Friday, May 05, 2006

Shaman: Hawk or Duck?

I enjoyed Charles Harper Webb’s essay, “The Pleasure of Their Company,” in the Spring 2006 Cortland Review. He says the three qualities central to good poetry are wit, passion, and impropriety, and while passion may be self-explanatory, he defines wit as “quickness of perception, ingenuity, keen intelligence,” and impropriety as “unsettling truths.” I must admit I find it refreshing simply to hear someone talk about qualities this fundamental, rather than people always talking about techniques like rhythm, syntax, and line breaks. I mean I’m as interested in phanopoeia and melopoeia as the next person, but Webb at least tries to keep his eyes on the prize. (Yes, I know this use of “eyes on the prize” may be almost as unconsciously ironic as CNN News’ latest slogan, “Keeping Them Honest.”) But here are a handful of quotes from the article:

More than one poet whose voice is lively and engaging in conversation [and in blogs?] lapses into dull anonymity when the poems begin.

The success and proliferation of dull poetry is at least partly due to the tendency to second-guess and override one’s “gut” response to voice. [I think this is true, despite the fact that it also parodies Stephen Colbert’s great parody of Bush.]

Psychological blind spots—for instance, lack of insight into other people—show up as blind spots in poetry. A man’s unresolved anger toward women may show itself in poorly drawn, stereotyped female characters.

Poets too impressed by what has been written before will repeat it in inferior form. Poets who hate the past too much will write nothing that lasts.

Poets who want to be shamans will sound like quacks.

1 comment:

Diane K. Martin said...

And poets who want to be quacks will sound like ducks? Seriously, I liked this essay too, if only because it didn't seem to take itself overseriously -- or at least he seemed to be having fun writing it. I was a bit taken aback by his unhedged statements. He doesn't say "in my opinion," or "I think." I'm sure I would contrdict any essay I wrote in a minute.

But having just got a series of rejections, the implications of this essay are harsh. It's true then that nobody likes me!