This was deemed wisdom of yore, to distinguish the public from private weal; things sacred from things profane; to prohibit a promiscuous commerce between the sexes; to give laws to married people; to plan out cities; to engrave laws on [tables of] wood. Thus honor accrued to divine poets, and their songs.
To continue on our romp through the maddening alien landscape that is poetry, we will address what one might do if one wanted to restore poetry, rather than destroy it. Now let us be clear: this is by no means an endorsement of poetry, if anything, this ought to let you know what to watch out for.
A confusion arises for us, because in all of the fine arts it would seem that the strength of the art is in the combination of the genius of certain artists combined with willingness to finance their work and a fair enough slice of the public able to appreciate them. To this end, most people trying to ‘restore the arts’ do any of three things: 1. try to search out and promote young notables, 2. try to secure funds for artists, 3. try to raise awareness about art (works or mediums) that they like.
This is completely backwards. To see why this is, simply apply these tactics to something like Baseball. If baseball, the great and venerable, is somehow waning, do we increase talent searches for possible talents for the minor and major leagues, try to find more big-name sponsors, and get money for campaigns to make baseball cool or sexy? No. Obviously what you do is try to get more local ball clubs and support children taking up baseball recreationally, since you know that all three desired outcomes: (1. geniuses, 2. funds, 3. appreciation) are rooted in a common practice of kids screwing around with baseball equipment and people playing games for fun. This immediately creates the two major possibilities: the geniuses (they will show themselves only by playing) and the appreciation – knowing the game and enjoying playing it helps enjoying watching it. And those who appreciate it are more likely to fund it as well. Let funding campaigns limit themselves to particular ballclubs.
In fact, probably most of what is done to promote the arts these days is a surefire way to destroy them; so take note, anti-poets, the following program!
1. lots of searches for a new poet genius,
2. demands of general funds for poetry classes, public readings and museum exhibitions,
3. devote time to ‘awareness’ campaigns of all kinds. The more ‘relevant & sexy’ the better!
People are already at work at this — you need only pick up their slack!
If you think I am joking, consider the following, closer to home. Why is music so varied and popular in America? Why is music so essential to Western culture? It is the ubiquity of amateur music playing. In pre-multi-cultural America, it was an ideal to have a piano in every home. In my elementary school it was assumed every child would take up an instrument and play in the band, orchestra or something else (chorus was okay, too.) In a society where everyone has done some music, access to instruments is easy (even though it may not be inexpensive) and ‘consciousness’ of music is innate; reflexive. Most players will never be great, but they never expected that, they just understood they were expected to diddle around with music like everyone else does, and maybe they’ll prove themselves to be a prodigy (or just hack away it like the rest of us). To cut these programs that get average students to diddle around with music would be to cut the lifeline of our music culture. The state of popular music is another topic.
To this end, countless (okay, you can probably count them–) music training programs have been made. I still have the books from my mother’s piano training course (circa 1950) and they’re quite good. I even have some ancient Etude magazines that have some very good studies in them (after all, Etude means study.)
But herein we run into a problem. There is a difference between playing instruments and making art or writing poetry. And this probably why we have been more successful with music and less with the other two; while the entry level aspect of music (instrument playing) flows easily into the advanced (composition.) In poetry and art, merely copying another’s work is called plagiarism, whereas in music it is called ‘performance’. So to go from appreciation (listening, reading, viewing) to composition in the latter two is a negatively incentivized space, whereas with music, it is positive.
To further make clear this point, performance of music is rarely rote recitation; the tradition of improvisation – that is, on-the-fly alteration of the work during performance – did not emerge with Jazz. Jazz merely emphasizes it and taps into it constructively. This is to say that in music, merely reciting the work is not actually performing it. One is expected to interpret, and in some cases, re-arrange the work to suit the mood, audience, or purpose.
If we do a study of actual artists, we will find, if we have access to a broader set of their works, that this ‘plagiarism’ is not an exception, but the general rule. Since the reading-aloud (performance) of other people’s poetry is so uncommon – even in the less-music more-poetry genre called ‘rap’ (or if you wish, hip-hop), poets are in a situation of pretty much having to ‘write their own’ with having only really read other works. Imagine if you were expected to compose your own music after just listening to someone else’s music! The experienced musician would say, “Well, you need to play other people’s music to practice techniques and understand musical ideas.” Certainly in the days of the Attic Greeks, plays were a form in which poetry was performed, and no doubt this helped connect the appreciation to the composition more rigorously.
