a manuscript, by fair means or foul, enter it as his copy (or dispense with the formality), and have it printed. Just such a man was Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of Shakespeare’s sonnets (1609); the mysterious “Mr. W.H.” in the dedication is thought by some to be the person who procured him his copy. The first Shakespeare play to be published (Titus Andronicus, 1594) was printed by a notorious pirate, John Danter, who also brought out, anonymously, a defective Romeo and Juliet (1597), largely from shorthand notes made during performance. Eighteen of the plays appeared in “good” and “bad” quartos before the great First Folio in 1623. A typical imprint of the time, of the “good” second quarto of Hamlet (1604), reads: “Printed by I.R. for N.L. and are to be sold at his shoppe under Saint Dunston’s Church in Fleetstreet”; i.e., printed by James Roberts for Nicholas Ling. For the First Folio, a large undertaking of more than 900 pages, a syndicate of five was formed, headed by Edward Blount and William Jaggard; the Folio was printed, none too well, by William’s son, Isaac.

    Ben Jonson's AlchemistWhat’s interesting is that it wasn’t until the 19th century that publishing became the industry that we recognize today. Britannica states:

    The functions peculiar to the publisher—i.e., selecting, editing, and designing the material; arranging its production and distribution; and bearing the financial risk or the responsibility for the whole operation—often merged in the past with those of the author, the printer, or the bookseller. With increasing specialization, however, publishing became, certainly by the 19th century, an increasingly distinct occupation. Most modern Western publishers purchase printing services in the open market, solicit manuscripts from authors, and distribute their wares to purchasers through shops, mail order, or direct sales.

    Walt Whitman came of age during this transition to modern publishing. Nonetheless, he self-published Leaves of Grass, and though he never became wealthy as a result, he became a nationally recognized poet. Today, he’s known as one of America’s greatest poets. Emily Dickinson didn’t try to court editors or publishers after her initial negative reception. After she died, her family friend Mabel Todd, and niece, Martha Dickinson, edited and published Dickinson’s poetry — in essence, they self-published. The first nationally known African American Poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, also self-published.  And here’s a list from John Kremer’s website, the the self-published hall of fame.

    Margaret Atwood, L. Frank Baum, William Blake, Ken Blanchard, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Byron, Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, W.E.B. DuBois, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Spencer Johnson, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L’Amour, D.H. Lawrence, Rod McKuen, Marlo Morgan, John Muir, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Tom Peters, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Carl Sandburg, Robert Service, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Strunk, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf.

    The tradition of self-publishing is longer (if not richer) than the history of modern publishing. So when Slushpile.Net can ask the question: “And what is the ‘long and valued tradition’ exactly?” The answer is in that list of authors. Readers are reading self-published poets and authors every day.

    The mediocrity myth

    So, given self-publishing’s history, why do so many bloggers and pundits act as though self-publishing were a new development? — a modern day smear on the “tradition” of publishing? Why do they wring their hands warning us against an inevitable onslaught of mediocrity?

    Probably because, along with examples of great literature, there are many examples of abject mediocrity.

    But self-publishers hardly corner the market on mediocrity. Editors and publishers have published gobs of proof-read, clean and well bound mediocrity. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that if one has the title editor, then one is qualified to publish literature and naturally knows the difference between good literature and bad.

    History disagrees.

    Being a good editor is like being a good poet or novelist. Great editors elevate their profession to an art form. However ( just as there are only a handful of truly inspired poets and novelists in any given generation) there are only a handful of truly inspired editors and publishers. All the rest range from qualified to truly mediocre. (The same is true of critics, by the way. Many critics probably wouldn’t recognize a great author or poet if one bit them on their derrière.) Birds of a feather flock together. A mediocre editor, unable to perceive the difference between mediocre and good literature will publish reams of mediocre literature fully convinced that his dossier of poets and authors is the creme de la creme and that his or her judgment is unparalleled. A mediocre critic will sing the praises of a mediocre author and poet. A committee of editors is no better. If committees were insurance against poor judgment, the USSR would have conquered the world. While a good editor can be indispensable, they can’t transmute lead into gold (if they can even recognize gold).

