On Poetry: A Manifesto
It is a time of and for revolution. It is needed in many countries for the liberation of many demographics. The arts will, as they always have, help to lead the fight forward. To do this, the arts must refocus and reclaim its space as a bringer of social change. This is happening in various artistic disciplines, but I feel poetry has lost touch with its own artistic prowess and its own insurgency that it had for most of the 20th century, before the radical banner shifted to the Novel again in the 80’ and 90’s. What I present here is a regrouping of sorts. A regrouping of what poetry can and should be in the 21st century. A regrouping of the radical attitude the most important poetry of the last century presented, in order to expand that revolution into the 21st century; a century that begins in turmoil and social revolt. A century that is just forming its first act with movements for change across the board. As I write there is a teacher’s strike in West Virginia, there is a Lecturer’s strike at Newcastle University that I can see from my window, that is part of a wider national action. there are marches across America for women, for gun control, for expressing the growing frustrations under the current administration. The people participating in these movements are fighting for the same thing: to be treated with dignity. The need for economic revolution is growing ever more present. There is a shift coming in the politics of the country that I hope the rest of the world will follow. This century calls for a poetic philosophy that can both keep up with and carry forward the shifts of culture and power, shifts that haven’t been seen since the shifts of 50 years ago.
On the Canon:
Fuck the canon. Fuck Shakespeare. Shit on the bible, piss on the graves of Byron and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley. Fuck Ovid, Fuck Homer, Shove all the Greek and Roman Myths up your grandfather’s ass. Vomiting is a more pleasant experience than reading Jane Austen, and it tastes better, too. Chaucer can suck a dick, the Bronte sisters can choke on their own tears. Dickens can die as miserable a death as the London he portrayed. Beowulf and King Arthur can die deaths as insignificant as their manhood. Milton can burn in his self-constructed hell. Alexander Pope can live and die as inversely opulent as his name sake. Wrap all these writers and their contemporaries in gasoline doused rags, burn them to ash, and spread their ashes in some backwoods town in rural Oklahoma. Leave no trace, make no mark.
Literature has come to a point in its history where the past is bogging down the present and thus the future. It is time to cut the canon loose, cut the chains off so we can be free for the first time. There is no better time. There is nothing more a literature, specifically a poetics that aims to exist in in a time of such radical change, can learn from the past writers, especially when there is such a rich culture of new works that has sprung up in the past 100 years. If one must use allusion or retellings or metaphors or other devices that rely on previous work why must it be Shakespeare. We can use Sondheim and the Cohen Brothers. Why rely on biblical allusions when more wisdom is found in the Lyrics of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Why rely on old romantic ballads, when the Beatles exists. Why write about some mythical hero when we have Vito Corleone. Enough can be found in the history of the 20th century to write a new “canon” many times over. These new cultural touch stones coupled with the radical poetic canon from 1910-1970 lays the groundwork for a fresh poetics that is as diverse as the modern world. Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It is the only way truly forward. To continue to rely on the works of the past is to continue to spend eternity in samsara. To cut away the past is to break into nirvana. From Pound to Now is our today. We will use it to shape tomorrow. Yesterday is over.
The Beats took inspiration for form and content from the Jazz greats of the day, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker. The New York School worked with and took influence from painters of the day that they admired and knew, like Richard Pousette-Dart and Jane Freilicher. Frank O’Hara wrote about celebrities of the day, James Dean and Lana Turner. In the last decade of the century in a different art form, Philip Glass used the work of David Bowie as the basis for his own orchestral work. This mind set has already been implemented. All I suggest is more inspiration and interaction from the creative culture presently surrounding us, and while we are doing more, we keep in mind the needs of the shifting landscape and how irrelevant the past might be to those needs.
