Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Poetics of Smallmindness

I am finding that poetry is more and more the opposite of what I think it should be. One of my definitions of poetry would be that it is a place to expand our minds.

Instead, so many poets work so hard to make "poetry" an exclusive place that is so hard to get into. The Language Poets hate the St. Marks Poets. The Iowa Poets hate everyone. So many people want to lay claim to the word experiemental, but that word really has no meaning anymore. What is "experimental?" Is it Stein, Fanny Howe, Clark Coolridge, Jorie Graham, Norma Cole? One could give a concrete argument for why each of these poets would or wouldn't be called experimental. In his time. Eliot was certainly experimental....and what's so great about that tiny word anyway? Robert Hass, Stanley Kunitz, Anna Ahkmatova, and Denise Levertov are/were all great poets too, and they're not the "e" word.

There was a uncomfortable moment in my workshop last week when a guy I really like suggested that I read Simic. He looked at another guy waiting for the critical ax to fall. Then, he second guessed himself saying that he knows it's not cool to like Simic. That is the rub. Many people have divided poetry into what's cool and what's not. There's an agreed upon system that everyone must adhere. But this is so sophmoric. The great poets (like Ginsberg) read everything. Some poets (like Everson) never read poetry at all. His library was full of non-fiction. Also, I was saddened because a poetry blog I like to read was made private. What is that all about? I thought people wanted readers. Or perhaps the reasoning is like the "I'm not a plastic bag" bag. If you make yourself into a hot item, people will wait in line for you.

I wish, for one week, everyone would go read the opposite poet of whom they normally read. I think the world would be a better place.


richard lopez said...

jennifer, i completely agree. i'm a poet who loves poetry with a capital L and read as many different kinds of writing as there may possibly be. sure i identify as a kind of experimental, alt-lyric writer, i also dig the works of seamus heaney, ciaran carson and yes - gasp! - simic who i think is a terrificly funny poet.

poets of all sorts would benefit by going outside their comfort range and read what normally wouldn't be considered 'cool'.

by the by, i live in sacramento, where everson was born. was something of an influence back in my early 20s. i hadn't known he didn't read poetry. somehow that makes me suspicious. not of his talent, or the fact that he wrote some damn good work, but that poets who distrust poetry so much that they can't even be bothered to read it, is at the least distressing. and not my experience of poetry at all.

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Dear Richard,

Thank you so much for writing. I know what you mean about poets not reading poetry at all. I have complained about this problem in many situations, particularly amongst poets in the slam community.

I, somehow, do not think of Everson in this way however. I think my story must be exaggerated as he taught at some point. Also, as Everson was a religious person and poet, I see him as an outsider from what should be commonly expected. Although my father, Lee, would really be the one to ask. He was Everson's best friend and biographer.

Pris said...

Very good post. All of these 'camps' confuse me as to their purpose. I've seen some poets claim a 'new school as their creation with glee, then argue about whp belongs in in. Perhas it's time we stop building so many schoolhouses and focus on what there is to be learned.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I don't want to know what school or movement people think a poet belongs to... or their work. I'm honestly interested in all kinds of poetry. What I can't understand today might fit perfectly tomorrow. I've come to distrust people who speak of schools and movements and labels unless they are questioning or subverting them... there's just too much ego there.