Saturday, July 29, 2006

Poetry: It's Not About Me

So in the last few months, I've been making an effort to read more poetry, both online and in print; I've gone to a couple of events with other poets, and I've learned two things. One, hardly anyone writes formal poetry any more (I knew that already, but it's been confirmed). Two, modern poets seem inclined mostly to write about themselves.

I resisted that second observation for a long time, telling myself I shouldn't be judgmental, I'd been unlucky in my choices, not to be such a curmudgeon, etc... But I've found out it's not just my impression. Ron Silliman's blog has a couple of posts up (here and here) about it. Mostly he's referring to an essay by Gabriel Gudding. (Gudding's essay is fairly heavy going, but Silliman's summary covers most of the important points.)


Most of this post is going to be about creative writing and the theory of poetics. These are not fields I know much about; I'm relying on Gudding's essay, and trusting that he is knowledgeable in his field, that he's done his research, and that he's not grinding too big of a personal axe (although his opinion is clear). Caveat lector. It helps that Silliman finds Gudding's essay (mostly) accurate and insightful-- and if you ask why I should trust Silliman's opinion, I'll say that he strikes me as quite knowledgeable, and that while he has strong opinions, he doesn't tend to elevate them to the status of dogma.

Parts of this essay, alas, devolve into commentary about commentary. I hate this kind of stuff! However... Gudding's essay raises some issues that I think are urgent for poetry, now and in any age. Therefore, this essay.

William Hughes Mearns and the Origins of Creative Writing

Gudding's essay not only documents the self-absorption of modern poetry, it goes into the historical roots of the phenomenon, which appears to be linked to the development of creative writing as an academic discipline, i.e. something that would be taught in schools. Creative writing programs as we know them turn out to be entirely the brainchildren (by now, perhaps the grandchildren or great-grandchildren) of one man, as educator by the name of W. H. Mearns, who wrote in the 1920s two books that were the gospels of the academic creative writing movement, Creative Youth and Creative Power.

Mearns originated the dogma that poetry is supposed to be a means of self-expression. This is by now so well-entrenched an idea that any suggestion to the contrary is likely to be greeted with a blank stare: "Well, what else could it be?" Mearns' motivation was laudable; in a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization, he saw society becoming increasingly atomized and individuals isolated. The cure for this was supposed to be interpersonal communication, a "transfer of experience" (quote, Mearns via Gudding), personal experience, from poet to reader. (It seems likely that Mearns and his students expected their poetry would find its audience mostly through print rather than live readings.)

Craft and Work

I think there were several problems with this approach. First, it completely and explicitly devalued the use of skill, the development of the craft of poetry. In fact, later in the essay, Gudding documents the construction of a supposed opposition between craft and experience-- the more technical skill a poem displays, the less it's thought to represent honest, authentic experience. Mearns' advice to his students was all about spontaneity and instinctiveness, not about hard work. He eschewed setting assignments for his students, urging rather "waiting and attentiveness" (quote Gudding-- I assume that it more or less accurately sums up Mearns' pedagogy). Attentiveness to what? Mearns saw a poem as a pre-existing entity which the poet was to find or hear, rather than create.

Supposing that to be true (more later on that point), does that reduce the work of the poet simply to writing down (typing and file-saving) the poem? I would argue otherwise. Sculptors often speak of the sculpture being already "in the stone" and their work as being to "reveal" it. But how sensitively they perceive the hidden image, and how skillfully they cut away all the stone and only the stone that is not part of it, make the difference between a great sculpture and a piece of stone trash. In other words, the work of the sculptor is not only to see the sculpture, but to make it visible to those of us gifted with only ordinary sight.

A poet's work differs from a sculptor's mostly in that, if we make a mistake, we can usually erase it rather than having to start over with another block of stone. But it does take work; it takes work to clear the mind sufficiently to perceive the idea of the poem, without forcing it through the filters of our assumptions and preferences, and it takes work to shape words to fit the idea. Rarely will a poetic concept appear fully clad in verbiage. More often, at least in my experience, it will come as a sense, a non-verbal understanding, to which words and phrases will be drawn and attach themselves. I find myself holding up words against the poem, like clothes against a dummy; this one fits, this one doesn't, this one irretrievably distorts the image...

Fiction and Imagination

Second, there was no room in Mearns' poetics for the use of imagination. Mearns thought and taught about poems as pre-existing entities, something you found rather than "created"-- later in the essay, there's a story about a poet being asked by an audience member: "Was that a real poem, or did you just make it up?"

But imagination is the root of empathy, and empathy surely is the best cure for the isolation Mearns sought to remedy. Would not a worthy goal of his poetics have been to stimulate in the reader that empathic imagination which allows the reader to project herself into the mind of a person she does not know, into an experience she herself has never had? This will not result from an unvarnished recital of the facts of an experience, or even the feelings that accompanied it. What's needed is language that will evoke in the reader the sense of the experience.

