Oyster Boy Review 06  
  January 1997
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» Levee 67


Some People Think, Some Don't

Jeffery Beam

Some People Think

that poetry should be adorn-
ed or complicated I'm

not so sure I think I'll
take the simple statement

in plain speech compress-
ed to brevity I think that

will do all I want to do.

James Laughlin

Not too long ago our editor-in-chief received a letter of complaint from a poet whose work had been returned by him. Because of the volume of submissions Oyster Boy receives, editors seldom make specific comments on work submitted, unless the work strikes a mutual chord, shows some promise, or perhaps is so dreadful comment is provoked. Otherwise rejected work may simply not fit our editorial needs of the moment, or not be deemed of the quality we seek. Since this incident happened before my tenure as Poetry Editor began, I have no knowledge of the work in question, nor have I asked Mr. Sauve details of what he said, or why, to our chagrined correspondent. However, I have read this young woman's complaint and it seems appropriate to respond in general to it.

The letter writer holds the opinion that the poet's word once written down is unchangeable (even by the poet)—a serious misconception of poetry and the poet's responsibility. This idea, that the poet's rendering of her emotional reality into words defines poetry, rather diminishes poetry and points to a deleterious side effect from the Poetry Growth Industry in this country.

I have always been suspect of workshop culture (not to be confused with informal writer's groups). My belief in poetry's spiritual origins contends that only certain basic principles of the poem, and some slight-of-hand tricks can be taught. A true program in poetics would have the students in the fields, on street corners, in churches, and morgues, rather than in classrooms. It would, as the ancient Celtic Bardic Schools did, promote years of struggle and experience as primary, and craft as a secondary-though just as important-requirement.

The poet must discover him or herself by a submergence in life, in the work of other poets, and in silence. Good has come and will continue to come out of the academic formal industry. It has also been the origin of much sloppy, dispassionate, arbitrary, sanitized, homogenized utterances masked as poems. Spend a day reading literary magazines and inspiration, pleasure, quickly dims.

Perhaps the worst unintended offshoot of this industry has been the "democratization" of the art of writing—the confusion of emotional content and individual primacy with craft and art; in other words, the belief that since language belongs to everyone, and everyone has an emotional life, then everyone can be a writer. This misstates the important view, which poets such as Wordsworth and William Carlos Williams teach us, that poetry can speak, must speak, to the common experience. Just because I have a brain doesn't mean I can be a brain surgeon. Just because I draw doesn't make me an artist. Because I speak and write and feel, doesn't make me a poet.

A person's attempt to write down their emotional states, their experiences and beliefs, for whatever reason, is sacrosanct. But to present this as poetry, to demand that it be recognized as such, unless crafted with care and aesthetics that propel the content into universality, is sacrilege. T.S. Eliot observes, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."

Charles Bukowski, who is held in high regard by many who read Oyster Boy, and in whom I, too, with some reluctance, recognize genius, provides a good example. Under a lesser poet, Bukowski's egocentric bilious ravings would bore us as mediocre, dismal gab. Instead, by the power of his craft, especially in his earlier work, Bukowski evokes empathy in the reader, is visionary in his black humor, vitality, and gall without denying the possibility that other writers and readers may have a different, valid, world vision. Robert Duncan once explained the poet discovers in his or her work that "what other people call deprivation is not emptiness but fulfillment of agony." Bukowski at his best transcends his subject, catapults it, into a Zen-like It-ness which makes a Poem.

Since taking over the poetry editorship of Oyster Boy, I've seen some good poems, but mostly I've seen lots of Bukowski imitations, metaphysical and religious miniatures, and too many examples of prose written in broken lines muddled by starry-eyed pleadings confusing sexual craving with love. American poetry might be raised considerably by a year's self-imposed moratorium on the use of "I" and "like." Try writing from the viewpoint of a stone. Read poets you detest. Read the "Greats" (even if you don't think so) and try to understand why others think they are.

Oyster Boy Review, though young, will strive to put new life into American literature. We're interested in the under-rated, the ignored, the misunderstood, and the varietal. We'll make some mistakes and misjudgments. The editorial board has differing aesthetics which will make for some conflicts and surprises along the way.

Lewis Turco in The New Book of Forms reminds us that "what differentiates the poet from other writers is the focus on mode, on language itself. The poet focuses upon the literary resources of language in the same way a musician concentrates upon sound, the painter upon form, or the dancer upon movement." I would argue that the poet focuses on all of these—language, sound, form, and movement. The order of poetry requires a heightening of language, but not an unnatural or cheapened one. A silence and a noise of nuclear intent. Through human experience poetry energizes thought and form. Our society crucially mistakes psychological awareness for spiritual development, emotion for art. Relationships may exist, but not at the expense of the difference.

Consider these:

"If your ear is acute you sound your poem in silence." —Lorine Niedecker

"We need a poetry not of direct statement but of direct evocation: a poetry of hieroglyphics, of embodiment, incarnation; in which the personages may be of myth or Monday, no matter, if they are of the living imagination."—Denise Levertov

"It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."—Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The art of poetry is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence in the poetry of fresh idiom: language so twisted and poised in a form that it not only expresses the matter at hand but adds to the stock of available reality."—Richard Blackmur