Minimalism and other trends

How many poets does it take to change a light bulb?
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Perry
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Minimalism and other trends

Post by Perry » Wed Dec 05, 2018 2:55 am

I keep a file of my favorite poems (from other authors) on my computer, and "Birches" by Frost is in there, although it's not a poem that I actually read very often. But I read it last night, and I was surprised by how the poem seems to go on and on, with Frost expressing every little thought that he had about birches, and even veering off the subject a bit to contemplate his own death. And all I could think was: If Frost were living today and posted "Birches" on a poetry forum, at least some members would advise him to cut it down 70%. The poem is sixty lines long, and I can easily see people advising him to eliminate forty lines.

What I see in "Birches" is just a joy in writing. Although Frost kept loosely to the topic of birch trees, he obviously let his mind wander and didn't feel constrained to be concise or to make sure that every line was directly on point. It is a different kind of writing from the minimalism that some people espouse. One member here routinely exhorts other poets to include just the words that are necessary to convey the story or meaning, as if brevity were the standard of good writing (it isn't). And I think there are other members who immediately start looking for lines to delete before they even try to see the poet's vision. The problem for me is that I don't see any reason to write with such brevity. Yes, I believe that a good poem will generally stay on topic, but ideas of what is "on topic" may change from one poet to the next. For Frost, it obviously included a lot of thoughts. When a novelist writes a book, I don't think he or she worries about brevity, and I don't see why a poet should worry about it too much either. (With one exception: Poetry, being a concentrated form of speech, can be tiring to read over long stretches; it can lose its cohesion.) Indeed, there seem to be two trends sweeping through the poetry world at the same time: Many poetry contests are won by poems that are very long, as if contest judges don't think that a short poem has enough substance to win a prize.

My concern about minimalism is that it results in unsatisfying and even strange poetry. Many minimalists not only want to see fewer sentences in poems (if sentences are being used at all), they often like to see the small working words (articles, conjunctions, etc.) cut out when possible. That goes against the advice I received all my life that colloquial language is more relatable than language which is specifically poetic. This bias towards brevity also makes it hard for people to appreciate my own poetry, although thankfully there is the formalist community to turn to. (Although this bias seems to be gripping Eratosphere also, given the experience I had earlier this year. When I was a member of Eratosphere around 1999, no one there was obsessed with brevity.)

Here is Frost's poem. In a future post, I'll list other trends that I have witnessed over the years.

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice storm,
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows —
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Robert Frost
If I forget to come back to critique your revised poem, don't hesitate to send me a note.

Perry
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by Perry » Thu Dec 20, 2018 12:02 pm

What I was hoping someone would do was to critique Frost's poem as if it were posted on this forum, but I guess no one was willing. The point that I've been trying to make is that a lot of the characteristics that people insist define good poetry are just trends, trends which are often forgotten.

The whole idea that poetry must be concise is the trend that annoys me the most now. Nobody was talking about that twenty years ago. Even ten years ago, I wasn't seeing much advice on forums to cut poems down. But on many forums -- not just this one -- the first thing that critiquers do is to look for lines to delete, as if every poem has a good haiku hidden inside once the "fat" is removed. But what critics often remove is the muscle, not the fat. A good poem, in my opinion, should be on-topic throughout, but a poem in which every line is on-topic can still be very long. I also think that forum members who immediately look for lines to delete are doing the author an injustice. The first thing a critiquer should do is to try to see the poet's vision before bringing out the carving knife.

Obscure language is also a pet-peeve of mine, as if a good poem is one that the reader must figure out. Obscurity is one of the end results of the gibberish trend that started with T.S. Elliott's "The Waste Land" and continued with Sylvia Plath, A.R. Ammons and dozens of other poets (and is still being written by some poets -- and getting published!). Most people, I think -- except for the most avant-garde -- have figured out that reading gibberish isn't particularly satisfying, but writing obscurely seems sophisticated. One of the reasons I keep throwing up Frost's name is that no one can rationally argue that Frost wasn't a great poet, and I don't think he wrote even one poem in his life that couldn't be understood on first reading. The point is that obscurity for its own sake is meaningless.

Here is a poem which is somewhat obscure, but the obscurity has an artistic purpose:

Evan Breathing

Evan, nine months old, round eyes
still wavering from brown to gray,
interrogates the telephone
without a syllable to say.

His father pleads for us who wait,
eager, invisible, all ears,
two hundred thirty miles behind
the world that Evan sees and hears.

“Say ‘Hi’ to grandma and grandpa,”
our firstborn coaxes for our sakes,
as if his love could galvanize
some tenuous wire that absence breaks.

Astronomers who comb the sky
for signs that this or that is true
live on the static of the stars,
and tabulate, and make it do.

Evan, your breathing is all we sense,
minutely bridging, puff by puff,
the miles, the days, from there to here.
It isn’t much. But it’s enough.

Rhina P. Espaillat

When I first read that poem, it took me a little while to figure out that the narrator is speaking to her grandson (a baby who has not yet learned to talk) over the telephone, and that the grandson is being coaxed by his father, the narrator's son. That the scene in the poem needs some figuring out is okay because the poem makes perfect sense once you understand it, and the way it's written is creative. But I see a lot of poems that seem to be obscure for the sake of it. Obscurity is not in itself creative.