It's worth noting that Mearn's approach seems to have been the driving wedge between poetry and fiction. The essential transaction of fiction is an agreement between storyteller and audience that what follows will be a story, that it will probably not be true in any factual sense. (Not that the line is always completely clear-- fictionalized autobiography and "mockumentaries" are among the more pernicious line-crossers of the modern age.) This frees the audience to suspend their judgment and use their imagination. For this reason, fiction stimulates the imagination far more than fact.

Under the Mearnsian dogma, there was no place for this agreement. Poetry was supposed to be entirely about one's personal experience, either internal or external. "Authenticity" of experience became the main value, to the point where lack of authenticity (whatever that means!) becomes conflated with out-and-out dishonesty. Gudding himself makes this error in his discussion of the "Yasusada" case-- he claims that the outraged response was due to the revealed "inauthenticity" of the manuscripts. In fact, what was perpetrated here was simply fraud. If there is no difference between fraud and inauthenticity, if that broad spectrum becomes compressed to a single point, where can fiction stand? And where is there any place for the imaginative, either in the poet's work or in the reader's response?

Not coincidentally, one of my favorite poets, and one who remains a great influence on me, is John M. Ford. Ford is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy. His poetry is often quite fantastic: see his collection, Heat Of Fusion, for some examples. Ford's chosen genres are the home of some of the most imaginative writing in English today; explicitly, the domain of things that not only have never happened, but, in many cases, things that can never happen.

Where's the Reader?

Third, and in my opinion most critical: the emphasis on self-expression led to an inward-turned, narcissistic approach to poetry. This is very much at odds with Mearns' hope for poetry as a cure for isolation; I can only suppose he failed to foresee the consequences.

One of the problems that I think was present from the outset was that Mearns' pedagogy failed to stress the goal of engaging the audience. Communication is not simply a matter of sending information, it must be received, understood, and effectual-- it must have an effect on the reader/hearer, or it has accomplished nothing. But Gudding cites a whole raft of quotes from the '70s and '80s, to the effect that poets were pretty much writing only to express themselves, not with the goal of reaching other people.

Here the influence of the idea of the poem as "found" rather than "made" or "created" was significant, I think. The poem was supposed to exist for its own sake; the poet and his intentions were taken completely out of the equation. Therefore the desire (if any) of the poet to reach others, to communicate, was irrelevant; the poem, according to this view, would do whatever it "meant" to do.

Gudding quotes one A. D. Hope, circa 1963, as follows: "...poetry is principally concerned to "express" its subject and is doing so to create an emotion which is the feeling of the poem and not the feeling of the poet." This is severe reification (Gudding calls it "ontological deshabille"). But at least Hope finds it necessary to point out that the poet is supposedly irrelevant. The other party to the transaction of poetry, the audience to whom Mearns so desperately wanted to transfer experience, is gone, not even worth mentioning; the idea that the audience was important had receded so far into the past as to deserve no thought.

One of the weaknesses I find in Gudding's essay is that he nowhere discusses what sort of poetry people were actually reading at any point in this history. The commentary he quotes is apparently mostly from poets and from academic sources. What do people read when they read poetry? Who reads poetry?

One of my favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, wrote in the introduction to his anthology Endangered Species:

The hearer (every true reader hears the tale in his mind's ear) is more central than the monstrous beast slain on the other side of the hill, or the castle upon the hill of glass... will be my willing partner in the making of all these stories-- for no two readers have ever heard exactly the same story, and the real story is a thing that grows between the listener and the teller.

These are words to live by for any creative artist. The poem (or whatever) contains no meaning. What it contains are words, phrases, images, symbols that evoke meaning in the mind of the recipient (reader, listener, viewer). "Meaning" is created in a complex interaction of the information embedded in the poem with the reader's experiences, attitudes and assumptions.

For this reason, "meaning" is not necessarily repeatable. At one end of an extreme, we have, let's say, a technical manual. In writing such a thing, one of the design goals is that every reader should come away with exactly the same information. This requires language that is clear, precise and unambiguous (all the things that technical manuals so rarely are). At the other end of the scale, a symbolic poem such as Eliot's "Waste Land" or Don McLean's "American Pie" will generate endless arguments among readers as to the exact meaning of various references.

I wrote on this topic earlier:

One way that poetry can communicate is to make clear, simple statements with which the reader either agrees or not. Another way, perhaps more characteristic of poetry, is to deploy images or ideas whose “meaning” is not completely specified; this allows the reader to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Readers will associate these signifiers with whatever seems most emotionally immediate or relevant to the reader. Thus readers can tailor-make their own “meanings”, within a framework suggested by the poem.

This is why we sometimes read a poem written by a complete stranger and feel as though it was written expressly for and about us. In a sense, it is; as readers, we become co-authors. We write our own thoughts, feelings and experiences into the spaces between the poet’s lines.

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd.
I felt he’d found my letters, and read each one out loud
--from Killing Me Softly With His Song, Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel

Completely straightforward poetry (or writing of any kind) allows no room for this process to occur. The meaning is unambiguous and is the same for every reader, but some emotional force, some perceived relevance on the part of the reader, is sacrificed.

