ars poetica: Reflecting on what exactly poetry is (after completing my latest book)

As I Facebooked last night:

After more than three years of writing, editing, revising, and of course enduring the emotional agony that engenders so many of my best ideas, I have finally arrived at what I’m choosing to call a 1.0 version of my new book, tentatively entitled The Butterfly Machine.

Now, like any business-savvy poet, I’m on to the business of auctioning off movie rights and booking venues for the impending world tour.

[aherm] [cough] [ahem]

I can’t say what goes on in the heads of other writers as they’re mired in the creative process. Obviously they’re concerned with the work before them, but do they think about the larger context? Do they see the poem they’re trying to get right as a tactically important hill in the battle between competing schools of literary and critical thought? Do they imagine what a graduate student working on a dissertation a century hence might make of their word choices, of their stylistic tendencies?

Maybe, maybe not. But I do. Whether it’s ego run amok or merely a healthy awareness of my place in the heritage Eliot contemplates in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” I pretend that what I’m doing matters. When all is said and done it may turn out that only three or four people will ever read The Butterfly Machine, and that none of them will find it worth comment. Even so, that strikes me as a bad assumption from which to proceed – it’s like waving the white flag before the skirmish is even joined. Think big, aim high, and if the world ignores you at least it won’t be because you didn’t try.

Those who have known me for a long time can attest that I have always seen myself as being at war with the poetry establishment. While this is hardly true of all our poets, some of whom are truly remarkable, the fact is that we live in an age of rampant banality. Poems are pedestrian, micro, flat. I have argued, with my tongue only partially in my cheek, that these days the difference between prose and poetry is line breaks. Most contemporary poems I see have one layer of meaning, maybe two. Perhaps there’s a butt-obvious metaphor in play, but in the end it has to be so damned simple that a four year-old could get it at a glance.

So my own work has been aggressive in trying to push artistry in language and in trying to craft images that explode off the page. Sometimes I’m too aggressive and perhaps heavy-handed, but I never stop learning and evolving.

Another bugaboo of mine – and it’s a related issue – is that of narrative. Many contemporary writers these days are deeply invested in the storytelling potential of verse, and as a result we see a lot of poems that are, in my view, way too concerned with the “what happened.” Some do it well. Most, though, do little more than prove my point, which is that if you want to tell a story, prose is the tool that was built specifically for that purpose. Using poetry to tell stories is like using a clarinet to dig postholes. You can probably make it work, sorta, but what really is the point?

Me? I’m pretty obnoxiously anti-narrative. Imagist. Impressionist. A Symbolist from hell. Like Baudelaire and Mallarmé and my hero, Yeats. Not only do I not care if my poems explicate the mundane events that gave rise to the poetic insight, I often go out of the way to make sure they don’t. This confuses some readers, who have a hard time if they can’t track the literal events of the work as they might a front-page story in the local paper. These readers (and editors) have been known to drop the O-bomb on me: “he’s obscure.”

Of course, the problem with that is the word only signifies if you buy the assumption that the poem has to be reportage. When was the last time your friend came back from the symphony complaining that Beethoven was obscure? Right. So if you call me obscure, we’re going to have a discussion you aren’t expecting. To wit, why do you confuse poetry with beat reporting?

Honestly, I accept that much of what I write has baked in levels of meaning that nobody is ever going to get unless I somehow become fodder for lots of high-level researchers. Which seems unlikely. Maybe that makes me obscure, in a sense – I have incorporated things that I don’t necessarily expect the reader to apprehend. Thing is, I’m not actively hiding themes, and also, there are other things going on that the reader will grasp, and if history is any teacher at all, there are things going on that the reader will figure out before I do. Yes, there have been cases where I wrote things that I didn’t know I was writing. When these readings were pointed out to me, I had epiphanies – I learned about myself. I realized that the poetry was a way for my subconscious to communicate with me, to drive home things that the conscious mind was in denial about. For this reason, I don’t want to get too authoritarian about that interpretation thing.

I accept the price I sometimes pay for my refusal to put line breaks in a letter to the milkman and call it a poem. Instead, what I kind of hope to do is write something that satisfies my need to express the inner mysteries in whatever complexity is required, but at the same time I need to do something with the language and imagery that affords the reader some interpretive space free of the demand to connect one-to-one with authorial intent. In a way, it’s a perverse acknowledgment of post-structuralism – here are the words, do with them what you will. But if I do the job right, the words conjure an intuitive guide that points the reader toward a specific realm of readings and interpretations.

