October 2010


There are basically two kinds of poetry in the world: traditional written poetry, and verses that are spoken first, such as def jam/hip hop/rap.

The path to success for the former begins with poems submitted to so-called distinguished lit mags. After compiling a respectable number of publications in these journals, a poet approaches a book publisher. If the book is reasonably successful, the poet advances to the reading circuit, where the real money is.

The jammer starts with open mic and participates in jam festivals, where there are prizes to be won for performance. A popular jammer on YouTube may accumulate more than a million hits. These poets sell CDs rather than books. They do not write books on how to read and write poetry.

Approximately 90% of American poets work for the university, as English or lit professors, or writers-in-residence, like the author. Some are very accomplished, many never write a single line that lives in the heart of the common reader. These prof-poets constitute what is often called the “poetry community.” They run the business of traditional poetry: sit on panels, judge competitions, run summer classes in poetry. They review each other’s books. In my experience, they seldom have any use for non-university poets unless they translate a foreign poet with important credentials or harrowing life stories.

The university is also the repository of modernist teachings. Each year, hundreds of books are published or self-published about literary theory. The distancing between the poet specialist and common poet/reader started in the 1920s, when Ezra Pound exhorted poets to “Make it new, make it modern, make it like science.” It became fashionable for poetry to become difficult to read and understand, presumably like science. That idea has carried over into the 21st Century. Even today, despite the fact that many poets write in rhyme and meter, the central view is that poetry must be dry and prose-like. An idea robustly rejected by the jammers.

By Hudson Owen, in response to The Righteous Skeptic’s Guide to Reading Poetry by Adam Roberts, 10-20-10 in The Atlantic Online.

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The simple answer to the posed question is, really, what makes any art form worthy, interesting: a story, song, or painting. To paraphrase, Robert Frost said that our response to a poem is immediate and lasting. We know right away upon reading whether the poem pierces our heart or satisfies our mind. Even if a poem is long and complex, we know whether or not we wish to further explore the poem. And I agree. There is no one prosodic element, such as rhyme, that makes a poem interesting, anymore than lining up the margins flush left and right ragged makes lines poetry and not prose.

The author concentrates on a segment of the poetry wars to make his point(s). This makes sense inasmuch as he only has so many line inches for his article. However, to better understand where the arguments in the 1980s came from, you need to go back to the early 20th Century, as mentioned in my previous post, to catch the origin of the art vs. science debate, which extended throughout the arts. Why did artists want to compare themselves to scientists, and did that analogy hold up—does art really work like science? Do artists ever acknowledge a failed experiment? Science is littered with failed experiments.

Response to second essay in the Series: What Makes a Poem Worth Reading? 10/27/10

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There was an inventor named Klarf,
Who came up with a substance called flarf.
You could bounce it and spin it;
Ship it or bin it.
And Dexter, his dog, barked “Arf! Art!”

In response to third essay in series: Flarf: Poetry Meme-Surfs With Kanye West and the LOLCats 11-03-10

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The author informs us that good poetry is like good food, and encourages us to enjoy good poetry, which is related to Slow Poetry, which is not a poetry movement, he tells us, and that we should buy poetry books from small presses, which is analogous to buying fresh carrots from the local farmer’s market. Slow Poetry is analogous to Slow Food, which is analogous to ecopoetics, which is like buying a Prius or bike (Not Nature Poetry, but Eaarth Poetry.) He encourages the reader to support your local poets (which I support) and—heck—encourages everyone to become a poet. Why not!

The author puts up a big tent. Everyone is invited.

In “The Dyer’s Hand,” W.H. Auden wrote about food and cuisine, saying that this was a subject nearly everyone could agree on. Everyone knew what a good meal was and would gladly set aside their ideological differences to enjoy a good meal. Soon, however, the food analogy with poetry breaks down.

A really good gourmet meal is often an expensive meal. Good restaurants can charge top dollar and there are waiting lines. Popular poets can also charge top dollar to their readings—but that is not what the author is saying here. He is saying that poetry works best when it follows the mood of the times and costs no more than a bowl of chili at the local diner.

Do we really need to hear that poetry is cheap, like a chapbook, and everyone should publish one and somehow hope to be that popular poet who brings in the big bucks for a reading? Scarcity creates value, so maybe we need fewer poets not more. At least we need clearer distinctions. The poet who wins the Shelley Award should be someone whose verse in some way resembles Shelley, not the opposite. Great poems come from great poets and do not necessarily reflect the mood of the times. They are not the newspaper. They are not a fad. They might rage against the newspaper. Instead of accepting everything and anyone, great poems stand for something and take risks.

