In the early 1980s, after 15 years of publishing reasonably subtle and technically elaborate lyric poems in magazines and books that no one read, I woke up one morning to the unpleasant truth that publishing my lyric poetry in the late 20th century was equivalent to playing with my dick on a busy street corner—and having everyone ignore me. The insight was humiliating enough that I decided to stop publishing my verse and to stop giving public readings of it. I haven’t published a poem since, or at least I haven’t crossed the street to do so. A few years ago I let several friends print then-already written poems, but I did that without expecting to be paid or even have the poems acknowledged. I’ve been neither disappointed nor surprised: the publications and the non-publication met with the same response.
There was nothing tragic in this. Ceasing to publish verse didn’t profoundly affect the quality of my life, spiritual or otherwise. My heart didn’t break, the Muses didn’t torment my sleep, nor did I slip off my edge of the so-called real world because I stopped mumbling short-line sentences to small, close-to-comatose audiences. Actually, it was more like coming up with the right insight at the right time, even if the insight had been clubbing me over the head for years.
Some luck with technology made things easier for me. Word processors were becoming common around 1980, and I had enough money to buy one. When I stopped being a poet, I was able to make a relatively smooth transition to being a writer, one who produced big, long sentences that turned into paragraphs and pages of prose quite easily. Soon I was writing heavily revised books, some of it fiction, but more often the metaphor-laced philosophical speculations and cultural or political commentary that had always been my secret passion. I had a lot in my mind, and a lot on it. Ceasing to publish poems opened up the length, breadth and the depths of the world to write about, and I wrote energetically and often. For a decade, I continued to write verse in private, but in steadily decreasing quantities and with a gradual but relentless decay in the attentions that provoke occasional verse. I kept thinking about that street corner, I guess.
Several years after I stopped publishing verse, somewhere near the mid 1980s, I accepted an invitation from Ottawa trouble-maker and editor John Metcalfe to write an essay for one of his critical anthologies about why I’d stopped publishing verse. I wrote 3000 words on my Apple II+ within a few hours of Metcalfe’s invitation, then rethought and rejigged it fifteen or twenty times. Before long, I had a version of my street-corner trauma dressed up in the ideas that had been swirling around it, and I’d become a writer who, for the first time, felt productive rather than merely sensitive.
The essay started by suggesting that verse has become a technically obsolete art form that new media has recently rendered culturally and cognitively incomprehensible to most people. I went a long way out of my way to diss both the publishing apparatus behind its publication in Canada—along with the self-expression industry that has built itself around verse everywhere—as the product of feckless neurotics, incompetent exhibitionists, lazy, grant-sucking publishers and cyber-capitalist opiates too numerous and loathsome to name.
But I wasn’t completely bloody-minded in my condemnations. I made what felt like a slightly cute distinction between verse-making and poetry, then announced that I believed that poetry remained “the most profound manifestation of human imagination that exists, and …one of the most powerful tools human intelligence has ever devised—the act from which nearly all civilized behaviors have derived.”
The polemical altitude I reached with that zinger made me feel giddy, but I wanted to go higher before I sent everything crashing down to the level of common sense. So I shifted ground, rustled my priestly cassock, rubbed my hands along the edges of the pulpit, and murmured that I couldn’t “imagine living a life that does not have poetry somewhere near its centre.” After adding that that fewer people now read poetry than write it and that publication has become either a sour academic sport or a semi-obligatory response to the availability of government publishing subsidies, I concluded that I couldn’t see any acceptable reason for continuing to publish verse.
I’d plunged one foot recklessly far into what felt like very sticky truths, and so I thought, well, why not see how much deeper to the logical conclusions at the base of those truths? I allowed that I was intellectually embarrassed by the lack of rigor in contemporary verse manufacture, including my own, and that I wanted to do a kind of writing that had some degree of affective influence on things, indirect or direct. Until I could produce the kind of verse in which the investigative rather than the self-revelatory elements were in the forefront, I’d desist from further public waste of paper and public attention and would inflict no more unwanted poesy on sleepy audiences.
