When I “signed on” for both Facebook and Bill’s Blog, I quickly became aware that other people were posting (on their sites) material I felt belonged elsewhere (in “private life,” not “public”), and I made a pledge never to post photos of food (and recipes), endless Selfies, videos of various animals performing cute tricks, hackneyed slogans, political proselytizing, and news of “medical issues” I might be dealing with myself. I gave in on the latter, when, because I have written about music (mostly jazz) for years, I received invitations to attend local performances I was not able to show up for (because of my own “visual” and “vestibular” medical issues) and I felt an obligation to tell the artists why I had to let them down.
I’m going, now, to break my “pledge” one more time—for another occasion. The day of the election (November 8), I wrote on my Facebook page: “A good feeling in the air. Life may soon (tomorrow) get back to real life”—and I offered a joyous video of Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” That evening, as the election results came in, that road ahead failed to assume the shape (or “turn”) I’d hoped for, and the next day, November 9, I found myself quoting Stephen Spender’s “You must live through the time when everything hurts”—and listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (the song coupled, in an inspiring video, with migratory birds: “The birds they sang / at the break of day / Start again / I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what / has passed away / or what is yet to be. / Ah the wars they will / be fought again / The holy dove / She will be caught / again / bought and sold / and bought again / the dove is never free … Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
I remembered a pilgrimage to the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece for a year.). The inscription reads: “I hope for nothing / I fear nothing / I am free.” I vowed to maintain that stoic stance in mind, but also a sense of hope (“That’s how the light gets in.”) for us all. And I vowed to keep on, in the words of Willie’s song, “makin’ music with my friends.” And that’s all I have to say (publicly) just now regarding “politics.”
Here’s the inscription, in Modern Greek, on Kazantzakis grave (Photo credit: theculturetrip.com). You can find the YouTube video of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” at:
Returning, now, to where I left off at the close of “The Worlds of Poetry, Part One”: Another curiosity aligned to Po Biz today (and the world of writing in general) is the plethora of MFA degree programs available—a situation similar to that facing aspiring young jazz musicians who complete such programs in music, but whom are not likely to find venues (given the conversion of so many jazz clubs into sports bars) in which they can actually practice their trade, or “play.” Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, has posted a perceptive article, “The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?”, on what poets (and writers in general) are likely to face once they have completed heavily advertised programs in “creative writing.” His first paragraph concludes: “Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain” (and in the works!), and he goes on to cite a special issue of Poets & Writers titled “MFA Nation” (the cover displays thirty-one people of a wide range of ages and ethnicities). This special issue makes information available to aspiring writers on everything from the “social value of these programs” to ranking systems, and includes “fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country.” Nye, a graduate of an MFA program in creative writing himself (as I am), confesses that he has “begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.”
It’s interesting that, as editor of an esteemed journal, Nye avoids or evades what seems to me the most crucial issue or serious consideration for genuine writers: just where the Hell, once they graduate, is this mob of MFAs going to publish (the equivalent of where are all the jazz hopefuls going to play?!)—but he does focus on the more “practical” issue: “Let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up.” They compose “an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition [not creative writing] … for adjunct pay” (which was pretty much the position I found myself in back in 1963, although since then, the odds of finding such jobs seems to have decreased while the number of poets seeking the same has accelerated).
I showed this, my own essay, to a young poet whose work I much admire, and his response was, “Who is your audience?” He more or less chastised me for saying what contemporary creative writing MFA graduates or candidates all already know. And painfully so (he himself in the position I’ve described). Whereas I do not object to offering an occasional “shock of recognition” (to others, and myself!) regarding the state of poetry today, my intent here is not to offend (anyone), but an attempt to understand, at my age (80) just what is going on or taking place in those “worlds” that surround or have grown out of (or “upon,” like barnacles?) an art form I love—an art form I have studied and “practiced” (that’s all I would claim for my efforts now) for fifty-eight years (fifty-three since I graduated from San Francisco State). When I try to imagine myself attempting to “get a start” in the world (any of those worlds) of poetry today, I feel considerable empathy for those poets doing just that.
