:: Article

An Unpoetic Taboo, But Fuck It

By Donari Braxton.

Fuck it, there has been in recent times little as utterly ridiculous sounding as literary expertise attempting to pull its weight in the horrendous, appalling world of poetry criticism. I’ll spare the decorum and just put it bluntly: Nine out of ten texts, critics on poetry, are totally absurd to read.
Permit a perhaps self-evident comment: Poetry, in a way that is distinctive from most other art forms, is particularly difficult to critically and uniquely appropriate from an artistic standpoint. This is true insomuch as the poetic realm, un-fashioned, has now only home in academia.

The number of people who pursue contemporary poetry and actively seek out and purchase works by contemporary poets these days must be so idiotically top-heavy of poets, poetry-students and teachers themselves, and so utterly divested of anyone not directly engaged in the domain of poetry, that the very fact poetry remains to be sold in public and not just university bookstores actually kind of surprises me. I can’t remember for the life of me the last time I’ve seen a banker, or a nurse, or a cop, or even a musician, pull out a collection of poetry on the subway and read through just for the sheer pleasure of doing so, on the way home from a long day’s work for example, let alone anywhere else. In fact, I personally have very little experience seeing novelists, fiction-writers or journalists reading poetry. Yet wouldn’t you think one or two tragicomic Tranströmer verses, or the blithe-giving little strokes-of-genius gruff of a Larry Lewis collision poem, would make the absolute best commuting companions? Wouldn’t a brief interjection of empurpled poesis, anapestic vibrations, intoxicating descriptions of the every day world get us home safe-and-sound without flitching from us the rite of Cobert’s eleven-thirty spot? — Hell yeah.

Unfortunately, poetry collections only appear in the subway when the editor’s footnotes on the bottom of the preface’s third-page are being plagiarized in crude scribbles by a pink-faced theatre-studies NYU undergraduate who’s been slacking on the homework of some total bummer compulsory liberal arts class-C history of late Russian poetry, Brodsky-via-Pushkin, seminar piece of shit gen-ed requirement. Though don’t get me wrong, I’m not going down the old “poetry’s dead” route, far too often traveled, and to what end.

Poetry, hermetic, is not dead per se; even the world’s most-wanted terrorist has, for instance, been managing just fine in his wee mountain-cave whilst history’s most formidable army pulls its hair out in his pursuit, so poetry can’t be dead… Yet there’s no doubt that poetry’s total lack-of-demand somehow graduates from the die-very-hard faith we have in today’s perfectly un-insightful ‘savants.’

Poetry criticism/review these days is both the by-product and the reinforcing stimulus of poetry’s total alienation from the soapbox of literature. It bornes from an excessively didactical understanding of the usefulness of poetry, a kind of de profundis militancy really, metaphrasing technicalities, preachifying the insignificant. Result? The ‘ethos’ of contemporary poetry culture, I have to say it, exists on an entirely besides-the-point basis, often both internally and externally.

Blatantly priding itself on its own vanguardist, disaffective ballyhoo, the discussion of contemporary poetry obstinately presents/“interprets” poetry from within a inflexibly cold and far too often overly “intellectual” vantage point, uncompromising to the forum. We read arts and culture magazines reviewing painting, music, and fiction in hopeful and encouraging ways; we hit the poetry review: an encyclopedic pop-quiz. Over-emphasis on such unnecessarily important features of a poem’s strength, such as its external, historical, or self-historical referentials, the mechanics rather than the pathos of its language, its “continuity” (and this latter only because, in evidence, poetry critics often simply don’t understand poetic continuity), are for example all too present, not to mention championed, in the slapdash world of poetry criticism. Overly “intellectual,” what does this mean? A poem is not a mathematical thesis to be tested and verified in the experimental labs of men already embittered by the fact that they didn’t come up with the thesis to begin with, is what I mean. Let us save this kind of automatonic dissection of verse for Poetry 101, or some intro-to-linguistics class, not scuttle it about on the pages of lit-reviews and prefaces to great collections.

There is strictly no excuse for the continual, uncompromising exclusion of the “layman” in poetry write-ups, i.e the ninety-nine percent of the human-race who hasn’t studied the intricate theoretical systems of Italian philosopher Agamben, before tackling Gillian Conoley’s collection Profane Halo, whence the title and theme. Conoley’s collection is an excellent example of our problem here, because it deals with “big ideas,” but effortlessly and beautifully transcends the highly philosophical issues it uses as catalysis for its poems. Yet, Conoley’s verse could nevertheless not escape being presented in the poetry world as some tract of cabalistic reincarnationism. Myself, I doubt this is what Ms. Conoley was hoping for when she wrote the poetry, let alone when she decided to publish and give it to the world. However, even if this is exactly what she was hoping for, fuck her. All else should fail, let’s deal with the poetry in poetry.
Why do we insist on being ‘academic’ outside of academia, is my question.
Is it that poetry enthusiasts are inexplicably smarter than lovers of all other forms of art?

