“If you don’t read Robert Peake’s The Knowledge as a taking-up-again of existential conversation, you’re doing it wrong.” Thus begins Abby E. Murray’s confident and considered review of my new collection for Fjords Review. It is a gift to be read at all, and clear that Abby has spent quality time with the book and her own reflections on it.
I read the review aloud to my wife, Valerie, who said that it brought her new insight into certain poems. (This from someone who practically knows them all by heart.) Abby ends with some thoughts on the poetic confraternitas (as Miłosz put it) that transcends geographic distance.
I am about to get on a plane to visit family for Thanksgiving, and meet a new nephew. I couldn’t think of a better send-off.
The internet wants to turn us into zombies.
I behold the transformation, as one by one my fellow commuters whip out their smartphones — the eyes go dead, the jaw goes slack, drool glistening at the corners of the mouth. They are reading, yes, but what are they reading? A mish-mash of “messaging” designed to provoke consumer behaviour.
Like a zombie, the internet wants to consume your brain. It’s how zombies spread. But poetry wants the opposite — it wants to give, not take. It wants to give you back your brains.
In a new review for Huffington Post, I take a close look at two poets who are taking on the zombie-like drone of mass media with their own fresh language. Equally adroit in high and low registers — as comfortable undoing the undead with a high-powered rifle as with a cricket bat — these two associate as freely as search engine results, tackling big questions with humour, pathos, and self-conscious aplomb.
This poetry will give you back your brains — and perhaps even a bit of your heart.
One of the mistakes of the beginning poet is to confuse popularity with quality; one of the mistakes of the journeyman is to confuse their own particular taste with quality. Most mature is to acknowledge the existence of popularity, quality, and one’s own taste as three distinct and independent factors.
This gives rise to not two or three but actually seven different types of poetry, as shown in the following diagram:
Let’s look first at the outer extremes:
Fluff — that which is popular, but you can’t guess why — being neither of high quality nor suited to your taste. These poems are generally dismissed with a, “What is the (poetry) world coming to?” roll of the eyes.
Guilty Pleasures — those poems or poets that are of your particular taste, but which you must acknowledge aren’t exactly of the highest quality, nor are they widely known. Think of the poetic equivalent of a boy band you adored as a tween.
The Arcane — You will come across, from time to time, those works of high quality which are neither your taste nor widely known. They give you pause, if only for a moment of head-scratching.
Next, at the intersection of two different traits:
Distractions — Simply put, that which lacks quality is a distraction to the ever-evolving poet-reader. Even though it may suit your taste, and others know about it as well (making it a less-guilty pleasure), it will not necessarily teach you much about writing, or leave you changed for having read it.
Discoveries — That which is not yet popular, but both suits your taste and has recognisable quality, presents an opportunity for discovery. For every school and taste around there are numerous discoveries yet to be made in the plentiful marketplace of poetry. Doing so can make you feel like you have just won the lottery.
Challenges — It takes a mature attitude to acknowledge that quality works exist, which are reasonably well-known, and which one simply does not like. It is just as valid for them to exist as it is for you to dislike them. Yet approached with an open mind, these can be seen as challenges. That which is outside your sphere of taste provokes you, perhaps even calls into question your very definition of poetry. Taken with an open mind, though, this can lead to growth.
Finally, in the dead centre are those poets who are producing work of recognisable quality, which you like, and who have achieved the seemingly impossible — recognition for that good work. These become our heroes — the poets we look up to, admire, and emulate.
As you can see, the actual poems and poets an individual would choose to fill in these seven spaces will vary considerably from person to person. One reader’s hero could well be another’s challenge. Yet we needn’t be fractious about it.
Poetry is largely a matter of taste. The proliferation of awards, critics, and publications might mistakenly lead us to believe otherwise. In the end, though, they operate via gatekeepers who are attempting to bolster a mix of their own discoveries and their heroes upward along the axis of popularity. This is why they make for a poor, or at least inconsistent, marker of individual progress.
Better to revisit one’s heroes for inspiration, rise to the challenges of difficult new work, and make exciting discoveries of ones own. Read widely with these intentions in mind, and you will soon be running circles around your peers.
Thoughts? Comments? Respond at Huffington Post.
The film-poem genre has attracted considerable interest from various disciplines, and is beginning to gain astute critical insight as an emerging artistic form.
One excellent vehicle is the German-based Poetryfilmkanal website. I was delighted to be asked to write an essay for them about the fascination of the film-poem. The relationship between art and memory has always fascinated me personally, and in this piece I regard memory as a kind of aesthetic glue holding the two genres in relationship to one another.
You can read the full essay, “Mnemosyne’s Tango: Poetry, Film, and the Dance of Memory” at the Poetryfilmkanal website.