Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Campbell McGrath on Poetry

It's always interesting to see what Poetry Daily will put up on Tuesday. This week, it's an interview with Campbell McGrath from Fugue.

Here are some interesting snippets:

I've never believed that there were some topics “unfit” for poetry; if you change the form, you can make them fit. It hasn't always worked, of course, but it has taught me a lot to try.

Poetry is a schizophrenic art form. In MFA programs we spend our time analyzing the text, in poetry slams people are bowled over by the sonic power . . . But poetry exists in their intersection – it is the music and the message.

Poems are not like organic beings, they are organic beings. They begin like a little seedling popping out of the soil. The poet’s job is to grow that into a plant. But some poems are tomato plants, some are oak trees, and some are weeds. At first, most poets spend a lot of time trying to turn weeds into oak trees. But eventually you learn to differentiate, to learn from the poem what it is likely to become and nurture it in that direction. But one should err on the side of generosity and positivism. Never throw away a draft, a stanza, a line – someday you may wake up realizing the rest of the poem it belongs to, or how to fix it, or what transformation if might be subject to. That is, poems that appear to be tomato plants sometimes grow into oak trees. And even weeds may turn out to be dandelions – which are beautiful things in summer.

“Closure” is a great word, and one of the most important in the craft. Everything ends, but not everything has closure. The unexamined life, the war in Iraq, the sound of a car alarm – these are things that will end without closure. Closure is a musical and thematic idea in poetry, it derives from syntax and from rhetorical structures, from the ideas or emotions of the poem working their way towards their necessary culmination. Barbara H. Smith’s book Poetic Closure lays out the various categories – it’s a dry but useful guidebook. Closure is usually one of the last things a poet learns, and many poets never really learn it, if you ask me. If you pick up a literary magazine, nearly all the poems start off well, but not that many end that way.

You have to tell the truth in poetry. You have to be willing to say what you think, and be wrong, and fall on your face, and have jaded sophisticates laugh at your naiveté, and have cool populists laugh at your pompous elitism. Whatever, dude. You have to respect the deep seriousness of the act of writing a poem and be willing to stand behind what you have written before some kind of grand tribunal that might beam down from the Elysian Fields to check up on us. I don’t mean biographical truth – poetry is not memoir, not autobiography. Truth to the language, the form, the emotion, the history, the belief-whatever that’s the poem’s central concern, it must be handled without hypocrisy, chicanery, or general bullshit.

That’s all we have in poetry land: the truth. We are not well paid, and we are not respected in our land or time, but we can tell the truth. We don't have to accede to the hypocrisies and half-truths that surround us. We are not driven by a market economy whose rewards bend and corrupt us. That’s a great gift and worth the economic trade off.

The state of our poetry is not unlike the rest of America today. There’s too much of it, nobody agrees on its basic principles, it’s got factions and partisans destroying its innate sense of community, it’s got some visionaries and some hacks, some hard-working citizens and some cynical careerists. It’s a chaotic, overly-rich grab bag, which is its charm. The continuing expansion of MFA programs means there’s more poetry written now than ever – thousands of books a year get published, thousands more seek a publisher. Critics point to this and say – look how much bad poetry gets published! True. But that ignores the good and even great poetry being published, which is likewise greater than ever. America believes deeply in excess, and it took a while but poetry has finally joined that club.

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