Poetry is dead

July 9, 2020

It happens every few years, perhaps oftener: we get the article, widely and usually well published, that declares poetry dead. Usually the accompanying sound is less a lament for this premature pronouncement than a jig on poetry’s prepaid grave. Rarely did I hear such an essay sound more like an Irish wake or a New Orleans jazz funeral, two sounds I think poetry should aspire to more often. A raucous solace.

Instead, poetry is dead.

I disagree; I plan wild essays; I respond point by point, debunking and spelunking.

But tonight, why not – poetry is dead. Let it be dead; let us write as if we are already dead. If poetry is dying, then let’s write a poetry pronounced D.O.A.

Perhaps it is because I have witnessed too many deaths these past few years, but I have tried to write a poetry of life, against those deaths and even Death in general. Maybe. But it also seems to me some of the same folks who think poetry is dead, or proceed without it, turn to poetry in crucial moments: at a death, or a wedding. Poetry as invocation, as ceremony.

For years I felt poetry was not ceremony, but the daily thing. The dirt. It is an everyday, not an occasionally. I still think it is. But perhaps the only way to make this truly true is to write a poetry that is not like death, but is death: surprising yet inevitable, everyday yet far-off in the future, an ever-present that we still manage to forget. In this, it may resemble jazz – or is this simply because, as Ralph Ellison says, “life is jazz-shaped”? Death may be jazzed-shaped too, just ask Gabriel and Satchmo in their cutting contest.

The only way to find out is to write a dead poetry.

I am not taking this lightly: I am not suggesting a poetry of suicide (don’t do it), or of homicide (give that up); I am not suggesting a poetry celebrating war, or ignoring war, or a poetry of a war that we celebrated too early our victory in, and now cannot ignore. (The deadening of poetry is celebrated too early and often too.) A dead poetry does not believe in “-cides” of any kind; it believes in insides, in soul and sorrow, in silence and also the singing that is against such.

Deadism believes that poetry should capture the living language; it just knows that we should write in dead languages too.

Write not like something endangered – not like a spotted owl –or reintroduced into the wild, but dead already. (The poetry of “They’re coming to get us,” the poetry of the horror movie I’ve seen too much of, the poetry of lament, of victimization, or worse, of declaring the various and nefarious threats to freedom, equality, blackness, or justice, seems to take to much pleasure in watching the killer even as it shouts out warnings in the theater. This poetry is over, but unfortunately not yet dead.) Write not like a coming extinction, but like the extinction already. That said, do not write like a dodo, something more rare and flightless – but like a passenger pigeon, a poetry once plentiful and ever-present and so therefore killed off.

Do not write a poetry of rarity, or of rarification, but of never again.

Do not even write this poetry but find it, come across it, and step over it. The helpless ant that in the end can lift more than ten times its weight: that is a poetry.

Maybe what we need is an undead poetry – not to take death back from poetry, but to take death back from death itself. A poetry of shambling power, devouring everything it its path. A vampire poetry that will live forever, sexy and dangerous and immortal, shape-shifting when necessary.

That bat in my friend’s toilet (true story) a poetry. That dog. That mewling cat caught under my house that left sometime in the night: a poetry. It is hard to find, and harder to coax out, but will one day emerge on its own.

In the meantime, a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts. Dead is something you can be, after all, is not itself an ain’t. The ain’ts I’m afraid are here, among us living.

Instead there’s haints, which our poetry should be: hainting, hard to pin down, glimpsed but believed. That’s the poetry I believe in. A poltergeist poetry that moves things, and us, when we least expect. . .

Deadism like those movies with voice-overs that sound not only dead, but by the end you find out are from a dead man: the one not ready for a close-up, but floating in a pool, the one who knows what he can’t know but tells us anyway. A poetry not of witness, or of victimhood, or of experience or innocence, but of the moment after: write like a saint, not the picture of a saint. Write like the bone in the box, the relic to be kissed. Better yet, write like the saints that have been officially declared saints no more; write like something once holy, now decanonized and attempted to be forgotten. Write not like remembering, but the forgetting. . . write like something you don’t mean to be erased but one day know will: then let them try.

