What Can Poetry Reveal That Matters, II?

by Arthur Mortensen
Copyright (c) 1997 by Arthur Mortensen & Somers Rocks Press
(For Part I of this essay, click here.)

A 5-year-old sits idly by his father,
watching him scratch crude letters on a form
he'd found in the abandoned Air Corps base
after the Americans had gone back home.
He places it on a fresh-cut bamboo altar.
The palm trees sway above a rusting ship
half-sunk along a beach he still can't comb
because of unexploded shells from war.
He wonders why his father sits and waits,
his legs patiently crossed, watching the form
flutter atop the altar. At sundown, his father,
groaning to straighten his legs, at last rises,
turns to his son and says: "just wait; it comes,
tomorrow or another day -- it comes."
But morning to sundown comes and goes again
until a month is wasted, the young boy thinks.
His father says: "I must have done something wrong!"
and he wanders off to think just what it was.
Another month -- the prayer is forgotten.
Besides, his father says: "there're no more forms."

Fifteen years have passed, another war;
the boy comes back from school to bury his father.
He wonders, after so long, just what his father
had prayed to get in 1946.
His mother, trying to be sympathetic,
listens; she draws a labored breath and sighs,
then whispers: "you father was hoping for a plane."
The young man's girlfriend laughs. "You mustn't now!
He didn't know. He thought the plane would come."

Later, he puts an offering on the altar,
wishing the old man well, and walks away,
holding his girlfriend's hand to leave the beach
now cleared of all the memories of war.

Arthur Mortensen

Anthropology students will recognize the variation on a cargo cult, a religious rite practiced just after the Second World War. Knowing nothing of modern communications, having no need for them, South Pacific islanders didn't know how a cable sent one hour could result in a plane full of food and medicine taking off the next. They looked at the visible qualities of the moment, the writing of a message followed by the arrival of a plane, and assumed, as anyone will when confronted by an unknown technology, that it was magic. Sophisticated Westerners used to scream at trains coming "toward" them in movies, the magic of perceived motion. It's universal; it's human to believe in magic when we don't know anything else. Now, the boy in the story is probably the 55-year-old captain of a 747, a little embarassed, as we all are, of things the old folks believed in. Information changes us, or it should.

But how like that father are some leaders in contemporary poetry, whether in workshops or creative writing programs. The boy's father was only acting on what he perceived as visible truth. But, seminar leaders, presuming debate of the details of a poem has the same consequence as peer review in the sciences, are grossly misleading their students; and they should know better than to practice such magic. The peer review they practice has little to do with what they imitate. After all, what are the similarities between the sciences and poetry?

While good poets may act like scientists, taking careful note of a scene's details, poetry is not, nor has it ever been, scientific. Poetry's greatest strength has always been metaphoric, not exactness. Metaphor's truth lies in seeing or noticing unprovable but plausible similarities. But in the processes of the seminar, there is too often a demand that the finite elements of poetry should be akin to proofs for a physical theory, strangling most of what poetry might say. Metaphors, as is true of all the comparative figures of speech, and most of the persuasive as well, are opinions and cannot be subjected to formal proofs. To do so is to destroy them. In law, figurative language is never used in discovery without risking a successful objection from the other side. It's only used in in opening arguments and summations because opinion is only persuasive, not decisive. And in persuasion, whether to make us laugh, cry, or convict, the success of a comparative figure lies in its plausibility as much as in its originality. But in the ruthlessly "objective" work of seminars, in attempting to emulate peer review by subjecting each piece of a poem to critical examination, it seems, moving from one journal to another, that the results are a bland uniformity of work. Most could be described, as Dick Allen does, as "sincere feelings by poets about themselves." It is odd, isn't it, that peer review akin to that in the sciences would result in poetry that is so detached and empty of the color and exception of a world readers could recognize as their own. Indeed, the result of poetic peer review seems to be precisely the opposite of that in the sciences, promoting a drab subjectivity that becomes, in moving through journals, a vast hall of mirrors, most of them reflecting poets. How could that be?