This doesn’t mean that the great artists you love are plagiarists. First of all, the great works we know are generally the works they made when they had developed their own style and chose their own subjects. Usually in these works we see an expression of that person’s unique style, which is usually a unique recombination of ‘natural’ art and other artists’ work. Natural art would mean things like cloud formations, the shape of erosion in rocks, the forms of tree trunks, the patterns of coats of animals and the motion and gesture of their bodies, and so forth. The other part, which we call ‘genre’ is the clade of the artist’s work. This clade includes artists with a similar root or set of roots, different elements of their style owing to another artist’s style. We call the clade a genre usually, but genre is really just a form of cladistics, ‘from whence sprung forth this work?’ The works in the genre inspired the works in question.
If we could see that an artist had done, we would likely find that they had copied or borrowed (as a musician spends time practicing or playing) from works of their favorite artists. Some are exceptional and just emerge fully formed; but even those you can see evidence of visual influences similar to other artists in their time and place. Even if they don’t consciously choose their influences, they exist. They belong to a clade even if they don’t belong to a defined ‘genre’.
The point is that the final style is amalgamated – and some styles are ‘styles of styles’ (the ‘wildcard’) – but they are all themselves a composition that the artist creates while observing, performing and composing. But the artist must have materials available with which to work, both the tools and base materials (paint, words, musical instruments) and the inspiring things for them to perform, borrow from, and eventually digest and sublimate. Without this, they can by no means form themselves. There’s no ‘minor league’ or local poetry club without an ability to more or less freely crib other people’s works in some ‘performance’ and ‘borrowing’ fashion.
Thus obviously if you wished to destroy poetry or any other art, the best thing to do would be to focus overmuch on originality, which would discourage artists from copying or borrowing from existing works and thus attenuate the formation of their styles. This would be far more effective than trying to force uniformity by having everyone copy and emulate the same people, as at least in the latter case they would at least have some basis from which to form a style of their own, even if the materials would be highly limited.
Now having outlined a theory of doing art in a human society, we can address the issue of how one might begin to ‘do’ poetry. Since we are operating on the theory that grassroots poetry creation is the fundamental engine of poetry in a society, we can deal with the singleton: the person who in this hypothetical society is expected to learn some basic poetry composition. How would they do it?
When we look at music training books, (ones that aren’t terrible) we note what I call the wedding rule. “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” It’s very memorable (as it is of course, a verse–) and it also contains a useful formula if you know how to unpack it.
In these music programs you tend to have simpler old works (like Bach’s Minuet in G, as an example), new works designed to teach a particular thing like fingering, scales, use of black keys, reading higher/lower octaves, etc. But you also have two other elements that are important and often overlooked. The first is the ‘borrowed’ – works that adapt or crib aspects (styles, etc) of other works. The second is strange, right, a color? But blue is just a rhyming stand-in for the principle of color. The good program is not ‘colorless’ – i.e. neutral. It has a particular flavor or style to it overall that makes it, despite its varigate parts, a whole. In fighting arts these might be called ‘attitudes’ or approaches, and in music this is often things like the way the progression of techniques is handled, the underlying theory (like the Suzuki method for instance) – this is the ‘color’, our blue.
Autodidacts are common in American society, but this is partly because they can take advantage of many partial programs and informational works on different subjects to teach themselves. Our hypothetical poem-performer would seek out some instruction probably from somewhere – (such courses probably exist already, comrade!) But let’s say he’s a pioneer and wants to develop his own course of study? Let us present the course as a framework, since a framework lets you build what you need where you need it with minimal fuss and useful direction.
1. He would find an old poet that he liked and read their works extensively. He would determine the book and poems that were his favorite and learn to perform them. He would memorize some. He would determine which ones he didn’t like and why that was. This poet will be deceased and from a different century.
2. He would find a contemporary poet who is not too intimidating and follow their work, trying to observe how that poet goes about their work and what vices / virtues they possess. He would memorize and perform some of them, if they were fit for performance (a lot of modern poetry is less fit for performance. It is designed to be printed and read silently.)
3. He would begin to write poems in both styles (the antique and the contemporary) trying to follow the rules as best as he could. He might start by merely copying images these poets used and fooling around with them, or commenting on them in verse. He would do this non-publicly (or he would not publicize his work.) Fundamentally, he would experiment. He would have no qualms about the insufficiency of his work.
4. He would adopt an attitude – a preferred style or process – to poetry. At first this might just be an affect, and since he is just writing the poems for himself and perhaps a few others, if he was being a ‘poseur’ it wouldn’t matter. The idea would be to absorb tacit understanding about poetry through adopting an attitude and operating from that attitude.
