by Eric Greinke
Everyone knows that poetry underwent a radical deconstruction with the advent of modernism. The poetic conventions of rhyme and meter were the primary losses. Efforts by new formalists notwithstanding, the rhyme and meter of the pre-moderns has been replaced by the conventions of free verse, but many of theses conventions have become so rigid that they are now in themselves a type of free verse formalism.
Conventions are always temporary. Progress requires new, ever evolving approaches, whether in art, science or politics. Everything has both an up and a down side. In my 70th year, I still haven’t found an exception to the yin-yang principle.
1. Classic or Cliché?
Some conventions devolve into cliché rather quickly. I’m thinking of the idiosyncrasies of e. e. cummings. His experimental breakage of grammatical rules reinforced the content and energy of his poems. His use of the lower case for personal nouns had meaning in the overall context of his work. It was innovative and made a statement within cummings’ personal style. Many of his poems may rightfully be called “classics.”
Cummings knew what he was doing, but those who attempted to adopt his stylistic choices as conventions to be used in their own work are unoriginal and it is likely that their work is derivative in more ways than one, resulting in a cliché instead of a classic. One size has never fit all. It’s unfortunate for the general state of the art that many young poets seem to think that writing in lower case is, or should be, standard practice. A cliché is a tired classic. What works in one period of time may fall flat in a later one. This is both inevitable and desirable, because as poets, we need to support and contribute to the potential of poetry.
The larger and most basic issue is received information and its interference with the creative process, a process that requires originality. Imitation can be a double-edged sword. So can originality. Most beginning poets go through a period of imitation. During this process, poets are susceptible to received information infection. The infection can be persistent over a long lifetime of writing. It can be without obvious symptoms to the infected whose work becomes affected and clichéd. Ironically, this may make it more publishable.
Received information affects writer and reader alike. Though we give lip service to originality, we may not like it when we get it. Experimental poetry is the least popular category of the art. Only a handful of poets describe themselves as “experimental,” far less than one percent. MFA programs unintentionally exacerbate the strong bias against originality, because they reinforce current conventions in an art that has, as its very nature, a need for innovation and originality. The bastardization of the style of e. e. cummings comes again to mind in this regard as an example of an original and experimental poet whose style became highly imitated by younger poets who, in turn, created works deeply infected by cliché.
It all leads back, full circle, to clichés. We need an expanded definition. “Deep clichés” go largely unnoticed. A definition limited to stylistic elements ignores the essence of what a cliché is. A cliché in this sense can be predictable format, pattern or metaphor. An immediate example is the pattern followed by elder poets who (predictably) focus on the past or on impending death or a young poet’s equally predictable love poems.
The content of a poem may be seen as a cliché if it follows a predictable pattern or metaphor. Many more works than those commonly perceived as clichés would be included in that category if this expanded definition became widespread. A cliché is a chameleon that changes coloration to fit into its environment.
The solution is not for poets to avoid the “great themes” of love and death, but for them to write better about those themes, thus creating new classics that are relevant to the current zeitgeist.
But, originality has its problems too. “Accessibility” can be a code word for “simple and prosaic,” but works that depart radically from current conventions may be too difficult or subjective. The very act of submitting for publication means that the poet is attempting to communicate something. If an experimental poem is highly off-putting, that may, ironically, be its value and its statement. Although this is a legitimate value in poetry, it has never been a popular one, implying that people don’t generally read poetry to be alienated or confused. Perhaps “all things in moderation,” itself a cliché, may be the best wisdom. Some poets like to show more skin than others. Some are nudists and some wear thick armor or elaborate costumes, according to personal taste.
In my experience, Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum. I know my Pekingese (aka “dog”) does, as a representative of the animals. She tries to bite it. The vacuum created by the modernist deconstruction of the poetic conventions of rhyme and meter left poets little choice for stylistic variation. A new emphasis on imagery, advocated and practiced by H. D., Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and other imagists became a new free-verse formalism with its own rigid standards.
The convention developed that images be specific and particular. Rather than use the ambiguous “stone” in a poem, a specific kind of stone should be used, granite, sandstone or shale. I live in Michigan, where there are eighty varieties of large trees. I do not know all their names. Specificity often works against the universal appeal of the poem, which should be, in my opinion, the priority.
“Stone” signifies a higher level of abstraction than the more specific “granite.” Used in a poem, the more ambiguous “stone” reinforces a higher level of abstract awareness and imagistic receptivity in the imagination of the reader-poet. Every word used in a poem is a seed planted in the imaginative soil provided by its reader. Increased reader participation is highly desirable in poetry. Good poetry stimulates new emotional and intellectual perspectives which in turn expand the reader’s personal and social awareness.
A group of us sat around, talking about music. A pretentious interloper kept referring to his guitar as his “Fender.” After he left, a non-musician friend asked me why the guy kept trying to bring car parts into the conversation. When I explained, he said “Why didn’t he just say ‘guitar’?” This illustrates how specificity leads to snobbism.