Here are some literary journals I was fortunate to have poems in back in the “good ole daze.” Notice the then cost of december (a journal which has been resuscitated and is going strong; check out: http://decembermag.org/) and Hanging Loose ($2.50!)—considerably less than the entry fee for poetry contests today (chalk it up to “inflation,” ho ho). Poetry West was the journal edited by Carolyn Kizer:
Quality print journals seem to be going under at a fearful rate, and even incessant online publication is not likely to allow practicing poets to find themselves on a tenure track. In 1967, sans Ph.D., I was allowed to become an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, on the basis of selection for inclusion (alongside Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates) in an anthology (published by NYU Press) of Best Little Magazine Fiction—but the days of such blessings may, I fear, be long gone. “What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities,” Nye writes, “that MFA graduates are a dime-a dozen? … what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?”
These imperative questions suggest “ethical” issues regarding anticipation on the part of anyone who starts out to engage in the art with serious intentions—“not for glory and least of all for profit” (To quote William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech). Right up to the age of thirty, I failed to ask why the world of poetry should be any different from the “worlds” one encounters in any other human activity. I just assumed it would be because I wanted it to be! I wanted poetry, within the world at large, to be a Special Preserve, a Great Good Place, a Pure Land where none of the ugly demeaning laws of “life” (such as “business”) prevailed or could be imposed—a world exempt from all human fads and follies.
I can recommend an interesting and valuable book on writers who’ve graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities offering courses in creative writing: We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (by Eric Olsen and GlennSchaeffer, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). The book includes valuable testimony from those who went on to become “superstars” (whatever that means), John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley; those who simply went on to continue writing as much and as best they could (given their “day jobs”), and even those who eventually just gave up writing. And I would also recommend a brilliant (and very funny, very readable) comic version of the same experience: John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press, 2014).
The only “world” of poetry worth pursuing, I’ve come to feel, is that world of our own we experience when we attempt to set what we regard as a “poem” down on paper (or computer or perhaps just simply as the “music” of a poem we hear in our head). Everything else (whatever small “world” the poem might be accepted as part of, or excluded from) is irrelevant. Poetry is not and never will be a “team sport.” The genuine poet is engaged in an act that has ancient roots: in its lyric form extending as far back as 1100 B.C. Egypt—and in its most primitive form, perhaps as far back as “The Singing Neanderthals” (I also highly recommend Stephen Mithen’s extraordinary book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, in which he argues that we actually sang before we possessed syntactical speech and set vocabulary). Other archeological experts claim the Sumerian hymn, the “Seikilos Epitaph,” as “The Oldest Complete Song in the World” (a complete composed inscription rediscovered in Aiden, Turkey, in 1885)—“an inspiring tune from 100 BC.” Yet how many poets really know their own history? I have a suspicion that what is being taught now is not so much the rich and abiding history of the art form itself, but the best way (if there is one) to commence (or acquire) a “career” as a poet.
Here are We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body:
Philosopher/poet/critic George Santayana claimed that the world (and this single word could apply to the many separate “worlds” of poetry) “is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.” In his essay “The Poetry of Barbarism” (from his book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion), Santayana makes a distinction between the “earliest poets” (who are the most “ideal”) of primitive ages (such as that of Homer) which furnish “the most heroic characters and have the clearest vision of a perfect life,” and our own time, in which poets seem “incapable of any high wisdom,” incapable of any imaginative rendering of “human life and its meaning” as a whole. If what he says holds any truth, it’s because the poetry of the era he admires—the “original poetry”—was wrung from necessity, and not as a partial or casual preoccupation. It was an integral and absolutely vital part of the “world” that surrounded it: the whole of existence.
In his view, paradoxically, when existence itself was “barbaric,” full of “insecurity and superstition … singularly poor in all that concerns the convenience of life,” poets possessed “a sense for civilizations,” and the poetry of that “simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known: the most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration … it bathed all things human in the golden light of the morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness.” According to Santayana, “[Poets today] are things of shreds and patches; they give us episodes and studies, a sketch of this curiosity, a glimpse of that romance; they have no total vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for a sane and steady idealization.”
I’ll confess I like Santayana’s outrageous contentions, and I can find considerable “truth” or insight in them. In an age of “material elaboration,” our separate and divided (and exclusive) “worlds” of poetry do seem to encourage a “fancy” that is, in his words, “whimsical and flickering; its ideals, when it has any … negative and partial.” Our work may seem to be just a “verbal echo” of the “imaginative disintegration” that characterizes the larger world that surrounds and contains us.
