Monday, May 28, 2007

Giving Up Poetry

I’ve been reading some very good online and print journals of late, and I am seriously entertaining giving up poetry as a genre for my talents (except for the occasional toss-off). In fact, whatever else I see when I read the best journals, I see that my verse would stick out like a sore thumb if ever published in the middle of so many elegant, painstakingly crafted pieces.

I’m not saying this in irony, nor do I say it to be contradicted by the reader’s encouragement. It is not a plea for someone to say, “Stay the course, CE,” no; it is a considered result of reason and observation, something I’ve been slouching toward for some time.

Truly, I am not good enough for current poetic standards. In retrospect, had I not married young and become a doctor, I ought to have studied under masters, perhaps gotten an MFA, attended all the seminars from all the name poets I could. Instead (given whatever opportunity I have had)—perhaps for fear of failure, perhaps for lacking the humility for instruction, perhaps out of protectiveness against having my art altered by any external, well-meaning hand, I bull-headedly pursued my own lights and muse into whatever my verse has become today. And as it is, it is inferior to the good poetry I find myself reading, with its original diction, premise, construction, scene-painting, tantalizing incompletions and often insuperable puzzles. Since it appears that this is what good editors now prize, I am, well, sunk—at least for this time and this age, the only period an artist can rationally count upon. Therefore I think I should embrace prose wholeheartedly and be done with my dream of being a poet, saver for the occasional piece, as I said above.

Now it’s true that contemporary poetry is a very large tent and has room for both the blunt and the refined, and for the most part I belong to the former category, still the best journals seem to prefer a certain refinement beyond my skill. The Journal, published by Ohio State University, has many examples of this in their new issue. Here’s the first and second stanzas of a poem by Molly Brodak, “Like Your Jesus, Only Mine”:

Wait up, bitch!” begs back the pale bus stop boy.
O molester moustache, O fake hobble—
they group up—legs of toddler proportion, whatever glamour wants,
and papery shirts, long as dresses

hung with tangles of gold—
the kind that rubs off, once finger-loved.

The poem concerns a brief dispute between wannabe white gang-bangers, or “wiggers” (= “white niggers”), as one can see from the description of the clothing (although some of the principals may actually be black; we can’t know). The only action in the poem I am sure occurs, besides the boy at the bus stop begging the other to wait, is when the other boy bangs him in the chest with a cell phone. Then the scene segues abruptly to a restaurant, and at the poem’s end the other boy (not the pale bus stop boy) gets a call from his dad on the same cell phone. All of this is very cryptically done in brief and powerful images that evoke a story line of their own—even if you have no idea where that story line leads.

Now not all the poems in this journal are quite as difficult as this, still it appears to be the prevailing style. As I said to Kathleen last night, “I want to connect the dots. They want to disconnect them.” Or better put, many of the more successful current poets want to disconnect and reconnect the dots again in a somewhat disconnected way, forcing the reader to put the pieces back together Humpty-Dumpty like, never sure the egg shell edges really fit. Or if these poets deconstruct to construct, what they construct is often more difficult to understand than their process of deconstruction.

Despite all this, with sufficient ambition and steadfastness, one can usually piece a narrative of some kind together from a poem of this type. Here’s another one from the issue in its entirety, “Cure” by Kristin Abraham. As I read it over and over, with sufficient time between my readings, I felt that I finally “got it.” Perhaps I was not versed enough in this kind of poetry to decode its substance sooner; perhaps I deceive myself into thinking there’s something to get; but my gloss makes sense to me at the least. Here’s the poem, double-spaced as in the issue:


They played


(She was the foot of the bed / chart

marked with asterisks and daggers,

the story looking over its shoulder.)

Then the next she

was born, they

called her Ridiculous.

Ridiculous as

shh, I can hear them, as

little door in my mind

(the not-so-pleasant fairytale.)

Now the family can’t

sleep: birds

are living

in her walls, unraveling

the hem of her name.

Now she tosses crusts

to the birds, now the birds

won’t leave.

