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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Am I an antipoet?


The true poet is willing to give up poetry in order to find poetryHenry Rago

nobody reads poetry nowadays
it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad

– Nicanor Parra[1]

A friend of mine made this comment a while back: “Your writing is very much part of the 'anti-poetry' tradition, as is Larkin's.” She meant no harm by it—I have no problem being compared to Larkin—and I’m pretty sure I know what she meant when she used the term ‘anti-poetry’ but it started me thinking and you know what happens when I start thinking. Antipoetry: the obvious meaning is ‘against poetry’ or poetry haters (mysomousoi as they were known at the time of the English Renaissance) but that’s not what antipoetry is really about.

In his book, Toward an Image of Latin American Poetry, Octavio Armand writes: “Every poet is an antipoet. The reverse is not always true.”[2] One way of looking at a statement like that is to say that all poets can write prose but not all prosers can write poetry—something I tend to agree with—but the relationship between prose and poetry is not a simple either/or situation. And what about antipoetry? Is antipoetry simply chopped-up prose or is there something in between?

Arguably the world’s best known antipoet is the Chilean, Nicanor Parra, who, at the end of 2011 was awarded Spain’s Cervantes Prize (considered the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honour) which comes with a cash sum of €125,000 so no small honour. He’s also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. He’s 97 now but his name became forever bound to the notion of antipoetry when, in 1954, he published Poemas y Antipoemas (Poems and Antipoems). He did not coin the term however.

The foundation of the antipoetry movement (if indeed such a thing exists nowadays) lies with another Chilean poet, Vicente García-Huidobro Fernández, but known as Vicente Huidobro. He was a Creationist, in fact he founded the movement. Creationism held that a poet should bring life to the things he or she writes about, rather than simply describe them. Huidobro saw a poem as a truly new thing, created by the author for the sake of itself—that is, not to praise another thing, not to please the reader, not even to be understood by its own author. He defined himself as an "antipoet and magician" and decreed in his “Manifesto Perhaps” that “THE GREAT DANGER TO THE POEM IS THE POETIC,” that to “add poetry to what has it already without you” is to pour honey on honey, “it’s sickening.”[3] Well said that man. He was not the first Latin American antipoet however. The Peruvian Ultraist poet Enrique Bustamente Ballivan had already published a book called Antipoemas in 1926 of which I can find next to nothing online other than it’s supposed to be worth reading.

In an interview in 1938, Huidobro proclaimed that “[m]odern poetry begins with me.”[4] A similar claim was made by Parra in 1962 when he declared, “Poetry ended with me.”[5] I have little doubt that there’s a long queue forming after them who would want to make similar hyperbolic claims although I’m certainly not one of them. Both poets were very clearly aware of what had passed for poetry before them and were keen to draw a line under it but let’s face it that happens every generation anyway.

If you were to ask someone to name a famous Chilean poet from this time neither of these names will probably top the poll; that honour is most likely to go to Pablo Neruda who, incidentally, did win the Novel Prize in 1971. Neruda’s poems are often passionate odes to love and nature, verbose and adjectival in approach featuring a cornucopia of nature-derived imagery. (He’s not a poet I know well so I’m basing this on what I’ve read about him online.) A brief example:

In Praise of Ironing

Poetry is pure white.
It emerges from water covered with drops,
is wrinkled, all in a heap.
It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet,
has to be ironed out, the sea’s whiteness;
and the hands keep moving, moving,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are accomplished.
Every day, hands are creating the world,
fire is married to steel,
and canvas, linen, and cotton come back
from the skirmishings of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born—
pure innocence returns out of the swirl.

(translated Alastair Reid)

nicanor-parraParra, like Philip Larkin, chose to formulate his poetry using vernacular, unrhetorical, direct language. Parra, it should be noted, was a careful reader of British poetry particularly T S Eliot. Larkin himself also acknowledges Eliot as a major influence upon his making as a poet. An odd hero I’ve often thought as Eliot’s work has always been beyond me; too clever for its own good. Parra sought to demystify poetry and make it accessible to a wider audience. Although others are quick to point out the differences between the two men, Parra himself had this to say:

Not one day goes by without my thinking of him at least once. I read him attentively, I follow with increasing amazement his yearly displacement along the Zodiac, I analyze him and compare him with himself. I try to learn whatever I can.[6]

Admiring someone and seeking to emulate him or her is something else. I think it’s fair enough to talk about Eliot as a “poet’s poet.”[7] Larkin and Parra were never aiming that high; they were content to be the people’s poet and both achieved that in their respective countries.

Oftentimes Larkin’s poetry comes across as if it has had all the poeticness stripped out of it and if it didn’t include rhymes at the end of the lines and be left-indented you might be forgiven for thinking that it was, in fact, chopped-up prose. An interesting point though is made by Ryan Hibbert in his book, Proving Poetry: Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Now:

[A] literary text can sound like ordinary speech, but it never is ordinary speech, which it ultimately defines itself against; the “common” speech in Larkin’s poetry assumes … “a special character” it otherwise lacks. Swearing, for example, takes on the special character of a poet swearing, or swearing in a poem—an extended meaning it lacks in everyday conversation.[8]

The poem of his that I always return to—it’s my perfect poem—is ‘Mr Bleaney’ and the perfect synthesis between ‘poetry’ and ‘non-poetry’. Whether it can be classified as ‘antipoetry’ is another matter (I’ll come back to that) but you can find a detailed consideration of the poem beginning on page 60 of Hibbert’s book.

