Friday, March 16, 2018

Even Better Than The Real Thing: Authenticity in Poetry

Well, Poetry month is only two weeks away so thought I would break out of my comfort zone and write an essay on authenticity in poetry. It is an exciting time in Canadian poetry, lots of new poets, lots of new voices, but try to get someone to say what makes for a good poem and many just stare at their shoes. 

I asked, “What is authentic in poetry?” on social media and got replies running the gamut of gentle mocking to language mumbling. 

Why is it so hard to nail down, to use an over-worked metaphor, what makes a good poem? I suppose, for one, what is considered particularly good or vital or inspired changes over time. Some poetry like wallpaper doesn’t age well. Theodore Roethke once said the task of an artist is “to enter the mind of his contemporaries” but I would add to that the artist needs to avoid the sheen of contemporariness. Can this be done?

The contemporary poem right now is unconcerned with syllabics or meter or enjambment. It cares little for poetic influence, whether something is Audenesque, or smacks of an older Canadian poet, for it seems bent on convention-slippage, emotion as the source of lyric power, its own subjective experience as default home, but perhaps most of all, unpredictability to escape the familiar and to court the fantastical.

This is a generalization, for sure, but suspicions have grown up among younger poets around traditions and practices, and I think Dean Young is correct when he advocates for a “poetry of recklessness…moving through the calculations of the rational toward irrational detonation.” (12) Perhaps this is indeed the spirit of the age. Where previous generations of poets stood against the absurd, this new one embraces it as a source of power or conflict. 

And why not? When my own generation could not make up our minds about the worth of prose poetry, say, or fought ridiculous narrative versus formal style wars, new poets are moving beyond such navel-gazing. Gone are the days when you could write eloquently about picking black-berries. In a world of rapid-fire newsfeeds, perhaps we need a poetry of hair-trigger associations, less concerned with the rightness of a metaphor, and more messily embodying the way we think in an age of smart phones.

Yet the question persists: “What is authentic in poetry?” I kind of miss the angle-boy gun-slinger poetry critics because at least they argued furiously about such things. 

I wonder if it is a fear of criticism that makes younger poets gravitate towards not obfuscation, a poor word choice, but to the point where there is a loss of control and the poem spins out into strange territories. Larry Levis once said, “a lot of young poets don’t want to be understood because they feel when they’re understood they’re dead. That only comes from the fear of criticism – the vast inhibition they get from reading critics who, because the can understand something, simply decide not to deal with it”(Antioch Review; Summer 90, Vol. 48 Issue 3, p. 284, 16 p).

I hope Levis is wrong as this seems a rather cynical view, but it is something to consider when reviewers talk in platitudes instead of engaging with what a book of poems is attempting to do.

So far, I haven’t answered my own question about authenticity in poetry so I will attempt to put down some thoughts and ideas on the subject here:

1)    First of all, I agree with James Geary “that biological experience forms the basis of metaphorical thinking” (88) and “metaphor grounds even the most abstract ideas in the physiological facts of our bodies”(96).  As much as we sometimes wish, we cannot escape our bodies and minds. Try to escape the first person singular. Good luck to you. Donald Hall has reasoned, “a poem is human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem”(142). Hello, hello, anybody home?
2)    Whether you call it intensity of experience or anxiety of being or a conflict of disparate things, subjectivity versus objectivity, past versus present, the inside locked into battle with the outside, no poem is going to exist without it. You cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room.
3)    Hayden Carruth has suggested “The metaphor must arise naturally from the things of the poem”(225).  You cannot shoe-horn surprise into a poem, nor meaning. They come on their own or not.
4)    A poem must enhance our lives in some way – spiritually, intellectually or emotionally - if it is indeed poetry. Call me romantic, or old-fashioned, but I cannot get past this sentiment and I hope I never will.

These are the ideas I keep on the top shelf when I am attempting to write meaningful poems. I think they are immune to the whims of poetic fashion. When I asked people what is authentic in poetry, I guess I wanted people to get passionate. To yell, “The best poems are like magic! Spell-casting! They change us. Or haunt us. If only we are so lucky!” Dave Smith has said, “the poem of “the real thing” will have to embrace the moving targets any man or woman is in time”(251). Perhaps we are all too busy or too distracted to consider such things, but then someone shares a poem on twitter, or you read the first poem from a debut collection, and you find yourself transported. That, above all, is authentic.  


  1. Great post, Chris!

    For me, it boils down to something like this: a poem—a good, real, or authentic poem—must have a reason to exist. The capitalist metaphor (boo!) might be: the authentic poem has to do some sort of work. (Get a job, ya lazy poem!) Maybe a better way to put it: the poem must productively resist or disrupt normative modes of thinking and perceiving—fuck shit up, in a good way!

    I agree in part that “in a world of rapid-fire newsfeeds, perhaps we need a poetry of hair-trigger associations, less concerned with the rightness of a metaphor, and more messily embodying the way we think in an age of smart phones” (tho this kinda sounds like Russian Futurism—the futurism that stays futuristic? Man with a Movie Camera still holds up. No doubt Vertov would have loved the smartphone!). But I’m also unhip enough to agree with what Auden wrote to a young O’Hara (and obliquely to Ashbery as well— even as Auden was just about to launch Ashbery’s career by selecting him for the Yale Younger Poets prize): "you must watch what is always the great danger with any 'surrealistic' style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue." So then, I wonder, what are “authentic non-logical relations”? I give up.

  2. Hi Chris, what an intelligent blog post. On my computer I have a pink sticky note that paraphrases Carol Sheilds, as given to me by Traci Skuce, and as follows: "Poem: provide the flash--a line or two that gestures towards poet's deliberation." Thanks for a wonderful post, Chris. I'm hoping I can share it on my site. Cornelia Hoogland