Prose from Poetry Magazine

Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook

Boredom is the highest state of creativity.

I’ve never had a good feeling about writing poetry. Unease set in early, when I was about seventeen, and, after two decades, the deed still doesn’t sit quite right. I’m a victim, I tell myself, of the southern Italian distrust of books.

I’ve never had a good feeling about writing poetry. Unease set in early, when I was about seventeen, and, after two decades, the deed still doesn’t sit quite right. I’m a victim, I tell myself, of the southern Italian distrust of books. For the immigrants who docked in North America midcentury, education was something to be encouraged, but only as a means to a better-paying end (laborers wanted to sire lawyers, not artsy-fartsy layabouts). My parents were more tolerant than most, but there was obvious alarm that all my reading would leave me “mixed up.”

Then there was the language. Like most of the little Fonzies bred in Montreal north, I was raised almost entirely in Italian. This had an interesting effect on my English. In high school, for example, “skinned” was what you said if you came in close contact with something (“that car nearly skinned me”). If you had just stuffed your face, you used “shkoff” (“shkoffed a sangwich”). The weird sentences I spoke ensured that much of my university life would be spent in disguise. Hanging around silver-tongued creative writing students, I watched what I said and how I said it. I worked hard to suppress the accent in my voice, to better play the fit-to-be-in-literary-company part.

Today the verse hook is planted deep. And with it, the wound: that one of the central activities of my life is tinged with the sense of being dissolute, escapist, fey. Even at those rare moments when, fresh off a new poem, I feel the artisanal high of every word fitting flush, the crash comes swiftly: depression and anxiety at having gotten away with something slightly preposterous. I’m in it now for better or worse, but I’m always on the lookout for some clue that can help explain the emergence of the poet who bears my name.

*     *     *

My first contact with poetry was the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” Yes, they’re prayers, but they’re also packets of linguistic energy. Not enough is made of their epic-accented statements (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”), the wonderfully archaic usages (“forgive us our trespasses”), the tone nibbed with rhapsodic oddities (“blessed is the fruit of thy womb”). At the time—the only literature in my house was the daily tabloid Le Journal de Montréal—this was otherworldly speech. I found lots of other prayers I liked (St. Francis’s “The Canticle of All Creatures” was a favorite) but none that introduced me to such fresh noises and suggestions. Other prayers were loaded with religiosity, but uninterestingly flat. “Hallowed is thy name” filled my mouth with sound (modernization has scrubbed the prayer clean of out-of-date fillips: “Holy is your name” is what kids now recite). Nothing in my life matched that language and I rejoiced in its acoustic plushness. Linguistically speaking, I suppose I saw myself as upwardly mobile. These prayers fixed in place my core criteria for a good poem: memorizable, talismanically glamorous, and endlessly repeated to stave off setbacks, fears, sins.

*     *     *

It occurs to me that some might interpret that last paragraph to mean that I believe in some equivalency between prayer and poetry. I don’t. The distance between prayer, which Thomas Merton called “a raid on the unspeakable,” and poetry, which T.S. Eliot called a “raid on the inarticulate,” is further apart than many might otherwise think.

Writing poetry is not, in itself, a prayerful activity. That’s because prayer is not a craft; it is the opposite of a craft. It is a focused devotional feelingfulness, a self-aware, non-naming amplification of faith, a mind tuned to the frequency of the unsayable (Simone Weil described it as “paying attention to God.”) Setting this mystical alertness down as poetry—dressing it in stanzas, line lengths, and rhythm—requires the unmystical means of prosody. Poetry can speak about God, it can even speak to God, but poetry is, at bottom, a secular art: its artistry predicated precisely on facing down any threat to its clear-headedness.

