Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Against Unemployed Poetry, and other musings

I've got a gap in publications this month since DecomP is waiting to publish until December, but I've got poetry and writing on the brain and thought I'd share some thoughts. . . Years ago at a library book sale, I picked up a copy of Clement Wood’s “The Complete Rhyming Dictionary” written almost 100 years ago.  It begins like this:

The desire to write poetry, or at least acceptable verse, is almost universal.  The achievement of this desire may be gained by anyone without excessive effort.

I’m not sure what acceptable verse is, and I’m sure I don’t write it, but I do consider myself a poet, and most things I’ve written have likely been the result of excessive effort. And I’ve considered myself a “poet” for many years.  Long before I knew what the job of a poet is. 

I still don’t know what it is, but I think while writing rhymes may be relatively straightforward, Wood was wrong about the effort.  Poetry is a job.  The job description is constantly changing, and to be a poet you must at least wonder about it.  You must be working in service of that job every time you write.  The job often encompasses other actions.  Usually to chase/woo, sometimes to capture, other times to maim, occasionally to kidnap.  Often, a poem starts with whimsy, and ends in enlightenment.  Sometimes it ends in a satisfying confusion.  That’s a hard job to do. Don’t write a poem if it’s not at least trying to do a job.  “To essay” is to try, and even poetry has the word “try” in it.  This is not to imply that fiction doesn’t try, though sometimes I wonder; instead, let me just say, that there’s little worse in literary terms than an unemployed poem.

At the same time, I refer to the work I send off as “prose poetry”.  There’s a proud tradition in literature of no one knowing the job of prose poetry.  Sometimes it’s narrative nonfiction.  Often, as in the case of the “godfather of the prose poem”, Russell Edson, it operates in the territory of tiny surreal fictions, as if Italo Calvino had followed up Invisible Cities with increasingly strange and small locations: invisible towns, invisible neighborhoods, invisible homes, and barely opaque kitchens.  Meanwhile, in the last 10 years or so “flash fiction” has taken off.  So what’s the difference? 

Judging by Russell Edson and myself, the boundaries are somewhat porous. First, characters in prose poetry are archetypes: the father, the woman, the daughter, the steam engine.  In flash fiction they almost always have names, like “Jeff”.  Flash fiction *tends* to have a more realist edge, and realists demand names for things.  Additionally, flash fiction, by informal survey of guidelines, is “500 words or less”.  I rarely crest 150 words.  I have a few pieces that go to nearly a full page, and quite frankly, these feel too long to me.  So maybe I write nano fiction or micro fiction.  To this I say “no”.  Why? Because I am a poet, and we are prone to flimsy presumptions reached after staring at the crabapples fermenting beneath a tree in October, after having just finished a full bottle of sake, that we could ill afford.  Li Po did it.

But I’ve thought deeply about the effort and job of poetry, and there’s a little more to it than writing acceptable verse, swooning at the unutterable glory of nature, describing our unique deep dark pits, or even telling very strange stories.  Instead of taking Clement Woods’ advice, take mine:

1. Lines make poets lazy.  The meaning is not in the lines.  The form of the poem must follow its function, or it’s job.  If the poem is meant to house something, its lines cannot be arranged haphazardly like a game of pick-up sticks, unless it is a poem about a game of pick-up sticks.

2. Rhyme is either for those committed to “forms”, i.e. not prose poetry, or for doggerel.  There are many beautiful poems written in forms, and occasionally I turn to form as an exercise, though usually the sonnet in question transforms into a prose poem on the first full moon, and never goes back.

3. Everything needs rhythm.  A poem that pays no attention to rhythm is not a poem. Any writing that pays no attention to rhythm might as well be a shareholder’s report or the Terms and Conditions that we blithely agree to.  Someone has to write all that, and virtually no one ever reads it.  I imagine everyone who writes Terms and Conditions is a failed poet, and I’m sorry for them.

4. The number 13 has died a noisy death, unless your poem is about bar mitzvahs.  Do not write a “13 ways of. . .” poem.  That’s the buzzfeed click-bait of poetry.  Wallace Stevens may have been a prophet, but 13 is not holy.   It may just so happen that you think best in groups of 13… I believe I’ve heard of this disorder somewhere, but please find another title to your poem. Shakespeare never titled his work, and now they’re known by there first line.  That’s what a title is to me.  It’s a bud, or a stunted first line.  Or a job title, while the poem is the job description.

5. In 8th grade, suddenly, everyone’s favorite word was “defenestrate”.  It’s okay, I guess.  My favorite word is “galvanize”.  Or “dotage”.  Or “wooly”.  I use the word “genuinely” a lot when I talk, but never in poetry.  Why not? You must choose the right words, but fine words genuinely do not make a poem.  These days, I try to write poetry that an inquisitive 12 year old could read; mostly simple words, with a couple that an adolescent may look up in a dictionary.  Here are some words it is time to ban from poetry: vellum, pomegranate, persimmon, fate, infinity, [and] ephemeris.

6. Okay, so we shouldn’t ban words.  You may be writing about a persimmon orchard.  But let me just say, the sky is not cerulean, nor is that swimming pool, or “her eyes”.  Few words infuriate me like “cerulean”.  About 10 years ago everyone discovered it, like “defenestrate” in 8th grade.  The swimming pool is cobalt, the sky azure, and her eyes are kyanite.  But whether cerulean or cyan, the job of poetry is not to introduce precocious 12 year olds to fancy words, it is to use the best words. For fancy words they can try the Oxford English Dictionary, David Foster Wallace, or PSAT study guides.

7. The order is more important than the words.  Don’t just know your tone.  Know your syntax.  Know the rules of grammar and punctuation, and then, if you must, make your own.  That said, there’s never a reason for double commas or triple semi-colons.  There’s plenty of exotic and wild punctuation out there: lure it in and put it to use.  Personally, I’d like to see more emoticons/emoji in poetry.  Nabokov advocated for emoticons, and if he didn’t turn his nose up at it, well then ¯\_()_/¯.

8. Writing the narrative of a personal experience? Why aren’t you writing an essay? What job are lyrics and line breaks doing that an essay wouldn’t?  Know the answer.  If you don’t know the answer you are probably writing florid and lazy nonfiction.  You have just created another unemployed poem.  The unemployment rate of poetry is unacceptably high.  There’s no safety net for unemployed poems.  If they don’t work they just contribute to national poetic deficit.  Everyone’s poem can work; sometimes they just need to consider a new job.  Like poets.

9. I’d rather not identify what I write as flash fiction, prose poetry, or even poetry.  I’d rather my work were tossed into the waters of a literary journal, and then classified according to the ripples it makes.  Fiction floats.  Nonfiction sinks.  Poetry lilly-dips.  Prose poetry obeys its own rules.  It bounces on water, then bobs.  It expands to fill the space.  It spreads like oil. It sinks ships, and before they drown, the sailors thank it.