Crowned with laurel
Chris Stroffolino reviews
The Romantic-Modern Lyric: Poetry for the Non-Poet, by Dale Smith
Smith, Dale. ‘The Romantic-Modern Lyric: Poetry For The Non Poet’, The
Poetry Project Newsletter #206 (February/March 2006): NYC, pp.
This review is 2,000 words or about 4 printed pages long.
An earlier draft first appeared on Chris Stroffolino’s weblog
Dale Smith’s essay in the latest Poetry Project Newsletter begins with a provocative and/ or well-worn sentiment:
“The Romantic-Modern history of poetry has grown increasingly self-referential, rarely able to extend arguments beyond a small tribe of practitioners and students.”
But before I continue, questions arise that Smith may subsequently address, but nevertheless need to be paused over now.
1. How do you define “Romantic-Modern” lyric? Since “romantic” is associated with the 19th century and “modern” often with the 20th (in some notions, just the first half of the 20th at that; in other notions, beginning around 1590 or 1620, but it seems Smith means the 20th), it’ll be interesting to see if Smith fleshes this out. But if it is meant as an indictment of MOST of the last 200 years of Western (presumably) poetry, then it raises other questions —
2. Is the era of Pope and Dryden, then, being held up as a better alternative? Or earlier? But, if earlier, while single out “romantic and modern” as the problem? And what of non-western poetries?
3. Since Smith is using such large brushstrokes to paint his argument, wouldn’t the example of the mid-late 20th century Beats, for instance, who by many definitions are as “romantic-modern” as any, immediately refute his claim, especially considering that by hook or by crook they certainly managed a more broad popular appeal, which Smith values as criteria here, than much that went before them, or after (for that matter)?
(The Beats do appear, briefly, near the end of his essay — by the way. More on that later)
Smith points out how Coleridge (in 1809, presumably near the beginning of this “romantic-Modern era”) perceived the same inadequacy Smith has, yet it’s doubtful Coleridge was the first, nor had the best solutions for it. Nor was Shakespeare, in his decision to leave behind the “envious court” of sonnet patronage to make himself a “motley to the view” (Motley — a cross between Alice Notley and Jennifer Moxley?)
Yet, since Smith’s focus is on more recent times, Shakespeare is not as useful a counter argument to Pound, Olson and even William Carlos Williams (whose inadequacy Smith hints at) as the Beats (which, again, he still hasn’t mentioned…)
Nonetheless, despite these lapses in the framing of Smith’s argument, his statements in the second paragraph are important and valid. “There is a formal obligation between the poet and audience, rather than an inquiry into the varied circumstances of communication.” This quote is Smith’s jumping off point to discuss what, for him, is the value of Jeffrey Walker’s Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (Oxford, 2000), yet another book considering the value, to contemporaries, of emphasizing the common roots of the now specialized and “seemingly separate” disciplines of poetry and rhetoric. Often such argument (see Wesley Trimpi. Muses of One Mind: The Literary Analysis of Experience and its Continuity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), invoke Heisod as the wild garden in which to find such roots, and Walker’s book is no exception. But, for Smith, this has tremendous implications for re-envisioning the notion of the “lyric” which can be conceived as always-already transpersonal. In the sense, Smith’s Walker-inflected argument is probably more about ways of reading poetry than necessarily of writing it.
The question with which I began, however, still remains. If, indeed, as Smith writes early — in diagnosing the problem as “contemporary poets need… to make effective arguments that appeal more broadly to people whose situations in the world are different from [their] own,” then how can a re-considering or re-conceiving of the lyric as transpersonal (and rhetorical) enable this?
Rather than directly engaging this question, Smith uses this argumentative notion of the transpersonal lyric to defend it against poet-critics like Charles Bernstein’s “traditional romantico-modernist” suspicion of argument and so-called totalizing discourses (at least when it comes to what they call poetry).
