Poetic Pitfalls

There are a num­ber of ways to go wrong in poetry. Unfor­tu­nately, the Poetry Estab­lish­ment is only will­ing to admit the exis­tence of a select few of them. The oth­ers are either kept under wraps, or dis­guised as accept­able options.

Let’s start with the com­mon errors—that is, the ones that all the main­stream teach­ers and work­shop jock­eys agree upon, and which are there­fore well known to pretty much every­body. These errors are lam­basted and ridiculed so often that they are tat­ter­de­malion scare­crows, uni­ver­sally famil­iar. Here goes:

1. Using too many words when fewer would suf­fice. In gen­eral, yes, this is an error. Con­ci­sion and pithi­ness are in most cases prefer­able to long-winded blather. Don’t be a Polonius.

2. Being overly depen­dent on adjec­tives. You can pull off multi-adjectival usage if you’re in the league of Fran­cis Thomp­son, but in most other poets it’s a sign of self-indulgence and showiness.

3. Edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing in an open and bla­tant man­ner. Unless you’re writ­ing hard satire, this is to be avoided. It’s com­mon sense not to be an earnest poltroon, straight­for­wardly orat­ing to one’s readers.

4. Depend­ing on abstract nouns rather than con­crete images. As a rule of thumb, there’s lit­tle to argue with here. Too many abstrac­tions swathe a poem in vague­ness, and ham­per the reader’s abil­ity to visu­al­ize your language.

5. Employ­ing extremely old-fashioned dic­tion. Again, who could dis­agree? Using eft­soons, aught, methinks, or the older hath and doth con­ju­ga­tions is prob­a­bly over the top.

The stric­tures against these errors are sort of like the rules for proper behav­ior in a play­ground. They are prac­ti­cal guide­lines, not divine decrees. Excep­tions can and do occur to every one of them. But if you con­sider the five “errors” as a whole, a very inter­est­ing pic­ture of main­stream poetic expec­ta­tions emerges. Avoid­ing them is really about main­tain­ing loy­alty to two con­tra­dic­tory things: imme­di­acy and indi­rec­tion. On the one hand they reject rhetoric, abstract lan­guage, and archaism as obsta­cles between the poet and the reader; and on the other hand they call for a ret­i­cence and a cryp­ti­cism that hes­i­tate to come right out and say some­thing. In short, they rep­re­sent the quandary of clas­sic mod­ernism: How can we have the robust earth­i­ness of Robert Brown­ing within the chaste con­fines of Hilda Doolittle?

It can’t be done, of course, but that has never stopped par­ti­sans from adher­ing to an ideal. The entire mod­ernist enter­prise in poetry has been an attempt to square the cir­cle, so to speak. Mod­ernism wanted a poetry that hits you like an endor­phin rush, but that also shrouds itself in cryp­ti­cism and mys­tery. It asks that we be might­ily moved by that which is small and obscure.

In fact, you might even boil down mod­ernist aes­thet­ics in poetry to the fol­low­ing recipe. Let’s title it “How To Write A Mod­ernist Lyric”:

Take some ordi­nary lit­tle event or per­cep­tion, and blow it up into a quiv­er­ing epiphany. Do it with­out adjec­tives if pos­si­ble, or any overt use of rhetoric. Employ only the first per­son sin­gu­lar, and the Plain Style. Make what you are say­ing sound some­how impor­tant or seri­ous or urgent, even if it is as opaque as a tar pit.

A per­fect exam­ple of this recipe is William Car­los Williams’s poem about the plums:

This is just to say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the ice­box

and which
you were prob­a­bly
for breakfast.

For­give me
they were deli­cious
so sweet
and so cold

Another is Ezra Pound’s “In a Sta­tion of the Metro”:

The appari­tion of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

Both of these poems are attempts to incar­nate the mod­ernist aims of imme­di­acy and indi­rec­tion, the first by describ­ing an utterly mun­dane event and pump­ing it up with the helium of pseudoref­er­ence; the sec­ond by tak­ing a visual impres­sion and wrench­ing it into a sup­pressed metaphor. Are they good poems? Well, yes, I sup­pose so—if you like that sort of thing. It’s a mat­ter of per­sonal taste. To me they are crabbed, pinched, and min­i­mal­ist, and rep­re­sent what the poet Henry Wein­field once described to me as “Amer­i­can Puri­tanism applied to poetic expres­sion.” Such poems are like haiku—reading more than three of them at a sit­ting is men­tally enervating.

There’s some­thing else to be noted. My friend Michael Burch recently wrote to me say­ing “How can any­one take the dic­tates of mod­ernism seri­ously, when Pound and Eliot obvi­ously didn’t?” And he’s right. Take a look at Pound’s poem: there’s the abstract noun appari­tion, and the paired adjec­tives wet and black. Williams’s poem uses three: deli­cious, sweet, and cold. Besides this, you can run through Pound’s oeu­vre and find dozens of quaint uses of thee and thou, and hast and hath. As for abstrac­tions, how about Eliot’s “Super­fe­ta­tion of to en”? Or Wal­lace Stevens’s “Com­pla­cen­cies of the peignoir”? As for over-the-top archaic adjective-mongering, can any­one beat Amy Lowell’s “Fire­souled, vermilion-hearted”? It seems a safe con­clu­sion that the early mod­ernist the­o­rists thought up a lot of reg­u­la­tions that mod­ernist poets sim­ply ignored. But they’re still being imposed on the rest of us by the MFA mar­tinets who run poetry workshops.

