It would help to know what poetry isn’t before any declaration is made regarding exactly what poetry is, has been, and may become.
Poetry is not attitude, nor advertisement. It is not the approximation of a recognizably magical moment captured in one frieze of a combination of attitude, a mythical fancy, nor an established attitude limning on the page what is apparently or realistically poetical.
The first is a pose, dangerous in that it represents itself as poetry whereas the real poetry is of a whole, not an imitation, derived from abused elements that have established themselves as tools of the trade of the art of poetry.
That of course is where the attitude has greatly substituted for the art.
Real poetry will result from the poet gorging on the classics; assume the essence of such as its own, and through a passionate breath of love for the rhythm and the intellect in such art allow for the true voice of the poet to be discoverable. The resultant poetry may arise as much as a surprise to the poet as to the reader, otherwise there’d always be the possibility of intellect overwhelming the creation of art.
Poetry is of course an art. Something often dismissed by the fact that at this time and for a long while now it has been assumed as a cloaked attitude by the same ‘writers’ who once stuck to the creation of what were referred to as ‘nurse novels.’
The problem with stating that poetry is an art is that you will confront the stuck-up moralizing fragments of dusty academics who are as far from the reality of poetry as a coroner is from life. They will confront you with lies about poets who lived ordinary lives, were accountants, etc., without also noting that these people were the exceptions.
There will even be ‘poets’ who have somehow – through connections of those wanting to build a sense of personal power – been granted status academically, or in a literary life, unassociated with a realistic assessment of their work.
These will be the neighborhood articulates about whom you will hear other ordinaries commenting that likely they’re merely educated idiots.
This alone can result in a ‘beat poet’ moment where you want to tear off the suit and tie and run away to who knows what, catching the rhythmic notion of Mexico City Blues like Kerouac. And many have done so.
However that place of the Mexico City Blues, celebrated by such music poets as Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg, is not a destination (see ‘Ithaca’ by C.P. Cavafy), but a resultant melding of place and metaphor, from and to which the artist later known as Kerouac to the public arrived without a notion of such. His journey was honest.
The only way an attitude of taking the same journey – almost – can be honest is if the poet or writer is well aware of doing such a thing to contrive a similar sense of discovery, combined with the fact that if they will lose themselves in it what they will discover about it will be themselves, with far different results of the same ‘blues’ since time and its changes will have made it so.
Central to such a journey would be such a poet’s own passion and talent. Some will arise out of genuine being, some out of a mixture of authenticity, and artificiality or attitude.
Only the resultant work will prove what is true poetry, or not.
This is where the mythos of the poet, which can serve as a necessary impulse for the real poet, must be separated from the contemporary poetic attitude.
However, let’s not forget that poetry is ultimately about poetry, in a sense. First, it is about the life of the poet. It may be a rich life as Shelley briefly enjoyed, or a poor life as many minor and major poets have had since. Rich and poor financially, anyway. Poetry is untouched by such things, though the ease or impediment of producing poetry is heavily influenced.
Poetry is not what a contemporary and well known poet has said about producing poetry as a result of poetry. That may be the case for him in his portraitures, and stance as a poet. But his stating it to be so without making the effort of distinguishing how and why he says so is simply a lazy cynicism. And a self-justification for an awareness of a lack of greatness, and thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He writes as though poetry entered into existence and went out with both the beginning and end of his own work.
Poetry is an informed and learned enjoyment, an enlightenment, and a passion as discoverably brought into being by observation as it is a celebration of the most ordinary, the most different, and the forever unique where all boundaries of discipline and knowledge result in that art of poetry. I might label all of Jackson Pollock’s works as a statement of Poetry, to illustrate this.
This illustrates where poetry began, and how it continues.
With that open mouth of darkness closing in, that vision of beauty if nature, people, and a greater aspect of civilization.
And how it is learned – absorbed – through the passionate embrace of great poets’ works: more than willingly, since these are the real forbears and ancestors of the poet.