I am in sympathy with Smith’s argument, especially insofar as I, too, lament the suspicion against discursive argument in much of what’s called contemporary poetry; more often than not, poets are only permitted such forays into ‘normative’ discursive argument if it’s billed as poetry criticism or Poetics, neither of which present themselves to ‘broad audiences’. Yet for Smith, in this essay at least, the “broad audience” remains something outside, distant, if not exactly unattainable. And Smith, while careful not to single out language poetry — or even so-called “elliptical poetry” (since Walker values an “elliptical from of argumentation”) any more than the larger phenomena that includes Pound and Olson (if not necessarily Whitman or Dickinson), and does attempt to name some — for him-positive alternatives (Kent Johnson, Ed Sanders, Lorenzo Thomas, Fanny Howe, and Tom Clark — and yes, here, finally, he plays THE BEAT CARD!), he still leaves many questions unanswered — and not necessarily the ones he wants us to think about. If indeed “we need to reflect more thoroughly on the communicative force of poetry, and to understand its value in the world,” why confine oneself to “the lyric” as our [only] means of relating that measure that tests the “nature of experience?”
For me, there’s still some untested assumptions Smith makes, and implied, but not interrogated, definitions of lyric at play (and at work) here. If Smith’s understanding of lyric is capacious enough to include what is often called “prose” (and that certainly could be one of the implications of Walker’s argument) as well as song and song lyrics, to name but two “non-poetic” genres, I am in much more agreement with him than I am if he “draws a line in the sand,” as it were, around the “lyric” and limits it far more than the much invoked Heisod (if not necessarily Walker) did. I fear, and suspect (but hope to be shown wrong), it’s the latter for Smith, as it is for many poets, or at least those who get to be called, or saddled, with that term as “primary” designation.
For even though Smith promises a talk about “poetry for the non-poet,” there isn’t much of an indication of it given in this essay. Not that I expect, or even want, a recipe! And to his credit, Smith doesn’t prescribe what such poetry would be, but lurking in the shadows of this essay is the question of popularity. Relatively more popular contemporary poets like Billy Collins are not mentioned as positive, and obviously popularity would not be the only, or even major, criterion for Smith. Yet, given the premises of Smith’s argument, it’s equally obvious that it is at least part of his argument.
So, what is to be done? One can try to write in a way that could reach a broad audience, and make that a concern of the writing. Some say that, by definition, it’s a doomed project, as there’s no formula for popularity, and they have a point, especially if one wants to reach a broad audience and still hold onto some specialized (yet taken-for-granted) notion of “the lyric” as “our means” of doing so. On the other hand, one could say Smith is less interested in popularity than in populism. But, again, the central phrase, “poetry for the non-poet” belies such an argument.
What I’d like to suggest as a more capacious way of dealing with the issues Smith raises and crisis he diagnosis is a shift of focus. Take, for instance, his example of Ed Sanders, as a poet who uses the lyric for argumentation (lyricizing argument). The particular book Smith mentions is not a very popular book, and didn’t reach that broad of an audience. That’s just a fact. I’m not saying it should be a fact but it is. Either Smith is lamenting that it is a fact, or not really arguing for poetry that reaches a broader audience.
Ye, despite this fact, Ed Sanders, through what some might call his “extra-poetic” activities (or “cultural activism” — from war protests, FUCK YOU: A Magazine of the arts, Peace Eye Books, The Fugs, his book on Manson, etc), work that some lyric purists might call mere “hack work” than his “poetry” (like the book Smith mentions), has reached a broader audience. Because of these allegedly non-lyric activities, his book of poetry may have even reached more people than it would have otherwise.
What this shows me about Sanders, or about Amiri Baraka, is that they are not necessarily first and foremost a poet, at least as that term is often understood today, but rather a man, or person, for whom poetry was ONE activity, ONE way of “relating that measure,” but not the only way, and not the only PUBLIC way, and not the only “artistic” or “intellectual” or “emotional” way of self (or soul) presentation and unfolding, acting (entertaining, educating, etc…) Given this example (to say nothing of “The Beats”), I’m brought back to my central argument with Smith’s attempt to redefine the lyric. It doesn’t go far enough — doesn’t also offer a redefinition (or, better, a de-definition) of the poet.
