Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.
Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image....
Don’t be “viewy” — leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays.
— Ezra Pound, 1913
Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial, and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.
— Frank O’Hara, 1964
No more superiority of the interiority of that unnatural trinity — you, me, we — our teeth touch only our tongues.
—Vanessa Place, 2013
Plus ça change ... Frank O’Hara’s admonition “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial” echoes Ezra Pound’s prescriptions about accuracy and precision: don’t waste the reader’s time by adding to the storehouse of cliches (e.g. “dim lands of peace”) or producing “pretty little philosophic essays.” “Our teeth,” after all, “touch only our tongues.”
The slightest loss of attention leads to death. O’Hara’s aphorism is little honored these days when any and all demands upon poetry as an art form are dismissed as elitist, undemocratic, and just plain cranky. To declare oneself a poet is to be a poet! Basta! Who’s to say otherwise, to spoil the party? Here again I turn to Pound:
The mastery of any art is the work of a lifetime. I should not discriminate between the “amateur” and the “professional.” Or rather I should discriminate quite often in favor of the amateur, but I should discriminate between the amateur and the expert. It is certain that the present chaos will endure until the Art of poetry has been preached down the amateur gullet, until there is such a general understanding of the fact that poetry is an art and not a pastime.
And Pound adds:
If a certain thing was said once for all in Atlantis or Arcadia, in 450 Before Christ or in 1290 after, it is not for us moderns to go saying it over, or to go obscuring the memory of the dead by saying the same thing with less skill and less conviction.
Or so common sense would tell us. In “To Hell With It,” O’Hara declares:
(How I hate subject matter! melancholy,
intruding on the vigorous heart,
the soul telling itself
you haven’t suffered enough ((Hyalomiel))
and all things that don’t change,
memories of Bunny and Gregory and me in costume.
The word “Hyalomiel” inside those double parentheses above is the name of a French vaginal lubricant, a kind of miel (honey). So much for the cry of the suffering soul and for an “elevated” subject matter. When O’Hara says “Don’t be proud,” he means, don’t be so self-important. Or, in Place’s formulation: “No more death without dying — immediately.”
For the centennial of 1913, that annus mirabilis for avant-garde poetry that gave us Georg Trakl’s first volume Gedichte, Apollinaire’s Alcools, Blaise Cendrars’s La Prose du Transsibérien, and Anna Akhmatova’s Chetki (Rosary), I have extrapolated a few further don’ts — don’ts squarely in the Pound tradition but also, I hope, apropos in 2013.
1. Don’t assume that “free” verse, now the default mode of poetry, is equivalent to the mere practice of lineation. Greeting cards, advertising copy, political mantras: these are lineated too. “Don’t imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose” (Pound). Conversely, if you use traditional poetic devices like rhyme, remember that “A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure” (Pound). Or, in the words of poet-sculptor Carl Andre, “Verse should have that quality of surprise which ... endows familiar things with strangeness and makes the strange familiar — A tension between irregularity and habit.”
2. Don’t take yourself so seriously. In the age of social networks, of endless information and misinformation, “sensitivity” and the “true voice of feeling” have become the most available of commodities. Remember that, as Wallace Stevens put it, “Life is a bitter aspic. We are not / at the centre of a diamond.”
3. As a corollary of #2, don’t underestimate the importance of a sense of humor, of irony. Remember that satire, parody, mock-epic, and burlesque are hardly “inferior” forms of poetry. Let us stop adulating the Poet with a capital P (e.g. Heidegger’s Hölderlin) and reread Swift and Pope. The comic Byron of Don Juan, for that matter, was surely as masterful a poet as the very serious Shelley of Prometheus Unbound.
4. Don’t play the victim card, now the staple of much of what passes for poetry. Where, after all, are those virtuous beings, those sages who stand outside the capitalist system, refusing to accept any of its goodies? Are you and I really not complicit? The current opposition of the 99% (“us”!) to the 1% (them!) may be a great slogan for political action but it doesn’t make for a challenging poetry, shutting, as it does, the door on surprise.
5. Don’t forget that, whether consciously or unconsciously, all poems are written with an eye (and ear) to earlier poetry and that to write poetry at all, one must first read a lot of the stuff. So, at the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I would say put down thy Agamben and pick up thy Auden, thy Ashbery, thy Rae Armantrout. Put down thy Badiou and read Beckett, Bernhard, Bachmann, Bök.
Translation, adaptation, citation, comparison, re-creation: Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” is still the best road map we have for understanding how poetry works. Even if ours is, as Place argues, a new “non-retinal” poetry (although I disagree with her dismissal of le mot juste, Duchamp having coined quite a few like belle haleine), it remains just as true as it was for the O’Hara of the early sixties, that the slightest loss of attention leads to death.