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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January 4, 2007

Misplaced Leisure Water: The Displaced Function of Poetry

   
   
In a Books Inq. blog post from yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s books editor, Frank Wilson, linked to this item in Poetry Magazine:

Does Poetry Have a Social Function?

Here is some of what he wrote:

On New Year’s Eve, one of our dinner guests, a beautiful Chinese woman, read several classical Chinese poems for us. This proved that Auden was right when he said that when you hear real poetry it doesn’t matter if you know the language–you know it is poetry. Our friend also sang, with the voice of an angel, one of Li Bai’s poems. It is this sort of experience of poetry that makes such a question as the one posed on this link seem so banal. The essence of poetry is enchantment, not utility.

What follows, is a response to both Frank Wilson’s blog post and the article on Poetry’s web site, which is a conversation among poets Stephen Burt, Daisy Fried, Major Jackson, and Emily Warn.
   
   

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I found the answers banal. I was hoping Major Jackson would kick the discussion into gear. Daisy Fried spoke too often about what she considers politically correct for poets to write about. Whereas the poet must write what the poet is given to write, hopefully having gold and not mud, and whether it agrees with Fried’s politics or not.

To Joseph Campbell, the poet of current society was the shaman of the past, still being born as ever. Inspiration, whether something is carried over from primordial soup, communicated by muse-gods, given by God, whether from an extra-sensitivity to the sounds of earth or some yet-charted waves from distant novas exploding, there is a constancy to what shamans and poets produce. Wisdom is wisdom. Art is art. And poetry is poetry.

One social value of fresh poetry, then, is to say in current terms what had been said in classic poetry and scripture. For whatever the current society, it has inevitably misinterpreted its poetry, inevitably bringing about outdated customs and neurotic modes of thinking, but also grave consequences.

Poetry does not have to have such meaning, though. It may have only its sound or, as Frank Wilson points out, the sound and the poet present to speak it. I experienced this listening to Ko Un. As much enjoyment came from his speaking the poems as through the anticipation of what his translator would say in English. This is the music of poetry.

It is not necessary for a poem to contain both wisdom and music. But in some of the best poems, these aspects work together, the rhythm, the sounds, and language.

I want to take up the poem these poets were discussing, “The Mill-Race” by Anne Winters. Here is a link to the poem in full on the page:

PoetryFoundation.org: The Mill-Race

And here is a link to Anne Winters reading it:

New York Times: Books: Audio: Anne Winters Reads From ‘The Displaced of Capital’

I was struck by the “leisure water.” It represents poetry. A complaint within the poem is that the bus riders are losing the poetry of their lives, that even this was being placed at the whim and utility of the current economy and politics. How extraordinarily anti-poetry.

But this “leisure water” also answers the very question of a function of poetry. A thirst sure, but in the poem, the water reflects the sky, and it is in a “glib stretch” (italics mine).

Here are excerpts wherein the poets discuss that poem:
   
   
Daisy Fried:

Anne Winters’s “The Mill-Race,” about office workers in lower Manhattan, contains virtuoso description of the urban scene: workers, weather, light, limos of the bosses, buses of the employees. Though its subject matter and politics are both clear and attractive, content has very little to do with why the poem is extraordinary. Is it a useful poem? I like political poetry; it acknowledges that politics are part of life. Certainly at this historical moment, many of us are hungry for poems that look outward, not just into the self or into what seems like another kind of narcissism, a turning away via the knee-jerk (therefore empty) “avant garde” linguistic gesture. America’s crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It’s not as though it’s optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.
   
   
Emily Warn:

“The Mill-Race” by Anne Winters serves as proof text. How can its content not matter? How can one not relate to the drained faces of the women office workers on an evening bus, to their scant hope that, despite their misspent, dwindling hours in the service of Labor, they have preserved a shred of self? . . . .It won’t take us
altogether, we say, the mill-race–it won’t churn us up altogether. We’ll keep
a glib stretch of leisure water, like our self’s self–to reflect the sky.
But we won’t (says the bus rider now to herself). Nothing’s
left over, really, from labor. They’ve taken it all for the mill-race.Will this poem end drudgery? No. Does it disclose the pathos of other human beings and the source of their suffering? Yes. Is it this capacity that will help us, better than ammo or dollars, find a way through these harrowing times? Absolutely.
   
