As A Poet
by Dan Schneider, 3/11/02
poet, the most annoying, & ridiculous phrase someone can utter to
you is: ‘As a poet, how do you feel about _____?’ The reason for the
frustration is because people rarely make the distinction between the
reality of The Poet as profession/avocation & the fiction of The
Poet as The Person. It's as if being a poet meant you thought the same
thoughts as every other poet & could speak at large for the craft on
any subject. Simply put, poetry is a vocation, not a vantage
point. Especially not for expertise in other fields. The last few
decades have seen Public Published Poets (3Ps) called upon to comment on
any # of things far beyond their purview. Yes, I am a poet- & a
great 1- but that is my only real area of expertise. I can give informed
lay opinions on such things as criminology, psychology, cosmology,
religion, paleontology, sex, arts of many sorts, unexplained phenomena,
rock music, politics, professional sports, & a host of other topics.
But I am not qualified to speak on these subjects with the AUTHORITY I
can on poetry. Yet, too often these 3Ps have declaimed from on high on
subjects far beyond their purview- & not just in their poor poetry.
Even worse is that their nearly universally naïve & ill-informed
opinions only reinforce the stereotype that poets are an elitist bunch
who can in no way relate to the average non-poet. Sadly, this stereotype
has an overwhelming basis in truth.
This manifests itself the most in the terrible anthologies that waste space on book store shelves. There are the political anthologies by groups (Nuyoricans, Beatniks, ethnic groups, Maverick poets, etc.) & those with a theme (Poets for peace, or against war, etc.). I will not name some of these anthologies lest stir undeserved interest in them in readers. The poems will be unfailingly political, & even more unfailingly simple-minded- with themes like: Nazis are bad people! Murder is wrong! Republicans suck! Men are rapists! Being a non-white non-male with no money nor desire gives me insight into things no one else knows! I was abused/addicted/made fun of when young & impressionable- doesn’t that mean ANYTHING to you?, etc. Often the groups of poets will be absurdly constructed to be so exclusive that the ‘members’ are dubious at best: How many non-Caucasian, handicapped, lesbian, with addictive problems & sexual abuse in their past poets can there be? Much less be good? How many ‘Younger/Emerging’ poets are there less than a decade from collecting Social Security? How many –Istic poets’ poems have absolutely no connection to the supposed –Ism save for the claim? How many ‘Outsider/Maverick’ poets have collegiate tenure?
Yet, over & again, in inane ‘interviews’ by dubious publications (on- & offline) some dull-witted interviewer gets around to an ‘As a poet’ query. Usually this is after the equally inane queries on the poet’s provenance as a poet, or their favorite poets or poems. A sample:
Interviewer: As a poet, how do you feel the
recent actions in Bosnia/Somalia/Afghanistan have affected the NEA/your
poetry/the world at large?
Poet: In times like these [these 4 words are the preambled reply equivalent to the 3 word ‘As a poet’ query] it is difficult for a poet….
poet will then inevitably drone on for a paragraph or 2 (usually
redacted in editing from the 8 or 10 the 3P has felt obliged to torture
the interviewer with) & include in their reply the obligatory
mention or quote from another poet (usually more famed & skilled
than the interviewed poet- to show that ‘Great minds think alike.’)
or poem that has an affinity to the query akin to that of low-fat
cottage cheese to Alexander the Great’s homosexuality. The poet will
then hem & haw over naming ‘certain poets’ they deem as being
not ‘in-sync’ with whatever the political fashion of the day is.
This poet will be askancely dissed, but a great deal of time &
praise will be accorded to poets who agree with the interviewed 3P’s
take on the question (or its little-his political subtext) asked- which
is rarely addressed head on. The interviewed 3P will steer the questions
to subjects the 3P deems more worthy- usually their own past (ripe to be
apotheosized by the 3P!).