In fact, regarded a certain way, poetry might even be said to be a menace to religious belief. This is because poetry, to work, needs to strip religious belief of its theological privilege (poetry, said Valéry, is literature “purged of idols of every sort”). Put into poetic form, that belief therefore becomes something else: a patient, precise, purposeful, adhesively held-together succession of sounds. Unlike prayer, poems live entirely inside their linguistic devices and designs. Indeed, the poet is someone for whom language is so important it gets the whole of his or her attention—for whom language is more important than God.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that one has to be a heretic to write good poetry. (And indeed nothing stops us from enlarging the notion of worship to include poetry’s secularists. Sometimes what seem the most superstition-free acts of description are the stirrings of a deeper devoutness: A.R. Ammons’s nature poetry fits here, maybe even Ted Hughes’s.) My point is that it seems to me impossible to offer up your poem as a kind of worship without recognizing the paradox inherent in the act. The best religious verse—George Herbert comes quickest to mind, Geoffrey Hill too—flirts with faithlessness. There is a Flaubertian attention to style that suggests the poet understands he or she cannot praise God without also, and simultaneously, turning attention away from him and toward language (which doesn’t happen during prayer). The utter devotion to crafting a poem, the selfishness it requires, traps one in competing priorities. A good religious poem, like Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” can lock the two struggles together, but one priority is more important than the other. Delete it, and you get mush.

*     *     *

Can critical faculties show signs of wear and tear? Eliot thought so. “As one gets older,” he said in his 1959 Paris Review interview, when he was seventy-one, “one is not quite confident in one’s own ability to distinguish new genius among younger men. You’re always afraid that you are going as you have seen your elders go.” Helen Vendler admitted as much in her 2006 New York Times profile. Then seventy-three, Vendler said she avoided poets under fifty, citing new “frames of reference” that baffled her. “They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up. And that’s fine. It’s as good a resource of imagery as orchards,” she said. “Only I’ve seen orchards and I didn’t watch these cartoons . . . So I don’t feel I’m the best reader for most of the young ones.”

I’m nearly forty, and, while I don’t think I’m altogether out of it, I already feel younger Canadian poets are writing poetry that is faster, more sophisticated, and smarter than what my generation grew up writing—poetry whose margins of success I struggle to measure, engendering flashes of hostility. Feeling myself touch the edge of philistinism puts me on notice. “I shouldn’t like to feel that I was resisting,” said Eliot in the same interview, “as my work was resisted when it was new, by people who thought that it was imposture of some kind or other.” Joseph Epstein, at seventy-two, is still a very nimble essayist, but now enjoys nothing more than digging in his heels and watching history sweep past him; not “getting it” has become a matter of pride. Although fifty-eight, fogeyism has begun to catch up to William Logan, who continues to blow the whistle on rapidly rising poets (Cathy Park Hong, Kevin Young), but no longer brokers good new voices (he was one of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s earliest and best defenders). Logan also shows other late-style aspects of the badly aging critic: the one note. Staying on message is a vital part of what makes firebrand critics effective, but they then become so adept at capturing a certain kind of tone—toughened, ornery—they allow themselves no space for surprise. There is something automatic about their relentless disappointment in contemporary poetry, a pre-prepped regret too quickly acceded to.

For a sense of fair play, or an honest attempt at it, you’d have to turn to someone like Stephen Burt or David Orr, two youngish poets (both are under forty) who are performing exceptionally good quality control. Both believe in the merit of their own taste, but their verdicts also exemplify what Richard Blackmur called “a mind full of provisional faiths.” They never forget that, when it comes to poetry, what we hold as intrinsic is merely one of many persuasive speculations (“It appears,” wrote Howard Nemerov, “that poems are held together by people’s opinions of what holds poems together.”)

In contrast to these critic-explorers, Adam Kirsch might be said to lead the critic-conquerors: fixed upon victory, such critics swarm their subject, seeking to subdue it. But in his excellent online Contemporary Poetry Review series “Young Poets Calling” (where he’s introduced readers to the work of David Yezzi, Joe Osterhaus, Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, Thom Satterlee, and Rachel Wetzsteon) even Kirsch seems eager to play his part in welcoming the sea changes Tom Paulin describes in his essay collection Writing to the Moment: “So old styles sink away or are put reverently in museum cabinets, while new contemporary dangerous styles walk the streets and begin to be recognized.”

