Friday, September 25, 2009

Projected Verse

Jacob Mooney has weighed in with a very thoughtful response to the dialogue Michael Lista and I were having the other day, and to the Jason Guriel interview that initially prompted it.

Again, I can't emphasize strongly enough that I don't object to the thematic collection, per se. What bugs me is the extent to which that approach has been normalized as The Way To Go for poetry. To me, a classic example of what I mean was a younger (i.e. my age) poet saying to me one day that she really didn't want to continue with the "project" she'd been working on, but felt obliged to do so because she'd received a grant for the purpose.

Another poet of my acquaintance once told me that she liked the project she was working on because she was never at a loss for what to write about on any given day. Which is understandable, but doesn't exactly sound like it's apt to produce the kind of pressure under which good poems tend to get written. And I should add that both of these poets are very talented writers. If it was only mediocre writers who got influenced by all this business, it would be of no concern.

Part of what bugs me about the project paradigm is that it can be a kind of reification of a Protestant work ethic which, to me, is antithetical to art. Maybe this is just because I'm basically lazy, prone to procrastination and have a lousy attention span, but I'd really like to hear more people say, hey, if you don't know what to write about, don't worry about it. Not writing is OK. (A nifty bit in Guriel's book is an unfinished sonnet corona; the form itself says "Look, it's okay to quit.") It might even lead to better poems, who knows? It can certainly lead to fewer bad-to-middling poems. I often go weeks without writing a poem; occasionally months. This makes for a really crappy grant pitch.

What bugs me is that the methods of people like me and others of my acquaintance--sporadic, scattershot, unsystematic, unpremeditated--get treated as tho they're somehow inferior to the more diligent, blueprinted, cohesive-from-the-getgo efforts of those who write "projects."

At the risk of repeating myself--but Mooney seems to have overlooked this part of the exchange between me and Michael, so perhaps it bears repeating--none of this is to say that I think a book, if/when one does choose to publish poems in such a format, should necessarily contain just any old poems that happen to be your best. When I was assembling the ms. of Unsettled, I didn't put in any poems not related to the Arctic, altho I'd written plenty, some of which were better than most of the poems in Unsettled. In putting together the ms. of Track & Trace, I left out a whole lot of what I think are strong poems because they don't fit the book; I also cut poems that fit, but weren't ... fit, as I did with Unsettled (tho, in retrospect, not nearly enough). A similar thing will happen when next I take stock of what I've got.

But this is manifestly different from deliberately setting out to write a thematically unified project--not that there's anything wrong with that--so Mooney's closing comment about a book's theme being “the thing we cared the most about while writing it” is something of a red herring. Because the thing about poetry, when it's done well, is it tends to resist reduction to any such single theme--because, as Empson has taught us rather persuasively, ambiguity is a qualitiy intrinsic to poetry. Even if Jason said that X was the thing he cared most about while writing the poems of Pure Product, that tells us very little about how those individual poems work and what they're about. And anyway there's no way you can consider "valuing the individual poem over a poetry book" is a theme in the same way that "film" or even "pop culture" is. And some clever reader will invariably point out something you didn't know you were doing, but is undeniably present in the work.

The way I do things is not in line with the literature-as-cottage-industry approach fostered by university writing programmes and the CC because I don't know what my "project" is until I've finished writing the poems it contains (which brings to mind a recent quip by Stuart Ross, when asked about what he was working on). In the case of T&T, we're talking about a period of about eleven years to write 34 poems. Which would make for a helluva long MFA, or a pretty damn paltry annual income, given one CC grant for the creation of the book.

I'd like to take on a couple of specific things in Mooney's column. At one point he says:

I would argue that the question we should be asking about an individual poet is this: What is the atomistic, indivisible unit of measure for their work? Is it the phoneme, the sound? The word? The phrase? The line? The stanza or graph? The poem? The sequence of linked poems? The book? Or the lifelong collection of books? There are major figures in the history of English Language poetry who’ve hung their hats at every hook on this wall. At one end there are the poets who’ve built their work from the elemental slivers of our language, from a world far below sense or even language, from sound itself. Here you’ll find the radical sound poets and some formalists as well. Zach Wells claims to be a part of this group during his argument with Lista, though I’m not sure if I see it. His poems, at their best, are too thoughtful and concerned with communication to have not avoided sacrificing some part of this radical beginning.

