Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

I’m a Poetry Populist

Before I started doing my weekly column for The Rumpus, my contact with the poetic blogosphere was very limited. I linked to Mark Scroggins’s Culture Industry and read his posts more because he’s a colleague of mine than anything else. And even though I’m now the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, I still don’t really consider myself part of the online poetic conversation. I don’t have time for it, for one, and frankly, I don’t have the stomach for it either.

The big thing I’ve learned from having to discover this world of poetry online is just how testy it can be. There’s nastiness in poetry that rivals the ugliness in the political blogosphere, and over what seems to me to be considerably less important stuff.

I’m convinced that at least part of the reason for this is due to some pretty hardcore genre policing. Lots of people seem determined to carve out a claim as the “new direction of poetry” or “the only serious poetics,” as though there isn’t room enough in the genre for multiple serious directions for poetry.

Obviously, I think there’s a problem with this attitude, mostly because what other people seem to see as uncrossable divides I see as differences in taste. And differences in taste, it seems to me, aren’t worth fighting over. There’s room in the genre for all sorts–even for stuff I don’t get, and more importantly, stuff I don’t like. I’d like to think that I’m not arrogant enough to determine what is and isn’t a poem. Some people don’t have that problem.

I’m taking a chance here, going after something Marjorie Perloff says–after all, she’s a respected scholar and theorist, and could probably destroy me in a debate on pretty much any subject, with the hip-hop lyrics of the 80s perhaps being the exception. But I am going to take issue here with what she says about Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural poem, even though I was no great fan of it either. Perloff asks “What does it mean that we have a society that would consider that a poem?” Well, I’d say it means we have a society that doesn’t get an awful lot of exposure to what you consider poetry. Professor Perloff argues that “Praise Song for the Day” wasn’t a poem–indeed, she says “there’s nothing about it that meets anybody’s criteria for poetry.” Okay, so I’m nobody.

Look, I think one can reasonably argue that Alexander’s poem wasn’t very challenging, and can certainly argue that her performance of it left a lot to be desired, but I think it’s a little ridiculous to claim that it wasn’t a poem. It certainly had formal structure and meter–those elements might not have been as pronounced as Professor Perloff would have liked, but they were there nonetheless, and when the interviewer, at about three and a half minutes in told her of Alexander’s appearance on the Colbert Report, where she explained the form of the poem and the intent of it (and he did so in an equally sneery, insider way), Perloff dismisses Alexander’s statement as pretentious. How’s that work?

But I’m a populist on these matters. I think there’s room for Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry–which speaks to a particular audience–and there’s room for what Professor Perloff considers poetry and lots more besides. I want to widen the scope of what can be considered poetry, not narrow it. Perloff argues that poetry has been harmed by this, that it has been denigrated, removed from its place atop the world of the written arts. I think that poetry is already speaking to such a small audience that to further narrow its appeal is to make it even less relevant. But more importantly (at least to me), I don’t think anyone or any group ought to assume the power to determine what is or isn’t poetry.

Say you don’t like something–sure. Say it lacks vigor or intellectual depth–fine. Say you just don’t like it–awesome. There’s way more poetry out there that I don’t like than I do. Just because I accept that something is a poem doesn’t mean I’ve put my personal stamp of approval on it. But what Perloff and people who agree with her are saying is that there is some objective standard by which poetry can and must be measured, and that they are the arbiters of that standard, and I can’t accept that.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. Poems are still being written, books are still being read, poets are still taking part in the vibrant world of poetic expression, whether or not everyone approves of the kind of work they’re doing. And I hope they (and I) keep it up.

March 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Rumpus Interview with Mary Rosenberg

Amy and I have written about the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes here in the past–they’re very generous prizes that started up five years ago and are having a tremendous impact on the world of poetry simply because of the amounts of money involved. The Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund has given out upwards of $650K in the last five years, and for poets, that’s a big deal, since most of us are fairly broke most of the time.

Earlier this year during some other correspondence with Mary Rosenberg, who manages the contest, I asked her for an interview for The Rumpus, and the result is here. I found her to be generous and thoughtful–just the kind of person I want running a contest I’m entered in. She’s the kind of person who looks for reasons to like a poem as opposed to dismiss it, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that she’s not really interested in creating a legacy for herself in the poetry business. At the end of our interview, she wrote (because we did this via email) “Encouragement is what it’s all about on my side: faith and persistence on theirs [contest entrants].” Even if I hadn’t done the interview, I’d recommend the interview.

Crossposted from Incertus

March 15, 2009 Posted by | Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg, Mary Rosenberg, The Rumpus | Leave a comment

since feeling is first

I first came across E. E. Cummings in high school, like many people have, and he had an immediate effect on me. He was so different from the rest of the stuff I’d been reading in my classes that he shook me to the core, and made me want to write poetry just like his. I grew out of that, thankfully, but he’s never stopped being a favorite of mine. The first book of poetry I ever bought was a selected verse–I have it to this day, dogeared and having survived more moves than I can count.

This poem in particular was one that stuck with me from the beginning–I copied it onto my English folder, and I memorized it as well. I’m no good at that sort of thing, mind you. I’ve memorized probably three poems of any length in my entire life, and two have come mostly because I’ve taught them so often. (I don’t count “The Red Wheelbarrow” because it’s what, 16 words?) I can mostly get “Channel Firing” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” and that’s about it–except for this one.

What I love about the poem is the way Cummings sets up the two worlds of love or emotion and reason at odds with each other, and the way he used words outside their expected syntax to get this across, like the way he uses “first” in the opening line as prominence, as if he’s saying “since emotion is the most important thing.” This declaration sets up the rest of the poem–it assumes the position the poet is taking is the correct one and proceeds to argue for it. It’s the logical fallacy of “begging the question,” to be sure, but since reason is going to be set aside anyway, it makes a peculiar sort of sense for this poem.

So let’s look closer at the opening lines:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

He’s saying here that since emotion, love, feeling is primary, the person who pays attention to the logical structure of things–the syntax–will never wholly kiss you, or, will never be willing to abandon him or herself completely to emotion. Put your trust in logic and you’ll lose the chance to really be overwhelmed by love.

And with this in mind, Cummings evokes the heart by saying “my blood approves / and kisses are a better fate / than wisdom.” He’s turned the decision making over to the seat of emotion, the blood, and is so enraptured by love that he’d rather have that than wisdom. He reiterates this when he says “the best gesture of my brain is less than / your eyelid’s flutter which says // we are for each other.” I saw a guy on YouTube a few days ago complaining about this line, saying that it played into gender stereotypes about males being logical and women being emotional, but I think he missed the point of the poem. First of all, there’s nothing definitively male about the speaker–it’s only in a heteronormative setting that we make that assumption–but more than that, Cummings has already spent a lot of time in this poem making clear that he’s comparing logic and reason to emotion, so why should we depart from that reading to make this about men and women now? He’s saying that emotion–the “eyelid’s flutter which says we are for each other”–is superior to logic and reason–“the best gesture of my brain.”

It’s probably not a great way to live every day of your life–logic and reason do have their places, and it would be as silly to abandon oneself completely to emotion as it would have been for Marlowe’s nymph to run away with her passionate shepherd without at least asking a question or two about their winter quarters–but it is a nice way of looking at these two parts of the human psyche and noting that, in some cases at least, it’s good to let go of the syntax at times.

March 6, 2009 Posted by | E. E. Cummings, since feeling is first | Leave a comment