austin duck

What is Poetry and Why Do We Care?

Austin Duck

“What is poetry” is a question I’m asked a lot and one that I can’t answer. In fact, everywhere I go, every job interview I have, every time someone asks “what’s your degree in,” they follow up with some permutation of that question. You see, I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry (along with a few other useless degrees) and, expectedly, I’m constantly bouncing between jobs, looking for the next big thing which requires near-constant explanation of how I got here and why I made the choices I did. And my god, you should see the looks on their faces (unless someone in their family too has made this… choice) when I start stammering and trying to explain myself: pity, embarrassment, amusement that an adult would proudly (sort of) admit that he spent years (YEARS) reading poems, writing about poems, and, most questionably (because academia and the idea of a PhD still hold some cultural capital) learning to write them himself… It’s a dark time to be a poet (though I suspect that, outside of Eastern Europe [where poets are celebrated] it probably always has been).

Not everyone, though, is totally unreceptive to the choice of poetry. For some, poetry still holds its place as a kind of epicenter for literary bad-boy-ness (after all, poets work in shorter bursts of clarity and don’t require the same kind of discipline as someone writing something long-form that is either narratively or argumentatively coherent): hard drinkers, sexers (is that a thing?), druggers and live-r’s that occupy that very thin line between intellectual and indigent, the Jim Morrisons of the not-quite-so-fucking-stupid, the arty guy or gal who, even though they manage social media and blogging at a major corporation (guilty), still has a deeply mysterious and deeply sexual wilderness in their heart.

For others, poetry itself has a kind of heroic capital. It allows one to project the image of hyper intelligence (just look at the number of poets who win MacArthur genius grants and you’ll see that poetry and physics seem to fish from the same pond) and a kind of bohemian “casting off” of economics, of choosing to pursue “art” when really you should have gone into investment banking but this makes you more pure. It sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it? It is.

The trouble, for me, of people believing these myths—of the poetic bad boy and/or the self-sacrificing genius—is that it creates a cultural expectation of the “poet” as a thing to which young, narcissistic, self-righteous fucking losers (guilty) flock to prove themselves the next Rilke, the next wild Jack Gilbert, the next (ugh) Charles Bukowski, and, in doing so, they build a scene. They themselves (with all of their ideas) create an idea of poetry, promulgate a notion of poetry as sexy or smart, and, in doing so, recreate the culture of poetry.

However, that’s not to say that I’m here to bemoan it; to believe that the state of anything isn’t in flux is naive and prescriptive and hey, I forgot to put on underwear this morning so I’m probably not the best person to make a totalizing statement what is right or wrong for poetry as a whole. I say it’s a trouble for me because it so deeply complicates what poetry is, really. If I had to give a totally uninformative (but accurate) definition, I might say that it’s the silently agreed-upon, written production of a continuously changing group of half-educated, half-myth-drunk twenty-somethings with progressively more impressive resumes continuously reinventing something so fundamental to humans that it existed before God. But that wouldn’t be entirely right.

Sure, that’s the bottom of the scene right now (if you want to think about it hierarchically), but it tells nothing about the multitudes of unpaid apprenticeships with those “living masters”—old people writing poetry who their peer-group agrees is writing the best poetry—of the unpaid publications used to build reputations used to leverage shitty-paying jobs so that one day you and your group can sit among the “living masters” all while under the cold scrutiny of critics who constantly remind you that there are dead masters too, that you’ll never approach them, because history, because craft, because they didn’t get paid to watch Twitter for 8 hours a day while wishing for a different life.

And even that isn’t exactly right when you consider the fact that poetry, for all of its shared resources, doesn’t have a single, unified community; there are groups upon groups, each with slightly different aesthetic- and philosophical-projects, and then there are those who aren’t, exactly, part of groups, who have participated—to some degree—in various groups and projects, have gone through various apprenticeships (or not), who read books that are recommended by friends, or old colleagues, or whose covers and back-blurbs and first poems look appealing at a bookstore (though this is becoming less and less an option) and each one of these people, each one of these groups, is making a case -through-example of what poetry is, can be, does, or (sometimes) what it really shouldn’t do.

