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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
The title of this blog is a statement written by the poet W.H. Auden in 1972.  Auden wrote: “I can’t understand – strictly from a hedonistic point of view – how one can enjoy writing with no form at all. If one plays a game one needs rules, otherwise there is no fun. The wildest poem has to have a firm basis in common sense, and this, I think, is the advantage of formal verse. Aside from the obvious corrective advantages, formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego.” Writers – photographs by Nancy Compton, p. 28 (WW Norton & Company Ltd. 2005). In my second blog above, I state:   "The poetic process frees the poet from the fetters of his or her ego and the defensiveness of the conscious mind so that the poet can explore his or her subconscious, the contents of which are revealed even to the poet
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The New York Times Has a Hidden Poetry Resource

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Having been critical of the New York Times for lacking any critical faculty to judge what is being published as poetry these days, I discovered today, in a front-page article in the Times, that the paper in fact has such a resource.  His name is Holland Cotter and he has been a full-time staff critic for the newspaper since 1998, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.  His art critiques appear to be largely confined to the visual arts, with a particular specialty in Asian arts, and I am unfamiliar with any criticism published by him relating to poetry in the Times.  He studied poetry at Harvard with Robert Lowell and is reputed to be currently working on, among other things, a poetry manuscript.

In today's article, titled:  "Finding Poetry on the Page and, Later, on the Canvas," Cotter states that he "fell in love with language before [he] fell in love with art."  (I hope that does not mean that he is excluding language from art; I don't think so.)

 

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On August 9, 2012, David Rakoff, an author with a reputation for being one of the finest and funniest essayists of our time, died of cancer at age forty-seven.  About a year and a half before his death, Rakoff, knowing of his certain fate, called his editor at Doubleday to say that he wanted his next book to be a novel, although he had never published a novel.  This was not unusual in itself, but he added that he was going to write the novel in rhyming iambic pentameter.

Rakoff's editor, Bill Thomas, said:  "I will admit I paused for a very long time.  A novel in verse.  But David was extremely passionate about the project.  He'd been ruminating on it for a decade.  This was late 2010, and of course he was quite sick at this point; he'd been battling cancer for some time.  But with a writer of David's caliber, who I personally loved and admired very much,  I just said 'O.K., we'll figure out a way to publish it.'"  And indeed, on July 16, 2013, Doubleday did in fact publish the novel, titled: "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish."  It received not one but three reviews in The New York Times, each one "gushing" and none of them by a poetry critic.  One of the reviewers candidly confessed to being a "poetryphobe."

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Of "inversions" and "resistances"

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A notion has become prevalent in recent poetic theory that "inversions" are to be avoided in writing poems.  An "inversion" is an inversion in syntax in the sense of changing the normal order of words in a phrase.  As one guide for the practicing poet states:  Invcrsions so defined are "artificial and unintentionally comic in their attempts to sound poetic.  Far from being more genuinely poetic, such phrases have the opposite effect:  they create bathos and insincerity where the poet wants genuine feeling and believable expression."  Steven Kowit, In the Palm of Your Hand, at 40 (Tilbury House 1995).  

Frankly, while I do not defend so-called poets who insert in their poems "prettified language of the sort that people (who don't read poetry) sometimes imagine is quintessentially poetic," id., I believe that concern over "inversions" is in the case of poets who do read poetry (and know what true poetry is) is totally misplaced.

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Saving Poetry From its Friends, Part 2

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In May 2013, I posted a blog titled: "Saving Poetry From Its Friends."  In it, I suggested that persons and institutions with nothing but good intentions of saving poetry or promoting it were in fact unknowingly conspiring to destroy poetry as high art.  I say "unknowingly" because they do not know what poetry as art is and how it is written.

What has now caused me to revisit this subject is a small article from yesterday's NewYork Times: "Levine Wins $100,000 Poetry Prize."  Philip Levine, a former poet laureate of the United States, was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement from the Academy of American Poets.  The $100,000 award is given annually for "outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry."  The article notes that:  "Mr Levine's collections include 'What Work is,' which won a National Book Award in 1991, and 'The Simple Truth,' which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995" and that Levine "described his impulse to put his experiences on the assembly line [at automobile plants] into verse."  Mr. Levine is not a bad poet; he is an unpoet, and his works show that he hasn't the faintest clue as to what the elements of poetic verse are.

