Sunday, September 04, 2011

`Milton's Mom's a Navajo'

When I read something like this or this, I want to soothe my brains and ears with something like this:

“The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don’t watch.”

Pretentiousness is best answered with derision, not well-meaning attempts at understanding. That merely encourages the pretentious and swells their already swollen sense of entitlement (to readers, to publication, to good reviews). Arguing with a proudly incompetent poet is as futile as talking ethics to a welfare cheat. Why change if you like the payoff?

Ars Poetica,” quoted above, was written by X.J. Kennedy and collected in Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008 (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2007). Kennedy, who was born in 1929 and published his first poem in 1956, writes in “The Furnace of Life – sort of an introduction” that he adopts the ancient Chinese notion of dating one’s birth from conception:

“Right away, a fertilized egg starts gestating poems. It just hangs there, piling up material that won’t see print in a hurry. Like all true artists, it can’t be rushed. Come to think of it, millions of incipient American poets must have been aborted before they ever printed a line. That can’t be totally bad. At least, the country has escaped utter deforestation.”

Which doesn’t, of course, address the pandemic of online poetry. Of all the artistic gifts, music, mathematics and poetry are the most sparsely and unfairly distributed. Generations can pass without first-rate artists, and the situation isn’t alleviated when the giftless are not only encouraged to write, but to do it publically. Here is Kennedy’s “A Poet-critic”:

“Swap got a wildly favorable review
Written, of course, by some kiss-ass he knew
To whose last book he’d suckled up in turn.
Better to marry, said Saint Paul, than burn.”

Kennedy possesses the inspired nastiness of Swift, and a comparable dedication to the hard work of craft. Here is one of his “Poetic Ends”:

“Hart Crane
Flushed himself down the drain
When it seemed clear
That The Bridge didn’t cohere”

Kennedy revels in a sort of pseudo-Philistinism as a strategy to expose the true Philistines. His art is manic and rigorous, like Swift's. Here is “Defending the Canon”:

“The stooping scholars labor, hot
To keep intact the status quo:
They’ve proved Hawthorne a Hottentot
And Milton’s Mom a Navajo.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

The poems you link to here are not representative so much of online poetry (a surprising amount of which is readable) but of workshop poetry, the kind that is printed by major publishers, feted with prizes and reviewed in the New York Times. Kennedy’s knowing and witty verse responses to the onanism, incestuousness, S&M, and obsessive deviant sexual practices (respectively) of the “gone viral” institutionalized poetry world are, in my view, way too generous. I like your welfare cheat metaphor better. One can only wish for an actual discussion with a denizen on the ethics of it all—instead one is subjected to the mawkish, time-suck story of woe (the poem), an assault upon ones’s sincere questioning with the full apparatus of a mind working to evade the obvious (the “poetics”) and, if you are really, really, really lucky, a simple statement before turning away that “you’re just jealous.”

For a more balanced assessment of the contemporary academic poetry world, I recommend the Seek and Destroy section of Dan Schneider’s website. Making William Logan look like an ass-kisser, Dan takes on with painstaking logic the whole academic poetic establishment based a few simple observations:

• Poets, editors and critics by and large have complete contempt for the reader
• The most honored contemporary American poetry, when read line-by-line, reveals a plethora of cliché, nonsensical line breaks to disguise bad prose as verse, and basic lack of understanding of poetic history or craft
• Despite the denseness and intentional obscurity of most published poetry, it is usually about the experience of being in a poetry workshop, breaking up with a fellow poet, or both at the same time.

It’s ugly reading, in other words, but if you feel as I do, physically repulsed by the work of, say, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, Donald Hall, Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, Karen Volkman (among many others critiqued) it’s medicinal.