Making poetry public
Poetry doesn't need do particularly anything -- except communicate
January 25, 2002
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'
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 salon.com 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
Since LIFE is so sensitive, both pre-and-post September 11, shouldn't
we surrender, as opposed to pursue, our power?