But it wasn’t until I said I was going to take a ten year raincheck on the business of publishing poetry, and then made a deadly serious proposition that other poets do likewise, that I got myself into serious trouble. The business I was making sport of, you see, really is a biz, within which moderately lucrative and very secure teaching careers can be wrought, money made, and absurd quantities of over-distilled self regard bottled for the decline. Entrepreneurs even leave their silver trails across the walls and ceilings of the temples of contemporary verse, just like in the real world. When the essay was published, “the Biz” simply disappeared me. I can’t recall a single publishing poet who has acknowledged the existence of that essay since it was published, and only one or two academics who have gone beyond rolling their eyes and tsk, tsking me about it.
I got on with my writing life. I’d pretty much mined out my youthful lyric vein anyway, and had already begun the process of learning that human life is not quite about my feelings—and that the “I” part of it was the one I have the least shot at articulating accurately. The years started passing, swiftly and pretty happily, and I ended up in different parts of the geographical, human and literary universes.
Then, a few months ago a likable young magazine editor magazine in Vancouver asked me to look at a magazine I’d written for and helped to edit while I was at university in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He wanted me to write something about the ethos of the magazine, about writing and editing in general, and specifically about what elements of writing and literature I’d changed my mind about over 30 years.
I’ve never archived my past very diligently, so I had to ask the editor for several back issues of the magazine. He sent them on and when I read them through I was pleasantly surprised. The writing was slightly better than I remembered it: intense, self-dramatizing, technically quite competent. It was also obliviously sophomoric—as it should have been. The poems I’d written for it were as obliviously sophomoric as any of the others. Or were they more so?
I’d been in my late 20s when I wrote those poems, and it hadn’t been a happy time for me. I’d begun to get a dark inkling that my first wife and I might not make it, and that neither would a lot of other things that had once seemed pure and sure. This quite naturally got into the poems I wrote, and it made them embarrassingly personal and coded, whiny elegiacs of how hard and complicated adult life was. I should have been making thorough and precise registrations of the things around me or trying to figure out what I might be able to do to save my marriage and make my life more satisfying and interesting. Alas, I was more compelled by the Virgilian gloom I detected at the edges of everything, and I couldn’t see that most of it was emanating from inside my own dopey head.
One of the poems I published in the magazine, a lament that draped itself across its pages in a William Carlos Williams-style graphic layout, particularly interested me. It was titled, rather unhelpfully for anyone but its author “Pachena Bay”. I’d written it after making a trip to the west coast of Vancouver island in the spring of 1970. The poem seemed content (as I was in those days) to ward off the depressing relentlessness of adult life with a humourless sort of cosmological cynicism—we may be fucked up, but so is the universe, etc. The poem mooned about the observed peculiarities of the coastal light after twilight, and about the sheer number and brilliance of stars, which it pronounced, in a half-cooked pun on its west coast setting, the “end of the known world”. From that static Apocalypse, it perceived “the white snarl of the breakers//the lip//curling in the roar of//a heavenly smile. //To have love//slip away//always//slip away.”
The reason the poem interested me after 30 years was that the “slipping away” references recalled, instead of Virgilian gloom, a piece of slapstick that occurred while I was at the location for which the poem is titled. I’d been both the main actor and the victim of the slapstick, which, while it involved some slipping, had its main items coming at me rather than receding into poetical gloom. The physical comedy of the slapstick didn’t get into the poem, naturally. If it had, and if I’d been willing to engage it as a content, it might have provoked some useful insights. It might also have provided me with a solution to the compositional dilemma that, even then, lyric poetry was beginning to present, but that’s a subject I’ll reserve until I’ve told the story.