There are several things going on in The Butterfly Machine, and I’m happy to talk about them here, in Proseland. For instance, the primary arc chronologically follows the collapse of my marriage through two long years of trying to sort myself out and finally into something like closure and resolution. A second major theme: this book is one great big extended ars poetica. I explore the role of art and literature in helping mend the broken soul and pay homage to many of the luminaries whose work strengthened me. So it’s very much a tribute to my literary heroes.

I begin the book with a simple statement of what I think I’m doing, and I’ll share that here.

Ars Poetica: 

Begin with a story. A beautiful, or tragic, or haunted, or funny, or painful, or spiritually revealing story. Then rip out the journalism.

What remains is the poem.

I hope I can find a publisher. Maybe I’m just another guy who isn’t as good as he thinks he is, but the last two years have forced me to some painful, yet critically important insights about keeping our spirit-lights alive in the howling storm of real life. I’d like to be able to share these lessons.

So, enough navel-gazing. Tine to ge to work…


  • Have you thought about self-publishing? I know you can do it through Amazon or other eBook sellers.

    • I still harbor fantasies of one day returning to academia. I would, should I find the right opportunity, need this book to count. Self-publishing does not count, no way no how.

  • I love your starting quote (poem = story minus journalism). I have always been baffled by poetry and don’t really sense what is “good” poetry vs. “bad” poetry. Or even why some writings are called poetry.. like your note to the milkman plus line breaks 🙂

    One of the most interesting poems that we covered in lit class was only 4 lines long… and yet we were able to spend nearly the whole class talking about all the meanings and imagery imbedded in those four lines. That was some serious word economy!

  • I think the power of poetry is underestimated. The words that sing in our ears and stick in our memories tend to have a poetic component to them. This really hit home for me when we were discussing bible translations in one of my history classes and we were comparing the King James version with a couple of the modern translations. The King James bible was so much more powerful. When I tried to put my finger on it I decided that it was the musicality and descriptive power of the language. I found out that the majority of the bible was translated by a single person (William Tyndale, I believe). I don’t think he was a poet but he had a way of phrasing verses that jumped off the page.

  • I can’t remember the name of the poem. It was over 20 years ago. I remember the way the poem made me feel more than the details. I got this marvelous sense that we were unpacking and unwinding layers and layers of meaning from a few simple stanzas.

    I remember it was about a woman and her golden hair and it was I believe from one of the Roman classical poets. I think I still have the lit book we used. I will see if I can find it.

    P.S. Congratulations on finishing your book!!

  • Robert Becker

    “to write something that satisfies my need to express the inner mysteries in whatever complexity is required, but at the same time I need to do something with the language and imagery that affords the reader some interpretive space free of the demand to connect one-to-one with authorial intent.”

    I am not sure how this puts you at odds with modern poetry (about which I am no expert), certainly not the better stuff. Why else struggle out in verse anything less than complex or mysterious or in a way inexpressible in any other form? I myself write with a reader always in view, so you are rather casual when you admit to needing to do “something” that affords the reader “some” space. If you don’t make a bridge, you might have a fine poem (as a linguistic artifact) but you are mainly talking to yourself. Thus, obscurity that doesn’t mystify a reader is one thing but when the reader feels played with, then you get the obscurity complaints. I think good poets may be obscure but they also give the reader enough to hang on and not feel like a third wheel to something happening just out of view or perception.

    “Ars Poetica: Begin with a story. A beautiful, or tragic, or haunted, or funny, or painful, or spiritually revealing story. Then rip out the journalism.
    What remains is the poem.”

    This seems curious from you, to ‘begin with a story,” from a poet explicitly challenging the narrative core of poetry, as in “Using poetry to tell stories is like using a clarinet to dig postholes.” Whether poetry “tells stories” (that is, has a more obvious frame or structure of a story) is mainly an historical and cultural dimension. Some ages focus on stories, some on lyrical or imagistic aspects, some like much of modern verse are wholly impressionistic, attempting to recreate a moment without much point of view or need to find heavier meaning. In our age, movies and TV do most of the storytelling so poetry rightly falls to investigate the non-story, insightful aspects of our experience.

