Monday, August 31, 2009

Poetry Readings, Part 1

Reading Katha Pollitt's entry from The Nation magazine reminds me of Charles Bukowski's poem "The Poetry Reading" and the two bring me to my own feelings about poetry readings: I don't like them very much.

There are two people at any reading-- the reader and the audience. As the reader I must decide whether to read to the audience or read to myself. That is, read what will entertain the audience or read something I want to be linked to as a poet; whether I want to be a performer or a poet is the choice. The audience won't get the poet, usually. The audience will remember funny poems. That's about it.

As the audience I must remember to set the bar low. There are few poets good enough to be interesting and most readings aren't by them. I consider a reading good if I come away with a single memorable line and will settle for a single memorable word. Also, even great poetry cannot be endured for much more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Lousy poetry loses me from the first gushy dog or god that died, usually the first line.

The best thing about poetry readings is that they give bad poets an audience, bad poets who deserve an opportunity to read. These are poets who write seriously, honestly and genuinely deserve a reading-- there are thousands, maybe millions. They need to read somewhere. So there are readings all over the place and I go and support them because they serve a function and help the readers.

The second best thing about poetry readings is that they have morphed into little spectacles of entertainment that is often creative. In the never-ending attempt to legitimize themselves readings have become drinking fests, beer tastings, wine tastings, fights, festivals and a variety of things-not-poetry-but-that-include-poetry-in-their-titles and which have readers of poems as their causes. Occasionally a good poem falls out of one of these and they are worth attending for that surprise.

Poetry is a difficult art, is hard to get at at a reading, does not entertain much because it shouldn't. It involves so much that is difficult, complex, restricting. Current audiences just haven't the courage for good poetry. Yet we want readings. I think the driving force is the urge to read a poem, not the urge to hear a poem-- it's an ego thing. Occasionally, it is the urge to hear a particular poet. Give her twenty minutes, tops. Then sit down, belly up to the bar and talk about Red Sox or the protein content of hemp powder.

So long for now.

(In my next post, I'll discuss readings I have actually enjoyed.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Readers' Digest Again

Okay, UNCLE!!! First, lest you think ill of me, I don't subscribe to The Readers' Digest. I say that for all of you who, as I for decades, maligned the magazine as something appropriate to a sub- or lesser- species of mind. I think I learned this in high school, maybe earlier, despite the fact that my parents subscribed for endless years and I read a lot of it and never missed the humor. As I got older and involved myself more in poetry it became essential to my appearance as a writer interested in good stuff to put down the Digest while remaining a closet reader, however intermittent.

Well, cut my legs off and call me shorty if I don't recant. THE READERS' DIGEST IS PUBLISHING POETRY MONTHLY. And it's good stuff. So, name another magazine as pedestrian and widespread that is publishing something so lofty. Hats off to RD.

Now go read it.

(I cannot leave this topic without noting that The Readers' Digest according to a Wall Street Journal article on August 17th is filing for bankruptcy as part of a debt restructuring. It is expected that the magazine will continue publication without incident although it will adapt to survive.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Go Back to School

Fall is fast upon us and it's impossible to ignore the feeling that it's time to return to school. The brochures for the community colleges, the adult ed programs, the YM/YWCA are in the malls and barber shops and it's time to wonder which poetry writing course to take this time around, how to pick, what will be the most helpful.

This fall don't take another writing course. Take a reading course, something as basic as American Literature, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the criticism of Coleridge, Victorian Poetry, modern American poetry. But don't write a goddam thing. Don't study writing, don't learn about writing. Just read and read and read.

We all want to write our hearts, our passions, free our souls and all that good shit. Stuff it. Do the work of learning what the good stuff is, what the great writers wrote. This is where the love of the art begins. And learn how the poems mean, how they get their impact, why formal verse works and how much work it really is. We tend to measure our work by its passion rather than its command of the elements of poetry. Read Aristotle's "Poetics" not necessarily for the way it informs contemporary poetics but for the depth and complexity of poetry, the nuances we so often are unaware of, the attention to the WORK OF POETRY we so often omit from our own efforts.

Go to school to read the good stuff. You'll learn more about writing that way than by writing. DO THE WORK.

So long for now.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Art, Artsy or Madness?

"That contemporary art seems to be anything an artist wants it to be can lead to a lot of confusion, most notably, the willy-nilly application of the term to anything with a creative impulse." (Italics mine)
This quote from The Christian Science Monitor brings me back to another look at my criticism of much current poetry and workshops. We tend to call anything creative "art" whether it is or not and this diminishes art. Poetry is an art and is much more than merely creative.

Workshop leaders fawn over any creative phrase, turn, even titles. Yes, such creativity is praiseworthy but the risk is that the writer and other observers are so easily led to think that this makes their work art when it qualifies for artsy, at best. Creativity can bring many of us up to mediocrity but alone cannot bring us to the level of artist. Craftsmanship can bring many of us up to mediocrity but alone cannot bring us to the level of artist. Creativity and craftsmanship together do not guarantee art but come closer.

To get to art we must add divine madness-- inspiration and inspired engagement with creativity and craft. All these come with work, lots of work, lots of hard work and this work should be bereft of the notion of art. The art will take care of itself but we and our workshop leaders are well-advised to be familiar enough with what art is to caution us not to believe that our work is art when it is not. We will thus raise our sights and better our work.

And by the way, divine madness without creativity and craft is only madness.

So long for now.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


In a post titled "Creativity Not" I spoke of my father-in-law's effect on my writing schedule. I now report that he has died and was interred last Friday. At nearly ninety years one cannot endure a fall, broken hip, pneumonia, surgery, heart attack and brain damage. Now what do I say about my creativity, my schedule?

There is that struggle with first he was here then, suddenly, he wasn't. There is mourning (muted because he was so old and, frankly, pretty mean (for much of his life)). But I have also established another schedule that is hard to break from. Instead of writing I was reading-- non-fiction in the morning, fiction in the evening. I grew comfortable with this despite the discomfort of not writing. There isn't enough time to read all I want and to write all I want. There will be a loss switching tasks here. I have read and heard of others who could not switch back to writing without great struggle and some who never returned to it with the same verve.
I doubt I'll have that much trouble but I have again learned:

If you want to write, write and write regularly and don't surrender.

Life is a potent distraction and often means the deaths of things. I'm a writer or I'm not. Creativity requires work. Inspiration can and need be cultivated or it withers.

So long for now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Michael Jackson

In September when I ask the Manchester Chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society what happened this summer I figure that Michael Jackson's death will head the list. Here's what I have to say about that:

1. I once turned down free tickets to one of his concerts.
2. The problem with the death of "The King of Pop" is that pop is king.

I'll bet you didn't know of the death of Harold Norse on June 8. (Check out these poems.) I do not suggest that Norse ranks with Jackson but I do suggest that in his milieu he was as important and influential as Jackson in his and that pop as king will almost always trump The Arts in America and I don't like it.

The artist walks the world without his prosthetic nose, struggles anonymously with life and occasionally makes five bucks for a dose of truth. Truth doesn't sell, creates no icons, is not welcome. The King of Pop, loaded with talent, is now being laid waste in the halls of gossip, voyeurism and ogling-- and that is what most of my poetry group will think of as the hallmark of summer. Harold Norse? At this point I think Michael Jackson envies his death. My real hope is that the two of them are up there shaking their heads and alternately laughing and despairing at those of us below.