*     *     *

I finish a poem, and immediately forget how I was able to do it. Of course, I know very well how I did it: the hard way. Twenty drafts to realize number nine was actually the way in (and then backtracking and lighting out again in full knowledge I’ve probably ducked down another blind alley). Or thirty drafts—endless late-night stitching and unstitching—to figure out “no, this is stupid, give it up.” Except I don’t. I stick with it, frantically trying to keep things alive until something, anything, catches fire and the language takes over, surging ahead of me. Knock on wood, I hope I never lose the knack for inviting such dumb luck into my life. Yet there is nothing remotely nurturing or dopamine-inducing about the creative process. Unlike W.S. Graham, I don’t “feel most alive” when flailing about blindly for the right word, and Ashbery’s uncontrollable productivity—where his own writerly difficulties and doubts are swept away in graphomaniacal deluges—leaves me in scandalized awe. Faced with a blank page, my mind is a house divided: deeply at odds with itself, paralyzed and dysfunctional, unwilling to undertake any effort that threatens the privileges of idleness, and, like some evil twin, laying down false trails. It’s so easy to lose heart.

Still, there is a great deal of method in it. The multiplication of bottlenecks, always pushing things close to chaos and failure, create an extraordinary number of points where pressure builds and—just when all hope is abandoned—triggers that release Yeats described as the “blood, imagination, intellect all running together.” This can also be more plainly described as a good run of words. By what right do I take credit? Stephen Burt has a wonderful line about how poets “accept on purpose what they have created by accident,” and you have to wonder how many of the “perfect” poems we use as touchstones of excellence—poems white-coated academics take apart, analyze, diagram, and reassemble—were shotgunned into existence.

*     *     *

Complaints that poetry has lost the ordinary reader stick in my craw. No question, our market share is at an all-time low (a historical situation James Wood recently blamed on “the big fat greedy monster of the novel, which sucks all the vital nutrition away for itself”). And no doubt, more can be done to persuade intellectually curious folks to take an interest. But the news that poetry’s “diminished stature,” to borrow Dana Gioia’s term, betrays some crackup in poetry itself is now so overpromoted as to become viciously self-harming. It’s all well and good to be upset with our @##% condition, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense to do what a lot of us are unable to stop doing: blaming the poets.

Everything would be different if our stuff wasn’t so difficult, or obscure, or highbrow, or introverted, or solipsistic, or autobiographical, or experimental, or academic, or postmodern. Some of these charges may be justified, but as far as the public is concerned, we’re wasting our breath. There is no once-popular style and subject that, if brought back, will stop poetry’s sliding poll numbers. There is no traditional link between poetry and the public that, if repaired, will turn things around. That’s because reestablishing the public’s trust in poetry would be like reestablishing the public’s trust in Latin. Is it crazy to believe that Latin—once the lingua franca of government, church, and cultural circles—has a chance in the age of English? Of course it is. Most people would be gobsmacked to learn the language is spoken at all. Similarly, I’d bet many general readers have absolutely no idea that 1) poetry writing still goes on; 2) since the turn of the twentieth century, the public has been tangled up in a lover’s spat with the art form, playing the long-suffering Judy to the poet’s self-absorbed Punch; and 3) after a series of good-faith attempts at reconciliation, Modernism was the last straw: cold-shouldered, readers moved on for good.

This is the perfect example of a story that’s kidding itself. The high-stakes drama is all in our heads, though you can see why such a delusion—with poets cringing guiltily—would take hold. As long as we’re responsible for our predicament, we’re in control of our destiny. But solving one’s escalating irrelevancy is hard enough without being reminded of all the more interesting things winning the reader’s attention: “roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls).” So said E.E. Cummings in 1917.