Of the two—I’m comparing Parra and Huidobro here—I relate more to Parra in his approach to poetry. He reminds me of William Carlos Williams (who compared a poem to a machine) when he wrote in his Manifesto that a poet is not an alchemist (or a magician) but a man like any other, a carpenter who constructs walls, doors, and windows, and the poet’s job is? In 'Letters from a poet who sleeps in a chair' he says:


Young poets
Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.

(translated by Miller Williams)

Later he says it a little differently:


The poet's job is
To improve on the blank page
I don’t think that’s possible.

(translated by David Unger)

(Shades of Beckett there too.) What this brings to my mind is a distinction between two kinds of poetry: nature poetry (in the broadest sense, not just poems about brooks and daffodils) and urban poetry (again taking a broad brush approach to the term). Two words that frequently come up when people write about antipoetry are ‘urban’ and ‘colloquial’, colloquial speech as opposed to the refined language normally associated with poetry. Colloquialisms are sometimes referred to collectively as "youknowhatitis language" but, as William McIlvanney has pointed out, the language of the common people is saturated with metaphors and is far from unpoetic without ever appearing pretentious.

In The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, Edith Grossman details three objectives of “the theoretical course” that Parra “set for himself after the publication of his Cancionero sin Nombre.” The first objective was to free poetry from the domination of the metaphor, which he terms “the abuse of earlier poetic language.” His antipoetry, understood as a liberation from what he termed an “abusive” style, would rather avoid such “poetic” language in favour of direct communication with the reader. Second, antipoetry should “depend on the commonplace in all its ramifications, that it decisively reject the rarefied and the exotic, both thematically and linguistically.” By this, Grossman elucidates, Parra meant that “the language of literature must be no different from the language of the collectivity . . . language reflects the life of the people. . . “Third, Parra has reaffirmed that his writing was leading directly to a “purely national expression” because the poet cannot remove himself from the community, the tribe. Thus the poet “should use colloquialisms peculiar to his own country, even if readers from other areas find them difficult to understand.”[9] (bold emphasis mine)

Pablo García writes of the movement in Chile: “…our motto was war on the metaphor, death to the image; long live the concrete fact and clarity.”[10]

Parra expressed his intention for antipoetry most clearly in his poem ‘Manifesto’ contained in his 1972 collection Emergency Poems:

Ladies and gentlemen
is our final word
– Our first and final word – 
The poets have come down from Olympus
For the old folks
Poetry was a luxury item
But for us
It’s an absolute necessity
We couldn’t live without poetry.

Through the course of this poem he condemns a variety of styles of poetry:

We repudiate
The poetry of dark glasses
The poetry of the cape and sword
The poetry of the plumed hat
We propose instead
The poetry of the naked eye
The poetry of the hairy chest
The poetry of the bare head.
We don’t believe in nymphs or tritons.
Poetry has to be this:
A girl in a wheatfield –
Or it’s absolutely nothing.

LarkinMany have struggled to come up with a definition of poetry that we in the 21st century are comfortable with. Form used to be the crucial thing but now that just about everyone is writing free verse we have to dig a little deeper. At its core I believe all poetry is metaphorical even if not a single metaphor or simile is used; very few poems are ever taken just literally. Even a straightforward poem like ‘Mr Bleaney’ which describes a man agreeing to rent a room in essence doesn’t stop there; it takes us to the cliff’s edge and leaves us there. Poetry is all around us. Football commentators describe the technical skill of players as “pure poetry”. Here’s a sentence from an article about children:

[S]eeing her laugh and suck on those fat little fingers…that was pure poetry, if it ever existed.

From a comment talking about a blog post about rescuing horses:

Joe, that was pure poetry.

From a poem about canoeing:

It was pure poetry
when you were
a lone traveller
in your canoe and
suddenly the sky
darkened by a flock
of migrating birds.

There used to be a time when some subjects were considered verboten. But then there was a time where women didn’t show their ankles in public. It’s just a matter of readjusting how you see things to realise that what you’re perceiving is poetry. It’s like music. I’m quite sure that most Baroque composers would cover their ears if they were exposed to some of the stuff that twentieth century turned out and called ‘music’ but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t music. And the same goes for what poets like Parra call ‘antipoetry’—the term is misleading because his antipoems are not against Poetry but a response to a certain kind of poetry. His poetry is antiheroic, it eschews high rhetoric and elevated language but it is still poetry.

In his thesis Notes on Insufficient Laughter Ronn David Silverstein writes:

Antipoetry is flat, understated; and relaxed; antipoetry “returns poetry,” as Parra says, “to its roots;” antipoetry is honest, unadorned, unlyrical, nonsymbolist; in antipoetry what you see is what you see; antipoetry is chiselled, solid. Antipoetry dispenses with stock poetical devices; instead, it offers dark humour, disjointed logic, flatness of tone and directness of statement.