Perhaps peer review by poets is akin to a cargo cult. After all, what is the real function of peer review in the sciences? Is it the same? Or are poets and seminar leaders only taking the momentarily visible elements of scientific review and calling it the real thing? Take the controversial issue of cold fusion. Why do peer review panel after peer review panel fight with such energy against what could be a source of limitless energy? Is it a conspiracy to silence good science that doesn't fit in with economic "realities"? If so, why are five or six hundred laboratories testing it? A principal Mobil executive once told me that if cold fusion were as good as its claims, Mobil would invest all of its resources in developing it. The reason was bottom line; having a leg up on an energy source both cheap and free of the complications of nuclear or carbon fuels would make Mobil the dominant force in energy economics -- very desirable! But even its strongest supporters won't say they've found salvation in a metal enriched with deuterium and other isotopes. But what they have found is something so interesting that labs all over the world are investigating, with panels of scientists, on the 'Net, or around tables, fiercely arguing about the possibilities or lack of them. What does that say about peer review in the sciences?

It takes place in a contemporary and historical context that's far larger than the private view of a given scientist or a given peer review panel. The context is the whole science, whether it's physics or microbiology. Why this is so should be obvious, as it seems not to be for many leaders of poetry seminars. Each science is a narrative whose structure has been built over centuries. Combative debate over details that vary from the accepted story is more than likely; after all, if the variation proves true, as it did with quantum electrodynamics, it may force a complete rewriting of the story, requiring manifold careers to fix it in a way that reflects what is known. And if the variation is false, as it was with Emmanuel Velikovsky's presumptions about planetary origins and motions, the carelessness of the researcher could endanger centuries of work without such review. And without this structural approach, debates over theoretical details would be meaningless because no one would know what was being challenged or reinforced by the work. Peer review in seminars that focuses solely on the details of a given poem is radically different, however.

The microscropic examination by the seminar's participants of each line, as if finite details were processes as significant as the tunneling effect in quantum mechanics, is done as if structure will take care of itself, and in the absence of knowledge of how poets have worked over many centuries, as if past solutions were only subject matters of individual and culture. Structure gets worse than short shrift; structure is often considered politically incorrect, as if it represented some effort to impose one hegemony or another. But after the participants wrangle the way physicists wrangle over particulars in a new or old theory, what are the results?

One that's obvious is the blank sameness of so much published poetry. This could easily be fixed by telling students to go out and write about anything except themselves. But there is another type of result, and one that gets much serious critical attention, poetry that has attractively explosive lines but where those lines have little or no connection to those before or those after, poetry that makes no sense There's no context in the poem itself, nevermind a sense of the poem being an expression of a larger world. Such disconnectedness poisons lyric poetry by making it an expression of special effects rather than coherent ideas and feelings, and makes narrative poetry difficult or impossible to understand by concentrating on scenes rather than on the through line. However, the convolutions of such lyrics, and the fragmented scenes in narratives (called sequences to differentiate them from mere storytelling), are described by critics as reflective of our time's disorder and as a complaint against the tyranny of orders imposed by politics or economics. So, Rimbaud to the rescue, all emotions blazing? Is this valid? Can disorderly art depict a presumed world of violence and oppression?

In composing a history of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg insisted that the crime was knowable, that it wasn't an exception to Western history, but a consequence of it. He turned away from the "madman" theory of history, noting that no thinking being would claim that one psychopath could possess such charisma as would convince a nation of committed bureaucrats and dutiful soldiers to wage a war that destroyed half of Europe and left Germany ruined and occupied by the Russians. Instead, Hilberg laid out the precedents to the crime, its antecedents in history, culture and law, how it was planned, how it was executed, and named as many of the people who participated as he could find in his researches. What emerges in The Destruction of European Jewry is vastly more terrifying and compelling than "madman" history; it is a portrait of relatively rational ruling and administrative classes who, because of their politically exploitable suspicions and prejudices, were not only participants in mass murder but did so with all the efficiency and commitment that Germans today build cars. What fractured narrative could have delivered such a devastating account?

Convoluted storytelling allows the reader to presume that the chaos he perceives is the way things are, as if the way things are explains why. But how things requires no opinion by a writer, only awareness that the way things are is a state created by the past, whether of coincidence or of deliberate planning. In Germany, during the most irrational outburst in human history, the chaos perceived was created by a carefully laid plan and executed by highly professional and well-organized bureaucrats, most of whom led otherwise ordinary lives. Try telling that in a sequence; all you'll get are the pyres and bone-filled trenches, what Susan Sontag called the ghastly pornography of mass murder. Are there other risks in disconnectedness in such poetry?

The sequence can easily become a means of cheating for both the author and the reader. By making a story effectively incomprehensible, the author doesn't have to give any demonstration as to why the story happened. At worst, the author doesn't even have to make the story plausible. As long as its presentation is sensational and fits prevailing prejudices, whether about men, women, race, economics, or any other area of opinion, it's considered justified as art. Without plausibility, what validity does a lyric,a comic poem or a serious narrative have?

