June 2, 2014 § 1 Comment
Recently there’s been something of a kerfuffle over a poem, Last Words for Elliot Rodger by Seth Abramson, which the writer published at The Huffington Post. Predictably, the Twitter-sphere has taken Abramson to task for his decision to publish such a thing just days after Rodger killed six people and himself in California. Here is the statement by Abramson that precedes the piece:
The aim of this metamodern poem is to turn on their heads those words of hatred Elliot Rodger left behind him as he exited this world. A remix of the words Rodger used in his final YouTube video, the poem uses each and every word Rodger spoke in that hateful oration–and no more. The author condemns in the strongest terms both the words and the actions of Elliot Rodger; the aim here is to rescue language from a perversion of language, not to glorify an individual whose actions were incontrovertibly evil. Please note that this poem is an address to, not an address from, Elliot Rodger.
Not knowing Abramson personally, I can only take him at his word. Still, he had to have known that publishing such a thing on the heels of a tragedy would win him few, if any, accolades. This leads me to agree that it is — at the very least — in questionable taste and to wonder if Abramson isn’t a bit of a narcissist.
But my chief objection has less to do with ethics than aesthetics. As I’ve said in a previous post, such conceptualist approaches to writing are occasionally interesting or clever, but the effect quickly wears off. As the conceptualist darling Kenneth Goldsmith has himself noted, the concept is often more interesting than the resultant work, and we need look no further than Last Words for Elliot Roger for proof.
Recently, while following poetry links into the depths of the literary internet, I came across this title by CA Conrad:
“Adaptation” in this case means that Conrad inserted, after every bit of Capote’s dialog, the parenthetical “(were you high when you said this?).” Nine dollars. Really.
Whatever -ism applies to these works doesn’t matter to me. The trait they share is the devaluing of the individual imagination in favor of process. Such works are the textual equivalent of YouTube “documentaries” that are nothing more than mash-ups of photos, clips, music, and quotes, none of which their creators actually created.
In a word, yawn.
May 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art.
–Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness
Late to another MFA Bashing Party, I just recently read Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, published in 2010 but, according to its jacket, “…passed around underground as a digital file for ten years among those associated with The New York Quarterly” prior to its publication (that word underground is interesting, but more on that in a bit). I wouldn’t write anything about this book at all, especially four years later, but in poking around for reviews, I found very few that weren’t supportive, and the notion that writing programs are ruining poetry has hardly waned.
Despite disagreeing with other critics of workshops that they should be abolished, or that poetry in America is “dead,” Poetic Amusement is nevertheless chock-full of the same misguided complaints against writing programs:
…sameness infects the MFA students for several reasons. First, conformity is the name of the game if one wants to excel within the poetry industry.
And, quoting John Hollander:
…the resultant poetry is a “deadly sameness of verse.”
And my personal favorite:
The responsibility of agonizing revisions and decisions are left to a committee’s caucus rather than to the gut tendencies of an artist who is willing to sacrifice for his art. The resultant work is left gang raped and abandoned in a dumpster, barely recognizable.
I have no idea what was in the window next to the one Hammond typed that in, but I hope he’s since closed it and gotten out more.
I joke. But Hammond makes the same mistake nearly every other critic of writing programs makes: he conflates a valid criticism with a wrong one. The valid criticism is that the proliferation of MFA programs makes it possible (necessary, in fact, given the numbers) for poets who are not Giants of the Art to have careers. The wrong criticism is that MFA programs create mediocre poetry or “sameness.”
First, the idea that 20-somethings who want to be poets are that malleable is ridiculous. Have you met any of them? They’re nothing if not stubborn prima donnas who reject more advice than they accept, as do most young people in almost any creative endeavor.
I know. I was one.
I can only speak from my own experience, of course, so here’s a short list of poets I went to school with who have had at least one book published in recent years: Alison Apotheker, Michael Catherwood, Beth Ann Fennelly, John Hennessy, Graham Lewis, Katrina Vandenberg, Cody Walker, Bob Zordani. I challenge anyone to read a page of each and find “sameness.”
Another claim common to these criticisms is that MFA students only read their teachers and peers, and that teachers actively try to get students to write like themselves. Maybe there are teachers like that, but I have yet to meet one. Again my own experience contradicts this. I don’t recall exact numbers, but we were required to take nearly as many hours of pre-1900 literature (most often taught by MA rather than MFA faculty) as 20th-century, and the only up-to-the-minute poetry course I took was one in which the students had to provide the work to be read, rather than have it assigned. Our teacher, Jim Whitehead, made us “bring it and defend it,” and he challenged us at every turn. No other course I can recall featured much that was more recent than Lowell, Bishop, or Berryman, and this was in the early 90′s. I think a visiting poet’s recent book made it onto a reading list exactly once in four years.
