Language

What's the Issue with Issue 1?

So a couple of guys named Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter have created a new poetry Journal called Issue 1. It's nearly 4000 pages long and is available in PDF form here. It's been creating quite a stir among certain poetry circles lately, mostly because a quick survey of the contributors shows it to be possibly the most significant collection of poets ever assembled. With work ranging from the likes of William Shakespeare, my own 13th Great Grandfather Geof Chaucer, to Contemporary figures like Ron Silliman and Susan Howe, to less widely known but still enormously talented poets like Anny Ballardini, Amy King, and, um, yours truly.

Now, of course, none of us actually wrote any of the pieces attributed to us in the book, but frankly i kind of wish I had written my three contributions. "A Cat of Countries" (page 1248):

A cat of countries

The sympathy of darkness
Singleness
Beardless and eternal
A room of countries
Of progress
Reluctance and fun
Firing beside a cat
Like a considerable sweeping
Feeling love

"Whole as a passage" (page 2646):

Whole as a passage
Into a swept whisper a fascinating trader
   arrived
The passages mumbled
Those were whole
A rapid rib, cheap rib,
   useful rib of an impossible thieving
Was he impenetrable?
Let her stare
Should he have been silent?
From his difficult arm he hungered for
   one, having, from his throat demoralization
     waiting
That was the creek’s wilderness
Sorrow, you were
   not there, making like a head
Fascinating and enthralling
He would sooner
   be different,
Big and little
”I save brass,” he whispered
He was lived by a
   mutter
He was thinking of the ghastly lives
   of bailiffs, knocking silently beside reckless conceptions
Now the thievings filled in the breeze

And my favorite, and the one that sounds the most like me, "Changing news like intelligence" (page 3573):

Changing News Like Intelligence

To burn descending on an art
A person
His anodyne news

Beginning beside a tree
More minor than a beggar

Now, of course there are some people who think this is lame. Others who take issue, like Silliman who made some vague mention of legal action in his blog about it.

To such people, I say chill out. It's a nice piece of something. There's no damage to your reputation taking place here. Clearly the list of authors was gleaned in someway from Buffalo poetics/the kinds of magazines folks like us get printed in. And frankly, taking Rita Dove at one end, and myself at the other, of a spectrum of fame, none of us are all that well known to the point that anybody outside our little poetry world will care about this one way or another. Take it as a compliment and relax. This thing is the best piece of flarf I've ever come across and frankly, like Anny Ballardini said on the Buffalo list today, I wish I'd had the idea.

Im Riddim and the Reading of Poetry Silently

I've never studied verse formally. I've read a few books and a lot of essays, but never in any sort of systematic way. For a long time I've struggled with the various ideas about rhythm in English language poetry as much of what a lot of poets say about rhythm doesn't really make a lot of sense. Ultimately, I've been left with the definite suspicion that much of what poets believe about rhythm is largely unconnected to what they practice when they're writing. Most important, there is a flaw in the concept of poetic rhythm being regular in the same way that music is regular. Existing systems of scansion that attempt to regularize poetry rhythm are therefore flawed at root and make for a dull and difficult tool for the analysis of poetry. Far more systematic and interesting is, I think, the study of prosody from a linguistic point of view and there is a great deal of very good literature available on phonology and phonetics which is illuminating when applied to poetry...

The Form Question

There are various conservatives on the poetry scene at present who often bemoan the loss of "Form" in poetry and decry the current tendency toward open form composition; Mary Oliver and Dana Gioia are among the more prominent lights of this misguided notion, associated as they are with the New Formalist movement in the eighties. What's particularly difficult to process is where this idea came from that "free verse" was in some way divorced from the care and craft required by formal prosody. Never mind the fact that current trends in public education expose most americans only to Shel Silverstein in their early years, followed closely to a broad survery covering roughly the two hundred fifty or so years between Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Never mind the fact that American poetry more or less begins right around the era of Dickinson or that the Elizabethan dialect grows more and more unfamiliar to speakers of American English with each passing year, and what we have is a situation in which the speakers of a national language, that is, American English, are by and large unfamiliar with their national poetry.

What does this mean to the formal argument? Well, for one thing, American poetry since it's maturity has largely been a bastion of free verse. After all, free verse poetry—despite early and important examples from the King James Bible—found its first true paramour in Whitman's cadenced line. Excepting Poe, all of the important poets of North America have worked largely with free verse of one method or another.

On this fact I am grounding my axiom that American Verse is Free Verse. For an American poet, strict adherence to a form is an aberration of the national poetry. This is not necessarily the case for other nations and languages. Particularly for speakers of the various Spanish and French dialects who have a number of distinct linguistic features available to them that lend themselves to formalism—including large numbers of regular verbs, syllable timed rhythm, and generally more morphologically homogenous lexicons—not to mention many more form options than the pittance available to an American English poetry.

So where does this criticism of the lack of form come from? There are several factors. One is the previously mentioned problem with poetry education. Free verse, also called open form by its defenders—although I think that open verse is much more descriptive and will use it exclusively in the rest of this essay—is defined by this woefully inadequate education in poetry as "that poetry that doesn't rhyme." Formal verse is defined by contrast as "poetry that does rhyme" and given its end of the historical spectrum in that afforementioned high school poetry survey, often gets the short shrift; perceived as archaic and "out of style" by those who aren't really paying attention, it has, to the poorly educated reader, been reduced to mere doggerel, the kind of inspirational poetry found in Reader's Digest magazine or spewed by the so-called "Cowboy Poets." As such its appeal is largely conservative, geared as it is toward those uneducated proles not even sophisticated enough to form the mistaken impression that formal poetry is passé.

Not helping matters is the fact that many poetry magazines, editted by similar idiots who've been through the same inadequate educational system, often put in their submission guidelines "no formal poetry." By which of course they mean "no doggerel made up of rhymed couplets in roughly iambic septameter," with which such magazines are no doubt deluged. (Of course, they wouldn't be if they just pulled their listings from the Writer's Market like we suggest.) So, for young people just learning to write poetry and looking to these major magazines for guidance, they might be understandably put off should they like such devices as end-rhyme and a fixed number of feet per line. From this point of view, the New Formalist response almost makes some sense.

Except of course that formal verse never went away, and if one looks carefully, one will find that American poetry is filled with sonnets, odes, and various other fixed forms at every turn. Granted, most of it is terrible, but there are certain standouts, such as Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets or the more recent Jim and Dave Defeat The Masked Man. Formal verse isn't going anywhere, so the dim lights attempting to rescue it by writing it badly aren't really accomplishing what they think they are. Of course, those who don't bother to understand what they're doing before they set off to do it seldom do.