Sunday, May 10, 2009

The cliches of contemporary poetry?

Jason Guriel wrote an article "A defense of the negative review" (published in the recent (March 09) issue of Poetry). He included some slap-down reviews of three recent books, which certainly is something that warms my heart, but that's not the part I want to discuss here.

I'd actually run across this article from a link in a post "The Seven Poetic Sins, or: Jorie Graham's Disease," in the samizdat blog. Archambeau noticed that Guriel had listed seven poetic  "clichés of the moment." He pulled these out and listed them by number. These are:
1. "reliance on buzzwords" (think: absence, abjection, the body, ellipsis, etc.)
2. "distrust of order" (as both theme and compositional principle)
3. "distrust of linearity and having a point" (call it Ashberying)
4. "anxiety over what words mean" (or, I'd add, the pose of anxiety)
5. "romantic bluster" (think Hart Crane on a bad day)
6. "imprecision" (I bet a comparison of contemporary poetic syntax and that of Swinburne would be instructive)
7. "sympathy for small critters" (I think this one's pretty self-explanatory)

(I urge you to read the whole article to see the longer explanation of each of these)

I find it a fascinating list, in that I had no idea that these were the cliches of contemporary poetry. Perhaps that just shows how unfamiliar I am with contemporary poetry, and why so much contemporary poetry leaves me with a "huh?" feeling: I can't even recognize the tropes.

So, what do you think? Are these really cliches of contemporary poetry? Or just a set of specific dislikes of the reviewer? Are there other cliches we're missing?

And, are cliches bad? If they are bad, can we still revitalize them, find new juice in old withered corpses? Or do we have to leave the alone, let them ferment for a while, before they can be fresh again?


pottygok said...

A lot of this list rings true for me as a reader and editor. I may take issue with "sympathy for small critters" because I think that can be done well and poetically.

Some other "echs" of contemporary poetry:

1) Navel Gazing (The poet's private life is much more important and profound, apparently, than anything else in the world, even if that hint of privacy is what they had for breakfast or where they walked their dog.)

2)Mock Spirituality/Mysticism (The poet has a relationship with God, or The Divine, or something similar, even if they're not sure what to call it)

3)Bumper Sticker Sentiments (If you can summarize your political views in a witty catch phrase, they're not poetry.

4)Jazz Posturing (Just because you listen to jazz doesn't mean you're a jazz poet, nor does it mean that you're being cool by incorporating jazz ideas into your poetry.)

As far as whether or not these are bad, I'd argue that something like "imprecision" or "not having a point" is generally not very helpful in poetry. "Buzzwords" or "deep words" tend to irk me, but they can fit into certain poems and work well. However, it's probably true that a lot of these worked at one time for some poet, and interested parties could investigate when and where these worked, and thus figure out HOW to use them properly or invigorate them with new life.

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

Not having a point is absolutely maddening to me.

I've read some "best of" anthologies in which I simply just couldn't get through half the poems, just because they were SO inaccessible, SO abstract, and the "authors" were clearly doing nothing more than scattering words and punctuation about the page for the sake of being "artistic" or "poetic" or "experimental" or what have you.

I want a poem that can be read. (Or better yet, one which can be listened to. After all, poetry's roots lie in the oral tradition.) Those being "experimental" for the sake of being "experimental" are, in actuality, not experimental at all. The Warhol anecdote was a perfect example.

Poets! Just be yourselves! Don't try to be what you THINK you should be!

michael salinger said...


The little wink to a couple inside joke sharers – give it a rest, you’re not that cute.

Poetic Genesis said...

Poets! Just be yourselves! Don't try to be what you THINK you should be!I agree! I don't have much to add as far as the article because I'm still early in working on my craft. I can admit to sometimes 'naval grazing' but I'd also like to think that I've made the personal experience broad enough that someone feels me.

I've also read poetry where I didn't know what the heck was going on and why and I think that's when poets need to take a step back and reevaluate their purpose of the piece.

Great post and thanks for sharing!

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

I'm just relieved to know that there is something called Jorie Graham disease. Most readers don't have time to spend twice as long trying to figure out what the poem meant as it took to read it. I can write a naval gazing obtuse poem as well as the rest - but I kind of like it when my non-poet readers actually like reading my poems.

Pressin On said...

my dad is a bit of a poet and has been going for the first time in decades now, to poetry readings. he doesnt want to hear how bad the government is, and what he considers saying fuck for the sake of saying fuck.
he told me, we all know how bad the government is, now is there a story u want to convey?
he wants a "story".
and he likes "poignancy".
he said alot of poetry sounds like rant, not poignant.
(of course, he thot maj ragain's poems WERE stories!)

John B. Burroughs said...

I've found this discussion quite interesting. I just spent half an hour composing a comment only to have it vanish into a cybervacuum. Alas....

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

"I've found this discussion quite interesting. I just spent half an hour composing a comment only to have it vanish into a cybervacuum."

I hate it when that happens.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau