Friday, May 22, 2009

on capitalization; on vers libre, ritual, and the jazzy stylings of christ.

1. some of you might notice that sometimes i capitalize my entries. and sometimes i don't. if they are capitalized, there's a good chance it's coming from my phone, which automatically capitalizes text (and is too much trouble to fiddle with for the sake of consistency). sorry for those who hate my all undercase drivel. but not really cause i'm not going to change.

2. onto other things. in my research for ed hirsch i come across some really good stuff from time to time worth sharing. from an excellent essay (so far) by david antin called "modernism and postmodernism: approaching the present in american poetry" (a boring name, i know--why can't they come up with something a little more, "castrating the turkey: on POMO and poetry"?)...he begins with a quote from john crowe ransom:

"i think meters confer upon the delivery of poetry the sense of a ritualistic occasion. when a ritual develops it consists in the enactment, or the recital over and over again, of some experience which is obsessive for us, yet intangible and hard to express. the nearest analogue to the reading of poetry according to the meters, as i think, is the reading of an ecclesiastical service by the congregation. both the genius of poetry and the genius of the religious establishment work against the same difficulty, which is the registration of what is inexpressible, or metaphysical. the religious occasion is a very formal one, with its appointed place in the visible temple, and the community of worshippers congregated visibly."

ok, stop. this is old ground, i know, for most poetry people--poetry attempting to express the ineffable through structures (rhyme) that imitate other things we use (the liturgy) to express the ineffable, etc etc etc. what is cool is the way antin turns it backwards...

you don't have to be especially committed to ritual or religion to observe that this is a kind of poetical episcopalianism. the sermon on the mount was also a religious occasion; it didn't take place in a 'visible temple' and wasn't delivered in meter. but if the meaning of meter for ransom is amiable and nostalgic, that is a triumph of personality. for eliot and for tate, as for their last disciple, lowell, the loss of meter is equivalent to the loss of a whole moral order. it is a 'domino theory' of culture--first meter, then latin composition, then in'ja. this persistent tendency to project any feature from any plane of human experience ont a single moral axis is an underlying characteristic of the particular brand of 'modernism' developed by eliot, tate and brooks.

ouch. of course, what antin neglects here is the fact that christ, in the sermon on the mount, is in many ways building upon the religious structures of the day. not only the law he is building, but his parable style was common for rabbis in his day. he was using structures with which his listeners were quite familiar.

nonetheless, he makes a good point that there is also a sort of jazzy freestyle to the teaching of christ. actually, the teaching style of that day was freestyle. they used midrash, a somewhat obsessive retelling of the same stories over and over, to both teach and meditate upon issues in a story, to replay the emotional journey (one question about midrash: what is up for grabs in a story? can you actually change the narrative?).

as for the question of poetry, what is up for grabs? one thing i have learned in the last year or two is that structure can actually be quite freeing. when you are writing completely unstructured free verse, there is a sense in which you have to juggle more things. contrary to what most people think, there is music in free verse. it is just not determined by meter, rhyme, form, etc.

one problem i find though, when i write free verse, is that it's easy to mistake the overflow of emotion in which we poets often write, as the topic of the poem. when in reality, it's usually something quite different (also contrary to what people think, poets--indeed, most artists--very rarely control the topic of their art). what structure (form, meter, rhyme) allows you to do is put down one of the balls you're juggling and focus on what really matters.

structure is also a way of interrogating your own art. by giving you a limit, something to overcome, you are able to focus on what "truly" matters in your moment of writing (unless what truly matters is lack of structure). you have to decide what is essential. the line you wanted to write originally doesn't fit with the rhyme scheme? well, you then have to ask yourself: "is this line really important?" if it is, then leave it, and it will stick out probably (but hey, it's important right? so let it stick out). but if it's really not important, or if there's a better way to say it, then try that.

structure is also a great way to generate material. in freshman rhetoric class, we learned about the many different rhetorical "topics." these were things you could talk about about no matter what the issue at stake was. (by the way, i recommend that any college freshman take a good classical rhetoric class as a learn to effectively BS their way through most of college.) in the same way, poetic structures function like these rhetorical "topics." no matter what you're writing about, if you're writing a sonnet, you know at a certain point you have to insert a volta (a turn). you have a certain number of lines to make your case in, and then a certain number of lines to turn that case upon its head in a way that makes your reader want to read more.

not only this, you can more consciously decide to break the rules. when you write in free verse, you are always breaking the rules...or creating your own. so you cannot deviate or change the game in the middle of the poem. in this sense, you are a slave to what you set out to do in the very first place or else you risk writing some very confusing poetry (which is often confused in modern poetry for being good).

one last point: any good practitioner of free verse will tell you that the real reason they practice free verse is that they want the topic of their poetry to determine the structure, that structure arises from the topic. the fact remains though, at the end of the day, none of us are really creative enough to come up with a vital structure that matches the complexity of our topic. truly great structures typically come from many people practicing them over years and refining them.

it's like a good recipe. the first cookie was probably a mistake. somebody was probably making a muffin and screwed up and i bet it tasted like crap. but they liked the idea of this flat thing and began refining it. originality is very rarely a virtuoso genius that creates something entirely new and perfect at the same time.

in the same way, when left to their own devices, most writers create something that is exactly alike to another free verse poem. or they start imitating another free verse writer they like (hm...the creation of a new "structure"?). i once heard an example given about the inherent limitations of free verse that seems apt...if you tell a bunch of grade schoolers to write a free verse poem, all the poems come out sounding the same. but if you tell them all to write sonnets, you end up getting a wide variation of unique and interesting poems. of course, the problem with this is that if you write bad poetry in form (especially rhyming form) it sounds trite in addition to being bad.

maybe that's the test, then. if you write bad poetry in form, maybe you should stay away from form totally. (aside: ginsberg apparently was terrible in form, but great in free verse. the exception that proves the rule?)

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