   
Daisy Fried:

Emily Warn seems to argue that content supplies poems’ utility. Content matters–poetry is far more than a formal game–but does not supply utility. Quality does. “The Mill-Race” is good and useful because it presents in extraordinary language an aspect of the human condition, not some false solution having to do with feel-good “relat(ing) to drained faces.” Emily should reread the very lines she quotes if she thinks this poem is about workers “preserv(ing) a shred of self.” The poet is there on the bus, we are there, we are all in the mill-race.
   
   
Emily Warn:

Poems such as “The Mill-Race” make us aware of the social conditions that shape our relations; their language helps us dwell in, puzzle out, and feel the conditions and the relations, no matter how terrible, making a change in them more possible. It is this possibility, this hope, that makes poetry as necessary as a paycheck. “The Mill-Race” ends on the word “salt,” (“but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-/mill, that makes sea, salt”). The salt sting is both our empathy for the workers’ weariness and the fact of their individual lives ground to salt. Over centuries, the poem also says, these workers have raised cathedrals, invented art. The work, “the curse-gift” of the poet, is to tell the story of a person who has no story other than the story of relations. As Celan wrote, “I am you/if I am.”
   
   
Stephen Burt:

Rather, my point is that different poems do different things, and good poems (such as “The Mill-Race”) do many things at once. If there are universal truths about the communicative functions in poems–truths about all good poems, not just about “The Mill-Race”–they are so universal that they do not count as social, by my lights: they concern communication among just two persons at a time, whether the two meet face-to-face, or whether implicit author and genuine reader live thousands of years apart.
   
   

   
   
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They never merge the point of the discussion with the point of the poem. It is almost as if the poem worked its way into everyone’s subconscious, but they never worked out why. No one mentioned that this poem is about a social function poetry can have. They simply used it as if it functioned.

This is part of how we participate in the art or poetry that we make of the sounds, clay, landscapes that we have. We take sounds and make music, fields and make golf courses, food and make fine cuisine, words and make poems, and so forth–and we use them in our lives. And just as sometimes the poet cannot fulfill the muse, the reader does not either. Thus more poetry needed.

I went to the web to get support for this point, and found it made in a most unlikely way by Dan Chiasson here:

Slate: The Anne Winters Challenge: Should a Marxist poet be stylistically ornate?

He quotes the last stanza:

It’s not a water-mill really, labor. It’s like the nocturnal
paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,
or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,
or the flour-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,
but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-
mill, that makes the sea, salt.

Here is the question he is asking:

What to do about this “faerique in the flour mill” issue–the frisson between subject matter and poetic language?

Aha! Nice. Here we have a discussion of the disconcert between the language in the poem and the lives of the bus riders. That’s what’s missing in their lives, the poetry. Specifically this poem. Point made in the asking of a question. Thank you, Mr. Chiasson.

But here is what Chiasson says:

But when you start bringing these kinds of objections up–when they start interfering with your enjoyment of works of art—you realize what an impoverished discussion we’ve all been having, these past years, about art and its connection to experience. We’ve come to imagine that there needs to be a traceable, obvious connection between “style” in art and subject matter. An art of the people better have lots of swear-words and spitting in it. And honking horns. An art of the intellect should be about Big Ideas. An art of theoretical density has got to be unintelligible. An art of great beauty should mention snow fields and sunsets. Art by Southerners should be full of dirt-roads and hounds. If this sounds parodic, read around in contemporary literature with my inventory in mind. Contemporary literature is parodic.

Oh well.

By the way, the poets took up the idea of the “Hard-working Roto Rooter reading poetry.” But none of them mentioned that it is that guy writing it.
   
   

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