"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Aaron Belz's "Rules for Poetry"

Aaron Belz, St. Louisian, teacher, poet, drinker of beers, loving husband and father, Christian, posted the following rules for poetry on his blog recently.

I've reproduced them here with my comments following each.

1. It makes sense or at least tries; wherever it doesn’t make sense it’s because it can’t, because something is impeding the rational.

  • What kind of sense should it make? James Joyce doesn’t make sense in the same way as a newspaper editorial makes sense. Neither does Stein. Neither does Ashbery. Neither do you. Perhaps a better way to phrase this idea is that it should convey meaning. Meaning, however, is a negotiation between writer and reader or reader and text.

2. It is about love; or about being confused or pursued or pursuing, guilty, in denial, etc. There is a natural distance between the writer, lonely at his desk, and the reader, elsewhere, that the poem attempts to overcome. All poetry is love poetry.

  • I agree with this idea in spirit. My sensitive rejection-addled soul says “yes!” and that tiny part of me that looks out from my window onto the world and feels a bit magnanimous, and feels that people are basically good, says “huzzah!” But like most conservative political ideology, this idea only works in an ideal situation—if everyone behaves the way they “ought” to. But I will cling to the illusion, or the idea. I mean, poetry is a communication between two people. And if we find love there, then huzzah!

3. It is verbal, which might seem obvious, but I am seeing a lot of poetry that seems not to be aware of this.

  • This may seem obvious but it may not. First of all by verbal do we mean “meant to be spoken” or do we mean “must use the rhythms of colloquial speech” or do we mean…well, hell. I mean. Words are verbal when spoken. I think of work that could be classified as non-verbal, such as the visual poetry of someone like Geoff Huth, or much of what Alan Sondheim does. Of course the question should be raised—is Aaron being descriptive or prescriptive? If the latter, then my point is rendered moot. If the former, though… But I must also take issue with the vagueness of this question.

4. Its basic unit is the sentence, not the stanza, line, word, phoneme, or letter. I used to think its basic unit was the line. It’s definitely the sentence.

  • Again, what does “basic unit” mean? I would argue that not even all speech uses the sentence as the basic unit, at least not exclusively. I also find that much poetry works simultaneously on the level of the sentence and the line. The line is one unit that may also perform double-duty semantically in the context of another unit, the sentence. People break lines in certain places for reasons. Especially in free verse. In metrical verse, well, the line is definitely a unit. I guess we should squabble over what we mean when we say “basic.”

5. It begins somewhere known and ends somewhere unknown; or vice-versa; it has history and memory or hope and a future; this is what makes it progressive.

  • Or it begins and ends somewhere known. Or begins and ends somewhere unknown. Do I need to trot out examples here? Again though, if Aaron is talking about “good” poems, well, do I need to trot out examples?

6. Each line surprises; I learned this in 1991 from the poet Tim Seibles; he was right.

  • I don’t know that this is necessary. I’d be suspicious of a poem with a surprise in every line. First of all, the surprises would wear out their welcome and become less surprising in surfeit. Also, this sort of poem runs the risk of being seen as the type of poem that is impressed with itself. (See Rule #7.) “Look at me! I’m SO surprising! There’s a surprise in EVERY LINE!”

7. It is not impressed with itself; Daniel Kane calls this “I’m-so-cleveritis”; poems aren’t the answer; they aren’t even much.

  • I can more or less agree with this one. But I suppose “clever” needs some definition. Tell me, Aaron, can one, when talking about a poem use the word “clever” in a non-pejorative way?

8. It is for today, not for posterity; Whitman knew this, and so did Emerson: “Thy love afar is spite at home.”

  • Amen. I won’t argue with you on this one. Though this becomes problematic if we are to enjoy poems written in generations prior to our own.


C. Dale said...

I am sorry, but whenever I see rules for poetry of any kind, even in jest, I immediately want to disagree. What is the point of rules like these? What is the context for them?

Jonathan said...

Even where i agree with these rules I disagree with them. "No rules." That's my rule.

Anonymous said...

I thought poetry was about being overly self-absorbed.

aaron said...

Hey Tony - the rules are kind of facetious, but they're also kind of just for me. I mean, these are rules for my own poetry--maybe they're more like objectives.

One point of clarification. THe word "verbal" doesn't mean "spoken," it just means that it uses words. In other words, i don't mean "oral," though oral is always fun. . . i mean poetry is the art of words. "of, relating to, or consisting of words."

Yes. Hi, everyone!

Tony R said...

Hi Aaron.

I must confess, I've slightly misrepresented your intent here try to make a point.

I know you too well to think that you were being totally serious or prescriptive with these rules. I found them fascinating (and contrary to C. Dale I LOVE lists of rules like this) because facetious or not, prescriptive or descriptive, such lists give us an opportunity to think about what we value in poetry. What's important to us.

It's always a kick for me to go back and read the Reaper Essays of the late 70s authored by Mark Jarman, who went on to be a "Rebel Angel" or "New Formalist"--at least for a spell. If you take a look at his own contemporary work (some of which is pretty good, if genteel, I think) you'll note that the elder Jarman pretty much breaks all of his rules. Oh youth!

Anyway, thanks for the dialogue.

aaron said...

Ah, dialog. What would we do without it?

I've been thinking more about Rule 5, and i've decided that it's one i'm convicted is true not only for my work but for others. As in, when i review poetry by someone else, I look for progress within each poem and within a collection of poems as a whole. I want there to be a goal, a knowable goal.

The reason I'm particularly insistent on this one is that so much poetry--SO MUCH POETRY--is aimless, unverified, untethered to experience, diarrheal, cyclical, self-defined, anti-metaphysical, ETC ETC, in the name of ART and STYLE and whatever bullshit standards poets have for themselves and for their friend & enemy poets, standards that are heedless to "real" life, that I go bugeyed when i read it. Which, as a reviewer and series curator, i often have to do. I wish I could read less poetry. I don't want to bail on my reviewing or my series, though, so. I read the shit.

You know?