Sunday, August 17, 2008

Types of Poetry

The following was written by poet Allen Taylor. It was posted originally at his website, You can get to that post by clicking on the title of this post.

How Many Types Of Poetry
Are There?

14 August 2008, the poet @ 9:29 pm
I’d like to offer a great big thanks to Timothy Green, editor of Rattle, for getting me thinking on this. He commented on a former blog post about the nature of didacticism and I wanted to respond in a way that calls for more than a simple comment on a post. Here’s his comment:
The problem with didacticism isn’t that you take a position, it’s that you take it from the start — maybe it’s as simple as the reader’s trust, and being suspicious of rhetoric. Although I think it’s more than that — I think it’s hard to write a poem that isn’t dull without surprising yourself.
Bear in mind that didactic poetry is instructional and, as such, its purpose is to teach. Now, I come from the position that there is a place for didacticism in poetry. I think that all poetry is, in some sense, instructional, but the problem with much of the poetry that seeks to be instructional as an end in itself is that its instructions are preachy and detract from the poetry. I believe that poetry must always strive to be poetry first and anything else secondarily.
That said, however, I take issue with Tim’s opening statement here. He likely didn’t intend it the way it sounds, but this is how I took it. Where you start out with a position that you believe and you write a poem to defend that position. Tim’s statement makes me think that he believes that isn’t appropriate, but I think otherwise. There are many great poems that do just that. One such poem is Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.”
In “Ars Poetica”, MacLeish sets out to tell us what a poem should be. Right from word one he takes a position and he sticks to it. All the way down to his final line, that poem makes one point. Every line contributes to the point. It’s a fabulous exercise in polemics. He doesn’t say what he needs to say in every way possible, but he does say it in every way that it needs to be said in order for the poem to make its point. And he took his position right from the start.
I think that’s what good poetry does, but I also agree with Tim’s last point. It’s hard to write a poem that doesn’t surprise yourself. I think Archibald MacLeish would honestly say that he did surprise himself in writing “Ars Poetica”. The lines are surprising, not for what they say, but in how they say it. Again, that is a mark of good poetry.
Pardon Me For Being A Wise Ass
I’d like to thank Jim Murdoch for his response to my last blog post. I think anyone who reads my blog long term has figured out by now that I don’t believe that a poem is a poem just because somebody decided to throw some lines on a page and call it a poem. My point for that post was two-fold: No. 1, I just wanted to be a wise-ass and make fun of myself a little bit, and, secondly, just prove that I’m a bit of a contrarian on these matters. I don’t follow rules too well. I prefer to deal with principles because principles are flexible; rules are not. That doesn’t mean that everything is equal. To echo the words of the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the Christian New Testament, all things are permissible, but not all things are profitable. In other words, anyone can call himself a poet and just toss words onto the page, but the real test of one’s work is not what he himself thinks of it, but what the aggregate of posterity thinks of it.
The Many, Many Types Of Poetry
I’d like to issue a third thank you. This one to G.M. Palmer who writes the Strong Verse blog. He’s drawn a bit of a line in the sand over there about what constitutes good poetry and what doesn’t. I certainly give him credit for his passion. I like many of his ideas and agree with them. But he’s got a few as well that I think are a bit stuck in the barn.
What I do like about him is his willingness to promote narrative long-term poetry. I too believe that it’s time to bring back the long form narratives, though not necessarily in the traditional rhyme and meters of old. Nevertheless, his passion is commendable.
Where I do take issue with him is in his insistence that avant garde poetry and Spoken Word forms are not poetry. While my readers know that I’m not preferential to the avant garde, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss them on the basis that we don’t like them. Just because I don’t like somebody’s style or techniques doesn’t mean that what I do is superior to what they do. Palmer’s polemics leave much to be desired and I’ve found that, by reading his blog, he often contradicts his own principles.
For example:
  1. In his “Modern Aesthetics As Sola Fide” post he criticizes contemporary poets for their “it’s poetry because I say it is” position then he turns around in less than one week later and makes the argument that Language Poets, Spoken Word poets, and avant gardeists are bad because he says they are. Well, I think he owes it to us to defend his position with some examples rather than saying Google will lead you to the self-evident truths. Sorry, bad positing.
  2. In his bio he says his favorite book is The Divine Comedy by Dante then he says in “Why I am a Skeptic” that he dislikes anything trendy or experimental. This is really quite laughable. Dante himself was an experimenter. All great poets are. Dante’s experimentalism is evident in his use of the terza rima, which was never used before he employed it in The Divine Comedy. Dante’s work went on to inspire Petrarch and Chaucer, who borrowed the form for English literature. Other English language poets followed, all the way down to William Carlos Williams, who is perhaps an iconic figure in the avant garde traditions. Personally, I’ve got no use for any poet who doesn’t step outside of the ranks and do a little experimenting. Who wants to read the same rehashed lines over and over again?
Rather than wear myself out poring over every word of his blog, I’ll just stop right there. I am not setting myself up as opposition to Palmer’s ideas. I simply think he should communicate them better. I like what he has to say in “A Declaration on the Revision of Poetry”, but we can’t get too wrapped up in the language of forms.
To say that no one reads poetry today because “artsy journals” publish crap is ludicrous. People stopped reading poetry when they could just flip on the channel and watch Uncle Miltie wearing a dress and smoking a cigar. Poets have to stop dreaming about the future halcyon days when poetry makes a big comeback. We should instead put our overactive imaginations to work and produce good, imaginative literature for the people who appreciate it. What do I care if my audience is 500 or 5 million? I hope, of course, that it’s 5 million, but I’m not holding my breath.
While Palmer’s declaration has merit, I wouldn’t expect it to revive interest in poetry. People just aren’t going to flock to Borders Books to buy the latest issue of Palmer’s grand opus. They might, but they’ll only do so if their friends tell them it’s good enough to spend their money on. Otherwise, they’d rather watch Homer Simpson.
Poets have got to quit blaming each other for the problems that we find. It isn’t Ron Silliman’s fault that your books don’t sell on Amazon. It isn’t some vaguely-defined School of Quietude’s responsibility to ensure that the avant garde poets are represented in the great poetic pantheon. These kinds of ridiculous assertions are just rhetoric that gets us nowhere. If you don’t like concrete poetry then don’t read it. Someone else may love the hell out of it. That’s their business. Leave it alone.
Today, there are more poets writing poetry than there ever have been in U.S. history. There are also fewer non-poets reading it. Dana Gioia noticed that 20 years ago. He wrote a manifesto and it was widely distributed. Still, even after the New Formalists waged their hostile takeover and ransacked the halls and walls of academe and the NEA, fewer people care about poetry. I’m not going to cry about it. Ultimately, poetry will live on in some form. If it’s a form that I don’t appreciate then at least I’m glad that it’s still alive.
How Many Types Of Poetry Are There?
The answer to the question, “How many types of poetry are there?” is this: As many as people read. The poetry tent is big enough to hold the Language Poets, the New Formalists, and everyone in between. It’s big enough for lyric poetry and narrative poetry. It’s even big enough for a few lyric-narratives. Perhaps we’ll all have to tolerate a little bad poetry in order to enjoy the good, but the good that is there is really good so why let the rest get us down?
This isn’t some “live and let live” manifesto. It’s a hope that poets will take the time to learn from each other. I think you can learn good poetics from bad poetry. I also think you can pick up bad habits from good poetry. The real issue is, What are you doing to make yourself as good a poet as you can be? And don’t spend all your time fixating on the different types of poetry. Rather, take some time out to invent a type of your own.

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