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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Wisdom and Aging

Wisdom is a matter of aging with grace. This is an aphorism Marissa and I came up with this morning while lying around in bed, unsure whether it was time yet to get up. A raven kept cawing indignantly just outside our bedroom window saying "get up now!" Understood in this light, wisdom is a kind of insight that we receive but don't really possess; it's most important that we be open to it rather than engage in its active pursuit.  Much as with the Daoist concept of wuwei, wisdom comes to us through our least effort and but for the grace of the Dao pointing us in the right way.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Deeper into the Meadow We Go: my week in Nova Scotia with Henry David Thoreau

Life in this Nova Scotia meadow seems to unfold according to a very different logic than Marissa and I are accustomed to back home in Long Island. Up here Nature is that much more accessible - it happens in the open meadow, where every critter struggles to define and defend its niche. We witnessed a perfect example of this soon after we arrived when Marissa threw open the double barn doors and started setting up her summer studio.  Almost immediately a flock of swallows appeared, hovering overhead, as if responding to a neighborly invitation. A few of the braver birds took turns dive bombing us, flying in one door and out the other. One briefly perched in the rafters, and then, just as suddenly as they appeared, the flock took wing, apparently declining the invitation on the grounds that the accommodations weren't spacious enough.

The countryside here is only half tamed. It always seems to be renewing itself through its ready association with the wild. The humming birds are ubiquitous. The dogs must stay fenced in the backyard and cats remain strictly indoors lest they become prey to larger predators lurking at the meadow's edge. The boundary line between the human and the natural realms has clearly been redrawn in a number of interesting ways.

* * * * *

My first week in Nova Scotia has been greatly enriched as a result of what I've been reading. Walden Pond it turns out is still a pretty reliable guidebook when it comes to a spending an extended period in or around the country. It was Marissa who had the foresight to pack a copy of it, a beautiful new edition she came across recently which was published to comemorate this year's bicentennial of Thoreau's birth.  I picked it up as soon as we unpacked and immediately began enjoying the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Thoreau. What a remarkable presence he is  - still vital after 200 years.  And it's even more remarkable how a great book like Walden Pond can actually transform your experience of Nature right down to the present day.

Let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. A few days ago I went down the coast for a short hike in Delaps Cove. There's a footpath there that runs through the woods and then drops into a ravine and ends by a waterfall on the coast. I went on this walk largely at Thoreau's urging to explore the great outdoors. As I was hiking along a rock outcropping that overlooked the Bay of Fundy, I noticed two brownish birds bobbing in choppy water about 30 yards offshore. I watched as both of them in quick succession dove underwater and counted to myself as almost a minute elapsed before they resurfaced, far distant from where they first submerged.  It was then that I realized I was watching two loons at play. I only knew it because just the night before I had been so completely engrossed by Thoreau's description of chasing a loon in his rowboat all across Walden Pond. And here I was experiencing the very same delight, with two loons of my own, as it were, watching them at play in the Fundy surf.  Nature is full of such wonders; we discover these deep correspondences everywhere around us almost as soon as we begin to look. It defies ready explanation.  Suffice it to say El Shaddai of the forest and meadow seems to be keeping busy performing amazing new work.

* * * * *

Next week I plan to follow up with a further blog post about Thoreau. I was really deeply impressed by the depth of Walden Pond this time around, much more so than when I read it last back in college.  As Thoreau himself sought to remind us - it is a pond with an amazing capacity that never disappoints in its ability to surprise and refresh us.





Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Seeing the World Anew: reflections on what emerges from crisis

High in a hilltop meadow in Nova Scotia, overlooking the basalt reaches of the Bay of Fundy, it's possible to contemplate the Age of Trump, without inducing the usual gag reflex from the onrush of outrage and bile. The Canadians we find ourselves amongst are warm and  sympathetic hosts who have attained a far more measured outlook on the bizarre turn of events in the lower 48 - this too shall pass, they assure us. It reinforces our gratitude for having come north to this tranquil spot, far removed from the daily barrage of breaking news and fake news alike.