    I happen to agree with you that we “begin with a story” but not necessarily a known plot or sequence. But then I think often in terms of story, especially in my prose, because that is the best way I know to engage a reader (or most) in something I think important, and whether he/she realizes the underlying narrative is not my concern. Impact and insight are my interests and if I can wrap them around a narrative, however threadbare, all to the better.

    Obviously, as a satiric-political poet, I focus on themes and images, but I am always looking for implicit storylines that add levels – often beginning with a line I like or a rhyme worth playing with, to see where I can get. For me, it’s more bricks and mortar, not investigating mysteries or great complexities. But then I view poetry as more a craft or artform than personal expression of inner swirls.

    • I guess it’s like this: you’re writing about SOMETHING, and that something is just about guaranteed to have narrative. In my case, I’m writing about, at a nominal level, the last few years of my life, the collapse of my marriage and the struggle to get my head back above water. That’s a story. That’s a narrative. But I’m not interested in writing the what happened, then what happened next of it. If I were, I’d write a novel. I’m interested in the emotional toil and the spiritual journey, and my approach abstracts that essence from the story and presents it as its own thing.

      Not how everybody goes about it. Not how hardly anybody goes about it, in fact. But it’s what I do and the ars poetica isn’t intended as a scolding of those who do it differently (who am I to scold the likes of a Brigit Pegeen Kelly, for instance?), it’s an articulation of this approach.

      Do I think it’s an approach that’s better than what others do? Well, those I’m criticizing in this piece would likely be uninspiring regardless of their method.

  • Robert Becker

    True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
    What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. A. Pope

    But then not everyone is looking for “wit,” implying in earlier times far more than witticisms. And “nature” was mainly human nature, with poetry more about insight+complexity of language+artful expression. Works for me.

  • Robert Becker

    Yes, one only needs a “character” or voice and a (challenging) situation to have (the start of) a story — and true, in my verse, I know the ending, more or less because the reference is outside me and thee.

    I don’t try to define poetry from the inside since that implies form itself (or content) has strict cultural meaning. I recall Morse Peckham’s book, Man’s Rage for Chaos, as in creative chaos, in which he argued what defines art is experience and that is identified culturally by a group, not by whether it’s internally poetic or novelistic or theatrical — since all elements of these three can cross over. Is Shakespeare not a great poet because he wrote story and plot-driven dramas mainly (though not a few bad sonnets and a less interesting narrative poem like Venus and Adonis)?

    Peckham pointed out that if you put an artistic rug on the floor, then we tend to view it mainly as functional, pretty but not high art; whereas (in our culture) if you position the same rug on the wall, give it a title and date, you thus invite viewers to consider it art. To experience it as more significant than just a floor rug.

    Likewise, in Japan artistic (even backyard) gardens are considered high art, done with immense care, whereas in the west only formal gardens generally are taken as artistic –and almost none match the best of Bach or Picasso or Scott Fitzgerald in the pantheon of significance.

    Thus, what art is depends not on some mystical internal form — as if greatness or genius raises an artifact in and of itself — but how a culture values an artform and how audiences approach the experience of the artifact.

    In some places, architecture is high art, speaking and representing the highest expression of human-community- achievement (the Brooklyn or Golden Gate bridges) whereas in half the world architecture is purely functional, without much claims to be anything but engineering and function at a price.

    In a simplistic, but not meaningless way, poetry is simply language, inviting poetic experiences, when the line does not go to the end of the page. Visuals here act as cultural cues and thus “clothe” expression or human nature so we welcome some as inviting poetic experiences; if it’s prose and the line and page are filled, that makes it something different, inviting a different engagement. This solves a great many insolvable formal issues for otherwise I cannot separate modern prose at times from poetic expression — and the theatre stills calls on both poetry and prose. And what about opera or Irish dancing or a variety of computer art.

  • While much of it is beyond me, moved and impressed “The Butterfly Machine” so far.

  • Thanks. And a hint: let go. Let go of trying to figure it out and let the images do what they want to. If you trying and force it “mean” in the sense that many HS English teachers do things, it will drive you crazy.

    This is by design… 🙂

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