sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
[personal profile] sheenaghpugh
There's an article by Marjorie Perloff in the current PN Review (vol 38 no 3) which it's taken me a week to get around to reading, purely because the title, "Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context" was so off-puttingly reminiscent of the most boring type of academic dissertation. But as often happens, it concealed a riveting and thought-provoking article, on what a lot of people nowadays think poetry is, why they're wrong, and why this misconception leads to such truly awful poetry.

The trigger was a workshop for high school poets, held at the White House under the auspices of Michelle Obama and attended by four practising poets, of whom more anon. The introductory remarks, by Mrs Obama and others, stressed the importance of poetry as a teenage escape from real life – "whenever I didn't want to deal with the nonsense of the neighbourhood I would write and write" – and preparation for more important, real-life, adult activities –"it was my writing that prepared me for what I've had to do in my life as an adult". Despite the presence of published poets, it isn't seen as a career in itself; it isn't even for itself. What it is for is self-expression; Rita Dove tells the group "Only you can tell your own story". Some of the students then get to read their own poems. Not surprisingly, given these criteria, they are truly dire. No doubt they were good therapy, and useful as such, but as poems they are quite unredeemed by any sense of rhythm, structure or even feeling for words (witness the one which uses "exceeded" for "succeeded"). All they do have going for them are originality and authenticity, which are clearly seen as cardinal virtues when trying to write a poem.

They aren't, of course, and Dove's "only you can tell your own story" is not just wrong but laughable. So if Richard II, languishing in the Tower, had thought to set down his memoirs, he'd have shown sharper insight, more profound analysis of his situation, given himself better words, than Shakespeare did? "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me" – yeah, right… Not only are you not the only one who can tell your own story; it's extremely likely that someone with a better command of words will in fact do it better, just as someone with artistic flair and training can paint a better portrait of you than you can yourself.

Another of the invited poets, Kenneth Goldsmith, pretty much says this, in a way that apparently didn't go down too well with the students. Far from lauding original voice and authenticity, he tells them (tongue in cheek, but you can see how he'd have enjoyed their aghast reaction to this hyperbole) that his own students are penalised for any display of originality – "instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, stealing and plundering". More, he would have them simply copy out pages of writing by classic authors, as apprentice painters would copy masterworks. To quote Perloff, "copying, cutting and pasting, downloading, recycling, Goldsmith maintains, will actually teach students more about literature than the seeming 'originality' of self-expression".

I don't go all the way with Goldsmith; to my mind, copying typescript is not quite analagous to copying a painting because it doesn't teach technique in the same way (though you will absorb a certain amount just from reading as you do it). I'd rather get students writing pastiche, tackling a set theme "in the style of" such and such a writer, as opposed to their own voice, which is as yet undeveloped and always will be unless they form it the way we all do, by exposure to the work of others. In many ways, of course, his advice is a variant on what we all urge students to do, ie read more, but his teaching methods would mean they actually had to do so, rather than ignoring their hapless lecturers the way they usually do. It's also a hell of a welcome change from extolling the virtues of self-expression, telling one's own story and that hugely over-rated quality, originality.

I don't go all the way with Perloff either; at one point she has the obligatory intellectual side-swipe at Billy Collins. I really don't think most academics get what he is about, but her point is particularly misconceived; when she objects to a line of his that the metaphor is forced – "where is the fishing village today that has no phones?" she is thinking in purely American terms; outside the developed world I'm sure I could find her plenty such, and nowhere in the poem does Collins specify where this village should be. But the article as a whole is most interesting, especially for those of us who still think poetry is basically not made of feelings or ideas, but words.
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December 2011

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