Could poets benefit from hugging it out, like these meerkats?
A poet I know recently had a family emergency. To keep everyone in the loop, he posted updates on Facebook. Eventually the danger passed and it looked like everything would be OK. A great thing. After, I was struck by the comment thread, at once familiar and not. Another thread filled by poets chiming in.
This thread lacked the normal tension, though, and for obvious reasons. The poets were offering genuine encouragement and good wishes. Once the danger had passed, it was nice to recognize the kindness the community had generated. This wasn’t a fair or particularly accurate comparison to make, but I couldn’t help but wonder where that kindness goes in the regular flare-ups in our web-based discussions.
Not all of our conversations should, or could, be like this one. But the distance between the anger and resentment common to so many of our debates and the genuine care this conversation generated must mean something. The web overemphasizes our impulsiveness, and so it may appear that the poetry community is marked by infighting and bitterness. I don’t trust this. I believe the thread in which the poets were expressing their kindness is more accurate.
Perhaps we take that for granted—or perhaps I’m assuming too much. Certainly there is more to poetry than preciousness. But amid the rush to push poetry further, in terms of form or craft, we risk forgetting poetry’s potential—or its obligation?—to express basic, ancient, human emotion. Could the same go for our criticism, and for our online discussions?
When we, say, claim young poets should publish less, imply that’s snobbery, or post and remove something titled “Poseur Alert,” in response to the snobbery suggestion, is it worth acknowledging we do so because we’ve chosen to engage in poetry, in the first place, out of a love for it? Might that help stem the tide of mostly-lame vitriol and trolling that holds the real conversation back? The conversation alluded to just now could be really interesting, and all parties have valid points, but it’s damaged in the handling. Another lost opportunity.
My previous attempts to define the PUPPY FIGHT have failed to drive this point home: that by over exaggerating the stakes at play in our discussions over poetry, we actually make it less important. Poetry’s power, such that it is, must come from the freedom it has from responsibility. If we take it so seriously that we must put bounds on it, to create stakes (“this is the right way, that is the wrong way—don’t do it wrong!”) where naturally there are none, we drain it of that freedom. For poetry to be truly serious, it must be allowed to make a joke of rules—a silly or a deadly serious one. A joke—as opposed to a Serious Conversation with History, or All Poets Since Homer, or Western Imperialism, or White Hegemony, etc.—is able to surprise, while acknowledging and illuminating all those serious issues, but it’s not bound by them. It’s also fully capable of expressing emotional range.
Range is important here. If it is important for poems to have freedom of expression, we as readers and critics should have range to match. To develop that range might involve developing the empathy, maybe even the forgiveness, needed to accept an approach outside of our normal modes of perception. It might involve acknowledging that, “Hey, we both write poems. Maybe that’s more important than the difference between my ‘new formalist’ and your ‘avant-garde’ approach.” It might involve acknowledging that when you dig into most supposedly divergent approaches to art, at the bottom is a common need and motivation.
So as I write this on Valentine’s Day, I’m drawn to reflect on Yeats’s “protecting, till the danger passed,/ with human love.” I think of Katie Ford’s Collosseum, set partially in post-Katrina New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans at the time, and Ford’s words—“I listened to hymns and asked so much of them they quieted/ like a body that withers when it feels itself/ clung to”—went right to the emotional centre of that crisis as I felt it. In doing so, it helped me cope. I think of Margaret Christakos’s “Something Inside Me,” Ken Babstock’s hard-earned “we should be held and forgiven.” I think of James Wright’s work.
Jason Guriel is fond of reminding us that poems can, or maybe even should, be entertaining. I’m coming around to agreeing with him, on that point at least. What often keeps poems from seeking that quality is an insistence on difficulty, on this or that notion of quality, or on formal impressiveness. That emphasis is great, but it can be derisive if not tempered by some commonality among approaches. The obligation to entertain may be one such commonality. The love of poems—writ large—might be another.
Thankfully, poetic experiment will continue, as will its accompanying critical debate. It might help, though, to remember that when it really comes down to it, no matter our aesthetic differences, we care for the art form, for the world, for humanity—and maybe even for each other.
In short, how divided is the community, really? Some issues—looking your way, CWILA—are more serious than others. But so many of our spats could be solved if the combatants just hugged it out.