When younger, people want to be validated as professionals or at least granted a somewhat legitimate adult “role” and some may crave the designation “poet.” Nothing wrong with that, but socially it comes with these “formal demands” of which Smith writes and once one is “crowned with laurel” for the first, or even second, time, one may eventually get to asking, “is this really worth it, to be called a poet?” and, beyond that, more crucially, “do I even have to be a poet to write a poem?” (Hell, I wrote great poems when you just called them doggerel. Now you say they’re poems, and Why? Because you call me a poet).
Anyway, the thing about Sanders, Baraka, and others, is not so much that they wrote “poetry for the non-poet” (which they both did) as that they also wrote NON-POETRY, and adopted the role of the NON-POET, and THAT’s what spoke to the “broader audience.”
It needn’t be that way, as The Beats for instance could be the best counter example of the 20th century (depending again on how you define poetry — some say their “non-poetic” antics and business acumen got them the broader readership, or they rode on the coattails of a non-poet narrative prose stylist, etc), and I’m also sympathetic to the argument that The Dutchman or Blues People* are poems, and part of one of the most important bodies of poetic work today, but they nonetheless had to break out of coterie assumptions in order to do so. Smith is trying, but also seems to be asking for permission. I feel his frustration, all too well. Poet specialists are hard to shake. Always trying to get a writer to submit, submit, and it’s hard to find access to publishers willing to take a risk on the kind of writing I feel Smith is talking about, maybe even harder if you can’t, or don’t, even call it “poetry.”
* The Dutchman or Blues People: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka wrote them. The first is billed as a play, and won him a good deal of fame circa 1964. Blues People was a groundbreaking book that combined music criticism/ appreciation with social criticism (the history of the black in America), that could have tremendous relevance for poetry as well. C.S.
There are always some limits imposed by form and genre, and, yes, they’re primarily social (or as Chomsky would say DISCIPLINARY), however naturalized, but Baraka (and to some extent Sanders) were adept at working in a wide range of them, embodying a kind of grace to live as variously as possible, insofar as that’s a goal — It’s not for everybody — and many of those for whom it’s not a goal may justifiably be poets — but for Smith I believe it is a goal. But maybe you have to sacrifice being called a poet to even start to reach that goal (at least temporally), and go back to writing or talking out of necessity to be understood and appreciated by the non-poets you know (even if you fail), and if not exactly resist the temptation to get caught up in prose arguments (or even lyric arguments) with writers in a more specialized way (as Smith does, or as I DO HERE!), at least realize that it’s either only 1) something you’re doing because of prior-genre commitments — habit — and because we can! — or 2) something that helps quicken consciousness in a way to prepare for something else, that may or may not be in writing (that, yes, maybe it has no social purpose, and that may be okay, and doesn’t necessarily mean that YOU have no social purpose!) —
And then let it go for awhile, and see if it comes back again or not, or whether you can channel it. In other words, just because I may need or want to write for non-poets too doesn’t mean I have to leave the poets behind, rather, maybe I can speak to the non-poet part of the poet as well, but still not let them take up too much of my time (and, yes, at the expense of others — been there, down that [sic])….
Chris Stroffolino has published three full-length collection of poetry. Most recently, Speculative Primitive (the title poem of which appeared in Jacket), 2004 (Tougher Disguises Press), as well as a collection of literary criticism, Spin Cycle 2001 (Spuyten Duyvil). He's currently seeking publishers for his memoir Radio Orphan as well as his book on Shakespeare’s comedies, Making Fun of Tragedy. He’s the lead singer/ songwriter for Continuous Peasant, which has been compared to ‘Tom Waits and Randy Newman reluctantly agreeing to take a ride in a Camper Van Beethoven driven by Jonathan Richman’ (www.continuouspeasant.com) and currently is living near Lodi, California.
it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be
stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose
This material is copyright © Chris Stroffolino and Jacket magazine 2006
The Internet address of this page is