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Discussion in 'Essays' started by ChrisA, Dec 5, 2006.



  1. ChrisA Guest

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    Poetic Evolution

    Poetic Evolution



    Generally speaking, I do not have a method of writing poetry, nor do I have a conception of what my poems should look like. Therefore I am still in the experimental phase of writing, “before finding my voice,” and one of the benefits of this phase is that I do not feel the constraints of a particular style or convention. The disadvantage, however, is that my poetry is largely “hit or miss”.

    For example, of the two poems I sent out to my website mailing-list this month, most of my readers favored “My Philosophical Father” over “The View of Millennium Park”. The former poem is written according to the conventions of contemporary American poetry, that is, plain, idiomatic English (conversational though not colloquial). The second poem is written according to my own conventions (“whatever I feel like at the time”). Why is the former more successful than the latter?

    When I was writing the second poem (“The View”), I thought I was writing in a unique, creative language. But after hearing my readers’ responses, I find that I did not achieve my goal. My goal in writing poetry is always the same: to communicate effectively to my readers: to convey my feelings and/or my impressions. Most likely I do not achieve my goal in the second poem because I describe Millennium Park in Chicago in a sort of personal, abstract language.

    Thus far, in my study of poetry (which has been roughly one year), I have come across two general tiers of excellent and effective poetry. The first tier is higher than the second only because it achieves a poetic language that is more beautiful and more complex. These categories are entirely of my own devising and obviously reflect my individual subjective-aesthetic judgment.

    I discovered the second tier after reading a large number of contemporary poets. Among these poets, many have won the Pulitzer Prize and/or National Book Award. They have been Poet Laureates and Guggenheim Fellows. In short, these poets reflect the milieu of contemporary American poetry. A handful of these poets include, Mark Strand, Stephen Dunn, Gerald Stern, Mark Doty, Louis Gluck and Mary Oliver. These poets conform to a modern convention of poetry that is a plain, idiomatic style of writing which does not elevate the subject matter as in Romanticism, but instead ironically subverts the subject-matter (see note1).

    Already, as I am making these broad generalizations, I see some discrepancies among the poets I have chosen to represent this contemporary convention of the “plain idiomatic”. It could be argued that, for example, Mark Doty elevates his subject-matter by his rich descriptive language or that Louis Gluck elevates her subject-matter which is almost always her “spiritual self”. However, in general, even these poets (Gluck and Doty) conform to a sort of conversational language. My poem, “My Philosophical Father,” is an imitation of this contemporary style—straightforward, anecdotal, and ironic.

    Poets on the first tier represent, to me, a “higher evolution of poetic style”. Comparing Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson’s poetry to any of the poets I have mentioned in the second tier, we find that the poetic language of the first tier is, at once, more beautiful and more complex. I understand that these are very general terms, “more beautiful” and “more complex,” however the poetic language of the first tier is just that.

    Northrope Frye, the great Canadian literary critic, makes the distinction between the first and the second tier of excellence in classical music (see note two). To the second tier, he ascribes Schumann or Tchaikovsky, to the first tier, he ascribes Bach and Mozart. Frye writes, “At the same time there is a sense of listening to the voice of music itself. This, we feel, is the kind of thing music is all about, the kind of thing it exists to say. The work we hear now is coming to us from within its context, which is the totality of musical experience; and the authority of that total context reinforces the individual authority of the composer.”

    The beauty of the first tier, then, carries an element of objective beauty, because, according to Frye, “a certain impersonal element enters.” This, I argue, is because the poet or composer has achieved a trans-rational language of artistic expression (see note 2). The trans-rational language, which I will define in a moment, communicates to the reader a sense of strangeness. The language springs from the unconscious and has a sudden, spontaneous quality, which also makes the poem sound “effortless”, “natural”, or “archetypal”.

    “Trans-rational” means beyond-rational. Trans-rational poetry is able to communicate to the reader both on and above the rational level because it encompasses the rational level of understanding, but also transcends or surpasses that level. For example, when we read an Emily Dickinson poem, we cannot say exactly what the poem means; but somehow, we understand it and are moved by it. Therefore, the poem includes the rational level, but also moves beyond it, as if pointing to a higher form of consciousness or creative-vision.

    Traditionally, poetry has been associated with emotions and sentiment. This conception reached its epitome during the age of Romanticism, when poets rebelled against the idea of “man” as solely a “rational animal”. In an attempt to recover man’s lost interiority, the Romantics over-emphasized the sensual and emotional domains. And their poetic conventions reflected these beliefs.

    But now we are living in a post-Romantic era. Many of the poets to come after the Romantics have tried to find a modern language or “voice” that does not isolate the rational or emotional spheres, but that integrates the two. The result is sometimes a very difficult language to understand, i.e. T.S. Elliot, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound. I do not claim to understand these poets and I’m nowhere near the ability to imitate their styles. But this poetry, more specifically the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, is what I refer to as “trans-rational poetic language”.