Many contemporary poets do lack a sense of their own history, and the uses of the past in general. Santayana writes, “We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment … To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself … the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavorable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal … [we lack] a common point of reference and a single standard of value … Religion and art have become short-winded. They have forgotten the old maxim that we should copy in order to be copied and remember in order to be remembered.”
W. B. Yeats wrote a poem, “Three Movements,” in which he traced the “progression” of poetry from the time of Shakespeare down to Yeats’ own day, and, had he witnessed it, I feel he would have included our own era:
“Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from the land / Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand; / What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?
I am fortunate to live in a place (the Monterey Bay Area) that can take pride in a history of encouraging artistic activity on a high level (John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Ansel Adams, et cetera) and the local scene, while not really worthy of the name “community,” does inspire work of quality and interest—even poetry! I have read, and admired, the work of local poets, and attended praiseworthy readings by them: folks that are not just fine poets but with whom it is possible to be friends (and that’s a rare thing among our tribe!).
Aside from this fortunate context, I will confess that too much of the work I read and hear now that passes itself off as poetry strikes me as something other than or not quite poetry—as work afflicted with piscatorial “gasping” on some strand rather than what I regard as the true music of the art. So much of what I am exposed to sounds like cute or clever verse; outright therapy; jottings from a diary or journal, maudlin memoriam (so many indulgent death bed scenes!), unfortunate habits acquired in (and encouraged by) group “workshops”; inept imitation (bad ears!); political propaganda, a pathetic attempt to establish a “persona” (but not a genuine alter ego so much as just wishful thinking on the poet’s part). I find too much plain out carelessness when it comes to language (bad ears again!); I hear raw “matter” as distinct from form (in the Aristotelean sense)—potential that lacks the patience to reach a state of entelechy (actual achievement). Robert Frost said, “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” but so much of what I read and hear today sounds as if the poet had never encountered any other poem aside from the most recent poem she or he has written or is in the process of writing. And the reason I can rattle off these faults or shortcomings in such a glib arrogant critical manner is (should I find them in the work of others), I also frequently find them in the poetry I write myself.
In his excellent book, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, exceptional poet Anthony Hecht writes, “To begin with, one is able to write a poem because one knows what a poem is—not from dictionary definitions, but from experience.”
On the matter of “form,” Hecht writes, “Conventionally, when we speak of ‘form’ in poetry, we fall too easily into discussion of received forms, traditional stanzas, like sonnets, villanelles … and quatrains of various kinds. Those who condemn form in poetry are often given to venting their wrath upon these received forms,” finding imagination limited thereby, language forced into “set molds.” Yet Hecht ably points out that what “our greatest formal poets—Donne, Herbert, Champion, Herrick, and Hardy”—really did was to “conspicuously and brilliantly … invent forms of their own. This means that with such a poem the poet is free to create whatever pattern and music he cares for,” even if, in the past, the original music and pattern of subsequent stanzas was acknowledged and held to (creating its own imaginative potential). Another “formalist,” Michael Drayton, thought of his poetry, “excellent yet conventional although it be, as ‘wild, madding, jocund, and irregular’”—and that might be an admirable quality to aim for.
Hecht states that “modes of feeling themselves go in and out of fashion … but not the eternal verity of mesura [italics mine]: Maurice Valency’s definition: “measure, that inner restraint which governs the appetites and keeps the subject to the intellect”; Greek moderation or prudence, or in the 12th century, employing a word I like: “courtesy”–to oneself and to the “reader” or audience. Hecht reminds us that “measure” is a musical term, and a metrical one, saying, “the music of forms requires some kind of regularity, some pattern that allows us as readers to judge proficiency, that engenders expectations which it can then fulfill in some novel way, withhold for strategic reasons, satisfy with dissonances or harmonies that surprise and delight.” I have my own mantra: Variety and surprise! Active imagination—the mental and verbal risk of life itself!