He contrasts these to “the ‘deep image poem’ (which is hyperbolic and associative in its images) […] a phrase coined by Robert Kelly in the 1940s to describe what Robert Bly was doing through his Fifties Press, namely, his translations of the Spanish poets: Lorca, Jiménez, Vallejo and others.” (You can read a long article about deep image poetry here.) What is interesting is that Bly openly criticised Pound’s Imagist movement describing it as “Picturism. An image and a picture differ in that the image, being the natural speech of the imagination, cannot be drawn from or inserted back into the real world.”[11]

In his book Leaping Poetry Bly explains his concept of the deep image. He says that the deep image concerns itself with a central image that “should exist at the centre of the poem and sprout from the unconscious mind, uniting the known world, i.e. the poem’s content, with the unknown world, i.e. the poem’s language, by the act, on the poet’s part, of creative fusion.” In the poem ‘Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River’ this leap occurs in the final stanza and I find myself thinking about the closing image to ‘Mr Bleaney’ and wonder just how well it fits the criterion:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

Is it an intellectual image, a room imagined as a coffin? Does that fear sprout from the conscious or the unconscious mind? I’m not going to labour the point but it’s something to think about.

williamcarloswilliamsAfter I left school and started to examine poets that weren’t on the curriculum (and hence not British) I quickly discovered another who spoke my tongue: William Carlos Williams. Wallace Stevens considered his work “anti-poetic,”[12] (describing "the real" instead of "the sentimental") while H.D. found him “commonplace, common and banal.” I found his work pure, like the music of Pärt, stripped down to its essentials. But it was most definitely poetry. And yet I find that Williams is another poet whose work often gets referred to as antipoetry; Dave Oliphant has written an entire book comparing his work to Parra’s. The most obvious comparison is their insistence on working with normal speech:

His late development of ‘the variable foot’ allowed him to be discursive without abandoning the cadence and rapidity of natural speech. The order of speech, of prose statement, has replaced a repetitive, metronomic pattern, as the expected element in Williams' line. By and large, the line units are dictated by speech, but they have a flexibility and offer a range of possible discovery far exceeding those of traditional meter. Looking for criteria to judge ‘the variable foot’ we may suggest: (a) is it natural, true to speech? (b) are the variations vital and interesting? For Williams the anti-poetic would be aping of traditional literary forms or copying the speech and/or measure of others.[13]

What Stevens wrote in the introduction to Williams's Collected Poems 1921-1931 was this:

His passion for the anti-poetic is a blood passion and not a passion of the inkpot. The anti-poetic is his spirit's cure. He needs it as a naked man needs shelter or as an animal needs salt. To a man with a sentimental side the anti-poetic is that truth, that reality to which all of us are forever fleeing.

And this is how Williams responded:

I was pleased when Wallace Stevens agreed to write the Preface but nettled when I read the part where he said I was interested in the anti-poetic. I had never thought consciously of such a thing. As a poet I was using a means of getting an effect. It's all one to me—the anti-poetic is not something to enhance the poetic—it's all one piece. I didn't agree with Stevens that it was a conscious means I was using. I have never been satisfied that the anti-poetic had any validity or even existed.[14]

As the book was published in 1934 I think it can be taken as read that Stevens is not referencing Huidobro and that he is attempting his own definition of antipoetry. Williams is not an antipoet—he had very clear ideas on what a poem should be and be about—but he is an anti-traditionalist and that’s where much of the common ground lies when you compare him to Parra.

What I find noteworthy is that, in a letter to William Rose Benét written in 1939, Stevens mentions that his favourite poem (of his own) was ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ because it wore “a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry”[15] and a few days later he clarified this when he said, “This represented what was in my mind at the moment, with the least possible manipulation.”[16] Five months later he admits that “[t]he poem is obviously not about ice cream, but about being as distinguished from seeming to be.”[17]

My gut feeling is that when he made his comments concerning Williams he simply hadn’t spent enough times with the poems because so many of his poems (Williams’, I mean) can seem superficial until you’ve lived with them for a while. Just look at the amount of stuff that’s been written about ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ for instance. Williams and Stevens “were like brothers who might break up a fight to unite in the face of a bully.”[18] One such “bully”, interestingly enough, was T S Eliot:

Williams felt the pressure of a poetic contest with T S Eliot, whom he considered a deadly threat to everything he stood for. Stevens also opposed himself to Eliot. He wrote, “Eliot and I are dead opposites and I have been doing about everything that he would not be likely to do.”[19]

As I’ve mentioned already Parra and Larkin were also reading Eliot and no doubt their choice of direction was a reaction to what they read even if they weren’t so vocal about it.

Larkin was anti- lots of things—anti-sentimental, anti-romantic, anti-life even—but I’m not so sure he would have appreciated being called antipoetic. His early work shows his influences—Yeats in particular, and later of Hardy—but on the whole his technique is nothing revolutionary; his subject matter, however, is. And that’s where he and Parra would find themselves nodding in agreement. The aim of his poetry, he suggested, was to give the impression of "a chap chatting to chaps."[20] I think that was what first struck me about him: I didn’t feel I was being talked down to. Years later, in ‘The Journey Back,’ the opening poem of his 1991 collection Seeing Things, Heaney would describe him as “[a] nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.” I think that would be a fair description of William Carlos Williams and myself too; not sure about Parra—do theoretical physicists work nine to five?

What do they mean when they talk about a flat style of poetry? Surely all poetry is flat. (Yes, I’m being facetious.) What’s the opposite of ‘heightened’ language? One would imagine whatever the lingua franca of the day is. We don’t like ornate furniture these days or fancy flock wallpaper and I doubt if any songs in the charts have very many trills or appoggiatura in them (they’re the twiddley bits Baroque composers were so fond of). We like monochromes and straight edges. And the same goes for our poetry. The problem is when you’re used to buying your furniture from Ikea and having your songs written by Stock, Aitken and Waterman (or whoever their 21st century equivalents are) then you stop appreciating handmade furniture and singer songwriters. (Again, I’m being facetious.) A friend of my dad’s once told me, “Jimmy, there aren’t any engineers anymore, just fitters.” And he’s right. You take your car in to get repaired and all they do is whip out one component and bung in another. Your phone breaks down, you buy another.

