On Putting Powerful Tools in Unskilled Hands: Two Egregious Tendencies in Contemporary Poetry

by Bob Shepherd (*)

NB: Several of the examples I use in this essay come from various essays by Randall Jarrell that I read years ago in my own wayward youth. If this were a scholarly piece, I would track those down and footnote them. But it’s not, so I won’t. I’ll just let this introductory note be an acknowledgement of the debt. Go read Jarrell’s essays. They are wonderful.

In the past, poets were among the best-selling authors of their times. Dryden, Pope, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Byron, Tennyson, and James Whitcomb Riley, for example, commanded enormous audiences. A young woman wrote to Wordsworth asking why he didn’t try his hand at one of the popular romances of the kind coming out of Germany. He replied that his motivation was a bit crass: his audience, because he was a poet, was much larger.

Flash forward a couple hundred years. Because more people today than in the past receive educations, there are doubtless more people writing poetry now than ever before. Do you know anyone who doesn’t have some poems, written in his or her tweens or teens or twenties, stuffed away in a drawer or on a thumb drive? You have some, don’t you? Haaa! I knew it. Hell, even someone as close to illiterate as is, say, Donald Trump, probably committed a poem in his wayward youth (precursor to an even more wayward semiadulthood). One can imagine the quality of that!

So, we live in a time of poetry writing. However, we are also living in a time of almost no poetry reading.

Today, even major poets are published in editions of a thousand copies, most of which are bought by libraries. Doubtless, the poet’s mother also buys one. Robert Frost was likely the last person who was actually able to make a living writing poetry, and he did this only after struggling financially for the first 40+ years of his life. Most practicing poets today have a day job, even the very great ones like Brooke Baker Belk.

I am loath to discourage people from following their bliss, but consider this: One of the ideas that makes the rounds among teenaged boys in 21st-century America is that there are other teenaged boys who make millions each year trying out games for gaming companies. I wish I had a hundred bucks for every time some teen boy has told me that being a videogame tester is what he aspires to. “So, are you going to learn to code?” I always ask. “No, you don’t have to do that. They pay you just to play the games,” is the inevitable answer. Well, anyone who thinks that he or she is going to make a living as a poet today is just like those kids. Uh, no. It’s more likely that you will be discovered to be a lost prince or princess of some obscure African kingdom or that you will run into the ghost of Cleopatra in Algebra class.

So, what happened to the readership for poetry? Well, I think that there are two answers to that question. The first, and biggest, in this country, is that English teachers killed kids’ interest in poetry by continually asking, “What does this mean?” as though poetry were a kind of unproductive Easter egg hunt for meaning perversely well hidden. What do kids learn from this sort of teaching? That poets are weird and that reading poetry is hard and not worth the effort. There’s a name for this kind of inadvertent teaching. It’s called the Hidden Curriculum. Every such English teacher is actually teaching, without recognizing that he or she is doing so, that poets are these perverse people who don’t try to communicate but, rather, try to hide what they mean from their readers. Kids naturally conclude that poetry is scholastic bullshit. A girl once asked T.S. Eliot, at a reading, what he meant by this line from “Ash Wednesday”: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree. Eliot answered, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.’” To combat this perception of poetry reading as something just too difficult to be worth undertaking, a great teacher and poet of my acquaintance, James Worley, used to type poems out as passages of prose and give them to kids in that form. Otherwise, if they saw them arranged into lines, they would think, “Yikes. Poem. One of those things that’s damned near impossible to read.”

But that’s not the main topic of this essay. What I want to address here is the second reason why poetry is widely written but rarely read today, and that’s because most of it is drek. After being subjected to a lot of truly awful contemporary “poetry,” most people just don’t want to be bothered anymore. So, this raises another issue: why is so much contemporary poetry so awful? Well, a partial answer is that many young poets, now, try to use techniques first introduced by masters of the craft but that the young would-be poets don’t have the skill to use well.

Think of woodworking and the use of an electronic router. This is a powerful tool. The extremely sharp bit on a router revolves at between 59.5 and 178.5 miles per hour. Anyone who tries to use the thing without a considerable amount of training is likely to destroy whatever he or she is working on and might well lose the use of a finger or a hand or an eye. Or, to take another example, think of a supposed “good guy with a gun,” barely trained, responding to an active shooter. He or she is most likely just going to hurt himself or herself and one or more innocent bystanders.

Young would-be poets, today, often think that poetry is a medium for gushing randomly and emotionally and vaguely while suspending all the usual rules for communication. It’s art, so anything goes. In particular, they seem to think that in poetry, one can simply free associate and forget about ordinary rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, capitalization, and logic. Where would they get these crazy notions? Well, here’s what happens: a master comes along and employs a new or resurrected or borrowed technique. Others copy the technique, often poorly, and a false takeaway from the master’s work becomes part and parcel of how people conceive of the medium thereafter. I’ll discuss two examples of this.