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"On Poetry" by Glyn Maxwell

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                In the December 2013 edition of The New York Review of Books, I read a review by Nick Laird of a new book on poetics: “On Poetry” by Glyn Maxwell, an English poet, playwright and novelist. The book, originally published by Oberon Books in 2012, was published in the United States by Harvard University Press in 2013.                 According to the Laird review, the book is a combination of ars poetica, a grab bag of lectures, and a teaching aid. This would be an apt characterization of my own manuscript that I expect to publish later this year, a manuscript that Harvard U. Press could find no place for publishing. Naturally, my curiosity was triggered and not only did I read the book but I read other reviews of the book and also delved somewhat into Maxwell’s poems. I was particularly interested in the latter because José Garcia Villa, the
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Saving Poetry from its Friends - Part Three

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I happened upon an article on the website:  www.poetrynation.com, entitled "Free Verse at the Forefront of Poetic Style."  What I read there made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  Such a conglomeration of ignorance about what good poetry is I have rarely encountered, even in this day and age of total misunderstanding about what makes poetry poetry.  (See my second blog above.) The Poetry Nation article, stripped to its essentials, says that free verse is just as valid as poems as those poems that employ poetic form.  Take this paragraph for example:  "Using poetic form should not be an exercise, most poets agree, but a calling.  A poem should naturally lend ttself to a particular form, or lack thereof.  The subject matter, theme, and tone should, in large part, dictate a poem's style."  Was the writer of this article ever taught that the medium of poetry is poetic language,
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Poetry is Not Prose - Part Two

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  In today’s Sunday New York Times is an obituary of a Romanian poet, Nina Cassian, who sought refuge in the U.S. when her poems offended the Government of President Nicolae Ceausescu. In this obituary, of all places, is found an important lesson on the state of American poetry that illustrates one of the fundamental and basic principles behind the theory of poetry of José Garcia Villa, namely, “Poetry is not prose.” It reads::               “Though she moved with apparent ease in American literary circles, reading and lecturing widely, Ms. Cassian by her own inclination remained something of an outsider. She was amused, for instance, by a practice she deemed singularly American, in which a poet giving a reading precedes each work with a précis of the very work to be read.   Parodying this practice, as The New York Times reported in 1995, Ms. Cassian liked to say:  
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The title of this blog entry is a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).  Poe was born in Boston but Poe and Boston had a long-running feud with each other, reconciliation coming only recently on Boston's part by erecting a statue in Poe's honor.  A page 1 article in the October 5, 2014 New York Times reports on this reconciliation. That article reports that: "Poe's chief complaint about Boston writers was that they were didactic. They used their poetry . . . to argue their causes - abolition, women's rights, social reform.  To Poe, such writing should entertain and move.  He believed in art for art's sake." I only mention this because about a century later Jose Garcia Villa, born in the Philippines, was berated by a prized Filipino  literary figure, Salvador P. Lopez, for being oblivious to the current issues of the day, stunted by his unconcern with the social
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THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE

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Having asked in my last blog what Edgar Allan Poe and José Garcia Villa have in common, indulge me in the same inquiry with respect to Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). A review in the December 14, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review of Beckett’s Collected Poems and of the 3rd Volume of his letters written by the Poet Paul Muldoon gives rise to these thoughts. Muldoon wrote: “No writer has understood the power of silence better than Beckett.  No one has understood better than Beckett that silence is not absence of sound but a physical presence, perhaps even a character.”  Muldoon also observed that: “Beckett . . . is so often inclined to cut everything to the bone, to avoid the excess he associates with Joyce.”  Similarly, in his lectures Villa taught that a poem begins in silence, in a moment of poetic intuition; that a good poem “not only has an organized
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"Triple Elvis" (the poem)

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The New York Times reported on November 28, 2014 that “fine art is now firmly planted alongside equities, bonds, commodities and real estate as an asset class.”  Mentioned as an example of fine art was the sale for nearly $82 million at Christie’s auction of Andy Warhol’s silk-screen print “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type), an image taken from a Hollywood studio publicity shot showing Elvis Presley with a gun.”   One may wonder what about producing a silk-screen print of a Hollywood poster qualified Warhol as a maker of “fine art,” no matter what its subject matter.  Where is the creative expression which is characteristic of all makers of fine art, whatever their medium?    The answer is purportedly found in the rationalization of David Galenson, an economics professor at U. of Chicago.  The Times quoted Galenson as saying:  “Aesthetics have nothing to do with it. . . .  It’s really incredibly
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Of M.F.A. Degrees and Poetry-Writing Workshops

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Yesterday’s Sunday New York Times included an Education Life Section which, in turn, included an article titled:  “The Degree They Love To Hate” – a reference to the proliferation and power of M.F.A. degrees in creative writing.  Among the viewpoints presented in the article is that of literary critic Anis Shivani, author of the 2011 book “Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies.”  Shivani warns that without the degree writers may be able to publish in small presses but are more likely to be condemned to obscurity, particularly if you write literary fiction and poetry.  (Emphasis added.) The article points out that “At the core of every program is the writing workshop, the so-called Iowa model because it originated there.  In its strictest form, it works like this.  Classmates evaluate and write detailed comments about students’ work, then sit around a table and ‘workshop’ the piece.  The writer sits silently while classmates
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Of the Qualities of Writing Poems