In his book Ensouling Language, Stephen Harrod Buhner, opens the chapter entitled ‘You Must Begin with Something Deeper in the Self’ with a quote from Robert Bly:

Some people who are terrified of grandiosity spend their vital energy defending themselves from the godlike furnace that is cooking inside them. They are the flat people. Side by side with the light poetry we have the flat poetry of the universities, flatter than any poetry ever known in the world before.

In this chapter Buhner presents us with a sweeping statement: You must not extend awareness further than society wants it to go. He doesn’t agree with it but he believes that that belief is something that holds many writers back, encourages them to play safe and, of course, there will be those that do pull their punches for fear they might overstretch themselves or that they might produce something their audience (if they’re lucky enough to have an audience) might turn their noses up at. And I have to wonder if that’s what I do which is why someone might tar me with the antipoetry brush. But I don’t think that’s the case. I always worry about things that are defined by what they’re not and I find that I’m struggling to find a consensus regarding flat poetry. I was intrigued by part of this comment by Robert:

Yet I really think great poetry elicits more similarity than dissidence of response from most audiences in a way that is shockingly more similar to a computer runtime environment than it would appear at first glance. While both code and poems appear flat on the page or screen, when executed both forms present myriad opportunities to branch down different paths. But the reality is that poetry gives you no choice -- only the infinite illusion of choice through allusion, implication, reference, rhyme, nonsensical meaning, seductive sounds and rhythms, and a multitude of other techniques that simultaneously tell the mind there is one thing going on as well as (in subtext) thousands.

A poem is not code. Yes, it’s true we encode meaning, but we do so in a very imprecise way. In HTML <b> and </b> have very specific meanings—bold on, bold off—and they never change no matter what the context. I don’t think a poem has been written so flat that a person with an active imagination couldn’t take it somewhere its author didn’t intend or expect it to go. That said the less technique you apply the fewer opportunities arise.

Okay, so let’s look at an antipoem:


Like Nicanor Parra I write antipoetry
antipoems for antipeople in antibooks
antipoems for anticritics for antireaders
antipoetry for antiassholes in the antimatter
antielectrons in the antiatoms for antideaf
in my antiadaptation to the literary world
in the antigroup of the antiliterature
antipoetry for antieditors for antiprizes
for antilectors for anticorrectors for antipublishers
and it is not because I don't like poetry or
because I don't like critics, it is because,
like any other antipoet I only know
how to write

Mois Benarroch

MoisMois Benarroch is a Moroccan poet the same age as me; he even looks a bit like me. And he is far from being someone who one might label as simply an antipoet. I like this piece I have to say. I could have written it, although it’s a bit light for me, to be honest. He’s actually quite a prolific writer—a polyglot no less—and I got caught up reading about him. I was particularly struck by a comment he made in an interview about the “outsiderness” of his poetry:

This is definitely the recurring theme in my writings. It spreads all over, from being an outsider as a Jew, or as a writer (and Edmond Jabes would say that every writer is a Jew) to feeling like a different kind of Jew and not really part of the mainstream of Judaism: that is being a Sephardic Jew. Maybe that’s what poetry is about: being outside, being different and writing a different poem.[21]

I find reading about schools of poetry interesting but I’ve never found myself drawn to any group. In that respect I, too, feel like an outsider in the poetry world. The notion that I might be a closet antipoet nettles, to use Williams’ word; I don’t like being classified. Classification inclines readers to limit their expectations and although it’s true I veer towards a certain style of poetry I’ve yet to find a single poet out there who writes like me. I relate strongly with what Benarroch says here. I’ve always felt different and that my poetry was different. I can relate to lots of different poets but I’m loathe to set down—even for myself—rules as to what I think a poem should be or do. So no manifestos from me; not this week.

In his poetry collection, Abstracts, John O’Loughlin gives his thoughts on the differences between poetry and antipoetry:

[W]here does poetry end and antipoetry begin? … I think we can answer this question … by contending that, although in practice the two kinds of poetry often overlap, the poetical ends by singing the praise of artificial beauty, while the antipoetical begins in a preponderating concern for the metaphysical … as a vehicle for the exploration of truth. Thus we have good reason to believe that, as with philosophy and antiphilosophy, poetry ends and antipoetry begins on a petty-bourgeois level, the one at a climax to a concern for appearances in the most artificial context, i.e. as pertinent to the urban/industrial environment, and the other at the inception to a concern for essences in the least spiritual context, i.e. as pertinent to the intellectual elucidation of metaphysical speculation.[22]

As Goethe wrote, "the unnatural, that too is natural," and I think this is where I come in. If, as O’Loughlin suggests, poetry ends “by singing the praise of artificial beauty” it certainly begins by praising Nature and those were the poems that I reacted against, the ones we got taught at Primary School that I moan about all the time, poems about brooks or daffodils or sad sacks sauntering down to the sea. I never studied the metaphysical poets but a part of me wishes I had because I think I would have found much to relate to. I live in an urban setting and am interested in writing about what I can relate to so in that respect I can be called an antipoet based on this criteria plus I’m just about the least spiritual person you are likely to meet so perhaps I am an antipoet at my core. I agree with Parra when he says that the function of language is “that of a simple vehicle and the material with which I work, I find in daily life.”[23]

But there are differences: I have not forsaken the metaphor or the image although I use both with care. The bottom line is that I don’t much care for labels and I’ve no great desire to align myself with any school of poetry. I do aspire to write clear and understandable poetry (but not superficial poetry) that has structure but is not a slave to structure and by that I mean that I believe that a poem’s shape evolves naturally in its writing which is why I could never see myself setting out to write a sestina or a sonnet and forcing my words into that predefined shape. We all look back when creating metaphorical images but the further back we look the more likely we are to lose our readers so I prefer contemporary cultural references which is why no nods to Greeks gods in any of my poems. Let me leave you with a few poems that I think might pass as antipoems. You decide.