First of all, thanks for the kind words, Jacob; I'm glad to hear you think my poems are thoughtful. But I never said that my work was pure sound. I quoted the Frostian maxim to beware of the sound and let sense take care of itself. Language being a system of signs as well as sounds, it is intrinsically communicative. One has to work very self-consciously against the grain of language for it to lose its link to communication. While I've written a fair number of poems that can't readily be paraphrased because they don't have an explicit narrative, I've never been interested in the Quixotic task of stripping language of its status as tool of communication. Oh, but the way it communicates is so darn tricky... By "radical" I don't mean extreme, I mean "root" (cf. radish). See now, that's something that fascinates me, how a radish both comes from and is a radix. And how a radix, over time can come to mean a branchtip. I'm interested in how our modern words are racinated in the soil--and oh hell, in the soul too--of dead language. This is what I mean by paying attention to the small units out of which a poem is built, their intersections and disjunctions of sense and sound, because every word within a poem is a poem in its own right, ambiguous, polysemous--to say nothing of promiscuous. And I think this is more the fundamental (and don't forget that a fundament is also a business end) business of writing poems than a book or lifetime body of work is. Which isn't to say that you should do one and not the other, but that if you pay attention to the one the other, as per Frost's dictum, will take care of itself.

Another thing Mooney brings up:

There are even poets who look beyond that and see their life’s work as the indivisible “product” of their creative output. The most obvious example is someone like Walt Whitman, who spent his years constantly editing and shaping a single book (Leaves of Grass, high on my list of favourite books of any decade). He added poems, removed some, rewrote others, and advanced this single volume piece by piece until he was no longer and only the book remained behind.

See, I actually see Whitman as a bit of a poster/whipping boy for what I'm talking about. Whitman was an occasionally brilliant, but more often long-winded, poet who would have done well to focus more on the individual poem than on his life-long project. Just because it was of paramount importance to him doesn't mean I have to agree. As a book, Leaves of Grass is practically unreadable. Hands up: how many people have actually read it cover to cover (anyone who had to for a course doesn't count). Now, of those who read it all, how many would recommend the undertaking to others? I have no shame in admitting that I could only get about halfway thru. It's long and monotonous. Far better to read a well-edited selection of his best poems. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" is a way better argument for keeping Walt in the canon than Leaves of Grass is, as academically interesting as his project--which, by the way, is the antithesis of an ordered, unified book; that whole containing multitudes thing-- undoubtedly is.

Anyhoo, I'm not calling for a moratorium on thematically unified books. Everyone has his or her own way of working and I can't presume to say that one way is right and another wrong. I'd just like to see a more widespread acknowledgment on the part of our cultural institutions that there's more than one valid way to go about one's business as a writer of poems. Or poetry. Or whatever.


Razovsky said...

This is exactly the topic of my column in the new issue of sub-Terrain!

Zachariah Wells said...

Which I will be for sure checking out, Stu. Cheers.

Jonathan Ball said...

My complaint is against books which are not, to my mind, properly books. That is to say, a collection of poems not properly unified in any fundamental way, aside from the fact that they are produced by the same poet and/or stand as a testament to that particular moment in a poet's development. I'm not against publishing "collections" in this sense -- only, I feel that the proper way to publish such a collection is in the form of an archive, not in the form of a codex.

Zachariah Wells said...

Couple questions, Jonathan.

1)Can you cite an example of a book that is not properly a book? And I mean one with good poems in it, since your objection is to the whole, not the parts.

2)I'm not sure I know what you mean by "publish as an archive." Do you mean some kind of indexed digital format? If so, I have to disagree; the web's a good place to find poems, but a crappy place to read them, in my experience.

Jonathan Ball said...

Proceeding from the notion that a "book" is in essence a conceptual object, and not merely a printed technology, it seems to me that it is largely tradition (and, as you point out, current reader preference) that results in the common wisdom "poems must be collected in bound, printed volumes."

As a random example, let's take Tim Bowling's The Book Collector. But really, we can take any book which is not a proper, single, conceptual unit or with some fundamental core (aside from the unity that might result from them having been the work of a single poet). There are few reasons to include these poems in the same book aside from tradition and opportunity.

In a general sense, there is nothing wrong with publishing a collection of poems, especially since (as you point out) there are few attractive, viable options at the present time. But why can't we come up with attractive, viable options? Why can't I buy a subscription to Tim Bowling (let's say) and have him mail me all the poems he writes for a year or two, as attractive broadsheets, and collect these works as I please in a personal archive/library box/what-have-you -- or have Bowling present/distribute the work in some other, more artful form, or in a digital form, which I agree isn't much fun to read but I suspect others are happier with reading poems digitally -- rather than purchasing a bound, printed book containing these same poems, a book whose physical existence implies that these poems were developed or redeveloped as a single project?

The Bowling book isn't something I've read recently or carefully, so it may be a bad example, and maybe after reading the book again I would decide it is in fact a more focused project. It's just the first that comes to mind of an instance where a book seems to have been produced as a result of collecting disparate poems rather than standing as the terminus of a focused project. I wonder if we aren't simply clinging to the codex-form book rather than exploring other, possibly more suitable options.

For myself, I don't see much value in collecting poems I've written as one-offs and published in journals. Why collect them? They weren't intended to be collected, they were intended to stand on their own, as individual poems. So let them. Why does everything have to be in a book?