I was out on the west coast of Vancouver Island to record some live surf for a quadraphonic musical composition R. Murray Schafer was allowing Bruce Davis and me to help him construct in Simon Fraser’s Electronic Music Studio. To make the recordings, Schafer had entrusted to my care two state-of-the-art Uher portable reel-to-reel stereo tape recorders. The Uhers were good machines, but by today’s standards cumbersome and heavy, using five inch reels of ¼ inch tape and a raft of now-obsolete recording subsystems that can now be fitted inside a ballpoint pen. The Uhers were also fantastically expensive to buy—about $3000 each, if I recall correctly.
I’d chosen Pachena Bay for the recording location because I’d been there before and had heard something attractive in the harmonics of the surf there. The Pachena beach wasn’t a spectacular or very large one, a six or seven hundred metre stretch of sand and gravel a few kilometres south of Barclay Sound and Bamfield. A more conventional choice would have been to go further north to the better-known Tofino beaches and hang out with the hippies. But Pachena was closer to Vancouver, it had a foreshore sufficiently deep for my dimly conceived purposes, and it was angled so that parts of it were sheltered enough from the ocean winds to make clean recordings possible. It was also certain to be clear of possible witnesses, in case I screwed up, and it had that sound I’d heard.
I arrived on site late in the afternoon of a cold spring day, and immediately headed for the water to satisfy my curiosity about the wave harmonics. I’d heard ocean waves in other places, of course, but what I remembered about the surf here was a certain “tambourine” quality—a pleasant rustling complexity at the base of the harmonic. It didn’t take long to figure out the most likely source of it: for 50-75 metres of the foreshore from low tide point, the middle portion of the beach was a spongy mix of half-inch gravel and shells, mostly Little Neck clam shells mixed with some giant mussel, razor clam and appeared to be oysters—all of which would become percussive in an active tide. Satisfied, I returned to the car and unpacked my camping gear. I carried it to a log just beyond the limit of the beach sand that offered some shelter from the wind and built a driftwood lean-to onto it, tied a plastic tarp I brought over the frame. Then I collected enough wood for a cooking fire and a chilly evening in a sleeping bag, and began to unpack my recording equipment.
My tide book told me that low tide was going to coincide roughly with sunset, and well before the light began to fade I had my two machines set up on a large log that had marooned itself parallel to the waterline midway up the foreshore. With four channels to record, the set-up was quite complicated. I taped four heavy and very expensive microphones onto adapted camera tripods a few feet in front of my log, wound the cords through the strap on the Uhers and pushed the jacks into the recording slots of the machines. Then I climbed up onto the log to watch the sun slip below the horizon and the sea begin its advance up the foreshore. I calculated that I would have ten to fifteen minutes of acceptable ambiance before the incoming tide would force me to dismantle the equipment and retreat 30 metres to the next log, where I would repeat the recording.
My set-up and plan weren’t terrible, but each had fatal flaws. As a preface, just after I arrived I’d dropped my only flashlight into a tide-pool. Maybe I dropped it because I was distracted by the poetic urge to Bewail my Outcast Fate, like my poem suggests, but the only thought I can remember having was the “Oh shit” when I realized the light was taking on water. I repeated that imprecation when the sun sank below the horizon more quickly than I’d expected, and the billions of stars overhead didn’t brighten the beach in any way useful to a guy trying to operate twin stereo tape recorders from a log.
A more serious flaw still was the one I didn’t see at all. The stretch of foreshore where I’d set up shop was flatter than I’d realized, and the tide snaked up it more rapidly than I was prepared for. Cold, salty water was soon bumping aggressively against my log, and that wasn’t as stable as I’d have liked. I got just three safe minutes to make my recordings instead of fifteen. Before I could pack up and move to the higher log—perhaps this was when I paused to notice the White Snarl of the Breakers, or Love Slipping Away—the waves undermined one of the microphone tripods. I lunged to catch it as it teetered toward the salt water, my arm caught the strap of the Uher it was plugged into and both the mike and the Uher made a brief but terminal visit to Davey Jones’ Locker.