Some last words from Anthony Hecht: “Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical form and formulations) and speech, as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people … A serious and durable work of art, whatever its medium, will make the sort of demands upon us that invite repeated experiences that will fail to exhaust the work … Great works of poetry continue to yield a new sense of themselves, and prove, to our delight and astonishment, utterly inexhaustible.” In another context, Hecht states, “I believe we may gauge the success of a poem by the fact that it reads as effectively the second time as the first, and the third time as the second; and with any real merit it will outlast a lifetime.” And he quotes W.H. Auden: “A poem is a rite … the form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure, and aptness to that which it is the form of.”
So how does a genuine poet create such poetry? I have devised (he says modestly, and with much more than just a trace of humor, I hope, with regard to a subject, poetry, to which in many ways I have devoted my life) a playful exercise: my own MFA program–one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative: a program that can be carried out “at home,” alone—tuition free, although there will be some self-determined (as to the extent of it) expenditure for books. Don’t take this too seriously (and certainly not personally, should you fall short; I had fun imagining and setting this up, and, believe me, I fall way short on enacting the full curriculum myself.).
(1) Teach yourself (or with able assistance, if necessary) to read poetry in at least four languages other than you own (at best: one such being Ancient Greek, or Latin, or both).
(2) Acquire a working knowledge of the complete history of poetry (from 1100 B.C . Egyptian “lyrical” down to the present day): assimilating learning that can be carried over comfortably into your own poems.
(3) Undertake a full study of Quantum Physics (I highly recommend a book, Quantum Physics for Poets, written by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill–and another: Roger S. Jones’ exceptional Physics as Metaphor) for an understanding of the “cosmic code” that rules all forms—this supplemented by reading Aristotle on both hyle (matter) and morphe (form), enhanced by a solid understanding of Thomist theory of the same (“material prima” and “forma”).
Here are the covers of : Quantum Physics for Poets and Physics as Metaphor:
(4) If you don’t already know how, learn to play at least one musical instrument (and please do not offend its individual nature the way a particular poet does by mistuning a bouzouki); acquire elementary knowledge of music theory and extensive knowledge of all poetry set to music (where poetry began) down to the present age.
(5) Memorize a poem a day—and not just favorites but any poem that possesses qualities you admire. Take poems into your mind and body and keep them there.
(6) Study and “copy” set forms of poetry (sonnets, villanelles, terza rima, etc.) before you attempt to free yourself from them, not after (or “practice” all forms simultaneously, if you can do so without getting too confused)—and slowly but surely acquire what jazz musicians call a “vocabulary” of effects (in poetry: slant rime, enjambment, assonance, etc.).
(7) Undertake four or five months of gigs “on the road” as a stand-up comic. This will acquaint you with a full range of tones, moods, and inflections you can apply to your work as a poet (having learned to truly listen to what you sound like out loud)—and also prepare you to withstand and assimilate hostile audiences you more than likely will, in the future, encounter as a poet; or evenings when no one shows up to hear you read (Thanks to good friend and excellent poet Elliot Ruchowitz Roberts for bringing those gigs to my attention).
I’ll confess that (although I’ve had more than a little help from my friends, and teachers I treasured along the way), I do fall way short with regard to such a self-imposed “program,” but I was fortunate in being a somewhat messed up kid who couldn’t fix on just one “career.” I was an English Literature major alongside majoring in painting, drawing, and printmaking, and I did receive assistance from truly splendid teachers (already cited) when I got a Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State in 1963—this quite some time before the present MFA degree “explosion” took place.
But trust me: you shall truly know you’ve earned your diploma if you carry out this modest “program” on your own!
Here are two of my favorite poets: Anthony Hecht and Mary Ruefle (Photo credits: en.wikipedia.org; poets.org):
I’ll close with (what I feel may be) some excellent advice on how poems best get made: hard won insight from a book that is filled with it, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle, a most remarkable poet herself. She quotes another remarkable poet, Paul Valery, who said, “The opening line of a poem is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall”; and Mary Ruefle then goes on to suggest just how this act may be made possible (“potential” converted to entelechy or fulfillment): “Between the first and last lines there exists—a poem—and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other … the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you … The poem is the consequence of its origins.”
Enough! It’s time to go in search of that individual seed (unrelated to any “worlds” of poetry!) we plant in order to turn our opening lines (and by an act of Greek poiesis: the kind of making poets do) into our very own tree.
Next post on Bill’s Blog: back to jazz!