Setting Free the Poets

Poet Robert Pinsky has written a book about the plight of modern poets, Singing School, which must be pretty good, because it inspired a brilliant piece — a manifesto, even — by Daniel Bosch in the Daily Beast.

Time was, a poem stood the test of time because one person after another stood up and spoke that poem aloud, and their speaking gave him or her pleasure, or terror, or grief, or wonder. Nowadays people stand for timed tests on a poem and are compelled to establish that they have “understood” it, but they are rarely asked to account for what and how that poem made them feel physically, while and just after it was coordinating their breath and the movements of their lips and tongues. Nowadays almost any talk about a poem begins naming its topic: people love to tell you what a poem is “about.” Many readers today evaluate a poet according to whether or not his or her body of work can or cannot be said to be “about” an idea which is of interest aside from the quality of their experience of saying it aloud. Perhaps these relatively new ways of regarding poetry have not cost it too dearly. But if its relationship with the academy has come with perks—nice real estate, the chance of employment, a (contested) degree of respectability—it can seem, taking a long view, that the public life of poetry today is “about” the needs of the academy, and not the experience of poetry.

Complaining about poetry’s “academy”, of course, is neither original nor noteworthy. Indeed, the famed Robert Pinsky is a part of the establishment, whether he likes it or not, since he teaches at Boston University and basks frequently in awards and honorifics. As for Daniel Bosch, who I’ve never heard of before reading his good article in the Daily Beast, he’s probably a part of the establishment too, since he writes about poetry in the Daily Beast.

The fact that the poetry establishment may deaden our poetic souls cannot be taken seriously as an indictment of this or any actual poetry establishment. Rather, the fact is simply important as a reminder that we as poets or as readers of poets must always fight against this deadening effect, this natural human impulse to conform. The academy does not need to be overthrown; instead, we should always remember to think beyond it, and find personal practices that help us to do so, as Bosch’s article encourages:

The Greek roots of the word “anthology” are anthos, meaning “flower,” and legein, meaning “to gather,” and the simplicity and directness of this metaphor compel us to remember that anybody can pick flowers. Back in the days before and just after print publishing was invented, it seemed that every reader of poetry was an anthologist, the compiler of a fat commonplace book and folders stuffed with hand-copied verses. Pinsky gets this: practically the first thing he tells the reader to do is to get busy picking their own favorite blooms.

I particularly like the part of this article in which Bosch quotes Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno and pretends to mistake Dante’s description of an encounter with Bertran de Born (the damned sinner who must follow blindly the lead of his own disembodied head, which he swings lantern-like as he walks) for a description of a corridor between sessions at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. (However, Bosch unwittingly reveals the extent to which he is himself a member of the academy when he refers to this conference only by its abbreviation, AWP, as if everybody who reads the Daily Beast would know what AWP is).

Indeed, we as poets or as lovers of poetry do often walk blindly behind our heads, failing to connect our bodies to our brains at all moments of our lives — and, again, this is not because we are bad or corrupt or dishonest poets or lovers of poetry, but simply because we are human beings and this is human nature.

The plight of poetry in modern times is a topic on my mind these days because, I’m happy to announce, I’m finally preparing to relaunch Action Poetry, the open poetry sharing space that has been running on Litkicks in one form or another since 2001, in a bold new presentation, with several new features including a distinct domain name and Facebook/Twitter integration. I’ve been working on this for weeks (in a larger sense, I’ve been working on it for years) and I’m hoping to relaunch the new site this coming weekend.

So, please stay tuned! Hopefully the long-awaited, long-threatened new version of Litkicks Action Poetry will do the same thing that Daniel Bosch’s article does, that Robert Pinksy does: remind those of us who feel a momentary need for poetic inspiration (myself included, always) to temporarily position our poetic heads back on our poetic shoulders, so that we may see and hear and feel in whole, at least for the duration of a few verses at a time.

5 Responses

  1. Levi,
    great news about the AP site and interesting article. As for the site, I think the benefits of the previous version allowed for more of a personal response to each of the poems vice just posting a poem in an endless string (tho’ I understand it was the temporary “bridge” to the work you had to do to complete the new one! :). It’s interesting in the article about deadening poetic souls with a focus on “understanding” it as opposed to the feeling of it. My wife doesn’t often like when I recite my bad poems to her as she feels they “go to the dark place” too much and only likes the happy ones. In a way, that proves to me that at least they invoke a feeling and reaction, unique to each person, and with the old site (and hopefully the new and improved one!), I always found it interesting as to how other poets responded to what I wrote, or even how I responded to someone else’s, sometimes totally different than what the poet intended. For me, that’s the great part of all this, along with simply swirling the crunchy sound of the words around, whether they follow some established formula or not…

    Look forward to the launch of the new site! Will you have any of the old archives of poems available on that??

  2. I would always shut down in
    I would always shut down in class when the teacher/professor would ask “What is this poem about?” or “What does it mean?” Yuck. Good read though.

  3. Thanks for the constructive
    Thanks for the constructive critique, Susurra. I think you’ll like the new site, and yes, it will definitely have the complete archives, dating back to 2001.

    In fact, the project to build the new site began mainly as an archival project, because I sometimes felt that Action Poetry belonged to an early era of Litkicks (when a website has been around as long as this one has, that website is allowed to have an “earlier era”). Then I realized that the basic idea of Action Poetry — sharing, responding, having fun with the online format — is still just as fresh and valuable today as it was twelve years ago, and that there are plenty of people who never even saw Litkicks before who would enjoy it. It’s in that spirit that I’m going to launch this new thing. Really hope all my old poet friends will show up to be a part of it.

  4. Exciting news indeed Levi. I
    Exciting news indeed Levi. I sincerely feel action poetry has to be interactive between the poet and the responders. I sure do miss that spirit of “Action” & give and take amongst the poets. Poetry and the word is very much alive here in Frederick, Md., as evidenced each month at the poetry event i host @ Cafe Nola.
    Poetry is eternal, reading & performing your words is an ultimate high that can only be explained by doing it. I am anxiously awaiting this next phase in the evolution of Action Poetry, thank you Levi Asher!

  5. This is a welcome development
    This is a welcome development. Poets always rise. The daily nag. The need. It meant something when it was wrote. That impulse is gone, the words left for the writers memory. Others can only appreciate authenticity, but it has to mean something different to them. That why some read and reread and reread poems. To have any sense of the poem, repetition is important. To me anyway. Speaking of spoken word, any capability to upload mp3s for readings?….songs, even.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!