Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Part of the challenges in my writing group is to have discussions about poetry. This month's discussion is on an article written by
Kayt Davies
entitled "What makes a bad poem?"

Here's what I posted:

I had a hard time writing this after having read your eloquent discussions re the topic. I pondered hard and calculated my words as it seems like I may be alone in my opinions and I may not be able to explain myself well. Nevertheless, I would like to share them with you, with due respect and apologies of course, if they run contrary to yours.

When studying works of art, be it literature or visual, I always try to put myself in the milieu of its creator. I believe that to judge an artwork using one’s own experiences would not only be inaccurate but even wrong in the sense that the artist is confined to his/her own spatio-temporal situation and we cannot take him/her away from that milieu. Without doing this, we may not understand most of what, say, Shakespeare, is talking about. This is the reason why we were always taught poetry together with the biography of the poet in high school. (well, at least that’s how I remember it.) Otherwise, the poem might be unintelligible to me. Having said this, I concur with Ms. Davies when she said: “They (poets) shone brightly because they were written in the medium of the day. The advent of printing made them widely accessible and they were the blockbusters and new releases that had tongues around the city wagging.” Today, with the tv, the movies and all that media hype, these classical poets will really have a hard time getting an audience.

This reminds me of an oral tradition our ancestors practiced before. This oral tradition was in poetry form and was passed on from generation to generation until several scholars of this century decided to write them down. Now, during the early days, this was the form of entertainment. People were gathered probably by the fire while the story teller (mostly narrating epics) was in the middle while he “chanted” the story. Is the epic good or is it bad poetry? I’d say probably both. In terms of the old folks’ standards, they are very good. But if I do not place the story within the context of locus and time when such was being recited, I would say it’s bad. Maybe my children will even laugh at the way the story ended or why the protagonist made such and such decision when he could have done it in a much simpler way. Can I force my children to see that the story is good? Hell, no! They are, as Ms. Davies put it: “Bombarded with the grind of heavy, machinery, traffic, advertisements, sound grabs, a wall of white noise that makes silence an uncanny experience.”

Arguing further, did the classical poets really intend to make their works speak to all generation? I say, your guess is as good as mine. Who can prove intent? My theory is that while they may have been writing “for” a certain audience, viz., their contemporaries, they may probably have not been thinking so much about the future. Why write for something that is unknown? This brings me to what I have been pointing out everytime a discussion like this arises. I believe in the saying that “the universal lies in the particular”. What this means to me is that a poet writes his/her own concept of the world according to his/her limitations. If such work withstands the test of time, then that is what we call good poetry. If, unfortunately, the poet was alone in his/her observation of the world, then noone can empathize with the experience, no one shares the same sentiment, ergo, such may be considered a bad poem, by the reader’s standards.

This brings me to the real context of the article. That there is an emerging concept known as “poetry as therapy”. The crux of the article is that to the generation x’ers, poetry as we know it may have become a relic. However, poetry per se, is not dead. As a matter of fact, it is experiencing a paradigm shift.

Granting in arguendo that this is true, do we consider this as art? When a poem results out of “the muddy subconcious world “ of someone who does not seem to manifest even a “few skills in representation”, is it good or bad art? The argument, when used to poetry, extends to proper syntax, word choices, meter and the like. When we accept this new concept of poetry as art, then we may dispense with some of the rules, is it not? This will surely irritate the purist, the believer of the classical style. However, much to the chagrin (is this the right word?) of the purist, will it matter to our children and our children’s children?

This leads me to the question, what is art? To me, art is the expression of what an individual feels, sees and hears. As such, the artist shares with us his/her perception of the world, or even of what kind of world he lives in. That is why we learned to appreciate painters like Van Gogh, Kline, de Kooning, Picasso, etc. Being more specific, literature to me is sharing “significant” experiences. Take away the word “significant” and that work is just ordinary day talk, the one peddled by rumor mongers. Now, is writing “shit, shit, shit” beautiful? No, beacause, while the writer has given us a glimpse of how he felt at the time of writing, he/she has not shared why such a feeling was felt in the first place. Hence, the reader cannot feel the same pain, the same hatred which to me, is literature’s raison d’etre.

Should art be confined to the knowledgeable, the erudite, or the rich? I believe art should belong to the people. That is the reason why art museums should not be charging huge entrance fees. Thinking like this brings me to another matter -- the message versus the medium. There has been a new opinion that the message is more important than the medium. Would we rather have a well crafted poem but does not show a single emotion or a value laden poem that is not crafted well? I am not going to give an example of bad poetry as I don’t think I’m equipped to do that. There is this poem by Langston Hughes about a telephone conversation the speaker is having with another person and we feel his disappointment and anger. (Sorry I couldn’t find it anymore.) This poem shows authentic jargon which is, as any english teacher would say, grammatically wrong. Do we consider this as good, or bad poetry?


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