Friday, June 26, 2009

Transparent Poems

Billy Collins claims that people don’t read poetry because most of it is so bad.

"One of the reasons people don't read as much poetry anymore is the fault of the poets," he said. "It's not the public's fault. There's an awful lot of bad poetry out there. I'd say about 87 percent of the poetry in America isn't worth reading."

On Facebook, the obvious jokes have already been made e.g. “87%? I didn’t realise Billy Collins had written that much!” Given that only 2% of Collins’s poems are any good (he paints by numbers far, far too often), he’s doing far worse than the national average. It is also true that 13% seems a high figure for poetry worth reading, given how much poetry is out there, but the figure is arbitrary, or perhaps ironic (given the associations of the number 13), so no point in quibbling. But now we know – it’s not the public’s fault that they desire celebrity kiss-and-tells rather than the latest young poetry thing. The fault isn’t with money, power, advertising, distribution and the manufacturing of taste either, it’s all down to those useless poets who aren’t doing their jobs properly! What comes next is the interesting part:

It's the other 13 percent, Collins said, that he lives for. "Poetry should be transparent. Transparent poems tend to teach themselves."

Two points here. Transparency? I guess he must mean lack of opacity and mystery. Poetry must be clear and obvious. If that were the case, the argument goes, people would read it in far greater numbers. The argument, by extension, also suggests that if all literary novels were written with the style of a Dan Brown, more people would read them too, and that if all short stories were written in the mode of a Jeffrey Archer, popularity for the form would explode. Nonsense, of course, and undesirable. I’d even argue that poems which are too transparent and lack all sense of mystery are part of the problem, not a solution.

The second point comes from this phrase, “Transparent poems tend to teach themselves.” Is poetry about teaching? Perhaps transparent poems are. What else can they do? There’s a clear message to impart, and that’s it. Readers can all go home now and watch TV. No point in buying that collection either, as the teaching has been done. We are now moral citizens for having read this wonderful transparent poem! But surely good poems invite readers into an experience, which may be intensified on subsequent visits because all those things that weren’t immediately transparent begin to rise to the surface?

Of course, there are many terrible poems out there. There are also many terrible novels, but that doesn’t seem to stop people reading. There are many terrible movies too and people flock to the cinemas and DVD stores. There are many terrible albums, but people haven’t given up on searching out the good stuff. Poetry’s relative lack of popularity isn’t anything to do with either lack of quality or transparency, it’s because there isn’t much money at stake. If there were, we’d all have to slim to size-zero, wear implants in the relevant places, and write poems to be edited by committee. Laughs would have to come every thirty seconds and every poem would require a happy ending. Hollywood would make movies of poems with Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens taking the lead roles. Posters of Geoffrey Hill would adorn millions of teenage walls, although the surgery would make him look more like Brad Pitt.


Jim Murdoch said...

"Transparent poetry" – it's such a poetic term. A window is transparent but who the hell ever looks AT a window? We look through them and that is what I take from this. I like to think I do write "transparent poetry" but I'd also like to think that there is more there than the obvious. You can read pretty much any one of my poems and get it immediately and for a lot of people that's fine, that's what they want from a poem. But if they reflect on the piece they should find other meanings. Poetry should not be read, it should be thought about. Not everyone wants to think though.

There are windows where the glass has been stained and our focus changes. And there are poems like that where we get so completely caught up in the words that that is all we see – there is no obvious meaning. I believe very strongly that meaning is the province of the reader anyway. And this goes for "transparent", "translucent" and even "opaque" poems – people will only be able to reach inside themselves for understanding.

Is poetry about teaching? I would say it's about reaching. A good poem will stretch its reader. When you reach the end of a poem you may well find that you've learned something or you may well find that you've come to appreciate something you'd already learned. And if a myopic reader meets a convex poem (I'm not an optician so forgive me if my metaphor is overly simplistic) then they may well see things a little clearer than they did before. Which is why not every poem will suit every reader.

Desmond Swords said...

Interesting post, the idea that what we write, we affirm in others.

So, the premise of this position is, Collins writes narratively transparent poems, so naturally he is going to say transparency is the defining feature of good poetry.

Ron Silliman writes from the more oblique end of the spectrum and he has little time for what he views as the safe and easy strategy of the bog-standard lyric.

Thomas Brady at Harriet in response to an Annie Finch post in which the debate took a turn into the notion of Craft, uses the example of how the New Critical school which came about in the first half of the 20C, saw the practice of poetry become institutionalised into universities, whereas before the academy was a place poetry was studied rather than produced.

