Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #15

The Cartography of Poetry

Chris Ransick
(With permission of Syntax, 2006)

People who assert the tired old phrase that poetry is dying are really saying that their engagement with the art has atrophied and they aren't up to the task of recognizing the present shape of the art. Contemporary poetry is dynamic and difficult to categorize. That elusiveness means people who have locked into their minds what "poetry ought to be" find it easier to pronounce the art dead than to look closely and learn how it lives.

Chris RansickPoetry is often unique to its locality, flowing through a community the way a river flows through its banks, nurturing the deep roots of trees in a narrow zone. Define any poetry community-urban, rural, street, academic, east, west-and you identify the riverbanks that define the community and create borders. And while poetry may not leap its banks easily, it can flow to other communities since it's all poetry and it's all connected. The sea gives up moisture to clouds that drop rain to rivers flowing back to the sea. Cartographers map the globe and say it has seven oceans, but you know, there's really only one.

Unfortunately, short-sighted people often label someone else's poetics irrelevant or illegitimate, failing to grasp how an unfamiliar voice serves its community. This is especially true when the viewer looks at a different style from afar, without rolling up his pant cuffs and wading into the stream. This theory suggests why some academics can't appreciate street poets and vice-versa. It's why any sub-group is suspicious or dismissive of any other. Poetics mirrors the larger fragmentation of our society. I don't see poetry as polarized because that very concept presupposes but two perspectives, hence it's the realm of fools who desire or expect the entire scope of the art to conform to a certain dogma, to triumph over all the non-joiners that are lumped together as "imposters."

Short-sighted people often label someone else’s poetics irrelevant or illegitimate, failing to grasp how an unfamiliar voice serves its community.

Mark Twain once said, and I paraphrase, it is not best that we should all think alike. So contemporary poetry's greatest strength may be its diversity of voice and style-a strength perceived by small minds as a weakness. Poetry is this unkempt, fractious, elusive set of expressions and the resultant tension irritates some specifically because it encourages diverse voices to develop. Rules bind creativity and drive it to dormancy. Art exhibits over time an ebb and flow, the imposing of rules and then a series of reactions against those rules, leading to development and growth. The Egyptians locked into a rigid formality in their visual art for 3,000 years and little changed; the Greeks made marvelous, fascinating leaps of imagination in a comparatively short period, and oh my, isn't that tasty stuff.

We’re in a dynamic time for poetry.

I say we're in a dynamic time for poetry. Excellent work is flowing. Yes, a certain amount of hacking goes on everywhere, but when things are decentralized and democratized, as they seem to be now, you cede mass appeal to gain quirky, idiosyncratic, unique expression. None of us can see the future; perhaps at some point these braided channels of poetry will flow back together for a time and cohere, if only briefly, in a realization of the present renaissance. Maybe we'll only be able to grasp the present renaissance once it's over and we can look back at it.

Any sense of polarization may be driven by the zeitgeist of the early 21st century. We're in an age of corporate media that seeks gross profit by grinding down all diversity into a single product for sale to the largest number of people at the lowest common denominator. It's like songwriter Greg Brown says: "There'll be one corporation/selling one little box/it will do what you want and tell you what you want/and cost whatever you've got."

So even as this mainstream impulse tries to squish poetry, or dismiss it as dead, the best American poetry breaks free in a wild spirit that resists control, that rolls and changes, reinvents itself, circles back and leaps forward, splits and reforms. The best of it may burn you or freeze you but it won't bore you, which only happens when an art dies and fossilizes. Screw those knuckleheads who say the art is dead. They're just isolated literary critics who desperately want to believe their views dominate. They're sitting under the Big Top, acrobats flying above them while they stare into their own navels and say, "Ain't no circus in town because all I see is my own belly button."

People write about things that matter to members of their community on the street, in the halls, in the valleys and on the plains.

Meanwhile, poetry acrobats fly in communities everywhere, far from the critics and poseurs, and audiences cheer. People write about things that matter to members of their community on the street, in the halls, in the valleys and on the plains. In the best cases, these poems make the leap to other readers, other communities, so the whole healthy, wonderful dance of connection goes on.

Apart from the "quality" of any poem, the act of making it typically benefits both the individual maker and the community into which it is released. Some poetry-the very best of it-manages to be transcendent, exquisitely and profoundly connecting present moment to ancient wisdom. I've been swinging through this whole spectrum lately-I teach poetry in college classes and independent workshops, working with people as young as 10 and as old as 80. I work part of the time in academia, and then I travel around to community centers and hear people recite oral tradition poems, and then I sit in "gourd circles" and hear everything from new-age mysticism to poem/song/dance fusion. I go from recitations at Holocaust memorial events to swinging jazz improvisation recitations. Then I visit high schools and hear the urgent, lithe voices of young people on the cusp of becoming men and women. I go to slams and revel in the rants, and I attend events where school kids recite from memory classic works. Then I go home and get out several different translations of Beowulf, with the Old English for reference, and pore over single passages for the nuances to be found in the versions of language moving over 13 centuries.

Poetry is dead? I don't think so. One kind of poetry-my kind of poetry-is the right kind? I don't think so. When I hear people arguing that this is real poetry or that is real poetry, to the exclusion of all others, I see a bunch of little generals in silly hats waving rubber swords at one another. My sonnet is better than your asyntactical experimentation is better than your slam rant is better than . . . blah, blah, blah. In the end, what are they fighting over? What does "the winner" hope to attain?

In the moment, we write and send that writing out into a world where the noise from so many competing things tends to obfuscate the issue and make any judgment suspect. I think many writers take their instruction amid all this chaos I've discussed; at a certain point, when their own voice calls them away, they go to another place where they can hear that voice most clearly and they work the rest of their days in exploration and expression of it, hoping that some of their poetry makes it back to the world and connects with readers. If this isn't true for others, then at least it's true for me. As I track my voice, I appreciate as many other voices as I hear along the way, hoping to change and grow as long as I can hold a pen.

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The muses are cooks. Poetry is a kind of cookery. I divide my poems between appetizers, stews, and desserts (Charles Simic)