Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dangers In Reading Contemporary Poetry

Commenting on a recent post on this blog, ABJ wrote:

“…maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform to whatever 'craft' is being taught on creative writing courses in order to squeeze you into the Market Place? There's something rather utilitarian about that side of it (at its worst, I mean).”

I’m particularly interested in the first statement, the idea that originality is threatened when writers excessively read their contemporaries. More than that, Andy is suggesting that, in order to conform to the demands of the publishing industry, poets will use their contemporaries as a means to an end – they will write the kind of stuff that seems to be getting published.

Two things: as I understand him, Andy isn’t saying we shouldn’t read contemporary poetry at all. Any poet who advocates a complete boycott of new poetry is more or less telling you not to read his own work! Obviously, contemporary poets need a readership, and that readership will include other poets. But perhaps writers should be more choosy about what they read i.e. only read new collections which seem as if they might inform an existing direction a writer has chosen, independent of the marketplace, a direction informed by a deep, dark space within the writer’s soul (whether you believe in a ‘soul’ or not) and by great poets of the past.

Andy’s comments are directed only at poems by ‘new writers’. Originality never comes from ignorance, but takes off from where past originality paused. As Michael Schmidt so beautifully put it in his 2006 StAnza lecture:

“What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter.”

However, I know some writers who feel that reading their contemporaries is vital. They feel that writing a poem is, in part, a conversation with other poems, and that includes other new poems. They also feel that getting a sense of what’s being published will indicate to them the kind of material readers want. They write for a perceived audience, not just for themselves.

But perhaps a poet has to hope for an audience, in vain if need be, rather than write for preconceptions – that’s if they want to remain true to whatever spark caused them to write in the first place. Certainly, what marked out the great writers discussed by Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry was their singularity of vision. None of them wrote for a marketplace (although most wanted to build a readership, but on their own terms). In some cases, the marketplace eventually caught up with them (and in other cases has still do so). But Eliot, Pessoa, Baudelaire, Stevens etc – what they did is beyond the reach of most mortals! Isn’t there a sense that most writers have to be content with far lesser achievements? Or is that just defeatist talk?


BarbaraS said...

I write firstly because I must, and then, I work out the links afterwards...or I write back to answer other poems... or I write to argue with other poems... or I write my own thing. I think it's a mixture of everything really.

Andrew Shields said...

I'd say the real danger is not in reading contemporary poetry, but in not reading older poetry. Starting with Homer and moving up toward the present.

David Troupes said...

There's a choice here in how one approaches poetry: If one wants to particpate in a lively community of poets, to be a part of that dialogue of people writing and publishing and reviewing and blogging etc, then reading plenty of contemporaries will be a big part of that. On the other hand, if one wants to pursue a purer sort of Art above all else, even above recognition and publication, then I would agree with ABJ: too much reading only distracts. The lucky, famous few pursue the latter and receive the former by the by. I always look to the modernists Stevens and Williams for inspiration in this way -- who worked hard to find success in their non-literary careers and so had the freedom to produce two of the most vibrant and original bodies of work in literature (I would say). I do think one has to make the choice, however.

deemikay said...

I didn't take the first statement to necessarily mean the reading of contemporary poems, more just the presence of them (and their associated poets) around a poetic imagination. Does keeping the company of poets help or hinder? The danger there is that you become part of what the NME used to call the shoegazer scene - "the scene that celebrates itself".

I wrote about my reaction to ABJ's comment at my blog, here

As for the question of audience - I'm with RS Thomas: "You write a poem for yourself mainly. And if anyone else wants to get involved, well, there you go..."

And also with Borges: "I write for myself and for my friends. And I write to ease the passing of time".

That's all the audience any poet needs, really.


Also, I agree with Andrew Shields when he talks about the danger of not reading older poetry. It's easy, very very easy, to only read late 20th and 21st Century poetry. Some might through in a few Romantics as well. And if you're part of a poetry community, contemporary poems ("and the poets associated") will be a major source of input. But in doing this, lots of older and more unusual poems will be missed. And where better to steal from than the past? They can't sue and you can call it an homage. ;o)

I am very picky in what I read - there's so much out there and I can't read it all. And I don't want to. Given the choice between a poem that's managed to survive 1000 years and one that was published yesterday... well, step forward Darwinian Selection.

I like contemporary poetry, but it's just part of what I read. Hence why we need good, informed reviews of poetry books to help us riddle out the good stuff.

roddy said...

Re 'if one wants to pursue a purer sort of Art above all else...'

Is it really a purer art if you have a day job? To suggest that Stevens and WCW were not up to their necks in the influences of their age is quite wrong.

For me, Williams was an interesting writer, very aware of his influences, but mainly a middle man between modernism and later work, a relatively minor writer in all but context.

David Troupes said...