I did rescue the other three microphones and the second Uher, and I even regrouped to record almost twenty minutes of perfectly usable surf ambiance later that evening. I did it by standing in the bone-chilling seawater up to my knees with the surviving tape recorder slung across my shoulders and two of the microphones held at arm’s length, still on their tripods, to obtain the maximum stereo effect. I half-rescued myself from a major fuck-up, in other words: half-fixed a bad situation I’d created through my own stupidity and inattention.
Thirty years later, I can see that this was a seminal moment in my life, one in which I’d acted characteristically: That little piece of slapstick-on-the-beach was me, then and today. I also note that as a writer, I failed the moment miserably. I wrote only a sappy nature poem about how many stars there are once you get clear of the cities, and how lonely and confusing it is to be in your late 20s and be attracted to every female you encounter who doesn’t have a horde of nose warts worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West. Those insights weren’t even news to me at the time, so why was I recording—and then for God’s sake publishing—them instead of delivering the deliciously revealing piece of slapstick I’d performed with the Uhers and the Pachena Bay tide?
The insights I might have gleaned from the slapstick had profound (and for me, permanently relevant) implications: They are, from the specific to the general: 1.) If one is going out into the big world to make the world’s first quadraphonic audio taping of surf, one ought to take some competent technicians along if one doesn’t want to risk a.) catastrophic failure and b.) the destruction of expensive equipment; 2.) The tides are caused by the moon’s gravity, not by ours; 3.)Don’t run in the surf if you’re not prepared to get wet; 4.) Don’t be stargazing unless you’re in a warm, dry location; 5.) There is more safety in foresight and planning than in trusting to technology.
In 1970, such ostensibly technical and mundane insights didn’t seem like something I could transform into poetry, while chewing the cosmic and/or human scenery did. Too bad. If I’d pursued some of the practical messages that episode tried to deliver to (or was it from?) my teeming brain, I might have produced a piece of readable writing. Even if I hadn’t, working the practicalities would have given me more peace of mind than my lofty visions of the sea and stars did. For years after this disaster, you see, I felt badly about ruining the Uher even though, to his credit, Schafer himself had been more amused than angry when I told him what I’d done. It’s possible that he already understood how much more valuable insight and innovation are than state-of-the-art technology. Still, I don’t recall him sending me on any more missions that risked valuable equipment. Maybe he decided that the only insights I was capable of appropriating then were the kind I was recording in my poems.
There was more. A few weeks later Schafer, Davis and I did use what I brought back from Pacena Bay for our quadraphonic composition. We dubbed my quarter-inch half track tape, and then delayed the two dubbed tracks a half second each to create a harmonized wave roll in glorious quadraphonic sound. This time, I did get the implicit lesson: It is what people accept as authentic that matters, not how the authenticity is produced.
Too bad it didn’t occur to me to apply this to writing poetry or to my personal life, because it pointed straight at my best talents as a writer and as a human being: I was and remain a late-in-the-game fabricator of apparently inappropriate and disparate materials, a rectifier—partially and perhaps inexactly—of major foul-ups, fuck-ups, errors-in-judgment, slapstick mistakes, and so forth. I don’t foresee the future any better than John Naismith, Charles Olson, or NORAD and CNN, but then art and artists are with us to let us know what’s on the end of those forks we’re putting in our mouths, not to predict the future. What art—alone of all the human mental crafts—does well is what I managed to do that day: read a messy situation and act on it accurately enough to bring some small part of it, alive, laughing and whole, through to the other side of the ongoing fuck-up called the human condition. For posterity, or for itself, or for the sheer joy of the human dance. Doesn’t matter.
