Friday, May 20, 2005

I got a questionnaire from Fulcrum asking some very basic questions.


1. What is and what isn't poetry? What is poetry's essential nature (if any)?

Poetry is the art form that uses language as its medium. That’s a very broad statement & doesn’t tell you a lot. But, beyond that, any discussion of “essential nature” has to be about the old & tired problems of essentialism in general, not poetry.


2. What is the most important poetry? Who are the greatest poets? What do they accomplish?

The best art in any medium is that which expands our understanding of the possibilities of the medium itself. This can be done in many different ways & any history of American painting of the last century that doesn’t put Warhol on the same plane ultimately with Pollock isn’t credible, I would think, just as one that tried to place Rothko or Rauschenberg on that same plateau would not be credible. If you look at poetry dispassionately, it becomes very clear who moved the art forward, or at least in a new direction, over time. This is not necessarily “progress,” in the modernist sense of that term, but it is always movement, evolution.


3. What is the relationship between poetry and truth? Is there such a thing as poetic truth?

A poet who directly understands & confronts his or her medium has an opportunity to address questions such as truth. One who uses language instrumentally, as a second-order mechanism to get at some “truths” that lie elsewhere is not only a bad writer, but a dishonest one.


4. How does poetry relate to the human condition?

Each of the major arts corresponds to one of our basic media, literally our senses. Poetry – the art of language – literally is the only one that rises out of a media uniquely possessed by the human species. Other species have sight & sound & respond to mass & texture. But unless you think that the whales are chatting down there in that human cesspool we have made of the oceans, only humans truly have language.


5. Is there (or can there be) a meaningful philosophy of poetry?

This is a trick question, sort of a linguistic Moebius strip. Poetry is the active side of the coin of which philosophy is the opposing face.


6. Does the fundamental nature of poetry change over time?

Only slightly. The last “fundamental” change came with the emergence of the book in the 1500s. At the same time, poetry is – and should always be – as sensitive to the cultural and social environment as any art form. The idea of writing poetry in the same forms as were used in the 1890s is exactly the same as the idea of writing music in the same forms & arrangements as were used in the 1890s.


7. Is there one "poetry" or are there "poetries"?

It depends on how you define it. If you mean poetry literally, as the art of language, then even the novel is a (degraded) part of poetry. But if you try mapping this art against the complex topology of social & linguistic groups that are forever in contention in the world, you will never stop counting poetries.


8. What makes a genuinely great poem?

This is the second question all over again, asked in functional terms. But the answer is the same – any poem that expands our experience of & insight into the medium of poetry qualifies.


9. What is the relationship between tradition and innovation in poetry?

Change in poetry really is how we sense the friction of social contexts against the medium of language. A poem must make itself new every day. Poets who write as if this were still the 1950s are the equivalent of lounge singers belting out the hits of Johnny Ray or Nat King Cole. Poets who write as if this were still the 1850s are simply pathological.


10. Is a particular poetic method (e.g. the "lyricist," "formalist," "free verse," "experimental," or any other approach) preferable?

No. Any method that enables a poet to confront and expand their relationship to the medium is adequate, and that can be understood in more than one way.


11. Are there deep associations between poetics and politics? Please give some evidence.

I think most poets would love it if this were true, but the history of literature suggests that the medium is amoral. It’s what poets do with it that matters.


12. What fundamental misconceptions about poetry annoy you most, and how would you correct or refute them?

Most of the questions in this survey would qualify, as they attempt to connect poetry up to a discourse of “timeless truths,” “essentials,” “fundamentals” and “greatness” that was laughable when Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D. & Marianne Moore were still students in Philadelphia. So here is my counter question: what would it take to make these questions interesting?