If you’re on social media, you may have noticed poetry groups. They are a kind of epiphenomenon, a wart or wonder on the face of language enterprises generally.
Pardon my cynicism. But it’s in the service of a decent cause, I think: skepticism that good poetry can be produced by people who write but don’t read poetry.
Why do so many people write poetry? Is it a good thing that they do?
We might cheer the general idea that poetry should be more popular or more prevalent in our culture. Songs are popular, are heart and soul of pop culture. And it may not matter much that most song lyrics are bad.
Politics is a matter of general concern, though most of us aren’t particularly articulate about our political views. Yes, we complain. But do we know how to bring the country together? (A politically motivated view of poetry is expressed by minorities, like the lesbian writer Julie S Enszer, in an opinion piece called “Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?” Her view is that the more we have of minority opinions, the better. But minority opinions from untrained voices do not necessarily make good art. And such opinions, these days, overload the literary journals.)
Whether motivated by song or politics, poetry should be written by people who have read it and even studied it.
Otherwise, the idea of poetry is cheapened.
Why so many poets or poetasters? We all want to express ourselves.
The problem is knowing how to do so.
We all want to distinguish ourselves from the animals, some of whom have articulate voices or a bit of same. Crows and parrots can imitate language. Bulls and bears can roar and grunt.
But it’s only human beings that have articulate speech.
Some more, some less.
If speech is to become poetry, the speaker must know something about craft. Like other crafts, and arts, poetry has evolved through the centuries. So those who write poetry in the early 21st century should not sound like they’re speaking from the 18th or 19th or even 20th century.
But tons of would-be poets today sound just like that. They mistake rhyme as the crucial element of poetry, not an accessory or even accident. They are guilty of what Chaucer calls “drasty [nasty] rhyming.” By god, friends, if we have to go this pilgrims’ road together, let’s have some decent rhyming at the very least. And, what’s better, some attention to what really constitutes poetry in the 21st century.
Heightened speech, I would say. Rhythmic speech. And access to articulate ideas from all sources, written and spoken.
Poetry is a tough business, as I’ve said before. Not for sissies. Not for whiners. Or for those who expect instant praise or give up easily.
So today read a poem. Go to Poetry Foundation, for example, and dig around a bit. Why not? it will spare you from the drasty rhyming found in poetry groups on Facebook and other muddied sources.
I wrote the other day about starting a poem, called “Side View,” about the male gaze. And today I would like to suggest how I’ve made progress on the poem and how my example might be of use to you.
The first thing I realized, on looking at the draft this morning, was the question of selection. Most of what I had put in was pretty decent, but I had left out an essential bit of narrative that would clarify where I was going with my idea. It was not enough to mention, in quick passing, in the first stanza that the setting was a “group bike ride.” More of the social setting was required, so this new first stanza:
Twelve, thirteen of us pedal country roads
through the short late summer evening.
We bike for beer and show up après ride
at the Natural State Brewing Company.
In fact, we enjoy each other’s company.
The idea here is to give more of a social, and sociable, context. Before we get to the male gaze, that is, we must set the stage. The bike ride is not an intimate occasion between speaker and girl. They are at first just nameless parts of a group. The ride is pleasant, and then some. There’s a hint of shortening days, shortening pleasures, for such rides as these can’t last much longer than the fair weather of summer.
Now is the time, once the stage is set, I realized, to acknowledge the free-floating eros in the air, but it’s one that the speaker is not particularly participating in:
There’s romance in riding and in flirting
too, chattering, hoisting bumpers up,
though tonight I abstain, the leader, desiring
to lose a few pounds, could be, and pounding
down desires definitely. I look at the dozen
others over there, specifically the girl
I’ve often gazed at, old man that I am,
with more than a little lust in my heart,
not that I can do anything about it now,
her figure the hourglass they talk about
when they talk about figures, minute
after minute, hour after hour, full breasts,
tight derrière, the lovely hills and declivities
my fingers would so love to ride.
This stanza is still rough, it strikes me now, though I went through four or five iterations of it this morning. That’s nothing. The idea is to keep on working, playing with the text till you get it right, as right and tight as you can make it (even in a world where bodies can’t be made so tight, or kept so tight, over time).
Selection is one criterion, as I say, and syntax another. Here, in the second stanza, I have chosen, or been chosen by (it’s habit now), parallel word structure, so that riding, flirting, chattering, hoisting, desiring, pounding run together and give each other a propulsive bump. Yes, these are the rhythms of life, that constant onward push of what we’re doing, or wanting to do; desiring, or accomplishing; and this forward movement drives us here, in the poem, from the start of one line to the end, and then the start again.
As critics have pointed out, making verse is a matter of moving from one side of a line to another. It’s like plowing: you move along the row and make a furrow, from one side to the other; then you turn, you reverse direction, and begin again.
This kind of consciousness of making poetry stresses movement — out and back, verse and reverse, a continuous movement and counter-movement, a dance, could be, in the dark, for when we begin we may have no very clear idea of where we’re going, unless we’re trying out a regular meter or verse form like a sonnet. May have no idea of fences, or wires, or signposts, or boundaries. We just start plowing, and see where the movement leads us.
I might note here, as you no doubt have already, that this subject matter is a delicate one these days. We males anyway (old males, old white males) do not usually talk about it in mixed audiences, not in the #metoo age. Yet not to talk about it, frankly, even ferociously, puts us on the defensive, which all in all is not a good position to start from — and leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of criticisms both inside and out.
So I just plow ahead, trying out ideas, images, sounds, figuring what I might keep and what I must throw out in the next draft. And trying not to think too hard of audience or the exact words I need.