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In the course of my work since my retirement from law practice in 2003 in seeking publication of the book I edited on José Garcia Villa’s theory of poetry and my interactions in that connection with publishers, poets, authors, critics, and University professors who purport to teach poetics and poetry, I am simply amazed at how little those concerned with these occupations really know about what makes for poetry and poems as high art. Initially, I attributed their ignorance of the principles that justify true poetry to a legitimate philosophical difference between Villa, who wrote in the era of lyric poetry characterized by, among many others, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost and E.E. Cummings, on the one hand, and, on the other, the latter-day “saints” of poetry, characterized by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich who dispensed with verse, wrote didactic non-poetry, and encouraged an entire generation of
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A poem or not a poem?

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[Note:  To properly read this blog entry, click immediately on the Continue Reading feature as ortherwisw the "poem" it discusses may be garbled by the software for the introduction of this entry.] Is the following a poem? The Blue Dress By Jehanne Dubrow That day, tired of playing dollies and Let’sPretend, I found folded silk in the bottomdrawer, pushed to the back behind sheets andpillowcases, blue silk like skin near drowning,each button a drooping pearl. There werealbums I pulled from other drawers, facesbehind plastic film, the young couple framedwith black corners. In each photograph, mymother’s face was water just before a stonedrops in, surface-smooth, opaque. That ourparents have lives before us is a secret weclose in a dark compartment, the blue dressa body dragged from a lake. Yes? No? Would your response change if the right margin of these lines was justified? Would your response change if I told you that
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The Qualities of Writing Poems, Part 2

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[Note:  As with the immediately-preceding blog, this blog entry cannot be properly read unless you click immediately on the Continue Reading feature as otherwise the illustrative poem is garbled by the software for the introduction of this blog entry.] I received a poem from Mort Malkin, a fellow student of José Garcia Villa’s workshops, and wish to present it to elaborate on my recent blog on the qualities of writing poems:               Devil the rhythm until        resonant syllables appear,        till sounds echo as they will,               allow even a brief silence        if it insists. All the while,        acrobatic thoughts leap out,               but catch hold only when        those first words so prepare us – now, close the oval with surprise.   This poem not only embodies the qualities of writing necessary to make it a poem as art, but at the same time
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A Morning Chuckle

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This morning I had a good chuckle.  In "THE ARTS" section of today's N.Y. Times, I encountered an article on the sale of the archive of The New York Review of Books to the New York Public Library. The Library praised the acquired material as "unique evidence of intellectual life in the United States in the second half of the 20th Century." How does this quotation relate to poetry and poetics, the subjects of these blog entries?  After all, Jose Garcia Villa, in my recently published book "Poetry is," states that: "The arts do not require intellect but simply intelligence.  To be intelligent is to proceed rightly by innate perception, by intuitive sense." Thus, to write poetry (i.e., poems), say when a poet chooses a particular combination of words because they make a better poetic effect, that makes poetic sense but he is not thinking in the true sense of the term. On the
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The NY Times Conspires Against Poetry as Art

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The conclusion is inescapable.  The New York Times conspires to destroy the art of poetry in America.  I am not just referring back to my first blog, where I took the newspaper to task for coupling poetry with fiction.  As the conspiracy has advanced, just about every department of the paper evidences a hostility to poetry as art in favor of what I will loosely characterize as poetry as prose or as poetry as pop culture.  Let me give you some examples from today's Sunday Times. Let's start with the Sunday Times Book Review.  There you will find a listing of the "100 Notable Books of 2015."  Under the title of "Fiction & Poetry," there are three books that the selection committee apparently associates with poetry: "Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine; "From the New World: Poems 1976-2014," by Jorie Graham; and "S O S: Poems 1961-2013" by Amiri Baraks.  In a very
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The Poet Remakes the Poem

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In my blogs, as you may have noticed, I am often very critical of what is published these days as "poems" and equally as critical of what is said in newspapers, book reviews, essays, etc., about the writing of poems.  It gives me pleasure, therefore, to for once find an occasion to heap praise on an essay of Helen Vendler, published in the March 10, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books, titled "The Poet Remakes the Poem."  Ms. Vendler is the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor in the Department of English at Harvard U.  Every aspiring poet should read this essay as it is virtually flawless in its logic and spot on in its guidance. I particularly like the concluding paragraph of Vendler's essay, which reads as follows: "It is in such editings that we come closest to the imagination of the poet in the intense activity of conception.  We see the poet's mind advance
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