Bear with me here. I think this poem is about discovery of sexuality in childhood and its association with the primal scene, so that the child eventually discovers where she actually comes from (as in “unraveling / the hem of her name”), and how this ultimately unsettles the family dynamic as she comes to terms with her growing adult sexuality, a revelation that can’t be undone, hence the birds won’t leave. The “Cure” is in effect, the end of childhood, the cure for childish misconceptions. Once you understand you are the result of your parents having sex you can’t go back. Perhaps the birds symbolize the lost innocence of childhood, perhaps they symbolize the persistent reminder of adulthood. Regardless, things have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Now I’m not saying that Ms. Abraham would admit that her poem is “about” anything, but I am fairly sure a determined, intelligent reader would likely unearth some of the same substance as I have.

Why poets and readers of poetry want to work this hard, I don’t know. Susan Sontag wrote that irony had been exhausted in the late 20th century. It seems as if poetry had been exhausted, too, so that the best poets dancing on the edge of the art have had to go to great lengths to put an original stamp on the art. It is not enough to tell the truth wryly as Frost did; one must provide an almost out-of-body experience for the reader. Again, not all the poems chosen by the editors in this volume are this abstruse, and I would say a word about David Moolten, an excellent poet/physician from Philadelphia, whose work I remember from long ago—I think, if I am not wrong, from some online workshop. He has matured into a fine poet whom I can still understand without banging my head against his poems. One of his three poems in the volume, “Tolerance,” is a masterpiece. In fact, to the editors’ credit, he is the only poet with three poems in the issue.

Anyone more interested in these sorts of debates can refer to my Logopoetry essays, written almost ten years ago, which now strike me as horribly outdated, since the examples I used for difficulty of substance—Dylan Thomas, for instance—now seem, in comparison to current fare, fairly easy to understand (if “understanding” in the usual sense can even be a goal of the poetry most admired today). Having said all this, here’s a piece I wrote this morning about my feelings of inferiority towards the poetry which garners more recognition in this age among the cognoscenti:

Second Fiddle

It’s not easy to be
almost good enough
understudy, journeyman
playing the chitlin circuit
on a minor label
in a middling journal
tuxedo an Armani rip-off
a few millimeters
from handsome,
two freckles from pretty,
an eyebrow from beautiful.

It’s not easy
to open the violin case
for the first fiddle,
to straighten the conductor’s
music sheets, to rehearse
lines with the lead.
For a while you think
there may be a chance
but when the lead gets sick
they import someone,
pass you over—
you are the ultimate insurance,
you are the just in case
never shooting, always
falling star.

Since I know most readers of this blog are not poetry aficionados, indeed some have told me that the only poetry they read is found here, no doubt many will prefer my simple complaint to the complex reverberations of “Cure.” If this is true, don’t pick up a literary journal. You may be disappointed.

Memorially Thine,



  1. You might want to take a look at this new poetry journal that's just starting up:

    Poetry Revolt

  2. Anonymous12:38 PM PDT

    Yes, the death of irony and the death of intelligibility as well.

    People today seem to lack the personal 'sense of authority' to assume the role of narrator for fear of appearing like a didact. No one dares to mediate even their own imagery, to appear chauvinistic or pushy.

    It suggests a certain listlessness, irresponsibility, or human abdication that I find troubling.

  3. I’ve been reading some online and print journals lately too. And I am seriously entertaining giving up reading poetry journals because of them. Painstakingly crafted? Maybe. Elegant? Maybe. Lifeless, may.. well, maybe that's too critical.

    But what I can tell from my readings is that few of the online or print journals cares if the poetical tourist is part of their audience. Club members only, please, is the most prevalent message broadcast. It's sad. They've accepted the fact that their only audience is themselves and so don't even make an attempt at broadening their base.

    I have such a hard time hearing when being talked down to from such a high platform. I have a hard time taking anything as seriously as the journals of our time want me to take their poetry, their poets. It's depressing. Well, my idea of depressing.

    "not good enough for current poetic standards"

    ... hehehehehehehehe ...

    I don't imagine you are, what with the pucker that's required by current standards for the butts of the MFAs setting those standards. And yet, none of us can name one of them that's finished in the money at a slam, or a bookstore.

    The journals may have elegant presentations. But they don't have an audience, they don't have any idea why the tourists think they're blue-nosed idiots, and they don't have anything to offer the casual reader but disdain.

    I think it's be a better idea to give up the journals than give up writing poetry. But that's only the opinion of a poetical tourist not all that enamored with the accommodations at most of today's current destinations.

