Monday, June 2, 2008

Brian Fawcett (Part Nine, and Final)

"these questions now pop up: What about the therapeutic value of poetry? What’s wrong with using poetry as a tool of self-exploration and an instrument of simple self-expression?

The poetry I wrote before I quit publishing was nearly always crudely self-expressive, and I moved on because my instincts told me that self-expression for a working writer was irrelevant. Then, perhaps ironically, I spent a full decade of the ensuing years that followed teaching prison inmates cultural literacy in various disguises—creative and technical writing, various history and English literature course. During those years, I came to see how fundamental the urge toward self expression is during periods of crisis. Whether the crises are private, legal/criminal, or global doesn’t seem to matter. Prison showed me how much more productive and safe life is for everyone when the urge to express oneself is trained and educated—however slightly we were able to accomplish that inside a jail. It made me change my mind about the uses of poetry as self-expression. there are a couple of questions left hanging, and which I need to answer: Is there anything genuine and valuable in the verse Biz? Are there substitutes for one who gives it up? Are there alternatives?The short answers seem to be: 1.) Yes; 2.) sure, but they don’t work very efficiently, and for me they don’t bring the same pleasures; 3.) no, I can’t think of any, but maybe you can.

Perhaps the vast majority of written verse today ought to be viewed as self-expressive therapy, and quietly treated not as art but as an important and effective kind of self-administered education that can bring order to the situationally confused or the chronically puzzled."--Brian Fawcett.

I like this passage quite a bit, especially the final sentence. It's nothing new, of course. Even the witheringly strict Ezra Pound said that most people (if they chose) should write verse for its therapeutic effect.

But there's doggerel. There're diary entries. There's verse. And then there's poetry. And Fawcett has made many assumptive conclusions about poetry which can be separated easily from what he's outlined above.


"If verse is to survive, perhaps this is where and how it should do so: as a minor but useful cultural instrument for ameliorating human stupidity and the violence that springs from it. At its best, verse therapy will refine a few rough or confused minds. At very least, it will keep some savage beasts, perhaps temporarily, from maiming the people around them. As we used to say in jail, reflection is good, in and of itself, if only because it slows people down."--Brian Fawcett.

Again, I'm in sympathy with the argument, but there's an obvious danger, here, that in equating poetry with offhand verse, we diminish the former. Certainly as one (if one?) gains more knowledge about the craft and history of poetry, these hierarchical terms can be incorporated by the individual. But the teaching of poetry, at least as it's professed in grade school and at "self-expression" workshops, either has little or no knowledge of higher aims and attributes, or, worse, a disdain for them when an actual glancing acquaintanceship with Paradise Lost is suffered.


"Yet in spite of everything I’ve said here about the state of poetry, I have an overpowering instinct that when I stopped publishing verse and thumbed my nose at the Biz, I gave up most of my access points to the essential life business that is poetry."--Brian Fawcett.

This is rather beside the point, is it not? The important issue is this: do you still read and write poetry? And if not, why not? Do you need "access points" to sit in a quiet room and seriously grapple with the creation and ordering and reworking of a poem? If the fire is no longer lit, then the rest -- the biz, the contacts, the networking, the funding, the public performance -- is moot.


"That being so, there are a couple of questions left hanging, and which I need to answer: Is there anything genuine and valuable in the verse Biz? Are there substitutes for one who gives it up? Are there alternatives?

The short answers seem to be: 1.) Yes; 2.) sure, but they don’t work very efficiently, and for me they don’t bring the same pleasures; 3.) no, I can’t think of any, but maybe you can."-- Brian Fawcett.

Again with "the Biz". Were Dickenson's efforts predicated on immediate audience response and plaudits? Did Stevens -- after working all day as the vice president of a major insurance company, and then coming home to read and write poems -- worry that he hadn't the time to schmooze and trade lines with his confreres in coffee houses till early morning? Was Larkin's audience unaware of his great poetry even though he shunned public performances of it, being shy by nature as well as suspicious of the set-up?

Cart before the horse, Brian. One writes because one wants to, even has to. Or because one wants the reflected glory at worst, or companionship at best.

