Make it new

Poetry has the capacity to surprise, refresh, shock, inspire and entertain, but too often the kind of poetry that’s published these days doesn’t do these things. Too often I’ve found myself skimming rather than reading, because there’s nothing to catch my attention. My response (if any) is too often, ‘Ho, Hum’.

I come from an non-establishment background, and the poems which impressed me most when I first started reading it were the radical ones, the experimental ones, the ones which (a) had something to say, and (b) found a new way of saying it. Ezra Pound’s famous phrase ‘Make it new!’ should be stuck on the front of every poet’s notebook.

Who’s writing radical or experimental  poetry these days? It’s hard to tell, because there isn’t enough of it being published these days. And there’s a whole raft of reasons for that absence, but I look back to the 1960s, when there was a reading audience for magazines which published ‘new’ poetry, and that was long before we got into the era of state subsidised publication.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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3 Responses to Make it new

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    When I read this I think about music, experimental composers like Boulez and Stockhausen who I tried to love but struggled with. There were a whole band of them and although their stuff was fun to study and talk about simply calling it ‘challenging’ is just another way of saying that it was bloody awful. I have very broad musical tastes (as my long-suffering wife will testify) and I will persist with pieces for years – the string quartets of Gloria Coates with their overlapping glissandi are especially challenging – because I hate being beaten by them but I still can’t say I enjoy them. At the end of the day I think you need to be able to sit down and listen to a piece of music and enjoy it purely as sound without any agenda and I feel much the same about experimental poetry. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again, I get the need to experiment but most experiments fail; most experiments are not ends in themselves but stepping stones to bigger things. I like the idea of experimental anything – “Listen to this. I’m trying something different. Tell me if you think it works.” We all do that, hand out wives scraps of paper and go, “Well, what do you think?” And sometimes they work but more often than not they don’t. So you ditch what doesn’t work and try something new.

    I will read pretty much anything. I spend days reading nothing but flarf a few months back trying to get into the heads of those who were writing it but I struggle to see much of it as poetry in much the same way I might imagine Bach would struggle with Stockhausen’s early explorations of electronic music. Yes, there’s tone, timbre and volume but what about an identifiable rhythm or a melody or some kind of harmonic progression?

    I’m always wary of the emperor’s new clothes, being told that something is good and feeling foolish because I can’t connect with it. I want people to tell me why it’s good and I get suspicious when they can’t. Modern art provides the best examples of this, sculptures and paintings that need to be explained to the punters. It’s all whitewash. If a work is so intellectually-challenging that I need it explained to me then it’s not for me. I’m clearly incapable of appreciating it at my level. The man in the street likes Larkin because he can get Larkin. That’s why he’s popular. He can’t get Ashbury. It doesn’t matter that he’s won nearly every major American award for poetry.

    My latest discovery actually is Frederick Seidel. I’m not sure he’s what you’re thinking about but he’s certainly a guy who divides people’s opinions. He “has been called by the critic Adam Kirsch perhaps ‘the best American poet writing today.’ He’s also been called ‘sinister,’ ‘disturbing,’ ‘savage,’ ‘the most frightening American poet ever’ and even ‘the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry.’ I mean how can one not check out a guy called ‘the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry?’

  2. Tim Love says:

    I can read whole mags/books that are beyond my understanding (most recently the poetry in the current “Tears in the Fence” mag), but I rather expect that at my age. There are things I just won’t understand. Luckily I’m not alone: “any middle-aged editor who doesn’t talk to poets in their 20s about the contemporaries they’re reading is in danger of publishing only young poets who sound like the now-middle-aged ones they grew up with” (Don Paterson); “With the exception of Eric Mottran, I have not found a single [UK post 1950] critic who has a distinguished record of writing about the poets younger than them” (Andrew Duncan).

    Re your 2 conditions: “(a) had something to say” – I find this tricky because fashions change regarding what’s worth saying, and something I thought worth saying when I was 18 is probably just as worth an 18 year old saying now, though I’ve seen it all before. “(b) found a new way of saying it” – I think there are new combinations of old ways (hybrid, post-avant poetry). And there’s interactive poetry, integrated words+animation, etc.

  3. sunnydunny says:

    Some interesting points there, Jim. To start with music: I too find Boulez and Stockhausen difficult. I decided that they weren’t writing with the aim of communicating with listeners, so I happily ignore them. I’d add Schoenberg and Birtwhistle to that list. I find Adams, Reich, Riley and Glass eminently more interesting, because in their work I find points of contact between myself and the music. It’s the same with art: I look for paintings and sculpture I can understand without academic, intellectual explanations. And also with poetry: if it needs explanation it has failed as poetry.

    My enthusiasm for poetry began in 1960/61. There were magazines being published at that time in Scotland which offered examples of writing which were maybe experimental in style, but which I could understand. I’m thinking of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poor Old Tired Horse, which published Eddie Morgan’s experimental poetry, poems by Niedecker, Corman, Pete Brown and many others. The point is, it was fresh, it was open to alternatives; it offered visions which a reader could share or ignore. Another one called (from memory) New Edinburgh Review published work by British (including Scottish) writers. We don’t have vehicles like that now, and yet writers are still trying to keep themselves fresh and exploratory.

    And Seidel impresses me very much, whereas Geoffrey Hill’s poetry passes well above my head.

    Last night, in Edinburgh, I deliberately chose some experimental poems to read. One was rather Becketian in style, another in demotic Scots, one surreal, one political, and finally a declamatory piece inspired by Ginsberg. The audience reaction showed that they clearly liked what I was reading. And I felt refreshed and rejuvenated by their reactions.

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