"It seems that the work being produced lately is, when observed under the harsh light of honesty, really a pre-fab product manufactured for a small, self-contained market, a comfortable demographic - each other."
"Lynch worries that our poetry has become too comfortable and speaks solely to other poets. Perhaps, then, it's time to go outside the walls, to re-engage ourselves with the world."
The Voice of Discontent
by E.A. Lynch
The other day, I met our mail carrier at the mailbox. He writes, and has a
pretty solid list of credits under his belt, so occasionally we stand out front
and talk shop. During this particular conversation, though, in an almost
apologetic tone, he asked, "Don't you think that poetry and spoken word are
pretty much dead?" I thought about it for a minute, straining mightily under
the effort of trying to come up with a snappy rebuttal. Finding none, I had to
admit defeat. I answered truthfully, "Yeah, poetry is dead, and I think rigor
mortis may have set in too." I simply could find no valid toe-hold to the
assertion that poetry is a living and growing medium.
How could I, both a poet and an editor say such a thing? How could I have
condemned both myself and other poets in such a cavalier manner, even if it was
just in casual conversation? Am I less than loyal to the art form?
Only if being truthful is disloyal.
Let's face it, poetry has become agonizingly boring. After we threw off the
shackles of rhyme, we produced some interesting and innovative work for a few
decades, but at this point, we seem to be re-writing the same old forms that
were used by our parents and grandparents. The Beats have been elevated to the
status of demi-gods for the under educated, and MFA programs industriously churn
out a fresh crop of old ideas to the over educated. Sure, we like to think of
ourselves as creative innovators, but somehow, I hardly think that the prose
poem can be considered outlaw poetry. We have become so homogenized in our
thinking, that in the ranks of the recognized, one piece is pretty much the same
as the next. Sure, there are slight stylistic differences between writers, and
Iım sure the work was the result of long hours sweating over a hot keyboard, but
the formulae remain constant whether one is flipping through the pages of an
underground rag, wandering the web, or rifling the pages of the most prestigious
of magazines. I believe that the work of this generation will, in the future,
be dismissed as a largely substanceless backslide.
We have become so invested in our desire to be included in the ranks of, "good
poets," that we have effectively hobbled ourselves in what could be
characterized as intellectual and creative incest. It seems that the work being
produced lately is, when observed under the harsh light of honesty, really a
pre-fab product manufactured for a small, self-contained market, a comfortable
demographic - each other. We have become so desperate for publication, or in
the case of performance poets, a record label, that we have forgotten why we
began our first clumsy attempts at poetry. We have forgotten that poetry is
largely a form of self expression, not of group expression, and have become
willing to compromise our own voice for one which is acceptable and digestible
to our peers. Poetry is, undeniably, a solitary endeavor, and although we would
all like to have a group of people who are supportive of our efforts, that is
simply not the reality for those who are looking for a new equation in an effort
which, in my perhaps misguided opinion, has become the literary equivalent of
pre-processed cheese food.
I do not debate the value of studying the past or emulating different styles and
tones, as would a student of fine art, but there is a time in every artist's
life when a break must be made with the past. There is a time when we must
declare ourselves emancipated - ready to risk abject failure. Sure, if we are
dead-set on gaining recognition, it is easy enough to use the safety net of
mimicking past masters, but if we remember the reasons we began to write poetry
and break free of group expression, we have to muster the courage to, if
necessary, be a laughingstock.
As a loose community, we seem to be afraid of new ideas, and as editors, we tend
to censure all but the most subtle deviations of form. When we come across a
poet who is blatantly writing outside the lines, often we summarily dismiss the
piece as being less than polished or as the work of someone who has not been
properly educated. I would contend that editors are just as much responsible
for the scum on the stagnant puddle of poetry as are the poets. We editors have
not lived up to our responsibility of nurturing immature forms.
Are we really so complacent that we do not see the need for change? Do we
really believe that we have reached the pinnacle of expression, meaning there is
no need to progress further? I can't believe there are no more ideas to be had
and that it is not possible to reach beyond ourselves. We have become mired in
our own refusal to experiment. The way I look at it, the worst consequence for
writing a, "bad," poem is that people won't take my work especially seriously or
I may get a negative review. Neither of these consequences is especially
harmful, save for the blow to the 'ole ego. Actually, I see this as a positive
outcome - a little humility never hurt anyone, and no one has ever bled to death
from a bruise to their pride. This is, after all, poetry, a pursuit at which
even the idea of getting paid in proportion to one's efforts is ludicrous. So
what do we lose if we fail at this? Not much. Except, maybe, a bit of face.