    “Between 1908 and 1930 the Rev. E.E. Bradford published some eleven volumes of verse in praise of adolescents and young men, each of which received respectful, if occasionally guarded, notices from the national and provincial press. Dr. Bradford was, I suspect, a uniquely English phenomena, in that no only had he managed to convince himself that courting adolescent boys was the purest activity known to man (much purer than pursuing women, for example), but he succeeded in getting the press to enter into a conspiracy of polite silence as to the obvious tendency of his verses. ‘His books were widely reviewed and widely praised, never, as far as I can judge, with the slightest hint of irony’, writes Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Here is The Westminster Review, but it is absolutely typical, on Passing the Love of Women: “Friendship between man and youth form the theme of many of Dr. Bradford’s poems. He is alive to the beauty of unsullied youth as was Plato.” [The Joys of Bad Verse p.293]

    This is what happens when a mediocre author is met by mediocre critics. The book, The Joys of Bad Verse, is replete with other examples. And the collusion of mediocrity with mediocrity is as vibrant as it ever was. A reader can look at the back matter of any book, at any number of reviews, and be forgiven if they conclude that the literary world is awash with geniuses.

    It takes herculean mediocrity to break through this morass. William Topaz McGonagall was one such poet, lovingly discussed in Parson’s book and elsewhere. It has been famously said of McGonagall: “He was so giftedly bad that he backed unwittingly into genius.”

    • Just because an author is published by a publisher doesn’t mean their work is any less mediocre.
    • And just because an author is self-published doesn’t mean an author’s work is any more mediocre.

    All the while self-published authors are treated like wayward children. They are warned against sloppy editing and told  that they will have to promote their books without the aid of a publisher’s deep pockets. ‘Don’t expect easy success’ – they say.  (As though this thought had never occurred to the self-published author). If one is going to spend hundreds (sometimes thousands of dollars) publishing ones own work, these issues have indeed occurred to them. On the other hand, in fairness to bloggers, they don’t necessarily have to think about quality issues or “return on investment”. Most bloggers self-publish for free. They can afford to be mediocre, so maybe these constraints really are news to them.

    Will there be mediocrity? Yes.

    But so what? Great art, whether in poetry, music or art, was and is inspired by mediocrity too.

    And, to be honest, for the majority of readers, poetry doesn’t have to be great to be enjoyed. Novels don’t have to be works of art to be enjoyed. The dread (that authors and poets might not be vetted by an editor) is based on an uninformed knowledge of literary history and an unfounded faith in the talents of editors and publishers. There are good editors and there are bad editors.

    Why spend so much time discussing mediocrity? Because the idea of mediocrity and self-publishing is tightly interwoven and false. One frequently hears that the only reason an author choses to self-publish is because they couldn’t be “legitimately” published (they’re mediocre). Even a cursory glance at a list of the well-known authors who have self-published should dispel this myth. There are a variety of reasons an author may chose to publish his or her own work. And just because an editor rejects an author’s work  doesn’t mean the work is mediocre. It may mean the editor is mediocre. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time was rejected more than 26 times.  There’s a balanced view to be struck. While self-publishing has bequeathed the world plenty of mediocre literature, so has “legitimate” publishing.

    Types of Self-Publishing

    Rather than reinvent the wheel – here is Wikipedia’s overview as of October 8, 2009:

    Vanity publishing

    Vanity publishing is a pejorative term, referring to a publisher contracting with authors regardless of the quality and marketability of their work. They appeal to the writer’s vanity and desire to become a published author, and make the majority of their money from fees rather than from sales. Vanity presses may call themselves joint venture or subsidy presses; but in a vanity press arrangement, the author pays all of the cost of publication and undertakes all of the risk.

    In his guide How to Publish Yourself author Peter Finch states that such presses are “to be avoided at all costs.” Because there is no independent entity making a judgment about their quality, and because many of them are published at a loss, vanity press works are often perceived as deserving skepticism from distributors, retailers, or readers. Some writers knowingly and willingly enter into such deals, placing more importance on getting their work published than on profiting from it.