After Pinter

I am a great man.
People depend on me to say great things.
They expect me to say great things.
I expect I am saying something great right now.
Things appear greater when I say them.

It is a terrible burden, of course,
a terrible responsibility, in fact,
to always have to say something great,
to be great to order; that said
people believe I am being great
even when I am being normal.
To them my normal is just great.
They need me to be great
ergo I am great.

“That was great,” they’ll say
and they’ll believe that to be true
but at the same time they’ll be thinking:
I thought great might be greater than that
but what do I know, he’s the great man, not me.

27 January 2010

The Wrong Nudes

My daughter bought me a book, an album,
with pictures of naked women in it.
Of course the wrong women were naked but
how was she to know that that might matter?

That said, realisation is one thing,
acceptance another and approval,
first tacit, then open, quite something else.

Nudity is such a disappointment.
I have never really understood when
nakedness becomes art or if indeed
openness is always a good idea.

She said the book had a dented spine which
is how she could afford it and then we
moved seamlessly onto other matters.

09 March 2009

An Honest Poem

                  Here's the deal,
mate – we might as well be
up front about all this –

what you need to do is
read this and forget it.
It shouldn't be so hard.

I'm sure you've read and
forgotten hundreds
of poems, dozens at

least. So, let's cut to the
chase – yes? – and not waste each
other's time.

09 November 2008

Everyone's a Critic

So we got
this writer and this reader –
seems like a match
made in heaven –

the catch is,
the writer keeps writing things
the reader doesn't want to read
whilst the reader insists on reading stuff
the writer hasn't a clue how to write.

Go figure.
But they're stuck with each other,
joined at the hip.
Think about it.

one day the writer's had it:
"So what the fuck should I write then?"
The reader doesn't even miss a beat:
(well maybe just one) ... "You got a pen?"

22 August 2004

I Spy

You shouldn't look at women's chests;
              they mind if you look.
They know you can see
              but you're not supposed to look.

But you're allowed to notice;
              they expect you to notice.

It's hard to see why you can't look
              at what you've just seen
              but those are the rules
              even though they don't make sense.

21 October 1997


Huidobro and Parra: World-Class Antipoets

Although I Havent't Come Preparraed: The Poetry And Antipoetry of Chile [sic]

Poetry of the Sneeze: Thomas Merton and Nicanor Parra

Gardens, Cemeteries, and the Abyss: Symbolic Spaces in a Selection of Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poetry

Merton, ‘Cables to the Ace’, Anti-Poetry

The Manifesto of Antipoetry (Coe Review, Number 8, 1977, p.10)

The Aesthetics of Anti-Poetry Manifesto: Poetry Criticism by an Anti-Poet

A large collection of Parra’s poetry can be accessed here.


[1] Nicanor Parra, ‘Something Like That,’ translated by Liz Werner

[2] Octavio Armand, Toward an Image of Latin American Poetry, p.10

[3] For “Poeta / Anti poeta,” see Canto I in Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor (2003: 34), and for “antipoeta y mago,” see Canto IV (94). For Huidobro’s all-caps manifesto and his further declarations on the dangers of the poetic, see The Selected Poetry of Vicente Huidobro, ed. David M. Guss (1981: 76). Huidobro’s prose statements are translated into English from his Manifestes, a volume written in French.

[4] David M. Guss ed., The Selected Poetry of Vicente Huidobro, x

[5] Nicanor Parra, Antipoems: New and Selected, pp.42-45

[6] Nicanor Parra, Welcoming Speech Honouring Pablo Neruda

[7] Peter Monro Jack writing in The New York Times quoted in Jewel Spears Brooker ed., T. S. Eliot, The Contemporary Reviews, p.xxix

[8] Ryan Hibbert, Proving Poetry: Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Now, p.57

[9] Julio Marzán, ‘The Poetry and Anti-Poetry of Luis Palés Matos: From Canciones to Tuntunes’, Callaloo, 18.2, pp. 506-523

[10] Pablo García, ‘Contrafigura de Nicanor Parra’, Atena, Jan/Feb 1955, p.157

[11] Kevin Bushell, ‘Leaping Into the Unknown: The Poetics of Robert Bly's Deep Image’, Modern American Poetry

[12] In his article ‘William Carlos Williams: This is just to say…’ Vancouver-based consultant Juna Wood states that “Wallace Stevens affectionately called Williams' work the 'anti-poetic' in an essay…” (italics mine) I have no idea where he gets ‘affectionately’ from but no doubt it’s based on something he’s read in the past. Dickran Tasjian writes, however, that "Williams was annoyed by Stevens' contention that the anti-poetic was an outlet, a mask, for sentimentality. Williams argued instead that the poetic and the anti-poetic were of a piece, creation and destruction, art/anti-art, inextricably bound together in a dialectic." Dickran Tasjian, William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940, pp.59,60

[13] Charles Doyle, William Carlos Williams and the American Poem

[14] William Carlos Williams, I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the works of a Poet, p.52

[15] Quoted in Warren Carrier, ‘Commonplace Costumes and Essential Gaudiness: Wallace Stevens’ “Emperor of Ice Cream,”’ College Literature, 1974

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Martha Helen Strom, ‘The Uneasy Friendship of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens’, Journal of Modern Literature, 1984

[19] Ibid

[20] Martin Dodsworth, ed., The Survival of Poetry, p.37

[21] 'Interview: Moroccan-born Israeli poet Mois Benarroch', memoria y migracion, July 15 2010

[22] John O’Loughlin, Abstracts, Introduction (unnumbered pages)

[23] Pablo García quoting Parra in ‘Contrafigura de Nicanor Parra’, Atena, Jan/Feb 1955, p.157


Danish dog said...