    You're too easy on them and too hard on yourself, CE. That's the narcissism working, huh? Maybe not ..


  4. CE

    Of the two poems you quoted, I can see some merit in the first one. There's some dramatic, arresting use of language. Even if I can't follow it all the way, I'm interested in it. I didn't like the second poem at all. I thought it was soulless stuff.

    There is room for all kinds of poetry, for different audiences. Magazines who publish the kind of poems you quoted are never going to connect with anyone beyond other poets who write similar material.

    And that stuff isn't even avant-garde any more. After all, we need experimenters and inventors to move things forward, and make things new. But that second poem certainly is an example of deadly dull (post-MFA?) theory masquerading as poetry. There's so much crap out there.

    Why don't you submit to good UK print magazines like Magma, Orbis and Envoi (you can submit online)? I mention the UK because that's what I know, but I'm sure there must be other North American magazines that want well written poetry that says something. But if not, these three magazines are high quality - the urls are on my magazine listings at my blog.

    I agree that you're being too hard on yourself.

  5. Anonymous9:39 PM PDT

    "Susan Sontag wrote that irony had been exhausted in the late 20th century."

    So THAT's where Alison Croggan got that line. I knew she didn't come up with it herself.

    I'm ambivalent about the whole thing, as you know, and don't share your affection for deconstruction (I find Yeats's masticated grammar hard enough!).

    But I'm a hunnerd percent behind you, as usual.

  6. A little over a year ago I went to Powell's and to the downtown library and speed-read through all the poetry journals I could find. Came home and told my husband it was like drinking sewage through a firehose.

    Incoherent, self-indulgent, pretentious crap. Random images, some of them very nicely turned, but adding up to nothing more or less-- interspersed with unexpurgated hysterical confessionals real or imagined (I sincerely hope some of them were imagined). That's not what I want to read.

    CE, if you really feel like giving up poetry, I'll be sorry, but do what your heart says. If on the other hand, it's getting published that discourages you, try an experiment.

    Swear off submissions for at least a year. Write whatever you want and only what you want. Keep revisions to a minimum, at least at first (and definitely don't revise under criteria of "publishability"). Post 'em on your blog, or keep 'em to yourself just as you prefer.

    Then come back and look at the publishing thing with a fresh eye.

    I'm pretty much resigned to being a niche poet, myself, as a formal poet with a strong inclination for narrative and spiritual themes. I'll never be in Kenyon Review either, but then again, I can't stand to read it, so why would I want to be in it? My aspirations are in places like Measure and Sonnetto Poesia and The Lyric. (Not to mention online formal-poetry venues.)

    Oh, nice picture.

  7. When I get this many extended comments on a post, I don't know in what detail to respond, as I know in visiting other blogs I often get inspired to bloviate at length and then forget to return for the author's response.

    First, thanks for all your thoughts. And good to know there are many literary folks reading my blog; I sometimes feel as if others are waiting for me to write about mood disorders again, but the great thing about a blog is that the bloggist writes about what he damn pleases, unless he's trying to make a career out of it.

    That said, I'll make a few responses in order:

    Norm: Each age has its style. I think we are more the victims of our own anachronism than any prejudice. Today's style is inductively indirect, as you know. You should have been a Baptist preacher.

    Beau: "Poetry was always for the elite," Eliot said, and I agree. But I don't know if he meant by that "the elite of the elite of the elite," an elitism so elite that, as I have also written in "Poetry is for Poets," an incestuous competition obtains for poets in the know, whose work, as in my selection "Cure," will never attract any "poetical tourists" or "casual readers" as you name them. Bloom called the same entity "the common reader." The common reader no longer visits poetry, I fear.

    Rob: Curiously, I submitted to both Magma and Envoi once each in the past and was published by both. Envoi took two poems and Magma took one. As I recall, back then the submissions had to be by snail mail? I'm not sure. Still, 2/2 issn't bad, wha? I didn't know they were considered "good" journals. I figured since they published me they must have been middling journals at best. LOL! Perhaps my great mistake is in marketing. On to the U.K. for a submission swan song? Thanks, I'll check out Orbis, too.

    Anon Darling: It's not affection for deconstruction, it's fascination. I am always amazed by technical mastery, even if it lacks soul, like Al DiMeola on the guitar, technically the best I've heard, though he fails to move me.