From here it is easier to see this moment for what it is, without feeling crushed by the negativity it engenders. We have entered a darkly farcical stage in the drama of American public life. It is Brechtian  in the sense it is characterized by an equal share of buffoonery and corruption. Suki Tawdry and Jenny Diver both being on intimate terms with Donald Drumpf.  Of course, low and darkcomedy have always been an important element in American popular culture, as evidenced by such long running successful franchises as the National Enquirer and The WWF. But in the Age of Trump this mode of discourse has achieved ascendency. Bathos rules the airwaves. It turns out that the market for public discourse is subject to something akin to Gersham's Law, as a result of which the value of our public discourse has undergone abject debasement.

This, as I remember learning in college, is one of the rules of farce as a genre - all the participants in a farce are eventually dragged down to the same low level.  Not just the sycophants, like Mnuchin and Cohen, but also the sparring partners, like Joe and Mika. You could hear the same principle at work in the recently released transcript of the post innagural call Trump placed to Enrique Nieto, in which the American president ably ensnared his Mexican adversary in his trademark brand of radical idiocy. Sooner or later everyone looks ridiculous.  Ridicule simply replaces reason and commentary. When you fight a buffoon you become a buffoon, even if you lay him bare.

* * * * *

This farcical turn of events has been deeply unsettling to many of us. Ever since the election we've been walking around with a bad hangover that just wont go away, no matter how long we meditate or how much herbal tea we drink. As citizens of a hegemonic world power, we are accustomed to thinking that what happens in our public life should be dignified and of real consequence, both domestically and abroad. How strange it is to become a laughingstock to the world, how disruptive to our sense of well being.  In other words, what is happening now in the US has all the hallmarks of being a major social and political crisis. Trump is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.  What began as a financial crisis in 2008 has festered and morphed into contagion that has seriously destabilized the political order. The system, which long maintained stasis through alternating two party rule, seems to be breaking down and nobody knows if it will end up being damaged beyond repair. Trump is merely a catalyst or accelerant speeding the system's demise. Or sticking with the contagion metaphor, Trump is the vector by which the disease of disaffection  has spread from the margins to the mainstream of society. It is a debilitating condition which may result in a complete loss of confidence and the knack for self-governance.


* * * * * *


I don't mean to sound full of doom and gloom. From this mountain-side meadow in Nova Scotia, the view is quite breathtaking - the panorama spans across three or four different vistas, each with its own story to tell. As I sit here writing, two hummingbirds are working over the hydrangea by my side, accompanying my thoughts with a pleasant occasional low register hum.

Already it is evident how much good can come from this most unfortunate turn in our public life. I'm not speaking about the eventual political outcome because frankly I have no idea how events in Washington are likely to play out. The positive outcome I'm thinking about is on a more personal level. In a time of political and social crisis, each of us faces the challenge of renewing our understanding and connection to the society we live in.  The old world order is most likely irretrievably lost, which means this is a good time for us to think about the world we really want to live in and consider what we can do to make it happen.

There is another more spiritual way to appreciate the unique quality and opportunity inherent in the present moment. We find ourselves cut adrift from both our past and future. The Age of Trump heralds a break in our sense of historical continuity - we have lost our connection to a stable social and political order. At the same time, the specter of climate change hangs as a dark cloud over the prospects for our collective future.  Bereft of a strong connection to past or future, we have no recourse but to come alive to the present tense.  This of course is the very place that sages and wise folk (from the Buddha to Thoreau) have long urged us to direct our attention. In a way then we should be grateful that world events have thus conspired to make our spiritual quest that much easier to accomplish.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

Letter from a Nova Scotia Meadow

How much better the world begins to seem with a little Port Lorne home grown coursing through the bloodstream - in the golden light of the late afternoon there's a whole meadow to embrace. And where we're living now there's this apple tree growing in the middle of the back yard. What was a farm once may yet spring back to life with Marissa gearing up to start painting in the purple barn. So it's time to let the telemarketers talk amongst themselves as Guan Yin and I have plans for the next few weeks. Blue tooth has taken  control of the stereo casting a spell of trance and the apple tree has commenced to flex its muscles in a light onshore breeze.

