I talked myself into trying to get this blog going again, beginning easily, with a bit of Grumman boilerplate in response to a New-Poetry thread that began with a post about a review by William Logan of two books by British Poet Laureate Carol Duffy in which he derided her use in one poem of the word, “swoon.”)
In one post to the thread, Richard Wilsnack mentioned that he “happened upon this quote in Poetry magazine this past week, and it echoes Logan’s bit” :
[Philip Levine] was blunt and categorical in his statements. He introduced the class to Hemingway’s notion of a “shit detector.” He pointed to the use of “azure” in a student’s poem. “Question: When is the last time you heard the word ‘azure’?” A few students fidgeted uncomfortably. “Answer: The last time you did a crossword puzzle.”…Fake language made bad poems.
—Mark Levine, “Philip Levine,” in Remembering Poets, Poetry (March 2102)
My first thought was about how Philistine Levine is. A poet’s duty, it seems to me, is to use as much of the language he can. But do try to use it freshly.
Later I realized my biased aesthetic cerebral zone had led me astray, not for the first time. More accurately, the lofty reasoning zone in my cerebrum told me I’d gone astray. According to it (and I tend to yield to it more readily than to any other of my zones although I recognize that it, too, has biases), there are many good ways to do poetry. One surely is to use the whole language, but that doesn’t mean the use of only the words in a given narrow lexicon might not enable a poet to do things a whole-language poet would not be able to do. Key words: “focus” and “intensity.”
The classical haiku is an excellent example of the use of ordinary words only.
I suppose I would go on to say the truly greatest of poets would use all possible words at times, but also limit himself at times.
Hey, I may not be saying much, but at least I’m saying! And ultimately the issue involved, critical fairness, is consequential. In the same thread, I expressed the wish that Logan wouldn’t write about dead poets only. One witless participant at New-Poetry quickly let me know that Carol Duffy is alive. ”Not by my standards,” quoth I.
I didn’t go on to state my standards, but I guess I ought to. I consider a poet to be a contemporary dead poet if he does nothing of significance (yes, here comes the boilerplate I’ve no doubt repeated more times than any other over the years) that many poets who have been literally dead for fifty or more years did.
An insult to poets like Carol Duffy? Not necessarily, because I truly do believe that a contemporary dead poet can write poems of the highest value! Such poems will still annoy me and make me call their authors dead, which isn’t fair to them, but is fair to the many poets whose work is crowded out of cultural visibility by dead poems, most of them decidedly not of the highest value. The world needs to be told that living contemporary poets exist. There may be a better way than using terms like “dead poets” to get the word out, but I’ve never found it.