Blog - Theory of Poetry Blog

Theory of Poetry Blog

Bob King

Bob King

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry

 

WAS THERE EVER WHEN?

 

Was there ever when

We were less aware

of where high art has been?

And do we even care?

 

Ever climb a stair

To find it leads nowhere

Because you had forgotten

The race is to the bottom?

 

Welcome to Lost and Found

I provide a service

One that makes academia

Exceedingly nervous.

 

Whatever happened to the art of poetry in the United States? It is not declining; it is dead. Been dead for fifty years or so.

The evidences of its death are everywhere. Ever notice that the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times in its contents page has no independent category for poetry? When, on rare occasions, a book of poetry or poetics is reviewed, the category for FICTION is changed to "FICTION AND POETRY." Makes poetry merely an afterthought, doesn't it? And anyone who knows anything about modern poetry as art knows that poetry is more allied with NONFICTION than FICTION, as poems are not prose, no longer tell a story, and only subconsciously communicate a meaning, if at all.

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Did You Ever Wonder What Makes "Poetry" Poetry?

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Did you ever ask yourself why poets cannot or will not write poems that can be understood?
Did you ever have an idea for a poem and find that you could not execute it?

Chances are that you were never taught that poetry is not prose, that the "poet" who begins a poem with the deliberate intent of "saying something" is working by the prose process, not by the poetic process.  One does not make poetry with ideas but with words.

If the poet does not start with an idea, how does he or she begin a poem?
How does the poet propel it forward?
How can the poet possibly expect to bring it to a successful conclusion?
What does "meaning" mean in the context of poetry?

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The obituary of Hilton Kramer, the Art Critic, in today's New York Times reminded me of an article he wrote in the New Criterion in February 1993 under the title "Poetry & the silencing of art." That article is accessible on the web at the following site: http://www.newcriterion.com/articleprint.cfm/Poetry---the-silencing-of-art-4691 It should be read by everyone interested in rejuvenating poetry as a high art in America. Among other things, it summarizes views expressed by Dana Gioia on the state of American poetry, agrees with those views to the extent that they note the demise of poetry as art in America, comments on some of Gioia's other views set forth in his book "Can Poetry Matter?", and concludes with the following observation: "In Mr. Gioia's discussion of these problems, something very important has been left out - the subject of popular culture. For as the silencing of high art proceeds at a rapid pace in our society, what is taking its place on a scale never seen before is the noise of the most noxious and degraded varieties of pop culture. High culture cannot compete with its lethal effects on the minds and bodies of the young - and not only the young, of course - and neither can serious education, not as it is now conducted, anyway. And as long as the juggernaut of pop culture continues to swamp everything in its path, not only will poetry remain confined "to the private world that is the poet's mind" but so will all of high art - whatever remains of it - be confined to the private world of its subculture. And what was lost? No one can judge will be a line applicable to many things we now cherish. Can Poetry Matter? is an important book, but it does not yet have an answer to the question posed in its title."

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The "Universality" of the Poetic Art

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In his Introduction to the Penguin Classics 2008 edition of Villa's Collected Poems, Luis Francia makes the following observation: "Taken to task for his insistent desire to be regarded as "universal" – he was, after all, a creature of his age – wherein "universal" was synonymous with the Western tradition, still [Villa] felt no obligation to display in his art overt signs of his situation in the world, believing that that was irrelevant and, moreover, lay in the province of prose."

Tagged in: Jose Garcia Villa
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"What Must Be Said"

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A controversy has erupted over a 69-line “poem":  “What Must Be Said,” written by Günter Grass, the German novelist and Nobel laureate, that appeared in several German newspapers on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. As reported in The New York Times on April 5 and 7, in his “poem” Mr. Grass wrote: “What do I say only now, aged and with my last drop of ink, that the nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace? Because that must be said which may already be too late to say tomorrow.” José Garcia Villa’s paramount “don’t” in the writing of poetry was: “If you can say it in prose, don’t write it as poetry.” Among Villa’s most-important messages in his theory of poetry was his counsel: “After reading a poem, the question to ask is: “How did the poet do it?” – not: “What did he say?” In simplified terms, Villa said
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"PURE POETRY" AS ART AND "THE RED WHEELBARROW"

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In his theory of poetry, José Garcia Villa outlined a “Spectrum of Poetry” which, in simple terms, segregated poems – again speaking of poetry as art and not as popular culture – into three “regions”: the region of “pure poetry” at one end of the Spectrum, the region of “general poetry” in the middle, and the region of “great poetry” at the opposite terminal from “pure poetry.” The Spectrum polarized poems on the basis of their “purity” and “content,” where content is what is generally referred to as the “meaning” of the poem. In this Spectrum, meaning is seen as an adulterant, a pollutant, and a non-poetic factor.

