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Making poetry public
Poetry doesn't need do particularly anything -- except communicate

January 25, 2002
The Iranian

Like many others, I have been reading some of the letters in this latest poetry discussion. Since the tone of some of the letters is negative, one would almost like to instantly log-off and stop reading"to ignore the whole thing".

I'm often amazed at how passionate people are (myself included) about poetry and reading poetry. Perhaps we should just think of others' poetry as an offering. You might be disgusted or annoyed at the tone, style, content, or spelling of the poem. You might think that the poet, has completely misunderstood what poetry is. You might think that their poem is pretentious, or contrived, or cliché, or self-obsessed, or too political, or not political enough, or utterly irrelevant to the world at large.

Today, as far as my own poems on this site, I find them to be either horrible poems or silly poems or good poems or honest poems. But more importantly, I am content to have published them here as they now represent to me a past desire to communicate certain ideas to a certain readership.

I had, somewhat passive-aggressively, decided to publish certain poems here with the fantasy of provoking, what I perceived to be, a sexist and politically ignorant male culture that was so unlike the felt values and ideas of my own life. On the one hand, for these reasons, I find it tempting to regret publishing poems here.

On the other hand, and for those same reasons, I am very happy to have published them here without having thought too much about the ethics or benefits of my decision"it was spontaneous and it just felt right".

It was also in a sense therapeutic to reject the expectations of a male culture that I then felt might have rejected me precisely because of my ideological divergence from its established path. But my point here is that making one's poetry public, for the non-academic or non-professional, poet, is both a ridiculous and a liberating exercise.

Making one's poetry public is motivated by both egoism and a willingness to be vulnerable. Or is it that our egoism demands our vulnerability? Regardless, a decision to publish a poem is a simultaneous decision to overcome a reservation or an inhibition.

And vulnerability, in such an inhibited culture, becomes liberating; through vulnerability, through putting your work "out there" you begin the process of reclaiming your identity by rejecting the notion of yourself as constructed-by-others. It remains to be seen whether this process (or concept) of reclaiming is a hopeless or a worthwhile task.

And, of course, every poem, if it is made public, IS a type of offering. Every poem, once it is made public, is a reflection of a desire in the poet, to share his or her poem with you. Isn't this itself a sufficient reason to respect (notice I don't say to love or cherish) the work as work?

It seems to me that there are so many problems in the world. There are so many people who directly contribute to negativity or pain in the world. Maybe quibbling about poetry "as if our tastes dictate TASTE itself" is the ultimate waste of time.

Maybe our passion, or aggression, in these discussions is a psychological result of wanting to be noticed or recognized "damn" other people if they reject or ignore our highly developed understanding of poetry. And of course, a poet who composes a poem in stark contrast to how you feel a poem ought to be composed is completing a great rejection of both your view and you, yourself.

How else can we explain why these discussions become so passionate, and ultimately, dysfunctional? There must be some very serious personal elements involved. These personal elements are incredibly divisive, as Pierre Bourdieu has written: "Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier."

Expressing our "taste" is a way of asserting our worth. It is a way of announcing that we have CLASS. When our conception of taste is rejected by way of a blasphemous poem, we too, are rejected -- for our knowledge, our training, our insights, our preferences, our contributions to the discipline, and perhaps even our life's work, have also been rejected. But if we were TRULY happy with ourselves, if we were TRULY content, a "bad" poem would not have the power to shake us so.

Notice, I am not necessarily saying that there is NO way at all to distinguish between a truly awful poem or a truly beautiful poem: what I am saying is that this incessant, and sometimes angry, NEED of ours TO distinguish is ITSELF indicative of the real issue going on"namely", our insecurity manifesting itself in the ultimate arrogance: our destroying of others' art.

Establishment art journals, Internet magazines, literary sites all publish criticism of creative work. I am often amazed at how overwhelmingly negative the reviews are. Places like the LA weekly and often make it seem as if it is "cool" to be negative. But isn't this negativity, as easy and expected as it is, a symptom of larger social problems in the dominant culture (i.e. a lack of love)? So how do we make the world more loving? How do we work at shedding our aggression?

In a recent discussion with a published poet, I was advised that certain poetry like SLAM poetry is not real poetry. This person that I was speaking to was annoyed at the failure of some SLAM and performance poets to read earlier experimental work, twentieth-century experimental American work. He thought that this failure of SLAM poets results in their ignorance about writing, history, and poetry.

But of course, we all know that there IS work to be read out there. If we are not reading it, we are not doing so for a reason, namely, our disinterest. If certain poets are not reading all of the work that came prior to them, this is not something due to illiteracy or insanity. It is a decision that prioritizes creation over history.

Of course, one could question how successful this creation, this writing, will be if it does not arrive from the pen of a well-read body. That's another issue. But, as far as I see it, we cannot demand that certain books be read before a poet writes a poem. What are these books anyway? Who is deciding? Why should we have the authority to choose? And my questions here should not be read as a testimony against the prospect of any kind of standard in poetry. What I am saying is that the construction of these standards is such a sensitive and fragile task that is perhaps best left undone.

I often feel most comfortable around people who have definitive preferences in poetry, but who also feel wholly uncomfortable asserting these preferences from a position of authority. They share their ideas and preferences, no doubt, but they are aware of the sacred space involved -- and they are aware of the tendency of institutional or public authority to desecrate this space.

Also, if it looks like a poem or sounds like a poem it ISN'T necessarily a POEM: other people's poems are not always motivated out of our own conception of poetry. Our very definition of what a poem is is capable of disqualifying so much other work out there from even being considered. We should not assume that every poet is operating with OUR precise definition of poetry in mind. Some people insist on editing their poems. Some people refuse to edit their poems as they deem it an unnatural, process.

The point is that every poem doesn't aspire to be profound, or beautiful (whatever that is), or calming, or humanistic. Every point needn't make a grand political statement. It needn't do particularly anything -- except communicate. And almost all poems are successful at this, and when they are not successful here, it is our (the reader's) fault for halting the communication out of our arrogance or militancy.

So, perhaps because we do detect negativity [in the world] we should be more cautious about contributing to more of it. It cannot hurt matters to strive to be more tolerant readers when presented with things like poetry. I often have to remind myself of this.

A few years ago, the sight or sound of a newly written rhyming poem would have been vomit inducing for me. The mere mentioning of the sky, or the soul, or the stars, or moonlight, sounded immediately pretentious to my contemporary ears. I interpreted a rhyming poem as both an unnecessary desire -- on the part of the poet -- to sound profound, as well as a political arrogance and exclusivity -- on the part of the poet -- manifesting itself in his rejection of the gritty and inclusive language of TODAY.

As a reader, I still have my preferences in poetry and I am passionate about my affection for certain poets (Octavio Paz, Sandra Cisneros, Roque Dalton, Rumi, Charles Simic, Leonard Cohen, Saul Williams, Neruda, Sonia Sanchez, Nizar Qabbani). But more than that, I have an awareness that these preferences will change and ought to change, and that they are, again, ONLY preferences. Insisting that they become more than that is similar to a lust for power.

Since LIFE is so sensitive, both pre-and-post September 11, shouldn't we surrender, as opposed to pursue, our power?

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Leyla Momeny

By Leyla Momeny

Momeny's features index


Poetry features in

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Shaaeri keh Baabaa Karam nemeeraqsad
So what if others don't understand your poems?
By Leila Farjami

Nothing new
"Poetry" vs. "trash"
By Korosh Khalili


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