What a day it has been. I woke up to the news that my beloved spiritual teacher and friend since childhood, John-Roger, passed away in the early hours at the age of eighty. If there is one thing he taught me, it is to keep doing good, no matter what.
Tonight my sister-in-law and our much-loved little nephew are boarding a plane back to Australia. For whatever I may have been able to impart to him in our two weeks together, he has certainly taught me much more.
In a short while, I will be carrying on with some of the good work I have found to do in the circumstances of my current life, by helping to produce a free, live online poetry broadcast. The show, after all, must go on. It is my way of reaffirming that the world is a small place, and that you and I are not so different after all.
I submitted the following article to Huffington Post Books yesterday, and it has come back to me today with all of these new resonances.
How Bedtime Stories Restored My Faith in Humanity
I never thought a slim paperback of children’s poems, packed with silly illustrations, sing-song rhymes, and bottom humour would restore my faith that printed books will endure. I had rather hoped for the seminal work of some brilliant, tortured Nobel laureate. But those precious few evening moments, while my nephew squirmed beside me in his bed, protesting against obvious sleepiness, confirmed that ours was a shared experience no touch-screen device would soon encroach upon.
Don’t get me wrong — he loves phones and pods and pads of every sort and, like me as a boy, becomes easily engrossed in the challenge of video games. The sense of individual progress, developing skill, and the spectacular multimedia rewards at the end of each level of “accomplishment” are tough for paper and ink to compete with by day. Yet when it comes time to switch gears from wakefulness to dreaming, the last thing he needs or even wants is a glowing glass slate crackling with sensory input.
Instead, we share stories and rhymes about creatures who slither and fart. We laugh. He points at the illustrations. As soon the poem chimes to an end, he asks for another. I begin to read more slowly.
We inhabit the sound of my voice together, a conduit between or two private experiences of the tale being told. As we draw further into ourselves, and into the music of language, we draw closer together. His breathing slows as he slips away fully into his own world, and I creep away, book in hand.
It could only really happen with a book — that portable, flimsy, shock-proof, battery-less, recyclable, spill-resistant, organic launch pad into ourselves. In fact, the more his generation inhabits the realm of flickering data on glowing blue screens, the more necessary the interior experience of a good book may become. Studies have shown that such screens promote a kind of restless insomnia, and even passively-lit pads like the Kindle still click my brain into the skim-and-scan gear I whizz through online. So, when it is time to stop surfing for sensory input, and reconnect with myself, I want paper and ink.
Books bring us back to our own imagination (after all, how many times has the movie of your favourite book disappointed you?), to the innermost experience of a tale being told, and to the music of the spoken word. The love of a good book is conveyed first and foremost as an act of love. And really, who doesn’t still love to be read to, at any age?
Traditions endure and outlast technological “disruption” when they tap into what makes us essentially human. There is nothing quite like reading a bedtime story from a printed book. For this reason alone, I have hope that the next generation, for all the amazing discoveries they will make though high technology, will still share some of their most intimate moments, and profound personal revelations, curled up with an old-fashioned book.
Thoughts? Remarks? Visit the article on Huffington Post.
There is a great paradox in contemporary poetry.
On the one hand, poetry seems to be dwindling — in bookstore shelves and traditional academic curricula — so much so that it has become fashionable for journalists to frequently declare it dead. On the other hand, I have but to scroll through my social media feeds to witness an eruption of poetry being written and published online.
Likewise, an offering like Al Filreis’ Modern Poetry online course has attracted more than 100,000 students eager to read and learn from great poets of the past. Furthermore, as a poet I know that even though the overall fan base for poetry may have dwindled since the advent of the Internet, that same technology allows me to connect with global audiences many times the size of what some of our most respected poets enjoyed as regional audiences one hundred years ago.
So it would seem that poetry is dying in the real world, only to be reborn into a kind of “Invisible Golden Age” online.
My own response to this paradox is equally dualistic. I acknowledge that poetry may never go mainstream in my lifetime, and aspire primarily for the respect of respectable peers. Yet at the same time, I work hard to bring poetry to new audiences, in person and online. In that vein, I have been gathering my thoughts about the fact that so many people are now reading and writing poems, yet poetry is still perceived as a floundering art. Really, how can this be?
