Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

April 20, 2008

The Pee in the Pool of On Line Poetry, by Terreson

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Editor’s note:

You’re a poet or you’d like to be, and you’re at home or maybe work, with your computer.    Wouldn’t it be great to write a poem and post it into a forum for others like yourself to read and give feedback on, maybe spiff up some of your work, get it ready to submit somewhere, learn a few things or a few things more, find some creative, inspiring people?

The forum conversations could tend along the lines of the letters between poet Hart Crane and the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe.    Within the recent article in the New York Review of Books, A Great American Visionary, Colm Tóibín discusses the give and take between Monroe and Crane after he submitted his poem “At Melville’s Tomb” to her.    Here is the end of that discussion:

Monroe had commented as well on the opening of the last stanza:

          Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
          No farther tides….

“Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant,” she wrote, “contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe.”

“Hasn’t it often occurred,” Crane replied,

that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured?

In the same letter, he quoted from Blake and T.S. Eliot to show how the language of the poetry he wrote and admired did not simply ignore logic, it sought to find a logic deeply embedded in metaphor and suggestion.

Wouldn’t it be great to be a modern-day Hart Crane and find a Harriet Monroe to discuss such matters of creativity with? To this end, there is an article here at Clattery MacHinery on Poetry called 25 Online Poetry Forums and Workshops where you can click and explore select poetry forums.    To this same end, you could explore “The IBPC Boards” on the sidebar of The InterBoard Poetry Community web site to see where you might belong and how the conversations tend.    What a perfect place, the internet, where from the comfort of your own home, from wherever the creative urge strikes, you may share your poetry, and enter discussions on poetry with like-minded people.    Maybe, however, you cannot, or it is just not that easy.    Maybe there are community tendencies or social constrictions that would discourage you, and you would give up on this idea.    Maybe on line poetry has grown so large, that it is time for it to look at itself, like any legitimate field must.

Everything written below is by Terreson.

–Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

 

 

 

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Dear Reader,

Are poetry boards good for poetry?

I wonder if anyone else has wondered about something: are online poetry boards good for poetry?    A subset of questions might run something like this.    Do the boards benefit poets, the new and inexperienced especially who, in most cases, are grappling with the vital stuff of finding an authentic voice, gaining confidence in themselves, working through the canon, trying to figure out if they have something essential to say, and all at the same time?    Do the boards, viewed as communities, engender poetry whose language is also authentic or do they falsify the poetry experience?    Another question comes to mind.    Is even the notion of an online poetry community good for poetry?    And maybe one last question.    What impact on poets, and on poetry itself, do the parameters, the rules of conduct and the by-laws, of many boards have?

I think it possible that the poetry board experience falsifies poetry and renders it inauthentic, which is a peculiar thing to have to say about online sites many poets, new and experienced, flock to both in order to improve their skills and to find like-minded people who are devoted to the art in the first place.    In the history of poetry, and with rare exception, no such community of poets and their critics has ever produced first-rate poems.    To the extent poetry is a community it is more like an unendowed college, with each collegian operating in tandem and usually alone.    Simply put poetry has always had the features of a cottage industry standing outside notions of community.    A notable exception might be Mallarme’s famous Tuesday nights in Paris when fellow Symbolists gathered at his home to read their poems to each other.    Even here, however, I am not aware that those poets engaged in analysis, criticism, parsing and such.    Certainly they were motivated to create a, then, radically new aesthetic, a defined program in which they each had a vital interest.    But whether or not community, in and of itself, is beneficial or harmful to poetry is a larger question, looking almost existential actually, and best left to individual poets to sort through.    The smaller, more manageable question might again be this:    generally speaking, are public poetry boards operationally designed in such a way that they kill the art by falsifying the experience or do they benefit the art?

Here is some of what I’ve come to suspect, and drawing on nearly ten years of participating in various online poetry communities, both on the boards and in the chat rooms.
 
Terreson
 

 

 

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The Pee in the Pool of On Line Poetry: Are poetry boards good for poetry?

 

Notions of Community.

Boards and rooms tend to place first emphasis on community cohesion, with poetry, poetry-related conversation, and the free exchange of ideas viewed as secondary.    It is interesting to view a poem allowed in the name of free speech that expresses violence, threats of violence, bigotry, and sexism.    Then to notice how the exchange of views in heated debate is closely monitored by moderators, often admonished, sometimes deleted from a forum as inflammatory.    The contradiction is interesting.    What it signifies is that a particular board’s community cohesion, and its culture, is an animal in its own right and takes precedence over the artistic project(s).    The mantra frequently expressed is: ’be nice.’    The suspicion, however, is that what actually matters, and in top down fashion, is the board’s culture and not the poetry or the exchange over ideas concerning poetry.    So the question becomes: does such a culture falsify the poetry experience?    Does it tell the online poet, say, that parenthetical bitch language in a poem is okay, whereas honesty in critical discussion is not?    My sense is that the free exchange of ideas is viewed as dangerous to community, but that poetry is not, since, it honestly doesn’t matter.
 