He points out how the poetic of the Fugitive/New Critic clique which formed around a nucleus of American modernists all connected to each other by personal and collegiate freindshios and lineages, in which T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren "...had little interest in honest examination of the text which they were busy twisting with their shoddy manifesto-ism, arguing that they indulged in the creation of *erudite smokescreen* - setting what's become the mainstream critical template and:

"would dismiss a poem as "sentimental," a judgment which involves no "close reading," per se, and then at other moments they used painstaking "close readings" to justify pure trash; they read elements in any way they chose, since distinct "elements" are automatically considered to be hidden in the "whole"


The general thrust chimes in with the notion above that people will seek to elevate poetry most like their own, into an upper quality-control chamber -- and the more prominent poet-judges are and the greater reach their (overwhelmingly state-subsidised) platforms allows them to exert in and influence in respect of material reward and high-level public praise of the poetry most similar in aesthetic to their own - hence the reason for what becomes feted as the best poetry being written, rewarded and elevated at any given time.

Desmond Swords said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

Jim, I don't disagree with what you're saying there at all. I dislike the way Collins is suggesting a) only 'transparent' poetry is worth reading and b) sales would shoot up if more poetry was 'transparent' - both these implications are, I think, complete nonsense.

Des, it may be that some poets affirm only what they tend to write. However what struck me about the recent Michael Marks Awards was that Oystercatcher, which specialises in poetry from outside the mainstream, won the Best Publisher Prize. So clearly, whatever their personal preferences, Jackie Kay and Ian McMillan were able to appreciate and affirm what was good about Oystercatcher.

By the way, with reference to your deleted post: for Richard Price, you ought to check out his two collections - 'Lucky Day' and 'Greenfields'. I don't know anyone else who writes quite like him. His poems are concise, tender, multi-layered, and sometimes 'difficult', one of the best Scottish poets around today.

Summer Girl said...

1.) Who is Ron Silliman? Does he write poems?

2.) People are talking about Billy Collins on facebook? And that makes him-- what?-- LESS well-known?

3.) Billy Collins, I'm sure, doesn't know who Zac-and-Vanessa-whoever are and he doesn't care that he doesn't know who they are.

4.) There sure seems to be a lot of people talking about Billy Collins these days, or any days. You know what they say: There's no such thing as bad press. (Obviously if you care enough to devote your blogging time to Billy Collins, it's because he is significant.)

5.) I love Mr. Collins's poems, and I find that they are complex and transparent and smart and silly and funny and serious and I will never, EVER stop reading them. Neither will hundreds of thousands of other people.

'Nuff said.

Dave said...

These endless debates about why people don't read/like poetry in Anglo-Saxon culture are really tiresome. They never ask the (to me) obvious question: how is poetry received in other countries, and what might we learn from the differences?

Desmond Swords said...

If Collins is saying 87% of poetry in the US is not worth reading, then is it legitimate to say 87% of his own stuff is not worth reading?

The bottom line is that if we put ourselves up as a judge of poetry and claim another poet is *useless* or refer to poems as *terrible*, then we open ourself to the counter charge that we are *useless* and our own stuff *terrible*

I have no problem with being called useless or what i wrote as terrible, because i am happy to debate and take on any detractor.

However, what i would be interested in Rob, is the naming of names by you. Who, for example, would you say is a *useless* poem and could you give an example of a *terrible* poem, buy a living poet (or are you only reffering to the dead?)

If we start bandying about terms like that, surely we should haver the convictions of our belief and be able to name names?

For example, there are artists who would argue MacMillan encapsulates perfectly everything that is inclusive and popularist about British poetry, and is one of the most powerful people in the business of launching careers and enhancing the public profile of poets, which means (the logic runs) few would ever dare state what some (mistakenly?) view as the obvious -- that he is a useless poet and his stuff terrible, with a poetic sensibility and aesthetic that has not graduated much beyond the form of nursery rhyme, and with the intellectual component of the MacMillan poetic, being noticeable only by its absence.

Some would not moved by him would claim he is more or less a contemporary Pam Ayres other poets pretend to take seriously because there are plum poetic fruits and tit-bits are in his possession to gift.

Jackie Kay, (is she not?) some would say - similar to MacMillan, a performer and actor more than a poet whose work springs from a firm intellectual base.

Richard Price, is it fair to say he's the token intellectual of the three, whose poetry again, is in the same realm of nicey nice but intellectually lifeless?

The choice these three made, some will argue, we can see it is the right one, as there is nothing to challenge or cause anxiety for their own poetic sense of self - a solid writing tutor in Lancaster university, another academic, a certain type of personality and aesthetic, safe, dependable, some would say boring and predictable, not unlike much British poetry which wins prizes chosen by people who've served their time for the cause, been nice, said nice things about the right people, done their duty for the important people running the poetry, who are in control of the subsidies, who do not challenge the status quo, upset the important people, and if one is very very gifted, maybe even be rewarded with the highest honour of all and become elevated with a title: Sir Poet, if one is humble enough and is doing it for the right reasons, not for oneself, but for Poetry, and the honour of being called Sir, a sign of how modest one is and how little personal reward one seeks, reflecting the sacrifices one has made, the dangers one has put themself in, for the good health of British Poetry.