If grown-ups don’t read poetry, it’s not because they have a bone to pick with poets. The truth is even more intolerable: they prefer not to. How often do we need to get Bartlebyed before we finally admit to ourselves that those Clancy-thumbing dentists and Grisham-toting lawyers aren’t confused or afraid of commitment? They’re just not that into us.

*     *     *

Lately it seems no book of Canadian poetry can be put to bed without an epigraph to tuck it in, whether by Susan Sontag or Günter Grass or Nietzsche or Freud or Jeanette Winterson or Homer. It’s hard to know what to blame for this. Until Eliot and Pound, epigraphs were rarely associated with poetry. One of its earliest Canadian appearances, as far as I can tell, was in Ralph Gustafson’s 1960 Rivers Among Rocks (“Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?” from the Book of Job). Two of our major poets—Al Purdy and Irving Layton—used them sparingly. Michael Ondaatje, in contrast, has shown himself to be a quirky epigraphophile: the epigraph for Rat Jelly is pulled from a wine description in a magazine.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, the epigraph’s spell has never been stronger. Poets use them to seed sub rosa themes, to create theoretical contexts, or to nudge readers toward moods around which their collection has been structured. As an editor, I’ve seen poets drive themselves crazy in their search for the “perfect” epigraph. The device is regarded as the nub of the matter, the absolute condensation of a book’s intellectual and emotional intent.

The truth, as is often the case, is a little less dramatic. Epigraphs are the poetry world’s emoticons: quick-fix inflections. Poets overestimate their necessity and significance. What they think is a tiny profundity engine is nothing more than a curio, a found object charged with private associations. This is why so many epigraphs appear undigested and attention-begging. (“Names are only the guests of reality.” This thought, lifted from Hsü Yu, would seem to channel some shaman spirit into Don Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged. To me, it sits right on the edge of flimflam.)

Epigraphs emphasize poetry-making as a thing of touchstones. They solve our anxiety of influence by flattering it. But poets are getting carried away, like Borgesian scribes compiling an infinite commonplace book. Not to say gems aren’t being unearthed (Pascal: “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room”). But these are exceptions. As a rule, our collective well-readness is withering away into name-dropping.

I’m not calling for an outright ban, just a little more judiciousness. Like any choice quote, a good epigraph whets a reader’s appetite by sharpening their curiosity. Simple and unpreening, it brandishes a let’s-cut-through-the-cant suavity. Toronto’s Kevin Connolly understands this. He opens his recent collection Revolver (2008) with these lines by Bill Knott: “I wish to be misunderstood; / that is, / to be understood from your perspective.” Snap!

*     *     *

I’m a soft sell for the unlucky in fame. Send word of someone overlooked, underappreciated, on the margin, and, like Pavlov’s dog, my mouth waters. I treasure not only first-tier loners (John Clare, Edward Thomas), but second-tier (Charlotte Mew, Louise Bogan) and third (Rosemary Tonks, Bernard Spencer). I see myself, deep down, as “the designated mourner,” from the title of the Wallace Shawn play, that person “assigned to grieve, to wail, and light the public ritual fire” when the last of the tribe passes away. It’s a job, I’m happy to say, that keeps me quite busy in Canada. Charles Bruce, A.G. Bailey, and Kenneth Leslie are three of more than a dozen exceptional poets who, during their lifetime, never needed to adjust their psychology to a world in which what they wrote was seen as a valuable asset. There was nothing ingratiating about their attitude and they never truckled for attention. Their reputations were like stalled start-ups untouched by any speculative mania. It would be easy to think of Canadian poetry without, say, R.G. Everson, Dorothy Roberts, Anne Wilkinson. The nuances of their style—the precision, the intense musicality, the canny line-making—would never be sensed as missing elements. Regarded as minor, they have been rendered stodgy and inoffensive. All of which means they appear too dull to deserve a second look, much less close scrutiny. They are, to use John Freeman’s term, “the less received” of our poetic past. But to me these figures represent nothing less than the future of poetry: a future sympathetic to singularity and strangeness and the free-range quirks of the individual imagination.