Poet/Critic Dialogue.

Rarely, if ever, is the meaningful dialogue allowed between the posting poet and the posting critic.    Board guidelines tend to explicitly discourage the exchange.    Poets are even told to thank the critic no matter what has been offered in the way of critical response.    The password defining the parameters of the poet to critic relationship is “don’t crit the critter.”    It is a rule, an effective gag order, that causes the head to wag and wobble, and one again I believe designed more for the sake of community cohesion than for the sake of the poet and poetry.    The unfortunate consequence is that poet is put at the disadvantage, while critic is allowed to say practically anything with impunity, no matter how uncomprehending, or even biased.

Common sense suggests that the critic is no more likely to know the nature of good poetry than is the poet.    I know of no case in the history of literary criticism where a school of thought has not been superseded eventually by another or taken to task for what it failed to understand.    And the suspicion becomes twofold: comments on a poem are often made only to satisfy a required number of commentaries in order to get a poem posted, and critics can, often do, comment in a compensatory, self-serving fashion, or with a bias that frequently disenables their perspective.    Add to this the extent to which online critics often do not bother to ground themselves in both the canon of poetry and critical theory, and, again, question of motivation comes into play.

Why then should a commentator be given a license the posting poet is not allowed?    It was Auden who divided the world into two camps.    The prolific and the devourer.    In the first camp he put poets along with farmers.    In the second he put professional critics along with politicians.    This rather begs the further question: if poetry boards sanction the frequently inept critic for whom are the boards meant?    Are poets, the bread and butter of poetry boards, also its fodder?    If so, here again there appears to be a falsification of the poetry experience online that is not healthy, especially for the new poet.
 

Poetry Board as Workshop.

Then there is the proposition that poetry boards are intended to function as workshops.    I am satisfied that, by and large, the public boards fail in this function.    First, emphasis is placed on production and not on refinement.    Here too the system of criticism contributes by its own lack of authenticity, by its lack of in-depth reading, and by its lack of sincerity.    And, secondly, the sheer size of many boards is neither conducive to meaningful exchange nor to the kind of developed relationships between poets that can best benefit artistic growth.    Having been a member of a small, private board for nearly two years where the members have had the chance to follow each other’s progress and where, because of the shared history, each other’s poetry is followed, commented on, entered into with greater comprehension, I am convinced of the failure of the larger boards to function as workshops in a meaningful sense of the office.
 

The Insincere Reader.

Participating members can also contribute to the falsifying of poetry.    While I’ve met many poets, new and old, clearly devoted to the discipline for its own sake, and who have both the instinct and the hunger for authentic poetry, two contrary salients stand out.    First, there are the scores of posted responses to poems entirely lacking in sincerity.    They tend to be complimentary and generic.    Recently I was reminded how Donald Hall once decried America’s growing number of “McPoets,” products of false praise and encouragement without the supporting evidence of talent and ability.    If poetry is to be taken seriously the inflationary effect of the unwarranted compliment becomes a serious problem.
 

Anti-intellectual Element.

Then there is the anti-intellectual element on poetry boards.    If, as Yeats thought, poetry is to speak to the whole body and to the whole of the human experience, then it must speak to the whole soma, to the senses, to the ear, to the groin as much as to the head.    In brief: poetry must be as much a felt experience as the felt experience thought about.    And yet there are those, none too few, who would disallow from the boards exchanges in poetics, prosody, and critical thinking.    This is not a good sign.    It does not bode well for poetry.       

 

 
from Gitanjali and Fruit-Gathering by Rabinadrath Tagore, introduction by, the frontispiece by Nandalal Bose
 

Interboard Understanding.

There also seems to be a collusion between public poetry boards that speaks to something resembling a backroom politicians’ understanding.    On many boards, at least, members are not allowed to raise questions about other boards and, by extension, about the design and the parameters of the online poetry board system in general.    Again, the head is made to wag and wobble.    The circumstance speaks to a cartel of shared interests among board administrators.    It too suggests a culture that has less to do with poets and poetry and more to do with safe-guarding its own green zone, what again must end up falsifying the poetry experience on line.

If poets are discouraged from raising questions and challenging precepts in their own community how then can they be expected to see to one of poetry’s cardinal responsibilities, that of breaking taboo and challenging clichés in behavior, perception, and language?    Viewed from a certain standpoint, vital poetry keeps as a danger to the community, be the township bureaucratic, corporate, or domestic.    And I am persuaded that as much is expected of poetry by the many townships.    So what is to be made of a circumstance in which poetry’s own township displays the bunker mentality?   
 

