Discourse: talking about poetry

This post is a response to Fox Chase Review‘s post which can be found here: Poetry in Decline?

“G” asked for responses to the need for a revolution in (USA) poetry, stemming from Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s comments. Her ideas were excerpted, so I may be missing some of her assertions or evidence. In one way, she echoes Dana Gioia’s famous “Can Poetry Matter?” essay and book (1992): that is, in terms of questioning the isolated, academic support of poetry, poetry study, MFAs, and university publishers as elitist and as dampening a wider audience for poetry. While Gioia tends to support the literary canon in general, he stresses in his early essay that poetry has its own specialized, “frenzied” little circle of literary lights but that the art itself no longer exerts much influence on life, culture, and thinking in the USA.

From Gioia’s introduction:

The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

Sahms-Guarnieri further suggests that isolated, academic styles of poetry are partially to blame for poetry’s “decline” among US readers and calls for a return to realism.

I’m not sure “realism” is the answer, because many infusions of style, energy, or revolution that have done poetry good as a whole have not exactly fallen into that category (was Lorca a realist? just as one example). I embrace the idea of the narrative-lyric mode, which may be considered a kind of realism; but I also love many, many other styles of poetry, some of which are “difficult” and not easily accessible to the general reader. The main means through which I learned the diverse structures and approaches to poetry is through reading on my own, autodidact that I am. Yet formal study and literary criticism increased and deepened my passion for this art. I teeter on the fringe of academia though I am a poet who writes outside of the classic academic framework.

I feel compelled to defend the teaching of poetry, though I admit the process is often done badly. Still, one of the things academia does best is to examine the work, and I feel readers who examine what they love more closely will benefit from doing so (rather than taking the “I know what I like” stance). Academics have, since the 1970s, begun seriously to read beyond “the canon,” and that is all to the good. Academia doesn’t produce the best art, however. Knowing how things work in theory does not equal expertise. I know how a bicycle works, but I am pretty sure I couldn’t build one from scratch.


The poems that remain timeless are seldom elitist. The problem with the elite is that it eventually falls from grace. When that occurs, the allusions and puns and, often, the entire foundation of the piece get lost. This issue can be equally true of poems that are “realistic.” If the poem offers no recognizable aesthetic, purpose, or sensation, it ceases to be valuable to future readers. Many of today’s poems will suffer this fate–mine among them–and that’s not a bad thing. We don’t get to judge which art is revolutionary, prescient, timeless; later generations make those judgments.

And that is one reason many writers resent academia and university presses: it seems as though these institutions are “at the top of the mountain” and trying to keep their situations exclusive; in other words, they are acting as cultural, literary judges. So they are…in their time. They cannot enshrine themselves for the future. Art doesn’t work that way.


Contemporary Poetry Review claims it is there to resuscitate contemporary poetry, which implies poetry’s suffering a near-death experience. I do not think poetry is dying. I think it is changing, which it has always done, because art is responsive to and entangled with culture and therefore defies stasis.

Poetry, like most art, tends to exist on the cultural fringe, where it hangs out with curious, inventive people who bother to seek for it. Some of them look on the mountain top, and some of them look online, or in pubs that host open mics, or at independent bookstores, long may they thrive. With luck, and maybe some encouragement, those people might buy a book or two–including POD-published or self-published books (why not? –and while you’re at it, Water-Rites is still available!). This last point coincides somewhat with Larry Robins’ perspective in the Fox Chase Review piece.

If you really do know what you like, regardless of how you make that judgment, buy a copy of the book. And don’t get it second-hand from Amazon if you can help it–buy from the small press or the author or an indie book shop if you can find one in your area. Read it again and again, and figure out why you like it. Tell someone else. Discuss what you love.

That’s what keeps poetry alive.


Beauty & awe–briefly

I have been reading lately (currently Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye), but not much inspired to write. Instead, I work in the garden or sit on the porch and listen to birdsong.

I muse upon beauty. Partly such musing falls under the pursuit of aesthetics: the world of my garden becomes especially beautiful in spring. The sounds birds make seem beautiful to my ears. Water droplets on emerging leaves appear beautiful in the morning light.

japanese mapleThese are phenomena. The world of things I can take in with my senses, process through my body and brain, and create–out of whatever “mind” may be–a concept of the beautiful. The phenomena are not physically affected by my categorization. It is I who am changed, I suppose, by virtue of my aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful.

I am reminded of Kierkegaard:

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Aesthetic appreciation does not alter the thing-in-itself, it alters the person who finds beauty in the thing-in-itself. If this is so, I am altered by my love of what I deem beautiful.


While I was searching the web to find the quote above–I couldn’t quite recall it exactly–I found the Kierkegaard quote on the blog of pastor Jonathan Martin, whose theology I can’t completely get my mind around but whose words (below) reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita:

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty? To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten? Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower. Beauty is a coup to our senses. It holds an unruly power over us. Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us. To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

On the lines of such thinking, we might find beauty in a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, meteor strike the same way Arjuna feels paralyzed by the awesome beauty of the revealed godhead Krishna.