But, even if the interviewer has enough intellect & integrity to press the interviewed poet to address the query, they will do so in brief, & return on to their patter- or declaim on other subjects from the view ‘as a poet’. For, you see, unlike plumbers, or stock brokers, or nannies, or teachers, or warehousemen, poets are often called upon to declaim on any manner of thing. Yet, despite their opinions outside of their area of expertise having little more worth than a typical Hollywood celebrity, the poet is expected to be fawned over for their depth (a subtle admission, I guess, that poetry is the highest & most difficult of the arts/human pursuits). The undisputed Queen & King of this approach are inane talk show diva Oprah Winfrey & obsequious ‘political hack speechwriter-cum-real journalist’ Bill Moyers. Oprah- via her dastardly Book Club that touts expanding literacy as akin to feeding the malnourished, all the while not acknowledging her dreck is the equivalent of giving Calcuttan urchins Boston Cream pie- perfected her technique by groveling at the fungus-filled toes of Maya Angelou, while Moyers has fellated a growing # of poetasters through his terribly produced, embarrassingly mawkish, & intellectually chia-brained, occasional series on poetry. A typical exchange: (this from Moyers’ Fooling With Words series- an interview with mediocre poet Garrett Hongo.)
BM: Why did you decide to write poetry?
GH: I wanted to
explore the life of emotions. As a child in Hawai'i I remember not only
having emotions, but they seemed authorized by the world and the family
surrounding me. As an adolescent growing up in Los Angeles and the
public schools there, emotions seemed to be under a tight reign even in
sports. People seemed to want to deny them.
I didn't understand that as a Japanese American I was
experiencing a social and historical sadness. Because my own family did
not suffer relocation, they were trying to live it down and grow out of
their own grief. So I had all these feelings which had no form of
expression. My brother became a blues guitarist, and at first I was just
angry, then I became a poet. Poetry and photography seemed to give me
ways to explore and connect with the history that was repressed….
BM: You said a minute ago that you felt sadness.
GH: Yes. I felt
everyone was sad, that there was this unspoken sadness all around me. I
wanted to understand it and to bring it into language. What inspired me
were things I read, like Greek tragedies. Here was Orestes full of
action and Antigone standing up for a principle, so 1 said, "What
the hell are we doing? We're not speaking to the issue. We're not
articulating our emotions or our beliefs about the dead and about
history." I was basically indoctrinated in a Western vision of
articulation, of speaking to emotional and historical issues, but my
experience was one of repression.
BM: You didn't
think that you could talk about this?
GH: I didn't feel
that others could or would, and that caused a great frustration. And I
didn't know it at the time but I think I unconsciously absorbed my
grandfather's directive to me. He'd charged me every evening with this
responsibility, so I'd bring it up and then it would be sort of
silenced. There was a great social dissonance between my inner life and
the exterior life, and I needed to make them come together somehow….
BM: Some of my favorite lines are these: "I want the dead beside me when I dance, to help me / flesh the notes of my song, to tell me it's all right." What's all right?
GH: That they
are the dead. That they're not the living. That these people whom I
treasure and these lives which were exemplary and are exemplary to me,
these presences which I don't enjoy as I enjoy yours, are still somehow
present. It's a magical belief, a primitive religion, but it's something
for me as a poet that's crucial. It's not intellectual, it's almost a
need to believe. Maybe religion is not so much belief, as the need
BM: But given that poetry is so personal and intimate and that your own poetry is a country populated by your own ancestors, people need help entering that country.
GH: I think poetry
is about our most familiar need which we deny in order to lead more
practical lives, but ultimately these lives are impractical because they
do not have such presences in them. I think poetry can bring such
presences back, whether they're the dead or evanescent feelings or
insinuations, or glimmerings, or vanishings. These are the most
essential things, and poetry turns to them in the way that many arts do.
So 1 feel like a conduit for things other than myself—these
vanishings, insinuations, glimmerings. I feel they’re essential. I
can’t do without them.
If you are chuckling over the ‘poetic justice’/synchronicity
of Moyers’ initials you are not alone. Literally, I could spend pages
dissecting this gallingly condescending tripe, larded with faux naïve-té
& softball questions. But I won’t. WHY? Because, unlike Moyers or
Oprah I respect my audience.