The medium of poetry is music and magic in language. In “pure poetry,” the medium uses itself as its sole and only source of power. This is based upon the premise that ideas are not the life of poetry – poetry’s life is its authority to spellbind us. Oscar Wilde said: “Art never expresses anything but itself.” When a poem is pure, it is centered in poetry itself.

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THE 2012 PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION

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News sources report that the Pulitzer Prize Board said that it did not award a Pulitzer for fiction this year, leading to a hue and cry among publishers and others over the snub by the Board, particularly as three worthy candidates had been selected by the Pulitzer jurors as finalists. The fact is that a Pulitzer was awarded to a work of fiction this year after all – it was awarded to Tracy K. Smith for her book: “Life on Mars.” This was unnoticed because the Board mistakenly awarded her the prize in the category of “Poetry,” when in fact a reading of Smith’s “poems” reveals that they were not produced by the poetic process and do not qualify as works of art because they are essentially prose poems that could better have been written in sentences and paragraphs than in lines and stanzas.

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Having already violated this injunction by C. David Heymann, the biographer who wrote books about Ezra Pound, James Russell, Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell, and whose obituary appears in today’s New York Times, what’s a fellow to do? Heymann’s solution, it would appear, was to turn to biographies of the rich and famous, much more remunerative to be sure. Does this have any echoes in what has happened to the publishing of poetry and poetics?  As one well-known publisher told me, my book “is a very hard book for us to publish.”  My response was:  “Tell me something I don't know!"   Well-meaning persons have advised me to “Follow the money.”  Being retired and not worried about supporting myself for my remaining years, and frankly disgusted about the prices being paid for “great icons” of pop art that have been selling at record prices in recent days at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and
Tagged in: Demise of Poetry
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In today's New York Times Sunday Book Review, the "poems" being reviewed are described as "taut, lucid, lyric, filled with complex emotional reflection while avoiding the usual difficulties of highbrow poetry."  From the context, one would conclude that the reviewer intended this assessment to be complimentary of the "poet's" work.  Does anyone believe that the "critic" knows what he is talking about? 

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Table of Contents

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As mentioned elsewhere on this website, the website's mission is to promote publication of a book entitled "Poetry is," which presents the theory of poetry of Jose Garcia Villa as distilled from his lecture notes for poetry workshops he taught from 1952 until his death in 1997.  The editor of this book is the sponsor of this website, Robert L. King, who studied with Villa from 1970 until 1997, and who utilized Villa's papers, now residing at the Houghton Library at Harvard U., his own notes of Villa lectures and those of other Villa students, and various recollections of Villa loyalists to distill and recreate Villa's voice and views on what poetry is, what it can and cannot do, and how it (as high art) is written. The result is a manuscript which can truly be described as authored by Villa himself.

That manuscript is now (as of September 1, 2015) a published book, available for purchase on this website and elsewhere, and it presents the only comprehensive organized and structured theory of poetry to date.

Most persons who have attended poetry workshops will wonder what there is about poetry that could possibly fill an entire book. After all, poetry workshops - they believe - consist of presentations of poems followed by analysis of what the poems say.  Student poems are usually welcomed and discussed, enforcing the notion that there is nothing about poetry that must really be studied.  With a few suggestions as to how these student poems may be improved, the students believe they are well on their way to becoming true poets and they either depart to forge their own path or pursue a MFA degree, which they believe is academic accreditation of their status as poets and critics of poetry.

Thus, it may be helpful for persons attending poetry workshops as described above to consider what they may have missed in not attending the Villa workshops.  I reproduce below the Table of Contents of the book, which will give an idea of the subjects covered in these workshops.

 

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Decline of the University Presses

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In today's N.Y. Times, an article is titled: "Plan to Close University of Missouri Press Stirs Anger." The subtitle states: "Decision Raises Question of Economics Versus Academic Values Across the Country." Unidentified scholars argue "university presses are vital for academic discourse. They publish erudite texts that commercial presses do not, giving scholars a forum to share and further research."

