Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Australian National Poetry symposium: Free advice on how to be a poetry evangelist.

How to be a poetry evangelist, or an evangelist for Poetry

General Rules
1) Discuss Poetry, or Contemporary poetry: an idealized abstraction which is never the sum of all the poems ever written. Personify it, use a single verb and talk as though it had needs and desires.
2) Make extravagant claims for “Poets”: idealized characters who are never people who produce poems.
3) In both one and two follow the strategy instigated by Sir Phillip Sidney, and followed by Shelley, Emerson, Eliot, Pound, Gioia, et al: do not discuss specific examples. Do not attempt to support your claims for #1 with reference to actual poems or to #2 with the life/career/reality of any poet.
4) Above all know that millions of people aren’t listening, and anyone who bothers to probably believes whatever you’re going to say before you say it so relax and don’t worry about how daft most of what you say really is.
5) It helps if:
You either don’t know much about the history of poems, or you prefer the repetition of myths. Good myths for Poetry evangelists include:
a) Somewhere in the past Poetry had cultural, moral and political significance. If you are Polish, Russian or Irish this may not be such a myth but for the rest of the English-speaking world it helps if you just pretend it’s true.
b) Somewhere in an ill-defined past everyone read poetry and cared about it. (Be vague. The repetition of this myth even by people who should know better has almost turned it into a fact so it’s unlikely anyone will call you out on it).
c) Poetry is important. Vital. Crucial.
d) Poetry is important because it sustains the health or purity of a language. Without Poetry and Poets a language will decay and we all know what that will lead to!

In General:
1) You should avoid not only history but also linguistics, philosophy most modern literary theories and plain common sense.
2) You should lament the small size of poetry’s modern audience (make reference to 5b above), but as a good Poetry evangelist you should always suggest that that people who don’t read poetry are somehow in need of the salvation only Poetry can bring.
3) Make silly claims for poets. (Take Shelley’s Defense as your model. Study his final paragraph. Read Emerson). But keep main rule number two above in mind at all times. Never stop to consider why craftsmanship in arranging vowels and consonants makes anyone an expert in anything other than arranging vowels and consonants.
4) At some stage you should contribute to the debate about how best to turn kids on to poetry so “we” can save civilization as you know it. This allows you to make disparaging references to schools and over-worked English teachers. Any solution you offer should be as idealized and impractical as possible: this guarantees that trained professional educators will dismiss your suggestions as wildly impractical, which then allows you to denigrate them as “lacking vision” and confirm your feelings of superiority without ever having to take the risk of doing anything practical.
5) Use familiar terms vaguely. Blame “modernism” for Contemporary Poetry’s apparent lack of popularity. Be as rude as you like about academic criticism. Talk glowingly about a “truly popular poetry”.
6) Pretend that Poetry is something everyone should enjoy.
7) Never be embarrassed by either the silliness of your claims or the arrogance they imply.
Above all, keep in mind Peacock’s statement: continue to talk as though poetry is the be all and end all of intellectual life as it was in Homer’s time. Do not stop to consider that Peacock’s full statement frames this as a criticism. (Most editors seem to think Peacock was joking. Read him as if he were being serious. Use him as a good example of how not to be a poetry evangelist.)
And finally, do not, under any circumstance start from a realistic appraisal of the contemporary situation of poems as competing in a cluttered market where so much of what people used to use poems for has been taken over by other, more effective forms.
It’s easier if you stick with wishful thinking, historical amnesia and bad linguistics. Your audience, no matter how small, is sure to applaud.

This advice created after reading:
Sir Phillip Sidney’s 'An Apology for Poetry/The Defence of Poetry', Peacock’s 'Four Ages of poetry', Shelley’s 'Defence of Poetry', Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘The Poet’, Ezra Pound’s 'ABC of Reading', T.S Eliot’s ‘The Social function of Poetry’, Dana Gioia’s ‘Can Poetry Matter’, Les Murray’s 'Blocks and Tackles', Paul Dawson’s 'Creative Writing And The New Humanities' essays in 'The Politics Of Poetic Form' edited by Charles Bernstein and the Australian Poetry web site.

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