Versed, UnVersed and ReVersed : or, How To Be a Bridge When There’s a War On by Jimmy Fishhawk
Attention poets : There’s a war on, and I’m not talking about the current foreign (mis)adventures of the US government. I’m talking about the ongoing Culture War. We are all familiar with the broad outlines of this war, and most of us have been at least on the sidelines of one or more of its skirmishes, if not actual participants in its battles. It’s in our ideas, attitudes, affinities, and the way we craft words.
This essay is not intended for the battle-hardened partisans of any faction. I’d rather speak to the rest of us, we who have watched with bemusement, confusion, or abject horror as the battles play out on campuses and in coffeehouses, in bars and basements, in pages put out by presses large and small, on the internet and even on teevee. I’m moving from the proposition, inherent in the lineage-listing, name-dropping evolutionary analysis that is endemic to literary criticism, that most poets writing today have at least a passing familiarity with, and appreciation for, a variety of different modes of prosody and philosophical perspectives on technique, and that their writing tends to reflect this, however easily they may be lumped by audience, critics, and other poets into one of the various factions in the Culture Wars. I think it is extremely important for the sake of each of us as poets, and for the general good of the art, that we familiarize ourselves with the outlines of the conflict, pick whichever of the intricacies involved are most vital and relevant to our own particular work, decide for ourselves what our stance is. At the same time, we must avoid being seduced into hardline partisanship for any of the various poetic causes that are actively recruiting today. A dozen years in the trenches of the grassroots poetry scene have convinced me that most of us creating poetry today are working more on building bridges, rather than walls, between the wildly diverse schools of thought that are available to us in shaping our wordcraft. A more focused and intentional effort at this bridge-building will enrich our work, and, thereby, the culture as a whole.
There are at least three major factions involved in this fight. For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to call them The Traditionalists, The Academics, and The Populists. I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here. Each of these factions has many subfactions, and, thankfully, the lines tend to blur, but these wide outlines will do for now to describe some of the walls that some poets would build around their personal and collective poetry fiefdoms, to the detriment of the art. The Traditionalists are well-Versed, steeped in the ancient science of metrics, bound by the laws of the High Canon, sworn to uphold its codes, in iron rigidity, if necessary. The Academics are Unversed, their poetry evolving beyond traditional and even Modernist forms and concerns at its outer frontiers, and solidly in the modern free verse/open form camp at its center. The Populists are ReVersing, moving postmodern poetry forward by taking it back, not only into more rhythmic modes of lyricism, but into the oral tradition from which all word art originally derives.
The Academics are the current masters of the American poetry universe. They are the tastemakers, the keepers and bestowers of the laurels. By the perverse and convoluted logic of the ascendency of quasi-leftist, post-modern critical theory to the heights of many of the nation’s once-most-ivory towers, however, these same people are also our official national poetic handwringers and sometimes, ironically, among the fiercest critics of tastemaking and laurel-bestowing. By ‘Academics’ I mean not only those for whom poetry—studying it, writing it, critiqueing it, teaching it—is a full-time occupation, but also their fellow travelers in publishing, be it through the big corporate houses, small presses, or online. I also include in the Academic tribe those rebels-from-within, the avant-garde.
The Academics want you to write ‘free verse’ and they’ll tell you all about what that means. They themselves write mostly in various types of ‘formless’ or open-form prosodies and prosaics, and have a theory for every new crop of variations on the modern mode, both as to why it is poetry and how to determine whether it is or isn’t good. These days they’ll allow for some more explicit employment of traditional formal prosodies, but they are definitely determined to keep us all free from the tightwound, hidebound, autocratic poetic systems—aesthetic and socio-political—of our Eurocentric past.
Despite having presided over a cultural revolution of sorts within the last forty-something years, the Academics are American poetry’s elite, today and for at least the short term of the forseeable future. They have managed to incorporate, sublimate, and in many cases dictate some of the most critical ‘outsider’ positions levelled against the monolith of Official Poetics in the last half-century. Even some of the fiercest and most unconventional tradition-breakers, the self-proclaimed avant-garde, such as the Language Poets, really constitute a kind of cabal of rebels-from-within the ivory tower. The same goes for the academic multiculturalists, whose intense, many-splendored assault from the 1960s on has won them offical insider status.
