Notes toward a beginner’s course in poetics

With the kind of naive self-assurance peculiar to the self-taught, I firmly believe I could do a better job leading would-be poets to discover something original about their craft than the majority of professional writing teachers out there today. So why don’t I? Largely because in order to do so I would need to be certified in precisely that form of schooling I reject, which understands the poem as an art object intended for elite consumption. Most academics seem convinced that poetry has (or ought to have) a mainly ornamental function, and that composing poetry involves “self-expression,” understood as the communication of private thoughts and feelings to a properly educated audience.

However, the growth of new, vital poetic traditions in the last few decades of the 20th century relates directly to the spread of liberation movements around the globe. “Free verse” gradually reached its potential to loose the tongues and unchain the spirits of many who had previously been silenced. Poetry had and continues to have the ability to revitalize and even recreate communities, as people imbibe its anti-hierarchical, make-up-your-own-rules message. Surveying ethnographic and literary texts, one finds few generalizations that apply to more than a sizable majority of all the many stylized forms of intensified language that humans have ever dreamed up. But one generalization that does seem almost universal is this: words have something to say. And this: words in the form of poetry or song lyrics can heal.

In my imaginary course for beginning poets, I would work with the students one-on-one to try and fit the teaching to whatever poetics seem most necessary for their own growth. For example, students who agonize about the loss of traditional values might be steered initially toward a neo-Confucian program, while students infected with the germ of psychologism might be exposed to shamanistic thinking. ROTC students could be encouraged to think of poems as a way of making peace, studying the song-duels of the Greenland Eskimos and the poetics of warrior societies like Yemen and Somalia. Excessively rationalistic or super-organized people might learn to let themselves go a bit by imitating certain Beat poets, while more laid-back people would probably profit from an intensive study of highly structured verse forms. Here are some excerpts from a few of the texts I would have on hand.

“A song ain’t just to play with. It’s for a reason. It comes out of the mind. If you got good thoughts that song comes out of your body clear and strong. It’s like praying . . . like the Cedar Smoke. The drum and the rattle carry the song out to everything. The song goes into things . . . into people . . . straightens them out.”

Anon. Washoe Indian, in Straight with the Medicine: Narratives of Washoe Followers of the Tipi Way, as told to Warren L. d’Azevedo, Heyday Books, 1985 (ellipses original)

“A man who desired a spell did not put his mind on word and tunes: he put it on pleasing the supernaturals. He must be a good hunter or a good warrior. Perhaps they would ‘like his ways’ and one day, in a natural sleep, he would hear singing. So does the Papago interpret the trancelike state of the artist who derives his material from the unconscious. ‘He hears a song and he knows it is the hawk singing to him or the great white birds that fly from the ocean.’ . . .

“A man who really longs for dreams does more than wait and be industrious. There are Indians who bid such a man to fast and pray, but not the practical Papago; he asks the would-be singer to perform an act of heroism . . .

“One who has performed an act of heroism has placed himself in contact with the supernatural. It is after this has been done, and not before, that he fasts and waits for the vision. The Papago sternly holds to the belief that visions do not come to the unworthy. But to the worthy man who shows himself humble there comes a dream. And a dream always contains a song.

“To us, with our scheme wherein the singer stands outside the practical scheme of life, and wherein he is thought of . . . as an idler, this philosophy is hardly comprehensible. Yet on it the Papago system of life has worked since time immemorial. The honored men are singers. The man who has fought for his people gets no honor from that fact, but only from the attendant fact that he was able to ‘receive’ – or compose, shall we say – a song. We who take the structure of our own society as a sample of ‘human nature’ might pause over this idea. What of a society which puts no premium whatever on aggressiveness and where the practical man is valued only if he is a poet? What of a society where the misfit, wandering hopelessly misunderstood on the outskirts of life, is not the artist, but the unimaginative young businessman? This society not only exists but has existed for hundreds of years.”

Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: the Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, University of California Press, 1938

When you are content, you sing; when you are angry, you make noise.

When one shouts, he is not thinking; when he sings, he is thinking.

A song is tranquil; a noise is not.

When one shouts, his voice is forced; when he sings, it is not.

Basongye proverbs, quoted by Alan P. Merriam in The Anthropology of Music, Northwestern U.P., 1964

“When asked why he took up composing, [the Tiv singer Chen Ugye] gives two reasons: poverty and grief. He states simply, ‘Poverty [ican] made me become a composer.’ But it should be noted that ican has a more explicit range of meaning than our word ‘poverty,’ a range that encompasses ‘difficulties, suffering, physical weakness, a feeling of being disliked by others.’ Ican is often concretized in idiom and song as something that can be tied up, thrown down, defeated; a praise singer is forever noting that so-and-so has dealt with his ican in a dramatic and convincing way.”

Charles Keil, Tiv Song, University of Chicago Press, 1979

The first time I met the blues, mama, they came walking through the woods,
The first time I met the blues, mama, they came walking through the woods,
They stopped at my house first, mama, done me all the harm they could.