    Beginning or amateur poets, namely myself, often fall into a number of poetry-writing traps. This is perhaps the reason why I am writing this essay, that is, to identify one trap in particular for myself and others. Many of us beginning poets have read these other great-sounding “first-tier” poets and we see that their language, on the surface, does not make complete sense. So we think that we can write in our own sort of abstract, creative language and still somehow communicate to our readers as they do.

    The difference is that, in attempting to write in our own creative language, we are choosing a non-rational poetic language instead of a trans-rational one. Instead of differentiating objects in our poems, which a higher, more complex trans-rational language is able to accomplish, we beginning poets dissociate objects (see note 4). And the experience for our readers is one of alienation. With my poem, “The View of Millennium Park,” for example, readers may not have been able to adequately understand or connect to it because of the smudge of dissociation apparent in the lines. Again, I dissociated (images, objects, ideas), rather than differentiating them.

    In addition, I think an important distinction can be made from Horace’s quote, “Master the stuff, the words will freely follow.” It seems to me that effective poems are written when the poet has something in mind, either an idea or unifying image. If that idea or unifying image is not premeditated, at least it should be meditated upon while the poet is writing. The effective poem brings forth a world beneath the surface of language. This contrasts with the ineffective poem which begins on the surface of language, and, almost always, remains on the surface of language. In my view, a poem should begin in the reader’s heart or mind and bloom or blossom outward enveloping their entire person, body, mind and spirit.

    Like any other discipline, if one truly wishes to achieve a higher level of mastery, she must pass through all the stages of development. Except for prodigies, there are no short-cuts. Even genius must practice to become genius. While I would like to write in the trans-rational mode, that elliptical, esoteric language, I also know that I cannot even begin to write like Emily Dickinson or W.H. Auden until I learn how to write like Gerald Stern or Mark Strand. I must be able to produce the plain, idiomatic English of crystal-clear poems, before I can capture the higher, more complex nuances of poetic possibility.



    CRA

    12/4/2006



    Note 1: “The Anglo-American poetic tradition in this century, however, has been essentially post-Romantic, an ironic subversion of many of the large, emotional, philosophical, and rhetorical notes and gestures of the Romantics.”

    Eamon Grennan, “Translator’s Introduction,” Leopardi: Selected Poems.



    Note 2: Northrope Frye, The Great Code, pg. 216-217



    Note 3: “For a prerational Nature can be seen with the eye of flesh and rational Mind can be seen with the eye of reason, but transrational Spirit can be seen only with the eye of contemplation, and contemplation is definitely not feelings plus thoughts: it is the absence of both in formless intuition, which, being formless can easily integrate the forms of Nature and of Mind, something that either or both together could never do for themselves (p.109).”

    Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul



    Note 4: These concepts (differentiation and dissociation) are taken from Ken Wilber’s Marriage.


    Posted By ChrisA | Dec 5, 2006
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  2. Artistic

    PaintedDiary JPiC Mentor

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    Dear ChrisA,

    Very interesting and intriguing essay. Lends itself to many concepts to ponder. I am not sure if it is concrete, because to me, and only in my opinion, I believe audiences can change. What some readers may not understand, may read as a classic to another. I completely understand about wanting to improve, evlove, spread one's lyrical wings, reach new horizon's and etc. But like everything, some will like, and some will dislike, so I am not so sure to put strict catagories on poetic language. Now this essay you have presented was well executed, and written beautifully I might add. I believe learning, and evolving in one's craft to master, may take many turns, and meander like the strongest of waters. Where the waters lead to will satisfy the thirst of some, and others will wait for another drink. Great write, and please continue to share these awesome essays. Take Care.

    {{~~**Kim**~~}}
  3. ChrisA Guest

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    Thank you

    Painted Diary,

    Thank you for your comments on the essay. My goal in writing this essay reminds me of what a teacher once told me, "My goal is not to get my students to think like me but just to think." If I accomplish this alone, then I will be satisfied. Poetry is the most subjective art, and you are totally right when you speak about audience and its many possible positions of interpretation. In fact, many of the things that I wrote in this essay, I'm not even sure I believe anymore. How our ideas shift from day to day! For example, now I believe that the goal of my poetry is not so much to express myself as it is to "create an effect for my readers." Perhaps this too will change, as i see things differently in the future. We are continually in flux, our bodies and minds. It is important to acknowledge this and even more, to celebrate it. As Whitman says in Song of Myself.

    "You say I contradict myself. Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes."

    Your friend,
    Chris


    Posted By ChrisA | Jan 11, 2007
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  4. Artistic

    PaintedDiary JPiC Mentor

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    I am a teacher, and that is exactly what I tell my students, and to "create an effect" is a craft all by itself! Thank you for your reply.

    Beautifully said,

    {{~~**Kimberly**~~}}

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