'Is it really a purer art if you have a day job? '

Well, yes and no, but yes. Of course they were up to their ears in the influences of their age, who isn't? -- but during most of their lives both wrote and published from a much more private, non-literary setting than, say, Eliot. And interesting how both set themselves (in their own heads) in apposition to Eliot, whose bleak star rose much faster than theirs would. My point is that the pursuit of the "literary life", the reviewing and teaching and editing and laureating and so on -- is something quite apart from the pursuit of art. And there's only so much energy within oneself.

Maybe a better example would have been Dickinson, or Blake. The real hermetic nutcases. Perhaps it's a bit naive, but my idea of artistic purity is bound up in such figures.

apprentice said...

Influences should be like a good diet, mixed and varied, and then hopefully they will expand one's own creativity and imagination.

There's no harm in trying out other styles, if it helps you to arrive at finding your own voice and direction.

English speaking poetry has taken in and adapted almost every poetic tradition there has ever been, and long may that continue.

Anonymous said...

Here are some thoughts on this, to expand a bit.

Three poets in a city may follow their own ecstasy [ex-stasis, to stand outside of].

Thirty poets in a room are more likely to conform to an orthodoxy: one which defines and validates the sense of belonging, encourages a shared notion of the Good (whether Platonic, religious or artistic), and other sociological stuff.

Twelve poets in a room with a teacher are more likely to want to please the teacher and win his or her approval [the Good's intermediary].

Also, twelve poets in a room are more likely to engage in competition with each other to see who can produce a result which can be agreed on as the epitome of what the the group Good is.

Result: a thousand poems called 'My Grandfather's Coat' or 'My Mother's Tights' and more creative writing similes than you can shake a Mercurial stave at.

All of which have received the stamp of orthodox approval ... and often a major publishing prize. After which, new writers are inclined to say: "Well who am I to criticize, I should be as lucky as them, etc. I'll have to write something that Good in order to compete or to count myself in the same Company."

This is what I mean by the potential dangers: thirty poets in a room (real or virtual) are more likely to be derivative of each other. I don't see how it can be otherwise, despite the pretended aim of 'finding your own voice'. It usually reads more like poetry by committee.

Again, I will stress 'at its worst'. And also the hedging which surrounds 'more likely'.

In this day and age, those who claim to be 'writing for themselves' are fudging it I think. It's not the pleasure principle which defines the terms of engagement within a community, but the pleasing-to-others principle.

As an extreme example, you might take Hopkins as a writer who (perhaps ironically) worked from the pleasure principle as a genuine grounding-point. Or Joyce.

Anyway, that's my hypothetical hot air.


Frances said...

Stephen King says in 'On Writing' its the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, not workshopping with other oysters.

Anonymous said...

I'd be inclined to agree ... even though pearls aren't formed by grit or sand.


Andrew Shields said...

I only found out that the sand theory of pearl creation was wrong earlier this year, when my son had to answer his "question of the week" for his second-grade class: how do pearls get created? It's fascinating that something treated as established fact when I was a child is now treated as a myth.

I won't try to turn that into a parable about the theme of this discussion!

Rob said...

"Result: a thousand poems called 'My Grandfather's Coat' or 'My Mother's Tights' and more creative writing similes than you can shake a Mercurial stave at."

These are the result of about 30 minutes' work yesterday evening. The final line in the second poem was donated by ABJ himself, as I couldn't think of how to end it.

My Grandfather’s Coat

I kept it in my wardrobe for such time,
when grief passed, that a poem might prove a rite
of passage. So it proved. I ate the coat,
patch by patch. It smelled of blue cheese like
his sheets and rugs. My breath then, too. I wrote
a poem on sheets, rugs, breath, titled ‘His coat’.

My Mother’s Tights

My mother is alive but when she dies
I will recall her tights, the small victory
over stockings in eighty-five, their march
to Leningrad, packed with tins of beans
in place of legs, and blind blundering
like badgers among the oak trees.

Rob said...

Thanks for a very interesting discussion, everyone.

I’d say that people who have no knowledge of contemporary poetry tend (almost exclusively) to produce derivative work that sounds as if it’s been written many years ago. But people who read only contemporary work tend to be producing those ‘Grandfather Coats’ or ‘Mother’s Tights’ poems that Andy mentioned, or else a kind of generic pseudo-avant-garde poem.

As for being part of a scene. If you’re not part of any scene (even in the loosest sense of the word) and don’t network at all in person or on the Web, it’s almost impossible to gain an audience or readership. If you want your work to be unread, then that’s the way to go about it. I don’t see anything particularly laudable or even ‘pure’ about that because getting your work ‘out there’ doesn’t in itself mean compromising it. Poets with a degree of originality can thrive within a scene, even if they give rise to many other poets who derive their style from them. If you look at the New York School (Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, Schuyler etc, and a few of those who followed on from them), you can see that the most original poets rise to the top of the scene. The scene helped them build a readership and spawned many imitators, but didn’t destroy their own writing. Possibly that’s because their poetry was written with several unusual and varied historical influences in mind, but their contemporary imitators only copied them, not those who influenced them.

