Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Poets and Poetry

Why am I poet? Because I write poetry. A better question to ask is then, why do I write poetry? This is much more complicated. As long as we allow a place for poetry in our culture, then the place for poets is safe. But if poetry is threatened, and poetry disappears, the poet becomes in Soviet jargon, “social parasite.” Therefore we can see that what justifies the poet’s existence is not their being a poet, in upholding some sort of essential poet-ness, but rather in producing a certain kind of work, a poem. All the stereotypes and clichés we might have of how poets exist and what they look like are such because only one thing makes a poet, and that is the poem.

The poet must also remember the poem is a creation which lies between music and prose. It is able to contain discrete meaning through words, but at the same time it is dependent on the impression of each word and how they interact with the ones before it. There can be no useless and unconnected parts of a poem, there should be no tangents if possible. In prose this can occur but in poetry economy of words is key.

It is the work which defines one as a poet. The poet of course supplies the raw labor necessary for the poem to be formed and become part of reality, but knowing anything about the poet is irrelevant. It might spur certain interpretations and can be helpful know, especially for those who want write poetry themselves, but the poem can stand on its own without the help of the poet’s personality. Anonymous troubadours and bards have handed us down poems that are still part of the Western cannon such as Beowulf. The identity of Homer is such a mystery that we might consider the Iliad and the Odyssey to be part of this tradition as well. These poems are lucky in a way not to be burdened with a real authorship, for then they can be appreciated on their own without reference to a body of work or the aura that well known poets carry around themselves and tends to blind the critical eye when appraising their work.

The poet should feel liberated by this humility towards the importance of the work. It allows the poet freedom from worry about being original and outside of tradition; nor that they have to develop and remain faithful to some sort of “voice.” Instead the poet becomes a craftsman, a maker, and less of a personality. It must be remembered though, he or she can still aspire to the transcends responsibilities David Citino identifies in “The Eye of the Poet,” to be a visionary or a namer of the nameless.

Most important for the poet is the liberation from the voice. A poet who focuses on the work and lets the work speak through him or her, is freed from that search which often preoccupies younger poets. The poet must be like a charismatic preacher, able to speak in tongues, adapting to every poem and willing to write the same poem in more than one way, to examine thoughts of heartbreak in the sonnet form and in free verse, through a rambling style or one that is more reserved.

T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock might be an extension of his own thoughts on the nature of fleeting time, but the character is not a confession. Instead Eliot conceived of the poem’s subject and found a voice who could speak amply on it. Prufrock was much older than Eliot was when he wrote the poem, and one who was far more experienced in the world of one night stand, “in cheap hotels.” Eliot’s masterpiece, “The Wasteland” also shows the freedom and creativity to be gained by finding out different voices which can challenge the author. He speaks as both the blind prophet Tiresias and as a tarot card reader. He turns from rhymed verse to every-day speech. It should be noted that the original title of the work embraced this principle, “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”

Like an actor finding a character within, the poet works to find the voice. But it is still one voice out of many, not a unitary way of engaging the universe and the culture in dialogue. Even if the world is of one mind, as poet Li Young Lee would have it, still this mind must have its various ways of speaking to itself so that it might proceed to greater understanding and the poet accomplishes this not only for the society at large but also personally when they try to speak in different voices through their work. Poetry when done this way then opens up different ways of seeing and helps the poet speak for those who might not otherwise be able to.

However poetry, as T.S. Eliot might have it, is not a refuge from the self. The progress of a poet need not be a “extinction of personality.” Instead poetry should broaden the personality of the poet, it should help the poet to find him or herself in many places, times, and minds and if done properly can also send the reader there as well. Of course no poet can speak in an infinite number of ways, but they are severely limited if they can only use one.

The problem of speaking in one voice comes through especially with the more confessional poetry that details the obsessions and past crimes of the poet. Many good poems have been and can be written from the subject matter of the writer’s life and their experiences, but simply being honest about the past does not make a poem good. The principle that the work is more important than the poet still applies. The facts add nothing by themselves. Rather they must conform to the flow and the music of the words. The poem is not a database, it is a window and sometimes through a window we do not see everything, either because we can’t or we choose not to. If details have to be left out to help the poem along and keep it from being weighed down, then so be it.

The problem of writing with a personal voice is that it makes editing harder because it feels as if the poet is compromising themselves. Instead of worrying about the work and the craft, the voice takes center stage and limiting it in any way appears to the poet to be a form of self-censorship. If the work is the central focus it will determine already what is necessary and what is not and the poet merely has to trust his or her intuition about the poem.

Politics s not suited for poetry. The bad political decisions of poets should alone prove (e.g. Pound) this but the substance of poetry itself is also problematic. A political poem should understand that it can only treat political concerns in either a direct way or an indirect one. The middle ground of naming names and –isms fails because it reads off a list of details and trivializes contemporary positions and politicians. It uses too much metaphor to describe something that is best argued for in real terms.

However, there can be good political poems. A successful political poetry must either elevate political struggle to pure myth in a dualistic world of diametrically opposed camps or it must be discrete. In the first case it would frame Bush in Iraq as a crusader, going with that as a theme and sticking seriously to it. It would make a commitment to viewing events in that way and then would develop honestly from that point rather than starting with facts and trying to dress them up with a little flourish.

In the second method, the discrete way, the poet is writing about the effect of something terrible and letting this create a passion for solving the problem. A poem about the problems of capitalism would talk about the concerns of miners and their terrible working conditions in order to then inspire an inquiry into why this is going on and lead the reader to further action. But the poem does not preach any solution, it tells about the problem. In addition a political poem could operate by critiquing the language used in politics. It can show the absurd corruption of a word like freedom used to defend tyranny and oppression, or justice used to cover up injustice. This approach goes back to the practical role of the poem, to critique language and how it is used.

If poetry is going to become read again and become popular, it must avoid confessionalism, confrontationism, and esotericism. The work must not be compromised by the poet’s personality as much as possible. The read cannot be treated as the enemy and poetry should not be a shibboleth to separate the educated and uneducated. Attention must turn to the poem and what the poem is supposed to achieve, this sounds simple but many poets have ignored it. All too often they understand what they are trying to achieve but forget they are working with a poem and not an essay or a treatise. They have a limited space and have to select their words carefully.

Of course all great future poems have the potential to be exempt from these rules. It is such works that the rules themselves are built around. They help to define poetry and what the perfect synthesis of word and sound can be. These rules are based on the combined cannon of such works and on the possibilities they open up, but also on the things they tend to do in common.