The risk we run into though, is one of becoming a poetics of The Gimmick, by that I mean a poetics that latches on to things that will guarantee fleeting attention purely by association, or one that will too easily be staled with the passage of time. Of course, I am not suggesting that every piece be filled with quotes from Al Pacino films, but when a reference or allusion is needed we must have the eye of an artist and the foresight to sift through the nonsense. In shaping our new canon, we must be careful not to include things too “of their time”. Things that will lose meaning and substance over a few decades. To pick out the timelessness of the present is not easy. The key, I think, is treating the culture around us with the reverence that has been bestowed upon the writers of the past. But again, we must carefully select the pieces worthy of that reverence, piece that are strong enough to carry that reverence into the future. But the risk of fading into obscurity is necessary and should not be feared. Already there are bookstore shelves filled with references to temporary pop stars and TV shows and further pop cultural touchstones that will not last to the end of the next decade. These are useful in that they show us what not to include. When we find a piece of influence that will stand up to time, we shape the future, albeit a future we may not live long enough to see. But revolution is about lasting change.
I maintain the line presented by Robert Creeley and Charles Olson that, “form is never more than an extension of content”. The form is dictated by the poem to the poet. To force a poem into a form of the poet’s choosing is a desecration of the page. A poem of no form leads to an equally desecrated page. Be suspicious of people who choose to believe art is undefinable and thus anything is conceivably art if the “artist” wishes it to be. Those that maintain that art is undefinable often do so because they are incapable of defining it themselves, and thus lack the faculty to understand its complexities and its importance. While poetry can be difficult to explain, it is not impossible to explain.
How is one to detect the form that a poem is presenting? With the lung and the ear, aided with the tongue and the eye to execute form fully. Writing, reading, and experiencing poetry is a physical act. The poem is not birthed from the page. It is birthed onto the page from the breath of a poet, formed by the ear, dictated by the hand, adjusted by the eye, and delivered by the tongue. A poem must dance on the page and sing in the air. If it does not do both things, it is not a poem. It is not a terrible thing to write something that omits one of these actions, but it is important to know where that puts one’s piece. Spoken word does not dance on the page, it is its own separate artform. Poetry is its own complete artform. While drawings and visual aids can intensify the mood of a poem, if a poem relies on secondary material to convey mood it is a weak poem. Or maybe not a poem at all. If a poem is more effective when coupled with music, it is a song lyric, not a poem. A poem’s meaning arises from the words within it. Meaning is not given to words by the way they are said. Meaning is apparent because the words are said at all. It is better to be swept up in the emotion your words evoke, if any, when reading them aloud, than it is to emphasise words you want the audience to pay attention to. Force is not the way to seduce a listening or reading audience. Force is not the way to seduce anybody.
A poem must have a self-sustaining energy, like Olson’s “energy-discharge” idea, but today we can allow for much more nuanced energies. If a poem loses its energy or the energy gets away from the poet, it is unsuccessful. To maintain energy, the lungs and the ear are the principle tools. Energy doesn’t mean a loud, erratic mood. Just a poetic force that pushed through the piece, allowing the idea and mood to reach the conclusion it deserves. That can include a loud, erratic mood or a romantic mood or a calm mood, an urgent mood, and anything between and beyond. The pacing of breath or composition of language as music, if done well, ensures a well-formed energy that can sustain a poem’s theme to its end, like a symphony. An obvious example would be Allen Ginsberg’s use of breath in “Howl” to maintain the energy throughout the entire poem. Who who who who who who who who who who. Another example may be the subtle energy found in Robert Creeley’s poem “The Method of Actuality”.
