In Praise of Not Great Poetry

I’m about to make a point that seems to me to be nearly self-evident, yet I feel the need to make it because I sense a conflicting opinion is the premise behind some commonly made judgements about poetry.

Poetry of course is only one of many arts. In our time, it is one of the arts that feels it needs to justify itself more often. Poetry feels like it’s neglected, marginalized, underappreciated, and there are reasons for it to think so.

Does music do this? One can find defenses for the value of music, yes, but these cries are not the same. Similarly, the other arts that use words: prose of various kinds, cinema, live drama—people will defend their value, but not with the elephant of marginalized dread that advocates of poetry feel they must deal with.

Why is that? I’m going to use a loaded word to describe the cause, one that is likely not quite right, but one that I can’t find a short pithy substitute for: snobbery. There may be a better word. I mean, really, it’s more at a misapplied kind of elitism, but elitism is an even more misunderstood and misused word.

Roman Hruska

Roman Hruska. Is this is a picture of a great modern poet, or a leading voice of
“The New Criticism” who established the 20th Century ideals of great poetry?

 

Roman L. Hruska was a doctrinaire Midwestern conservative who served in Congress in the middle of the 20th Century. His place in history is constrained to one quote. Hruska’s infamous rhetorical thrust, meant to defend a Supreme Court appointment before the Senate for confirmation, was so mockable that it helped defeat that candidate.

I rise today knowing that what I’m about to say risks the same fate.

Here’s what Hruska said about Harold Carswell, who as candidate for the High Court, had been attacked as a mediocre jurist. “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

That too is a misunderstanding of elitism. It is elitism to want the best leaders, the best judges. It is also elitism to desire all kinds of difficult and challenging arts. Given that elitism is sometimes thrown around as an insult in our century, let me be clear, I support that idea. It’s good to desire the best, to even take risks for the best, particularly in the arts, which have fewer direct consequences, and therefore can serve as a “research and development” department for outlooks and thoughts that we may want to experiment with a bit before we apply them to surgery or criminal law.

What does this have to do with poetry’s pervasive feeling of marginalization?

In the last century, poetry continued on an artistic and critical path that diverged from the other musical and literary arts. When any serious critical and institutional focus on the poetic arts were called for, poetry divested itself of all of it’s non-elite branches and expressions. Song lyrics? Not poetry. Popular poems, the kind once memorized by schoolchildren? Not real  poetry. Humorous poems? Humor, not poetry. Verse that is predominantly interesting because it’s musical speech? No. You don’t understand, poetry is about complex language examining difficult to express matrixes of experience. Thoughts and experiences from marginalized or particular speakers? Well, nice that they can speak up these days, but, please, it’s not poetry. Hip Hop/rap? Oh, come on! Get serious.

I can agree with what some literary critics and gatekeepers observe about these forms of expression, but not their judgement.

I too can be bored and uninterested in things that may fall into those “It’s not  poetry” bins. I can also be bored and uninterested in some page poetry which is credentialed and endorsed as serious mainstream literary poetry—you know, the stuff that’s poetry.  I can even change my mind about what I find interesting and worth my attention. I see new things in the work. I live new experiences. And sometimes when I’m listening to some musical speech, I’m seeking a pleasure or relief that’s hard to detail as criteria for greatness.

What if we considered all narrative prose that wasn’t a contender for the greatest novel ever written as, well, not prose. I enjoy a detective novel once in a while. Short stories can be sublime. Should I remind myself as I enjoy them that they are inferior in some criteria for a great novel? I find interest in some of the most austere or minimal modern serious music, but if every time I hear a good three-minute tune that makes a conventional set of chords seem inevitable all over again, should I feel ashamed that I think that’s music?

Can what is “not great” inform something greater? Many of the early Modernists seemed to think so—but it need not be applied like a newspaper clipping to a cubist collage or a folk tune to a symphony, it can be part of a vital continuum of human expression without needing elevation or even a judgment of hierarchy over all else.

I believe it’s a mistake for poetry, so concerned with it’s potential vital contribution to human culture, to feel that it can best survive by severing its cerebral head, leaving its ass and its elbow to wander around as “not poetry.”

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service

For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience, but reacts to these things in the same way.

The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.

And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.

I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.

Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”

New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as irresponsibly stopping to look at a well-lit Christmas-card pretty sight of a woods in snowfall.

I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”

And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.

Cell Coverage vs Drake in Coat

Drake’s from Canada, but Minnesota and New England need cell coverage and warm coats too.

