Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Language -

- poetry.

Excellent link found in Rus Bowden's intro to this week's Poetry & Poets in Rags - to an article by Joan Houlihan called Three Invitations to a Far Reading. It's actually a review of sorts - examining three new books of poetry. I haven't read a lot of Houlihan's work although I know her opinions are 'somewhat' controversial. If you haven't stepped into the discussions on Language Poetry lately, this is a good place to start. Rus Bowden is tracking various blogdebates relating to Houlihan's article, you can find their links through his link at the beginning of this paragraph.

The craft of poetry is difficult, and maybe never fully mastered, never perfected. After three years of work, including courses, lots of reading, critiquing, and of course writing, practicing, and writing, I am just beginning to glimpse a huge and somewhat alarming truth. Everything I write has been written before. If I write 'cloud' I am being cliche and many readers will drop the poem immediately upon reading the word. I do it myself as a reader - if I come across the word 'crystal' I stop reading. Or maybe I'll read a bit more but if the next word is 'tears' or 'lavender' I'm done.

Think of the millions of poets, the thousands of poems we will read. Pretty much every poem I post will garner 'that's cliche' from someone. Or my subject matter will get that. I once read a critic respond to a poem by 'Laurel' - someone whom I admire - with the words 'get over it' - because Laurel was writing poetry about a break-up. Of course, I guess a 'break-up' is cliche. As is 'dying of cancer' and 'spring' and 'graves' and 'ponds'. And there isn't anything we can do about it - it's all been written about so many times, in so many ways, that just using the subject matter is going to be cliche before we even try to put metaphor to it.

As a newbie poet, my first challenge was to stretch and stretch my poetic reach trying to find a simile or metaphor that was unique, undone. For a while, this was amusing. But I've grown tired of the exercise. Is it because I am old? Perhaps. It just seemed silly to reach so far, it seemed artificial, contrived. However, I can see it could be seen as a doorway to something absolutely new.

Enter Far Reading (as described by Houlihan) and Language Poetry. There is one thing about this form of art that cannot be denied - there are no cliches. The subject matter is never cliche because there is no subject matter. The combination of words is not cliche because words are combined in defiance of grammatical law.

The craft is still work, and vice versa, to be done well, I'm sure. The poems Houlihan quotes are unique and full of interesting ephemera. I think the hardest work would be to avoid subject while retaining a line. Any slump into meaning would be immediately seen as maudlin, prosaic, or what's the word I learned today - quotidian, and therefore cliche.

When I lie in bed at night, I honestly cannot think of anything in my experience that is would be unique enough to write about - it all seems like 're'writing - if its about nature I'm rewriting Mary Oliver. If it's about angst, I'm rewriting Plath. If it's about people dying of cancer, I'm rewriting Laux. If it's just about life, hell, I'm rewriting Barbara or Brenda or George or Stephen. The temptation to write poems that are so off the wall that they cannot possibly be likened to anyone is great.

I hate to be stupid or dull but with many of these works, I can't see the poem - much like the Emperor's New Clothes. I can see people admiring them, I see words, line breaks, spaces - I can feel the tongue as it reads, I imagine the poet sniffing as he writes, breaking into a mild persperation, I can see his hand shake with the pen or over the keyboard.

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's all about the poet - not the poem at all.


Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

When I read a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem I feel I'm in the presence of pretentious posturing. When I read a poem full of cliche, I feel I'm in the presence of someone wanting to be something without becoming it. I think one could switch from one extreme to another: the poem of accessible quotidian description to incomprehensible word splattering. I find neither one compelling. What I find compelling is someone straining at the limitations, not disregarding them: someone trying to balance accessibility with allusiveness; trying to blend entertainment with enlightenment. Anything else is just too easy.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

Also, by definition, most of what we write will be average. The trick is knowing what to hold back and what to share. Maybe one or two poems we write will hit the right combination of effects to stick in the cultural memory like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

9:24 AM  

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