The central claim in Poetic Amusement, that the Muse has been abandoned in favor of an emphasis on craft, seems reasonable at first glance. Anyone who reads scores of literary journals and new books (Hammond spent years reading submissions for the NYQ) might come away from the experience feeling that contemporary poetry is long on technical skill but short on inspiration. Fair enough, but when was it not thus? Again, Hammond assumes an obedient, pliable army of the uninspired, students who have no inner lives or sense of “the mystery.” Nonsense. They’re humans, right? OK. Let’s not confuse youth or inability to execute with lack of inspiration or desire.
The most accurate thing we can say about this, and Hammond does, is that too many poets publish too much too early (or at least try) in the mad rush to build a resume. I’ve written reams of merely OK verse, and even allowed some of it into print with my name attached. But how does this ruin Poetry itself? To quote Dean Young again, “POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!” [caps his].
Oh, that underground thing. This is another common thread in the writing-program-hate genre: that of the anti-/non-MFA writer as “outsider artist.” It smacks of posturing, an attempt at strategic positioning. The NYQ may not be The New Yorker, but for those who write and read contemporary literature, it is hardly underground. Hammond is an “outsider” only in the sense that, having never attended an MFA program, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
May 5, 2014 § 6 Comments
For many moons now, I have been making and taking notes for essays about American poetry (please try to contain your excitement). As of now those notes are a jumble of loosely connected observations, snippets of recent poetry offerings, copy-pastes of reviews and criticism. In other words, a mess. But looking over these notes — particularly the reviews and criticism — I’ve noticed a pattern in how a lot of new poetry is described. It’s a thing that, for lack of a better term right now, I can only call negative definition, wherein books of poetry are described (and, usually, praised) not for what they are and do, but for what they aren’t and don’t do. Some examples:
[X's] second book…resists genre containment…
[In X's work], our structural expectations are upended…
The struggle in reviewing [X's book] is the collection rejects traditional modes of defining.
And in a hundred other reviews and commentaries, new poetry is “subverting expectations,” “challenging received norms,” etc.
Which is fine. I’m all for making it new. But what good is new if the it can’t be discerned even by an enthusiastic reviewer? And when they try, it often comes out like this:
Much like the theme of the collection the text is an exploration of codes which as untranslatable and esoteric reject the closure that is traditionally sought via the lyric. It is within this this space the I wants meaning, hopes to find and place contours about the self and the separation between internal and external. The boundaries of selfhood verse what acts to remove said individuality becomes a sight [sic] of fragmentation. Mirroring this, the poems are not linear and with the trajectory and focus splintering towards new subjects and possibilities. The result is a constant evasion of conclusion.
Judging by the sheer number of books and their attendant reviews in this vein (one site I follow posts at least three or four a week), it seems an entire generation of poets just discovered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the past couple years and made “Resist and Reject” its mantra.
There’s no accounting for taste, and poets should write as they please, but I wonder if it really is a pleasure working overtime to make sure your poems thwart any attempt at understanding. There’s certainly not much pleasure in reading them.
March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
What do the following poets have in common:
Maggie Anderson, Dorothy Barresi, Quan Berry, Jan Beatty, Robin Becker, Richard Blanco, Christopher Bursk, Anthony Butts, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Wanda Coleman, Billy Collins, Mark Cox, Jim Daniels, Chard DeNiord, Toi Derricotte, Denise Duhamel, Russell Edson, Lynn Emmanuel, Peter Everwine, Edward Field, Daisy Fried, Barbara Hamby, C.G. Hanzlicek, Bob Hickok, Grey Jacobik, Julia Kasdorf, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Etheridge Knight, Sanda Kohler, Ted Kooser, Larry Levis, Shara McCallum, Peter Meinke, Malena Morling, Kathleen Norris, Sharon Olds, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Paisley Rekdal, Muriel Rukeyser, Richard Shelton, Reginald Shepherd, Cathy Song, Virgil Suarez, Ronald Wallace, Afaa Michael Weaver, David Wojahn, and Dean Young.
If pretty early in reading the list you answered, “Well, one thing they have in common is that they’re all better poets than Bill Knott,” you’d be right.
They are all better poets than me, and if you don’t believe me, take the word of editor Ed Ochester, who put the poets listed above into his new anthology, “American Poetry Now / Pitt Poetry Series Anthology.”
To quote from the catalog, “American Poetry Now is a comprehensive collection of the best work from the renowned Pitt Poetry Series.”
The best work, mind you, not the worst. If Ochester was doing the worst, he would have reprinted poems from my Pitt book, “Poems 1960-1987″ (published in 1989).
–from WHERE MODERN POETRY BEGAN AND OTHER PROSE CONJECTURES, by Bill Knott.
