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Theory of Poetry Blog

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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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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 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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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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"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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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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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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"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 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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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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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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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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"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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"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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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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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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