I had an experience on another forum about ten months ago in which practically everyone who commented on my poetry called it "prosaic". Since truly prosaic poetry is something that I really hate (see below), I was upset by that. At first, I thought they were calling it prosaic because not everything I write has a heavy rhythm; but then I started to notice that most of the poems posted on that forum were moody poems written in phrases and elliptical sentences instead of complete sentences. To those people, poems written in complete sentences were prosaic because that's how good prose is written. Consequently, I now see moody poetry written in fragments as being yet another trend. In the minds of those poets, clear language is prosaic by default. Here again I have to mention Frost. Frost referred to his writing as "sentencing" because he always sought to write in properly constructed, complete sentences.

One of the points that I'm trying to make here is that poetry encompasses a very wide array of styles. Clear writing in complete sentences is not archaic; it is still being done by a lot of poets. Nor are short poems better than long poems. However, some of the things that I think are gone forever include a heavy reliance on cliches, and extremely pompous or formal language.

Here is an example of a very prosaic poem, which was a trend in itself only 20-40 years ago:

Economy, August 31st

In 1842, Henry David Thoreau sold
The boat he made with his own hands
To Nathaniel Hawthorne for seven dollars.
He had paddled the Musketaquid with his brother, John,
For two weeks on New England rivers.
In telling this fact to my literature students
I try putting it in terms of current dollars
Assuming this would mean more.
This would mean less.
Thoreau needed the money.
He had taken a trip in the boat with his brother.
The trip became immortalized
In his only other published book,
A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Hawthorne, being the genius that he was,
Bought something immortal for seven dollars.
Thoreau might have needed more than the money.
He might have needed to forget
His brother died.

Sander Zulauf

To me, that reads like a newspaper article.
If I forget to come back to critique your revised poem, don't hesitate to send me a note.

Perry
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by Perry » Fri Jan 04, 2019 4:26 am

I have noticed a couple other small ideas that seem to be circulating on the forum. One of them is that the poet (as narrator) should leave himself out of the poem. I'd like to take a look at that.

My poem "May Miller" got a better reception than usual, but I was surprised that several commenters wanted me to remove the words "I understood" from it. Here is the beginning:

When my grandma was dying at the age
of eighty-five, she pleaded for one more year.
What was it she wanted? More time to watch TV?
To sit on the couch and read? I understood.
She wanted a chance to make it perfect,
to make sense of the entire thing, ...

It surprised me that the group objected to those words since the narrator mentions himself in the second word of the poem, "my". After the group looked at it, I sent the poem to my published poet friend (who is so busy she can't often look at my poems), and she saw no problem with "I understood". But then later, someone posted a poem here in which the narrator mentions himself for the first time in the third or fourth stanza, and it struck me as wrong. So these two experiences helped me to get some perspective on the issue: If a poem is written in the first-person from the beginning, then that's just the way the poem is written, and there is nothing wrong with that. If, however, the narrator mentions himself late in a poem in a way that causes a shift in the poem's focus, then that isn't good (in most cases).

Frost probably wrote most of his poems from the first-person perspective, and people loved his poems anyway. Indeed, I was taught that a person should write about what he knows and has experienced, and it is hard to keep the "I" out of a poem when you are doing that. Indeed, I just went through all of Frost's poems that I have stored on my computer, and I estimate that 55% to 60% of them feature the first-person "I" prominently.

Thank God for Frost; he always backs me up. I anticipate that the day will come when at least some people start to say that Frost's poems are old-fashioned, that he has become another Keats writing in an archaic language, but they'll be wrong. He is still modern.

However, for those of you who are fascinated by my opinions (as I am), and who hang on my every word, I'll try to come up with some samples from other authors.
If I forget to come back to critique your revised poem, don't hesitate to send me a note.

churinga
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by churinga » Tue Jan 15, 2019 8:58 pm

A Fry and Laurie sketch about minimal poetry.

https://youtu.be/0nTmSu6v0LA

Perry
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by Perry » Wed Jan 16, 2019 2:11 am

A response! Sadly, I don't have sound on my computer. I did buy some speakers at one time. I'll try to find them and hook them up.
If I forget to come back to critique your revised poem, don't hesitate to send me a note.

churinga
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by churinga » Wed Jan 16, 2019 7:08 am

That is very unusual, all computers have sound, are you sure you havn't turned off the internal speakers somewhere along the line? It is easy enough to do.

Perry
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by Perry » Sat Jan 19, 2019 9:10 pm

churinga wrote:
Wed Jan 16, 2019 7:08 am
That is very unusual, all computers have sound, are you sure you havn't turned off the internal speakers somewhere along the line? It is easy enough to do.
Sorry, I didn't notice that you had posted another reply.

Yes, I might have turned off the internal speakers at some point. If it's true that all modern computers have speakers, then you must be right that there are speakers in there. I will look at the sound setting. If it is turned off, I'll turn it on and see what the sound is like.

The speakers that are built in to a computer, I assume they are only good enough to make beeping sounds, but I might be wrong.

==========

I went into the Sound settings on my computer, and it says that speakers are "not plugged in". I'll have to look for the speakers I bought. They are probably tucked into some box that I haven't opened since the last time I moved.
If I forget to come back to critique your revised poem, don't hesitate to send me a note.

churinga
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Re: Minimalism and other trends

Post by churinga » Sun Jan 20, 2019 12:16 am

The internal speakers may be broken. I have a Mac and use headphones to improve the quality of the sound. It is excellent, better than my very expensive Sanyo TV. I watch and listen to everything via my Mac now. If you have Windows, you should also look at your Device Manager, it may be that you still havn't got to the right level within your operating system.

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