Answering Jonathan Mayhew

Jonathan over at Bemsha Swing posted a set of questions related to poetics, aimed at poets, I assume, a few days ago. Although I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer these questions, I’m taking a stab at them. By the way, in case you didn’t know, Bemsha Swing is the name of a composition by Thelonius Monk. In Monk’s typical style, it is four minutes and twenty seven seconds of iconoclastic wit and playful rhythm that hides a genius big enough to rewrite the entire face of jazz, both when it first was written and performed, and probably even now.

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range? What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

My sense of poetic tradition stretches back, let’s say, to Amergin. Or Beowulf. In the same sense that as a musician, when I record or write a piece of music, I realize that it can (and probably will) be compared to every piece ever written, and that the music consumer has the option to buy my album, or Madonna, or Sir Georg Solti conducting Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Gregorian chants, Limp Bizkit, Public Enemy, etc. In other words, my poetic tradition is one of transmission — and that transmission requires a receiver. Fact is, the receiver has a myriad of choices from Chaucer to Gunn, for example, when wanting to read poetry. Certainly, language defines my tradition, in that I write in English and am not fluent in any other language. My perceptions of poetry not originally in English are limited by their translators and translations. As far as aesthetic posture, I feel I am more or less of the Celtic Bardic tradition. My poetry is supposed work, when it works, at multiple levels. Spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, rhythmically, sonically, politically, universally, and personally. I think the aspect of my “poetic idiolect” that distinguishes it from my poetic collaborators is my emphasis, whether in non-metered or metered speech, on the way the poem sounds when you read it. An oral emphasis, with a basis in recitation and communication of an idea, mood, story or image on at least one of the previously identified levels.

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alonside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above? Does poetry of the “past” (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

The kind of poets that work in the tradition I have defined above are very rarely “published”. To me, if I am true to my tradition in the strictest sense, poetry that is not directly shared is like religion, in that it describes a spiritual path that has ended. The kind of poets who slog along with me in this kind of tradition are not typically well-known outside their small circle of influence. They write poems for a specific purpose, for specific people, for specific occasions. To inspire, instruct, entertain. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to be published on a much grander scale, and have a resulting larger influence. But that would mean a lot more work for me, in that the poems I would then be required to write would have to involve the issues of a lot more people.

Regarding poetry of the past, I’m not sure whether I don’t understand the question, or whether it has no meaning to me. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is one of the few direct means by which culture is transmitted from generation to generation, across time — and time does not start or stop. I don’t consider William Carlos Williams to be a more modern poet than William Shakespeare. Both writers reflected, more or less, the aesthetic nature of their times. However, there is a difference between having your writing reflect your times, and having your writing wallow in those times. Just because education is poor in America right now, and that language skills are on the decline, and that less than 10% of Americans read on a daily basis, doesn’t mean that your poetry should be directed at only the majority, and therefore potentially the lowest common denominator. You write for your peers, to a large degree, and depending on who your peers are, that may embrace or reject some or all of either the past, present or future.

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

The poets that I most admire are probably, in no particular order, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, e e cummings, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. I don’t think I misunderstand any of them in any substantial respect; of course, they each being dead makes direct communication more difficult, and there is nothing more of a hinderance to understanding of a poet than a critical or academic appraisal without the benefit of participation from the subject being criticized or taught. I always have felt that I should admire Ezra Pound, but have found it difficult to do so through his work directly. I am more inspired by his work through others.

4. Are we over-invested in poetic “hero worship”? Is it necessary to have a poetic “pantheon”? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic “canon”? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

Poets are worshipped? In this day and age? By whom, except by critics and other poets? Don’t make me laugh. There are NOT, to my knowledge, any schoolchildren learning elocution by reciting poetry anymore. Kings no longer take a lower seat when compared to a Bard. Certainly, I think the cult of celebrity that so preoccupies American culture has to some degree affected, or infected, literature in general and poetry in specific. The canonization of Sylvia Plath by scores of angst-filled, proto-feminist teenage girls is one example; the worship of Jim Morrison by would-be hedonist, testosterone-driven, deliberately misunderstood, suburban teenage boys is another. An academic canon is another story altogether. Let’s face it. The poets you read in a classroom are selected because the instructor feels they are important. Bottom line. If you get an instructor that gets it, whatever you think it is, those poets speak to you, your caste, class, aspirations, politics and aesthetics. If not, you end up hating both the teacher and their canon.

I do think it is important to have a personal poetic pantheon, if only to ask yourself the question, “How would X have said this?” and act accordingly (either by imitation or avoidance).

5. Is “total absorption in poetry” benign? How about “poetry as a way of life”?

I’m not sure what this question means. However, I would tend to argue that living your “way of life as poetry” is more benign than living poetry as a way of life. This boils down to one’s own philosophical basis for living. Is there a separation between magic and mundane? Are they connected in any way at all? Is there really a mundane, or is everything magical? Is there really magic, or is everything mundane? How you answer these questions determines whether or not you are totally absorbed in ANYTHING, let alone poetry. I don’t think you CAN be totally absorbed in poetry unless you are immersed, absorbed, drenched, and absolutely soaked in Life. Is that benign? Not to the myriad of corporate and fundamentalist line-drawers who want to avoid, fear, conquer and/or eliminate anything outside their safe, predictable boxes.

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger “literature,” or is poetry itself the more capacious categtory?

Both. But that may be a trick answer.

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non? Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

Humor, irony and wit depend entirely upon a shared perception between the writer and the audience. For example, a poem about a black man putting on a hood and attending a KKK meeting would probably not be ironic to KKK members reading the poem. So much of humor and wit in our modern culture is based on putting others down to make ourselves feel better. In poetry, once the immediacy of an audience that is on the same wavelength as the writer has dissipated, oftentimes that humor loses its meaning. Humor can be both a shield of protection, and the sword that pierces that insulating armor. Quite often, those whose business it is to write, teach and critique poetry take themselves far too seriously, as if, in contrast to the facts, poetry was an integral part of today’s world. Often, the puncturing rapier of a witty rejoinder is enough to “wake up the sleeping consciousness” of another person, a neighborhood, a political party, a nation, a race. Sadly, exchanging humorous barbs with another individual who doesn’t see the value of laughing at one’s self can often result in anger, violence, bloodshed and war.

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?

Personally, I find that each poem is an end in and of itself. Larger “poetic projects” for me come about as a result of finding commonalities between individual poems and recognizing that they provide different perspectives on a shared goal. It might be different if I were writing a specific “set” of poems with the definite goal of publishing them as a book. But I’m not so sure.

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

Maybe John Cage, in Thirteen Words: I have nothing to say and I am saying it; that is poetry. Or, and I can’t remember the exact source, but I think it was in reference to Wallace Stevens, “Every great poet has had a day job.”

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry? What other question would you add to this list?

I think the only question I might add is “How important is personal contact, or friendship, with other poetic peers to your ability to persist as a poet?”

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