* * *
So, if I was, in my late 20s, too self-involved to write competent poetry, and in my late 30s not resourceful enough to solve the compositional and philosophical weaknesses that made my nominally accomplished lyric verse embarrassing to me, why am I now, in my 50s, digging through this musty bone-yard and trying to repress a sense of regret and loss? In turning my back on verse and the poetry subculture “Biz” around it, did I give up the essential tools of poetry—or anything else that is useful to understanding the world?
I can’t seem to come up with easy answers to those questions. They aren’t rhetorical. They’re so alive and permeable, in fact, that its pointless to approach them frontally. So, let’s go back to the magazine editor’s questions that touched this off and see if they offer an environment I can think in. These were his questions: Do I see writing differently than I did in 1970? If I do, what are the important differences?
The answer to the editor’s first question is a firm yes, my understanding of what writing and writers can (and ought to) achieve within a human society has changed. During my lifetime writers and writing have been supplanted as the dominant interpreter of values by the more corporate and less privately demanding media of television, film and popular music, and I can hardly deny the effect of this without being a fool: one can now become an “important” writer and be without any significant influence.
Given that fundamental alteration, it remains possible to say that good writing is still valuable because it permits us to treat complex subject matters with conceptual precision and thus enhances our ability to think accurate, complex thoughts and to communicate them to others. More broadly, a society needs to be able to articulate complexities if it is to avoid social and interpersonal violence as a problem-solving device, or beyond that, to be just and healthily democratic.
Beneath the changes brought on by the new media, clear language—specifically metaphor and rhetoric—remains the first instruments of both public and private clarity. Properly considered in isolation of its waning aesthetic value, poetry (if not verse and the Biz) has always acted as the janitorial service for metaphor and rhetoric, both of which require high degrees of maintenance to protect their vitality and their precisions. In that sense, absurd as it may sound, the virtues of a poet’s pursuit may be more important than the bean-counter’s virtues that obsess both the private and public sectors of today’s society.
All of these latter things I would have agreed with in 1970 if I’d recognized their presence. But I’ve also changed my mind about is the role the self plays in the operation of poetry, and the degree to which sublimating—or even suppressing—the self is necessary to achieve relevant accuracy in the use of poetic language. Partly, the change is a consequence of having my testosterone levels drop low enough that I can occasionally think through something without erotic and biomission intrusions fogging up my glasses, but the change is also partly the product of recognizing that there are no stable pathways from the self into the world. In 1970, I believed that the road to poetic accuracy ran right through the most rubble-littered intersections of the self. That was the fatuous Zeitgeist of the 70s: Any world cleanup must be preceded by spiritual self-cleansing. Now I understand that it is the world that creates the paths, not the self.
Twentieth Century history intrudes here, and mightily. Lyric poetry, as we who write in English know it and practice it, is the product of the Great War of 1914-1918. In the course of placing 60 million men of breeding age into a hell of mud, steel and high explosive—and then setting them to murder and maim one another, the ruling classes of the era subjected the young of their educated classes to stresses—collective misery without satisfactory ritual solidarities; massive numbers of premature and pointless deaths, and a cognitive culture that valorized meditation under extreme and unreasonable physically conditions—that could only be comprehended and articulated through lyric devices. The British, more than any other combatant nation, seemed to have gone out of their way to exterminate an entire generation of its well-educated and articulate young men this way.
For one who sets out to study the human effects of the Great War upon those who fought it or were near to it, it is almost impossible to ignore how ubiquitous the writing of verse became among the educated young officers who suffered the highest percentage of casualty. They wrote poems, these young men, and they were blown up and machine-gunned and bayoneted, and they wrote more poems and were gassed and shell-shocked into institutions suffering from catatonia or shivering incoherence. And still they wrote poems. Most of the poems disappeared with the dead poets, the intellectual portion of the 50 to 65 percent of men who went to war and were simply lost in the barbarism that ensued, men without graves, poems without distinction, lives without dignity or value except as attritional ciphers in a blundering conspiracy of blind and heartless old men. Despite everything, an astonishing volume of poetry survived, in the diaries the soldiers kept, in the barely censored letters that officers could send back to loved ones while the enlisted men were confined to preprinted postcards provided by the army. Some of the poems that got written, like those of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney, were luminous for all their darkness, glimmers of light in the overwhelming maelstrom. Most weren’t. They were broken, wounded attempts to articulate the incomprehensible, remarkable for the effort but not for the product.