T.S. Eliot wrote poetry that made obscure allusions and was highly elliptical. So, to understand a particular line in one of his poems, you have to be familiar with the grail legend of the Fisher King or a scene from Dante’s inferno or a particular poem by a thirteenth-century Provencal troubadour. To understand another line, you have to read what is being described into the barest hint about it: he writes, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo,” and you have to fill in the details: Oh, you figure out, based on barely sufficient clues, he is talking about women in an art museum or at an exhibition or a salon, reducing art to idle chatter. So, from this, people mistakenly concluded that in poems, one can simply free associate, mention random things, and be as obscure as one likes. In fact, the more obscure, the more mysterious and possibly profound, and thus the more poetic. And this is a DISASTROUS takeaway. A poem, like any other piece of writing, is a medium of communication. Eliot was not trying to be as obscure as possible—trying to muddy the waters to make them look deep, as Nietzsche famously commented in another context. Rather, Eliot was trying to communicate (emphasis on the word communicate) as much as possible in the fewest possible words. In other words, he was striving to exemplify in his work the virtue of economy of expression. Unfortunately, many would-be poets today got from work like his and that of his imitators the notion that if it’s obscure, it’s a poem. No, that’s not a characteristic that makes something into a poem. It makes it into failed communication.

Edward Estlin Cummings wrote poetry that intentionally violated standard rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, word and line breaks, meter, and manuscript form. However, commonly (though not always), he was doing this with very good reason. I’ll give an example not from Cummings but from Walt Whitman, who wrote, “I snuff the sidle of evening.” Here, Whitman makes the noun snuff into a verb and the verb sidle into a noun. Turning snuff into a verb suggests that the speaker is reacting to evening as one does when taking snuff: it’s an enthusiastic, addictive, intense, at least mildly intoxicating action. And the nominalization of the verb to sidle suggests evening cozying up to the speaker. In both cases, he is violating the usual usage of these words with an explicit purpose—to render extremely concretely a particular experience. Evening sidles up to the speaker, and the speaker loves this so much that he snuffs it, takes in the intoxicating presence of evening in an intense gesture. But as with Eliot, would-be poets reacted to Cummings and other experimental poets by latching onto the wrong takeaway. They didn’t take away the idea that one can, on occasion, in a poem, violate an established convention of grammar, usage, punctuation, formatting, logic, or whatever in order to achieve a particular innovative communicative purpose that has been clearly worked out. Rather, they took away the utterly crazy notion that in poetry none of the conventions apply. And that, again, is a recipe for failed communication. Conventions exist in order to facilitate communication, and participating in communication is, after all, why people read and write, speak and listen. One shouldn’t have to say things that obvious. Here’s a small sample from a work by someone who has imbibed the false takeaway that in a poem, anything goes:

A light-shines.
In the distance
Beckoning.

This snippet violates a number of rules of punctuation. If the author were writing prose, the sentence (for it is, or at least resembles, a sentence) would be punctuated (and parts of it capitalized) in one of the following ways:

A light shines in the distance, beckoning.

Or

A light shines, in the distance beckoning.

And, of course, each would have a slightly different intention and signification.

When broken into lines, these would become

A light shines
in the distance,
beckoning.

or better yet,

A light shines in the distance,|
beckoning.

or

A light shines,
in the distance
beckoning.

or better yet,

A light shines,
in the distance beckoning.

Note that each of these is punctuated just as the lines would be if they were in straight prose. Also note that in the second of each of these examples, the line break actually serves a purpose. It accentuates the grammatical structure of the enjambed (run-on) sentence. In the first two examples, the comma sets off a participle. In the second two, it sets off an absolute construction.

In other words, unless there is very good reason for doing so, one should follow the standard rules for capitalization, punctuation, grammar, usage, logic, and so on that one would follow when writing prose. and when one breaks a rule, dividing a sentence into separate lines in a free verse poem, for example, there should be a reason for doing so. Otherwise, if one treats punctuation marks and capital letters and line breaks like simply various seasonings sprinkled randomly in a text, one simply introduces confusion. But, of course, people don’t read in order to be confused. They read in order to be communicated with.

My suggestion to young poets re: copying the innovative techniques of folks like Eliot and Cummings: These were skilled masters at the height of powers developed over many years. Do not try this at home. And if you break a rule, do it for a good reason. The word art comes from the Latin ars, meaning a work of practical skill or craft. What distinguishes a craftsperson from an amateur is that he or she knows the rules and breaks them, when he or she does break them, rarely and for good reason. Why? Because otherwise, the resulting work is simply a mess.

(*)Copyright 2020. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. Feel free to copy and share this, as long as the work is shared in its entirety and this notice is retained.

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