Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Catatonically Speaking

Over Labor Day weekend, I visited my home state of North Carolina, where I also attended graduate school (I had lived in Texas in the years intervening elementary and grad school). At graduate school, I received my MFA in Creative Writing.

Looking back on that experience, I actually cannot believe I endured it. My wildly whimsical persona is not carved out for institutionalized "creativity," the likes of which is urged in most MFA programs, or at least was at one time.

While I was in North Carolina, I picked up a local paper and began reading about a North Carolinian poet. I had not heard of the poet, so I was intrigued to read about him. But my enthusiasm soon deflated when he made a bemusing pronouncement about the Beat writers. This poet, you see, believes that the Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg did not have the indelible influence on poetry that some claim they do. His attitude toward the Beats was shockingly dismissive.

Now, to be sure, my preferred Beat writer is Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I do like Ginsberg, but I find him a bit overrated, gifted though he was. But that, really, is not the point. The point is, this poet's provincial bias against the Beats is emblematic of the type of elitist ethos that prevails (festers?) in most creative writing programs.

Now, it appears that this haughty tone in the hallowed/hollow halls of academe is changing somewhat, as evidenced by the submissions I receive and sometimes publish here at CCat. I do not receive very many rigidly academic submissions from those who received an MFA or proclaim to be immersed in such programs; instead, I receive unorthodox ones from them. Of course, CCat has made it very clear that we do not publish the academic brand of verse, as we are a progressive zine that prefers progressive poesie over traditional forms.

But still, the fact that I receive submissions in the more experimental, Symbolist, surrealist, Beat, and even Dada-ist vein from MFAers indicates that the hurricane winds of change have swaggered through academic creative programs. And I daresay that the change came from without rather than from within. In other words, there was exterior pressure from the writing masses to accept less traditional forms of poetry into creative writing institutions. I do not think the institutions acclimated to this change on their own accord, and certainly their acquiescence to this more flexible mode came grudgingly rather than faciley.

And so, of course, all of this begs the question: what is "authentic" poetry, and what would drive a more traditionalist poet to deride Beat poetry as any less "valid" than his preferred genre?

Because, for me, modern academic poetry is textbook poetry, and as such, generally dry and devoid of vitality. I am not saying there is not good academic poetry, but generally speaking, I am not enamored of it. I revel in the non-traditional forms, those that blast beyond barriers of tradition and that have an idiosyncratic core. Those poems seem much more REAL to me than academic poetry.

Modern academic poetry typically subjugates content to form. Form dictates what is being said and how it's being said, whereas with more experimental forms, the content reigns supreme and dictates what the form will be. Too, experimental forms of poetry toy and tinker with form, and forge their own forms. Modern academic poetry wedges itself into prefabricated forms. Furthermore, non-traditional poetry tends to inhabit a linguistic playground, whereas modern academic poetry resides, well, inside the school, adhering to a systematic rulebook. If you stray too far from the rulebook, you get a slap on the wrist.

I realize I am distilling such a debate of traditional versus non-traditional poetry into somewhat naive terms. I am aware that what I am saying is rather generically generalized. I am certain that someone who possesses far more expertise than I in the area of poetics would counter my thesis with a more erudite elaboration.

But the crux of my argument is this: The Beat writers, just like the surrealists, and the symbolists, and so on, REVOLUTIONIZED poetry, breathed life into it. Hell, even I can acknowledge that Charles Bukowski, far from being my favorite scribe, has contributed to the modern metamorphosis of poesie, for better or worse, depending on your poetic proclivities.

It's patently inane to declaim that the Beat writers did not make a dramatic dent on the poetic landscape. Sure, maybe it did not influence on YOUR poetry because you don't favor that style. But if you read enough poetry, and you are acutely attuned to the evolution of this form, you will see very lucidly that the Beat writers have impacted verse in an astoundingly authentic way.

When I founded Clockwise Cat, I did so because I wanted to publish some of the fucking fantastic writers that I was reading in other journals. I was blown away by what I was seeing, and so jealous of the talent that these writers harbored. If I could publish them, my reasoning went, maybe, just maybe, I could sublimate that jealousy so it would mutate into reverence. And it's worked, and I'm proud to say that Clockwise Cat has published some of the most creative, unorthodox poems out there.

Fuck the elitism of the academics. My parents are academics, but they are not elitist, either. I learned from them that you could be a scholar who wasn't stiflingly stuffy, but genuine. I myself am not hugely drawn to scholarship, but I can certainly see the appeal, and have dabbled in theoretical readings about French symbolism and Spanish magical realism.

But to those academics who choose to be elitist and who think that poetry, the most vividly versatile writing genre there is, can be cramped into some traditionalist, formalist cage, think again. Poetry is not a factory farm. Poetry thrives when it is given free range. This means that it is going to evolve in outlandish and even garish ways. Good, let it do so. It's going to make missteps along the way, but one thing is for certain: it will never fossilize into a fixed form. For if it did, it would no longer be considered poetry, but an extinct entity that we might muse over in a natural history museum one day.

Viva la poesie!


Kathleen said...

Have you seen the new movie Howl yet? I have not, but would like to. I can say that the Beats are alive (like the hills in The Sound of Music) in the small town where I live, and their books fly off the shelves of the used bookstore where I work.

Clockwise Cat said...

No, but I really want to see it. I do like the poem Howl quite a bit. I prefer Ferlinghetti, though. Yes, the Beats are big among readers, but unfortunately some elitist poets and writers dismiss them. I don't like Kerouac as much, and not all the Beats are good, but you cannot deny their impact on lit!

Omar said...

this was very refreshing to read, especially coming from you, someone who has earned an MFA and still has the spiritual integrity to see through the biases of academia. I myself have a M.S. in Psychology and am absolutely terrified of the "science" of psychology. I am an outsider poet who has come to the point that I feel poetry most definitely does not "belong" to any one enclave, certainly not avowed academics with too much time and knowledge on their hands. For me, the vitality of the beats lies in the fact that they were living life and writing about it without the permission of anyone. that's how i feel about my writing. I support the ethos of your journal.