Friday, September 17, 2010

A poetry manifesto

I was reading some poetry by a respected poet recently and kept feeling 'This is terrible', 'so what?', 'this makes no sense', and 'And?"  I was going to write a scathing review, and then stopped.  I realised that my problem was, well, my problem: I have an implicit view of what poetry should be and what poets should be aiming to achieve, but others may not share that view.  I know they don't: they are happy with cryptic, fragmented, idiosyncratic statements that leave the reader to do the work of filling in the gaps.  They are happy, but I am not.

My manifesto for poetry is that it should:
  1. be expressed in natural language, not using exotic, obscure or archaic language for effect
  2. avoid oblique cultural references which may mean little or nothing to readers
  3. be expressed in conventional word order
  4. give the reader a clue what is happening and why this matters
  5. if rhymed, have true rhymes, and much better not rhymed than badly rhymed
  6. avoid unnecessary adjectives and adverbs
  7. not test the reader's patience
  8. avoid 'poetic' diction
Maybe I could start a movement - Poets against Poetry?


Richard Epstein said...

It occurs to me that Milton regularly violates 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8 (maybe 6, too, though "unnecessary" opens almost every instance to debate). It's easy to forget that there are fashions in verse, as clearly as in haute couture, that your rules would require us to reject much of Shakespeare, too, and that writers as diverse as Spenser and Johnson and Tennyson and Donne would have rejected the poems produced by your principles--and thought them prose. Were they wrong? Right? Or is this just an instance of autres temps, autres moeurs?

Martin Locock said...

For poets writing now, there is an enormous gulf between the language and vocabulary that they would use for everyday discourse and the specialised 'high' language of complex formal poetry. This language is adopted by few, and instead a sort of middle approach is used which does not reach the formal quality but borrows many of its effects from it. Given the choice, I would rather read banal but sincere commonplaces than insincere imitations that share the lineaments of great poetry but not its skill, art or ease. Or I think I would.

Richard Epstein said...

I'm not sure I agree. "Sincerity" is a dreadfully tricky yardstick w/which to measure verse. Is "Leda and the Swan" "sincere"? How about "Rape of the Lock"? Sincere or in-?

Martin Locock said...

I'd still say that there should be some authenticity of thought or emotion: or perhaps, poets are unwise to pursue inauthenticity until or unless they have developed the ability to portray authenticity. In Wilde's fairy tales, what moves us is the recognisable human emotions, not the lead heart and the dove.

Richard Epstein said...

Interesting you should put it that way. Lionel Trilling wrote an interesting book called "Sincerity and Authenticity" about the difference between the two.

Jessica said...

This really puts things into perspective. I feel that way about visual art sometimes; like, 'WTF is this? Why?' --- like poetry, it requires an expansive mind. Compassion. I need to practice it more often.

Thought you might want to check out my collaborative blog - Dysfunctional Beginnings - about growing up and beginnings of all kinds. Material includes literary writing, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photography, video, etc. We've survived it. Now let's attest to it.
Submissions go to:

Anonymous said...

Each art has many shades I suppose.