How To Not Write Books Of Poetry Appreciation
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/19/03
Or perhaps I should have subtitled this piece ‘Shoot Me Before I
Vomit!’ Breathe deeply, Dan. OK. Last year I picked up a couple of ‘How
To’ books on poetry, just as a lark while perusing the used bookstores
locally. People ask me- why do you buy bad books- especially of poems? My retort
is that to defeat the enemy you must know the enemy.
On to enemy #1. A 1999 book called A Grain Of Poetry: How To Read Contemporary Poems And Make Them A Part Of Your Life, by a Herbert Kohl. The back of the book contains this blurb/info- that HK is an ‘award-winning author who works in school systems all over the country’. Note- by not mentioning he’s a poet the book’s publishers are really trying to give themselves a little distance if/when HK fucks up royally. The book reveals that HK is really just a fan of poetry. He even dedicates the book to poet Denise Levertov.
I’ll zip through the book chronologically detailing the worst. Chapter 1 is called ‘Encountering Poems’. There’s the usual ooh & ah of appreciation- then this commentary on Ron Padgett’s ridiculous poem Nothing In That Drawer, where the poem’s title is every line in the poem repeated 14 times- a sonnet? What is this renowned educator’s comment? Nothing. Instead, he lets RP explain the brilliance of his own bit of doggerel:
‘Did every nothing feel the same? Every in, that, and drawer? Is the tone of each line exactly the same as that of every other line? It can’t be.’
In fact the tone is exactly the same, & it is. That someone like RP
cannot get that, or (let’s be generous) pretends not to, is evidence of the
charlatanic nature of most contemporary doggerelists, who long to justify their
bad writing by circuitous philosophical nothings posited as deep thought.
He next takes on Robert Creeley’s ‘I Know A Man’. In an earlier essay on W.D. Snodgrass I tackled this poem. Let’s review:
The next poem is Robert Creeley’s I Know A Man:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
This is RC at his imitative William Carlos Williams worst. This is a bad poem- period. So- again- why rewrite to ‘make it worse’? Bad enjambments, pointless abbreviations, ridiculous breaks of words in their middle- in short, oy! Yet, WDS claims these things force the reader to pay closer attention to the poem’s details- huh?
Let’s do a side-by-side with this & the rewrite by WDS:
I sd to my
I said to my friend-
we always discuss this-
“John,” I said to him
(that’s not his real name)
“evils are universal;
what can we do
to ameliorate suffering
or should we just get
more luxurious comforts?”
“For the future’s sake” he answered
“consider the possible
harm to the ecology.”
Again, WDS is right that the DeC version is more prosaic- but lacking the poor structure of the 1st it’s not necessarily a lesser poem; both are bad. But, look at how the poem’s real message totally eludes him. The original ends with the speaker’s philippic being intruded upon by reality. Yet, WDS ends up moralizing. The original’s ending is in no way de-abstracted- it’s changed to something totally narratively different. Again, the whole point of WDS’s exercise is missed.
Here’s HK’s defense of this doggerel:
Creeley’s poem, informal and easy as it is to read, is highly crafted, a good example of the creative use and breaking of ordinary rules of prose that is characteristic of much of modern poetry. [Of course, HK NEVER tells us who those poets are that are not as good as RC!- Dan] There are wonderful touches- Creely (sic) is talking to a friend John, but John is not the friend’s name. They are on the road. The poem moves along like the car, erratically, perhaps too fast, on the verge of going out of control. The informal language and the rhythm of the piece, the rolling movement of the poem, get the reader on the road in a particular car at a wild moment and yet confront her or him with a metaphysical question. What fun.
Even WDS attempted to see something deeper in to the poem than HK- who
can only flail away at a generic metaphysical reason. Now reread my comments on
the piece. With far fewer words I totally core in to this bad little poem. HK,
however , is still cribbing critical structure & clichés he learned in
Creative Writing 101- where he probably got a B-, at best.