When everything fades away there is always the present tense to fall back on. That's what a Nova Scotia meadow means - a few acres of transparency. A visible perimeter in which the bounded space begins to cohere.  Sitting on the porch you better appreciate how a meadow is a living thing, its  very own organism. The purple barn standing astride the old stock apple tree - it is almost as if we have stumbled upon a Tree of Life right in the backyard, as it blends into the meadow, the present begins to feel quite enlarged.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The End of the End of the World as We Know It

It was Tom Moloney – one of the smartest lawyers I ever had the pleasure of working with -- who taught me an important lesson about drafting. After working all night to settle a sordid dispute among Wall Street finaglers, shuttling back and forth from one conference room to another, we were at the point of exhaustion and capitulation, a time when even the greediest financier is prepared to make a deal.  That’s when Tom instructed me to insert one final revision into the terms of the settlement.  Where the agreement purported to release any and all claims against our client, arising from the beginning of time to the settlement date, Tom told me to modify the clause to specify that our client would be released from all claims arising “from the beginning of the beginning of time”, a clarification he felt would be beneficial, as he explained it, so that any matters stemming back to the very first day of creation would inarguably be covered by the agreement.

Tom's drafting point underscores a fundamental difference between lawyers and poets, as they typically work at opposite ends of the language spectrum.  Lawyers face the Sisyphean challenge of honing their phrasing to remove any conceivable ambiguity (such as the gap between the first and seventh day of creation) whereas poets more often busy themselves making the most of language’s inherent uncertainties.   But a great lawyer, such as Moloney, sometimes can achieve a true poetic effect in the pursuit of precision, just as a great poet, such as William Blake, is capable of suffusing the deepest ambiguity with an overarching sense of clarity.

* * * *

Tom's drafting genius also highlights how what we think of as a discrete moment in time (such as the beginning or end of the world) may actually extend over a very protracted period.  Do you remember the REM song The End of the World as We Know It? It must be more than 30 years ago since it was an MTV hit. Does anyone even watch MTV anymore? And yet the lyric still seems perfectly apt, except now, borrowing Tom's conceit, we seem to have finally reached a new stage in the process. Today we seem that much closer to the end of the end of the world as we know it, as opposed to the beginning of the end as Michael Stipe so blithely sang about it.  Indeed, after 30 years of social and political floundering and drift, as the liberal welfare state finally seems prepared to give up the ghost, who among us (other perhaps than Steve Bannon) really feels fine about it?

But for the most part I  think it's good that we are closer to the end than the beginning of this process. If the world as we used to know it is really caput, we'll then it is time for us to get on with our new understanding of things. Now it is incumbent upon each of us to take no comfort in the tired old certainties of creeds outworn; we may not feel fine about it, but it is high time for us to discover the world anew.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To Step Without Feet: My Dream About Dying

I sleep to wake inside a bardic glow
A fretful state, this fear of letting go
To lose my self in what I cannot know

*  *  *  *  *

Last night I had a dream about dying. I've had a version of this dream many times before but never managed see it through to the moment of my actual demise.

In the past, whenever I've had this dream, it had always been my habit to wake up a moment or two before the trigger gets pulled or the car I'm riding in veers off the side of a cliff. But last night, when the firing squad cocked their rifles and the Generalissimo gave the order, I found the wherewithal to stare down the fusillade and die my dream death.

I suppose this is another way in which our dream life corresponds with our waking life because it takes a certain amount of courage to see a difficult situation through to completion.

Dream death as I experienced it last night can be compared to a core dump in which your nervous system lets go of whatever it is holding in storage.  This is consistent with the way death has been described in literature, such as the great story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where the protagonist sees his entire life flash before his eyes the moment he is hanged.   In last night's dream my life story was presented textually - as a series of flashcards that were revealed to me in quick succession.  It was like reading the chapter headings for the key events in my life. Learning to swim. First taste of falafel. Birth of a child. These cards were displayed with increasing rapidity until they became an unreadable blur, just the way a core dump scrolls by on the computer screen. Then my body convulsed a few times and the energy discharge gradually subsided. It was not the least bit unpleasant.  In fact, it felt exhilarating.

I awoke this morning completely refreshed and quite alive, ready to start over again with the memory stacks cleared and all synapses firing.

*  *  *  *  *

I had a chance to speak about this dream briefly with Dr. T, my friend and spiritual advisor, who also happens to be a psychotherapist.  The good Doctor was pressed for time and unable to delve deeply into dream interpretation but he did share with me the following poem by Rumi:


This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,
 to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. 
First to let go of life.  Finally to take a step without feet. 