I think the problem is that historically poetry has been classified as fiction, when in fact much of modern poetry should be classified as non-fiction inasmuch as the voice is that of a speaker rather than a narrator. In this kind of poem the poet is not telling a story so much as making a statement or describing a situation. What has been termed anti-poetry is where the poet has removed the tag of fiction. In this type of poem the speaker is identifiable with the poet, and the poet/speaker is merely delivering a speech of some sort, i.e. non-fiction.

I have drawn this conclusion after studying Ben Okri's recent collections of essays and poems, where he himself has said that the poetry is "a distillation of the essays". Both collections can be categorized as speeches. My blog post on this went up last week:

Jim Murdoch said...

Of the five poems at the end of this essay, Danish dog, in 'After Pinter' I am not the narrator (although neither is Pinter even though I borrow his voice); I am in 'The Wrong Nudes' and you're right, this could quite happily be categorised as non-fiction poetry; 'An Honest Poem' and 'Everyone's a Critic' are fictional—they're not even written in my voice—whereas 'I Spy' really sits in that middle group because although the sentiments are mine the voice is not (I see the narrator as a young-ish boy). I had never really considered looking at a poem as a work of non-fiction but you are right as you say in your essay (Christ, I thought my articles were long) and the term 'speaker' is often more appropriate than 'narrator'.

I heard (or read—can't remember the specifics) a story about a poet who read a poem about the death of a child (I'm making this up but the point I'm getting to is true enough) and afterwards he was approached by a woman who tried to console him over the loss of his child and got genuinely annoyed when she was told that the poem was made up, a work of fiction. I find this a lot, people jump to the conclusion—especially with a first-person narrator—that the work is autobiographical. In a few of my poems the first person narrator is (in my head at least) my daughter; she's talking about me; it's not me talking about my dad.

I don't think that non-fictional poetry can automatically be classified as antipoetry. My mother wrote the most conventional poetry you've ever read and in all of them she's the speaker and she's talking about real people and things that have happened to her.

I've just discovered a magazine called rabbitpoetry that describes itself as a "quarterly journal for non-fiction poetry." Never seen that before.

Kirk said...

I've thought about writing poetry, but always back off because, frankly, I haven't been reading it all my life the way I have prose, and don't think I would have much feel for it. I do like poets such as Williams and Larkin, but am pretty ignorant about the art form as a whole. My problem with free verse or free form, and it's only a problem in terms of me trying to write it, is I've never been sure if there's a hidden structure that I just can't see, or if it's merely a paragraph that's been sliced and diced, or something in-between. I'm not kidding when I say I'm ignorant on the subject.

Speaking of poets who can write prose, what do you think--assuming you've read any of them-- of the poems of Stephen Crane? Those seem pretty free-form to me, before the term was even invented.

Jim Murdoch said...

Crane's poems are indeed written in free verse, Kirk, which has been around for longer than most people would imagine. The poets just didn't see fit to distinguish that style with its own name. I'm not well acquainted with his work but that goes for most of the older American poets; I was a grown man before I read any Whitman of Dickinson. I began with William Carlos Williams and his peers.

As far as writing poetry goes if it doesn't call to you then don't go there. There's nothing that says you have to. As long as you're able to express yourself and are satisfied that what you've written adequately conveys your thoughts then stick with it. I wrote poetry for twenty years and didn't have the slightest urge to write prose and then I sat down and wrote two novels back to back in a matter of about six months but it was another ten years before I even thought about writing a short story. I believe that content dictates the form. For me at least. My poems are different to my novels which are different again to my stories.

A lot of people are ignorant when it comes to poetry. A lot of poets are ignorant when it comes to poetry. In that respect the rise and rise of free verse has done a lot of damage because no one's sure what a poem is anymore. And people get so defensive if you offer even the slightest criticism: "It's a poem because I say it is. Right?" No, it's not. Rhythm and rhyme are only two of many poetic techniques. Just because they've fallen out of fashion doesn't mean the poet gets to throw out the rest of his toolkit. Alliteration has grown in popularity for example. People have just shifted the rhymes from the end of lines to the beginning of words.

At the end of the day there is only writing and it falls into two camps: good writing and bad. There are times I've thought of reformatting all my poems as blocks of text and leaving them for the readers to judge. Some would pass for prose but who cares? Since when was prose a bad thing to write? I don't believe that poetry is the highest form of writing. It's time it got off its high horse.

Art Durkee said...

The comments about nonfiction and the metaphysical being the place to start resonate with me, but I'd never ally myself as an anti-poet. The deep image poets, and Bly's image of the burning god within, come a lot closer to my own experience of not only poetry but creativity in general. I don't do it out of any desire for self-expression of the type that makes my little ego happier. I do it because there's a constant internal pressure, like (ooh! Simile!) a dark underground river flooding up through a well in a cave (which was my personal image long before I discovered that that's an image from Celtic mythology). A lot of what I make in poems is imagistic in the same way that nonverbal cinema uses sequences of images with no words and overt narrative to evoke feeling and meaning. My favorite poems of my own could almost be nothing but images, with no linguistic connectors or filigree. Archetypal, not conversational. I really have no use for the stereotypes of street talk in my poems, except rarely in a character study. Like a portrait in words instead of in paint.