    Subsidy publishers

    A subsidy publisher distributes books under its own imprint, and is therefore selective in deciding which books to publish. Subsidy publishers, like vanity publishers, take payment from the author to print and bind a book, but contribute a portion of the cost as well as adjunct services such as editing, distribution, warehousing, and some degree of marketing. Often, the adjunct services provided are minimal. As with commercial publishers, the books are owned by the publisher and remain in the publisher’s possession, with authors receiving royalties for any copies that are sold. Most subsidy publishers also keep a portion of the rights from any book that they publish. Generally, authors have little control over production aspects such as cover design.

    True self-publishing

    True self-publishing means authors undertake the entire cost of publication themselves, and handle all marketing, distribution, storage, etc. All rights remain with the author, the completed books are the writer’s property, and the writer gets all the proceeds of sales. Self-publishing can be more cost-effective than vanity or subsidy publishing and can result in a much higher-quality product, because authors can put every aspect of the process out to bid rather than accepting a preset package of services.

    Print on Demand (POD)

    Short run printing is also called Print-on-demand (POD) or Print Quantity Needed (PQN). POD publishers generally do not screen submissions prior to publication, and many are web-based. They accept uploaded digital content as Microsoft Word documents, text files, or RTF files, as printing services for anyone who is willing to pay. Authors choose from a selection of packages, or design a unique printing package that meets their requirements. For an additional cost, a POD publisher may offer services such as book jacket design with professional art direction; content, line, and copy-editing; indexing; proofreading; and marketing and publicity. Some POD publishers offer publication as e-books in addition to hardcover and paperback. Some POD publishers will offer ISBN (International Standard Book Numbers) service, which allows a title to be searchable and listed for sale on websites.

    Many critics dismiss POD as another type of vanity press. One major difference is that POD publishers have a connection to retail outlets like Amazon and Books in Print that vanity presses generally do not.

    Which do I recommend?

    I don’t.

    Let others who have had more experience do the recommending. There are some helpful websites I have listed below. None of them are ideal. The best information is from those who have actually gone through the process, and I’ve included some of their comments from Slushpile.net. (I self-published but that was almost ten years ago.)

    I’m also attempting to create a new website, Self-Published Poets, devoted to poets who have self-published. It’s still in a formative stage. The purpose is to provide a centralized catalog where poets can find each other, find each others work – and readers can find us. The poetry of academia has its own network. Self-published poets need theirs. The point of this post was to spell out why self-publishers shouldn’t be embarrassed. I’ve self-published. I’m proud of it. I have books to sell and I consider myself to be in damned good company. Ben Jonson? Walt Whitman? E.E. Cummings? Mark Twain? Count me in.

    I do think that self-publishing should be strongly considered by poets, perhaps more so than by authors writing in other genres. If a novelist is a good novelist, national ambition isn’t unreasonable. The broader public still seeks out and enjoys a good novel. I can’t imagine that the self-published novelist could ever match the promotional heft of a real publishing house – or realize the same financial gains.

    The same can be said for children’s writers and YA novelists. If writers in these genres choose to self-publish, I’m all for it, but self-publishing should probably be considered a starting point rather than tLeaves of Grasshe end game. Again, nothing matches the reach of a traditional publishing house. They want to make money. And if you demonstrate that your writing can make money, they will want your work.

    • Self-publishing is a business decision.

    That’s the bottom line, or so it seems to me. If it makes sense to self-publish from a business standpoint; if you have a plan and the commitment to follow through, go for it.

    As for poetry…

    The reading public is still buying lots of poetry, but not the verse of contemporary poets. Contemporary poets like to blame the public, but I blame the poets. In either case, a nationwide audience for a given book of poetry is a long shot.  If you have that ambition, I recommend genius – either as poet or self-promoter.