Friday, July 14, 2017

Poem for Jack

What could be worse than knowing
The bitter gall of failure
Is to feel despair even
At the height of success
Anhedonia comes uninvited
But ends up becoming
A long-term house guest


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Poetry - Plain Spoken or Not

Matthew Zapruder (a poet I admire very much) has written a good piece in the New York Times about the central importance of the literal or plain spoken-ness when it comes to poetry.  This seems so obvious to me as to not require much discussion, but such is the state of modern poetry, in the hands of its academic minders, that it must be rescued from the clutches of over-artfulness and obscurantism.  As with most other types of writing, there is no better place for a poet to start than with the willingness to speak clearly and directly.  Thank you Matthew for reminding us that poetic truth can and should be plain spoken whenever possible.

For me, though, there’s an important corollary to Zapruder’s first principle.  Just as a poet must embrace the value and importance of literal truth, a poet should also recognize that words alone are limited in their power and capacity to convey some of life’s deepest and most important meanings.  That is to say, spiritual truth very often leads us swiftly into the realm of the ineffable – a place where silence more than poetry holds sway.   If nothing else this corollary should impose a little restraint on every poet’s worst tendency, which is to fall in love with the sonorous possibilities of one’s own voice.

*  *  *  *  *
    
I have more to say about this.  But as someone who has come to believe very much in the sanctity of Emptiness and Nothing, I’ll try to keep my commentary brief.  That’s precisely why I’ve decided to call my new book (still a work in progress) The Little Book of Nothing.

You can sign up below to subscribe to my email newsletter where I will be publishing excerpts from this work as it takes shape.  The section I’ll be publishing is called The World in Translation and, among other things, it includes an introduction to Tang Poetry and an explanation of why Chinese poetics provide such a powerful “new” approach for us to think about life, language and art, an invaluable alternative to the way we in the west usually think about these things. 

 *  *  *  *  *

*  *  *  *  *

Dolmens speak of time and words forgotten
In starlight sweeping across the heavens
And the lamplight that flickers and dims
Words elide and worlds collide
Photographs curl at their edge
And fall into desuetude
But it’s the endless waves
Of wind water and light
That propagate and proclaim
To petrel and porpoise alike

Not in things themselves
But in the undulation unceasing
There we'll find unity and perpetuity
Neither in what is or is not there
But in the Nothing that remains


*  *  *  *  *


   

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

On the Importance of Overcoming Painter Envy


Sardines by Mike Goldberg

A large part of the story of modern art has involved a strange dance between painters and poets.  For much of the 20th century, it’s been a pas a deux, in which the painter and poet have admired and circled one another warily, sometimes dreaming about trading places.  The poet has longed for the painter’s descriptive prowess while the painter has pined for the poet’s facility with abstraction and idea.  The modern artist – whether poet or painter – has been consumed by self-doubt about the efficacy of his or her own expressive potential and felt the urge to transcend the limitation of writing or painting, as the case may be.  This has resulted in some of the most exhilarating art of the last century and at the same time contributed to some of modern art’s most perverse excesses.

Of course I don’t mean to reduce all of modern art and poetry to this story line.  There are many trends and isms that don’t fall neatly under this rubric, from Dadaism and Futurism, to Language Poetry and Spoken Word.  But even so, it does help us understand the broad contours and movements at least within the mainstream traditions of both modern painting and poetry.  Consider the path from Expressionism to Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to Conceptual Art as a steady progression away from simple depiction towards an increasing infatuation with the realm of thought that lies beyond what is immediately visible.  In contrast with painting’s move away from naïve depiction, poetry has moved in precisely that direction, sometimes evidencing a single-minded fixation on imagery as the primary focus of poetic expression.  The grass always does seem greener on the other hemisphere of the brain, at least in the world of modern art.

One of the most telling lessons I learned from my recent attendance at a poetry workshop is that painter envy still seems to be rampant condition among the ranks of America’s most eminent poets.  At least judging by what I heard espoused in the workshop, the pedagogy of poetry today remains stuck on the idea that a poet should, first and foremost, convey meaning through imagery.  The official party line (to the extent that there is such a thing) is showing and not telling makes for the most effective poetry.