Poetry is freedom to create and recreate worlds, and the world.
It is the responsibility of the poet. Thus, the next question would be: what is the poet.
Poetry & How It Gets That Way – Poetry has been an essential art in history and is in danger of being trivialized into extinction.
Several seminal events in recent literary history are detailed in illustrating how poetry is not merely an adjunct to history and culture but can elucidate, influence and in changing perspective alter those same events and deeds.
Find out more in this treatise more sociologically descriptive than academically oriented.
The thing could barely stand. Yet taken
from his mother and the barn smells
he still impressed with his pride,
with the promise of sovereignity in the way
his head moved to take us in.
The fierce sunlight tugging the maize from the ground
liked at his shapely flanks.
He was too young for all that pride.
I thought of the deposed Richard II.
“No money in bull calves,” Freeman had said.
The visiting clergyman rubbed the nostrils
now snuffing pathetically at the windless day.
“A pity,” he sighed.
My gaze slipped off his hat toward the empty sky
that circled over the black knot of men,
over us and the calf waiting for the first blow.
the bull calf drew in his thin forelegs
as if gathering strength for a mad rush…
tottered…raised his darkening eyes to us,
and I saw we were at the far end
of his frightened look, growing smaller and smaller
till we were only the ponderous mallet
that flicked his bleeding ear
and pushed him over on his side, stiffly,
like a block of wood.
Below the hill’s crest
the river snuffled on the improvised beach.
We dug a deep pit and threw the dead calf into it.
It made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,
as the warm sides bulged and flattened.
Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,
one foreleg over the other,
bereft of pride and so beautiful now,
without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,
I turned away and wept.
The economy of language, the spirit of truth; sociology, philosophy: the distillation of experiences reflected, and altered, in one brief poem – that’s the magic of poetry, and a great poet.
Irving Layton is a poet everyone should read.
Irving Layton was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, twice. He was friend and mentor to Leonard Cohen. Looked up to by Allen Ginsberg, Williams Carlos Williams, Margaret Atwood, and many other fine and great writers for decades.
Disclosure: Irving was my friend for decades. He once said of my early writing, ” Dean is a combination of thought and torment that has made him write more than a baker’s dozen of fine poems.. he might produce a collection that could astound us all.”
alternatively, direct from – https://deanjbaker.wordpress.com/links-to-my-books-in-print//
Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac
with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
and changed nothing in the world
except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving
someone or something, the world shrunk
hand-size, and never seeming small.
I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ….
Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low
and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief
until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough
to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care
where it’s been, or what bitter road
to come so far, to taste so good.
© 1989 by Stephen Dunn
Stephen Dunn, “Sweetness” from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. Copyright © 1989 by Stephen Dunn.
A truly great poet – with any number of fine books to choose from.
Expansive puppets percolate self-unction
Beneath a portrait of the Prince of Wales.
Miss Crotchet’s muse has somehow failed to function,
Yet she’s a poetess. Beaming, she sails
From group to chattering group, with such a dear
Victorian saintliness, as is her fashion,
Greeting the other unknowns with a cheer—
Virgins of sixty who still write of passion.
The air is heavy with Canadian topics,
And Carman, Lampman, Roberts, Campbell, Scott,
Are measured for their faith and philanthropics,
Their zeal for God and King, their earnest thought.
The cakes are sweet, but sweeter is the feeling
That one is mixing with the literati;
It warms the old, and melts the most congealing.
Really, it is a most delightful party.
Shall we go round the mulberry bush, or shall
We gather at the river, or shall we
Appoint a Poet Laureate this fall,
Or shall we have another cup of tea?
O Canada, O Canada, O can
A day go by without new authors springing
To paint the native maple, and to plan
More ways to set the selfsame welkin ringing?
Frank Scott has many fine poems, but this one I think applies not only to Canadian authors…
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What are people talking about. Everywhere I go they whisper.
They stick their eyes at me, right at the base of the breastbone,
when I’m not looking.
