I write here as someone with two special angles of vision on the poetry world. One comes from twenty-odd years as an editor—and three as sole editor—of the durable West Coast all-poetry magazine Blue Unicorn. This job entails constantly sampling, and choosing from, a hefty stream of submitted verse. The second is a lifetime of immersion in the critical ideas and teaching methods of Lawrence Hart, mentor of the so-called Activist Group of poets, and my father, who died in 1996. For a quarter century now I have been documenting, applying, and I hope extending these methods.[Read more…] about Who is this guy and why is he talking?
The eminent linguist and social critic John McWhorter has issued a diagnosis. Hip-hop, he says in a column in the New York Times (August 24, 2023), has become “America’s poetry.”
If McWhorter’s claim sounds challenging, it’s a familiar sort of challenge. Decade by decade, it seems, there are moves to rub out any border between popular song lyrics and poems—often in the attempt to make the latter a little less scary. I grew up with an anthology edited by Josephine Miles titled, simply, The Poem; it closed with some witty verses by Cole Porter. A little later there was the collection Beowulf to Beatles. Various singer-songwriters have dubbed themselves poets. And in 2016, a figure with a weaker claim than some others took home the ultimate recognition: Bob Dylan won his Nobel.
Outrageous? Not in principle. There is no legislated line between words set to music—or chanted on top of an insistent, dominating beat—and words that are not. The choruses in Greek tragedies were apparently sung. Opera librettos used to be versified. And lyrics gain some charm when they rhyme engagingly, toy with metaphor, or otherwise smuggle in poetic devices.
The question remains: how do the words stand up as words? Strip away the melody, harmony, sonic heartbeat, and what have you got left?
In the case of rap, quite a lot, McWhorter implies. Others do more than imply. “When all the club bangers have faded, when all the styles and videos are long forgotten, the words will remain.” writes academic Adam Bradley. Yale University Press has published a 900-page rap anthology; Jay-Z has a hefty collection all of his own.
By all means read these books. Once past the lively introductions, they are dreary.
In the cold light of the printed page, the subtleties some readers find in this verse (a squinting eye can find subtlety anywhere) disappear. The broken-backed rhymes that can seem clever when rapped have lost their feisty charm; the repetitive boasts and satirical jabs fall flat. The form is simply not meant to be absorbed in silence.
Unlikely though the comparison may seem, I think of Richard Wagner’s librettos. As a young opera buff, I thought his texts might be good poetry in German, as they certainly were not in the English versions I saw. It took a couple of years of learning the language to teach me otherwise. Wagner’s stories are fascinating, his music often sublime. His words, a few passages excepted, are not.
Of course, McWhorter is not precisely assessing the qualities of rap and of hip-hop culture in general. He is simply observing their dominance. But that’s another conversation.
It’s a little late to be noting the centenary of T. S. Eliot’s still fascinating poem The Waste Land—published in book form in December 1922—but two of the many reactions called forth by that anniversary are on my mind.
One is Jed Rasula’s book What the Thunder Said, issued by Princeton at the end of the year. Despite the Eliotesque title, it’s really about the whole sweep of literary Modernism, a story that Rasula starts, convincingly, with the music of Richard Wagner and its novel way of handling and interweaving themes. The second is Matthew Walter’s article “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month,” which appeared in the New York Times on December 29.
Both critics have intriguing things to say. But I was most struck by their takes on the influence of the Eliot poem: ideas that are just about opposite to one another and, I think, just about equally wrong.
In The Waste Land, a depiction of lives and civilizations gone bad, Eliot cuts rapidly from scene to scene. He zestfully mingles the classical and the plebeian. He brings in things he has read, heard, and seen, from various traditions and in multiple languages. It’s a kind of collage, Rasula observes, and he reminds us that other writers of the era were also experimenting in this fashion. (Not so unique, after all? But why is this particular word collage the one we still talk about?)
When it comes to influence, Rasula traces the Eliot effect through midcentury and beyond, finding no sharp break between the Modern and Post-Modern. In a linkage that would have startled both men, he sees a straight line between The Waste Land and Allen Ginsberg’s no less gloomy Howl. “Taken by some at the time as a rebuke to The Waste Land, with hindsight [Howl] was clearly an idiomatic update of Eliot’s vision.”
Matthew Walter sees potent influence, too, but regards it as entirely harmful. “The clipped syntax, jagged lines, the fixation on ordinary, even banal objects and actions, the wry, world-weary narratorial voice: This is the default register of most poetry written in the past half century, including that written by poets who may not have read a single line of Eliot . . . . The problem is not that Eliot put poetry on the wrong track. It’s that he went as far down that track as anyone could, exhausting its possibilities and leaving little or no work for those who came after him.”