So what is poetry (or, really, more accurately, what is American poetry [because each culture has its own organic process for bringing up poets, its own poetics, etc.])? I don’t know. I used to ask my students this question on their final exams just to see their faces fill with terror like mine does each time I’m asked. When asked this question, I usually answer with something along the lines of:

an empathy machine, a text that appears to be written in lines but which actually is a dramatic rendering of a scene, no matter how brief, when the speaker of the poem (usually the “I”) interacts with a specific problem, usually in the realms of nature, language, memory, or culture, outside the self and, in that interaction, is changed, though it’s not enough to tell the reader that the speaker has changed, the mechanics have to be there, the change has to be structural, linguistic, imagistic (made with images), sonic (made with sound), so that, by the end of the poem the audience has had the same experience, their very brain has processed the same images presented in the same way, heard the same sounds, stumbled over the same sentence constructions, and thought the same sentences in the same order so that the speaker and the audience are, for a second, the same person, the other, so that the reader is not confirmed in their own experience but is instead forced into a new one, understanding, yes, both intellectually and emotionally, thinking and feeling as another person. Oh and did I mention that poems “should” almost never go where you think they’re going, that they contain surprise for the reader, the writer, there must be a ghost you didn’t know come to inhabit the body you’re only starting to get a sense that you’re looking at?

I do tend to get sort of breathless (even in writing, apparently) when writing about “what poetry is” because imagine that last paragraph taking place in a single instant; imagine that you were able to achieve what I’ve just described (either as a writer or a reader) and now think about the community differences I’ve described above. To say specifically “what poetry is” is impossible and even to say what it should do is pretty dubious.

In the end, my take on it (above) will yield a pretty classical American/English poem (or, at least, I think that it will), but won’t account for more than 5% of what’s been produced, what you will search through—line by line for some organizing pattern (because poetry is fundamentally [and equally unhelpfully] patterned language).

So why do it at all (reading or writing)? Aside from the fact that some people will think you’re a sexy genius and others will bathe you with counter-cultural social capital, why?

Fundamentally, the interaction of poetry will get you closer to another person’s mind, more fully engaged in empathy, understanding, learning, compassion, joy, sadness, recognition, than literally anything else on the planet. Music for your ears, visual arts for your eyes, writing, particularly poetry which is so often concerned with the instantaneous, the momentous, for wherever your mind and your humanity mix.

For more equally incomprehensible definitions of poetry, go here.

Image source: The Guardian

Poetry For People Who Hate Poetry: You Might Avoid This Dog

Austin Duck

I want to talk about Frank Bidart’s newest book of poems, Metaphysical Dog, not because it’s good necessarily (I’m not sure if it is), but because it’s garnered so much critical attention and praise from high profile places. In fact, it’s listed as one of only two books on poems on The New York Times 100 best books of 2013 list and has, as of a few days ago, been shortlisted for The National Book Critics Circle prize, one of the most prestigious in the (po)biz. The problem with this is that I know, for certain, Metaphysical Dog is not that good.

While I think we all know how poetry prize-ry works (haha just kidding. No one cares!), I’ll explain it here: poets do great work when they’re younger, win nothing because they’re thought of as idiots and assholes and upstarts, grow older, make friends, write worse poetry, and win a big prize because of work they’ve previously done. Sure, this sounds reasonable, finally getting what is owed and the like, but it’s fucking confusing. Allow me to make an example: imagine a world that gave a Nobel equivalent to the writers of horror stories. Now, we all know that, eventually, Stephen King would get one, probably for The Stand (because it rules). Now, imagine if, 30 years after writing The Stand and getting nothing, King won for that really bad book about evil cell phones. You’d be confused, right? You’d want to say Hey, why did this pile of garbage win when there was much less-garbage-y stuff around? I mean, if his peers pass him up when he’s brilliant, does he then deserve to be rewarded retroactively for continuing to produce, even if the later word is much less compelling? I don’t know.