Yet almost all them—poets and poems alike—shared a uniqueness. It was not so much of treatment or of focus, but of persistent determination to comprehend their condition by composing poems. The poets therefore shared a fundamental similarity of intention: they were young men trying to explain to themselves the continued presence of beauty and particularity within a world of violence that had submerged, in the brutal lunacy of trench warfare, all familiar physical and mental significators in a cocktail of cordite, flying fragments of near-molten metal, mud and human gore.
I didn’t quite recognize the degree to which the lyric poetry of my generation followed the Great War model until I read Vera Brittain’s verse-filled autobiographical account of the Great War and its aftermath, Testament of Youth and saw how many of the British officer class headed for extermination wrote poems along the way. If you were to die, and these men quickly realized that this was their likely fate, then you wanted to explain why, if only to your own benighted senses. Trying to find some way to reconcile the hell they’d found themselves in with the continued existence of natural and human beauty, kindness, and other generous human qualities was at least a project over which they had some hope of control. Everything else that once seemed certain and serene had literally turned into madness.
The Great War therefore created a compelling frame that verse in English had not, in 1970, ventured much beyond save in the attempts to widen the field that are Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams Paterson, and perhaps Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems.
And yes, this legacy of reconciling incomprehensible violence inflicted on the sensible innocent remains the problem of poets working today, even though the world condition that made English lyric verse what it has been since the Great War have not existed for any Westerners for more than 50 years. First, the military conflicts since 1945 in which North Americans & Western Euros have been involved have not more than nominally involved our educated classes. Not even the Second World War, with its vast increases in civilian casualties over the Great War, saw anything close to the same degree of violence directed at the young and the educated. Vietnam, the war that captured and to some extent created the social imagination of my generation, was a war to which America sent mostly black kids and rednecks to do the dying. Yet the same larks appear above the blighted landscape in the poems of my generation as could be seen in the poems of the British war poets, except that the hell beneath the wings of today’s poets consists of incitements to purchase goods, eat mediocre pre-processed foods, and suck up other entertainments of the disarticulation of the public realm.
Not to suggest that I had more than a vague instinct where the roots of poetry lay 35 years ago when began my pursuit of Pound, Williams, Olson and their poetic heirs as my teachers and as my working models, or that I’d uncovered much more 15 years later when I stopped publishing. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the sense of beauty that is lyric poetry’s purest energy, but that I was suspicious of the darkness that placed it in chiaroscuro. What I perceived around me wasn’t so much dark as muddy. It held no residue of high explosives, and it did not stream with human blood and body parts. It was fouled with cigarette butts and the paper and Styrofoam debris of mass-produced hamburgers and milkshakes. My instinct was that such a world requires a catalogue less private and and idiosyncratic than Whitman’s body electric, and an emotional frame less prone to self-regard and sentimentality than Wilfred Owen’s pity. But I couldn’t seem to create either catalogue or frame, and neither could my fellow poets.
At this point, I have a question of my own: Did the distinction I made in the 1980s between poetry and verse cause me to lose touch with an essential element of a writer’s craft?
I had a lot of it right in that 1980s essay—like Edmund in Shakespeare’s King Lear, I had seen the business. And, poetry is an essential mode of human thought. It holds the technical protocols of metaphor, which is human language’s most powerful but hardest-to-master instrument. Verse, on the other hand, is a temporary cultural expression of poetry, and one that has been in a state of cognitive arrest for nearly 80 years. It is now pragmatically obsolete except as an underutilized training tool for writers working still-viable genres, and its decay is a danger to the health of language because its diminished purpose is not widely or accurately recognized by those who ought to recognize it. It simply aggravates the general offense that verse is sometimes given an official dignity and grandeur that poets—outside of those war poets—have had no way of earning for it in 200 years.