I love The Waste Land. Who could or would do just that thing again? But that’s not to say that the poem contained or foreclosed all ways of doing poetry. W. H. Auden, for instance, benefitted from Eliot’s support but wrote not a bit like him. As for Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, and the other anti-Modernist torchbearers of the 1950s, they were not imitating Eliot in any meaningful way. They were angrily turning their backs on the skills and demands he represented. They thought they were repudiating him. They were.
The Waste Land is indeed a classic. In these critiques we see two, well, classic reactions to such an overwhelming model. One is to claim its sanction (“We’re all doing the same thing, after all”). The other is to use it as an excuse (“Who could possibly rise to that level now?”)
Slipping back an additional century, I’m reminded of John Keats’s complaint in “Sleep and Poetry” (1817): “Is there so small a range/In the present strength of mankind, that the high/Imagination cannot freely fly/As she was wont of old?”
Well, of course she can.
A century after a gaggle of French painters and poets launched a movement favoring dream logic and the most unexpected juxtapositions, Surrealism in poetry is still a thing. Much contemporary verse does or could fly that flag. But as tastes in poetry have veered toward the cautious and tendentious, it takes less and less—a few bold images, a couple of sideways moves—to stand out from the crowd. My thoughts go this season to the most thorough-going Surrealist I have known—one who never used the term—the fantastical Fred Ostrander (1926-2016).
Ostrander took an unusual path. A student of Lawrence Hart (and accordingly considered an “Activist” poet), he began with a long immersion in the discipline Hart made everyone start with, Direct Sensory Reporting. Hart regarded this stripped down yet highly detailed mode of descriptive writing as an essential prelude to more complicated work. Those who stayed the course agreed, yet mostly moved on as soon as they could to what seemed richer ground. Ostrander lingered, writing in this constrained manner for some five years, building up, I suppose, a kind of artesian pressure. Then the gusher came. “I went into a room,” he said later, “and went crazy.”
Access to dream landscapes? How about this:
Since you died I cannot bear my actions, this eternal examination of the dark. Your interminable walking far into my skull, your heels growing small through the dampness and the shining.
But the memories. They are borne of the imagination, angel and anti-angel, the flaring nostrils, dazzling eyes, dragon, skin of scabs twisting like a dreadful tree-climbing vine, budless and without a song.
Or this about the crucified Jesus:
In the alcove he is hanging. Late he shines. By moonlight like a waterbird he will stretch and rend himself then climb with great stealth back upon the nails. It is clandestine. He is lavender with shadow.
This begs to be compared with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s celebrated, wisecracking “Christ Climbed Down,” written about the same time:
Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year and ran away to where there were no gilded Christmas trees and no tinsel Christmas trees and no tinfoil Christmas trees . . .
After 50 years of strenuous Modernism, the times were apparently ready for something less demanding. Ferlinghetti became a power. Ostrander was denied the major recognition I think he deserved. He did have a lot of magazine credits and three books, one with a fine, small eastern house, one (an award-winner) with Blue Light Press, and a final New & Collected from Sugartown Publishing—but nothing that amounted to a breakthrough.
A wave falls, like the great initial verb, crushing upon the sand, scattering like your countless pages the moments you were saving, waves and the winds of the enormous, unpublished sea.
Not everyone would, should, or could write like an Ostrander. But whenever I find myself inclined to settle—to think: that line is maybe good enough, that image wild enough, that transition bold enough—his best poems are touchstones. I read them, and I am ashamed.
Some copies of Ostrander’s books are available. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I first knew Simon Perchik, recently deceased, through manuscripts he submitted to Blue Unicorn. However busy we were, his envelopes got opened right away. The BU editors (three of us back then) could count on finding poems that resisted instant understanding, and poems we were very proud to publish. We noted some of his credits—Poetry, The Nation, Partisan Review—and wondered how he made such a mark in an era not especially friendly to uncompromising work like his.
We had no idea how old Si was. I see now that he was born in 1923, nearly reaching the century mark; that he worked until 1980 as an environmental attorney; that he published over 30 books; that Library Journal called him “the most widely published unknown poet in America.”
When I wrote him a fan letter, he pointed me to his essay Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities. It is in essence a Modernist tract for the post-Modern era. Unlike prose—”a telling of what the writers already know”—poetry can be a means of exploration. “If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.”
Perchik describes a demanding practice he developed for himself. “Every day at 9 A.M. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.” After hours of intense concentration, “an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold. No one is more surprised than I.”
Perchik offers this definition of poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated.” I’d quibble with that: say rather that another kind of articulation is achieved. He achieved it often.
Si Perchik last submitted to Blue Unicorn last October. Here is the poem that will run in Fall 2022. Like all his later work, it is untitled.