And that’s where I come to Metaphysical Dog. It isn’t a bad book (note: when I say “bad” in terms of poetry, I mean James Franco bad, who Bidart, incidentally, is obsessed with); it carries forward everything characteristic of Bidart’s work: the highly personal subject matter, the heavy reliance on abstraction to redirect narrative situations, the kind of “yelling” he does with CAPITAL LETTERS, and his use of sections. However, somehow, it does so with less gusto than his previous work. In many ways, it feels less imperative, despite the fact that, in many ways, the subject matter should be quite the opposite.

Throughout the book, Bidart weaves together his concerns about his homosexuality, mourning the death of his mother (who never knew he was gay and would, likely, not have been super cool with it), the disagreement of body and spirit, failure at love, obsession with art, creation (and Creation), art as metempsychosis (I know, I know), and, ultimately, the way in which whatever you find “hardest to/swallow, most indigestible” becomes your (private, inarticulable) food (“Of His Bones Are Coral Made”). And, remarkably, it all comes together, adds up, the sum of the poems in the book are coherent(ish) and meaningful, accessible to the reader (at least ones who are more familiar with reading poetry).

At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking why is this guy being such a prick about this book? Being able to fit all of that stuff in 108 pages and it not come out total slop sounds like quite a feat. And it is, you’re right. But, despite the mastery of narrative patchwork and creating, among disparate narratives, a kind of mirror, there’s a lack of urgency characteristic of Bidart (see “Herbert White”. Really. This is poetry for people with no interest in poetry. I got 30 frat boys into a 3-hour discussion over this last spring). I think, though, I’ve already articulated all of what I’ve been struggling with; I just haven’t yet put it together for myself or for you. My apologies. I’ll do it now.

Metaphysical Dog is ultimately a book of silences. I know, I know, I’m being a poetic dick-bag again, but bear with me. Ultimately, the private, inarticulable food that concludes the book, the “private accommodations” for us “poor mortals” (“For an Unwritten Opera”) that amount to meaningful experience (in love, in dealing with the body, the death of a mother, the philosophical problems of history and mourning and sexuality and the relationship between the mind, the body, and culture) is just too much, too private to Bidart’s own. And I mean private as in not shared, not as in not universal enough. Though he argues in “Writing ‘Ellen West’” that “the particularity inherent in almost all narrative… tells the story of the encounter with the particularity that flesh…must make” (i.e. that the narrative particulars are what makes an art-object speak), he himself, in the work that follows, fails to make flesh. Instead, we are given, both in content and in structure, space.

Many of the poems are spaced like this and just as abstract:

“Name the Bed”

Halflight just after dawn. As you turned back

in the doorway, you to whom the ordinary

sensuous world seldom speaks

expected to see in the thrown-off

rumpled bedclothes nothing.


Scream stretched across it.


Someone wanted more from that bed

than was found there.


Name the bed that’s not true of.


Bed where your twin

died. Eraser bed.

And, while you might be willing to give in to the indulgence in a poem or two, think to yourself Wow, that’s cool, I sort of know what he means, poem after poem reveal a book that effectively works against itself, obscuring everything it wants to uncover. Too many are the places in the text where we’re tempted to “read into them” the way we read into popular art or music—not as empathy machines through which we’d experience (i.e. feel AND understand) others as ourselves, but as endless mirrors that reinforcing our own emotions (like the way, in second grade, I thought that Tonic song “If You Could Only See” was about me explaining to my mother why I was going to marry this girl I was in second-grade love with.) Basically, the structure and abstraction ask us to read ourselves into parts of any given poem because the poems themselves don’t sufficiently tell a story. Bidart ultimately doesn’t give us enough of the personal for us to empathize; many of these poems just don’t have enough flesh to make them human.

And I’m not saying that poems shouldn’t leap associatively from one subject to another. But there has to be a logic there, a full-enough-ness for us to see the mind of the poem (rather than filling in ourselves for that absent mind).

So that’s why I’m confused. It’s a good book of poems and a bad one, and, yeah, Bidart’s written some real stunners in the past (like 20-30 years ago), but I’m just not convinced that’s enough to suck this Dog’s dick (that might be too much. Sorry y’all).