*     *     *

Poetic revolutions are revolutions in diction. That’s why the troublemakers responsible for such linguistic shake-ups—Wordsworth, Whitman, Lowell—base them on a return to ordinary speech. In every case, however, renewing contact with the “real language of men” didn’t stop poets from composing poems that spoke over the heads of those men. Getting back to basics, in other words, had nothing to do with making poems accessible. It was an intervention: an idiom battling a decadence addiction was rescued before it was too late. The “breakthrough into life” that produced Life Studies, after all, was a solution to a technical problem (“I felt my old poems hid what they were really about,” Lowell explained in a letter).

The point here is that aesthetic change is an elite activity, done out of professional boredom. Poets who say different, who claim to heed the wishes of the common reader out of populist duty, are lazy bastards. Lazy bastardism kowtows to the convenience of see-Jane-run simple-mindedness because, by gosh, that’s what most people want from their poetry. Lazy bastardism is the only way to explain the existence of phrases like “the roaring juggernaut of time” or “the once gurgling fountain of creativity” (both plucked from Billy Collins’s The Trouble with Poetry). Lazy bastardism will never come clean and tell you that poetry is an acquired taste, that the pleasure of reading it is assembled over years from smaller, slow-to-learn skills. Lazy bastardism will never insist that you should read a lot of poems, old and new, and try to keep them in your head to help train and trust your ear. And lazy bastardism will certainly never stress that you need to love poetry’s artificial and formal aspects.

It is, of course, trivial to think that “amateurs” don’t have the taste for this. Those who protect the common reader from difficult poetry—promoting plain-speaking and conversational directness as having greater relation to real things and real problems—have an odd idea of who this reader is. Accessibility is far more complex, and readers far wiser, than our current theories are willing to accept. The audience-wisdom that helped establish the worth of certain key poets in our tradition—Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost—did so precisely because of the loveliness of their writing, and not just its meaning. But readers can be lazy bastards as well. Faced with a poet who has taken the pains, some would rather not take the trouble. They don’t have to, of course. And as far as I’m concerned, better they don’t. But let’s not let the many who don’t sell short the few who do.

*     *     *

“Everything I am writing at present bores me and leaves me indifferent,” wrote Chekhov, “but everything that is still only in my head interests me, moves me, and excites me.” I would go even further, and say that boredom is the highest state of creativity. It is the mind at its best: unable to accept compromises with intention, and unable to lie about it. Hopkins’s famous cri de coeur—“Do you know, a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson”—also reminds us that sudden indifference to any special pleading on behalf of the “originality” of a celebrated career is, ultimately, what keeps our art honest and goads us to speak in new-fangled, untypical ways. We find that we have built up a tolerance to the stimulant of our own idiosyncrasies, or that tedium has inoculated us against the virulent contagiousness of the already-done-well. This can be taken too far: the contemporary avant-garde has merchandised its boredom into life cycles of rapid self-obsolescence (Brodsky called this the “need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix”). But what else is tradition if not a story of poets running hot and cold on each other? This is why I’ve never fantasized about having what Auden called a “dream reader” or put much stock in the idea of someone giving themselves over to my poems. I want those who come to my poetry to be both listeners and interrogators, participants in a sincere, half-skeptical conversation. I know the psychoaesthetic tug-of-war I have with poems I encounter, even those I already admire—the withholding and surrender of my affections, the hardening and melting of my tolerances. Why should my work be treated any differently? Indeed, coming on strong while gripped by fear a stranger may not (or worse, may no longer) buy what I’m selling is, for me, the delicious tension of publishing a poem, the dare of it. Forget dream readers, give me real readers: readers who criticize what they once cherished, cherish what they once criticized, and sometimes would rather watch grass grow.