In the sciences, peer review annihilates implausibility with a machismo that offends critics, but imagine a physical science that didn't believe that theoretical details have to fit in the overall picture of a given process? It would be all right in such a world for aeronautics engineers to design airplanes with wings that looked beautiful but provided no lift, or engines that were so powerful that they tore the planes apart, or seats so small that no one could sit in them. As such, implausibility is an aspect of irrationality that is unforgivable in the sciences. But when poetry is judged as meriting the label artistic expression by its use of special effects and sensational and incoherent scenes, this is politically and culturally correct? What kind of politics is that?

It sounds an awful lot like one of Albert Speer's light shows at the Nuremburgplatz in 1936, art put at the mercy of politics instead of art looking at politics as science looks at the play of electrons. Moreover, the implausibility of fragmented sequences is not the only disasterous result. If a narrative "reveals" what the author has no genuine knowledge of except the prejudices of a professor's opinion or of television reports from Zagreb or New York, the context of such a narrative is solely of opinion, a commentary on a commentary. While such things were immensely popular in the Catholic Church for a thousand years, angels on pinheads and the like, what physician would bring a patient in to inform her that generations of opinion had revealed to him that the lump on her breast was probably psychosomatic? Of course, none would; they'd take a biopsy. They'd test. Why not poets? And how?

To tell a plausible story that has a believable context, one must look outside one's self, and outside of opinions and commentary. One has to know the context, not through reading commentary or by what's filtered through media, but by doing the research, going to the sourcebooks, the original accounts, going to the scene, talking to the participants, do, in short, what any good documentary filmmaker does or what those reporters who still work for a living do. Yet many poets, in what seems as grave a misconception as the prevailing cult of peer review, seem to presume that they are not responsible for their own content, that content is just something to hang clever phrases on, like a store mannikin for a Givenchy dress. However, as anyone on 7th Avenue knows, the most beautiful dress in the world won't make a bad model look good; the wearer makes the clothes, contrary to popular opinion. If the concentration is solely on surface in poetry, are the results any different?

In the output of so many poetic seminars and creative writing workshops, the answer is transparent -- invisible to insiders, obvious to anyone else. Without concentration on structure, context, and plausibility, most narrative sequences, as most lyric poems, seem expressions of a world that only exists around the table of a seminar. And, to be frank, who would want to read that? The answer, of course, is that virtually nobody does. What to do? How can poetry regain any of its preeminence as a lens on the world or on one person in the world?

Beyond how seminars are conducted with their cargo cult-like rite of "scientific" peer review, Richard Moore has noted another magic cult in contemporary poetry where, in hopes of being considered genuine or politically relevant, poets wait for the entrance of Blake's ghost to bless them for work that is little more than committee-vetted opinion, as if in emulating the perceived feelings of Blake they'll get the same results. Not surprisingly, Blake being with the Spirit, nothing happens but the production of prosy imaginings. But Blake in his poems of social concern -- and they are scarcely a majority of his poems -- had two steps up on his presumed disciples today. One, Blake knew, either firsthand, or through reading of source materials, what he was writing about; if he described a chimney sweep or the charnel house of a factory, it was because he had seen them firsthand. Second, Blake was an artist; for all of his presumed violations of classical order, Blake knew the history and repertory of poetry as well as anyone in his generation; he also knew its prosody and how to use it. He knew how to structure a poem so that the whole had an impact larger than any single line. He knew argumentation, logic, and how the two are fused in coherent expression. If he hadn't done that, his work would be as unreadable as most poetry is today, and as empty of passionate and informed complaint as a high school student in Scarsdale opining about the oppression of blacks in New York City. How to get past this?

One way to start, as is often the case in any change of cultural climate, would be to demolish the predominant cult, where the only function of the presumed master would be to teach the repertory and the prosody. After all, what professor living one hundred miles off campus can presume to instruct a young woman from the Bronx about how language should sound, what a story should be, or what in her neighborhood is really like something else she's seen? The leader can show how meter and form can embrace that sound the poet hears best, but the leader can't tell the story. They know that at the slams; they know that in rap. The Beats, for all the convolutions of their experimental "form," knew that as well; imagine Lawrence Ferlinghetti without his portraits of New York and San Francisco in the 1950's? There would be nothing there. The same is true of Shakespeare. Why shouldn't it be true of you? It's a lot more rewarding to do the preliminaries than to wait for Blake's ghost beside an altar made of sand.

	Arthur Mortensen

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