Today it is hard for even the diehard partisans of verse to deny that the affective poetry of the late 20th century lies in the products of popular culture created by commercial technologists, popular musicians, film-makers and videographers. Popular culture being what it is, they have used the tools of poetry to sell consumer commodities, and intensify emotions, not to impart any sense of beauty or deliver crucial information. As an essential investigative tool and mode of thought poetry is in a state of disuse, misuse and disrepair that indirectly threatens the continued survival of the human species and of life itself. Unfortunately, I don’t have any practical suggestions about how to rectify this that won’t require several years and 2000 pages of prose to articulate.
Unbidden—or perhaps conditioned by my enhanced understanding of what 20th Century lyric poetry was a response to, these questions now pop up: What about the therapeutic value of poetry? What’s wrong with using poetry as a tool of self-exploration and an instrument of simple self-expression?
The poetry I wrote before I quit publishing was nearly always crudely self-expressive, and I moved on because my instincts told me that self-expression for a working writer was irrelevant. Then, perhaps ironically, I spent a full decade of the ensuing years that followed teaching prison inmates cultural literacy in various disguises—creative and technical writing, various history and English literature course. During those years, I came to see how fundamental the urge toward self expression is during periods of crisis. Whether the crises are private, legal/criminal, or global doesn’t seem to matter. Prison showed me how much more productive and safe life is for everyone when the urge to express oneself is trained and educated—however slightly we were able to accomplish that inside a jail. It made me change my mind about the uses of poetry as self-expression.
Perhaps the vast majority of written verse today ought to be viewed as self-expressive therapy, and quietly treated not as art but as an important and effective kind of self-administered education that can bring order to the situationally confused or the chronically puzzled. If verse is to survive, perhaps this is where and how it should do so: as a minor but useful cultural instrument for ameliorating human stupidity and the violence that springs from it. At its best, verse therapy will refine a few rough or confused minds. At very least, it will keep some savage beasts, perhaps temporarily, from maiming the people around them. As we used to say in jail, reflection is good, in and of itself, if only because it slows people down.
Yet in spite of everything I’ve said here about the state of poetry, I have an overpowering instinct that when I stopped publishing verse and thumbed my nose at the Biz, I gave up most of my access points to the essential life business that is poetry. That being so, there are a couple of questions left hanging, and which I need to answer: Is there anything genuine and valuable in the verse Biz? Are there substitutes for one who gives it up? Are there alternatives?
The short answers seem to be: 1.) Yes; 2.) sure, but they don’t work very efficiently, and for me they don’t bring the same pleasures; 3.) no, I can’t think of any, but maybe you can.
The longer answers go like this:
1.) I’ll concede this much to the Biz: it allows a few talented people to work with language at a complex level without constantly scrambling for subsistence, or being bullied into obsessing over financial investments the way most of us are encouraged to. I’m thinking not just about the few pissy grants the government doles out to working poets, but about our university literature departments, which is where many poets end up, God help them. The benefits society receives from having such people around may seem out of measure with the fiscal costs incurred, but there’s no reason that ought to bother us. The poet/professors are very small fish, whether they’re the marginalized grant-accepting ones or the tenured academy poets. Their pond is small and drying up, and if we’re serious about societal waste, we’d do better to examine the Armed Forces, Parliament, or the medical system. If we think its time to pry a few remora off society’s fat haunches, that’s where the big ones are to be found. We ought to praise these poets for what they are doing—prying bits of rust from the language we use. Or at least, that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.