Or are we swinging a bit wide of what’s relevant: Not a didact’s ergodic appeal for tenure, but rather a return to the sensory-array, as Susan Sontag put it, a return to the ‘centripetal’ of the interpretive muscle.

“One finds here a strange, high-blend of German expressionist poetry and proverb-like folk wisdom reminiscent of the Satyricon…” — From a recent poetry collection review from a leading literary journal.

Put bluntly, who really gives a fuck about a poem’s relationship to classical Greek arts and culture? Western academia’s specific obsession with Greek and Roman culture (and atrociously common apathetic disinterest in other great artistically influential ancient civilizations) need have no place in the discussion of contemporary poetry, save in a specifically academic environment. Aristotle’s Poetics is as applicable to contemporary poetry as Sun-Tzu’s Art of War is to modern military theory; it’s interesting to know, but you’re not going to win a tank-battle with it.

Do music critics of such avant and highly successful music review publications as Pitchfork or Accelerator waste their time comparing new music’s mathematical parallels to Bach and Mahler, or do they rightfully leave that for Berkley, and address the actual stuff of the music they’re describing?

Personally, I couldn’t care less about the iambic pentameters, the trochees, the dactyls, all of which find their origin in the mind-numbing and moot taxonomic systems of Greek meter-theory, but this doesn’t mean that no one should care about these things. My point is simply that discussions of such figure-facts are totally inaccessible and meaningless to most people, just as any overly pedagogical discussion of an art form, music or painting etc., would be unsuitable for any all-access art culture magazine. Likewise:

“There is no problem [in Rimbaud’s celebrated poem “l’Age d’Or”], except the “visible à l’oeil nu,” a banal expression for “evident.” It is clumsy and I doubt if it is satiric, as some think; nothing else in the poem is.” — From a Rimbaud anthology by a University Press, 1999

Likewise I challenge the poetry critic, please, I beg, please can you begin interpolating poems on a deeper level than the simple, moth-eaten, bromidic question: “Does this poem contain clichés?” Maybe we decide yes, maybe we decide no. But, Christ, answering the question is but the gateway to the discussion of the poem, not a make-or-break, probatory conclusion. Do art critics look at expressions socially-gestated on a canvas and automatically deem them as proof of the artist’s inanition, or likewise, do music critics seek out, eagle-eyed, the reverberance of pop-culture in new music as a tell-tale sign the musician’s a flop? Or rather do these critics first look to understand how the use of a cliché might inform an artwork or transcend its purpose, asking themselves not, “Do I smell a cliché?”, but rather the comparatively much more relevant question, “If there is cliché involved, what reasoning, if any, is there behind it?”

I once handed a beautiful piece of poetic-prose by some master poet, I forget who it was, Mandelstam maybe, to a considerably intelligent Columbia comparative-lit MFA graduate (by then, teaching at that university) who I’d recently met. When she returned it to me, not having read it before, she claimed she found the piece wonderful, to which I inquired what she liked about it. The answer I received was that the poet’s “use of adverbs was fantastic, which is rare, because over-adverb use is so dangerous in poetic-prose.”

Since then, I admit, I’ve been secretly calling this strange, doctrinaire-like phenomenon, which takes this form and many forms similar to it, as the “mind-the-adverbs” syndrome.

There’s nothing wrong with acquiring the fundamental seeds of an art form by way of in-line training, and this of course generally means university study, which can, if used correctly, serve to one’s advantage, strengthen one’s artistic foundation, and bla-bla-bla. But to what extent, and by which means, we put to use our academic instruction in the domain of art along the byway to becoming artistically and intellectually independent is make-or-break. In most university-taught arts, this remark would come off totally self-evident, yet for whatever reason in the realm of poetry, in a kind of Tinseltown verionization of intellectual culture, the meaning of artistic independence is, at best, an infrequency.

Academia is academia; if you’re lining up to dash through a poem, whether as a poet to write one or as a critic to review one, from a “mind-the-adverb” starting-block, then you’re a sprinter lined-up to run his heart out at the javelin-toss. Version in consequence: The way critics often think they’re supposed to read poetry and the beauty of real poetry itself might in fact have very little to do with one another. If I could somehow, with a bit of magic, transform and transliterate a Schoenberg composition directly into a poem, and send it in to a publisher, I’m sure it would succeed in little. Poetry publishers are too busy with irrelevant mechanics, general “rules of the thumb,” making sure the poet doesn’t use the verb “to be,” but rather relentlessly replaces it with more “colorful” action-words, and so forth. But these tedious, perfunctory relationships with the mechanics of a poem are neither here nor there. We’d be reduced to reading the great Austrian’s pantonal melodies and judging them without even a listen, pronouncing them of poor quality because they make use of the “dodecaphonic” technique — whatever that means — or some equally immaterial, not to mention unintelligible, scholarly-certified reason.