Arrayed directly against the Academics are the Traditionalists. Most of these are in fact academics themselves, but are either literally or spiritually of the Old Guard deposed by the official poetic/academic discourse of the late 20th Century: Eurocentric, Classically-educated, fiercely anti-modern, proudly anti-pop. This camp ranges from the archetypal paleo-conservative, politically reactionary, (mostly) Old White Guys worshipping (mostly) Dead White Guys and their High Holy Canonical Verses, to more moderate folks who consider themselves poetic purists of a self-consciously unfashionable sort and feel threatened and disgusted by the excesses to which contemporary academia’s “it’s all good if it makes us feel good” and contemporary pop culture’s “it’s all good if we’re makin’ a buck” philosophies crown with laurels the heads of people—workingfolk, bohemians, rappers, and punks, to name a few—whose poetic output the Traditionalists consider base, vulgar, unschooled and unskilled, or, as they often put it, simply “not poetry.” These people want you to write in iambic pentameter, and they’ll be delighted to show you what that is, provided you are serious, scholarly, humble, and appreciative enough.
In the eighties and nineties, the Traditionalists launched a more or less organized (and fairly successful) counteroffensive against Modernism and post-modernism under the twin banners of “New Formalist” and “Expansionist” poetics. This included the usual slews of essays and poems that accompany any “serious” poetry movement, as well as a number of new publications devoted to “sheltering” and “providing refuge” for poor, downtrodden, “rebel-angel” formalist poets. The assault—while it did not succeed in prying the Modernist/post-modernist Academics from the throne to which they ascended, robed in the inky blood of martyred Masters, at roughly the midpoint of the last century—did have a considerable impact. It joined the reactionaries’ stentorian squeals of go-back glee to the post-modernists’ hell-choir chorus of jargon in pronouncing the death of Modernism as such. It elbowed open more room for contemporary poets working in more or less strict formal modes on the “official” poetry scene, where, to hear their most ardent partisans tell it, almost none had existed for well nigh thirty years or more. Perhaps most importantly, it inspired, coaxed, and harangued many younger poets into a deeper appreciation of prosodies ancient, tried, and true, and the Old Masters who wrote most famously in them, to the end that those younger poets started writing, if not in strictly formal modes at all times, at least with a strong sense of the traditional craft made manifest in their material.
The third major faction, whom I have dubbed The Populists, are the least cohesive as a movement, but the most popularly and commercially successful. These are the folks, from bohemian Beats to Black Arts agitators to Spoken Word performers, Rap poets, and Poetry Slammers, who have brought poetry back “to the people.” They have done so in bars and coffeehouses, nightclubs and community centers, in libraries, in parks, and on the streets. The Populists, in their poetry and in their press packets, skewer and denounce the intellectual elitism and effete snobbery of the Academic and Traditionalist camps. Many of these Populists are working intently (though not necessarily in happy cahoots with each other, contrary to some New Formalist political conjecture) on liberating poetry not only from the thin cellulose chains of the page, but from its captivity in the gilded classrooms and ivory anthologies of the economic and social elites. To that end, the Populists generally don’t care what kind of poetry you write, as long as it’s bold, direct, and authentic.
Exactly what ‘authentic’ means depends on who you are and which genre of Populist poetics you adhere to, or can be lumped in. If you’re a Charles Bukowski acolyte, it means working class, anti-academic, pro-alcohol, suspicious of politics, ugly in face and tender in heart. If you’re an apostle of Amiri Baraka, it means radically political, experimental poetics rooted in African-American music and infused with the language of the Black street. If you’re a Spoken Word artist in the Nuyorican Poets’ Café vein, it means brash, often intensely confessional work that plays on the connections between popular culture, personal history, identity politics, and the wider politics of the historical moment. Of course, these are narrow characterizations. I put them forward merely as examples of some of the more familiar archetypes that are in play on the popular poetry scene today. The broader tendency of Populism in today’s poetry world is to eschew and openly denigrate the preciousness with regard to form and technique of both the Academics and the Traditionalists. In reaction, the maligned factions both squeal: “anti-intellectual,” “cheap,” “devoid of craft” and suchlike, but these kinds of reactions ignore the practical reality of the intense work that many Spoken Word and Hiphop poets put into crafting their words, fine-tuning rhythms, rhymes, phrasing and diction. This is to say nothing of the mental discipline and blood sweat and tears required to memorize not only words but presentation: the performance as a whole. The culture clash at this point becomes a battle between an entrenched written tradition and a re-ascendent oral tradition. The Academics and Traditionalists perform on the page; the Populists, or anyhow a great many of them, perform on the stage.
