Tag Archives: Small Presses

“Society is a very culpable entity, and has to answer for the manufacture of many unwholesome commodities, from bad pickles to bad poetry.”

                                                                                    –George Eliot

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Decline and Fall

          The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

             –Jeremiah 8:20

F. L. Lucas: “And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seem, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”

That “high and ancient art” doesn’t rub off so easily, with mere exposure. The practice of writing verse—decent, substantial verse—remains elusive, not quite available to just anyone (contrary to popular opinion).

Jean de La Bruyère: “There are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: poetry, music, painting, public eloquence.”

W. H. Auden: “A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry.”

I am of an age where I can’t afford to waste time on petty grievances, department store annoyances and bland epiphanies presented as poetry. Despite the ubiquitous I, most contemporary poetry stops short, remaining largely impersonal—insufficiently transformed and infused by the writer.

An overriding, unhealthy irreverence for tradition and craftsmanship rules the day.

I object, opposed to all this disproportionate fussing over the death of one beloved celebrity. How unlikely…rarer still that such a commodified ego, gracing presidential inaugurations, commanding thousands of dollars per appearance—would truly be in the service of Language, indebted to Poetry.

With many indifferent to significant departure…

Gone…Gabriel García Márquez.

No more the disconcerting elegance of Russell Edson.

While there’s plenty advantage in avoiding the classics—dangerously sobering.

It’s enough to champion masterful writing.

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What Was Lost

I open by alluding to the work of Herbert Morris, unfairly overlooked amid triumphant commercialism, disposable art…shameless, unabashed self-promotion. Taxing intelligence, quietly insisting: reader required, no idle spectator—

          The body knows deceptions long and lucid.

The masters have gone, banished from healthy curriculum. The loss is bitterly quantifiable. Emerson: “In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret.”

The simple act of having written, of piecing together a few lines of verse—in no way necessitates publication. Though why listen to anybody else? Everyone a priest, everyone a poet. Why bother with Horace (echoed by Robert Frost and several others), advocating a lengthy period of total sequestration? Poems must settle on their own. And that takes time.

Like the relentless cicada, generously provided a protective bone, spared its own deafening crescendo…today’s poets (I cringe evoking that designation) dash onto the stage, impervious to criticism.

The work itself…subdued by the incredible demand for notice—desperate push for publicity. Next in line, poet laureate of the cul-de-sac…where longevity takes the prize, rewarding senescence over quality of thought and masterful composition.

I ask fair reading.

But it makes perfect sense, as the deluge continues to overwhelm, that advertisement steals the primary focus of today’s writer, with increasing effort devoted to marketing. “Vanity of vanities…”

Joseph Epstein, ca. 1995: “To provide only a single depressing statistic, I read somewhere that there are currently 26,000 registered poets in the United States. Where, it will be asked, do they register? With the Associated Writing Programs, I gather, which are chiefly made up of teachers of writing, who are even now busy producing still more poets, who will go on to teach yet more poets, who will…so that in twenty years’ time we will have 52,000 registered poets. Degas, more than a century ago, remarked: ‘We must discourage the arts.’ Sometimes that doesn’t seem a bad idea.”

Prediction fulfilled (and likely exceeded)—that’s an annual buffet of 1,000 poets per week. Revolting even to the most determined glutton.

There’s little I can admire in much contemporary poetry.

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Unearned Increment

Ours is a shameful time of no reply (to borrow from Nick Drake). Feel free to send along your compliments, a copy of your newly published book—and enjoy no response whatsoever. Little interest in dialogue and discussion. Minimum gratitude.

What’s the return?

I find both terms unpalatable: emerging/established. Emerging best applies to some newfound disease, established evokes a colonial undertaking.

For those who have—

The established ones, warm and dry in their makeshift office, salaried, sealed off, critically acclaimed, amicably awarded…perhaps they do recognize that fundamentally we no longer have a literary scene. Instead, a literary market: cutthroat, opportunistic—where one slip will undo all they’ve been clinging to. They can’t be bothered.

“There are great poets who rage in the margins, like William Blake, and poets unknown in their own lifetime, like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Alexander Pope’s was a public genius, like Ben Jonson’s or Lord Byron’s or Oscar Wilde’s. These figures were news, as no living writer of authentic eminence is today, though we have geniuses of publicity, which is not quite what I mean by a “public genius” (Bloom).

I’m done competing.

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Your Witness

On Rejection & Resistance

Unwanted, fine. “I am not at all mortified, when sometimes I see my Works thrown aside by Men of no Taste nor Learning. There is a kind of Heaviness and Ignorance that hangs upon the Minds of ordinary Men, which is too thick for Knowledge to break through. Their Souls are not to be enlightened.”

My job—my vocation—is to read increasingly, to write: “Try to praise the mutilated world.” Not for the sycophant’s gushing embrace and cheap exaltation. “You must be prepared to work always without applause.”

Clearly, without alteration shocking and heretical, our days are numbered. Warmth, sunlight, budding green—it may not appear that drought continuously predominates.

I register distress, tasked with protesting “my own daily sorrow of being flooded by unsolicited bad verse.” Where do we stop?

“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.”

“Young writers should be encouraged to write, and discouraged from thinking they are writers.” Their proper aim: learning how to read judiciously, how to apply voice.

“It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly. It hasn’t to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at sight we never could forget it.”

A Vision

In the factory I heard the gulls cry;

The wind distressed me as it came.

Burning of machines in a single eye

Leaves mind a fragment of hammers and hurt noise—

Who shall enter the bodies of workers, the dream

Electric; who touch the spent souls; what voice

Like God’s shall come in midnight at the lamps

To hurtle this darkness of stiff limbs out

To the stars, break love open on the steel ramps,

Raise flowers in pained cylinders, so that

Complaining engines shall no more be heard

And all, all be human in the first cry of a bird?

(Sources, in order of appearance: Addison, Zagajewski, Hemingway, Bloom, Wilde, Stegner, Frost, Selig)

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“Less than fifteen per cent of the people do any original thinking on any subject. The greatest torture in the world for most people is to think.”

                                                                –Luther Burbank

Bridges

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Consumed

Aspiring writer? I have my suspicions, especially when those words come from an adult.

Enough. Writing is the most difficult work I know.

Ben Jonson: “For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.”

Rilke, easily quoted, but the question must be honestly, ruthlessly assessed: “There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

I know, along with Flannery O’Connor, “that few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing.’ They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.”

Whitman, also easily quoted: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” But I question how seriously he’s taken.

Tess Gallagher: “When you start reading in a certain way, that’s already the beginning of your writing. You’re learning what you admire and you’re learning to love other writers. The love of other writers is an important first step. To be a voracious, loving reader.”

We aren’t suffering a shortage of writers—but a dearth of expert readers. Aspire to be stellar in your reading, unmatched in your discretion. Everyone’s a writer, only when the writing’s left behind.

*               *               *

There’s easy money to be made, playing it safe, writing for personal gain, conducting feel-good workshops, hosting family-friendly readings. This, from Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists, which clearly extends to the arts and higher education:

“One well-publicized finding is that although the developed Western nations have become better off in a financial and material sense, they are not any happier than they were decades ago. In fact, in The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy (2010), Michael Foley argues that modern life has made things worse, ‘deepening our cravings and at the same time heightening our delusions of importance as individuals. Not only are we rabid in our unsustainable demands for gourmet living, eternal youth, fame and a hundred varieties of sex, we have been encouraged—by a post-1970s ‘rights’ culture that has created a zero-tolerance sensitivity to any perceived inequality, slight or grievance—into believing that to want something is to deserve it.’ Moreover, ‘the things we have are devalued by the things we want next’—another consequence of capitalism.”

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Equals

On the insulting notion that everyone’s a poet:

Sir, These are delicate matters; we all desire

To be told that we’ve the true poetic fire.

But once, to one whose name I shall not mention,

I said, regarding some verse of his invention,

That gentlemen should rigorously control

That itch to write which often afflicts the soul;

That one should curb the heady inclination

To publicize one’s little avocation;

And that in showing off one’s works of art

One often plays a very clownish part.

                  –The Misanthrope (translated by Richard Wilbur)

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Gunpowder

“A lot of manuscripts that come in, you wonder by what outrageous fantasy the author believes that this should be pressed into print.”

                                                                     –Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Gunpowder

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Bottomland

“When the poet stands at nadir the world must indeed be upside down. If the poet can no longer speak for society, but only for himself, then we are at the last ditch.”

                                                                                                 –Henry Miller

Vasquez

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