The words you dead were promised never come—even now what you want to say so much hasn’t a chance—deal with it! your stone has no strength left, has room only for your name and the years you took to spell it, to keep the bargain meant for two mouths pressed against the silence, then nothing :the shell songbirds dig holes through sending its light as the small stones side by side telling you why.
In the February issue of Poetry magazine, there is a poem—well, a verbal phenomenon—in the form of a cootie catcher, or origami fortune teller. You have to cut out the page, fold per instructions, and manipulate it to generate combinations of pre-printed words. I am butterfingered and rusty at this skill, and it took me a while to get things working. When I did, none of the combinations was very interesting.
This gizmo can represent another large realm in the current poetry scene: poems that puzzle but, in the end, cannot please.
The Surrealists started it. They expressly didn’t care to please. In their adoption of automatic writing, random devices, and game-like exercises, they were striving for a revolution in thought, indeed in society. If they added new powers to poetry along the way—and they surely did—this was almost beside the point.
Half a century later came the cluster of writers sometimes known as the Language poets. They too sought a kind of liberation, freeing the reader from the bossy presence of the writer with “something to say.” (This control-by-the-writer was vaguely linked to capitalism.) This avant-garde championed a poetry that was not only hard to paraphrase but hard to experience. Let the reader do the work of connecting fragments or, at the other extreme, of wading through miles of unrewarding text. These obstacles, it was felt, echoed the way language works, the way life works. To offer an order was to bully, and to lie.
(But isn’t this just more of the obfuscation Modernists were often accused of? I say No, because the Modernists, at their most difficult, meant to build houses of language that could actually be lived in. The Language poets scorned this idea.)
Surrealism and Language are no longer news, yet both are very much with us today. Some poets follow the automatic writing path and simply gush, producing about one gorgeous line per page. I prefer that to the post-Language intellectual games I find in the three recent winter issues of Poetry. Along with the cootie catcher, there are poems containing underlined blanks, bidding the reader to supply a key word; poems that leap all over pages, requiring us to decode how the content flows; poems with words grayed out or struck out; poems with several lines of type superimposed. These mechanisms have one thing in common: they invite the (sufficiently patient) reader to enter into a game, to ask for hidden intentions, or to extrapolate a message. But it’s all in the head, fodder for the puzzle-solving mind, not the mind that feels and visualizes, and sometimes understands in a new way, because of poetic words.
I’m thinking back fifty years to a course in descriptive linguistics, taught by the eminent William G. Moulton. The adjective meant that, in characterizing a language, you don’t set up as a critic―you just describe what is. The way people talk is the way people talk. If someone wants to say “it seems to Sue and I,” instead of “Sue and me,” you don’t wince. You make a note and observe that this is the way usage seems to be going.
I am a critic, of course. But what if I applied a purely descriptive eye to the flood of writing that carries the label “poetry” today? Instead of concentrating on the precious exceptions, how about looking at the norm—not the peaks, but the plains from which they rise?
My sample, of course, is limited: a handful of mags I follow; a few thousand manuscripts submitted yearly to one little periodical, Blue Unicorn; the occasional binge-reading of a poet who catches my eye. But maybe it’s a start.
To my eyes, the world of poetry-as-she-is-wrote-right-now has a definite geography.
By far the biggest terrain is, simply, prose. I don’t know how many times, listening to the car radio, I’ve heard a mildly charming anecdote or essay, only to be informed at the close that this was a poem. Such pieces may have a few metaphors or other linguistic twists along the way, just as much good prose does; they may unfold a little unpredictably; or they may lack any distinction at all. In judging a printed poem, I sometimes give it the radio treatment: I remove line breaks and other traditional signals of verse and see just what remains.
But isn’t there good prosaic poetry, or good poetic prose? For sure. Yet I get a lot more pleasure from words that pose as prose (while offering something more) than from words that pose as poetry (while offering much less).
Another large country is the Formalist one. After a mid twentieth century eclipse, rhyme and meter and other useful patternings came back, a good thing. Reading the new formalists, however, tends to make me appreciate the old ones more. Too often now the words are wrenched into sonnet form, for instance, with evidence of strain. Often, too, the words thus treated are banal. A neatly filled form is a pleasure, but it can’t do all the work.
Overlapping these domains is the zone of sentimentality, the too-sweet, the too-easy, the obviously edifying. Greeting card stuff. This used to be confined more or less to the amateur mags, but it has lately found a frequent home in our flagship journal, Poetry. The same goes for verse that expresses political and cultural concerns of the day too baldly. One may nod in agreement (or not); but that is a kind of counterfeit of being moved.
Objection: You’re not saying that all bad poetry tends to the obvious? No indeed. I read plenty of puzzling poems I don’t like. Some speak to the intellect only; others can be traced back to the old Surrealists, who sought to banish conscious control and put together the most outlandish word combinations. More about this other hemisphere of the poetry-scape another time.