This then is the Culture War: a situation, the broad outlines of which could best be described as a 3-way battle for the soul of poetry (in other words, the respect of the other practitioners of the craft and the attention of the audience). The Populists, particularly the urban-contemporary spoken word artists and their siblings, the rappers, have won the attention of the largest audience, by far. The go-backs, the New Formalists and their attendant tribes, have captured at least some of the intellectual high ground with their determined assaults on modernism. Largely culturally irrelevant in practical terms, they can (and do) content themselves with the notion that by pointing up the excesses and contradictions of Modernism and post-modernism, and re-fielding a fine-tuned analysis and practice of the traditional craft, they have rediscovered or revivified the ‘true heart’ of poetry in English. The Academics, keepers of the laurels, are a house divided indeed, with wayward tendencies struggling to drag the whole schmear off into one or the other of the aforementioned camps. They might herald and laud the ascendant noisy mobs milling in the courtyard at the Ivory Tower’s root, but they might just as easily retreat up the steep stairs to the upper floors to pour boiling oil down on the barbarian hordes.
Most of those whose collaboration makes the uneasy amalgam that is the Poetry Establishment seem to be fence-sitters—probably it is the fence-sitting that makes collaboration a tenable position. In both their practice and their criticism they end up writing and endorsing mostly material that offers many variations on the theme of a general openness in form and technique honed by a more or less acute knowledge of the craft, but is nonetheless bland and boring. To the extent that the Culture War reflects other, more urgent conflicts—the class war, the battle of the sexes, the clash of civilizations and the debate over the nature and utility of civilization itself—from which many of us cannot and must not shrink because our lives depend on their outcomes, we may be compelled to keep fighting it, despite any good intentions about getting over it and getting together on this project of poetry. Despite, even, the practical reality that almost all of us churn into our own writing, a potent brew of influences that includes poetry written in modes that we ourselves may never explicity use.
Most of us, consciously or not, bridge these gaps. I remember seeing a young Black poet at an open mic get up and read a tender-hearted, powerfully imagistic love poem written in a very intentional high modern style, followed later on in his crew’s set by his participation in a group piece that consisted of tightly rhymed and rhythmic hiphop-style raps. This is the kind of rough and ready approach that I believe will go farthest toward building bridges through the bullshit being bilge-pumped in and out of the bleeding body of Poesy by its self-proclaimed doctors today.
Poetry proceeds from passion, and so perhaps war is almost unavoidable. The scrapper in me is often tempted to take hard sides in this crazy, chaotic series of battles, and sometimes I do. But at smarter, clearer moments I remember two snapshots from my life in poetry that embody for me the gaps bridged, the contradictions stitched up, the living, breathing Word alive in all its power, beyond all vain boxes and nets that theorists and critics seek to catch it in.
In one scene, the much-respected modernist/experimentalist poet Robert Creeley gives a tender, incantatory reading of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” under an open-sided tent on a green lawn in the late afternoon of a warm, blustering early-summer day. Creeley, who surely must have read the Ode hundreds of times over the course of his life, carries himself and the listening crowd away with the raw emotion of the poem, struggles through the last two stanzas choking back tears, and breaks into open, unabashed sobs at the close, sobs that are drowned in a standing ovation’s applause.
In the other, fiery, militant hiphop poet Queen Sheba rolls a hot, rhythmically lyrical bulldozer of words over the heads of a packed, rollicking coffeehouse crowd. She is swaying, sweating, her bangled earrings and bracelets flashing in the lights on the tiny stage as she chants from memory a deep-rooted, rhymewound coil of words, backed by a sax player and hand drummer sweating with her under the gels, their music dancing with her breath and tones.
For all our spiritual yearning and intellectual gymnastics, for all our brainiacal mental windjamming, all poetry that truly lives as such proceeds from and goes back to the body. Thus the experience of chills of recognition, goosebumps heart-race gutclutch and breathcatch all at once, when we encounter words so well-ordered, so well-flung that they strike perfectly their mark, that spot where the soul’s stitches sing through the reptile brain, strings of a lyre made of pure electricity. The reality is that most of what most of us write doesn’t quite nail that mark, but if we are open to them, there are many paths by which we can push our craft toward that magical place, and celebrate those few occasions that each of us is able to go there. Some make it there more than others, it’s true, but that is often only by the grace of elements far more pedestrian than having figured out the ultimate magic formula for good poetry—accidents of birth, economic accomplishments and career choices that afford more time to write and hone the craft, health and longevity, and so on.
Leaving aside the little matter of individual taste, which is also determined so much more by circumstance than by conscious effort, we all carry the distinct capacity to know and love poetry in a whole forest of forms. Whether we choose to do so, and where we go from that point, may mean the difference between getting burnt out in an endless war, or building bridges into ever-deeper, ever-wider realms of life lived by sharing in the Word.