 

So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service”  is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service lyrics

Here are today’s words, but you want to listen to the music don’t you?

 

But when you think of scurrilous, I hope you think of the LYL Band. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a piece that wasn’t created by that scrupulous and well-behaved group of musicians that is myself—recording it instrument by instrument, a track at a time. The LYL Band is an organization in the same way that a hockey fight or litter of kittens is organized, which is to say, barely, though we attack things with abandon playfully or otherwise. To hear us, use the player below.

 

 

A Dust of Snow

Here’s another winter poem by Robert Frost to put to our uses. Writing about my last piece here, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”  I wondered about the actualities of the scene the poet was describing: a New England winter road in a dark snowy evening before the coming of rural electrification. Frost would know, of course, that it would be quite dark in those conditions. But did he use that knowledge when he wrote the poem? Did he, the author—like I did as a reader once (despite knowing too the darkness of rural night)—visualize a well-lit snowfall on trees, an alluring and beautiful sight that might tempt him to stay and watch for a while?

I can’t say for sure.

Frost’s “A Dust of Snow” is even shorter, and the accepted meaning of its images has been a settled thing for some time. Last time I wondered if “Stopping by Woods”  was more a poem about a man who was lost in the dark in both levels of meaning rather than a man who was tempted by bright beauty. I could have been wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. With “A Dust of Snow”  certain images have been determined by most academic readers to be, well, symbolic. What if we consider them as real, natural objects and not as handy metaphors?

Robert Frost with axe

Let’s cut down on our use of overdetermined symbols with Robert Frost

We start right off with a crow. “A symbol of death” it is said. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt the poem to think that. I think it’s a crow. A dark bird, darker yet against the snow, and no crow would let the poet that near without a racket of loud caws. The poet doesn’t let us hear the caws though. Instead, like the uncanny sound of sifting snow in “Stopping by Woods,”  Frost wants us to feel just a dusting of snow falling from the branch as the bird flaps off. He wants the main action in the poem to be almost microscopic. He could have written that the bird’s takeoff “dumped a pound of cold slush down my collar”—but that wouldn’t be the poem he wrote. Is the dust a symbol of death too? Or is it an image of a tiny action of little weight? I hold to the later.

Oh, and symbol alert! The tree the bird left is a hemlock tree. Or as the movieReal Genius  reminds us in “the immortal words of Socrates, who said: ‘I drank what?”

How aware was Frost that the American Hemlock is a pine tree and the European poison is a completely different, smaller plant? If this were written by the avid amateur botanist Emily Dickinson, we’d know the poet would know this. Even William Carlos Williams M. D. might have need to know about the derivations of poison. Like the crow being “death” or a bird, “hemlock” could be a reference to death or suicide—but the evergreen is also a symbol of life in winter too, if it must be a symbol. Frankly I think either taken in a one-to-one direct simile way may overdetermine the poem. In the book of nature, having a black bird against white snow causing the small, light amount of snow to fall from an evergreen tree is sufficient.

And this snow falls on the narrator of the poem, and the small sprinkling of snow lifts the rueful mood. I think that’s the essence of the poem: the smallest action of nature, a flighting crystalline snow sprinkle that may not have weighed an ounce, can lift a human out of their dense internal fixations. I think that’s a more graceful poem than the leaden march of death-crows, grave-dust snow and poison trees. I could be wrong, but I like that poem better.

Musically, a much simpler arrangement than last time, just a bass and 12-string guitar. I’m trying to carve out time to prepare for some more recording with the LYL Band tomorrow. Even if we are successful, you won’t hear those pieces for some time, so use the player below to hear “A Dust of Snow.”

Thanks again for the likes, comments, and the sharing of these pieces on your blogs or on social media.

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.

In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  too.

Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.

Currier and Ives Sledding in Central Park

In the rural winter of Frost’s time, things would be considerably more dark

Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.

When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.

At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.

It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,”  but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.

The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.

In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”



When Frost reads it himself, he doesn’t sound like he’s tempted to linger either.

And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods”  at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.

Musically, I sought to combine the familiar with a few twists for this one. There’s a reassuring folkie acoustic guitar part and even a cod banjo motif I played to my rusty ability. But then a cello and viola part carries throughout. Instead of bass guitar, I decided to play tambura, a traditional drone instrument of South Asian music, on my guitar using a MIDI interface.

I liked how it came out, maybe you will too. The player gadget below will let you hear it.