poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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David McGimpsey is a poet, essayist, and musician. The author of three books of poems, Dogboy, Lardcake, and Hamburger Valley, California, published by ECW Press, Toronto, as well as the recent critical study Imagining Baseball: America's Pastime and Popular Culture, he currently writes and teaches in Montréal


Sweet Poetry or Mystery Meat?
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Here's one I like: 

     Cut it thick like a steak
     Slightly grease the pan
     Fry it for awhile
     Then eat it like a man.
     It won't hurt your innards
     It will slide right through
     Baloney is best fried
     I'm passing this tip to you.
By Anna Livia, this poem not only passes along uncommon and practical advice, it does so with good humor and helpful rhymes. What more could you ask for? Of course, not everything I like is so concerned with the gross stuff of innards and whatnot. Here's something else:
   It's all about something tasty
   You can mix it with macaroni
   Put it on a pizza, eat it with a cracker
   Man, we're talkin' 'bout Yale Bologna
Written by songwriter Dan Hall, the jaunty lyrics of “Talkin Yale Bologna” were composed in celebration of an annual Bologna Festival that takes place in the small town of Yale, Michigan. This yearly fete, where few aspects of local sausage production receive neglect, boasts sidelights that include bologna ring tosses, “The Big Bologna Parade,” and the nomination of a town Bologna King & Queen — how could a lyricist not be inspired? Hall's words, though undeniably cured meat positive, are more social and promotional than Livia's, more directly concerned with the precinct of Yale, Michigan.

Near or far, it's true too that there are many poems I admire that do not rhyme and, truth be told, a sizable majority of the them have nothing to do with bologna. And let's be sure: the clarity of rhyming, populist poetry about luncheon meat doesn't make such poems any more well known or liked than the poems in Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979. In fact, Bishop's kind of poetry, whatever her occasional plodding, her delight in making reference to things like sighing dolphins, or her total disregard for snack food, still seems like the respectable way to go. Or, when you want to help other poets develop their craft, you'd definitely want to pay attention to the complex ways poets use the materials of poetry, as Bishop does, rather than just focus on the ironically slim Bolognic Verses.

I don't write poetry for respectable reasons. By that, I don't mean to suggest I'm some kind of rebel, writing things so beyond the norm that traditional niceties and conventional rewards leave me unimpressed. On the contrary: whatever hokey, half-baked, self-aggrandizing, obscuring, mythologizing, self-defeating, daydreaming, flaky, effacing, please-love-me, log-rolling, affected, “I'd like to thank the Governor General” sins that are alleged to plague poets, I'll cop to those same sins and more.   I guess what I mean is that I'm still not entirely sure why I write poetry.  After a long time writing the stuff, some days it really doesn't feel worth it, some days it still kind of feels too personal to talk about. Though, unfortunately for my friends, some days it's all I can talk about. I agree with Tennyson when he famously said “I sometimes hold it a sin/To put in words the grief I feel” (181) but, as with other sins, I haven't let guilt stop me.

Poetry is still wonderful, isn't it?
I do know that as avocations/occupations go, poet is well shy of rock star or even Regis Philbin sidekick, but still a sight better than working in the retail or service industries. And, to be honest, the dread of working “May I help you, sir?” type jobs is a large component of how I became interested in the literary arts and the graduate study of them. As for writing poetry, what can be said about something so profound yet so ridiculous? I assume that in summing up my own poetics, it might be difficult to make it all sound anything but obscure and not quite grown-up. But I don't want to just make it up — now that I've finally been asked — backforming my unshakeable faith in the study of the genre, pretending it's all good stuff, suggesting my way is the way to go. I'm sure a self-based analysis about the "labor of my craft" would make me, and any sensible reader, barf.

Of course, poets are generally not so reliable when it comes to revealing a critically functional poetic.  In developing their logic about their own way of approaching the gentle art, poets often carefully edit out their own stupidity, their own hidden personal motives, their own disappointments, and how these things helped make them the a) defender of the ancients, b) creative writing class pet, c) the wildheart of the spoken word scene. A long time ago, a dear friend of mine published an ambitious essay about the nature of empathy in modern verse; an essay which included many clear beliefs as to what poetry should be as well as one nifty translation of the German term einfuhlung .  I wrote lots of things in the margins of my friend's essay, offering my own self evident counter-poetics like the only thing a poet should do is write poems! But, what I never noted in all this shadow engagement was how jealous I was that my friend was already having his opinions on poetry published.  A strange omission considering that that initial jealousy was probably the thing that most energized my response. Of course, the fact that upon seeing the word einfuhlung I immediately started singing the word to the tune of Jethro Tull's “Aqualung” should have told me that I wasn't quite ready for such exposure and perhaps I'm still not.

What would I know? Randall Jarrell once noted that as far as a critique of poetry and poetics was concerned, the literary critic had pushed the actual poets aside, with Jarrell using this meaty comparison: “if a pig wandered up to you during a bacon-judging contest, you would say impatiently, ‘Go away, pig! What do you know about bacon?’” (66-67).