In Response to the third essay in the series: Good Poetry is Like Good Food: How to Find It…and Savor It
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Robin Hood is one of my favorite tales, and so I looked forward to this latest big screen version, Robin Hood (2010), starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott. I was particularly interested in the depiction of Lady Marian as played by Cate Blanchett.

The principals are introduced early in the story set in 1199. Robin is a skilled archer in King Richard The Lion Heart’s army, plundering one last castle on French soil before returning home. Richard, portrayed unsympathetically, is struck by a crossbow bolt fired by a peasant woman atop the castle. The battle of the sexes is joined in the film, and the king is dead.

Meanwhile, back home, Lady Marian is the daughter of Sir Walter of Loxley (Max Van Sydow), trying to hold together the huge estate and take care of her blind father. She demonstrates her martial prowess by stringing a long bow on the run and firing a warning shot at boy brigands raiding the estate’s stock of grain. It is impossible to string a bow of any draw weight in this manner.

In further developments inside the royal family, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), mother to King Richard and his brother John, surprises John in bed with a wench. As he explains, parading naked before her, his wife is barren as a “brick” and he wants an heir.

Still in France, Robin, with companions Alan A’Daile, Will Scarlett and Little John, comes across an ambush of English knights led by villainous Sir Godfrey, in league with the French king, trying to kill Richard. In the battle, Robin promises a dying Sir Robert Loxley that he will return the knight’s sword to his father, an oath Robin keeps upon his return to Nottingham. Robin and him men don the armor of the dead knights and take their identities, and purses, with them by boat to England.

It is thus that Robin and Marin meet. The blind Sir Walter takes a liking to Robin and urges him to keep up his charade as his dead son and therefore take Marian as wife, so that she may inherit his lands when he dies.

In a clever role reversal, Robin asks Marian to help remove his heavy tunic and chain mail armor, revealing the actor’s beefy build. Reluctantly, and with a warning that she sleeps with a dagger, Marian takes her new found husband without ceremony other than a curtsey to her chambers, along with her wolf hounds. She retires behind veils while Robin sleeps with the hounds on the floor.

Robin gains her favor by his soft spoken gentlemanly demeanor and stealing back grain from the Church’s men, with the approval of bee keeper Friar Tuck. In the climactic battle between the English forces led by King John and his barons against French forces landing in the surf, Marian shows up, in armor, and does battle like a man with her sword. She is unhorsed and is being drowned by Sir Godfrey when Robin rides to the rescue. Godfrey escapes and rides off on a horse only to be struck through the neck by Robin’s long range arrow.
I watched the director’s cut, and there is no love scene between Robin and Marian, only warm glances and indications of marital embraces to come.

Well, wot.

In an era of the over-valorization of women as men, super Amazons defeating men, as female cops, soldiers—the atrocious G.I. Jane, for example, a Ridley Scott film—director Scott has struck a balance with this beloved story, mindful of its history and film treatment.

In a party scene in Nottingham, Robin’s men cavort with the local girls, stomping out a jig, the floor wet with copious quantities of mead, an alcoholic drink made from honey. Here, the ageless romp of man and maid is played with naturalistic, pre-modern gusto. The treatment of the principals required more consideration.

As an action figure, the flat-chested Cate Blanchett makes a credible appearance, though one wonders how well thin arms would wield a broad sword. Arnold Schwarznegger noted the difficulty of handling a 10-pound sword in Conan The Barbarian. Gender equality etiquette, of course, required it. As a romantic figure, required by the tale itself, the actress wins a nod, and little more, for her comely smile. You can see she is trying.

For my money, Richard Lester’s 1976 Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, is the best romance of the Hoods. The bizarre plot ends when Robin dispatches the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) in the mother of all sword fights, and is mortally wounded himself. Marian, who became a nun when Robin went off to the Crusades, pours a lethal potion presented as medicine for them both, these star-crossed lovers. Robin shoots a final arrow from his death bed that rises into heaven. The best lines go to Marian.

“I love you,” she cries. “More than all you know. I love you more than children. More than fields I’ve planted with my hands. I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat. I love you more than sunlight, more than flesh or joy, or one more day. I love you…more than God.”

For lines an arrow shaft short of Romeo and Juliet, they nonetheless serve the legendary couple well.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.