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.
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…