Of course, the book is larded with the chestnuts as William Carlos Williams ‘the red wheelbarrow’, some familiar Emily Dickinson poems, & contemporary crap from PC Elitists like Joy Harjo & Martin Espada. Later in Chapter 1 he picks an atrocious poem called When You Leave from an unknown, Juan Delgado, filled with poor line breaks, clichés, & utterly prose broken in to lines. How does HK defend the poem?:
It is important to read Delgado’s poem not merely as a statement coming from a Latino poet but as a poetic statement framed in a Latino experience that can become a metaphor for any reader.
Unfortunately the poem’s terrible nature & structure bores any
reader of substance, regardless of their ethnicity. By Chapter 2 HK gets in to
enjambment- & shows he knows nothing. He tackles Robert Duncan’s After
A Long Illness, & reveals utter charlatanism. The poem has many breaks
within actual lines, partly as an attempt to mimic a tired beaten person’s
speech. Yet HK claims that the spacing & breaks in the poem are meant to add
to the poem’s intensity- EXACTLY the opposite effect RD is shooting for in his
poem- a typical bad ‘disease’ poem & not 1 of his better efforts.
Terrible critic, & utterly ridiculous that this kind of writing
should be propagated. NO WONDER THERE ARE SO MANY BAD WRITERS WHEN ASSES LIKE
THIS ARE WILLFULLY TEACHING MISREADING!!!!
Rhythm & Melody are the subject of Chapter 3. A clichéd free verse piece of shit called The Babies: I by Chitra Divakaruni (& I won’t burden you with the crappy poem) is summarized in this fashion by HK:
The poignancy of the poem has to be represented in the reading.
I.e.- dear reader- he is literally telling you that you, the reader or speaker, MUST give the poem what the writer has failed to endow it with! He continues:
I find that this helps develop not only an understanding of the poem but also an understanding of my own voice and ways of clustering sounds and shaping my ideas and feelings in language.
Note how HK, the exegete, has TOTALLY abandoned the poem- pro or con- & its relevance, for what he needs. This is a great example of the pop psychological nonsense that has infected poetry for the last few decades. By Chapter 4, shiveringly titled ‘The Images At The Heart Of Poems’ (FUCKIN’ A, A CLICHÉ!- like my rhyme?) HK tackles-ugh- ‘angel poems’. Yes, I swear he does! Denise Levertov’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder is 1st, then Robert Hass’s ‘Privilege Of Being’, where such trite images as ‘cold rivers’, ‘dark theater’, ‘alabaster skin’, & ‘unspeakable sadness’- to name a few of a few dozen- are elided comment on. Instead, HK gawks at the beauty of the poem’s scene. The 3rd angel poem is Carolyn (I’m In A Bad Mood Tonight) Forché’s ‘The Recording Angel’- a bathetic Holocaust poem. Google it & you’ll cringe at the condescension, imagistic & narrative clichés. HK’s take? Here ‘tis:
I found that I had to read this poem more than once to have it make sense. On a third reading I felt that I could enter into the painful experience the poet was portraying and think about the moral decisions we all have to make when we encounter the terrible.
Recall, that this chapter was to explicate imagery. Note that HK never discusses that in the poem’s exegesis. Later in this chapter, when talking about a Joy Harjo poem I Give You Back (again, a horror show of a ‘poem’), here’s how HK prefaces it:
Joy Harjo’s work derives from her experience as a woman, a Native
American, and a person trying to thrive in a complex and often hostile world.
Note, no talk of images, but of the person. Now look at these 2 descriptions & you can see how utterly meaningless & useless a description of the writer it is.
Dan Schneider’s work derives from his experience as a man, a heterosexual, and a person trying to thrive in a complex and often hostile world.
Herbert Kohl’s work derives from his experience as a white man, a bad critic, and a person trying to thrive in a complex and often hostile world.
