In another life, before blogs took over the world, for a couple of years Thor was the Writings Editor for an expatriate community website in South Korea. He therefore saw a lot of awful writing, and some that was pretty good. By any measure, the reams of very self-absorbed verse were the hardest to be kind about … so this is the story of pitilessly stamping on the face of a nice young Irishman.
One of the perks being an editor, however humble, is that you can pretend to play God. Of course, it’s tough if no one comes to the temple, but if a stray does wander into your compound from time to time you have a licence to dispense advice from on high. Some time ago one of these mendicants not only came to the gates of Pusanweb, but *asked* for a critique. We watched as he carefully unwrapped his little bundle from a scarlet kerchief, and spread it out on the dirt floor before our altar. It was given with a good heart, we could see. But we sighed. That sigh of a god who is sick to death of gifts of chicken feathers, and milk, and honey. Should we tell him? Damn it all man, we want GOLD ……
I have your latest poem. I will publish it if you insist (heck, we publish almost anything :0). You asked for constructive criticism. O’rright. One of the nice things about Irish culture (as opposed to, say Korean culture) is that you can put it in someone’s face and still talk to them later.
Like you I can’t help writing poetry, and the sort of stuff you are doing gives me echoes of my own misspent youth (not that I’ve graduated to any finer plane). One thing I have learned is that most of the millions of unread poems in the world deserve their lousy reputation. They were desperately significant for the people who wrote them, but nobody else is interested. There is a whole category of Internet money scams trading on the vulnerability of these poor critters with fake ‘poetry competitions’.
Why is this stuff junk? 1) one because most of the poems are utterly self-absorbed; 2) the verse fraudulently trades in abstract concepts and the code words of ‘universal truths’ while the sub-text screams ME ME ME..
Now for a moment let’s get a bit abstract and boring (like we say poetry shouldn’t be)…
Most great poetry (..and great art generally) has something specific to say about a real tree, or a real man, or a real dog in a real place. Its power is in vibrantly evoking that situation in living sounds and colours and smells. Insight comes from emotion, and emotion comes from sensation. It is no good talking about the emotion and expecting readers to assume the sensation.
Emotion of a certain kind can also come from the ‘aha’ sensation of cogent logical argument which clicks, but that is not normally the territory of poetry.
Any universal truths and epiphanies which poetry readers arrive at will emerge from their *own* evoked emotions, not from the emotions that you tell them they should have.
If you can trick people into simulating some mix of sensations, and those sensations lead to emotion, then insight, well they will think you wonderfully clever. If you talk about ‘passion’s price’ and ‘sex’s greed’ or some vaguely biblical reference to ‘milk and honey’, then they’ll think you a crashing bore…
Yeah but, you say, if I put my broken soul in plastic wrap, stuff it back in the freezer, what’s there left to talk about with passion? Well, there are your toe nails, your butt and your crooked nose … but probably more interesting to everyone except you, there’s the tic on the face of that lady selling tteokbokgi on the corner.
You still want to be profound? OK, but this is heavy pudding. Take small bites. Cartoonists probably have a lot to teach wannabe poets. Your average syndicated cartoon, the Peanuts and the Blondies, do not give sermons. They scoop out tiny, wry snippets of sharp observation, and attach them to simple, memorable characters with a smile. My guess is that they have done more to educate, amuse and civilize the unwashed masses than all the turgid verse ever written.
S: ..Thor, you surprise me!
Surely you can’t believe that quantity supersedes quality in this great big game of words. Was Eliot aware of what was to become of his Wasteland? Was Joyce of his Ulysses? Of course I am, thankfully, not stupid enough to believe that what falls from my pen is stardust, rather that the occasional hint of supernova light is sometimes thrown my way when I least expect it, albeit always wanting it!
Yes, I know that one has to go through the wars with one’s own work in order to come out the other end smelling of Sonnets, but inspiration can come from anywhere at any moment, and when it does, well whose to say that we are not all Eliots, Pounds, Baudelaires………..all the big guns!
TM : … Obviously quantity is no substitute for quality if you want to turn up on undergraduate reading lists in brand name universities; (not so obvious if you want to turn up in airport bookstalls and become rich). That wasn’t my original point. My point was that your brain and your character are still works in progress (one hopes). By age 5 you had mastered the main syntactic structures of English speech, but probably didn’t manage the passive comfortably until 9 or even 12. By 17, if you were above average you were able to read something like Newsweek or Time; (the tabloid I worked for long ago asked us to write for the masses with a reading age of 11 years).
Writing is something else again. You learn to talk pretty young because you do a lot of it, and on the whole your audience is not critical. They just want to know if you’re asking for the bread or the soup spoon. With writing, the first trick is to put a message on paper using traffic signals that your readers can understand without all the backups of body language and context available in speech. If it’s an SMS dinner date message, the demands are pretty low because you are hardly beyond a verbal request. If it is an overtime notice, you have to follow some rules of etiquette, but it’s still pretty simple, and this is about the literacy limit of your average, so-called management level executive
When you get into “literature” there is an extra dimension which distracts and leads most wannabes astray forever. This is the game, or the art, of being “clever” with words. Being clever with words actually means banging the symbols up against each other and listening to see if you like the echo. Without doubt there is a skill in this, and without that skill you can never play the literature game.
However, the symbols you are clanging around in your head for nice effects are just that : symbols. Each one of them is a coalescence of your life experience, and is only shared to the extent that other people have a similar life experience. You mother is different from everyone else’s mother. Then you must peg your symbols out on the clothes line of syntax. You hope that not only will the peg-line hold for other folk in this clever literary creation, but that they will sense all kinds of other, transparent spider webs. Webs which were woven between the symbols in some witching hour. You know the spider webs are in your brain, and if you haven’t played this game for long, you’ll be so charmed by the morning dew hanging on you own gossamer that you won’t stop to ask …. ask hey ! What do I really know about those symbol shapes in other people’s heads? And which other heads precisely am I thinking about? And what kinds of spider webs do THEY allow to grow between their symbol collections?
Yeah, so you say marketing wasn’t in your literature syllabus, and you don’t want to sell Mills & Boone anyway. Well the news is that literature is not made in heaven, and has no ‘perfect form’ (at least, I don’t think so : never was impressed with Plato). Literature is the delicate business of sending complex messages to other brains, each of which has evolved uniquely with its own symbol sets and traffic rules. As you write a lot of literature and beam it out, you gradually become less awestruck by your own cleverness, and more intrigued by the problem of striking echoes in those other strange brains.
Thor May has a doctorate in language teaching productivity, an entirely useless decoration acquired too late to salvage even the pretense of a respectable career. One of the few things he learned in a misspent youth was that poets were even less likely to earn a living wage than the teacher he eventually became. However, the poetry writing habit, which for most wannabes subsides with their raging hormones as they sink into cardigans, bad teeth and middle age, persists as a secret addiction for the few. The secret part comes from a poet’s realizing just how gauche their own attempts at verse have been and remain. The addiction, well some people become resigned to a spreading waistline, but for that little band of crypto poets, they just wriggle their toes and indulge the pleasure found from playing with language. They are harmless, except when accidentally hired as editors.