Sunday, April 30, 2017

295. I Hate Poetry

         For a press release of my new novel, Bill Hope: His Story, go here.  This is the second title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         Bill Hope can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now, on to poesie.            

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        I hate poetry, and I’m not the only one.  “I, too, dislike it,” says renowned poet Marianne Moore (in her lifetime, a fellow West Village resident) in her much-quoted poem “Poetry,” which continues, “there are things / that are important beyond all this fiddle.”  But then, of course, she goes on to hedge her bet:

Reading it, however, with a
   perfect contempt for it, one
   discovers in
it after all, a place for the
   genuine.

And so on, and so on.  What, after all, would you expect from a poet?  A total, absolute, and scathing rejection of the stuff?  Does a baker hate bread, or an alcoholic hate booze?  Of course she loves poetry, can’t get off it.  But the deliberate prosiness of her lines undermines her intention; her “Poetry” is just prose chopped up in short lines to look like poetry.  Poets, please note, are cunning.

         These thoughts and those that follow were inspired by poet Charles Simic’s review of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (a title that warms me to the cockles of my heart) in The New York Review of Books of April 6, 2017.  At the start of the review is an English translation of two lines of the Roman poet Martial, who is famous for his biting, pithy satire.  (Martial’s sting is probably lost in translation.) 

                           Don’t let the boy just loaf about:
                           If he writes verses, kick him out.

That the review is written by a poet, and a well-known one at that, is a fair indication that the reviewer will differ with the author reviewed, and the same might be said of this post, written by a self-confessed poet with shiny words on his tongue and rancor in his heart.  Moral:

On the subject of poetry, never trust a poet.

         Simic goes on to recall Shelley’s deluded assertion that poetry is “something divine,” countered by poet Molly Peacock’s reminder that while bread is necessary, poetry is not -- at least, not in the way that bread is.  Simic also cites Plato’s famous denunciation of poets for passing off their fantasies as truth, for which he banished them from his ideal Republic.  (We won’t dwell on the fact that Plato himself was, at moments, a brilliant poet  and visionary, albeit in prose.)  With both Molly and Plato, I heartily agree.  And it’s still a common and justifiable belief that poets aren’t right in the head, for why else would they choose a lifetime of poverty and ridicule?  In this regard, right on, Mr. Simic, right on!  Maybe we can trust you after all … maybe.

File:Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint crop.jpg
Percy Bysshe Shelley.  With a name like that 
he'd have to be a poet, the ethereal style.


         Also on the side of the anti-poets, and cited by Simic, is the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, who in his essay “Against Poets” insists that no one really gives a damn about poetry, even though they pretend that they do.  I’m not familiar with Mr. Gombrowicz’s works and can’t even pronounce his name, but once again, I applaud.  Sugar, he suggests, is good for sweetening coffee, but not for eating by the spoonful; excess of poetry, plus the sentiment and piety that go with it, can be wearying.  Having in my time read a vast deal of mediocre poetry – poetry that aspired to lift me to the heights, but often dumped me in the dumpiest of dumps – I continue to applaud.

         Simic finally gets to Ben Lerner’s book, The Hatred of Poetry, which  observes that poetry is often met with contempt, rather than mere indifference, and is often denounced, rather than simply dismissed.  True enough, says Simic, but it’s because the critics were frightened off it in school.  But he takes more seriously Lerner’s contention that poets today are too self-involved, too apolitical, too indifferent to the social woes around them, and therefore out of touch with the rest of us.

         Enough of Simic; what does Browder think?  Be warned: from at least fifth grade on I was scribbling something or other; I was Literature in an eighth-grade morality play about Every Youth; and by high school I was exuding scraps of poetry now mercifully consigned to oblivion. 

On the subject of poetry, never trust a poet.

Since then, off and on, I have dabbled, and even more than dabbled, in concocting the stuff, propelled less by genius or an avowed sense of mission than by a gut instinct, a totally irrational urge to use and misuse words, for which I have received – deservedly, no doubt – scant recognition or reward.  I will say that a lot of the rejection letters these days are anything but blunt; in saying no, they almost have tears in their eyes.  I don’t complain about rejections, since this is the lot of most poetic scribblers, and the lack of recognition arms me for my fight against the very urge itself, and for periodic bouts of self-contempt not for myself overall, but for myself as – alas! – a poet.  If there were a twelve-step program for recovering poets (“Poets Anonymous”?), I would join it.

         And why shouldn’t we hate poetry?  The stuff is

·      Sticky, icky, gooey with feeling
·      Pretentious
·      Often obscure
·      Concerned with flighty little moments of experience – i.e., with trivia
·      Written by eccentrics, flops, and perverts
·      Read mostly by old-maid librarians and schoolteachers (usually frustrated poets themselves), and an assortment of unmanly dainty types and hypersensitive freaks
·      Profitless
·      Time-consuming
·      Addictive
·      And above all, irrelevant.

         To round it off, just consider the photo of Marianne Moore accompanying the review: an elderly woman in a broad-brimmed hat and a flowing black cape, smiling at a plumed white cockatoo perched on her wrist.  Oddball, weirdo, eccentric!  Case closed.