    Tiel: Great suggestion! I don't know if I mentioned in my blog that I've sucked it up and sent out over forty submissions of late, in a sort of experimental swan song, all to paying journals. If I get near goose eggs I may take up your suggestion exactly. But mostly I want to learn how to write for money. I've been at this poetry thing so long, and though I have derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from it, I think it's time to be realistic about my future as a poet commercially, if one can even speak about poetry commercially. But you know what I mean: achieve a certain rep., get on the reading and seminar circuit, get teaching fellowships, all that. The path to glory. At 52 I think it's a little late. I don't know, even if acclaim were to bite me on the ass, if I would have the energy to promote myself anymore. I've done a poor job of it so far, certainly. Then my life is what it is. When I gaze upon the gorgeous redwood coast up here, it is a poem beyond any poem I could ever compose and leaves me speechless, and that is the most satisfying artistic experience of all. Everything we do after such experience is only a derivative homage, yes?

  8. CE, you can submit to Envoi and Magma by email these days. Magma would be seen as a very good magazine these days - it's hard to get into, but possible. Envoi has a new editor, so we'll have to wait and see, but she comes with a strong reputation.

  9. What I find most interesting about your comments and responses to comments CE is the notion of writing for publication. Is that really your purpose, or any poet's purpose for that matter? Or should it be the purpose.

    Eliot - let's use him - wrote The Waste Land, in part, for publication, in part to carve his name in European poetry, in part for readers, in part to approach a vision of his day, in part to communicate, to ease his pain, in part to clear his head of the voices, as in He Do the Police in Different Voices. I'm sure there are other reasons. I think of those reasons I mentioned, publication is last. Writing to be published is like a pitcher thinking about throwing a curve ball.

    I like your comment about the redwoods. My own thoughts about the sight and feel - at least what I sense it would be - is not "derivative homage". Applying the same feel to the forests that surround me. I want to speak to the trees; I want to listen to their voices speaking to me. I do want to approach that.

    Willaim Stafford is a good model for the nature poet. He didn't write for publication, at all. Yet, he published hundreds and hundreds of poems, and forty or fifty collections and chapbooks. Actually, his chapbooks were his finest works. He was a machine of a writer as well, but the emotion is evident in every poem.

    As for the two contemporary poems that you mention - and you're correct to use them as examples / I like your comments as well - I don't like the first one or its approach and wouldn't use it at BFR. I don't believe or believe in the the voice of the poem. The second one, "Cure," however, I like and would accept it. I believe in that voice and the form. Especially these lines:

    Now the family can’t
    sleep: birds
    are living
    in her walls, unraveling
    the hem of her name.

    As for your poem, I really like these lines:

    It’s not easy
    to open the violin case
    for the first fiddle,
    to straighten the conductor’s
    music sheets, to rehearse
    lines with the lead.


    you are the ultimate insurance,
    you are the just in case
    never shooting, always
    falling star.

    At least this is how I see it from my chair, this morning, the voice of the Northern Flicker still in my head.

  10. I'm surprised by the number of poetry aficianados that do read my blog! Sometimes I look at the referrals to the blog but most of them are searches or what not, save for a few familiar addresses. So I really have no way of knowing who my small readership is.


    Sam, I think you speak of apples and oranges. In the process of writing one does not think of publication. Hopefully one does not even think of writing, but of feelings and objects/metaphors/thoughts ignited by those feelings--almost the pattern of an electron in a cloud chamber.

    But afterwards, a poem has four fates: to be burned outright; to be ignored in a file; to be read out loud either to another person or a larger audience; to be read by others in a print venue.

    Even Dickinson published a few poems in her lifetime at the behest of her literary reverend friend; I'm sure she would have been thrilled to publish more if someone had the temerity to promote her, something she lacked. Whitman, of course, was her direct opposite in this regard. No one in the history of American poetry, I think, has so blithely promoted himself as a prophet and icon as good ole Walt.

    Eliot was very, very calculating about achieving fame. He tested the waters about TWL with Pound, had him help with it so the influential Pound was invested in its success, published it in the Criterion, his own journal, then in a single edition, then had Pound talk to Harriet Monroe, who published it for the third time! and gave Eliot a large monetary prize--a foregone conclusion in her "search" for contemporary poetry, as all had been arranged by Pound--Eliot needed the money anyway. The fight was fixed, just as some contemporary contests are pre-decided by their judges (see for details). (To be fair, back then publishing in America was like a foreign translation, unlike today.)