As I explained in my prior blogpost, this is a distinctly modern notion about what poetry is and should be; it’s extremely self-limiting, and also at odds with the long and glorious tradition of English language poetry by the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, who were all masters of both showing and telling.  This narrow preoccupation with showing and not telling originates in the early 20th century with Ezra Pound and the school of imagist poetry that he founded.  Pound’s ideas exerted an outsized influence on the ensuing generation of American poets, for whom the primacy of imagery became a central tenet of their poetics.   William Carlos Williams is a perfect example of this reductive tendency – a great poet who completely succumbed to painter envy, so much so that he fancied and fashioned himself as little more than a cubist, who just happened to paint with words and line-breaks, artfully striving to bring his images to life on the page.  Even a more philosophically minded modernist such as Wallace Stevens (who sometimes chafed under the stricture to show and not tell) espoused the imagist party line – namely that a poet should have a mind of winter, that is a mind capable of beholding (and describing) nothing that is not there along with the nothing that is.   As such, Stevens felt compelled to call his poem thirteen ways of seeing a blackbird, even though he was really talking about thirteen ways of thinking.    This is an approach or theory of poetry that has surrendered itself entirely to what another great modernist described as the ineluctable modality of the visible.

Why should poets – who prior to the 20th century had never felt so constrained – suddenly find themselves stifling the impulse to tell or more directly say what they were thinking?  The entire blame for this can’t be laid at Ezra Pound’s doorstep.  Surely part of the explanation lies in general cultural trends of 20th century, which placed increasing importance and value on visual communication.  As technology developed and mass communication came to rely on photography, movies and television, the world grew more and more saturated with imagery and the written word gradually ceded its place of primacy.  Painter envy became chronic and widespread.  In response to the overall cultural trend, modern poetry’s fixation on imagery may be understood as an attempt (conscious or otherwise) to retain relevancy.      

If so, the focus on showing not telling, as providing a sound theoretical basis for poetry, has been a dismal failure.  In fact, over the same time-span, poetry has been increasingly marginalized, surrendering its once prominent place in general interest newspapers, magazines and the popular imagination; instead it has been relegated largely to the pages of obscure literary journals.  This marginalization is partially self-inflicted as a result of the modern poet’s reluctance to fully speak his or her mind.   Encouraged merely to show and not tell, it’s as if the contemporary poet is being advised to head into a bar fight with one hand tied behind the back. Poetry that privileges seeing over telling ultimately cripples our capacity to express ourselves fully.
  
The real pity is that this is primarily a failure of theory, not a failure of poetic practice or craft.  Contemporary poetry is much richer in fact than modern poetic theory advises or contemplates.  Indeed, many of the best modern American poets long ago managed to overcome their painter envy by discovering a dynamic voice that both shows and tells.  Take for example Frank O’Hara.  No poet had more reason to succumb to painter envy than O’Hara, who lived and wrote in the milieu of mid-century New York City, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism.  Not only that but O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art where he was exposed daily to risks of contagion.  And yet consider his great poem – Why I am Not a Painter.  It’s ostensibly a poem about a painting by his friend Mike Goldberg and yet O’Hara provides only the sketchiest description of the painting itself.  Imagery is at a bare minimum; this is much more a narrative poem, a description of the internal process of creativity.  Instead of paying attention to the visible aspects of Goldberg’s painting, O’Hara is far more concerned with telling us about what can’t be seen through simple depiction.  As O’Hara declares his theme:


I am not a painter.  I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter.  But I am not. Well …


It’s time for poetry to shake itself free from the shackles of imagist-oriented modernism.  It is a creed that has outworn all possible usefulness.  And it’s time for today’s poets and teachers to acknowledge as much by embracing a contemporary practice of poetry in which showing and telling stand in equal importance.  Painter envy must finally be put to rest.  We say to our children use your words.  We don’t limit them to talking about what they see.  We are equally moved to know what they think and feel.  We should encourage our poets to do no less.


Note:  This is the second part of a series I've been writing in response to my recent participation in a poetry workshop. You can read the first part here.  I am planning to conclude the series next week with an article about what contemporary poets can learn from classical Chinese poetry.  Also for those of you interested in reading more on the subject of the interplay between modern painting and poetry, here is an interesting recent article from Hyperallergic about how Philip Guston immersed himself in poetry later in his career after being rejected by the art world.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Solstice Poem Written on the Library Steps

Remember there are twins
In front of the Library
Patience and Fortitude
It's not enough to be
One or the other

One in bright sunshine
The other deep in shade
If anything I've erred
On the side of patience
Always ready to play
The long game

Only now I'm starting
To eye the solar clock
Wondering if my strength
Will hold out for this
The longest day




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Waiting for the Jitney

Timor mortis
Non conturbat me
At least that's the theory
Much harder in practice
A sense of possibility
Is necessary for living
So too for dying
Rick Liz or Joe
Fill in the name
Embracing eternal peace
Of no-mind
One day at a time

Thursday, June 15, 2017

At the Writers' Hotel: a polemic on the shortcomings of the prevailing theories about modern American poetry



One morning this spring my wife showed me an advertisement for a writers’ conference in New York City.  “You should go, really.  A gift to yourself for your birthday.”