Now, it seems like this process could erupt at any time, giving forth veritable fountains of potentially decent poetry. A disaster certainly! Now, while you cannot stop people from scribbling, you can make the process of this turning into formidable poetic work impossible:
1. Ensure that old poets are always deconstructed or misinterpreted (anachronistically) and their styles always viewed as passe and boring.
2. Encourage people to faun over any notable poet that is known of, to ensure these poets get inflated senses of self and seem unapproachable. Encourage them to value originality over craft; talent over skill, politics over beauty and relevance over vision.
3. Fiercely defend the culture of copyright even where literal copyrights don’t exist: originality is paramount and the only driver of innovation and progress. Intellectual property theft is ignominious. You may look, but do not touch.
4. Encourage a love of authenticity in people and a hatred for affectation such that people will feel bad about adopting someone else’s style to gain understanding of it and be able to make use of it. Authenticity is only to be found in truly becoming that thing; everything else is appropriation!
When one initially approaches the work of poetry, the first thing one will notice is the problem of length. What is the right length for a poem? Some types indicate a length (haiku, sonnet) but others only presuppose a style or meter. To this end, there are essentially three divisions of poetry. To understand this well is to help restrain one of the biggest plagues of grassroots poetry: effluvia.
Length of work is an essential discipline; limiting your output is more important than writing pages and pages. For some this may not be a problem, but one of the biggest hurdles to getting feedback (even from one other person!) on poetry is length. Two pages of verse are hard to process and understand, much more for a person unschooled in poetry.
To this end, there are three fundamental categories of poetry, which you may find recognized as early as Aristotle.
While there is no strict length requirements for these types, they generally are in increasing order of length, lyric being the shortest and epic the longest.
In fact, the general case is that dramatic contains lyric and epic, dramatic. The scale or size transforms aspects of the work because some parts (like rhymes and consonation) remain the same size and simply multiply in number, while other things (such as subject) grow in size with the work. Pacing changes.
An example of this difference is that in a lyric work, one might personify principles as clouds to make them seem insubstantial. However, in Aristophenes’ satirical work ‘the Clouds’ (a dramatic-comedic work) the ‘clouds’ are literal voices in the drama (the Chorus in this case) who are personifying Aristophenes’ doubts about Socrates’ understanding of the underlying principles of the world. In an epic work they would have to take on yet another form.
Both dramatic and epic forms require the mastery of poetic techniques, which are most easily learned writing short lyric works. The reason for this is that there are not merely techniques for ‘poetry’ as though it was some continuous substance of rhythm or rhyme, but there are techniques for beginnings and endings as well, and short works most easily accommodate understanding these parts since they force you to address them more commonly. They also take less time to compose AND limit emoting. (You will not need assistance in emoting most likely, but rather help in controlling it.) Furthermore, shorter works allow you to feel the effect of different styles and constructions more easily, since you get to work with a wider variety of them if you so choose.
Additionally, dramatic and epic poetry are harder to read and thus harder to get good feedback on. Dramatic and epic poetry are really more at home in a situation of being read aloud; but to do so takes more work.
There is some disagreement to the ultimate gestalt of these three terms, but I treat lyric as ‘being as a song’, dramatic as ‘being as a conflict’ and epic as ‘being as an history’. Dramatic seems like it would be the easiest to write since conflict is inherently interesting, but the world is rife with sloppy dramas. If you want to write them early on, there are some hacks, but they involve shortening the form so as to accommodate a lyric size. Tiny epics are also possible, though you will have to constrain yourself to archetypes because of space limitations.
It is important to note that blurring the line between these forms or denying them entirely (as well as encouraging poets to emote) is an excellent way to create worse poetry. And if worse poetry is made, all the more it will help to ruin the reputation of poetry itself. Be careful however, as combination of forms (lyric+epic, etc) is not the same as blurring the lines between the forms! You must make it seem like either the forms are themselves merely social constructs and therefore, probably hegemonic, patriarchical (or some other negative) which will make poets want to break free of them, or make them indistinct by explaining them in terms of one another and then sophistically treating the metaphors as definitional. The poets will be forced to ignore these forms, since they will be more confusing than helpful.
Of course, these forms are essential, and poets can no wise go without them. So to deny them this knowledge doesn’t free them from these forms, but rather leaves them seeking them. as it were, in a dark wood.
If you want to know some works to read ABOUT the writing of poetry, which are timeless and also may help change your way of thinking about poetry entirely, a kind of ‘poetic red pill’ (to borrow an overused metaphor) I can recommend two ancient works to start with.
These works have the benefit of being entirely alien to our society and yet revealing on common and central points of the art. Note that music, storytelling, drama and poetry are grouped together by both of these authors.
As I go forward, I will expect some familiarity with these works, and if others be added, I will note them.