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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.

*  *  *  *  *

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

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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