2.) For good or bad, poets form communities. They do it for mutual support, whether the support involves editing, ego boosting, or simply companionship. No other writers seem capable of doing this. It reveals something that the last 50 years of lyric poetry seemed determined to deny: that poetry is at root, a social activity, and that the choir, even it is only practicing for imaginary events, is more important than the individual poet whining about his or her outcast fate. And unless we’re addled enough by the sentimentalization of democracy to believe that singing in the shower makes us musicians and poets, (which I don’t) those of us who eschew the community aspect of poetry give up both a basic responsibility and a compositional comfort.
It therefore follows that it is incumbent upon poets to hang out, play the music, join the choir, if they are to exercise their faculties. I didn’t. I’ve been asking myself lately if I abandoned verse because I am, by nature, more solitary than the poets around me. Maybe I am, but I’m not less playful than the others of my generation. I do note that my play preference is for matters of cognition, not music, and that my early life did leave me with a number of performance disabilities I’ve never much wanted to get over.
Still, I played ball with my fellow poets (literally and figuratively), I slept with some of them, and I fought them over ideas and sometimes over lovers. At the time I thought those were inevitable pursuits of youth and had nothing to do with poetry. And to be sure, today it is the conversation around poetry I miss more than I do the sex or the baseball. I’ve learned that poets carry friendships they form around language into old age, whereas nearly all other writers just become more solitary and grumpily competitive. I miss that playful part of writing, and not just out of nostalgia. I miss the choir practices. People who sing or play musical instruments keep their music nearby and in the open. People who work with ideas or characters in imagined landscapes to my sorrow keep them pinched, private and where the sun don’t shine nearly enough.
3.) Substitutes? I guess I could learn to be a nicer guy and a more social one, and I could be more insistent about phoning my fiction/documentary writer friends and asking them about what they’re working on. Being a fly on the wall when I do this will entertaining because one could judge their impersonations of iguanas. Or, I could admit that I’m really a poet, and see what that provokes. Now that I’ve tired of imposing my jowly face and white hair on the world, maybe I can now make something worthwhile from the larks flying overhead, and from the guns and the bones and the hamburger wrappers,
Of course I could also go the opposite direction: answer all my e-mail, join a political party again, or take culture jammers and activists more seriously. Or I could bite the big bullet and learn to play guitar, but didn’t a guy named Leonard Cohen already do that en route to disappearing down a Zen rabbithole? We’ll see.
Finally, there’s the question that this particular investigation begs to have me ask: Is writing—in any form that makes it a cognitive investigation of the universe (as opposed to an exploitation of a limited opportunity or market—worth doing even when society doesn’t recognize it as valuable? And if it is, what are the best ways to proceed in the 21st Century?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, and I won’t pretend that I do. But I do understand better now than I did thirty years ago that poetry involves work, and that this is both its greatest pleasure and its ultimate reward. Work is the one element to poetic composition that seemed to get lost in the trenches of the Great War. This was a form of genius that didn’t involve much heavy labour. It merely hunkered down in the mud and waited the Reaper. What I didn’t understand adequately when I wrote the essay for Metcalf was that metaphor requires constructive practice more than it does rich human experience, which is about as useful and affective to it as second hand cigarette smoke. And I’m tempted here to urge the notion that the essence of being human is the constructive practice of metaphor, and the experience of it, particularly as it becomes a form of increasingly arcane behavior, is crucial to our survival as an intelligent species.
But today I do so on something less than idealistic terms and projectives. Recent theories that it was a cognitive leap in Neolithic homo sapiens that enabled them to see in metaphoric terms for the first time that led to the abrupt extermination of the Neanderthal populations with whom they’d lived in relative peace for thousands of years resonates through subsequent history in a very sobering way. At very least it suggests that metaphor may be a blade with two sharpened edges. Even so, the only possible remedy to metaphor’s misuse—whether it is by early homo sapiens, or Hitler, or today’s advertising technicians and/or scruffy street poets—is practice and work. Which I need to stop yapping about, and get down to once again.