The right words will find the right audience, finally.
Here I wonder if the play on “pounds” and “pounding / down desires” works. Too cute? Are the words too much alike or too close together? Have I not waited long enough to put them together? Have I lacked syntactic patience?
But I like the image of the hourglass figure, as the revised poem begins with the image of fading light. It’s not just the old man who is fading, inexorably, but the young woman too, but everyone, all bikers, all readers who are along for the ride, who participate in this flirtation of failing light.
This draft concludes with a third stanza:
Off to the side, I sit apart, away from the beer
and platitudes, not drinking, seeing not merely
the plenitude of the figure of a girl I do not know,
but the dark hair flowing to the shoulders, olive
skin, aquiline nose, full lips, outline it could be
of the essential and vanishing, and as for desire
isn’t it also nice not to be drinking beer
or thinking only pleasure.
There are the sound echoes again: beer, desire, pleasure. And then platitudes, plenitude. We may grouse at English for being pretty uninflected and so not encouraging the kind of common, fertile rhymes and repetitions found in other languages. But once we get our motors going, we should find that sounds arise, like bees in a hive, and the humming proceeds without much of a conscious push. (Don’t strive at first for the bon mot or right word. Just let the sounds come. Hum along. Be less than conscious and more than a little cool.)
And, as I said in the last blog regarding the first draft, the process of sublimation is doing its work. The body, fully apparent here, is doing its business of yielding to the spirit. The body, like the daylight, is fading. The mind is playing the arpeggios of fading light.
For some time now I’ve been fascinated with found poems. Found poems? What are they?
I don’t mean poems found while leafing through books or journals. I don’t mean reacquainting oneself with poems learned or loved in school.
I mean finding preexisting language that, despite its unpromising context and sometimes strictly practical uses, suggests and can readily be adapted into poetry.
I mean verbal artifacts found in books, magazines, journals, wine labels and reviews, advertisements, technical descriptions, correspondence (letters, emails, text messages), and throwaway lines from conversations.
As critics have pointed out, found poems are kinds of collages, bits and pieces of verbal debris, could be, plucked out of various contexts and put together by he/she who has eyes to see and can supply the mucilage of alert observation and interest.
Can’t remember when I first began writing found poems, maybe 20 years ago or more, but lately my attention has been fixed on these patches of language. Things I read in the newspaper, like readers’ comments, become all too easily a poem. Often I make such a pastiche out of one source, but it can come from several in the typical way that a graphic collage comes together.
Here’s one I just plucked the other day, for example, from the Washington Post, not an article but comments on the article supplied by readers. The comments are so quick, keen, fresh, demotic, however educated many of these readers seem to be, that they practically compile themselves. All the observer has to do is a little choosing and editing.
Supreme Court Rejects Trump’s Bid to Shield Tax Returns Reader comments, Washington Post article of 2/22/21
Yes, the Witch Hunters are closing in.
The Orange Blob’s lifelong crime show
comes to an end. Get your popcorn ready.
He would not last a week on Riker’s Island.
What will Spanky McBonespurs’ defense be now?
For a good laugh, tune into Carlson or Hannity
tonight. Bad day for Former Guy. Bet he wishes
he’d chosen Manaford and Stone for the court.
Lock him up and throw away the key. A good last
30 days: Biden president, Limbaugh dead, and
Vance is closing in on Trump’s tax records.
So what such a composition lacks in clarity or consecutiveness pales in comparison to the vigor and humor of the language. Here is where the people, the verbal people, exact and enact their revenge against the president’s dull-witted idiocy.
Clarity and consecutiveness, at any rate, may be more the stuff of prose, especially expository prose, than poetry. The poet yearns for freshness and surprise — and keeping his eyes and ears open finds it everywhere.
Unity, however, is a more elusive quality that the found poem poet must look for. All the stuff in the poem must belong together, in one way or another, however surprising and apparently out of context it might at first appear to be. The poet uses what Hart Crane (1899–1932) might have called “the logic of metaphor.” It’s another, a different logic than the rational and organizational world insists on. An older, more archaic logic of emotional and visceral connection.
So I leave you with another found poem I found, or put together, just the other day, after being bombarded for a week or two with a newly found poem just about every day. I wondered how you could instruct, or encourage, other poets to try their hand at found poems. Or at least to explain how the game works and what it’s worth. Here goes:
How to Write a Found Poem
It’s like collage, those in the know say, from French colle paste, glue (<Greek kólla) + –age, as in mucilage, I’d add, Middle English muscilage <Middle French musillage <Late Latin mūcilāgō a musty juice, akin to mūcēre to be musty. See mucor if you must. But hold on, what’s the point here? Oh, yes, collage and mucilage! So what you need to do, ephebe, to write a found poem is to find it in the stuff of every day, the natural or not, who cares, speech of men and women as they work and play and carry on, for example, newspaper comments, want ads (personal or not), oral interviews, old letters, the blab of the pave perhaps, a story heard or overheard, and then fix your attention like good strong glue on the essence, the fresh phrase, you can throw out all the chaff, you jackdaw, you chuff, just seize the good stuff in your beak, don’t hold back like that, what are you thinking? there’s so much of it, dear people, and all so good!
You might have caught some of the sources here, more varied than in the first poem above: the dictionary obviously and then the poets Wordworth (“the natural speech of men”), Whitman (“blab of the pave”), Wallace Stevens (“ephebe”), and W. C. Williams (“what are you thinking,” from “Tract”). Wherever and whatever your sources, pluck them boldly and let them shine in the new context you both perceive and create.