November 9, 2013 § 3 Comments
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
– E.B. White
I do, however, want to consider — or at least pose some questions about — humor in poetry. First, I’d like to draw a distinction between humorous and funny because humor and comedy are (to me, anyway) not exactly the same thing. I say exactly because, even as I typed that sentence, I could already see the distinction breaking down by the end of this post. Anyway. Comedy is its own…thing. I almost typed genre, but that would break down even sooner, require a great deal of parsing and justifying, and I have leaves to rake.
Anyway. We approach comedy with the expectation that we will laugh. Laughter is its purpose, first and foremost. Comedy is not humorous; it is funny.
I like rice. I cook it when I want to eat a thousand of something.
– Mitch Hedberg
But — it seems to me, I think, maybe — that we don’t approach humor at all (unless you’re a fan of Family Circus or Prairie Home Companion, in which case, seek help); rather, it approaches us in the service of something else, which is why I rarely find poems that are called “funny” funny. This is not to denigrate those poets — Kenneth Koch, Bob Hicok, Billy Collins, to name a few — who employ humor in their work, only to say that, even at their funniest, their poems rarely — if ever — elicit my genuine laughter. This is because I know — or suspect, or have been taught, or simply choose to believe — that because I am reading a poem there is something larger going on, something that is not funny but actually quite serious, perhaps not Milton-level serious (John, not Berle), but serious nonetheless.
A toy-maker made a toy wife and a toy child.
He made a toy house and some toy years.
He made a getting old toy, and he made a dying toy.
The toy-maker made a toy heaven and a toy god.
But, best of all, he liked making toy shit.
Edson is a personal favorite, and among the pantheon of “funny” poets I find him the funniest (see, it’s breaking down already), right up until the exact moment the poem ends and I realize its rather dark implications, the moment when Edson stops being Steven Wright and starts being Sartre.
Here’s where it breaks down even further — fiction. I find some fiction writers funny, flat out fuckin’ funny, even on second reading. Vonnegut comes to mind, as do Nicholson Baker and Percival Everett (if you haven’t read Baker’s The Fermata or Everett’s Erasure, please cancel your weekend plans and do so). Clearly, neither Baker nor Everett is a comedian first and foremost, nor are their novels merely stand-up routines in print. So, what’s the difference? Is there a difference? Is it just me? More importantly, will you rake my lawn?
October 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
I am ill-equipped to write an eloquent, moving, personal tribute to Bill Harrison of the sort which — I’m confident — many, many others are writing at this very moment, and for which Steve Yates has already set the bar (not that it’s a competition, of course, but if it were, Steve’s playoff berth would be a lock).
The reason I am ill-equipped for that kind of tribute is that I never studied with Bill directly. Bill wrote and taught fiction; I wrote and studied poetry. The Form and Theory of Fiction course I did take was taught by Skip Hays that semester. I knew Bill, of course, but any conversation I had with him would have been in the corridors of Kimpel Hall between classes or at a post-reading party at his or another faculty member’s house. If he said anything profound to me at those times, I was either too young and dumb to perceive it or too drunk to remember it.
What I did gain from Bill was the opportunity to write, read, study, and live in the writing program he created — an M.F.A. program that, for those of us without M.A.s already in hand, took four years and 60 credit hours to complete. In addition to workshops, we were required to take two Form and Theory courses in our chosen genre and one in the other, at least 12 hours of lit courses, seminars, and a Composition for Teachers course in which a “C” was failing. All of this was capped with a thesis, an oral defense, and a Comprehensive Final Exam which, if memory serves, was approximately 12 hours and 12 pots of coffee long. On top of all that, we taught two sections of Comp every semester, remuneration for which was tuition (nice) plus the kingly sum of $719/month. Summers? You’re on your own, student.
So, here’s my tribute: Thanks, Bill. I loved it. And I stayed for the summers. Because being broke in Fayetteville was better than having it easy anywhere else.
October 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Of all the plaints about contemporary poetry that have come down the pike, this one by Arthur Krystal strikes me as among the most reasonable, particularly this paragraph:
Ultimately, of course, it boils down to the personal, so let me say straight-out that the exquisite spareness of poets like Ryan and Armantrout, or the roll call of colloquial references favored by Ashbery, makes me work too hard. Yes, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens also made me work, but at least I could hear their lines playing in my head. So what I’m asking is: Do I really want to spend time figuring out the associations among words on a page and the experiences they’re meant to distill if the sound of the poem doesn’t please me?
The unacknowledged elephant here is that for a very long time now music in poetry has been associated with (and is dependent upon) meter, and meter with form, and form with politics. And with that word, politics, begins a post I do not have time to even contemplate now. Though I hope to — perhaps when I’m done reading the least-pleasing writing ever conceived, freshman essays.