Board Administrations.

I’ve saved the most serious question for last: does the poetry board infrastructure of moderators and site administrators benefit the poet and create a free range environment encouraging poetry?    Closest to the point, does it actually engender the community the system is designed to keep in place?    Here my question is rhetorical as I am persuaded the answer is no.    I have spent some few years as both a board moderator and as a poetry chat room host.    I am settled in the opinion that the greatest danger to poetry on line is the governing system of board moderators and site administrators, which system proves the Orwellian insight.    All animals are created equal, some more than others.    An insight that cannot be more abhorrent to artists in general, poets in particular, whose vocation requires they be slightly anarchistic, certainly free wheeling and passionate in their convictions, if they are to keep creative in their artistic personalities.

I’ve heard all the arguments for the necessity of the governance, which is what it is.    The salient of which might be that the system safeguards public poetry boards from so-called trollers.    The history of the system suggests that the abuses meted out by moderators and site administrators with the tools to delete posts and ban members rather outweigh the safeguards.    A poetry board’s rules and by-laws is often a matter of subjective interpretation, something that fundamentally comes into play.

On a member’s side of the divide, it is clear that moderators are allowed more liberties than they are.    And among members it is generally recognized that a moderator’s own poem should not be taken too closely to account, that a deferential comment, even if falsely given, is best.    (And I guess I must wonder how the circumstance affects the inexperienced poet who perhaps notices the insincere comment on a moderator‘s poem, often praising it without warrant.)    It is also clear that to question a moderator brings down on the member the approbation of other staff moderators, that to criticize a moderator’s poem can result in the same.    When this happens there is an unmistakable closing-of-ranks, and the divide that all too many members know becomes sharper, more well defined, and sends out a certain other, Orwellian message.    Of all the online poetry board features, the politics infused into the environment by the two-tiered system of moderators/site administrators and members may just be the most pernicious, may be what falsifies the online poetry experience the most, at least when the experience is viewed as an artistic project.

The on line poetry experience is not limited to the posting, public airing of a poem.    Nor is it limited to the poet/critic exchange.    To say it again, at its best it is a free range environment, call it a Montessori school yard.    As the system stands I think it possible it is not just a failure, but a betrayal of the instinct for poetry.    Back in 1991 Robert Bly put together a collection of essays on American poetry: “American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity.”    The collection includes an interview with Bly, conducted by Wayne Dodd.    From the interview:

“Dodd: ‘It may also be that poets will be afraid to risk doing the really different thing, that might seem to be profoundly true to them nonetheless, for fear of being accused of peeing on the floor.’

Bly: ‘Oh, indeed!    That’s right!    I’m sure that the reviewers of Pound’s early work, which had a lot of freaky originality, accused him constantly of being poorly house-trained.    What would originality look like today? . . . It’s possible that originality comes when the man or woman disobeys the collective.    The cause of tameness is fear.    The collective says: “If you do your training well and become a nice boy or girl we will love you.”    We want that.    So a terrible fear comes.    It is a fear that we will lose the love of the collective.    I have felt that intensely.    What the collective offers is not even love, that is what is so horrible, but a kind of absence of loneliness.    Its companionship is ambiguous, like mother love.’”

In my view the collective Bly speaks of and the poetry board culture I draw attention to, at least as it perpetuates itself with an eye to its own maintenance, bear a certain family resemblance.
 

 

 

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Terreson is an itinerant poet, sometime novelist, short fiction writer, and essayist.    Originally from Florida he presently lives in Louisiana where he assists in research into honey bee genomics.    He welcomes your comments at terecone {at} aol {dot} com.
 

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October 16, 2006

The Gifts of Donald Hall: "Retriever"

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by Donald Hall
   

Retriever
   

            Two days after Jane died
            I walked with our dog Gus
            on New Canada Road
            under birchy green
            April shadows, talking
            urgently, trying
            to make him understand.
            A quick mink scooted past
            into fern, and Gus
            disappeared in pursuit.
            The damp air grew chill
            as I whistled and called
            until twilight. I thought
            he tried to follow her
            into the dark. After an hour
            I gave up and walked home
            to find him on the porch,
            alert, pleased to see me,
            curious over my absence.
            But Gus hadn’t found her
            deep in the woods; he hadn’t
            brought her back
            as a branch in his teeth.
   

   

   

   

His poem brought to you through the poet laureate’s gracious consent

   

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Donald Hall, our United States Poet Laureate, read from his book White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006 for an hour this afternoon at the First Congregational Church in Pelham New Hampshire. He sat at a table as he does now, and read his poems of love, death, New Hampshire, and more, without great animation in body language, but with his kind and aging New England voice. The focus in listening, then, goes onto his words, being sure to make them out, but also on his intonations.