An Alternative Poetics

Let me propose an alternative poetics. It is reader-oriented. It is made up of poets who see themselves as communicators. It strives to nourish and stimulate the imaginative faculties of its audiences; to create in them the magical capacity to weep over the sufferings and share the joys of people who live on the other side of the world. In the content of this poetics, personal experience is an equal partner with mythology, news items, and sheer fancy. These poets are concerned with effective evocation rather than literal expression.

You may fear that such poetry would be over-politicized, didactic, or at least manipulative. I suggest that the goal would be not to control or influence what readers think and feel, but to develop in them the capacity to think and feel unfamiliar thoughts and feelings. You may also fear that such a poetics would be just as restrictive as the Mearnsian doctrine. I would say that it should not replace self-expressive poetry, but exist alongside it. My objection fundamentally is not to self-expression, but to self-expression as the exclusive goal and method of poetry; to the thinking, in fact, that defines poetry as self-expression.

What makes evocation effective? We know more about the human brain and its language-processing functions than Mearns did in 1925. I think the time is ripe for some research on the neuro-linguistic frontier, into the interactions of pattern-recognition and verse forms. Linguistic theory recognized long ago that the form of information is itself information. Form cannot be separated from content. Even "free" verse encodes some meaning in its structure; a poet should be cognizant of this encoding.

There may be reasons that traditional verse forms in English have endured as long as they have. Some of it has doubtless has been simple cultural inertia; people are comfortable hearing what they're used to. But I suspect that rhyme, meter, repetition and alliteration affect the deep linguistic structures of the brain in ways we ignore at our peril.

One of the big stumbling-blocks in the way of developing such a poetics is the reduced degree of interaction between modern poets and their audiences. Traditionally, and until very recently in human history, poetry was an exclusively oral activity and one intended for live audiences. Under these circumstances, you'd find out very quickly what people liked and what they didn't. In contrast, the vast majority of poetry nowadays will find most of its audience through print media or audio recordings, rather than through live readings. Rather than dodging rotten tomatoes, poets now pore over reviews and study book sales. Very little of their feedback will come directly from the audience.

For this reason, I think it important for poets to seek out live audience as much as they can. It's really not that hard; volunteer to give readings once a month at a coffee shop, library or community center near your home. If you don't think you can write enough to give monthly readings, try for quarterly. Or, read other people's poetry in addition to your own. You can read for friends who might be too shy, or dust off that volume of Whitman or Blake. Get together with other poets and organize group readings. But importantly, your audience should include people who are not themselves poets. Study their reactions! If you can convince them to give you honest feedback (difficult to get from your friends, sometimes), so much the better.

I also think it important to practice the work of poetry as much as possible. The "found" approach to poetry is quite passive; Mearns' admonishments of "waiting and attentiveness" left no scope for actively practicing the skills of poetry, while waiting for the inspiration to make itself heard. I would say: on days when no inspiration is forthcoming, write just for the exercise of it, much as a weight-lifter lifts weights all year even when no competition is in the offing. The poetic "muscles" must be kept strong and toned if they are to bear the weight of inspiration when it arrives.

What are the skills of poetry? Observation is one: of the natural world, of people and events, the behaviors of your pets. Reading is another. Read your favorite authors, especially poets, with a critical eye. What are they doing that impresses you? Read authors you don't like: what is it about them that turns you off? Writing is another. I don't necessarily say, write every day no matter what-- but certainly, don't wait for inspiration to arrive. The act of writing, even if it produces nothing that you consider worth keeping (let alone reading or publishing) helps to keep the channels open for inspiration to come through.

Warning: Religion Ahead

I believe that poetry comes from God. Much of the thinking around poems as "found", as pre-existing, as entities with purpose from which the poet's efforts can only detract, resonate strongly with this belief. As my Shaykh frequently says: "Get out of the way and let Allah do the work." Compare a quote from Gudding's essay, attributed to Mike Madonick: "All you can do is get in the way of its [the poem's] wanting to fly-- or you can let it go."

Certainly I have experienced (a few) poems as though they came to me from outside-- as though they were something I had heard once a long time ago and forgotten, or as though they were being spoken into my ear as I was writing them down. This is, I think, what artists refer to as "inspiration", though others may attribute the source of same as "the Universe," "the collective unconscious," or whatever. The error, I think, is in relying wholly on inspiration from whatever source. The artist must at least make the decision to act on the inspiration-- to write down the poem, to carve the wood, to play the tune. We are free-willed beings; we have that ability.

Besides inspiration and the deliberate will to work, an artist requires skill. Skill is a combination of innate ability and learned proficiency. This is where the practice of the craft comes in. With the best of intentions, an unskilled poet may simply flail around and be unable to deliver her inspiration in any comprehensible and effective form.

Ability too comes from Allah. So does the opportunity to develop skill. But again, the choice is ours whether to put in the time and effort to develop that skill. For me, at least, the goal is to make myself a more capable vessel for whatever inspirations I'm favored to receive. Here is the central paradox that Mearns failed to resolve: The more I practice the skills of poetry, the easier it is to get out of the way of poetry.

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