    Short of that, if you can land a job in academia (a college or university), that’s probably the best way to advance your career. You have an instant audience (your students) and you will be expected to give readings. (The college or university will, in effect, promote you if they think you’re an asset.) And being a poet in academia has the added benefit of an instant network (both good and bad).   Another common option is to submit your book manuscript to contests. Many new poets see their first book published by winning such contests. Alternately, a small press might consider you if you have made a name for yourself in poetry journals and chapbooks.

    These are all legitimate and time consuming ways to pursue a published book. But no matter which route you pursue , small presses reach a comparatively small audience. Don’t expect to make a living from your book’s proceeds.

    If you can afford it, think about self-publishing. It’s a reasonable option for poets. If you’re energetic and committed, you can probably do as much for your poetry as any small press.  But don’t take my word for it. Check out the poets at Self-Published Poets. See what they say and take a look at their books.

    Noteworthy Websites and Comments

    • Of all the links provided (and if you only read one) read Robert Bagg’s  essay, the last one listed.

    Elderberry Press

    “The prejudice against a writer who dares take the initiative with his book after a thumbs down from folks who never read a line of it also makes selling self-published books and small press books difficult.

    Naida is right. The system is corrupt as is the world. Merit has nothing to with what is published. After spending a year sweating blood to write a novel, tossing it into a sock drawer isn’t easy if you know it’s good.

    I published my own novel years ago and have since published two hundred books by other authors. It’s been a great adventure and I’m always looking for new writers to read and publish.” (…)

    Bridge House Books

    “THE TERM ‘SELF PUBLISHER’ MISSES THE MARK FOR MANY. My company has 5 titles in print – books written by me as well as others. I pay all costs. My books are distributed nationally. I hire professional editors and graphic artists. I use offset printers, not POD (used it once but the inflated price/unit hurt sales). My income after expenses is far more than most mid-list novelists in big houses. I spend beaucoup on printing and reprinting, but I’ve been in the black since the first six weeks. I employ an associate to handle much of the business. Despite these costs, a substantial savings CD informs me that readers like my books. To my other writers, I am a publisher (are they supposed to say, “I’m published by a self publisher?”—that would mean themselves). After I launch the 3rd novel in my trilogy, Bridge House Books will continue to publish fine literature.” (…)

    Self Publishing

    I unsubscribed from a trade author’s posts to my Amazon Plog today after he quoted from and linked to the blog post of another trade fiction writer beating up on self publishers. I’m not giving either of their names because I don’t want to generate publicity for them, but I thought the basic phenomena is worthy of comment. Why would a couple of successful trade authors feel they have the either the need or the expertise to write about self publishing? (…)

    Self Publishing 2.0

    “[I] recently published a blog post on why trade authors, in particular, hate self publishers. Part of it is sincere in the sense that they are trying to prevent people from getting ripped off by author services companies, but a lot of it has to do with the belief that self publishers haven’t earned the right to call themselves “authors”.

    I’ve done both, and self publishing is more work and often more rewarding than being a trade author. Everybody needs some lucky breaks along the way for either career. Too many trade authors come to believe that they could start over tommorow with another name and no phone numbers or e-mails of editors and agents, and be right back on top in no time. They forget that timing is everything and times change.” (…)

    Washington State University Press

    “I work as the marketer for a very small scholarly press. We primarily publish regional non-fiction history and culture. I read most of the books we publish raw, as they were received, and very few manuscripts are publication-ready. Even when the writing is excellent, the books are still improved through the editing process and collaborative effort. Our editor brings decades of experience to the table. It is extremely difficult for many authors to view their own work in an objective manner. If self-publishers want to have more credibilty, then they must make the effort to produce the best book possible–using professional editors, designers, and illustrators–resources a conventional publisher would invest. Many do not, and the poor results are rampant in self-publishing. Until that changes, don’t expect distributors and booksellers to take the risk.” (…)

