Expansive Poetry & Music Online Editor's Page

Arthur Mortensen

In Albert Camus's novella Jonas, ou l'artiste au travail, (from L'Exile et le royaume) an artist who has had a poor and unnoticed career suddenly gains a patron, and then a show in a good gallery.  He receives good notices for his work.  He has finally gained the recognition he has felt for years that he deserved.  But within weeks, he finds himself besieged by hangers-on, advice seekers, fans, would-lovers, new friends and critics.  There is also no shortage of other well-known artists who offer their advice on how Jonas should proceed in his career.   Thus besieged, which he had wanted through decades of failed efforts as an artist, Jonas begins a terrible retreat that lasts for months, first moving his studio behind a curtain, then  into the bedroom, then behind a curtain in the bedroom, then into the bathroom, and then finally onto a platform hoisted above a hallway where Jonas claims that he's at work on a mural.  But, because of the height and darkness of the hallway, no one can see the mural nor can they get him to come down for meals, which Jonas hoists up to himself.   He stays there most of the time for weeks until, his children and wife pleading, he becomes ill and has to come down.  As Jonas lingers in illness, his wife encourages a friend to go up and look at the mural Jonas has been working on.  The friend, Rateau, climbs up and finds, to his astonishment, that all Jonas has painted are the words solitaire ou solidaire? (secluded or interdependent?).  Unable to answer his own question, the artist can no longer paint and lies in a stupor.

I wonder if it would wise for leaders and participants in seminars to read this story in French or in translation.  While comforts can be sweet from being a member a group of people practicing the same art, and fitting in is always a temptation,  once a poet is immersed in the literature, has learned some craft, and begins to sing in a voice that can only belong to him, it is hard to imagine a worse place to sit than at a table of peers who want to spend an afternoon shredding each phrase, line and stanza of one or more of his poems.  Andrew X. will say a line as he would have written it.  Louise Y. will say a line as she would have written it.  Sonja K. will intone a line as she would have preferred  it, and the leader, Herbert J., will discuss the central trope as if it were a patient etherized on a table.  Peer groups being the mother and father of peer pressure, a new poem will be born, the poem as they all would have written it, roughly akin to a building designed by a committee of bureaucrats, whose central trope will be so dilluted (to avoid the hurts and irritations it might cause in anyone present at the table) as to nearly vanish -- a stain with a trace of irony on an otherwise scrubbed sheet.  The poet, if at all sensitive to his own voice, may begin to feel as besieged as Jonas, and want to hoist himself above the seminar table and write in peace.  Worse, he might feel compelled to restrain a nascent voice in order to fit in.   The latter can be described as the corporate commitee experience, a fine thing if you're designing a new soap but a horror if you think you have an original thought.

To be fair, there have been seminar leaders, such as Dr. Alfred Dorn, who have refused to allow such bureaucratic demolition of an original work of art.  Dr. Dorn, when his seminars were active in the 80's and early 90's, would discuss prosody.  A participant's sonnet, for instance, would be subjected to metrical examination.  Was it really in meter?  Were the rhymes recognizable as rhymes?  The larger questions might be such as the following: did the octave make a statement, or descibe a mood, while the sestet questioned or contrasted the assumptions of the octave?   What type of sonnet was it?  Was the language contemporary or did it seem borrowed from an earlier age?   Conversations about content were cut off harshly if they didn't reflect on whether or not the author accomplished what the poem indicated as his or her intent.  It didn't matter if a metaphor were shocking or even embarrassing.  What did was whether or not it fit, whether it was developed coherently and vividly.  Suggestions about what might be better were also quickly reduced to one suggestion: if the poem didn't seem to work you should try writing it again or write another.  The seminar participants didn't think of themselves as rewrite editors at Manhattan's newspaper of record.  Instead, encouraged by Dr. Dorn, they perceived themselves as part audience and part fellow practitioners who responded without instruction.   While it is fair to say that older participants would have refused to pay attention to a different approach, for younger poets these seminars were a release, giving them permission to bring themselves to the table rather than having to conform to an established median.

Sadly, Dr. Dorn's seminars are not the main model and he no longer holds them.   The paradigm for most seminars seems akin to a group of children who gather to throw a ball at someone in the middle of a their circle; the object is to hit the child with the ball until he catches it and throws it back.  The one in the middle, then, is battered until he learns to do the same thing in return.  Then he gets to join the great circle.  Much the same thing happens in seminars.  Someone comes in with an arresting poem and is bombarded with questions and criticisms by participants until, surrendering to group wisdom, the intruder agrees that he's been hit and accedes to do as the group says.  This is acknowledged as superior behavior by the seminar leader.  The participant, thus kowed, is expected to feel gratitude for having received a learning experience.  And, next time, he'll get to do the same thing to someone else.  While such peer review assaults are useful in the sciences, where the loner in the middle is challenging not the group but a whole science with new ideas, in poetry it's academically accredited assault and battery.  The result is the blunted poetry typical of most university journals, poetry that steers clear of tropes that might offend, craft that might suggest unusual skill or, more severely, awareness of poetry outside of the author's and the seminar participants's  oeuvres -- poetry you might expect from someone tyrannized into submission -- writers' congress poetry.

The oddest thing for me -- I am not an academic, and so not favored by the possibility of tenure or of availing myself of a university press -- was that there seemed to be no despairing Jonases among survivors of such seminars.  It was odd because  I couldn't imagine, for instance, Edna St. Vincent Millay sitting still for such treatment.  I could imagine Robert Frost hitting someone so bold as to suggest how Frost should rewrite a line, nevermind a stanza.   It was implausible to think of Wallace Stevens at a seminar table, listening patiently to an effort to de-fang one of his haunting tropes.   What is the difference between such members of the 20th century pantheon and their descendants?

I don't think it's a difficult question.   It's clear from their work, as well as from how they worked, that the poets we remember from back then stood firmly on the side of solitaire.  They left solidaire for the book parties and Sunday dinners with the family.   They knew, as Jonas never could accept about his painting, that you can't write poetry while carving turkey or while a colleague makes corrections over your shoulder.   And no one but a tired poetaster on the New York poetry circuit would try to write poetry while carrying on a conversation over dinner.   This offends the peer group ethic for obvious reasons.  How could you dare to know something that they don't?  How could you propose to write something that might be out of reach for any of them?  But how could it be otherwise?

Balancing craft, what you've enjoyed from the tradition, your own thoughts and feelings as they direct the formation of a poem's structure and direction, and a carefully wrought phrase, line, stanza or poem can't be done in company.  It's too difficult; it's also a personal struggle to work with tools that, however publicly acquired, are in but one pair of hands.  Also, what you remember and think as you work is unique not only to you but to the poem you're working on.  If you fail to translate those into a poem that works for someone else, it's likely that you were distracted by some other pleasure, or felt compelled to restrain yourself for fear of offending a peer.

It's not for nothing that writers have worked in attics, in the dark corners of cafes, in the anonymous white noise of a crowd, or under a palm tree accompanied only by a shadow.   The best time to present a poem to a seminar is after it's published.  That this would make a seminar's primary function irrelevant would give you your best answer to Jonas's question.

                       Arthur Mortensen