Rob said...

Summer Girl – thanks for your spirited defence of BC. Of course, neither I or anyone else would dream of trying to stop you reading a writer you obviously enjoy. Two points though – 1. count yourself lucky you haven’t heard of Zac and Vanessa – would the names ‘Troy and Gabriella’ mean anything to you? If not, you’re lucky twice over… 2. There is no connection between popularity and significance. Jeffrey Archer is popular, but insignificant. Billy Collins is a great performer of his work and many people enjoy what he does at the moment, but there’s no way he’s a ‘significant’ poet.

Dave – interesting point. I’m not sure of the answer to that one. I guess it depends which countries you use for comparison.

Des, you make a fair point there. However, I used the word “useless” sarcastically. On my assertion, “of course, there are many terrible poems out there,” I suppose I’ve over-stated things. As you know, I review books and most of those books are written with a degree of skill, even if I get bored out of my skull by some of them. But it is nevertheless the case that very few of the poems published this year will still be read in 50 years time. Some will still be read because they are great. Some won’t be read because they will be criminally overlooked. Some will be read because people in power will make sure they are read, good or bad. The majority won’t be read because they don’t stand out from the pack. None of us would like our own poems to be in that category, but most poems will be!

I can’t comment on Ian McMillan – I haven’t read his stuff, although he presents a good radio programme. I heard Jackie Kay reading live and thought she was very engaging. I’ve only read two or three poems by her on the page. Your suggestion that Richard Price’s stuff is in “the same realm of nicey nice but intellectually lifeless” suggests to me only that you can’t possibly have read him. Why make negative assertions about people you clearly haven’t read?

Desmond Swords said...

I've read all three of them, and attended a workshop with MacMillan in which we wrote a group poem.

He built his career going into nursery schools and became an expert at making poetry with five year olds.

It being a group effort, naturally we have to take into account not everyone is gonna be at the same point of development and understanding. Some will have been more into and interested in poetry than others, bnut we were all in university, all had chosen to get ourselves up to Scarborough for the national student drama festival in 2004, all at some level drama dandies.

MacMillan more or less wrote this himself to be honest, as many of the suggestions were his own, and it is somewhere under half of what we as a group of intellectuals came up with.

MacMillan's influence as the Miltonic, Eliotic Homeric figure marryinig the felicity of a nuanced cerebral showbiz machine, with the pressures and pulls of perspicacious pedagogory and a knack and know at bone-level one expects to see in the nursery school poetic -- is overtly on display:

I’m a visitor from a far off land

OK Scarborough
OK Scarborough
OK Scarborough
What Eh Up
It has been cold
Everybody’s old
And I’ve lost my coat
Snow’s on the way
Later today
And I’ve got a sore throat
OK Scarborough
OK Scarborough
OK Scarborough
What Eh Up
The name’s Seven Red
I’ve got no lead
In my pencil
In my pencil
The name’s Seven Red
A superhero in bed
On Sunday afternoons
I’m chasing Speaker Stan
He’s an evil man


I have read Price, and this is where the nuts and bolts of it come up, because one person may read a poet and thing they are great, whilst another may think they are much overated, which is what some would think you are doing with Dickie P.

murder la - is the sequence of letters in the word verification

whorses - is the word ver of the second (honestly)

hydriz - the third word ver

Roddy said...

Re Kevin Desmond's claim that "MacMillan encapsulates perfectly everything that is inclusive and popularist about British poetry, and is one of the most powerful people in the business of launching careers and enhancing the public profile of poets"

...can I make a few brief points. One - and this refers back to something Rob said too - MacMillan has long been a champion of experimental poetry in the UK, as a reviewer, promoter and via his wallet as a subscriber and supporter of NMS small presses and journals.

Two - though he has input into who appears on The Verb, the production team are also very much involved in what happens there and Verb guests regularly get quizzed about new or undersung writers who they might have missed. The Verb remains a varied, interesting programme which is not driven by marketing teams from big publishers, as most other book-related radio is. 'Power' and 'careers' are not words which relate to the show's ethos.

Three - don't judge MacMillan's work by the fun stuff he knocks together, usually quickly and in fun, for radio and workshops - his own work, though influenced by various traditions of oral and public verse, is more complex and crafted than the off-the-cuff stuff you hear on the radio.