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
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
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.