There's nothing wrong with aggressively promoting your verse, with enjoying the company of, and knowledge from, other poets, with being concerned and initiatory in matters of making the public aware of your (and others') efforts. But I'm justifiably suspicious of your motivations as set out consistently in this long essay.


"Substitutes? I guess I could learn to be a nicer guy and a more social one, and I could be more insistent about phoning my fiction/documentary writer friends and asking them about what they’re working on. Being a fly on the wall when I do this will entertaining because one could judge their impersonations of iguanas."-- Brian Fawcett.

I don't mean to be unneccessarily harsh here, but isn't this hypocritical in that you're the guy (in this case) on the street corner passing by the pitied masturbater that no one else, as well, notices? Here, the condom is on the other stub. If you want people to pay attention to your poetry, should you not also show a natural curiosity for the efforts of others?

This brings up one of the seven or so reasons of those supposedly ignoring your public performances that I mentioned I'd get to later (from my very first post). And it's in this quote:

"It therefore follows that it is incumbent upon poets to hang out, play the music, join the choir, if they are to exercise their faculties. I didn’t. I’ve been asking myself lately if I abandoned verse because I am, by nature, more solitary than the poets around me. Maybe I am, but I’m not less playful than the others of my generation. I do note that my play preference is for matters of cognition, not music, and that my early life did leave me with a number of performance disabilities I’ve never much wanted to get over." -- Brian Fawcett.

This is where one has to see things from the others' perspective. Even were you to read Shakespeare or Homer, if your face was plastered to paper, mumbling, ignoring the audience (or not even acknowledging its existence), all in glum tone, is it any wonder the audience was "sleepy"? The performance of your poetry is a poor reflector, a poor gauge, of the worth of it. Conversely, an engaged, confident, inflective reader may be applauded wildly, but the work on the page may be, indeed, comatose. That's like giving serial French kisses to one whose lungs are filled with water: life can't be manufactured.

I started this essay with my own reminiscinces of that reading. And I remember that Fawcett's recitation was solemn, eyes-to-page, and unengaged. But I was still interested in the words on that page. Transmission is always a distracting influence, for good or ill, and I confess to often having a hard time accessing a poem I'm unfamiliar with during the presentation of the speaker. Norm Sibum also gave an atrocious reading that night. His long narrative sea poem was painful (not in its composition, which was worthy) in its delivery. Sibum was exceedingly nervous (there were perhaps one hundred people there -- an unusually high number for a poetry reading -- in a benefit for the arson of MacLeod's bookstore) and that agitation was transferred to the audience. The only memorable author/reader was Stan Persky who, of course, is outgoing. But the verse was trifling: a "humorous" offering on the cliched God-bestowing-praise-on-His-favoured-football-team theme.


"Finally, there’s the question that this particular investigation begs to have me ask: Is writing—in any form that makes it a cognitive investigation of the universe (as opposed to an exploitation of a limited opportunity or market—worth doing even when society doesn’t recognize it as valuable? And if it is, what are the best ways to proceed in the 21st Century?"--Brian Fawcett.

Writing is especially valuable because society may shun it. In fact, it should be obvious that as poetry acquires a popular buzz, it's invariably because it satisfies a middle-class complacent reflection, because it acts as a religiose sugared lozenge, or because it's a diverting entertainment.

I dated a woman some years ago who wasn't much into poetry (but was intelligent, and into wordplay) but who loved the efforts of Billy Collins. I had heard the name, but was unfamiliar with his work. Of course, he's one of a handful of poets who actually has a large number of readers. Impossible, I know. I perused two dozen of his best-known poems: accessible, flattering the reader's contemporary concerns, and with a wit and charm, an inoffensive warmth. I thought of him as an entertaining eighteenth-century wag, a harmless raconteur in the parentally-chaperoned drawing room. His popularity did not result from any sparkling originality in his verse, but rather from his personality (real or positioned) and his tapped-into subject matter. And I immediately understood that popularity.

Why do you want to satisfy society's standards? And (as to poetry) what are those standards? One writes for spiritual or poetic deities, for peers, for canonical forebears, and for a discriminating reader.

The best way to proceed is by reading, reflecting, and writing.

The End (finally).

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