Little Brother Montgomery quoted by Houston A. Baker, Jr. in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1984

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine. Go to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.

Matsuo Basho

“Only Dionysius, the god of possession and ‘otherness,’ is able to assure this play of deforming mirrors. In the remarks made earlier concerning the face of the Gorgon, we have seen that frontal representation in classical Greek iconography was reserved for those figures who go beyond the limits allowed for human action; Dionysius holds a privileged place at the center. The god of wine is thus the one who guarantees that the epic myth can be staged and presented face to face before the public; he guarantees that the mask, the enunciator (representing the Self, with his political identity) and the protagonist of the dramatic action (representing the Different, with his ‘mythological’ identity) coexist. Or, to put things somewhat differently, we could say that he assures the recovery of the Other in the Self. He also guarantees, through the process of imitative reversal, the normative, civic values of tragedy.”

Claude Calame, The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece, trans. by Janice Orion, Cornell U.P., 1995

If you do not study [the Book of] Poetry, you will not be able to converse.

Confucius, Analects

Nothing approaches The Book of Poetry in setting up standards of right and wrong, in moving Heaven and Earth, and in appealing to spirits and gods. The ancient kings used it to make permanent the tie between husband and wife, to perfect filial reverence, to deepen human relationships, to beautify moral instruction, and to improve the customs of the people.

Poetry is where the heart’s wishes go. What lies in the heart is ‘wish,’ when expressed in words, it is ‘poetry.’ When an emotion stirs within one, one expresses it in words; finding this inadequate, one sighs over it; not content with this, one sings it in poetry; still not satisfied, one unconsciously dances with one’s hands and feet.

Preface/blurb to The Book of Poetry, attributed to Confucius’ disciple Pu Shang (507-400 B.C.E.).

Both of the preceding quotes are from James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry, University of Chicago Press, 1962

“By far the most important social context in which zamil poetry is composed [by Yemenis] is in the dispute mediation. When a serious conflict breaks out between two or more villages or tribes or two different tribal sections – a conflict that might involve a dispute over land (private property or tribal boundaries), women (abductions, runaways, adulteries), or water rights – warfare among the contending parties often results. . . . The fighting at first is often a kind of symbolic violence in which the offended party tries to restore its honor by a show of force, and almost immediately after the first shots have rung out, intermediaries arrive to try and persuade the parties to agree to a truce . . .

“The intermediaries may arrive chanting a zamil poem . . . announcing their intention of mediating the dispute and offering up cows or sheep for sacrifice in token of their sincerity and good faith. If . . . the plaintiff . . . agrees to a truce, it sets the conditions in numbers of cows, sheep, guns, and, in the most serious conflicts, even hostages . . . These demands are put forward by the intermediaries in the form of zamil poetry. . . .

“It is practically impossible to delimit a class of occasions on which someone might use zamil poetry for his own personal ends. . . . Once I was riding a bus on which more boarding tickets had been sold than there were seats available for passengers, with the result that a luckless passenger who happened to be an old tribesman had to sit on the floor of the vehicle. Resenting the injustice of not having been given a seat like everyone else when he had paid for one, he composed a zamil on the spot voicing his complaint. It had its intended effect: everyone on the bus started to laugh when they heard the poem and taunted the ticket seller, who in turn relinquished his seat to the now greatly mollified old man.”

Stephen C. Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe, University of Claifornia Press, 1990

“At the core of the women’s poetry movement is the quest for autonomous self-definition. Shaping that quest is a heritage, external and internal, which opposed female autonomy. ‘If we don’t name ourselves we are nothing,’ says Audre Lorde. . . [To] Adrienne Rich . . . a woman seeking her identity is like a woman trying to give birth to herself:
your mother dead and you unborn
your two hands grasping your head
drawing it down against the blade of life
your nerves the nerves of a midwife
learning her trade

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, The Women’s Press, 1986

“Choosing words is a waste of time. Let the words choose you, let them choose their own place, time, identity, meaning. Writing is a waste of time in a sense because we try ‘to fit’ words into an order that makes sense to us and to other people. That’s arrogance, ego, artistic illusion. No matter what we do, what we think and feel, what we want words to do for us, we can’t fit them into an order that’s ours. They have their own power, their own magic, wonder, brilliance. Where and how they fit, that has nothing to do with us. The only thing we can do is recognize, admit, and accept that. Let words chose us. Let language empower us, give us beauty and awe. We cannot do anything about it. When we think we can, when we choose words, it is a waste of time.”

Simon J. Ortiz, After and Before the Lightning, University of Arizona Press, 1994

Cross-references: Other quotes and essays on the anthropology of poetics include Poetry or vomit? (on Old Norse poetics); The world of the riddle (Anglo-Saxon); Portrait of a bard (Maninka); Holding forth (Judeo-Christian); Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating (Inuit). For some more quotes on masks and the art of drama (including another quote from Underhill’s Singing for Power), see Mask and Pageant.

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