File:Marianne Moore 1948.jpg
Here she is, black-caped, minus hat and cockatoo.
The magisterial style, beloved of feminists.

         But of course it never is.  Back in the nineteenth century, middle-class citizens of this and many cities had a poetry shelf in their libraries that they replenished with purchases from time to time.  Who were they reading?  Not Whitman and Dickinson, whom we have since enshrined.  No, they were reading such stalwarts of poesy as Longfellow, Whittier, Tennyson, and Browning.  Late in the century Browning became such a rage that Browning Societies sprang up all over the country, dedicated to reading his weighty and impenetrable later poems and teasing meaning out of them.  When Longfellow’s lengthy poem Evangeline was published in 1847, there were lines around the block as eager readers flocked to get it, and as late as 1941 it was still being inflicted upon eighth graders, I being one of them, to the point that the opening line, “This is the forest primeval.  The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,” is imprinted in my mind.  As for his other epic, The Song of Hiawatha, I'll simply quote the opening lines:

By the shores of Gitchee Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis...

"Gitchee Gumee," if it matters, is Longfellow's rendition of the Chippewa name for Lake Superior.   As for the meter, never has trochaic tetrameter been so abused.

         Yes, back then people used to read poems, even long ones set in Gitchee Gumee, but such is not the case today.  Once, when reading a biography of the Russian writer Pushkin, I encountered a description of a trip of his to the Caucasus, where he entered a village recently wrested by the Russians from the Turks.  Meeting an old man in the village, he talked with him – I don’t recall in what language – and  happened to mention that he was a poet.  The old man looked at him with awe: “Blessed is the day when I meet a poet!”  Such an utterance gives an insight into another society where poetry is not merely tolerated but honored, a society in sharp contrast to our own.

         It’s tempting to say that no one really reads poetry in this country today except poets, who usually think their own stuff better.  But that’s not quite the case.  First of all, the poetry reading scene in New York City is hot, hot, hot – readings all over the place.  That, of course, is New York, a quirky, trendy place full of oddballs, and in no way typical of the nation.  But there are small presses that – God help them! – specialize in publishing the stuff, and they claim to be so swamped with submissions that they have to shut their submission portal until further notice, or charge a submission fee, or publish only the winner of a contest whose submission fee is often twenty or twenty-five dollars.  (Ah, those contests: to make one poet happy, you have to make four hundred others unhappy, even while sucking in their moolah.)


File:E. E. Cummings NYWTS.jpg
E. E. Cummings, a 20th-century poet, the slouchy 
style -- quite a contrast with Shelley.  They come
in all sizes and shapes.

         Which brings us to “po biz,” the business of poetry, a scene where allegedly starving poets compete for juicy awards and fellowships, and try desperately to get a paid position teaching poetry writing at some delusional institution of higher learning.  And why those classes?  Because today everybody wants to be a poet, just as everybody wants to be a playwright or novelist or whatever, and canny operators are taking full advantage and raking in millions … or at least a few thousand, enough to keep their precarious operation afloat.   And it’s not just kids; a friend of mine, an accomplished poet, also teaches retired businessmen who always wanted to write poetry and now indulge themselves, paying a hefty fee in spite of their deplorable lack of talent.  The poetry bug lurks deep in the innards of many of us, like a microbe for which there is no cure.

          Conclusion: yes, poetry and poets exist today, and po biz is exploiting would-be poetasters with diligence and cunning.  We need accountants and bricklayers and exterminators and garbage collectors, and what do we get?  Poets.  Thousands of them, scribbling away.  Which is one more reason why I and so many other sane and clearheaded individuals hate poetry.

On the subject of poetry, never trust a poet.

         Toward the end of his lengthy review, Simic tells how in the rowdy late 1960s he participated in the Poets in the Schools program in New York City.  Broke, he did it to snag the measly fifty bucks a day that it paid.  (Starving poets again -- what folly!)  Going to the principal’s office, he would find a guide waiting there to escort him through unruly hallways to a classroom where equal pandemonium reigned.  The teacher then silenced the kids by shouting, “We have a poet with us today!”  Confusion as the kids looked wonderingly at each other, not sure they had heard her right.  A poet?  Here?  Now?  Disbelief.

         “Do you like poetry?” Simic asked.

         They shook their heads, some pretended to gag, and one or two spat in disgust. 

         Undaunted, Simic asked, “Have you ever written a love letter?”

         Embarrassed silence; obviously, they had.   

         “Would you like to hear a love poem?”

         Silence signifies assent.  So Simic read them some poems by e e cummings (aka E. E. Cummings), Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others, each time asking if they wanted to hear more; they did.  Then he read poems on other subjects, and they listened with great attention and began making perceptive remarks.  After class a few even lingered to ask where they could find one of the poems he had read.  End of story.

         Please notice how the clever Simic, greedy for a buck, manipulated these malleable young minds – a maneuver that he boasts – yes, boasts! -- of having used effectively with college students as well.  On this sorry note I will end.

On the subject of poetry, never trust a poet.

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BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.






Coming soon:  What's in a name?  The names for New York City, and where they come from.

©   2017   Clifford Browder




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