*     *     *

Not the money (at $100,000 Canadian, it’s one of the world’s richest literary award purses), or the mandate (to divvy up the dough between two English-language poets, one from Canada and one from away), or the motive (to reverse how “poetry has slipped from the mainstream of our cultural lives,” in the words of its sponsor): instead, looking back across the last eight years, the most emblematic detail of the Griffin Poetry Prize remains Toronto comedian Scott Thompson’s performance at the inaugural gala in 2001.

Acting as emcee, Thompson launched into an outrageous, dildo-waving routine that got him promptly yanked from the stage. The awards gala—which has since become an annual fixture on Toronto’s social scene—was a piece of carefully planned theatre: three hundred guests sitting in a vast room of banner-festooned walls, triumphal arches, and red-carpet entranceways. Such a moment called for gaiety, not grotesquery. After all, it’s not every day that a private citizen decides to singlehandedly reintroduce poetry to the “public imagination.” Founded and aggressively funded by auto parts millionaire Scott Griffin, the award was touted as a rising tide that would lift all bardic boats. But it’s hard not to see Thompson’s sex toy blunder as a warning. It not only reminded us of the unpleasant surprises that even the best intentions can bring, but was itself an apt metaphor for the limits of Griffin’s optimism: when it comes to prizes, somebody always gets, um, screwed.

On the surface, bad news is hard to find. The Griffin trust has by now handed out a total of $600,000 to fourteen lucky ducks; deserved reputations have been minted (Karen Solie), fine poets honored (Margaret Avison), and oddities given comfort (Christian Bök). Moreover, the prize’s international aspect has helped raise the profile of exciting talents (Durs Grünbein, Les Murray, Charles Simic, and Michael Longley) in a poetry culture that has often been too isolationist to notice outside currents. That those outside currents have overlooked us as well is a plight that Griffin, to great expense, has also tried to redress. Every year his outfit runs lavish attention-getting ads in the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, and flies the growing family of Griffin beneficiaries—shortlisted and winners—to celebrity appearances at major international festivals. The annual expenditure for administration, promotion, and publicity likely exceeds the value of the prize several times over.

Then again, bigness is the Griffin Prize in a nutshell. To get the public to pay attention, Griffin sought a sum “of sufficient size to make a statement,” as he said in a speech at the launch of the prize. Judging by the national hoo-ha around the event, the investment has paid off handsomely. More than a good deed, the prize is designed to grapple with something large: the place of poetry in the world. And according to Griffin, the best way to cue the world about poetry’s value is to repackage it as something people can’t dismiss as negligible. The problem, however, is that the payday becomes the point. You can bet that when the 2010 victors are announced the press will do little to explain how their poetry, in Griffin’s words, “speaks to the soul of a nation and its people.”

The Griffin Prize has been credited with vast health-giving powers. It establishes literary standards, lauds laudable work, and enlarges the art’s audience by bringing it to wider public notice. In truth, the prize merely feeds the belief that a poet who bags $50,000 is better than one who doesn’t. It may be one of poetry’s ultimate windfalls, but the Griffin is a vision of meritocracy based on publicity. Which is also the reason no one turns one down. To be a winner, after all, is to be a cut above the rest. Better yet, it is to be cut out from the rest. Which immediately leads us to one of the most nagging ironies of the Griffin Prize. Namely, that an award meant to rescue poetry from anonymity has led to the creation of a compelling new villain around whom poets can construct another narrative of neglect. Unless, of course, we win. And the lure of such honor-mongering is why we are always so slow to realize the catch in the ideal. Scott Griffin is surely a rare good heart in a noble fight, yet nothing proves the neglect of our art as much as the fact that we need prizes to help maintain the myth that we matter. But then, it’s beside the point, and bad sport, to protest—might as well wag a rubber donger at it.

