Since I have been well-read enough to understand modern poetry, I've been intrigued by the elitist potential in the medium. When I was in law school, I did a research project that involved reviewing 1820 issues of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper. In these periodic papers, poems appeared in every issue, as if they were television programs. In a time before television and radio, the printed word exerted a different power than it does today. That power was not always "high literature". Almost as long as the technology for relatively inexpensive printing has existed, a popular literature of penny dreadfuls and other similar "common amusements" has been in existence. In my mind, I make numerous distinctions among writers, and completely accept the notion of a hiearchy between "real literature" and "pop fiction".
This distinction makes for some contradictory notions existing in my head. For example, I find that Stephen King is a much superior wordsmith and plot-spinner than is the English author C.P. Snow, yet I consider Snow to be a very important author in my life and I consider King airplane fiction. I think Stephen King's popularity has obscured his deserved reputation as a highly skilled craftsman of words, but Snow, with a more pedestrian prose style and plots filled with coincidence, still touches on the "key issues" of life's meaning for me in ways that King novels just don't touch. My point is not to praise Snow or denigrate King, as these matters are obviously matters of taste. My point instead is to say that I do not consider all "literature" to be equivalent, but instead prioritize different works in different ways.
Yet from the time I have understood poetry, I have considered modern poetry to be a minefield for those whose ego needs artificial boosts. It's an odd medium, which has fallen from favor with the great mass of readers. Even in this time of "poetry renaissance", more people want to write poetry than really want to read it. The premier magazine in the field, Poetry, has a circulation which is a fraction of the number of submissions by potential poets it receives each year. Everybody wants to see Heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everybody wants to be a poet, but nobody wants to actually read any. For that matter, I consider virtually every quest for fame and fortune in any mode of literature a sort of long-shot, no worse but no more noble than a burning desire to be Michael Jordan.
The resulting odd literary world in which poetry lives is that "rising stars" and "old classics" are defined by small academic presses, which do not sell much in the way of poetry, but do sell as kind of odd pecking order among poets. A few serious poets do sell relatively well, but the days when an Edna St. Vincent Millay could both sell well and write seriously are long past. Even in Millay's day, her critics suggested that popularity and critical success could not co-exist.
The fact that poetry is pragmatically "dead" has not phased poets, nor has it, ironically changed some of the various elitisms which pervade this genre. I used to belong to a Compuserve Poetry Forum. It was very nice, actually, participants could post poetry in non-critique sections or in sections in which other members could offer "no holds barred" critiques. I read some great poems on that forum, and interacted with people who were bright, eager and filled with fun. But I noticed over time that some of the participants who moderated expressed deep dissatisfaction with their fellow participants. It seems that some did not understand that certain poems were in sonnet form or villaneuelle form or broke the rules of formal haiku.
This was poetry as specialist game, a treasured set of rules.
Now I understand that pursuits can benefit from rules. I cannot stand, for example, to play in a chess tournament with a discourteous player. I know that those who raise bonsai trees try to follow an aesthetic of form which is part of the satisfaction in the genre--in some instances, trying to capture the panoramic look of a tree on a mountain in miniature is considered profound.
Yet, almost as soon as I understood that poetry is frequently divided into asynchronous and mutually non-supportive schools of writers, I declined to join in that way of looking at things. I do believe in trying to write what I consider "good poetry", which, for me, is unadorned free verse which tries to hit home an image rather than
a loose aggregation of "poetic phrases" or a formal "form" of academic poetry. But I have always called myself a "bad poet", one who was less interested in academic excellence than in the simple experience of idea and image exchange.
Perhaps this is a self-defense device, a self-parody before someone else can parody me. But I prefer to believe it is a form of liberation from the needless constraints we all place upon ourselves in creative pursuits. I make it a particular point to draft quickly, from the heart and mind, and to revise lightly. I want to show my soul, not my artifice or skill.
When I was just out of college one winter, during that dull lull before I went to law school the next Fall, I wrote and submitted dozens and dozens of poems to small lit magazines, achieving an acceptance ratio of roughly one in thirty. I had been inspired by an experience I had in London in the Worthless Words Workshop, about which I some time ago placed a post in my "memories" section which is still accessible. I got published in little literary mags nobody reads, and relished the prospect. In the years since, I have gotten an isolated poem or two published here or there, but in general, I have not sought to submit much poetry for publication by others. I bought Poets Market this year, but as yet have not submitted a thing.
Instead of trying to fit in the Mouse that Roared poetry elite, where many seek to be chosen but few are read if chosen, I have instead focused on "bad poetry", a poetry of connection with other people rather than a poetry of attempted fame. I do not mean that I write bad poetry on purpose; any real lack of quality in my poems is more incidental. I mean instead that I write poetry which is intentionally not obscure, with the hope of expressing an image or an idea to a reader or two. I pursued poetry on the Compuserve Poetry Forum for years (as we still keep a CS membership, I suppose I should do so again), and now I
do nervousness.org poetry exchanges from time to time. I send and receive fun stuff, and I feel that I really "get" where people are coming from.
In 1999, I wrote a book of poems about chess, largely as an experiment in marketing poetry on ebay. It sold well from 2000 through 2001, and a few copies have sold this year.
I have written a second poetry book, but have delayed publishing it for the odd reason that I wish I could draw sketches of gerbils. My chess book seems to have run its course, but I love the idea that I wrote something and it sold. It paid me only my expenses, but the e mails from people who liked to read it were connections beyond price.
Today I met with nanowrimo.org would-be novelists, all of whom are mid-way through completing a novel this November.
I really liked everyone involved in this process. I loved the guy who brought his laptop, and let someone read his really cool novel first sentence aloud. I liked the guys who were "serious" fantasy writers, who are out networking connections with agents and sci fi gurus. I took in all that I heard, and it was all good.
But my own view of my writing is that I am a bad poet first and foremost. I write this journal, I write poems, I send out mail art, I read poems and view mail art, and I have written this novel. But I am not seeking fame or money.
I do not plan to be a "great novelist" nor a respected poet.
My plans are instead simple, and so far have proven very achievable. I want to communicate with people. I want them to communicate with me. I do not mind if people find my work "bad" or "good". I mind that we have an exchange of ideas. I have glimpsed the island of Avalon, and it is filled with words. I am continually reminded of the first sentence of the biblical Book of John. But I will instead fracture a different Bible verse: "What profiteth a man if he write a great novel, but lose his soul to pretension"?
I will seek my salvation with fear and trembling, and
my bad poetry will be my prayer.
Tonight, emboldened by the exuberance of 9 writers in a Denny's, I typed out the 50,500th word of my novel. I have finished it in 10 days from the time that I started. It is not good. It is bad. But it is my heart and mind and soul, and I will cherish it. I will cherish it because my entire goal in my creative exchange is to communicate, and I am afraid that this is just what my novel does.
If I could choose between fame and the warm feeling of interconnection with ten true readers, I would choose the latter. It is the bad poet's system, and I believe it is the proverbial Stairway to Heaven. What is a bad poet if he cannot quote Led Zep? My poems are my riffs, and listen to the metallic clang as I dance across the stage. Wanna riff?