At first it struck me as an odd suggestion.  After all, as a writer I’m very much into doing my own thing.  That’s part of what I love about writing – the autonomy it gives you to think and grow on your own without recourse to anything but a library and the Internet.  In the ten years that I’ve been translating and writing poetry, I’ve become ever more rooted in the belief that it’s far better not to pay much heed to what other people think (especially other writers) when it comes to cultivation of your own voice.  For me this choice has always seemed necessary to preserve my sanity, since the classical Chinese poetry that most appeals to me (and which provides inspiration for much of my own writing) is so far out of step with current poetic fashion.

And yet I found myself intrigued by my wife’s suggestion.  On the verge of turning 60, I was at a watershed moment in my life, prone to brooding and self-questioning.  What better time could there be to stick my head up out of my burrow, like a prairie dog, to better survey the surrounding terrain?  And besides, I liked the sales pitch of this particular conference.  It featured what they called an MFA in a Day, which very much appealed to my disdain for classroom learning, at least when it comes to poetry.   As I already knew from attending law school, the intellectual component of a professional education can be condensed on the back of a postage stamp without much difficulty.

So that’s how I found myself boarding the jitney last week heading into New York City to attend my first poetry workshop.  Walking through midtown with my backpack and little suitcase on wheels, I’d never felt so much like a tourist in my own hometown, as I made my way to this conference at The Writers’ Hotel.

Now travel often turns out to be a mind-opening experience, and this was very much the case with my five-day sojourn at The Writers’ Hotel.  I learned an enormous amount about the contemporary American poetry scene, both the good and the bad of it.  My plan is to use these next few blog posts to share my travel notes with you.  Up front, let me concede that these observations have most certainly been formed on a limited knowledge base – all the understanding that could be imparted over the course of an extended weekend. But sometimes it helps to be a tourist.  By the time you’ve attended your second or third poetry workshop or gotten your MFA, you’ve likely bought into the ideology of contemporary American poetics, hook, line and sinker.    Instead, the following notes are offered up with the mixed sense of discovery and detachment, which belongs to the tourist experience as opposed to that of the full-time resident.   Based on my brief visit, the fundamental problems facing contemporary American poetry are glaringly evident to me, much more so than before; and now that I’ve checked out of the Hotel, I’m even more pleased to be able to return to the world of Tang poetry, which I consider my real home.

*  *  *  *  *
  
First the good news -- and it really is good. The American poetry scene is alive and thriving.  The invaluable part of the workshop experience is that it gave me a chance to sit around a conference table with a handful of other poets discussing one another’s work.  And in my workshop group of five people, there was an incredible range of personality and talent on display, from Scott, an Arkansas home builder who is in the midst of composing a new southern song book, to Tim, a Hawaiian school teacher who is exploring and exploding the traditional genre boundaries of poetic elegy, to V and Lee who are both developing their own idioms and metaphors to express their personal world views.

But then the bad news – and it really is bad.  Modern American poetry is, more or less, intellectually bankrupt; the theory of modern poetry – by that I mean the received wisdom about what makes for a good poem, at least as it is espoused by America’s leading poets and teachers of poetry – is based on a handful of problematic ideas and aesthetic principles that are hopelessly outdated and ill-suited to the digital age in which we currently live.   If the poetry community is serious about trying to overcome its isolation and virtual irrelevancy to the vast majority of the American population, it would do well to subject this ideology to serious self-scrutiny.  If it did so I think it would soon come to the realization that it has, indeed, been suckled in a modernist creed that by now has long outworn its usefulness.        