See how generic this is? Utterly fill in the blank. Aside from the PC
bent, this is the book’s primary flaw- there is nothing original, nothing
probing, & nothing that can ever be helpful to an aspiring poet, save as for
what NOT to do or be! The last 2 chapters The Voice Of The Turtle (?- I swear
that’s the title) & The Poet’s Eye/The Reader’s Eye- are not even
On to the 2nd book, this 1 actually penned by a poet, albeit not a good 1. Molly Peacock’s How To Read A Poem…And Start A Poetry Circle also came out in 1999. You know it’s also cringe-worthy when its front cover boasts this Seattle Times blurb: ‘An invaluable little book…Like any great teacher of anything, Peacock believes that in giving us a way to understand her subject, she is giving us a tool for living.’ I could end this essay here on a note of triumphalism. Need I say more? Not really. But I feel like bitching a bit. MP does tackle only 13 poems- including a mediocre 1 of her own. Unlike HK MP is not riotously funny in her misreadings- but she is so ‘sincere’ you wanna vomit- be it in her defense of a bad Jane Kenyon poem- Let Evening Come- or her incessant homilizing. Her excuse-making reaches a zenith in her defense of JK’s tripe. Read this:
But it is the two tiny, lowercase lets in the last two stanzas that trigger the little miracles of this poem. In the fifth stanza let seems at first nowhere to be found- then we discover it, protruding its lowercase head.
To the bottle
in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats. To air in the lung
let evening come.
Kenyon’s withholding of the let until the last line of the stanza internalizes it. It is deep inside its sentence, as air is deep in the lung, or the scoop is deep in the oats.
Or my tongue is deep in her twat? I mean, literally, was MP masturbating
when she wrote this ridiculous pap? Google the whole JK poem. Then reread this
snip. You will see why this book by MP should not even be looked at in a store,
much less read. The whole book bastardizes poetry & attempts to justify
doggerel. As bad as HK’s book is this is probably worse. I could go on, but
prudence & judgment tell me not to assail innocents like this. I’ll stop
&- in a bit- let other reviewers’ ignorance portray the book far better
& more comically than I could.
However, both books evoke strange reviews. Here’s 1 of HK’s tripe from a Lauri Conner:
a poet myself, I am happy that someone is talking about these things. My problem
comes from the assumption Kohl makes that to read "modern poetry" one
must understand the paths of poetry: form, line break, rhythm, etc. This type of
understanding seems more important to the writer than to the reader. A Grain
of Poetry seems to undercut the importance of the reader's personal self,
limiting his work to a this-is-how-you-get-to-the-real-poem type of discussion.
And is this the only way to read poetry?….
As a guide, this work seems to lead the reader down the path that has
separated writer and reader from each other for far too long. Kohl writes about
his belief that a poem can only be enjoyed if it is read, and reread--digested,
if you will, like a slowly eaten meal. I'm not sure about that. I'm inclined to
believe more along the lines of Ntozake Shange when she writes, "...poetry
should happen to you like cold water or a kiss." I don't remember which
book of hers that comes from. I haven't had the time to reread them.
LC apparently believes
that HK’s book is detailed & deep. Nowhere does HK argue the points LC
states- he, in fact, only gives a semblance so he can appear the intellectual
fop. The book is totally void of any true insights. Her borrowed insight is
about as true as any of HK’s posits, but here’s a bitch-slap just for
mentioning Ntozake Shange- as if she knows a damned thing about poetry!
MP got her share of silly
ass-kissy reviews as well. Here’s a bit from a Rina Ferrarelli:
Her writing is accessible, her tone inclusive. The subject may be dense and mysterious; still, she feels, it’s possible to talk about it in simple terms, and it’s certainly worth the effort. What she calls the three systems of a poem are the line, the sentence and the image.
“Poetry,” she says, “is really the fusion of three arts: music, storytelling, and painting. The line displays the poem’s music, the sentence displays its thoughts, and the image displays the vision of the poet. When we talk about the body of a poem -- its anatomy -- the line is like a skeletal system, the sentence is like a circulatory system, and the image is like a central nervous system. That’s all.”
Stanza 1 is a paint-by-#s paragraph that appears in many reviews of many books. The 2nd is the standard ‘Let the writer explain it in their own words’ trope. This way the critic can save time, assent to what is said, yet seem to be giving a real flavor of the work, & a real opinion- even if what is quoted is utter garbage. I won’t waste your time with pointing out its infantile nature.
A review from the Kirkus Reviews contains these points:
In a successful effort to demonstrate the value of her oft-neglected medium, poet and memoirist Molly Peacock (Paradise, Piece by Piece, 1998, etc.) guides the reader through 13 of her favorite poems with grace, humor, and warmth.