One way to look at university study is that the student of art learns what he/she learns so that he/she doesn’t need to use it (yes, kind of like kung-fu). In a perfect world, academics would teach their students not what is right or wrong in the realm of art, but simply rudiments, what’s been done, and maybe a few hints on how to build off it, shit like that.

Of course, this is wishful-thinking; literary forums which manage authenticity faced with a discussion of poetry are few and far between, most of which are online. As a whole, even some of our most prized and outspoken voices on poetry sing the chorus of the ‘mind-the-adverb’ syndrome international anthem. Fierce bodies of poetic work by highly renowned fictionists, obvious example: Borges, go recurrently under-valued because the lit-world insists on qualifying poets as poets, an elite club of obstinate intellectuals dedicated to the verse. By the same token, great fiction by writers considered poets, like James Merrill, also persistently fail to be appreciated because the lit-world dreads coalescing the sophisticated poet and the public novelist. The paralleling mediation of our problem here is that commonly, to the literary mind, a poet is a writer who writes only poetry. And ironically, as basically all other forms of art have gone pop-culture and commercial, poetry in its own right has to some degree been seeking refuge higher and higher in the priggish, pedagogical boughs of the mandarin-tree. It is as if, in a world which has decidedly empowered jocular sex-appeal over artistry, the culture of poetry, reactionary, is desperately seeking to avenge intellect.

But extremism nips itself in the butt every time; the 21st century troglodyte, eat your heart out mother fucker, will not bloom a poetic forum. To the contrary, the whole thing actively fragments and desolates poetry. Mulishly discussing and presenting poetry as if every poem were a Ph.D thesis on Plato, regardless of the forum of publication, is one of the literary world’s atrocious habits. Yet most critics seem not to realize that poetry, as an art form, antecedes its written-form and even literacy itself. The history of poetry is not the Greeks and Holy Scriptures and the progression of poetic ‘movements,’ politics and intelligentsia; the history of poetry is the evolution of sensibilities, of human-beings’ sensory experiences, from the oral tradition all the way through to E-books.

Here in poetry’s hour of silence, we might find that if the prevailing discussion of poetry is too “smart” to actually be appreciated by anyone, frightening readers off instead of enticing them to read, then it might be that the prevailing discussion of poetry ain’t so smart at all. And who can blame people for straying away from poetry when it’s raffled off as an exercise of highbrow pabulum instead of a simple offering of sensory delight?

In a western world where every man, woman and child are bludgeoned over the head with a surcharge of nescient rigmarole, the sense-vacuum of MTV culture excess and internet colonization, it is not ‘academic’ values that are going to break the trend, but rather we need to go right to the source itself–return to and hone in on the raw sensory beauty of art, in particular poetry, in order to be of affect.

Otherwise put, sense counters nonsense, not “intellectuality,” and every person in the world is in the possession of a sensibility, whatever its proportions.
Rhythms not devices, tonalities not ‘schematics,’ resonance not lyricism, feeling not category, being not meaning, aesthetics not meter.These are a few ways, it would seem to me, that poetry can be healthily, and intelligibly, presented to a non-academically orientated poetry public. Because, yes, poetry is an art form derived from language, like fiction and like non-fiction. But poetry too expresses, as Valéry once said, a “state of mind,” not necessarily an excursus into intellectuality, nor simply a set of cerebral variations on expression.

Of course, it’s our choice; whether or not we wish to effectively integrate poetry discourse into arts and culture, or whether we want it to maintain its esoteric guise. It seems to me that most individuals in the poetry realm claim to be unhappy about poetry’s general remoteness–Which is what drew me to write on the subject to begin with. Repeatedly I find myself listening to friends and poets express just how horrified they are about the state of the poetry and the world. But if this is true, if we’re sincerely discontent with poetry’s position in the arts, then we’re hypocrites if we continue to be the culprits behind this rigid, ceremonial crypticism of the poetic vein. Aren’t we?

So enough complaining about poetry’s wretched fortune whilst we continue to present poetry in reservation to only those who write it or study it. Enough claiming people just don’t “get” poetry; poetry, unremittingly presented as it has been, has proven itself not to “get” people.

But it can.

Because poetry’s a powerful form of art and at its most flourishing transcends ‘intelligence’–Could be as widespread as novels, if we’re ready to breathe some life back into her.

First step in accomplishing this great feat, you ask, dear colleagues? I believe it’s called, here and in many modern societal structures: Get over yourselves.


Donari Braxton began the course writing theatre for a troupe in Paris, and later turned towards texts, splicing drama and prose. He has since returned to the states, where a book of his poetry was published by Slow Toe Publications, and where in 2006 a collection of his short stories was published by the same press. Most recently, Braxton released a translation of a Paul Celan poetry collection on small distribution. A second collection of his short stories will be released at some point in the future. Currently he is writing a novel, though continues regularly to contribute criticism/nonfiction to various art publications based in New York City, where he lives. (Picture by Ben Schechter.)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 9th, 2007.