The breastbone seems flat, pointed like a dagger to the top
of my stomach.
O, my stomach, my stomach… when the knife rips you open
it will find coffee and four strips of bacon, pieces of chewed
beard and a handwritten note saying I have left town forever
– excerpt from his brilliant work, Lies, 1972 and from A Long Continual Argument, The Selected Poems of John Newlove
John was a friend of mine – yet I had only said hello back him when I heard him read this live one time at York University. I’d been searching for the room in which the reading was to be held, and came around a corner to come face-to-face with him and Joe Rosenblatt.
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In the main photo you see these books by Henry Miller, sitting on a portion of my desk:
The Wisdom Of The Heart, The Books In My Life, Stand Still Like The Hummingbird, Remember To Remember
…books which summon everything he has had to say which resonate within all his works… though there is no substitute for reading all his major works.
And within the photo – top right – these books recommended by Miller in his book The Books In My Life off to the side of the other books on my desk
Visions and Revisions – John Cowper Powys
The Absolute Collective – Erich Gutkind
Krishnamurti and The Unity Of Man – Carlos Suares
The Dance Over Fire And Water – Elie Faure
The Maurizius Case – Jacob Wasserman
By the time I was 18, I’d played piano at the Royal Conservatory, been across Canada twice (once by myself), hitchhiked to Montreal from Toronto with …75 cents in my pocket, and slept on the ground in Mount Royal Park, rudely awakened and kicked out by cops on horses and was back, by hitchhiking, in Toronto within 24 hrs.
I’d seen The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis, etc etc.
I’d met Burton Cummings, been invited to a late night party with him to talk about meeting John Lennon.
I’d met Albert King, played his Gibson ‘Flying V’ guitar backstage, hung backstage with Paul Butterfield, and sat and yacked with John Hammond.
Been kicked out of high school permanently. Kicked out of the house.
Been to New York City. Gone to Miami and stayed there a few weeks, once again by myself. Witnessed the South as if civil rights had not taken place.
Played guitar, bass and piano in rock, soul, and blues bands. Seen dozens of blues and soul groups.
You still looking at your phone, or the internet, you free and independent person… You have to live it…
which brings me back to the great Henry Miller….born December 26, 1891, he struck out for a writer’s life with $10 in his pocket in 1930, leaving for Paris when he was 39.
Of course I was sneaking Miller’s works into my reading life the entire time. By the time I was able to afford even some paperback books of his I’d written more than I consciously conceived possible and experienced much the same lifestyle to a great degree.
There was no way I could imagine actually meeting the man.. but I did, briefly. He was in Toronto, accompanying Erica Jong. It was like meeting a brother you only suspected you had.
One of the things he did say, about poetry, after speaking of the great Greek poet George Seferis, was that poetry is it.
Hanging out with Lawrence Durrell in Pacific Palisades in California where he lived, whose great book The Alexandria Quartet is a brilliant recreation of life and times surrounding the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, in the year he died I was fortunate enough – and is it coincidence? – to be shown casual photographs of Miller and Durrell* enjoying every day life, writing, drinking, talking, etc. by a woman who’d just returned from California after living with them, along with letters between all of them.
Miller’s greatest affinity perhaps was with the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, of whom he wrote in The Time Of The Assassins where he’d might as well have been speaking of the Poet in society and as a personage doing his work despite the rough roads of family and convention. Vague traces of the words of R.W.Emerson, Otto Rank, and John Cowper Powys resonated throughout the entirely unique book.
Whatever these great writers wrote it is a feast, particularly Henry Miller. There is never enough appetite and passion to suffice.
Nothing ever became a static stultification measuring such emotions and trajectories by the accumulation of books, objects, and contemporary mores or status symbols of ‘right thinking.’
Want to be truly free, then read – particularly Henry Miller, the great poets, and live in worlds they only once imagined, then distilled, taking the well-spring of inspiration into themselves.
- in 1974, I was fortunate to have some poems published alongside Durrell’s work in a literary journal.
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