As a poet, I grew up loving the Confessional poets, then adoring Tennyson and Yeats, and I habitually listen to Country & Western music, so it's probably not surprising that, for my own practise, I value poetry that commemorates emotional experience through an accultured, personal sensibility.  All that rag and bone shop stuff, all that “pick me up on your way down” stuff. I also grew up in the suburbs and am a bit of a buff when it comes to Pop Culture. So, I often try to write poems that encounter the prosaic aspects of our culture (the malls, the khaki pants, the concert you thought would change your life, the TV shows, the baloney and the bologna, the dieting) and see into them a reflection of our most hopeful and tragic selves. In some ways it's a poetic of the American middle class, a phrase that unfortunately sounds like I'm working on a collection of poems about golf. Though, what I'm usually up to is perhaps just a seven iron shot away from that.   Maybe even a nine iron.

It's peculiar insofar as the American (and by American I also mean Canadian) response to poetry is fairly uniform: the good people can't stand it. Now, I have no illusions about or desire to reach these nay-sayers. I'm sure they're all nice but, really, when did their Forrest Gump-loving asses mean anything to poets? Poets ought not write with dreams of Survivor popularity and US Magazine acceptance, though they ought not to pretend that those popular things do not exist.  I understand the peculiar burden poets have to be “of the people,” I mean, who wants to be an old stuck-up academic snob? Who wants to be that pitiful literary crank who complains all the time about how the kids today just don't respect “the craft”? But, isn't the idea of a people's poetry just a sad will-o'-the-wisp? An externalizing of the shame about poetry's sensitive complexity and lack of commercial value? Why is it that nobody ever demands there be a people's trigonometry? There's thousands of wonderful, immediately accessible, uncomplicated, straight-to-the-heart, plain-speaking poems, and these poems are just as ignored by the people as the complicated ones that habitually refer to Antigone and Creon.

Poetry itself is an indulgence and the indulgence of obscurity is, for me, one of its sweetest peaches. The allowance to say complex things, without any apology to the dumb-down demands of conventional media and commercial fiction is a rare gift in today's world, perhaps available only in the far ends of the literary margins. And poetry need not be embarrassed for those who found the subject too onerous and / or too poorly taught in High School.  Those citizens, attractive and kissable as they can be, have little to no interest in reading poetry and they probably never will. So what? Poetry can't make you popular, so you couldn't ask for a better vantage to contemplate the popular.

Poetry has been so unpopular for so long, you'd think we'd all be over it. Still, every few years or so a new hope glimmers that poetry will be able to right itself in the commercial arts. Especially since MTV's Word Up series, there's been a lot of hope invested in slam and spoken word poetry scenes as new and hip forms that might finally bring poetry to the people or, at least, “the new generation.”  Of course, I have nothing against spoken word itself, and admire many of its practitioners; as gathering terms go, “spoken word” obviously is no more or less ridiculous than “The Kootenay School” or “The New Formalists”.  But spoken word artists, however dressed for Starbucks-era success, generally work on the same pay-scale as old fashioned “poets” and are defined, I tend to think, in terms of a market-inspired division (“spoken word” belongs to the desirable demographic; “poetry” well out of the desirable demographic).  As Michael Holmes said in his introduction to the anthology The Last Word  “spoken word . . .is a safe, meaningless phrase intended to take the stigma (the craft and actual magic) out of writing poetry” (6). Though I love reading my poems in public performance, I've simply aged beyond where I could be considered “spoken word” and must, with the same sake of propriety that cautions a man my age against dancing in public, embrace being just a poet. Regardless, when a customs agent or a police officer asks somebody their profession, I'd like to meet the wing-nut who'll say “poet” or “spoken word artist.”

When Groucho Marx hosted the game show You Bet Your Life, and one of the contestants identified himself as a poet, Groucho immediately said: “In other words you're out of work.” (212) And despite this truism, and its more mean-spirited formations, poets perservere and still compete with each other to get their work published. Every year, more and more talented young people are allured to the deeply rewarding and ancient literary art and, every year, they seem to get better.  Whatever the popular lack of appreciation, ask anybody, even poets, if they think there's too few poets in the world and I'd be surprised if you got many yesses to that one. The shame of poetry is strong enough to go around; strong enough in the hearts of poets and poetry-lovers themselves. If, God forbid, a book of poetry did become popular, as Jewel's A Night Without Armor did, it would undoubtedly be lined up and critically slaughtered; laid among the corpses of Patch Adams, Touched by an Angel or any one of Celine Dion and Rene Angelil's weddings.
Ah, sweet delinquency. Oh, Poetry. As Jewel herself has said “let us raise ourselves / like lanterns” (6) and, with tolerance for even the worst scribblers among us, let us continue to write poems. For when it comes to revealing universal truths and eternal beauties, to steal a line from a classic jingle, “poetry has a way with b.o.l.o.g.n.a.”

Works Cited

  • Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979.  Boston: The Noonday Press, 1993.
  • Brockwell, Stephen. "Empathy in Modern Verse." The Insecurity of Art: Essays on Poetics. Ed. Ken Norris and Peter Van Toorn.  Montréal: Vehicule, 1982.
  • Holmes, Michael. The Last Word: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 1995.
  • Hall, Dan. "Talkin Yale Bologna." Dan Hall: Yale MI, 1998.
    Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age.  New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
  • Jewel. A Night Without Armor. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
  • Livia, Anna. "Baloney is Best Fried." Collected from private files of newsclippings.
  • Marx, Groucho. The Essential Groucho. Edited by Stefan Kanter.  New York: Vintage,   2000.
  • Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Poems of Tennyson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Riverside Editons, 1958.

from side/lines: a new canadian poetics (ed. rob mclennan, 2002, Insomniac Press, Toronto). reprinted with permission.

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