Perhaps that is why we often find ourselves fascinated by photos of natural disasters. Having lived for a couple of years along the northern end of Tornado Alley in the USA, I fear tornadoes. But they possess a kind of beauty in their awesomeness, if we can remove ourselves from the anguish we feel for people whose livelihoods, homes, and lives are destroyed by the big winds.

I wonder if human beings can ever bear that kind of awe; Martin says it transfigures us, Kierkegaard implies something similar, the Mahabharata and other sacred literature suggest that our bodies and our minds can withstand such revelation but cannot describe or truly comprehend it. It seems to me a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder! This is the “fear and trembling” of the psyche, whether the mind decides the experience is physical, mental, spiritual, or religious.

And that manner of beauty is not aesthetic.

Martin later writes, “Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not. Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured…[those we love] do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful.”

Is this experience awesome or aesthetic? Does the beauty of the azalea, the lilac, make me beautiful because I recognize it as such? Am I altered, fundamentally, in my admiration for an artist’s work, a poet’s words?


Concerning the apostrophe

I am not the sort of English enthusiast who makes a habit of ranting over bad grammar. I often feel annoyed at egregious errors; occasionally I go as far as to say “it drives me crazy when (insert common grammar mistake here),” but I understand that living languages change. Evolution is not just for finches, and stasis  cannot be maintained in a complex system of human communication when technology and society and culture constantly create and destroy not only our environments but our methods of communication. Communication takes many forms and reflects the influences of many stresses, common usage being foremost among them.

Common usage may be verbally-based or textually-based or may depend upon references to popular culture or recent history, and it alters language whether we want it to or not. This fluid, flexible aspect of language fascinates me. As a poet, I relish it. As a teacher, I have to allow for compromise now and then.

I am willing to predict, for example, that very soon the accepted pronoun for words such as everyone and anybody is likely to be “they.” The reference was acceptable to Jane Austen and her writing peers, then went out of fashion in the Victorian era, when “he” became the norm–the word “he” is singular, as anyone is; thereafter, educated writers and orators used “he” for the nonspecific singular antecedent.

Of course, such use omits half of the population. Non-gender-specific writing employs “he or she” as the correct pronoun for words like someone. That usage leads to many a tortuous sentence, however. I generally advise my students to change the antecedent noun to a plural form whenever possible and to keep “they” as the pronoun; yet almost all newspapers, many news journals, popular magazines, and certainly most of whatever text appears on the web now employs the pronoun “they” for nonspecific antecedents. I don’t really have a problem with that–Jane Austen was able to make it clear enough whom it was she meant by “they.” Clarity’s what matters.

I do have a beef with the misuse of apostrophes, though. The apostrophe I’m talking about is a punctuation mark, not the poetic apostrophe which addresses someone or something absent or metaphorical. I mean the little superscript mark  that is used for two main reasons:

1. To note an elision (the omission of letters)

2. To indicate the possessive case (barring the silly exceptions hers, theirs, ours, yours and its)

I understand the why behind a noticeable uptick in the number of times apostrophes go missing these days: texting, tweeting, and other shortcuts employed in social media communication. My students are vague about the comparatively simple rules of when to use the apostrophe largely because they never bother using it when they text one another. Furthermore, their customary “proofreader,” SpellCheck, doesn’t always alert its users to this type of error. Computer programs can recognize that dont is not a word, but cant means “sanctimonious talk” or, alternately, a tilt or slope (says Merriam Webster). It is a useful word, but it is not the elision for the word cannot. Furthermore, SpellCheck won’t (elision for will not; wont means habit or custom) be able to correct the typist who uses the wrong form of your/you’re or its/it’s.

Irksome, yes. But most mystifying to me has been the ridiculously frequent use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural. Surely no one is teaching our second graders to pluralize by adding ‘s to the end of a word. (Teachers who do so should have their certifications revoked!) Recently, when working with a student, I learned one reason this mistake crops up so often in my students’ papers: AutoCorrect. When the typist gets sloppy and tries to add an s to a word that takes a different ending for the plural form (puppy, puppies), AutoCorrect defaults to possessive case. The computer is too dumb to detect the difference, because this is English, and English is damned difficult.

I suppose another reason may be character limits for tweets and texts, but that seems less likely. If people don’t bother to use the apostrophe for elisions, why bother for plurals? “Susie got 2 puppys” conveys the same information just as incorrectly.

Proper use of the apostrophe in English is actually pretty simple–even though computer programs cannot quite figure out the two rules above–and clears up a host of potential ambiguities and misunderstandings. The world could benefit from communication that isn’t studded with misunderstandings.

The warning below is one I use with my students. Sometimes, it even has the effect of becoming a useful reminder. Many thanks to the anonymous teacher who posted it on someecards.com.

puppy dies•NOTE  [Alas, just to complicate things, some editorial styles use the apostrophe to indicate plurals, but ONLY for letters or numbers, as in: “There are four 6’s in this statistical table.”]