Someone I read said Johnny Cash (bless his heart) didn’t write like a saint, but as a sinner, which meant someone who could be redeemed. That’s right, it seems to me. And one of the most powerful things was his album, after the album he thought he’d die in – the sequel to good-bye. (The Man Comes Around) is just as powerful, if not more than, the goodbye itself.

We should write a poetry that is after the goodbye, that is not the long farewell but the hello after. The hereafter – a word that in itself is undead, both here and gone at the same time. I’m a long gone daddy – and being here, and being gone, seems what we need now. . . the talk of someone whose time is up, and who knows it – but talks anyway.

Only by writing a dead poetry, a zombie poetry, can the thing come back to life, not so much reborn as born for the first time. Maybe we got it all backward: we die, then we live? Only poetry knows for sure.

Kevin Young
Deadism

I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, ‘literature’ is: words that provoke a response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is a but an option.

Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

It is a paradox: yet one so important I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.

It is one of the main errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the ‘original form’ of myth can be separated from its miraculous elements. ‘Wonder is only the first glimpse of the start of philosophy,’ says Plato. Aristotle is more explicit: ‘The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of wisdom.’ Myth encapsulates the nearest approach to absolute that words can speak.

Alan Garner
Aback of Beyond

When I started writing, I thought I was talented. I was six, and I’d written something precocious that attracted praise from the grownups around me, and that praise included a descriptive dimension: I hadn’t just written something that was good – I was a good writer.

Talent is a destructive myth. To call someone talented is to imply that their abilities are intrinsic. Having written and taught for decades now, I’ve satisfied myself that the improvement of a person’s art isn’t drawn from the mystical well of their soul: it’s generated by practice.

Practicing isn’t always hard. At times, practice is joyous. When you are working at the edge of your abilities, acquiring mastery of something difficult that you value, practice is the best feeling. But if you only practice when it brings you joy, you won’t practice much. Logging the requisite hours inevitably involves some slogging.

Cory Doctorow
Shorter

Poetry really came to me. Maybe that sounds too mystical, but what’s wrong with mysticism? I remember hearing poems in what I now know is iambic pentameter in my head in those minutes between sleeping and waking when I was a small child. I didn’t know what that language was, but I found it comforting and physically pleasurable. In elementary school I was by no means a shining star, but when asked to write a verse for the inside of a Mothers’ Day card, the rhyme and meter was effortless to me.

Poetry really arrived after my dad died when I was seven. It was no longer an instinct; it had become a necessity. It rose up to meet my need. That isn’t to say I began writing poems at seven, but that I had begun to see and hear and think like a poet. Even at the funeral, my noticing had become charged. The ant on the rose. The sharp corners of the flag folded into a triangle. The sound of the wind flapping the sides of the tent over his coffin. The creak of the mechanism that lowered him into the ground. This noticing wasn’t garish, really, but held a kind of objectivity.

I didn’t start writing actual poems until I was in early high school. Luckily, girls were required to take typing class (ah, the luck of our subordination…) and typing became the key to getting the lines I’d begun to hear in my head onto the page. It allowed me to begin to see the poem as having a presence on the page. As my own body came into uncomfortable blooming, so did the body of the poem.

Back then, in my rural high school, there was no “creative writing.” Poetry was an unknown entity. I didn’t really know that what I was writing were poems. I believe my ignorance was fortunate. It ushered in invention. There was no one to imitate, no pressure to conform to a standard.

[….]

Most of my education in poetry has been self-teaching. Therefore what I know is like an inland lake — shallow in places, unexpectedly deep in others. Teaching in both undergraduate and MFA programs has extended my education. I learn what I need to teach. I’m a hodgepodge.

There are limitations in that scenario, but it has allowed me to maintain some of my early ignorance. At times, my ignorance has begotten innovation, playfulness, improvisation — an aesthetic that is all mine.

[….]

I’m interested in the rural, but I approach it via degrees of formal experimentation. I think of my work as punk-rural, in that my it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank. I love what I call “freaking form”—learning traditional forms so that they can be usurped, upended, repurposed, like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I’m sort of an anti-intellectual intellectual, a geek about the literature and visual art of the past but I like to bring it down, downtown, here where I live, with the earthworms and gravediggers.