In any case, let’s now talk about the errors that the Poetry Estab­lish­ment doesn’t want to dis­cuss, for prej­u­di­cial rea­sons of its own. These ones haven’t been trum­peted like the five above-mentioned errors. But they can be just as deadly, and they are a lot more com­mon. Here goes:

1. Writ­ing in a tone of Por­ten­tous Hush. I dis­cussed this error at length in my essay “Why Poetry Is Dying” at the Expan­sive Poetry On-Line web­site some years back. No one—not even the redoubtable Philip Hobsbaum—dared to address my argu­ment on this point.

2. Wor­ry­ing about audi­ence response. This is like wor­ry­ing about a tec­tonic plate shift. It’s utterly futile. Your only con­cern should be your poem. That’s what you can control.

3. Keep­ing the reg­is­ter of one’s dic­tion strictly col­lo­quial. The Eng­lish lan­guage is a mag­nif­i­cent trea­sure bequeathed to us by cen­turies of lit­er­ary achieve­ment. And you’re going to write all your poems using the Fourth-Grade Basal Vocab­u­lary List? Grow up.

4. Com­pos­ing poems based solely on one’s per­sonal expe­ri­ences. Unless you’ve had a life com­pa­ra­ble to Casanova’s, that’s going to be pretty bor­ing, don’t you think? Poetry is fictive—the very word poei­sis in Greek means “mak­ing things up.” The medieval Scots called poets “makars” (mak­ers) for this rea­son. If you can’t lie, you can’t be a poet.

5. Believ­ing that there are “No ideas but in things.” This is like believ­ing that there is “No wine but in bar­rels,” or “No whores but in broth­els.” It’s just a silly slo­gan invented by a pedi­a­tri­cian in New Jer­sey. Ideas are every­where, includ­ing books, your mind, daily con­ver­sa­tion, and the Pla­tonic realm beyond the cave, just to name a few places.

In the case of these five errors, main­stream poetry cir­cles are unwill­ing even to admit that they are pit­falls. Why? It’s just not good for busi­ness. Absolutely no one will say a word about the Por­ten­tous Hush prob­lem. Audi­ence response? Every­one, from lau­re­ate to State Poetry Soci­ety poet­aster, is des­per­ately anx­ious to cul­ti­vate it. Keep­ing dic­tion sim­ple and col­lo­quial is prac­ti­cally a reli­gion in the cha­t­rooms and work­shops. Shoals of worth­less poets write because they think you want to hear about their “per­sonal expe­ri­ences.” As for the cliché No ideas but in things, well… it’s one of those grotesque lies to which every­one is forced to pay pub­lic lip ser­vice, like “All men are cre­ated equal,” or “Democ­racy rests upon the con­sent of the gov­erned.” Ask­ing the Poetry Estab­lish­ment to point out and con­demn these very prof­itable errors would be like ask­ing Wall Street to speak out against easy credit. It ain’t gonna happen.

And to be per­fectly fair, these five errors (just like the ear­lier five) are sub­ject to excep­tion when­ever a poet feels that he is aes­thet­i­cally required to com­mit one of them. As I men­tioned, all stric­tures against poetic pit­falls are in the nature of rules for behav­ior in a play­ground. We tell chil­dren to wait their turn to shoot hoops, and to not take sand out of the sand­box, and not to pull Samantha’s pig­tails. All these are use­ful guide­lines, but they aren’t the basis for a full-blown sys­tem of moral­ity. In the same way, the stric­tures against the ten poetic pit­falls aren’t the basis for a full-blown sys­tem of aes­thet­ics. Like every­thing else in the arts, they are just rules of thumb.

Be aware of all ten pit­falls, and don’t skew your atten­tion solely to those ones that the mod­ernists warn you about. Are you going to avoid exces­sive use of adjec­tives? Fine—but also rec­og­nize that a relent­lessly Plain-Style col­lo­quial dic­tion will pre­vent your poems from soar­ing. Are you going to stay away from abstract nouns? Fine—but recall that human beings have brains as well as senses. Are you plan­ning to eschew any edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing? Fine—but remem­ber that if you res­olutely say noth­ing, peo­ple will won­der why the hell you picked up a pen in the first place.

The cru­cial ele­ment in poetic com­po­si­tion is the poet’s inte­rior con­vic­tion that he is free to say what he wants with­out being hob­bled by ortho­doxy or—as is more com­mon these days—a cli­mate of received opin­ion. What­ever his degree of train­ing, what­ever his level of read­ing, what­ever his native skill—if he lacks that inte­rior con­vic­tion his art will be stran­gled in the cra­dle. And that is why I say to all poets the fol­low­ing: If any­one tells you that poetic guide­lines and rules of thumb are any­thing more than mere con­ve­niences, regard that per­son, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, as an enemy.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.