At the very least, specificity narrows the participation of the reader, like traditional prose. Ironically, poetry that is more prosaic is seen as more accessible, as in the example of the narrative poem, yet that kind of accessibility can remove the mystery and ambiguity which are essential to poetry and which form the primary distinction between poetry and prose.
When is specificity good, then? The answer is that it is only a good principle to follow when it contributes to the primary theme and/or metaphor of a poem. Used surgically, it can be invaluable. Overused, it dulls the main thrust of the poem. Poems that completely lack specificity are reliant on what remains, good or bad. Stripped of specific images, a non-narrative, imagistic poem becomes a lyrical statement. A lyric poem tends to make a more abstract statement than a narrative poem does. Music becomes a priority then. Poets should strive to be aware of these dynamics, especially during revision, when the excitement of initial inspiration has calmed.
One meaningful measure of universality in a poem is how easily it translates into foreign languages. The major skill required of a translator of poetry is the ability to choose the word that matches the emotional and intellectual nuances of the word in the original language from a list of its synonyms in the intended foreign language. Although synonyms are words that mean roughly the same thing, each synonym has a different nuance. Nuance is a central value of poetry. Subtle differences matter, sometimes a great deal.
Will international readers relate more to “stone” or “granite?” I like my readers to participate in the poem. “Stone,” being a generality (as opposed to the more specific “granite”), not only translates more easily to a foreign language, but it also allows the reader to imagine the specific type of stone that he or she relates best to, thus lubricating the movement of the poem toward the final line/revelation/resolution. I believe that a poem does not happen on a page, but rather in the mind of its reader. If a reader has to supply his own kind of “stone,” he participates in the poem on an imaginary level. This is the creative state of mind a poem needs in order to be received. Initially, it is the poet who receives the inspirational impulse. He then transmits that state, if he can, to his readers. Ideally, the poem happens (again) in the mind of the reader, and the reader may become a degree more open-minded.
Prosaic accessibility is not the same as poetic accessibility. Specificity increases the accessibility of prose but it also decreases accessibility to those imaginative and creative states of mind where poems happen. The best rule of thumb for me is to include only images which support and reinforce the main emotional thrust of the poem. Ambiguous images stimulate a reader’s imagination better than images that are too categorical and so specific that they rely on a similarity of knowledge and experiential base in their readers.
A poet of my acquaintance, who is also an AIDs counselor, is writing a series of poems from the points of view of her clients. The worthiness of her project is clear. It helps her to “walk a mile in their moccasins,” to improve her understanding of her clients and relate to them better. Readers of the poems will have similar benefits, and the series is a blow against fear and prejudice too. But, there is a side-effect. People persist in interpreting the poems as autobiographically “true.” They think she has AIDs. My friend always explains that the poems are “persona poems,” true in a higher, more abstract sense, but not autobiographical.
While it is understandable that general readers might not understand what has long been called “poetic license,” it is lamentable when the confusion extends to poets who consider themselves serious. This is an example of a convention that is becoming rigid and that restricts poetic freedom and imagination.
Confessional poets such as William Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Allen Ginsberg adhered to a non-fictional, autobiographical standard that affected later poets who wrote in the first-person, autobiographical narrative. Narcissistic navel-gazing has infected the art like a virus, especially in the Post-Beat underground literary scene. Once again, received information has interfered with originality and imaginative creativity, to the detriment of the art.
Stylistic affectations and other received information that is too often used out of context draw attention to themselves without justification, and too often distract from the primary metaphor of a poem. Also, these affectations, despite being intended as a display of the poet’s sophistication, have the opposite effect, instead verifying the poet’s naivete and unoriginality.
“Art” equals “artifice” equals artificial. Imagination and fantasy are essential to art. Why do we have a growing consensus (becoming a convention) that insists on an essentially non-fictional approach to narrative poetry? The answer is imitation. Consensus and convention are a slippery slope, in this case sliding away from the very elements that distinguishes poetry from prose.
Within prose, between fiction and non-fiction, fiction has traditionally been seen as the more artistic. The current trend has been toward “creative non-fiction” over the past few decades. The charge was led by Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, journalists who brought fictional elements into non-fiction, using personal opinion, anecdote, hyperbole and direct participation to give their “reports” more personality, immediacy and entertainment value. Oddly, poetry, long considered the artiest type of writing, has proceeded significantly in the other direction. Is veracity a better value for an art based in imagination, or is it an erosion of the essence of poetry itself, maybe even the beginning of the end?
I don’t know the answer to this, but it’s a damn good question. I do know that if a poet adheres to current dogma, his poems cannot transcend much beyond the obvious. Maybe the first step toward a more universal poetry is to move beyond imitation.
The problem of originality versus received information is the larger issue at hand. Imitation is a necessary stage of poetic development, but a poet who remains stuck at that stage can never achieve his full potential, and this deprives the art itself of what he might have contributed.
A Note About The Author: Eric Greinke’s poems have been published in hundreds of American and international journals and anthologies since the early 1970s. His most recent books are Poets In Review and Zen Duende - Collaborative Poems (with Glenna Luschei), both from Presa Press. More information about Greinke can be found on his website: www.ericgreinke.com