    POD, Print on Demand Technology

    I started out attempting to contact traditional publishers of chapbooks and small press publishers specializing in poetry, and other non-main street venues. I soon found out that most were associated with contests once a year to generate funds for the one publication printed per year; or no real interest since poetry as a general rule doesn’t generate the publisher money. It appears that self-help books and the occasional novel stand a better traditional chance of selling and making profit. Since I’m 59, soon to be 60, I didn’t want to invest more time into seeking out the slim hope of finding a traditional publishers, so I looked to POD, “Publishing on demand. “ The key feature of POD, is they print only orders as they have been ordered, when they are ordered. The wholesale cost is higher than a traditional publisher, but you are not stuck with inventory under your bed. Prices and services vary greatly from one POD publisher to the next; but most have a format or procedure they follow and most provide a rudimentary distribution process through wholesalers to get your book at least listed with some key players like Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Target.com, Baker and Taylor, Ingram, etc. But without the author self promoting himself with his own efforts, the book is likely to die on line without sales. With POD, you must market yourself right from the start if you have any hope of limited sales, especially on your first book as a relatively unknown author. One could write a book on POD, one key benefit is the author keeps control over his work. Some POD publishers are Author House, who recently merged with iUniverse, Book Surge. A more complete list with pricing and comparison of services can be found at: http://booksandtales.com/pod/index.php Overall, POD suited my needs to get established, retain ownership, with a quick, and easy procedures to follow to get the book published and assigned with an ISBN book number which is critical for creditability. (…)

    Self Publishing Resource Guide

    The term “vanity publisher” was actually coined by the publishing industry way back at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was meant to discourage competition.  Back then, publishers who could use an author’s money to print books (an expensive process) could take significant business away from the publishing companies then in business.  By suggesting that such publishers were unscrupulous and that the writers were egomaniacs, the existing industry prevented serious losses. (…)

    Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir

    Self-publishing has long been synonymous with vanity publishing of books that can’t pass commercial or literary muster. Most established authors recoil from going that route, though many will also have an unpublished, but cherished, manuscript on their hard drive or in a drawer. While it may never completely shake its historic stigma, self-publishing has become increasingly attractive, pervasive and successful in the present era. In 2008 more than 566,000 new books saw print; more than half, 285,000, were self-published, or available on demand. That year also saw declines in the numbers of poetry and fiction volumes published, as trade and university presses have become more reluctant to issue books whose sales prospects look marginal. Though it afflicts most genres, the reluctance poetry encounters is perhaps the most severe. (…)

    On Imagery & Poetry: Ode to Autumn & the Five Senses

    Something Different

    I’ve been writing a fair amount of analysis centered on meter. So I thought I’d take some time to focus on imagery, how it has been used during different times, what it tells us about poets, which poets use imagery well, which don’t… Etc.

    I’ve been tempted to enter into some of the theoretical conversation surrounding current trends in poetry: poetry in academia; the various schools and their aesthetics; theories of composition, schools of criticism, etc… But, there are many other blogs devoted to these matters and, to be honest, the subject matter bores me. The posts that interest me the most are those that help me write better poems.

    At the end of the day, all the chatter about schools, aesthetics and criticism will be relegated to graduate programs, as always. What’s left behind and what matters, to the rest of the world, is the poetry itself. Learn to write well and you will be remembered.

    Anyway… somewhat like my first post on Iambic Pentameter, this ought to be a post on the basics of imagery.

    What is it?

    I’m sure, if you search thoroughly, you can find dazzlingly complex and arcane definitions of what does and doesn’t constitute poetic imagery. princeton-encyclopediaRather than begin this post with an exhaustive retrospective of what this or that critic, poet, dictionary, or encyclopedia considers imagery, I’ll limit myself to just one “official” source, then dandle with imagery on my own. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics starts with Image, then proceeds to Imagery – almost ten pages of double-column, small type explication. The subject deserves it and it’s worth reading. I’ll just offer up the first paragraph:

    Image and Imagery are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in the poetic theory, occuring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide rational, systematic account of their usage.  A poetic image is, variously, a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech; a concrete verbal reference; a recurrent motif; a psychological event in the reader’s mind; the vehicle or second term of a metaphor; a symbol or symbolic pattern; or the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.

    The Encyclopedia then goes on to explain how imagery was used and understood from the Elizabethans through moderns. Good stuff.

