Saturday, November 11, 2006

Anti-Villanelle; Contemporary Poetry


An anti-villanelle would suit my mood.
Post-modern poetry should not make sense—
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

Red dog, blue cat, the sawhorse was imbued
With hair; wash, cut, dye and rinse.
An anti-villanelle would suit my mood.

A man raking. Car crash. Somebody sued
My poems for using the pluperfect tense.
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

The bearded lady and the dwarf collude.
The dog-faced boy won’t howl, take down the tents.
An anti-villanelle would suit my mood.

Grasshopper leaps, the cockroach crawls for food
While kilorats gnaw the New Testament—
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

Such blather may result in hebetude
While its practitioners say, "It’s intense!"
An anti-villanelle would suit my mood--
Brash metaphor, a narrative that’s crude.

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry lately, as I had to review 27 issues of The Melic Review to pick 20 poems to submit to a net anthology. I’ve also read three books by an author for a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer (through the good graces of Frank Wilson).

In reviewing Melic I noticed there seemed to be a fall-off near the end of 2002 when the poems more and more became verse disconnect, where the primary voice of narrative was buried under layers of scene-setting, non-pertinent images, and disregard for continuity, with a touch of epiphany at the end--but not too much--not enough to confer unity on the poem. Here are three excerpts for your delectation (the authors will remain nameless):


the body’s entire
expression is self-centered
in this glyphic hill
the architecture of a lost amazon
civilization the texture of foam


Flesh and blood (mine . . . ours) mingled to form
a giant so large he would have difficulty
carrying his heart. Murmur . . . the traffic

between worlds, walls we learned
to listen to.
Had to!


Now here I am on foot among scattered bags
Taxis ride the plains I whistle at one to bring it down
Muleskinner and sage
A birch rod dips
toward sacred words Everything's out of tune Tom

Much of contemporary poetry behaves like this. It screams: “Language and syntax are not enough! We must break it up with interruptions of imagery and bizarre, startling connections. It is a collage of words, not a narrative per se.” I have dealt with such claims in my essays on Logopoetry.

My problem with such poetry is that it is written for poets and aficionados, not for “the common reader”—someone with the equivalent of a liberal arts degree, whether dactic or autodidactic (though nowadays I don’t know what the degree is worth). Because of my stance on this I am considered retro, a bit of a dinosaur. In most of my poems my hope is that the reader will understand the theme without suffering consternation from images and ideas at cross purposes.

After this brand of poetry began to invade our magazine, I stopped and put out a call for “power lyrics.” Out of some thousand poems we were only able to find about eight that came close to fulfilling our criteria. It was plain discouraging. We wondered where the poets of our earlier issues had gone. I still don’t know. But I think there was a sea change in 2003, at least in what we were receiving in submissions.

In any case, my villanelle today likely makes too much sense to belong to the category I invoke, but I did try to make it a little more contemporary than my others. It doesn’t matter if you like it. It exists for itself. And that is frequently the attitude I find among contemporary poets, whether MFAs or just trendy. My poetry is not trendy. It aims for the human heart and failing that, the human mind. But I sometimes think I was born a little late.

Happily Rodent Neutral,

C. E. Chaffin


  1. The thing I notice most about a lot of contemporary poetry is how affected it is. Seemingly written to impress other writers, or just to win prizes, or to be published in 'New Yorker Mag' or 'Poetry'. Writings aimed at contest judges, or some rag's editorial staff, or supposed 'experts', or grant administrators, or supposedly successful peers. Just not written for everyday people.

    Not written for me, certainly. Nor my brothers or my sister or wife or ANY person who is merely a reader. The mere reader is ignored because, mostly, we're worthless to the comtemporary poet. We can't award prizes, or statements of praise that mean anything to them, or publication in supposedly 'class' venues. Contemporary poets don't care about entertaining ordinary folks and they don't even try and it's obvious.

    I suppose that's to be expected with all the cliques. That's what all these fiefdoms really are, huh? Here's the east coast cabal, AKA the Academy of American Poets, and there's the Canadians, and over there the Brits and only a few in each of the cliques cares if anyone outside their particular clique is entertained. Which leaves me, and those like me, out. but that's OK because writings written merely for other writers ends up labored and lifeless.


  2. I understand your point CE. May take on the discussion is this... I don't write poetry for any reader-- common or otherwise. In my writing, if I feel I'm slanting it toward an ear or a set of ears, for that matter, I want to stop. I need to let go the reader, any reader. Then, I think it might be possible for me to write what I need to write... what I'm capable of writing.

    Am I always true to this? No. But let me add this point-- Whatever my best work may be, it had no audience in my mind-- no desire for an audience.

  3. Beau, I don't think it's cabals so much as an all-pervasive tendency to do something new, to follow the inscrutability of the Ashbery or the ellipsis of Jorie Graham. There's a sense that the language is exhausted and needs new bells and whistles to make it pertinent. The biggest cabal is, however, the MFA teachers wanting success for their students to validate the creative writing programs.

    Sam, I agree. I write for the poem. But I will change it if a reader red flags a passage as inscrutable. Then I also have my wife as an editor; hard to get anything silly by her.

  4. CE...

    I am learning to write for readers--essays, stories and etc. I love to write poetry, but I find a lot of it is just plain silly. I think poets are falling off the track... The deconstructionist poetry reminds me of the time of deconstructionist art i.e. crap in the toilet...


  5. I think I fall somewhere on the tightrope between the scrutable/inscrutable divide.

    However, I do want readers to enjoy my poems. I don't write for particular people - unless I'm writing on a theme because a magazine has requested poems on such a theme.

    To pick up one of Beau's points - some of my poems seem to me suitable for entering in competitions, and some don't, although I don't deliberately aim poems at competitions judges. But I'm not convinced that the "competition-suited" poems are any less accessible for the non-writing reader. Perhaps being in the UK makes a difference - it's possible to win competitions with poems that make perfect sense.

  6. About Melic --

    I know what happened. In 2003, I became poetry editor or whatever my title was. That's when you noticed the drop-off. Blame it on me....our difference in taste. I happen to think that much of the poetry from 03 until the end was nearing excellence.

  7. Jim, I was hoping you wouldn't snoop around today. ;-} But it wasn't just you. When Sharon and I tried our call for "power lyrics" we found eight poems out of a thousand we felt worthy. And they were not all easy poems. Sure, you allowed the prose-poem and solicited more currently popular authors, and I respected your taste, though it was different. You know I never curbed your enthusiasm.

    I think the change was larger than that. That's all. And in your choices there were often clear narrative poems--I especially liked the one by Jared Carter in our last issue, for instance, and you had solicited him. So it's just not that simple. You were a part but you were not the cause, in my view. And you were the savior of the magazine as we could find no other webmaster. Now that I'm taking an html class I have an idea of how much work you put in.


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