The anti-poetry thing seems to me to be just a rebellious name for anti-ornamentation, poetry that wants to be straightforward rather than self-consciously Artistic. Conceptually it's Modernist rather than postmodernist. Form follows function. Language Poetry is highly postmodernist, with all the implications of collapse of any meaning and scrambling of all intent anti-poetry does often seem to contain a manifesto in it, whether overt or hidden. I don't ally with anti-poetry partly because it DOES always seem to be driven by or containing a manifesto.

I do appreciate Williams a lot, and have been reading more deeply in him lately. I find Stevens frankly to be all surface effect a lot of the time; which of course is one reason is the darling of the postmoderns. Williams at least has a lot of deep feeling behind the words, when you go looking for it. Bly has often stumbled, but he's also contributed some great critical ideas, and leaping poetry and the deep image just won't go away. I still find more that's useful in Bly's ideas than I do in all of anti-poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

I really have no axe to grind here, Art. If people want to think of me (at least some of the time) as an antipoet then fine. I don't care for florid poetry. It doesn't suit the way I think or the things I write about. I can appreciate the complexities of Bach's polyphony but give me Arvo Pärt any day of the week. I really have no interest in aligning myself with any school of poetry. Oddly enough, being the antisocial bugger that I am, there is a part of me that would like to band together with a group of like-minded souls but I can't find any. Vito Pasquale is the closest I've come to a poetic soul mate although I have recently been quite impressed by the French poet Guillevic and have two articles written; there's definitely a bit of the Williams in his stuff. I prefer writing in isolation. It keeps the work pure. If I was part of a collective my fear would be that I'd start to lose my individuality and that's something that's quite precious to me.

Art Durkee said...

Guillevic is personal favorite. I love the elemental power in his poems. I have two volumes of his work, one in French.

I don't really have an axe to grind either. I don't like florid or all-surface poetry either. But I do like poems that are more than just commentary on life, which is what lots of anti-poetry seems to approve of. I do like a poem to be an experience, not just words ABOUT an experience. That's one reason the deep image idea appeals.

Marion McCready said...

I agree with most of what Art said. I like a lot of so-called anti-poetry though generally when it has some surreal content to it otherwise it's plain boring (as I mostly find Larkin to be...sorry!!).
Your poetry is very conscious of its self, it depends a lot on language-play and subverting itself and the reader's expectations. There's a large element of reader involvement in your poems, the reader can't get away with being a passive observer to the poems which I think makes them so interesting. I enjoyed your poems, particularly the first and last.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's a hard call, Art. The news presents a commentary and yet some sit and cry when they see what's going on in the world. I guess it depends on how willing an individual is willing to contribute towards the process. You can't blame the poet for everything. That's why I'm pleased that Marion (who, by the way, is the friend who made that initial observation) acknowledges that there's a large element of reader involvement in my poems. There has to be.

How I came across Guillevic is interesting. You might recall I reviewed a book of poems translated, reimagined etc by John Kinsella and I was maybe a little hard on him so I decided to have a crack at translating a poem myself. I typed in some random phrase that threw up a page full of poems in French and picked (pretty much at random) the first short one I could find. After completing my translation I went on a hunt to see if I could find an English translation to see how well I'd done but couldn't and so I ended up having to buy the whole book. I ended up writing two articles. In the second I had a go at a poem by Beckett and you wait to you see the mess I made of that.

And, Marion, I should thank you for pointing me in this direction. It's always good to examine yourself. Danish dog's comments about non-fiction poetry have also got me thinking. I had never really considered poetry that way before but there is a case and I think I'll look into that further and see if I can drum up enough material for an article.

I believe very strongly in the part a reader plays in the completion of a poem. It's why I don’t do very well with a lot of your poems because I don't bring the right mindset. And there will be those who look at my stuff and think it's superficial and a bit obvious. And that's fine. It's a big world out there.

I'm glad you liked 'After Pinter'. I've just written an article on his poetry which I've been meaning to for a while. I've had his Collected Poems on my wish list for yonks but no bugger ever bought it for me and so I just got on with it. Of course it'll be ages before it gets posted. I wrote this one back in March and I've got older ones than that that I keep sidestepping for one reason or another. 'I Spy' was written about the same time as I was doing the 'Advice to Children' poems and so the voice is the same. There are so many things that we'd like our kids to grasp that can't be explained. Well they can and in very simply language but they don't make sense until you've experienced them.

Gwil W said...

When the discussion turns to poetry I always fall back on Dylan Thomas, a man with more poetry in his elbow than T S Eliot in his cranium. But first my own opinion for what it's worth - which I know won't be much:

Anti-poetry, for me, is any poetry or prose written post-Somme-post-Dresden-post-Auschwitz-post-Nagasaki. Or, dear reader, pick your own suitable date when poetry was kicked screaming into hell .

And now here Jim, a couple of verses from Dylan Thomas. As I said he refused to contribute to T S Eliot's anthology. Well, that's not quite correct. Dylan actually sent an unpublishable 2-line anti-poem but unfortunately I don't have it to hand at the moment:

to Henry Treece in a letter without a stamp (June 1938) he wrote:

O Chatterton and others in the attic
Linked in one gas bracket
Taking Jeyes' fluid as narcotic;
Drink from the earth's teats
. . .

and to Oscar Williams (July 1945)

Yes, there's his brown hen cluck in the gambo-swished mud, scratching for Christ, cackling in droppings, Gladys's pet lamb-now-sheep follows her maa-ing for poor, unloved Gladys's unmade milk, an Italian prisoner is scraping hay off a hedge, one Fontamara-brown-sly-innocent eye in the back of his head fixed on her black bloomed bottom as she bends to scatter grain for the yellow darlings.