The following diagram illustrates how I see people engaging with poetry today.
- At the bottom left we have the non-participants, who read and write little. Often, somewhere in the course of their primary education, usually from a teacher they disliked or who disliked them, they got the message that poetry was difficult, irrelevant, or both.
- At bottom right, we have the self-expressionists, who write much but read little. Many of us entered into this phase in adolescence, when what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” turned in to our first attempts at poetry.
- At top left, we have fans of poetry. Here we must distinguish between those who, like the students in Al Filreis’ class, are reading historical poetry, and those who read living authors as well. [Note: a student in one of Al’s classes recently pointed out that they do read some living authors as well.]
- In the upper right, we have living poets. Reading and writing are the in- and out-breath of a life steeped in poetry, and the most prolific poets I know are also among the most voracious readers.
The boxes in blue represent the behaviours most likely to help usher us out of this “Invisible Golden Age” into, well, a visible one — that is, reading contemporary poetry as a fan and both reading and writing it as a poet.
It is pretty easy to see why the health and longevity of the art depends on these things happening. So how do we encourage such behaviour?
Think of the diagram as a board game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is help usher people from the gray areas into the white, and from the white areas into the blue. Fostering some appreciation of historical poetry, as well as providing some early creative outlet for trying one’s hand at writing the stuff, is usually best begun in primary school. Initiatives like California Poets in the Schools do a fine job of this. They move people into the white.
From here, the sheer volume of poetry being written, and the speed at which it races around online and even in print, can be daunting for new readers. What poets who write much and read little really need are mentors — poets who can read what they are writing and say, “Here, try this established contemporary poet. You might learn something from them about the kind of poem you are trying to write.” MFA programmes are one place where this happens, but workshop groups and tame poet-friends can do this too.
Likewise, readers of historical poetry need encouragement, based on their current tastes, to branch into contemporary poets. Like John Donne? Try Christian Wiman. John Keats? Try Li-Young Lee. For me, this started at university, but it is really never too early or too late to try contemporary poetry.
We may not be able to hit a “home run” by ushering people straight from the grey zone of non-participation into becoming overnight poets in the blue. Yet by first opening the doors to reading and writing poetry of any kind, then by acknowledging that contemporary poetry is largely a matter of taste, and trying to accomodate the tastes of newcomers with useful recommendations, we may well do our part to break contemporary poetry free of its current double-bind.
There is all kinds of evidence for the benefits of engaging more deeply with poetry — psychologically and even physiologically. Like every other contemporary poet, I know this to be true from my own experience. If, like me, you have been looking for ways to help others to find their way to poetry, I encourage you to have a look at the board, roll the dice, and join me in playing the game.
A new spate of plagiarism incidents in the poetry world has me wondering what satisfaction could possibly come from gaining recognition for a stolen poem.
I believe that it is a symptom of a darker issue at work in contemporary poetry, where we have come to value product over process, poet over poetry, prize over participation, commendation over conversation. How do we get back to the impetus that got us writing in the first place, to the reverence for the written word that makes plagiarism unthinkable?
Thoughts for Dispossessed Poets
“There is another world, and it is in this one”-Paul Éluard
“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.”-John 1:10
The Internet gives us the illusion that the best a culture has to offer will invariably find its way to us. But when it comes to art, I find that so much still comes down to local knowledge. Americans and Brits alike have long maintained a fascination with the literary work of their overseas cousins, but usually only the biggest names make the trip across the pond.
Hoping in some small way to remedy this, I have written an article for the US edition of The Huffington Post on “5 British Poets to Watch in 2013” and, for sake of symmetry, an article in the UK edition of The Huffington Post on “Five American Poets to Watch in 2013“.
How closely you watch is, of course, up to you. My hope is that you will seek out the work of these ten fine poets out for your own sake, to bring a little transcontinental mischief and mirth to your poetry reading in the year ahead.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”-Jack Kerouac, On The Road
This is why I have so enjoyed discovering experimental poet Ira Lightman‘s work. Ira pushes the boundaries of word-play, but retains something of the human in doing so. Consider this poem from Duetcetera, a collection of concrete poems arranged with gaps in the middle:
Apropos of the current US presidential election, the poem captures a certain sense of foreboding I have detected in Brits who follow the slings and arrows of the American political process. Continue reading…