Am I overstating my case?  Perhaps but not by much.  Let me briefly lay out the three central planks that seem to provide the primary, albeit hopelessly rickety foundation for the theory and practice of modern American poetry, at least as it is being presented in poetry workshops today, by leading poets and teachers.  These are the core beliefs that could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp; they provide the criteria by which poets in the mainstream of the current American tradition seem to assess the merits of a poet’s work – including their own:

1.     Show Don’t Tell:  Suckled in the modernist creed, contemporary American poets cling to the notion that vivid imagery, above all, stands as the central and most important element that makes for a good poem.  So the most often repeated bit of advice you’re likely to hear in the course of a poetry workshop is show don’t tell.  Let your imagery speak for itself.  What does this even mean? Modern American poetry’s fixation upon imagery has come about for very specific historical and cultural reasons (as I will explore further in next week’s blogpost). Show don’t tell is the shibboleth passed down, from one generation to the next, ever since Ezra Pound first canonized the idea.  Today it functions as little more than a knee-jerk reaction – a convenient way to dismiss the value of any poetry that places imagery in a less exalted position. Indeed, up until the early 20th century, the vast majority of great English language poetry was in no way subject to any such limiting stricture, and poems invariably included quite a lot of telling (as well as other modes of discourse) along with the showing, thinking and perceiving being equally important in imparting overall meaning.  What a pity it would have been if the poetry of Shakespeare or Milton or Donne had been overly influenced by such bad and limiting advice.  (You can read here an article in Writers Digest that debunks show don’t tell as the great lie of writing workshops for fiction and prose writers as well.)

2.     An Obsession With Line Breaks (and the poem as it appears on the page). The line break is modern poetry’s dirty little secret.  Deciding where and when to “break” a line turns out to have been a central obsession for some of the greatest American practitioners of free verse; and this topic continues to receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the workshop (and no doubt in the MFA program) setting.  Not that I think there is anything wrong with using line-break as one of various things available in a poet’s toolbox; but making the line-break a paramount consideration betrays one of modern poetry’s most self-defeating tendencies:  it is primarily focused on the visual presentation of a poem on the written page, and far less attuned to how it sounds or the plain language meaning it has when it is read aloud or otherwise enjoyed by a non-specialist.  After all, the significance of line-break is altogether lost when a poem is heard and not read, just as it’s equally lost on a naïve reader.   In this way, line-break functions like a diacritical mark, which is meant to provide an “in-the-know” reader with additional, specially encoded information about how to understand the words on the page.  This has the unfortunate effect of directing a poet’s craft and technique towards a narrow specialist audience (consisting of those who have been similarly trained) and away from the far larger non-specialist audience.

3.     Good Poems Are The Result of Intense Reflection and Should Reveal a Poet’s Personality and Deep Psychology.  The third plank upon which modern American poetics rests is the notion that intense personal reflection constitutes a preferred subject and mode of composition.  In this vein, a poet is encouraged to compose a poem through an extended and deliberative process, in which he or she grapples with images and themes that are central to personal identity.  It’s meant to be painstaking, personal, and retrospective process, often focused on memories from adolescence and childhood.  Because if you think you’re done with a poem, “as one of the acclaimed poets at the Writers’ Hotel explained it to us, “then you’re probably not.”  Our workshop leader resorted to metaphor in the way he explained it: a poem is a mirror through which the poet deeply investigates the poet’s place in the world.  

But there is a critical flaw with this way of thinking, and once again it severely narrows the range of ideas and feelings that poetry is capable of expressing.  In other words, it encourages a poet to be reflective and self-absorbed, to the detriment of all other modes of feeling and being.  In contrast, Tang poetry is far more focused on the poet’s experience in the present moment and tense.  In fact, Tang poets often composed their work spontaneously, writing while immersed in the moment.  This results in a very different kind of poetry, which may be less modern, at least by the lights of the modernists, since it is not result of extended reflection; but Tang poems nonetheless may be far more effective in capturing the immediacy of human experience.


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This blog post has already exceeded my customary length, so I will leave further discussion to be continued next week.   Except, that is, for underscoring the importance of this topic, as I see it, particularly when it comes to understanding how and why American poetry continues to marginalize itself, even at a time when so many Americans are obviously in need of the uplift that comes along with the simple spoken truth.  How sad it is that modern poetic theory remains mired in tired old modernist ideas instead of embracing forms and modes of poetic expression that are better able to reach a general or mass audience.  Why do you suppose Bob Dylan won the Nobel instead of John Ashbery or Louise Gluck?  It is popular song that has far better filled the longing of the American people for words that have been fashioned into concise and memorable truth.     


 I remember it well at the Writers’ Hotel

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How we all talked so brave and so sweet
Filling our heads with what the great poets said
And did with their clever line breaks

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