    In any case, Eliot put in as much work behind the scenes promoting that poem and his reputation as he did in writing it, perhaps more, since the poem was comprised of the disconnected ravings of a depressed literary man while in a mental hospital.

    Later in life he wrote, "There is no competition."

    In his early life that was simply bullshit. He wanted to "make it" very badly. It nearly cost him his health and did, in some respects.

    Again, apples and oranges:

    "William Stafford is a good model for the nature poet. He didn't write for publication, at all. Yet, he published hundreds and hundreds of poems, and forty or fifty collections and chapbooks. Actually, his chapbooks were his finest works. He was a machine of a writer as well, but the emotion is evident in every poem."

    As I said above already, in writing no decent poet writes for publication, but he is damn happy to be published afterwards. Stafford's record speaks for itself. He must have been terribly ambitious at some level, else why pursue/consent to so many publications? At least Bukowski had to be persuaded by his friend to be published, and Black Sparrow Press was established specifically for Bukowski.

    BTW, Stafford seems to be the Logopoetry poster boy these days; everyone seems to point to him when they want a counterbalance to something like "Cure."

    So I think we are in agreement, Sam, the difference being that I separate the process from the later outcome. I have never written for publication except once for a radical Christian journal, trying to write in their style--and was rejected, naturally. I write out of need and for pleasure, more for pleasure at this stage of my life, and while writing I write for the hope of expressing the inexpressible, of coming close to imparting, through words, an experience in a way another might share it. My favorite compliment received over the years, is perhaps: I've felt (thought) just like that but you say it so much better than I ever could. You said it for me."

    I only think of the reader, however, during the later editing process, when I look at the poem's relative intelligibility to a stranger and act accordingly.

    After a long journeyman's career like mine, I think it's natural to wonder: How good was I? Did my work actually merit greater recognition? Or was I just too lazy about self-promotion?

    Most "successful" or "name" poets today, nearly all in fact, have spent a great deal of energy in promoting themselves. Once in the inner circle, they continue to hobnob at seminars and festivals and large readings, and to enter that stratosphere one needs either major prizes (which are awarded subjectively by judges already members of the higher echelon), or one must be groomed by another well-known poet, sometimes even bedded at length. (Forgive the pun.) The casting couch is not confined to Hollywood.

    I'm done. Too much or not enough? Btw, check out "My Struggle with Literary Narcissism" in the new issue of Umbrella, where I give greater range to these ideas.

    I hope I don't sound jealous or cynical, but I think my words are fairly realistic. Collins and Angelou, our bestseller poets, both write one-trick ponies for the most part in my opinion. But that's what the larger audience wants--something not very difficult to understand. And Collins is much better than Angelou, obviously, whose poetry is more overrated than Phil Spector's hair. LOL!

  11. I've got to say I've found a lot of poems in on-line poetry journals to be thoroughly uninspiring. Obviously I don't think my own (no where near publishable) poetry to be superior, perhaps I'm just 'missing the point' however many of the poems end up being indistinguishable from each other as if they've worked out a formula of publishable poetry and hence every one sounds the same. Of course that's not the case with all - there's always a gem to be found.

  12. Beau: "Poetry was always for the elite," Eliot said, and I agree.

    I disagree. If it "was always" the case, then what was it Burns collected all those years ago? Yes, that was a long time ago. But still, he collected that stuff in bars didn't he? More louts there than lords, right?

    But I don't know if he meant by that "the elite of the elite of the elite,"

    also know as "Our MFA program' - please adopt the proper posture while addressing us and please be as dry and lifeless with your writings as we are .."

    The common reader no longer visits poetry, I fear.

    Well .. I visit. It's a fool's occupation, I know. And while it's discouraging to be confronted by so many hot air balloons so often, it is fun to run around the incestuous community with a sharp pin, you know.

    The elite are their own punishment, and their myopia shouldn't discourage anyone from writing poetry, bad or good. Know what I mean?


  13. Like it or not, even while running around with your pin, you are part of the elite, even if you consider yourself anti-elite.

    That's your punishment for reading poetry in the 21st century.

    Hee hee!


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