Baloney! Take a look in publications such as the The New York Review of Books and the PMLA to see the titles that university presses have been publishing as "scholarly treatises" in recent years. You will discover that, for the most part, university presses, responding to the pressures from their respective universities, are competing with their brethren in the commercial presses with the aim of publishing books that will sell. Given the choice between publishing a scholarly treatise on high art and publishing a book about an icon of pop culture, most university presses will choose the latter.

My experience in trying to find a publisher for my manuscript that presents a scholarly theory of poetry, "written" by a poet of high literary standing in the 1940s and 1950s, has been that commercial publishers point toward the university presses as more suitable to publishing such a work. The truth is, however, that university presses have no more interest in publishing such a work than do the commercial presses, knowing that books on poetics and poetry are notoriously poor sellers in today's market.

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Death of a "Formalist"

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Today's NY Times has an obituary on Daryl Hine, characterizing him as "an admired poet who adhered to classical themes, complicated formal structures and intricate rhyming patterns to explore themes of philosophy, history and his own sexuality."  The article explains that Hine "wrote more than a dozen books of poetry, using traditional forms like the sestina."  It continues to say that:  "His work . . . often put him out of step with the times, which were more apt to celebrate the raw, free-form work of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso," and that "Louis Dudek, a literary critic who focused on modern poetry, once described Mr. Hine's poetry as 'a series of extremely recherché, abstract, contrived word forms, containing oblique and ambiguous philosophical essays and meditations.'" 

Most poets and critics today tend to think of poetry as occupying two poles of a spectrum, either the "formalist" style of Hine or the "free verse" style of Ginsberg.  An assumption is made that "modern poetry" embraces the latter style.  People who hold this view are misguided.  The two poles of the spectrum are between "formalists" and the "modern poetry" style of José Garcia Villa.  Free verse is disqualified because, contrary to popular belief for the past half century, it is not poetry, not even verse, and most important is not art.


 

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Death of John Edwin Cowen

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I announce with sadness that John Edwin Cowen, my friend and Trustee of the Literary Estate of Jose Garcia Villa, passed away on August 23, 2012.  Among John's accomplishments as Trustee, he arranged for the preservation of Villa's literary papers by donating them to the Houghton Library Collection at Harvard University, he was editor of the Penguin Classics centennial volume:  "Doveglion: The Collected Poems of Jose Garcia Villa," published in 2008 on the 100-year anniversary of Villa's birth, and he facilitated my access to Villa's papers, thus enabling me to prepare the manuscript to which this website is devoted.  John was a poet in his own right and successfully published two volumes of his own poems shortly before his death.  Villa's Will did not provide for a successor Trustee, and the affairs of Villa's Estate now are in the hands of Villa's two sons, Randy and Lance, with Lance being named
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Does a book need readers?

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An article in this morning's New York Times on the decision of novelist Philip Roth to put aside writing novels raises an interesting question. Roth insists he is always being misquoted as saying that the novel is dying. "I do not believe the novel is dying"; "I said the readership is dying out";  "I said the screen will kill the reader, and it has. The movie screen in the beginning, the television screen and now the coup de grâce, the computer screen."  Roth added: "Why should we have any more readers? The numbers don't mean anything. The books mean something." Having published 31 books, Roth can now, at age 79, be flippant about the absence of readers for books published these days.  I suppose his defense would be that he is just being factual, and he would be right.  However, also at age 79, and not having published a book until now,
Tagged in: Jose Garcia Villa
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What Is POETRY Magazine Afraid Of?

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Today, I sent a message to the Managing Director of POETRY Magazine presenting an advertisement for this website and giving the magazine my credit card information to pay for the ad.  The ad read simply:

"Can $200 million restore poetry to its pre-1960 exalted status in the pantheon of American literature?                                                                                                              

Apparently not.  See:  http://www.theoryofpoetry.com"

It took all of 17 minutes for the Managing Editor to shoot back the following message:

"Thank you for your interest in advertising with POETRY.  i'M afraid we'll have to decline the opportunity to run this ad in our pages."


