Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What I meant was...

All this talk about form revolving around what is a haiku - what isn't haiku and who decides has got me to pondering.

What about punctuation, correct grammar, strict adherence to other forms and then of course the grand daddy question - is the piece poetry? I mean, can we just slap down 14 lines and call it a sonnet - or do we go that extra graded on a curve step of trying to have around 10 syllables a line, or do we actually attempt iambic pentameter and what the hell is a downbeat anyway?

What makes a piece a poem? I been known to say the next time I hear a poem being performed by some slick preeminent performance poet who is strutting and spouting about his or her metaphors and similes doing this or that without using any metaphors or similes that I will blow my brains out (metaphorically speaking of course.)

So how important is form?
Is it a poem if the only meaning to be discerned from the piece is that which is bobbing right on the surface?
Does correct grammar come into play at all?
Is it an affront to the artist to demand more than preaching to the choir?
Does lack of narrative constitute experimentalism?
Questions questions questions.

I'll leave you with a sonnet:

The Poetry Instructor

They look at me and ask “What should I write?
Which of our thoughts deserve to be on page?”
As if I flip the switch on a spotlight
Illuminating images for stage

I tell them to grab hold of moments
Sufficiently firm they cannot escape
Buoyantly enough they are not bent
That one may reproduce their shape

Instead they wear their hearts upon their sleeves
Rend open boxes full of misery
Lay siege to concepts which we all agree
Are safely held by the majority

I sigh a weary sigh, throw up my hands
What can I say; they’ve gone and won the slam


pottygok said...


I'm going to clip your questions, and try and answer them one by one with my opinions.

>What about punctuation, correct >grammar, strict adherence to >other forms and then of course >the grand daddy question - is the >piece poetry?

At Naropa, Sam Hamill referred to form as a "Procrustean bed". For those who don't know, Procrustes was a bandit in Greek mythology who had a bed which he used to torture captives. If they were too long to fit the bed, he'd cut their feet off, and if they were too short, he'd stretch them out. Hamill said that form and formal poetry tend to have this problem--poets are too intent on achieving a specific form that they sacrifice the content and, ultimately, the poem. That being said, I think practicing forms with all their strict rules and regulations, can be useful because a poet, once they've practiced forms enough, will have them as part of the poet's toolbox. In other words, if I only know one type of poem or poetry, I can only convey an event or topic through that lens. However, if I know multiple forms, voices, types, etc. of poems, I can use all those tools available, and have a larger potential for successfully conveying what I want to say. A sonnet will have different content than a haiku will have different content than a ghazal, etc.; however, if I, as a poet, have practised all those forms, I will know what each has the potential to achieve, and write using the most useful form available to me.

The debate comes, of course, in having written a piece and declaring a specific form without following all the rules and conventions. For example, a ghazal traditionally has metered couplets , the second line of each ending in a rhyme followed by a refrain. What happens if you take out the refrain? How about the meter? How about all the formal aspects, but keep the disjointed feeling between couplets? Where does the piece cease to be a ghazal?

My cousin did a philosophy PhD disertation on vagueness. I didn't really understand it, but he explained it to the family like this. Assume there are a billion hairs on one person's head. If you remove one hair, that person is not bald, so you keep removing hairs. At what point is that person bald? The idea of course is that baldness is not a measurable thing, but more a process, an area on a sliding scale, and even a comparitive state. So, too, perhaps might poetry and poetic form be.

>What makes a piece a poem?

Let's gnaw on this old chestnut for a while:

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."- E. Dickinson

>So how important is form?

Vitally, but so too are content and context. These are the three measuring sticks for any art.

>Is it a poem if the only meaning >to be discerned from the piece is >that which is bobbing right on >the surface?

Eh...maybe, if that immediate meaning contains a deeper resonance. Eliot Khalil Wilson speaks of poems as "layers"--there's a direct, immediate surface meaning that has to be there to capture the audience, but there are also layers upon layers in the poem which the audience can discover upon rereading or rehearing the poem.

>Does correct grammar come into >play at all?

I think it depends on the form? For example, haiku, riddles, etc. use a lot of fragments, where as certain forms (sonnets, villanelles, etc.) lend themselves towards more "proper" grammar. Also, whose grammar is correct? For example, in Japan, there is no difference between singular and plural but for context.

Technically, Basho's famous poem:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

could also be

old pond
frogs jump into
the sound of water

In the original japanese, there is no difference. Should we berate Basho for this grammatical vagueness, or respect the language variations?

>Is it an affront to the artist to >demand more than preaching to the >choir?

No...absolutely not. If an artist, ANY artist (not just a poet), ceases to advance their work or doesn't see their work reaching beyond their immediate audience, they've failed in some regard. There is an underlying ideal to all art, that any particular piece could ultimately change the world. It's an ideal that needs to be tempered with reality and humility, but that ideal should always underline any piece.

>Does lack of narrative constitute >experimentalism?

Nope. Many, many traditional poems have been written with out an underlying story or narrative. There are hundreds if not thousands of examples--CLASSICAL examples--of protests, odes, praises, advice, etc. in poetry, none of which had an underlying storyline or narrative and none of which would be considered experimental, especially by today's standards. Again, it depends on the subject the author wants to convey to the reader and what the best presentation is.

Anonymous said...

I don't care what philosophy is used to craft a poem as long as it enlightens or delightens.

I reject looking to others to tell me up from down, especially academic institutions. I've lost faith in the validity of their judgment especially in the social science realm after reading about the Chicago School of Economics and Berkeley's malevolent actions in the global south. I'm not saying all academics are bad, but that they aren't *my* authorities and that there are good reasons for my skepticism.

Requiring form seems a kind of obstructionism or guardianship of expression. It's too political. It's a way of limiting the realm of what can be considered "serious" so that one's own chances are better. However, appreciation an elegantly formed poem is OK in my book.

I don't care about the difference between poetry & prose & what qualifies what as which. Certainly some poems seem to have more of a poetic "perfume" than others--and yet the odor can be too strong--and people will say, Ah, watch out, here comes that smelly poet again...

Thanks for the stimulation again.

Anonymous said...

A poem doesn't even require words. In my mind, "poetry" has whatever definition a person chooses to give it. Emily Dickinson wrote that:

"To See a Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a book it lie
True poems flee."

Perhaps when we strive to define we undermine. ;)


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