Tag Archives: Writing Programs

Mirrored Halls

“Why read, if what you read will not enhance mind or spirit or personality?” I take great issue with Donald Hall’s claim of a widespread increase in competently written poems. Why sanction competence? Then again, advanced readers—superlatively engaged—are required, desperately necessary, ones who can actually discriminate beyond a mere like or dislike. “A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.” The term “competence” saturates commentary, and to retain any distinction must be divorced from technical aspects of craft and tradition. There exists a terrible disconnect—between the study of forms and technique, and the application of such knowledge. It’s as though nothing rubs off on today’s students. The burden of proof lies on Hall et al. to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, incontrovertibly, that so much excellent writing is in fact being written. I see no overwhelming evidence of that. “Poems that demand—and reward—rereading are rare, almost extinct.”

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Cursory Reading

Lord Byron: “There are more poets (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less poetry.”

Similarly, there are more editors (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less editing.

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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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Incorporated

It’s a shame—but not surprising—how closely literary magazines parallel the corporate world. Their dedicated staff may claim immunity, falsely subscribing to a romantic notion of purpose. But with colleges and universities willingly and eagerly adhering to market standards, triumph of the commercial…

Let’s compare. The first two responses below are from literary magazines, the third from a potential employer—a company.

************************************

Thank you for your submission to —————— . Though we appreciate your time and work, we regret to inform you that it is not a right fit for our journal. Please consider submitting to us in the future.

Sincerely,

The Editors

************************************

Dear Nathan,

Thank you for sending us —————— . We appreciated the chance to read it. Unfortunately, your piece is not quite right for us. Consider submitting to us again, though!

Thanks again. Best of luck with this!

Sincerely,

************************************

Dear Nathan E.,

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time recently to speak with us regarding our need for a ——————.  We enjoyed speaking with you and appreciated your patience throughout our search process.

While we were very impressed with your qualifications, we were faced with a difficult decision, and I regret to inform you that we finally selected another candidate who we believe more closely matches what we are looking for in the position.

However, we will be glad to keep your resume [sic] on file should we become aware of any other appropriate positions in the near future. I would also encourage you to visit our website as new positions become available.

Thank you again for your interest and good luck in all your future endeavors!

Best Regards,

************************************

First off, there’s simply nothing tragic about having my work excluded from a literary magazine—any literary magazine. So let’s cut out the word “unfortunately.”

I regret to inform you that we have never been, and likely never will be, on a first name basis. Don’t patronize me.

I’m not so naïve, or desperate, to believe my work has any value to these readers. Hardly encouraging, especially given the likelihood that those very same words were doled out to any number of other contributors. Why should I consider sending additional work of mine—upon receiving such a safe, sterile, uncommitted response? I’m no glutton for puerile mishandling of my work.

I don’t submit, I offer.

Edmund Wilson: “It is astonishing to observe, in America, in spite of our floods of literary journalism, to what extent the literary atmosphere is a non-conductor of criticism. What actually happens, in our literary world, is that each leader or group of leaders is allowed to intimidate his disciples, either ignoring all the other leaders or taking cognizance of their existence only by distant and contemptuous sneers.”

For “leaders” substitute entrenched writers (i.e., established writers) and so-called editors at various literary magazines who, despite their prominence, remain largely unworthy of emulation.

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Precedent

“The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.”

                                 –Cyril Connolly

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More, More, More

“In reality the duty of a writer – the revolutionary duty, if you like – is that of writing well.”

                                               –Gabriel García Márquez

*               *               *

“A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start.”

                                                   –Clive James

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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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