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Creating The Real Art Behind Poetry

Thanks to Rob Taylor for this food for thought:

In a country where people don’t gather in cafes, at ages where people don’t meet at university, how to meet other poets? The workshop.

The workshop answers the need for a cafe. But I called it the institutionalized cafe, and it differs from the Parisian version by instituting requirements and by hiring and paying mentors. Workshop mentors even make assignments: “Write a persona poem in the voice of a dead ancestor.” [etc] These formulas, everyone says, are a whole lot of fun. . . . They also reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. This reduction-by-formula is not accidental… Games serve to democratize, to soften, and to standardize; they are repellent. Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem.

– Donald Hall, from his lecture “Poetry and Ambition”, which was later published in the Kenyon Review in 1983.

Fortunately the Pre-Tree workshops generally steer away from poem prompt assignments and more towards How Poems Work discussion or detailed round table crits, or drawing attention to particularly well-crafted pieces.

It can be boring to head dump yet another “spontaneous draft” and share the immediate slop. Exercises and assignments can make you write outside your default zones, although collections on a subject can inspire dreadful symmetry where each person cookie cutters out their brand of voice regardless of constraints or company.

On one hand one tries to create an essentialist self, polishing one’s own best fit of skills but if one isn’t challenging and expanding the toolbox, exactly what is one adding? Another poem which leaves the world unexamined? Another poem to reinforce hapless women feels upset and isn’t it romantic? Another poem in which we remix latinate vocab to be subversive? Another poem of a guy’s anomie of the open night hightway? Oh, look, heart string tug at standard second last line achieved? Another “true emotion“? Truth is an obstacle to communicating, isn’t it? Belief is largely a construction zone, much of comfort is wilfully ignoring parts of complex self that object to what the mind says, or the body or the heart. One integrated story to create an ooh is refined. Raw and fibrous and incomplete work too as poetry. And avant-gardists. It doesn’t need to be upheaval nor reinforcement, gratifying/satisfying, intellectual nor story, observations. Astute, purposeful even if unconscious, consciously filtered later, considered with brain and body and language engaged to nudge ideology towards complex understanding turns my crank.

One can fall into safe traps without the structure of obedience to parlour games and even in parlour games, people exceed appropriate limits, overshare, hit upon their own nerve accidentally, find something real. Or in project mind blather on because what is started must not be abandoned until funding comes to justify expenditures of energies.

I seem grumpy.

What impressive poems I thought recently and then could turn and also agree that the poet seemed a rape child of Sylvia Plath and Stalin. Sharp images, tight writing, sparkling metaphors, and an ideology of life is one bedraggled loss after the last. Can’t have it all.

Can have self-awareness tho. The poet’s job isn’t to slap down words unconsidered. There’s a social implication. A how one is treating oneself, how the words will be received. It’s a sort of terraforming that comes with some responsibility for keeping the standards up.

Being published is something, whether print or pixel but that damning thought that there is an audience of praise for everything and that doesn’t make something good or the top.

People call governments short-sighted but they are led by people. A general population which in a freedom of choice give themselves diabetes and heart disease and consume vacuous culture that have movies reinforcing unironically ridiculous gender-typing, have women hobbling about on tall heels and underdressed for winter while deafening themselves in clubs. Tastes of people to discern, in short, are short-sighted. People seem almost impervious to read implications or to take an active role in creating. So if poets want to elect themselves as meaning-makers or meaning-deconstructors, a burst of “real” defined only in emotional terms, in terms of ego, also has its problems.

To rebuild the sub-structure and the broken plumbing under culture, we need to analyze and question what is going on and sell a new story of how things are in a sugar pill that this sweet-addled culture can consume.

At least that’s the soapbox theory of the day.

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