Saturday, December 24, 2005

Questions, questions ...

Seth Abramson has been asking questions on his blog - always a dangerous thing to do, in my opinion. Ron Silliman has answered the general thrust of Seth's questions, as his name had been used as an example in some of them. Others have contributed their views, too - Seth links to a number of those in other blogs.

Now, I've not got much interest in the "debates" (okay, spats) Americans seem to get involved in about the history, relevance and future of American poetry. Mainly because I doubt very much that there is any such thing as American poetry - what's going on in new world poetry is just too big to fit in the one box, if you see what I mean. And anyways, I ain't no Merkin. But during his self-proclaimed rant Seth touched on those questions which have kept me fascinated over the years - in particular two sorts of questions: where does the poet stand in relation to poetry; and how do people cope with poetry overload.

These are good questions for Crimbo Eve, believe me!

I offer my answers to selected Seth questions not because I want to contribute to the debate, but rather because it's more fun typing these answers at the moment than it is doing battle with the next section of Snowdrop, which is turning into a bummer of an exercise to draft.

Is being "good" the same as being "relevant"?

No. Mind you, that's one of the biggest questions around. I expect Seth's talking about this American poetry thingy, but I have to approach it from a much more parochial stance. Relevant poetry, to me, is the poetry which forms a key component of the society around us - the ceremonial poems used at key stages of a person's life, the national poems which form part of the annual cycle of the state, etc. Rarely are these poems "good", nor to be honest do they need to be. All they need to do is perform that one role which assists people and societies through the traumas of existence. You don't have to like relevant poetry, but you cannot get away from having to acknowledge its function and its importance. Nursery rhymes don't change much, and while the words of playground poems may be altered to fit the here-and-now, I doubt their structures and purpose have changed much over the centuries. Wedding poems, funeral poems, elegies to the fallen, love poems to impress the intended, poems of worship and poems of accolation - they don't change much, really. But these are the relevant poems which don't get forgotten through the passage of time - however crap they may be.

How much is genius and how much what we think we can get away with? And just how much can we get away with, anyway? What are others getting away with?

One of the most wonderful things I've learned as I've passed through my life is that everybody is making it up as they go along. When I was a kid the adult world seemed like an alien place with rules and hierarchies and processes and functions that I thought I'd never be able to understand. Nevertheless the conveyor belt of time was forcing me to try and understand how the world worked, and where my little cog fitted into the bigger engine. Sometimes during my late teens and twenties it seemed to me that everybody except me had been given an instruction book. Then when I hit my thirties I finally worked it out: there was no instruction book, just people. Many were more confident than me, and were able to put on a front that made it seem like they knew what was going on and how they played a part. But the honest truth was that everyone was making it up as they went along, and everyone was dealing with everyone else's contingencies as best they could. The same goes for writing poetry: once you've learned the basics you're on your own, and if you can convince other people that you know what you're doing then they'll likely believe you. It makes for an interesting life.

I've never met a genius. I've met some scarily intelligent people, but they're just as able to write crap poems as I am.

How much love of poetry is too much? How much fear of poetry is not enough?

I think this question is hilarious - it's an invitation to go and worship at the altar of poetry. I think I prefer to love and fear people rather than a pile of squiggles. But then I'm one of those people who think religion and spiritualism are largely delusional, as are my own personal beliefs in that area.

What do we want? Immortality, or just a good run?

The greatest goal of all: to reach the high pantheon of poets whose work is used and abused as part of daily life. Do I want little kiddies to be discussing and dissecting my poems in classes in the 22nd century? Do I want preachers and politicians to be reusing my metaphors to support or oppose some future war?

To be honest, who cares? I won't be around in 100 years time to appreciate the fact that my poetry has turned into some sort of standard for which young poets should aim, nor will I give a shit how my verses are recycled to build new points and perspectives. Dead people don't care for the living. I care more for the here and now: my poetry can die when I die.

Can you hate poetry and be a good poet? Is it okay to have some days in which you hate poetry?

Of course you can hate poetry. More particularly you can choose not to like certain types of poetry, or you can champion the work of one particular poet at the expense of others. Again, I can see little difference between this question and a question like can you spit on the cross and still be a good christian? If people insist on treating their relation to poetry in a similar way to their relationship to religion, then there is room for doubt and questioning. Personally, I'll start fearing god when the bastard hunts me down and nails me to the church door as a warning to others, and I'll continue to hate poetry as and when I see fit. I'm still working on the "good poet" bit of the equation.

Is it okay to admit these things, or will it cause one to be ostracized?

If the people you admire and want to be admired by hold certain irrational beliefs, then it is a reasonable political step to take to convince yourself that you, too, believe in those irrational beliefs. If that causes inner tensions in the poet's psyche, then tough - unless it leads to some really excellent poems in which case: tough. I prefer an easy life, and try to limit my personal delusions to the bare minimum required to keep me functioning.

Why is Blogger X the first, and not the second or the last, to bring us news of fresh voices on the national poetry scene?

We don't get to choose our leading fashion-setters - they just seem to rise to the scum on the custard's surface. Of course, many people want to be the fashion-setters and they usually achieve this through one of two ways: either be one of the first to set the fashion in a new arena; or network like fuck until their circle of supporters reach a critical mass which results in their opinion being the one that is listened to most often - even by people who have never met them or don't particularly like their point of view.

If I find myself left cold by the poetry Blogger X favors, does that say something about me, about Blogger X, about both of us, or about neither of us?

It says something about the mechanics of society, but nothing more than that.

When will we be shelved? Or our work? Is it too late? Has it already happened? Who decided? Can we convince them otherwise? Did we deserve it?

As I said, I shall be shelved when I die. Which isn't part of my gameplan for the immediate future. Posterity can look after itself: I'm too busy already.

Merry Crimbo, everyone!

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