Wednesday, February 25, 2009

So little depends upon a little red rooster...

Should poets describe this silly-looking thing. . . or not?

"Traditional (i.e. fully-determined, fully-resolved, fully-bordered) narratives have been regarded [...] as being inherently more emotional (let us even say weighty, given Jason [Guriel]'s adjectival stylings, [in his Poetry essay]) than non-traditional narrative. The irony in this--in the continued near-religious belief, in short, in the adjective--is that, whatever Jason may personally feel, many poetry readers are not particularly invested in hearing the sound a rooster makes described in the thousandth way it has ever been described (never the same description twice, mind you). I just can't attach any great emotion to a general movement I've seen over and over again in poetry, whether or not I've been specifically told in the past that a rooster's "dark, corroded croak" is like "a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood" (Eric Ormsby). That's beautiful--but is it truly powerful enough to overwrite all those intimate, hard-won, highly-personalized, highly-experiential associations I already have with the words "rooster" and "nail" and "wood"?

-- Seth Abramson

For more on this, click here for a similarly named but very different thread on Harriet!


Shameless Hussy said...

Very interesting point, Seth, and Don thanks for putting it up. I have a similar question regarding the possible power of metaphor to somehow describe nature in a way that moves us toward some greater understanding of our relationship to it... I wonder though, if Seth is questioning the act of description or the poetic intent accompanying it? This is something on my mind of late, and intent might not be the right word...but what the poet is doing with those moves, or how they are laid out in a poem, contextually, formally or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Hm. What about a poet like Francis Ponge? Ponge is fabulous when he "overwrites," and the intensity of the description very often gives off (to some readers, anyway) ineffable senses and resonances beyond those "hard-won personalized experiential associations."

It's interesting how so much of
20th century American poetry is tied to the notion of "objective" detail and description (no ideas but in things, etc), yet we've never had a Ponge. Maybe Marianne Moore comes closest, at times, but that's still pretty far away.


Jordan said...

> Enlighten me.

A Users' Guide to Users doesn't seem useful to you?

Don Share said...

Guess I like metafiction better than metapoetics. Just a matter of taste, not principle, of course!

the unreliable narrator said...

I honestly don't get the first-hundred-days'-worth-of-self-promotion thing either. Oh well—we're common as muck, darlin'.

J.H. Stotts said...

i read the orr, then abramson, in order (metanarrative!)--and the first thing i thought was: bishop's poem 'roosters' is Great, one of the greatest i've read.

btw, it's on-line on POETRY's database
thanks to don and company.

Don Share said...

Well spotted, Mr. Stotts!! I've added a link to the excerpt from Seth's remarks above.

Henry Gould said...

Seth Abrahamson clearly takes an impressively Big Mind approach to poetics... tries to cover all the bases.

But the various controversies over description vs. expression, realism vs. psychological impressionism, etc. etc. ad infinitum, seem to illustrate good old RS Crane's complaint (ca. 1953) that poets & critics choose some a priori quality or abstract aesthetic (or ideological) ideal, & then measure all the diversity of poems by that prior yardstick.

I like Crane's Aristotelian emphasis on empirical research, one pome at a time. The work is a "concrete whole". It is not reducible to any one of its parts. Rather, the critic must search for the poet's formal motive - the particular end toward which he or she shapes all the compositional elements.

In other words, the bright description of a rooster's squawk might play a whole range of diverse roles in different poems - depending upon what kind of poem it is what kind of shape it has. Better not to polemicize over narrow stylistic trends - there is no end to such polemics. Instead, see how all elements of style work together, successfully or not, in individual poems.

More about this over at :

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Don,

I'm amazed that no one challeneges Orr--or anyone, really--on this notion of a "tedious careerism that encourages poets to publish early and often." Really? The average age of an MFA student today is approximately 27; the average number of publications an MFA student has upon matriculation, from my several years of speaking to MFA students, is approximately 1. I'm serious; the average number is 1.

So my question is, all those writers from the Golden Age of poetry in America--you know, when all poets were upper-class, so they weren't concerned with all this middle-class careerism and such--how many publications did they have when they were 27?