Eric Clapton noted that when Aretha Franklin sings, never is a note simply sung and held for its time. The soul of her singing comes through in how she bends and gives character and feeling to each note, such import to each. In this sense too, Donald Hall is a soul poet. Never is a stressed syllable simply read as a stressed syllable. Each is spoken to hold the accentuated note and meaning out into the room as a gift to the listener, presented with such suspense imparting the emotion and character of his words in their contexts.

With the first poems Hall read, the chant of the song within the poem could be heard, the soul of each stressed syllable revealing the meter of his freest verse poems. It was during these first minutes that he read the poem “White Apple” which contains the line, “white apples and the taste of stone”, the title of his latest book. That line came to him years after he first had the dream of the poem, and brought the poem together and to completion. In this and other senses, he is also a mystic poet, and thus the chant of his song-poems. But then, shouldn’t a poet who writes at once in a word about love, death, and his home, be naturally rooted in the mystic?

For the next minutes, it was as if he warmed to the occasion, and he read poems to make the audience laugh and feel at home with him. His delivery became more animated in his facial expression and tone of voice. The chant receded to the yarn of conversation, and yet the soul still alive within each stressed syllable. It was during this time, that he read his poem “Mount Kearsage” that begins:

            Great blue mountain! Ghost.
            I look at you
            from the front porch of the farmhouse
            where I watched you all summer
            as a boy.

and the poem “Great Day on the Cows’ House” with the first-stanza lines

            Now she stretches her wrinkly neck, her turnip eye
            rolls in her skull, she sucks up breath,
            and stretching her long mouth mid-chew she expels:

            mm-mmm-mmmmm-mmmmmmmm-ugghwanchhh.

Mid-poem there he interjected that friends tell him that last line is his best line of poetry.

The soulful singing of his poetry, the down home mysticism, the friendship with the audience well-established, all came to bear as he directed his audience’s hearts to his Jane Kenyon poems, of which “Retriever” above is one. The moments were naturally riveting, a great time in literature. Donald Hall’s Jane poems are as important to the poetry canon as Chopin’s Nocturnes are to piano music. There is a wholesome life, yet very mortal captivation to them.

After the reading, came the questions from the audience, and in response to one, he mentioned Thomas Hardy. In Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, to be published by Viking on October 19, she writes of his wife Emma dying:

She did not complain or ask for the doctor to be sent for, but she did ask Dolly to fetch her husband. Dolly ran down to the master in his study, where he was making an early start on his day’s work. He told her to straighten her collar–she wore a blue dress with a white collar when she was working–then he climbed the narrow stairs to his wife’s room and went up to the bed. He spoke her name: “Em, Em–don’t you know me?” But she was already unconscious, and within minutes she had stopped breathing. Emma Hardy was dead.

This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet.

And then:

Filled with sorrow and remorse for their estrangement, he had her body brought down and placed in the coffin at the foot of his bed, where it remained for three days and nights until the funeral. The gesture would have been remarkable in a lover who could not bear to be parted from the body of his mistress, but for an elderly husband who had for years been on bad terms with his wife it seems almost monstrously unconventional, until you realise that he was thinking of his situation quite differently. He had become a lover in mourning.

The parallel between Hall and Hardy is unmistakable in the great poetry that followed their wives’ deaths. Furthermore, Hall noted that he was born following the winds the same year Hardy died in January (and here I note almost nine months later on September 20, 1928). Indeed, he looked to Hardy’s Emma poems in writing his own Jane poems.

The differences are striking, however. Whereas Thomas Hardy was estranged from Emma Hardy while in the same house, Donald Hall was in a loving and close relationship with Jane Kenyon. Jane had great love poetry written about her by a soulful poet, who loved her as she lived, and gave tribute to this love after her death.

Hall’s and Kenyon’s separation was in that their offices were as far apart as they could physically be in that same house: poetic solitude, distance for the sake of the creativity they had in their separate rooms–a creativity they could then share when not writing. Hall noted that where there were two in solitude, now there is one, and that being one in solitude is the worse. He spends his days writing letters, trying to write poetry, and taking walks and naps from time to time.

   

   


   

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Donald Hall: Deciding to become a poet

(Duration 5:03)

   

Using your RealPlayer, here is Donald Hall at the 2005 National Book Festival:

Donald Hall: Book Fest 05 Web Cast

(Duration 36:35)

   

Also at The Library of Congress site, is an excellent webography of Hall, with links to readings and interviews:

Donald Hall: Online Resources

   

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Click on the picture of the book, to see a list of Donald Hall’s works at the Houghtin Mifflin Books site:


   

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The history of one’s poetry is the history of gifts.

–Donald Hall, October 15, 2006

   

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