The content of poetry is something that has drastically shifted in the last few decades. A poet should be an interpreter of the world around them. Take the human experience and portray it on a page as art, using words as materials. A poet uses words and the things those words trigger the same way a painter does paint, a sculptor does clay, a photographer does editing software, a director does mise en scene. Take the world around you and filter it through the lungs and the ears and put it on a page. That is our job. By doing so we help others understand the world as we see it, and in turn, help them develop the world as they see it. We can of course filter the world through our own minds. This is where our individual style comes from. But do not let the world percolate in your head for so long that what comes out is only you. The page is not your therapist. While it is fine, and even important, to use pain and trauma as a catalyst for art, pain and trauma in themselves are not art. We must be careful to not glorify or romanticise abuse, mental illness, and the darker sides of human existence if those things are present in our individual world. The opposite must be done. If that is what we are presenting it must be presented truthfully. Art without truth is propaganda. Again, Ginsberg comes to mind and the darkness found in “Kaddish” when dealing with trauma. While poetry can be healing, that is not its purpose. The purpose of poetry is too large a topic to deal with here. To slap one’s healing or desire to heal on a page with no concern for the functioning poetics is a waste and insult of a page. Just because people relate to a string of words does not mean those words are poetry. The highest of artforms are some of the hardest to understand. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, “your poetry must not be want ads for broken hearts”. But that is not to say all “good poetry” must be hard to understand. While Ezra Pound and Robert Duncan stand as pillars of great poetry that at times is incomprehensible, their contemporaries, William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, reach equal poetic heights using a much more common language and language structure.
The modernist tradition is one that we can rely heavily on, when looking at a functioning poetics. In this time of radical shift, it is helpful, mandatory even, to look at and learn from, and further the attitudes of the radical tradition of modernism. from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and the ideas of insurgency, immediacy, and intimacy they set up, which last even to this day, through to the New American Poetry and the radical changes in form and content that were explored by the likes of the Beats, The New York School, The black Mountain School, and the San Francisco Renaissance. Maintaining the Poundian ideas regarding the breaking of the Pentameter, the sparing use of rhyme, and economy of words serve well to preserve the radical fire needed to carry on the revolutionary techniques of the great 20th century poetic change makers. The poets of the mid-century took Pound’s ideas and sent them to various and wide-ranging places. Some more subtly, some more blatantly. The key players that did so are Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Michael McClure, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery (See: Jack Kerouac’s “Rules for spontaneous Prose”, Olson’s “Projective Verse”, and any other manifestos or any of the notes on poetics found in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960). Of course, this is debatable. Regardless, we can do the same. We can take these principles and using our diverse setting and experiences, push them even further. adding to and changing the tradition. To find a unifying American poetic voice that could carry the country through the new century, I studied the techniques of these poets to find something binding them all together. This task is obviously a farce. Finding a unifying American voice is impossible. The one true American voice is a choir of thousands of different voices shouting together. This is true of any country. Any continent. Any time period.
This new century is one of positive cultural shift. A new emergence in civil rights for people of colour and people of the LGBTQIA+ community is underway. The hegemony of straight white culture is starting to end. Slowly, but intensely. We can now fill the page with voices that were unable to be heard before. Black voices, queer voices, women’s voices, native voices, Latino voices, and any other voices that are underrepresented in the field. This, in a time of revolution, is the most revolutionary thing that can be done, both on the page and face to face. Making room and amplifying the struggles of the oppressed is essential. It is important not to let emotion run rampant though. One loses form and corrupts the energy of a poem, thus transforming into something else, when artistry is not held highest. The urgency and anger felt when expressing the stories of the oppressed is important, but we can’t let it take over and turn a piece into rant or tirade. Poetry is not the best vehicle for that mood. An essay or public lecture would be better. Do not lose artistry due to passion. Passion serves art. Not the other way around. The composition of a poem, to maintain energy and significance, must begin with a specific image or a precise moment. A precise moment of stillness within chaos, an image that can grow into art; from there we can explore the field. To purely vent one’s anger may be a starting point for a poem, but it is not a poem. Art in all areas relies on a craftsmanship. If there is no crafting involved in the production process, there is no art to be found at the end of the process. If information coupled with anger is what you want to convey, write a lecture or an essay.
Langston Hughes used his own vernacular in his poetry. What is important here is that he did not “bring down” art by introducing his vernacular. He did not “raise” his vernacular to meet art’s expectations. He shows that the vernacular itself is capable of being art. That is our job as poets from minority demographics. To show our struggles are real and valid and worthy of artistic expression. Just as real, valid, and worthy as the white writers that came before, as the male writers that came before, as the straight writers that came before. Once we, with artistic integrity, display the world as it is seen through all of our eyes, we might be able to afford ourselves a moment to catch our breath before the next revolutions.
Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.