Friday, May 12, 2006

Willliams, Williams, Williams

Jeff Shotts' guest blogger appearance at has been insightful in a very practical sort of way. He's one of the editors of Greywolf Press, and has been talking about the poetry world from an editor's perspective. Lots of good insights and advice there.

I did, though, take issue somewhat with what he said yesterday--represented here in part:

"When considering the 2,000-2,500 poetry submissions that Graywolf receives each year, this means I spend an overwhelming amount of time with work that we never publish, that may never be published, and that may not deserve to be published. It’s less that editors these days—under this number of submissions—are curators or taste-makers, perhaps; it’s more that editors are, to use another metaphor, doorkeepers, as aware (or maybe more aware) of what they want to keep out of the world as much as what they want to allow in. Ask an editor what they look for in poetry submissions, and they are likely to avoid the question by giving you a long list, rather, of what they don’t want—sentimental poems, overtly personal or confessional poetry, inspirational religious verse, and so on."

Let me say again that I found Shotts' comments as a whole this week particularly graceful and insightful--and caring. But here, the boilerplate list of what editors don't want (and Shotts seems to suggest that this is boilerplate) is somewhat confounding, and, I think, misleading: "sentimental poems, overtly personal or confessional poetry, inspirational religious verse." To be fair, in this and other posts, Shotts notes that he thinks that poets, rather than editors, ultimately drive shifts in poetics.

But my concern is, should the terms "sentimental," "personal," and "confessional" continue to be used to define bad poetry? Because what Shotts and other editors are talking about when they say this is bad poetry (and those terms have become a polite way to dismiss it) is, "we're just not that interested in your 'aesthetic.'" But in reality, what is being objected to by editors is not so much an 'aesthetic,' but the fact that the poems they categorically reject as simply bad are those that lack any aesthetic, much shaping, and have little craft. More on that in a moment.

However, given some current trends in poetics marked not only by Tony Hoagland and Dana Levin's essays discussed on this site earlier, but also holding my finger to the wind at Warren Wilson and among other poets, there is a burgeoning interest in aspects of the craft that were at one point labeled "emotional," "sentimental," or "personal." I've begun recently to hear intelligent people argue, 'what's wrong with sentiment or emotion?' Dean Young, for example, places some value on emotional content in poetry (looking for a pitch that falls somewhere between information and shriek--shriek definitely to be avoided)--emotion being one of the drivers of the complexity of a poem. And, although I am not an expert on Dean Young, I would argue that, for him, complexity is the critical mass of forces that create and drive energy in a piece, the creation of energy and drive being paramount to the essential nature of a poem. These things exist in a productive tension within the piece--the tension being what holds the whole thing up--and emotion is certainly part of that tension.

Or, it could be that I am describing here a version of Dean Young filtered through a student--and thereby using an authority figure to buttress my own opinions. But, at any rate, it sounds good--and it comes close to some of the things we discussed. Well, leave Dean out of it, then. He is perfectly capable of speaking for himself and his thoughts are pretty widely available.

So, leaving Dean out of it then, let me bring into it someone who is quite dead, yet who is also something of an authority figure: William Carlos Williams. I would argue, buttressing myself with Williams, or using him as a shield, that where poetry falls short of being poetry, the point at which the only things holding it up are sentiment and the only unifying force is the too transparent "I" of the speaker/poet, that where poetry falls short is when it fails to make the leap from the world of 'experience' to the world of 'existence.' The world of 'experience' is the world in which we live. The world of 'existence' is the world of the imagination--which is not entirely separate from the world of experience, and, in fact, owes it a debt.

Williams is very in Spring and All to say the latter (and he says it over and over): "the imagination is wrongly understood when it is suppsed to be a removal from reality." One of the things he means by this is that Art does not copy Nature--just to imitate nature does not make something art. Which is why a poem about Something That Actually Happened fails if it cannot make the leap from the world of experience to the world of existence--the event must be processed through the imaginative faculty and the memory to re-form it, if necessary, such that what is most true about it can come to the fore, regardless of details that might detract from that truth--that is, purge the unnecessary, purge what is false to the truth, change or reorder details such that what you have is a piece of art that reflect reality, but is not of a piece with reality. (And I would quote Dickinson here about 'tell all the truth, but tell it slant', but that would make me puke this morning because there is a truth there, but Dickinson's real flaw is that she leaps too far and her world is far too artificial--there is little 'reality' to it.)

Williams goes on to say (this is after poem 26): "Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it--It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but--" This is Williams' big struggle with his art--the manner in which poetry articulates a relationship with reality, but does not simply reflect it. For me, this is the critical, defining aspect of the artist: can you make the leap?

Bad poetry, bad art is simply the reflection of the self unmediated by craft, skill, theory, or aesthetic. Bad poetry cannot be or participate in an aesthetic because it is not art. Bad poetry that is too sentimental or emotional simply says, well this is how I felt--not this is the tension of my feelings with the object of them, not this is how what I feel exists in a complexity mitigated by imagination, how one is supposed to feel vs. what one feels, how my feeling is mitigated by circumstances or events or social prohibitions, or what have you. Raw feeling has no tension--to have tension, it must interact with the words that express it, with the necessity of its form (not necessarily formalism, but the shape of its own necessity or necessary expression), with the object that produces the feeling--and it cannot simply reflect that object, the object must be dynamized (another of Williams' terms).

I'll close with another one of Williams' stabs at what he's trying to say--Spring and All is like a series of attempts, a true essay or assay into critical meaning--here it is: "He speaks authoritatively through invention, through characters, through design. The objects of his world were real to him because he could use them and use them with understanding to make his inventions--"

But what I'm really interested in today is "authority." Another time.

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