    My Own Take

    I’m not sure how I’ll develop these posts, but the following seems like a good place to start:

    • At its most basic level, an Image is anything that evokes any of the fives senses:

    Visual (Sight)
    Aural (Sound)
    Smell
    Taste
    Sensation (Touch)

    If you are writing poetry, keep this list next to you. Princeton states that “although imagery has come to be regarded as an essentially poetic device, many good poems contain little or no imagery.” [p. 564] Note that Princeton does not say “many great poems”. All poems that have withstood the test of time, that are now universally read and considered to be great poems, are distinguished, in part, by the genius of their imagery. John Keats - StatueThe centrality of imagery to poetry’s power is not unique. Great novelists are also distinguished by their evocative prose .

    While I don’t suggest you compulsively stuff your poem with one each of the five senses, keep the list next to you. Think about what senses you are evoking in your poetry. The vast majority of poets, especially those lacking practice and experience, will usually limit themselves to the visual.

    Perhaps the greatest poet, in this regard, was Keats. He was keenly aware of the world: its sounds, tastes, texture and smells. His sensitivity and the delicacy of his imagery is part and parcel of his genius. I’ve color coded one of his most famous poems, the Ode to Autumn, to help readers visually appreciate his use of imagery. (I’ve already analyzed the poem for its meaning and meter in a previous post.) Considered among the greatest poems of the English language, it’s rich and evocative imagery is essential to its reputation.

    All Five Senses

    Notice how Keats touches on all five senses. The poet fully engages us in the experience of autumn. There’s nothing that will add more power to your poetry than inviting the reader into your sensory world. The range of Keats’s imagery adds immediacy. Without it, the poem would have the feel of an intellectual exercise – an essay.

    Sensory Clusters

    Notice too, by the color coding, that you can see Keats’s mind works. There are image clusters. The first stanza is primarily visual. Sight is our pre-emininent sensory experience, Keats knows it, and so the first stanza creates the poem’s setting. But before the close of the first stanza, he dwells on sensation (touch): the warmth of the day, the clammy cells, the soft-lifted hair. I’ve tentatively included the winnowing wind as a sensation since we can both see and feel the wind .

    The second moves us back to the visual experience of autumn. The fume of poppies engages our sense of smell – which scientists claim to be our most associative sense.  But notice what happens in the third stanza. With a kind of deliberateness, Keats’s verse o’erbrims with aural imagery. Keats’s visual terrain is filled with sound: the wailful choirs of mourning gnats, the lambs loud bleating, the singing of the crickets, the treble-soft whistles of the redbreast as the swallows twitter.

    The cluster of aural imagery is deliberate. Beginning with the wailful choirs and mourning gnats, they effectively communicate a sense of autumnal loss that would have been more difficult to communicate solely through visual imagery.

    Verbal Imagery

    Keats’s use of verbal imagery (and his use of anthimeria) is also worth considering. Consider the first stanza:

    The use of swell and plump are visual cues, as is  the adverbial budding more. O’erbrimmed is a lovely example of anthimeria “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . O’erbrimmed is also an example of verbal metaphor – in that summer is “like” a cup that is overfull (though the words like or as are omitted).

    The use of “verbal imagery” adds vitality and dynamism to the mostly nominal and static imagery. It is also among the most difficult of poetic techniques to master. Keats learned the technique from Shakespeare who, more than any poet before or since, could  brilliantly and ingeniously coin new words and put old words to new grammatical uses. When poets do it well, we see the world in new ways.

    Visual(Sight)
    Aural (Sound)
    Smell
    Taste
    Sensation (
    Touch)

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
    To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think
    warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,

    Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cider-press, with patient look,

    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
    While barred clouds bloom the
    soft-dying day
    And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft,
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud
    bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
    The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

    What’s Next

    Examining more poems! I still haven’t decided on the next poet or poem , but the best imagery leads on to metaphor. And limiting myself to imagery means I can look at free verse poets too. So, if this has been interesting to you, helpful, or if you have questions or suggestions, please comment.