I am guided by instinct, the unconscious, and help from the dead in my poems, which Kevin Young, describes as, “a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts.” For this reason, I’ve always thought my poems are wiser than I am. I don’t know how we can read poetry, or teach it, or write it, without a finger on the pulse of the mystical as well as bringing our intellectual heft to the party. To talk about a writer’s poem in workshop, or a collection of poems, is at best a full-body act. We encounter the body of a poem with our bodies before we even read the words. At best, a workshop can be a circle of human beings who each brings their subjectivity, memories, blind spots, fears, ghosts, dreams, ideas, insights, and imaginations to the room. We build a collective, a zone, and from that zone, poetry becomes possible.

Diane Seuss
Interviewed by Frances Donovan, 4th December 2019

speculative writers

July 3, 2020

Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.

Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.

Rose Michael
how speculative fiction gained literary respectability

Girlfriend

July 2, 2020

1
Are you happy? You wouldn’t say!
And for the better — let it be!
To me, it seems you’ve kissed too many,
There lies your grief.

All the Shakespearean tragic heroines,
I see in you.
But you, a young and tragic lady
No one has saved!

You’ve grown so worn,
Repeating that erotic
Chatter. How eloquent,
That iron band around your bloodless hand.

I love you — sin hangs above you
Like a storm cloud!
Because you’re venomous, you sting,
You’re better than the rest,

Because we are, our lives are different
In this darkness,
Because — your passionate seductions,
And your dark fate,

Because with you, my steep-browed demon
There’s no future,
And even if I burst above your grave,
You can’t be saved!

Because I’m trembling, because can it be true?
Is this a dream?
Because of the delightful irony
That you — are not a he.

—October 16, 1914

2

Beneath caresses of a soft plaid throw,
I summon yesterday . . . a dream?
What was it? Who’s the victor?
Who, the overthrown?

Rethinking all of it anew,
I’m tormenting myself again.
And that, for which I have no words,
Was . . . love? But can it . . . ?

Who was the hunter? Who—the prey?
Oh devil, all of it, it’s upside down!
And the Siberian cat,
What did he grasp amidst his drawling, purring sounds?

And in this battle of the wills,
Who ended up whose tool?
Whose heart was it, yours or mine,
That flew?

And yet, what was it?
What do I long for? What is it that I so regret?
I’m still uncertain, did I win?
Or was I had?

—October 23, 1914

3

Today melted today
I spent it standing at the window.
My gaze had sobered, my chest felt freer,
I was pacified again.

I don’t know why, it must be simply
That my soul had tired
But somehow,
I didn’t want to touch that pencil . . . it rebelled.

And so, I stood there — in the fog —
So far from any good or evil,
Drumming lightly with my finger
Against the softly ringing glass.

My soul no better, and no worse
Than any passerby — take that one.
Than those opaline puddles
Where the horizon splattered,

A soaring bird,
That unbothered dog running by,
Even the singing beggar
Didn’t draw tears from my eyes.

Oblivion, oh what a darling art,
The soul has long accustomed to it.
And some big feeling
Was melting in my soul today.

—October 24, 1914

Marina Tsvetaeva
Trans. Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Beginnings

July 1, 2020

So, it comes first: the world. Then, literature. And then, what one pencil moving over a thousand miles of paper can (perhaps, sometimes) do.

Mary Oliver
Upstream: Selected Essays

engaged with my work

June 20, 2020

Technique (in writing) is mainly what I care about – it’s what keeps me entertained and engaged with my work on a day to day basis. I think any artist will tell you that – and probably most athletes as well. To be good at anything, whether dance or painting or Olympic diving, you have to be really, really attentive to detail. And you also have to be able to forget about technique in the heat of the moment – you have to know your technique so well that it’s second nature. But you never stop trying to refine it.

Donna Tartt
Interview with Laurie Grassi for 8th November 2013 issue of Chatelaine Book Club

unzips the veil

June 18, 2020

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer… He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

E. B. White
One Man’s Meat

He crushes me so hard that I shall break, frail little creature that I know I am; but once he is in me nothing else exists, and I could have my four limbs cut away without awakening from my ecstasy.

Pierre Louÿs
The Songs of Bilitis