As a poet, I feel that only by writing as if you have an informed & intelligent audience do you do your best poetry. This is obviously antithetical to current poetical thinking, where even poetry has been reduced to a commercial venture. The Academy Of American Poets’ reprehensible National Poetry Month (April) is predicated on this fact. They claim that poetry sales in many areas shoot up by as much as 150% in the Aprils since National Poetry Month’s kick off in 1996. Yet, the # of Big Box Bookstores (Barnes & Noble, Border, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks) since then have also increased, but by an even greater than 150% rate. Per capita poetry, then, is just as marginal as it always has been. & what’s goddamn wrong with that? But even if 1 accepts the rise in sales as genuine, most of the articles I have read on the subject suggest that ‘pure’ poetry book (without photos or children’s verse) sales hold steady at about 1%- a figure that gibes with most poets’ commonsense assumptions about the % of the populace who enjoy or participate in poetry nationwide. Poetry’s very nature is that it is a singular & ‘high’ pursuit- most non-poets tacitly acknowledge this with their fear of it. This is just not conducive to mass appeal. Plus the fact is that no one can make a living just off of poetry writing- a fact that should be manifest by its very unpopularity.
So what causes the vile debasement of the craft that the Moyerses & Oprahs of the world bring to it? Simple. They wanna be ‘special’. Especially in a climate where merely scribbling a poem is thought of as having personal redemptive value. Plus, secretly, we all know that it’s the great poets, not the best selling novelists who will have relevance in a century or 2.
This is why cafés ebb & flow with puerile poetasters desperate to slam their verse down. Yet, they do not engage in poetry. As a poet, I know it & so do they. They are merely tools of a marketing machine, the likes of which they would decry as brainwashing were its effects in force in other endeavors. The poetry foisted in cafés & in the poetry press mills is about mindless pleasure, wrought with no effort, dull, & most of all a ‘status symbol’ declaiming: I AM DEEP! That these ‘poets'’ person is often as vapid as their art only makes the spectacle of poets declaiming on non-poetic subjects all the more ridiculous. How silly is it to listen to the opinion of someone so immature as to poesize Oldsian about some minor sleight years earlier, raise it to a dudgeon, & expect them to be able to have an opinion of weight on things sociological, or internationally political!
Thus is born the trend toward ‘accessible’ poetry- i.e.- prosaically simplistic story-poems geared toward ‘demographic’ groups- think of old Bubby Bly’s Morning Poems: clichéd crap designed for lazy old people who want to feel alive as they near death; or of Deborah Garrison's recent tripe: A Working Girl Can't Win, designed for white collar white working girls enthralled by fluffy prose broken into lines with an occasional rhyme. That these poems (which, in truth, are merely dull & mediocre- not horrid) requiring no reread to get the complexities of a poem, nor encourage reread because of an intriguing narrative, seem to be antithetical to the very idea of art (a higher pursuit of learning or communication) makes it all the more silly that poets like this are solicited to opine on things far beyond their purview. Even poems of more seeming ‘depth’- say Galway Kinnell’s Parkinson’s Disease- reveal a simplisticness of thought & craft that intelligent discerners of poetry see through. Who would consider the producer of such a simpletonian thoughts worthy of intellectual supplication? Go on- think shit.
