Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When is a poem not a poem?

A poet I very much like & admire posed the question, "When is a poem not a poem?" Other poets supplied lists of answers. Few "aesthetic" questions go more to the heart of the difficult learning process I went through for about a decade beginning in my late teens.

I consider their answers absurd, although they certainly contribute to the making of "good" poems. They're teachers of literary craft & I respect what they do. But I recognize, have always recognized that my relationship with them has adversarial possibilities. It has to. I come to those relationships now with a sense of humor.  They don't know that  the conventionality of my writing is a choice I made.  It was a difficult choice based on both personal comfort & the readers I expected to reach as a minor poet based in New Jersey. But I was coming from a place that can be easily described: A poem is what one perceives as a poem just as music is what one perceives as music & art is what one perceives as art. These are hardly new ideas, although some might still consider them radical.  They are not radical. To take it a step further, a poem is an artifact that remains when a certain type of creative process is complete. That is also not a radical idea. You find it in non-western cultures. You can fit various, sometimes conflicting,  ideas of craft & discipline  in there, directing the process. But the process can also be set up to direct itself, or can take place in one's mind, like Da Vinci contemplating the shadows thrown on his walls by flickering candles. Seeing the face of Elvis in a cloud.

You don't  abandon your tastes & preferences & critical faculties.   You may, as I did, become impatient with poems that have to peeled like an onion. Some kinds of art may no longer be of interest. But you feel more generous toward the creative expressions of amateurs & children. A jackhammer in the street may drive you nuts, but it also becomes music that drives you nuts. Letting go of many of my notions about what is  & isn't art  at first frightened me, then helped give me the courage to join WFMU, where there have always been like-minded creative people on the staff & an atmosphere of generally cheerful tolerance;  WFMU itself has a chameleon quality of being what listeners perceive it to be, & before the station archived shows there was also the wonderful, liberating  impermanence of the radio broadcast itself.

I have never, ever told someone their poem was not a poem or their music was not music of their art was not art. This may have hobbled me as a teacher of craft, & even hurt my own craft. I'm capable of appreciating craft. Many uses of craft. But it hasn't disqualified me as a teacher of something important.

Composer Olivier Messiaen transcribed the songs of birds & incorporated them into his compositions. He was a fastidious, exacting composer. Nothing was left to chance in his music. He was a fine teacher of music, a great one, in fact.  But he did not say that the bird songs were not music as they came out of the birds, became music only when approximated with musical notation. He was saying, I think, "You may skip my music if you wish & go directly to the birds."

Fortunately, I can point to my teachers, few of whom I've met in person. But they include my dad, who would've denied it was his meaning & intent.  Following dad down a quiet country road or along a beach at low tide was a lesson in found  art & natural ambient music. Had he lived longer I may have gotten around to explaining this to him, that it was his lasting influence on me.  But I saw no good reason why he needed to know. It came to him naturally.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?