When I began writing poetry, I read loads of stuff and tried all kinds of styles. Some of it was helpful and, I’m sure, some of it was harmful. In the last couple of years, I’ve concentrated on reading and incorporating ideas only from a few writers, mainly twentieth century but not what you’d call contemporary – about half a dozen of them. I’ve found my writing has improved through this. I’ve read plenty of contemporary poetry collections during this time, but have deliberately tried not to be sidetracked by anything they are doing unless they illuminate what I’ve already been thinking about. This method has also helped me see more clearly the sort of poems I don’t want to write, which is half the battle.

As far as workshopping goes, I think there’s value in it. You can learn plenty of useful stuff. However, I think you then have to force yourself to unlearn it all. Strange, I know, but unlearning something you’ve already learned has a different and more positive effect from never learning it in the first place.

I’m not convinced about the ‘pure art’ idea David T was expounding, although there’s probably at least something in it. I’d say reviewing, teaching, editing etc are part of the art in themselves.

deemikay said...

"If you’re not part of any scene ... and don’t network at all in person or on the Web, it’s almost impossible to gain an audience or readership."

But what if you don't care if you have an audience or not? I really don't care if anyone reads what I write. It's the truth. I'd rather write something new (with all my influences, contemporary and ancient) than recite something old. Or try to publish something old. Yes, I have some stuff available for my friends online (who have requested it) but it's nothing to do with me if anyone else reads it. I don't care.


I maybe gave the impression that I thought "old" poems were always better than "new" ones. I don't believe that at all. What I do belive is that a reader should read as much of both as possible. Man should not be influenced by Keats alone. Or something. :os

(And this is the most "networking" I've done online for years... discovering your blog has made me mouthy, Rob!)

Roddy said...

Just to say I don't agree with Andy and his 'twelve poems in a room' theory and its supposed results and limitations. I just ran my 110th and last workshop of the year last night. This idea that they engender competitiveness and cliched work is not true to my experience. The theory of workshops normalizing poets is a myth, usually put about by people who haven't fitted into groups; it's also a regular factional stick used by the avant garde.

Rob said...

DeeM, yes, being a hermit isn't a problem if a readership is unimportant. I hope you don't retreat from your current 'networking' though.

Roddy, I agree, and don't think workshopping can be blamed for most of contemporary poetry's ills. In any case, it seems to me that many avant-garde poets are writing very similar stuff, just like many mainstream poets. That's maybe inevitable. In a particular time and place, certain conventions will come to the fore. There will always be people who buck the trends too.

Quality poetry can come from people quite outside the dominant trends, but also from those who are part of them. It's that 'grit in the oyster' thing, I guess.

Anonymous said...

"This idea that they engender competitiveness and cliched work is not true to my experience."

Probably a testament to the quality of the teaching!

From my own experience, and from what folk have told me, you can have a situation in which the most vocal members of the group define the Good and Bad, through a form of (unconsciously) accepted wisdom.

The less vocal then feel pressurised into bringing a poem which receives approval -- just to avoid the depression of having a piece labelled as a failure by the vocal majority. Very much depends on strength of character and group dynamics sometimes.

So for example, I have heard a woman complain that the vocal men in the group would define the Good in terms of 'strong', 'powerful' and other dick-swinging attitudes.

Or an avant-poet-teacher who was insistent that the word 'blood' should never be used, in order to avoid cliched pitfalls .. only for them to read Dorothy Molloy later and wonder what the hell he was talking about.

My feeling is this: the more hard-set group, the more difficult it can be to reject its terms of reference, aims, rules of thumb, etc.

I'm interested in this from a group psychology point of view, aspects of dominance, compliance and complicity. Humans being pack animals.


Rob said...

Andy, I'd reflect on it this way.

Workshops which aim to give beginners a few basic techniques to work with will generally have a positive effect.

Workshops for intermediate level writers are more likely to produce the effect you're talking about. People will try to win approval by writing what's approved by the dominant forces in the group. To me, it seems vital that these groups are well led and that leaders have a wide range of reference.

However, I reckon that those with real potential from such groups will eventually move beyond limits that have been set and find their own styles. They would have done so without the intermediate workshop, but it will have speeded their progress in the development of a range of techniques.

Workshops for advanced writers can have real value as long as they are well led. A lot depends on the leader at all levels, I think.

Andrew Philip said...

I suspect it's inevitable in any given period that lots of similar poems are written and the greater the number of people writing and publishing, the greater the likelihood. Each period/generation/decade/school/individual will define what it considers good and bad aesthetically, but this will change over time. To some extent, the received wisdom of what poetry from the past is good changes over time (e.g., the metaphysicals) as well. None of this is stable, but all of it is the same as it ever was, though I don't mean that's necessarily a bad thing.

Or am I just havering?

Andrew Philip said...

Oh, and I think I spent a certain amount of time conforming to group expectations when I was a student. But it also helped me learn to write. (Interested to know how Roddy reacts to that, seeing as he knew my work then!)