Originally Published: December 30th, 2009

Carmine Starnino’s books of poetry include The New World (1997), Credo (2000), With English Subtitles (2004), and This Way Out (2009). He is also the author of A Lover's Quarrel (2004), a book of essays on Canadian poetry, and is the editor of Signal Editions. He lives in Montreal.

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  1. January 6, 2010

    An interesting essay. Several points got me thinking. Especially the bit about critical faculties showing signs of wear. Cultural, especially pop cultural, tidbits severely date a piece of work and make understanding the piece difficult for anyone outside of the pop cultural interest; be it age, life style, or social click.(I wouldn’t have made it far in Byron’s “Don Juan” if not for the footnotes.) It will be rare for a piece of work to take on timeless quality of a “Leaves of Grass,” “Paradise Lost,” “Holy Sonnets” if they were laden with such pop cultural baggage. This got me thinking that, for me, the best poetry, is the stuff that somehow stands the test of time. The stuff I always go back to is by dead guys and gals. I why do I even bother reading contemporary poetry? I can’t think of one living poet that will be read 100 years from now. I just realized that, and its scary. As for Boredom…I’ve been reading Schopenhauer: "...for if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfil and satisfy us."

  2. January 12, 2010
     Conrad DiDiodato

    Starnino's essay, both glib and anecdotal , with a dash of the usual ersatz 'immigrant experience' rhetoric, is what all too often passes for informed commentary on Canadian poetry today. It's okay for 'Arc' but it's as fleeting as yesterday's Globe and Mail: a serious student (and practitioner) of poetry won't have any of it today. There's simplytoo much at stake.

    Rambling 'notebook'-type entries, interspersed with quotations from the last few Anthologies he's skimmed through, do not a cogent (meaningful) essay (or essayist) make. Whether it's growing up 'Fonzie' in Montreal north or origins of poetry in prayer or even the final 'lazy bastardism' thesis, Starnino's article at every turn reminds me of what's wrong with contemporary poetry and poetics. And more particularly what's wrong with mainstream publishers and readers (mostly academic) who promote it.

    A lot of fluff here, Carmine: give us something more substantive in future, even if that means relying on solid 'theory' (which you, and all too many lazy writers in Canada, too coyly dismiss) and fighting the temptation to give us undergraduate-style writing. It's no wonder Bok easily underscored the weaknesses in your understanding of both poetic forms and processes. He will be remembered as an innovative poet with something to say while your work will be taken more along the lines of an amiable, easy-to-read Billy Collins, always good for an hour of entertaining reading, and no more.

  3. January 13, 2010
     bilal samuel muhamnad

    i'd rather not beat a dead horse, but mr. conrad's notion that this "piece" of writing is of the same caliber as undergraduate work finds agreement with me. though, mr. carmine made a point or two with which one may find useful for further discussion.

    this "lazy bastardism" seems not to be found solely in or among literature circles. this is the age of television dreams and 24-hour, fast food delivery service; our cultures cater to the lowest common denominator.

  4. January 14, 2010
     Carol A. Stephen

    This is also the age of performance poetry and poetry slams, in-your-face poetry. Tt is also accessible poetry to those young people who would never open a book of Shakespeare if they didn't have to do so as part of an English course.
    If it accessible, common-denominator poetry is a way to get youth interested again, who would argue with that? It is a hook. They may start out as "lazy bastards", but who knows which one of them will take the top Griffin prize in the next decade?

