The Ruricolist is now available in print.


I write poetry but I will not call myself a poet. My experiments in poetry are as much tinkering as writing. The way meter, phrase, caesura, and alliteration combine into poems fascinates me like an exhibition watch, or a dissection. I try to follow the articulations and disarticulations; to test my understanding, I try to build or animate for myself. But prose has never failed me; I turn thoughts into poems not because I must, but because I can. And for the most difficult thoughts, I turn to prose first.

In writing about poetry it seems obligatory either to defend or diagnose Modern Poetry. But there is too much to generalize about, and I do not want to generalize or judge. I only want to ask a question. “If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?” It seems to me that all poems now must answer this question; and that most of them answer “no.”

(Admittedly, I dislike hermeticism in poetry. I am indifferent to whether poetry is accessible – inaccessibility no more vitiates good poetry than accessibility excuses bad poetry – but I resent hermeticism, not because it is elite, but because it is the ape of elitism. A secret society imitates how an elite looks from the outside, substituting loyalty for merit and ritual for sympathy. [That is, an elite is the only true secret society.] When poetry has a hermetic seal, I am content to leave it shut.)

How could poetry be invented in a world that reveres songwriting? It has the flavor of a brainstorm: “You know how there’s that piano piece, right – ‘Song Without Words’? Well how about a song without music?” Remember how uncertain the boundaries of poetry and song have always been. Much that is read as poetry was written as song or chant. And modern singers are adept at setting poetry to music.

It is not even cheaper anymore to be a poet than to be a songwriter. If you add up the cost of your Moleskines you will have saved little over the cost of a laminate guitar, an electronic tuner, a digital recorder, and a copy of Guitar for Feckless Morons. Three chords will get you far; if you can type, you can fret. If your poem cannot be set to music, why not call it prose? What give a special name to prose with whitespace? Why elevate a typographic distinction into a literary one? And if your poem can be set to music, why should anyone pay attention if you cannot be bothered to take the extra step?

Music only vitiates the form of poetry; photography displaces the need for poetry. The impulse to preserve, embody, and share an experience, the impulse poetry satisfies, photography satisfies just as well and much more easily. Poetry is intensely osmotic. Doggerel is not inept poetry, but dry poetry – poetry squeezed from a mind already drained of what poetry should absorb. Photography is another valve on the same vessel. If you would be a poet, leave your camera behind.

Poetry will go on losing: losing to music, losing to photography. It has already lost; yet I will not give up on it. Poetry has been cornered before and survived. Writing relieved poetry of its responsibility for history; printing relieved poetry of its role in education. Textbooks of math and grammar were once written in verse, to aid memorization; that is a revival nobody wants. Now recording and photography are relieving poetry of its responsibility for contemplation and confession. What is left for it, I do not know.

Poetry does not need a savior. The question has been answered, many times. But each poet who has found an answer has found their own answer. No one has established a general answer that imitators can build on. And simply being original cannot be the answer. Imitation, both imitating and being imitated, is indispensable. An art where every achievement is unique, where nothing can be built on, is unsustainable. And an art where only genius is adequate is not worthwhile for anyone, genius included.

“If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?” Because I cannot answer this question, I am not a poet. I will call you poet if you can.