Old BM- the sanctimonious Bill Moyers- of course! BM, in his series, foists technically terribly-wrought poems with no real depth at his audience. Then, he dumbs things down even more. He urges readers of this tripe to forget about trying to ‘get’/understand the poems- just enjoy the music & sensuality of the poems. That nothing a Kinnell, Olds, Bly, Garrison, Linda McCarriston, Lorna Dee Cervantes, etc. has ever written is noted for its aural quality (Hart Crane they ain’t!), nor have any of the above been accused of Eliotic density, this is especially silly. To the moronic crowd BM gives suck at his nipples this is all about celebrating poetry. Unfortunately, as poetic hack Brad Leithauser put it in an unusually harsh & cogent critique of an earlier Moyers crapfest, The Language Of Life, ‘Behind Moyers' many questions lurks one that goes unasked: Are we "celebrating" so hard because otherwise someone might point out that the party's a bust?’ In truth, such pap purveyed so banally is really a turn away from the self- & true simplicity. Ironically, simplicity is a concept that requires a real depth of thought processes. In a related vein I recall writer/poet Paul Metcalf’s comment re: the Confessionalists: ‘Much of this so-called personal poetry is not really personal at all, in that it reveals nothing of the authentic self, or reveals qualities and materials most common and repetitious amongst us. And it is curious that this kind of poetry is apt to be decorated with- and numbed by- shared cultural referents. The urge toward the personal becomes, in fact, the very opposite of itself: a drive to anonymity.’ [Where Do You Put The Horse?, 1979]
Yet, the whole thrust of a BM, or any poet he interviews in the search for ‘meaning’ is little more than the things these folk decry in other fields of human endeavor: tv’s legendary wasteland, vagaries & ideas that go nowhere, the banal sentimentality of hominess. This pseudo-intellect, however is perfect for the sound-bite world we inhabit. Even down to the intellectual shorthand known as stereotyping. Here is how BM actually described Irish poet Paul Muldoon: ‘you hear echoes of his country's history in his voice. The puckish wit and furrowed melancholy....later will come the sorrows and troubles of his roots in the tragic land that has so borne the brunt of history. For now, your imagination is fired by poetical mischief as delightful as the laughter of leprechauns dancing in the forest.’ Question: A) Who, in their right mind, would want to engage the opinions of someone so stolid as to describe another grown person that way? B) If true, who in their right mind would care the opinions of such an addle-minded poet? Not to mention- could BM get away with a description of a black poet like this?: ‘you hear the pulse of the Congo tom-tom its way through her body. The dark temptress who lives in the fantasies of every man finds her way into lines taut as a jungle cat & filled with the joy only watermelon can give.’ In truth, little separates the ‘poet’ (as the masses know them) from the ‘politician’- except their dogmas. This is why they, or pro athletes (think the asinine ex-Green Bay Packer Reggie White’s bigoted comments from a few years back), or celebrities of any sort or fame-level, are sought- the pabulum spewed is the same for all the audiences these people will draw. The only difference is that the vapidities may appear different uttered by a poet, a rock star, or wide receiver. BM’s interviews are almost archetypal in the current obsession with ‘sounding nice’ over sounding intelligent’. Why need a poet speak intelligently (the fleeting few published 1s that can) when the audience has been cooed to by BM & his sort that it’s ok that ‘the only sure thing I can tell you about poetry is that I like it’, & ‘I enjoy a poem read aloud even when I do not wholly understand it. Talking to poets about their lives also makes their poetry more accessible to me’. It is beyond BM- & his ilk- to engage poetry critically- this is a reflection, almost perfectly, of called-upon poets to engage non-poetic topics; especially the political.
So, too, have the many poets I’ve seen & read interviewed: Philip Levine’s overweening pride over his working-class poems’ working-classedness. When lured outside that purview the real (non-poet) Levine does not exist. Instead we get canned responses. Outside of bodily functions & ‘the utter blackness of being’ Sharon Olds is lost- just another tenured professor. Beyond talking about the ‘looseness’ of his unpunctuated poetic dreck W.S. Merwin is just another refugee from the 50s & 60s. Think of a topic & if you’ve read 1 Merwin interview you can guess his response to any subject to within a 98.7% accuracy. Amiri Baraka, when not in the company of nubile white coeds, will always decry anything non-Baraka (or at least non-black) in hilarious pseudo-post-Marxian tones.
As a poet, I find the whole exercise more than a bit silly. All these poets are experts on only themselves & the small purview their art entails. Other than that they are about as qualified to speak on non-poetic topics as my urologist is to speak on my 401(k) plan, or BM is to speak on excellent poetry. So, the next time you see a PBS special with BM groveling to warm a poetaster’s ego, or Oprah scraping the toe jam from Maya’s dogs, just turn to another channel where you might hear some sexy starlet tell you why they think the WTC bombing was wrong. What is said will be just as shallow, but- perhaps- you’ll get to see a little bit of celebrity skin, the thought of which will warm you a bit as you’re bent over your toilet bowl retching. Take it from me- A POET! & as a poet (& not) that’s how I feel about it!
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