[This says nothing of the work,
yet points out the reviewers ignorance in light of the fetishistic appeal poetry
has- especially on the Internet- oft-neglected medium?]
Peacock rarely falters as she reveals the nuances of language and meaning
inherent in each writers work. Occasionally the authors own poetic constructions
obscure the clarity she is trying to elicit from the poems; but her sheer
delight in them is infectious even when her point is unclear.
[The critic is admitting- however sidewise- that this thoroughly dumbed down work has eluded much of his/her ken. These little gems a thorough reader can glean & giggle at with justifiable contempt. Go ahead- I encourage you!]
Essential for poetry novices yet thoroughly enjoyable for initiates, this illuminating handbook is a joy.
[Any tome that any art is
called essential or necessary you know you can keep
walking past that aisle!]
Thankfully, some critics do their jobs. Recently I wrote an article on poet/critic Jack Foley where I rightfully criticized his Kid Glove handling of bad poets who were friends, acquaintances, & heroes. But MP is not- & JF feels free to savage her:
Hearing the phrase "dumbing down," I usually think that the person using it has been-- "dumbed down." I nevertheless found the phrase springing to my mind as I contemplated Molly Peacock's How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle. The book has a quotation from the Seattle Times on its cover:
An invaluable little book...Like any great teacher of anything, Peacock believes that in giving us a way to understand her subject, she is giving us a tool for living.
I don't agree with that--I found How to Read a Poem... a rather wretched little book and believe Peacock to be anything but a "great teacher"--but I think I know what it was that impelled the Seattle Times reviewer to write such nonsense.
He then gets in to a little bit of specious political theorizing, but it’s forgivable since he assails the rotten stature of Jane Kenyon:
….And as for Kenyon (whom we know is deceased), she is the very emblem of the modern bourgeoise:
She'd come in earlier from her home, Eagle Pond, her husband, the poet Donald Hall's, family farm in New Hampshire. Still and composed, she rested there almost as if she were a portrait of herself, the cloud of her dark hair suspended over her hand-knit sweater. Though it was only a few hours past its middle, the day lay in dusk outside the large window she stared through--behind her, the room in a heated glow.
Gotta love it! He then takes on the poem I just mentioned:
If you read "Let Evening Come" aloud, you can feel a vespers resonance. The rhythm of the dozen Lets Jane Kenyon uses can lull you into an attitude of prayer. Yet her poem provides the liveliest kind of devotion because the language both repeats and quickens with change. Like the mottled light of dusk, the Lets move in a scattered pattern, like most patterns in nature.
Kenyon's poem deserves better than this "mottled light" of criticism, this "vespers resonance": "behind her, the room in a heated glow."
Well, no it doesn’t- the bad poem deserves all it can get. It’s the reader that deserves better! Still, it’s nice to read a critic actually doing their assigned task, although his own biases seep in with this thrust:
The chapter I've been quoting from is called "A Comfort Poem." But the entire book is like that: it is a comfort book about poetry. No Gertrude Stein here. No James Joyce. No William Carlos Williams. No Emily Dickinson. No Marianne Moore. No Amiri Baraka. No Percy Bysshe Shelley (though he is referred to patronizingly in a chapter dealing with John Clare). No Langston Hughes. No Diane di Prima. No Allen Ginsberg. No Anne Waldman. No Walt Whitman. No Mina Loy. No...
Sorry, Jack, we need less Beatnik crap & more real good poetry discussed. Just as you have your silly biases so does MP revel in hers. A final shot from JF:
I suppose white, bourgeois matrons are the ones most likely to start "poetry circles" and I expect that this book will find its audience and sell. I wish it well. It's not even that Peacock's oh- so-genteel comments are completely without value. But it does seem a shame that that extraordinary combination of utter ecstasy, confusion, and visionary joy that some call poetry has no place in this book.On his last point I totally agree. Both HK & MP do a great disservice. I could beat both of their asses in with a great poem & neither person would know what hit them. Neither can discern what makes poetry good or bad- so there is no reason for their books’ existences. Okay, you’ve been good in holding back the heaves. Go ahead & let it out. You’ll feel better than reading either, or both, of these 2 pieces of worthless garbage.
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