Sorry, a better question: How many books did those upper-class poets have when they were 27?

The conversation over careerism has, I fear, taken a nasty turn toward the classist, which no one wants to observe upon. For fear of being called, I suppose, middle-class.

Thanks for the link, Don. I'll probably reproduce this comment on my blog.

Be well,

Henry Gould said...


Rimbaud died at - what - 26?

Buddy, this is the Big Leagues.

The world only has room for 2-3 good poets at a time. The rest of you can publish in local newspapers (as long as they exist). Make sure the rhymes scan.

Poetry is not a Product, I don't think. It's not something you or me or anyone can Bank on.

Poetry is a Game. There are only 2-3 Grandmasters. And (as with chess) Computer-Zeus likes to trip them up.

Good luck, & drink a lot of coffee.

Jordan said...

> no one challenges...

I thought Orr was talking about the publish-or-perish mandate for poets who wish to teach creative writing in colleges and graduate programs. I believe Stephen Burt was the first to call attention to this pressure as a factor in the increase in poetry books published each year. The increase in annual MFA graduates is another, broader vector.

Variations on Orr's argument have been put forward by Poetry Magazine (Christian Wiman's "we can't read everything" editorial) and Ron Silliman (who for two or three years reiterated Williams's "what about all this writing" on a monthly basis). These arguments all share a stated concern that oversupply will lead to the neglect of quality. I read this as a shared unstated concern that quality will come from an unexpected quarter, undermining the current gatekeepers' claims to authority. I'd say it's a fair concern, and one that history certainly bears out.

I'd also mention that anxiety does not actually require a fight-or-flight response.

The backchannel discussion consensus on Orr's piece seems to be that his incidental mentions of Ashbery and Milosz are where the action is in that piece. Imagine, going after the two most influential figures of the age in one piece -- if that's not "going on your nerve" I don't know what is. That said, it's hardly news that Ashbery's work is capacious enough to include cliches, silliness and deliberate boredom. Maybe Orr is up to the task of sorting the gold from the lead, and providing a nuanced account of why Ashbery would work with these various materials. That work has already been done, though, by Stephen Burt in his cover essay in the TLS last year. Orr's charge that Ashbery is universally and uncritically admired doesn't wash.

Milosz is a more likely line of attack, but I for one am not persuaded that he's taken the full measure of Milosz or for that matter of Milosz's ambassadorial work. Yes Milosz is used as an emblem by Pinsky, Hass, and others, but there does appear to be something emblematic in the work, somewhere. At some point a disinterested party will explain what, and show where.

Anyway. I didn't think Orr was criticizing MFA candidates or even recent graduates for publishing too much too fast, though he does appear to press that charge against the early-to-midcareer group. His more general point, and perhaps if the Times doesn't fold he will get to develop this further in another piece, appears to be that the work of younger poets isn't announcing a generational difference in an aggressive impossible-to-ignore way. I disagree, but the evidence -- the fact that millions continue to ignore poetry -- is against me.

Henry Gould said...

Jordan, that's interesting, but I don't think Orr was attacking either Milosz or Ashbery. The jury is out on whether they are lastingly great or not - time will tell. Orr's focus seems to be on a certain shortage of "greatness" right now, or an uncertainty about how that particular pair of epaulettes gets sewn onto the uniform these days.

Orr's saying Milosz may be great, but the fact is he's "foreign". How do we recognize great "native genius", if we still do? Ashbery may be great, but he's been great for a while - what's next?

& he's looking at the growth of the MFA industry & related business, & wondering if the vocational certification of all that doesn't obscure or negate the "greatness" factor.

& he's looking at possible variations to the traditional "Great Man" version of greatness (ie. E. Bishop).

Anyway, you don't need a precis of the article. My own feeling is that only great themes make great poets. "America is essentially the greatest poem," said Whitman. I think American poets find the phenomenon of America in general very difficult to write about. It's the elephant in the thematic china shop, or however that metaphor goes.