Humor -- Statement from a Poet

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Charles Ott

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I just happened to pick up a favorite old humor book -- "Humans at Work" by Mike Dowdall and Pat Welch (Simon & Shuster, 1986), and now I have to share the statement by the fellow whose job is "Poet":

"I don't like to talk about my work. I don't like to talk about anything. I hate words. Words are the single greatest obstacle to communication. I don't suppose you know what the hell I'm talking about, and why should you? I hate words. I hate people, too. In my recent work, I have completely abandoned words in favor of pure abrasiveness. As you may guess, you can't do really pure wordless abrasiveness in the traditional ways, in books and magazines. You can't set it in type and distribute it to major population centers, riding the bales of pulp like a grinning flea-skull on the scabrous ankle of wino humanity hummingshining screaming down the terrifying superhighway America. Sorry. I slipped back into my word period for a second there. Excuse me."
 
All modern poets find 'Words are the single greatest obstacle to their communication'. When the rest of the world is talking plain English poets are re-inventing the cryptic crossword. In the Masters I took recently I was subject to three hours of modern poetry every morning by someone who droned it in a clever monotone, but actually couldn't tell me why it was poetry. It nearly made me quit. :mad:
 
Losses

By Andrew Motion

General Petraeus, when the death-count of American troops
in Iraq was close to 3,800, said ‘The truth is you never do get
used to losses. There is a kind of bad news vessel with holes,

and sometimes it drains, then it fills up, then it empties again’—
leaving, in this particular case, the residue of a long story
involving one soldier who, in the course of his street patrol,

tweaked the antenna on the TV in a bar hoping for baseball,
but found instead the snowy picture of men in a circle talking,
all apparently angry and perhaps Jihadists. They turned out to be

reciting poetry. ‘My life’, said the interpreter, ‘is like a bag of flour
thrown through wind into empty thorn bushes’. Then ‘No, no’, he said,
correcting himself. ‘Like dust in the wind. Like a hopeless man.’

Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Motion.

All modern poets find 'Words are the single greatest obstacle to their communication'.
All of them? Really?
 
Lovely words and sentiment, I agree. But how is it a poem?
All my tutor could tell me was what was not a poem. It is not prose divided into lines, she said; but the above seems to be just that, as did all her own poems. I genuinely wanted to know, and the tutor could not tell me.
Perhaps that was where her inability with words lay.
 
It's rhythmic, it's free form but it is definitely a poem. Say it aloud, it has that sonorous voice-over musicality. It is a heightened narrative expressed in a recognizable non- prose shape.

The tutor was a lazy ignoramus.

Poetry, from the Greek- I create.

A poem: a literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.
 
The tutor was a lazy ignoramus.
@ChrisLewando, I think Katie might be on to something here.

Poetry is the expression of ideas and emotions through the use of form and metre (and rhyme and rhythm and alliteration and dissonance and assonance, etc.). The poem I quoted above may not have a recognizable form (a sonnet or a haiku, for example), but that doesn't mean it's not poetry; it just means we'd have to ask Andrew Motion what the form is.

Like any art form, there are common techniques and practices that most practitioners learn when they start out. Later they master those techniques and find greater self-expression. And finally, if they arrive at the outer edges of the discipline, they might start to reinterpret, reject or invent. (And all the while there's playtime).

I found An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry to be an accessible and non-academic door into the world of writing poetry. I'd recommend it if you're interested in writing any of your own.
 
All writers are tough—we have to be, if we're going to get anywhere—but, poets are the toughest of the tough. Trying to sell collections of poetry is just about the most difficult task for an unknown writer. I've always found this to be a little bit strange, for if you ask someone to quote a piece of literature, they'll usually recall a poem—rather than an extended quote from a novel. This may be because of something that Maya Angelou observed: "Poetry can tell us what human beings are. It can tell us why we stumble and fall and how, miraculously, we can stand up."

However, there's still the problem of selling poetry, as arch wit Don Marquis pithily commented: "Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."
 
Lovely words and sentiment, I agree. But how is it a poem?
All my tutor could tell me was what was not a poem. It is not prose divided into lines, she said; but the above seems to be just that, as did all her own poems. I genuinely wanted to know, and the tutor could not tell me.
Perhaps that was where her inability with words lay.

Your instructor was a jerk and perhaps was trying to avoid that there is sometimes little difference between prose and poetry.
 
Art requires discipline, effort and thought. If you're working hard at something, re-working and thinking and trying to make it the best it can be, it might -- or might not -- be art. If it just "flows out," it ain't art.
 
Your instructor was a jerk and perhaps was trying to avoid that there is sometimes little difference between prose and poetry.
I agree (with the second bit definitely; with the first bit tentatively). There can be little or no difference between prose and poetry beyond context and the intention of the author.

--

Art requires discipline, effort and thought. If you're working hard at something, re-working and thinking and trying to make it the best it can be, it might -- or might not -- be art. If it just "flows out," it ain't art.
I think I agree with this. But I'm not always the quickest of thinkers, so I might find a reason not to later on, or somebody might persuade me there's a flaw in the statement somewhere (I'm always a bit wary of definitions of art; I'm not at all sure that art is one thing).
 
I am reminded of Howard Carter's words when he first looked into Tutankhamen's tomb:Wonderful things!"When you look into a poem you see wonderful things. Some poetry tells a story. This is true from the Iliad, to Beowulf, to Dante, to The Waste Land of Eliot and W. H. Audens Musée des beaux arts. Other poetry verges on the mystical. Wordsworth (Intimations) at his best and Keats (Ode to a Nightingale) do this but surround their insight in words that are simply typical of the time -- unfortunate decoration. Contemporary poets try to strip away anything the poem that is not central to the idea. Hart Crane does this so well, wringing from mere words "a perfect cry" that "strings some constant harmony." This task can destroy the one who takes it up. Crane calls it a "relentless caper for one who spins himself out again." At this level there is no distance at all between the vision and the words that hold it.
 
Thanks all for your comments. They do help in some respects. Yes, our tutor was a pretentious pratt. Probably still is. I was flying blind in the poetry section of the MA ans still managed to write some stuff that got me a good mark, but I didn't know what I was doing, for sure.

I will stick to my contemporary work that, as a friend told me today, not be described as literary masterpieces, and which is not intended to be, but is still good commercial fiction. I think it was a compliment...
 
Wonderfully expressed, @Tom's House. A shamanic presentation. The Muse is a tyrant. All the evidence points that way. You're trying to spin a filament out of your own substance, and in the process, you disappear.
 
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