 

Tagged in: POETRY magazine
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Insomnia and the Poet

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In today's New York Times' Sunday Review, a professor of English and creative writing at U. VA muses about whether poets' insomnia is caused by poetic hyper-arousal or disordered breathing and concludes that "there is nothing, finally, inspiring about a protracted spell of insomnia."  I have my take on that subject in a couple of my poems:

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Poetry is not prose

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In my first blog on this website, I stated that:  "[A]nyone who knows anything about modern poetry as art knows that poetry is more allied with NONFICTION than FICTION, as poems are not prose, no longer tell a story, and only subconsciously communicate a meaning, if at all." In my manuscript "Poetry is," Villa devotes the better part of at least 40 pages to the differences between poetry (as art) and prose.  In reading an essay in today's Sunday Book Review in The New York Times, I became aware of yet another difference not included in Villa's almost-exhaustive categorization of the differences, namely, the manner in which "literature" is taught in creative writing programs at today's universities. In today’s New York Times Book Review, there is an essay by Dean Bakopoulos, a professor of English at Grinnell College, concerning “How to teach literature?” The short answer provided is: “With more attention to
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Pulitzer Again Awards Poetry Prize to Prose

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In its award of the 2013 Pulitzer prize for poetry to Sharon Olds' book "Stag's Leap," Pulitzer once again shows that it has no appreciation for what makes "poetry" poetry.  Sharon Olds' exploration in free verse of the details of her recent divorce is not poetry (speaking of poetry as high art) and is not even verse.  It evinces a total misunderstanding of what makes for a poem as art, and Pulitzer would do well to read my second blog above as to how  poems as art are written.


 

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Saving Poetry From Its Friends.

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From time to time, I have been tempted to describe the influence of friends of poetry on poetry these days as "pernicious."  However, in my dictionary "pernicious" is defined as "that which does great harm by insidiously undermining or weakening."  Were it not for "insidiously" (the suggestion that the undermining must be done by treachery or slyness), "pernicious" would fit.  However, I must recognize that poetry's "friends" are doing what they do believing that they are saving poetry or promoting it and are not bent upon poetry's destruction.  The rub is that, because they do not know what poetry (as art) is, the effect of their promotions is to destroy the very art they think they are furthering.

Thus, I have been critical of POETRY Magazine and many other current publications that present "free verse" as poetry.  They are not the only culprits.  According to the Times article referred to below, in 2010 there were 852 degree-conferring creative writing programs on campuses across this nation.  They have done nothing to arrest the notion that "free verse" is not verse, much less poetry.   But it is not just these publications and writing programs that are undermining poetry, it is other well-intentioned promoters of what they believe is poetry.  Just this week, I read an article in Wednesday's The New York Times on "poets laureate," indicating that they are proliferating rapidly.  No longer do we just have a national "poet laureate" appointed by the Library of Congress, but now all but six states have poet laureateships and many cities and towns have followed suit.  There are many reasons why "poets laureate," merely by accepting the position, demonstrate that they are not knowledgeable about what poetry (as art) is and how it is written, among them the facts that (1) they accept to use words to convey a message on behalf of the community that appoints them and (2)  their poems are generally conveyed to their intended audiences through poetry readings


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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published

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A friend, knowing of my struggles since 2009 in trying to find a publisher for the book that motivates this website, gave me a copy of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published."  I have read many sophisticated treatises on this subject, and logged many hours learning the dos and don'ts of finding a publisher, not to mention the helpful coaching of my Literary Agent (yes, I was lucky enough to have found and procured one).  However, not one to leave any stone unturned, I navigated my way through this Guide to see if it offered any insights I may have missed.

The sum and substance of the guidance in the "Idiot's Guide" on getting poetry published is this: "Poetry is getting harder and harder to define . . . .  Interest in poetry has risen recently due to the poetry slams that take place around the country, as well as the bequest of $100 million to Poetry magazine by Ruth Lilly."  Wow, what helpful guidance!  The authors plainly have no concept of what poetry is, much less how to get it published.

My book is virtually unpublishable for one reason and one reason alone.  It is about poetics.  Poetry and poetics are the neglected stepchildren of American literature, and any publisher that doesn't instinctively know that books on such subjects don't  readily find readers will quickly, upon doing research, find that to be the case.  That is the battle I have been waging, and I only qualify "unpublishable" by "virtually" because three years of dedicated work has left me with options still, quite aside from the ultimate option of publishing it myself and taking control of the book's distribution using this website among other avenues.  After all, as my first blog above has now found over 98,000 readers (updated), there may be something wrong with the coventional wisdom on this subject.

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