Monday, May 22, 2006

The all-there poems and the inert whatyoumaycallem's...

Every so often I come across a blog entry that's so right-on I save it in my own archives for future reference -- if only to have it on hand to help me formulate a (perhaps) more comprehensive prefab opinion of my own. (So much of blogging -- indeed, human communication-- consists of passing on the words of others, in various guises, if not outright quotes, as here...) Here's one from Jordan Davis from a month or so back, a particularly well-put variation on the 90%-of-current-art-is-shit theme:

...whatever people want to say about David's (nota: I guess that's David Lehman's BAP) annuals, I know for a fact there are a couple hundred poems published every year that I'd be willing to show just about anybody and say "Hey I liked this one a lot." Are these lost Yeats poems? No, they're just all there. (Some of them are spacey, but they're all up in that spaciness.)

Right now my problem is with inert poems. Poems that float a half-cute line or semi-relatable experience, and are done. No crazy language no wiggly perception nothing unknown. Nobody needs poems that don't do anything. I get no culture ruboff, no actual sharing in someone else's experience, no insight, nothing.

Based on my reading, I'd estimate these inert compounds take up three-quarters to five-sixths of poetry publications. Most people would call that a generous estimate. I'm really not that harsh a reader. And I desperately don't want to give any poet what they used to call a complex.

I'm just not looking forward to telling the truth about this, which is that when a journal gets one out of three poems right, it's a keeper. That ratio should be more like three out of four. A few journals have made it there this year: Superflux, the Massachusetts Review, The Canary. And it's not the editors' fault, I know, I'm an editor. The poems come in, they are good enough to get all Winnicott about it, and voila, print.

What I'm saying is NOT: Edit, self-punish, work harder, strive, or please the great-withholder-in-the-sky. I'm saying, no more "I have three unpublished manuscripts." Make them one good manuscript and get it in the hands of somebody who loves it. How to do that: Get some friends you trust and let them tell you -- not what the good ones are or any other horrifying inhibiting complex-inducing phrase -- let them tell you which ones they liked the most, responded to, remember. Look at those. Work on them. The other ones, you don't have to file them in the trash, you liked them enough to put them in "the manuscript," you just didn't like them enough to put them in other people's heads. That's ok, it's not easy.


Jordan said...

Brian - thanks for the spot in your mental jukebox - just want to clarify a couple points -

First, I would never say such a huge percentage of artistic production is "shit." I mean, yes, the non-starters are fertile ground, but I was thinking more along the lines of inert stuff, like nitrogen. It's there, it's most of what we breathe, it's neither here nor there for keeping us alive directly. (We can talk another time about the nitrogen cycle.)

I also want to ratchet down the ratio of inert to active poetry -- 90% is too harsh! I put it at 75 to 83% in the post.

Anyway -- I look forward to seeing where you go with this.

Brian Campbell said...

I stand corrected on your particular estimate. Actually though with that 90% figure I was again mouthing the words of another -- namely Anthony Robinson, who polemicised something to that effect a few months back. Also I remember Wonkette, of all people, saying something quite similar about dross in art... so it seemed a general observation being circulated in response to these superabundant times, that in the heat of writing I labeled (or mislabeled) as I did.

What you're referring though is to the poetry that makes it to publication. What if you figured in all the stuff that's turned back? Maybe 90% would be a charitable estimate.

I like your analogy to nitrogen.

Jordan said...

What, include the poems journals reject? [Sound of beach ball crumpling into nothing.]

[Long moaning whine in the background.]

[Long pause]

Not to speculate, but I'd imagine the ratio would stay about the same.

Brian Campbell said...

You're probably in a better position to say than I. Bad poems get printed every day, good poems get rejected every day. And good poems get printed... every other day?

Brian Campbell said...

You're probably in a better position to say than I. Bad poems get printed every day, good poems get rejected every day. And good poems get printed... every other day?

Jocko Benoit said...

I think the idea of combining poems from mss. is good. And I myself am in that position - having three manuscripts (with poems published from each). But I think in terms of overall mss., not only in terms of individual quality poems.

I think too many poets try to get collections out that don't cohere. The titles of these collections could all be "Stuff I Got Published In Literary Mags and Now I Have Enough To Make A Book." My bugaboo is that I don't see enough collections out there that are true books. The largeness of vision is missing. I think that applies to the micro poems you've mentioned and to the actual collections as a whole.