Of course we would all love to be brilliant, successful, and receive recognition
for our work, but there are very few innovators in any pursuit which haven't had
to work very hard to first formulate their ideas and then implement them.
Progress is the result of hard work, no matter how much innate talent is
possessed by the individual. From what I have read (and I read more poetry than
can be considered entirely sensible), there is a vast pool of talent and
creativity to be drawn upon, but very little impetus to push ourselves because
we have allowed ourselves to be bullied by our internal desire to be accepted by
others. Until we get over that insecurity, I suspect we will be stuck with more
of the same 'ole, same 'ole.
Am I a wailing Cassandra? Hardly. I guess, though, my ultimate question is
whether or not any one of us will choose to be courageous and take the risk of
developing an individual voice. I wonder who will lead the charge and take the
next giant step in poetry. Do we have any intellectual rebels, or do we have to
wait another generation? Is there even one individual who can ignore the chant
of popular opinion and forge something new, exciting, and hopefully a little
unsettling from the language? If there is, please introduce me; we will have
much to talk about.
E.A. Lynch is the editor of Spoken War
Outlaws Among Us
by John Carle
Reading EA Lynch's piece reminds me of Chris Chandler's assertion
that there are two different kinds of poets; the court poet who entertains
inside the castle, and the wandering minstrel who stays outside the castle
walls trading stories with the townspeople.
All due respect to Lynch, whose editorial and creative work I
admire, "The Voice of Discontent" sounds like the worrying of a courtier of
whom something new and entertaining is always expected. While I admit the need in art for a "bleeding edge", I think that there is much more to be
said within the forms currently at our disposal. Even more to the point,
trying to force a revolution in one's art before one is ready or in the
absence of a need for new forms risks, not ridicule, but the creation of art
for art's sake.
I believe that poetry, like any art, is valid to the extent that it
carries meaning for its reader. What I see happening in poetry is the
finding of voice in content - to put it another way, people are telling each
other their stories. The poetry that I read these days isn't usually
challenging in form, but given a general reading public, our real audience,
that reads so little poetry on the whole, a greater focus on content is what is really warranted. The urgent need right now, for most of us, is to find a way to place what we write in front of the people who haven't read it yet.
The way to do that, I think, is to connect with people where they live, to
write from our lives, not from our intellectual constructs. Poetry is not
dead precisely because poets are beginning to do that, and those who often
do it most strikingly are those who learned the art, not at the University
of Iowa, but through and while raising children, working construction jobs, living with disabilities, digging gardens. But if poetry does ever die, it will be because no one reads it, in turn because it means nothing to them.
New forms won't do anything to avoid that, but new stories will.
People identify with universal themes, not with aesthetic styles. Lynch
worries that our poetry has become too comfortable and speaks solely to
other poets. Perhaps, then, it's time to go outside the walls, to re-engage
ourselves with the world. And isn't that the greater challenge? The search for new form has led, in some quarters, to "performance" poetry, a
phenomenon which has, in my local experience, taken the form of people
reading largely ill-considered verse while contorting themselves yogically, doing gymnastics and the like. Wouldn't it be more worthwhile to find an effective way to write that is neither pedestrian *nor* ridiculous?
Lynch and I seem to disagree fundamentally on the nature and purpose
of poetry, but perhaps not. Poetry is indeed self-expression, but
expression to the reader. Good poetry expresses something held or
experienced in common, at which the reader can say, "A-ha". If form is what distinguishes poetry from prose, it must also not demand center stage, or else the reader cannot go beyond it. This is like reading a literal meaning into a myth. If the reader is caught at the level of form - a literal virgin birth, for example - the connection is never made. But where the form is transparent, where the reader isn't made aware of rhythm or rhyme or lack thereof, that is where the individual connects with the universal - and the poem succeeds.
Innovation in form will come. For now, let's foster the revolution under
way in the new stories being told and new myths being created in venues throughout the Internet
and in small presses.
John Carle is the editor of Gravity: A Journal of Online Writing