Art Durkee said...

I think the reader always completes the poem. I don't think that's any different for poetry or anti-. In fact, that's consciously built into the haiku aesthetic by the haiku masters; they openly state that the haiku is completed by the reader, who brings their own experience to the poem, which is what makes some poems resonate more for some readers.

Where I fall off the anti-poetry bandwagon is the manifestos. Anytime you have a manifesto what you're basically saying is that your poems are going to be written to a program or idea, which means they will tend to be very intellectual and word-oriented, relative to other poetry that is meant to evoke an experience (haiku again, for example), or BE an experience (which is what Adrienne Rich has said two or three times on the record, and with which I agree). Poets who write manifesti often, not always but mostly, tend to write poems that are poems about an experience, rather than being an experience themselves.

I find it ironic that some interpret Guillevic as being dry and intellectual, rather than visceral and elemental, which is how I perceive him (and so does at least one translator of his into English). But that goes back to the reader completing the poem. What you bring to any poem is as important as what's there, perhaps.

But that doesn't free the poet from all blame, either. Firstly, if the poet really didn't care about the reader, then she wouldn't ever share any poems. Once you put it out there in public to be read, the reader will complete the poem (or interact with the poem, or be involved with the poem, or interpret it). And you cannot control that.

I once knew a poet who was so adamant that his poems failed if all readers didn't get exactly what he meant that he constantly got into arguments with any reader who perceived any ambiguity in his poems, or more than one interpretation; he believed his poems were a failure if the reader didn't receive the poet's interpretation, as if the poem was a telepathic transmission. He respected my opinion because I knew the poetry of the person he viewed as his poetic mentor. But his view about transmitting meaning was in my opinion a bit crazy, even for a poet. Needless to say, his poems tended to be short, explicit, colloquial, and in the end worth reading only once. He remained stuck on the words, and couldn't see what what was hidden behind the veil of the words.

Words for me are the medium that get you to the experience, or vision, or meaning, or experience, behind the words. That doesn't mean I think any words will do, because some ways of using words are more resonant than others. But for me the words are the means, not an end in themselves. And that's probably where I differ from a lot of poets and writers who care so greatly about the words themselves that, frankly, they never get past them.

Gwil W said...

Art, Apropos your 2nd para. it was Dylan Thomas who said: I wouldn't sign a manifesto unless I'd written every word myself and even then I'd be ashamed.

Jim Murdoch said...

The gulf between Eliot and Thomas is indeed a wide one, Gwilliam. I would never be so snotty-nosed to suggest that Eliot was not a poet—his lines about how the world will end are wonderful—but I find him lacking. Thomas on the other hand is a little rich. I'm a hard bugger to satisfy which is why I guess I needed to write my own poetry which finds that middle ground between intellectual precision and emotional openness. I agree with him on manifestos though. I've often thought about sitting down a defining (if only for myself) what poetry ought to be and do and if I had done at any time throughout my writing life I would have been forced to rethink that statement within a few years because our appreciation of what poetry is grows (or perhaps refines is a better word) over the years. As a young man I could be a bit inflexible. Never really wanted to be part of a group and still don't.

And, Art, I used to be a bit like your friend. I suppose he was young. As I was saying to Gwilliam the young can be as (or even more) inflexible in their attitudes than adults for whom passion is a little bit too much hard work. A lot of people didn't get my early poems and I didn't get why they didn't get them. I assumed everyone was stupid bar me; that could be the only reasonable answer. Now if I'd had any interactions with other poets I might have reassessed my views but everyone who read my early efforts were non-writers and mostly non-readers so what chance did I stand?

There is such a thing as a bad poem. I know people are terrified these days to say that a poem is bad because no one's exactly sure what counts as a poem any more. And I find that a very bad state of affairs. I have no objections to a poet setting down some conditions, instructions how to read their work, but the problem is most don't. The rules are there but the writer keeps them to himself and derides his readers for not working things out for themselves. We've talked about composers like Cage and Stockhausen and how awful some of their compositions are. I remember someone talking about serial composers and how to tell the difference between Webern and, say, Boulez: "Webern is the one that sounds like music." Okay that's a bit flippant but the essence of the argument is an important one. I think a lot of writers, musicians and artists forget about the end product; they get completely absorbed in the process. I wrote a piece of music once using a random technique. Instead of dots for notes I would have bars, rectangles that covered a range of notes from which the player could select one. Written down it looked wonderful—I've always thought sheet music looks like art—but who the hell was ever going to play it? I certainly didn't care.

Does a poem evoke an experience or does it have to be one? Can't it do both? It is impossible for the reading of a poem not to be an experience. You're experiencing these words as am I. As you're reading these your brain will be making all sorts of connections, calling to mind past experiences and… and here's the key word… enhancing those experiences which is why we can read poems at thirteen and not get but rediscover forty years later and now love. The same goes for all art forms.

Guillevic, for me, finds that important middle ground. He is a little on the dry side a times—passion takes time to arouse I suppose—but there is an emotional charge there too. I like a poem to make me both think and feel. His do.

I'm not sure that sharing is necessarily evidence of a poet caring for others. As a teenager I wanted to show off how clever I was. A part of me was actually pleased when people didn't get them because it provided evidence of my intellectual superiority. I needed a good slap, that's what I needed.

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