  5. January 18, 2010
     Cynthia Anderson

    Your irreverent title caught my eye, and I hoped to read a poem that would make me laugh and think. I took the time to read your article and the comments following and I am a little disappointed.
    I am a late bloomer with poetry. I began writing it nights I couldn't sleep after my stepson was killed in Afghanistan. It was healing for me to pour out my emotions and later I found that others were touched by some of my words. Then I started sharing my work at monthly poetry readings, and since then have gone through stages. I stopped writing for a long time after seeing and hearing much better poets than myself, but then something happened and I had to write...
    I love listening to other beginners, like me, read their own and others' work. I've gotten to know them better through their choices in both. My bookshelves are filling with collections of poets who speak to me.
    I don't expect to be a famous poet whose poems endure forever, however I don't believe my poems are a waste of time. Writing has helped me to survive an experience that shook my world. Reading (and hearing) other poets feeds my soul as well.
    Thank you all for having the courage to share your thoughts. I would, however, love to hear a funny "lazy bastard" poem. (One of my stepson's nicknames was "the little bastard"!)

  6. January 19, 2010
     Peter Greene


  7. January 26, 2010
     James Gleason Bishop

    Carmine Starnino’s writing is accessible, funny, and insightful-on-first-glance, like the poetry he disparages. “Lazy Bastardism” amounted to a clever and unfortunate defense of elitism. If I applied his mandatory-toughness rule to the walks and hikes I enjoy, every time I step outdoors I’d feel obligated to slog up a mountain or risk being labeled a “lazy bastard.” Is there no place for the stroll, the gentle slope, the occasional downhill, and even the blessed chance to lie in a hammock on a farm and do no work at all?

  8. January 30, 2010
     Jonathan Schoenfelder

    I can't fault the American public for buying the books they like, and I can't fault the publishing houses for printing those books, but this article is spot on with regards to the insulting nature of certain poets "of the people."

  9. January 31, 2010
     Kimberly Sanders

    I've been wondering what made a poem good; a poet well respected. In my search I came across "Poetry" and of course subscribed, then continued to read this month's contributions.

    Mr. Starnino's piece here, reminds me of everything I never want to be as a poet. This rambling, fustian attempt to describe one writer's process of composition is simply spinning wheels. If the river is listening, I am certain of laughter.

    To make one's ends "the poem" is a mistake. It's the means to a more majestic task: living. If the words don't flow onto the paper are they really meant to be there?

    If the purpose of poetry, or "Poetry," is to touch others, or to inspire others, I'm surprised to see such a long winded (too much caffine?) riot on writing.

  10. February 14, 2010
     R. A. Davis

    What bothers me about Starnino's sincere rumination is what it doesn't address. In a parallel universe, several dozens of America's most gifted poets are making megabucks from audiences of millions. They write song lyrics. Dylan, of course, and Leonard Cohen; some other faves are early Springsteen, Cheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Steely Dan, the Eagles (I lived a year at that hotel with the vintage Mercedes out front, and yes, I brought my alibis). Go global and the mononyms stand out: Enya, Sting, Sade.

    Not poetry? Google the lyrics to Bette Midler's "The Rose" ("and you think that love is only/for the lucky and the strong") and tell me it doesn't expose "Shall I compare thee..." as the apprentice's cleverness it is. "The Rose" moves within a tight meter, has something archaic called 'end rhyme'--and may be the truest, most moving poem about love I've ever read.

    I've found poems in magazines whose innovative wordplay so outweighs their substance I wonder how they got published. The poems I write, and the ones I enjoy reading, may have a measure of calculated ambiguity (art is after all participation, and we want the reader do some of the work), but also accessibility, relevance and some touchstone or hook to draw the reader in. The gems by Vera Pavlova in your January issue come to mind.

    "Elitism" is fine as long as it only means not compromising. But I can't help feeling that's not the issue. That there's some other question we're not asking, and I'm not sure what it is.

  11. February 23, 2010

    Nice work, Carmine. Never mind the

  12. February 25, 2010

    Poetry is a pointless exercise guided by irrational processes. If we could all just accept this and move on we'd write better poetry in our different ways. There is nothing more glorious than something done entirely for the sake of it. Oscar Wilde wrote hymns to smoking and other seemingly 'louche' pleasures. I don't particularly understand why Billy Collins comes in for such flack. Has he written essays like Starnino, but from the other perspective? I don't know. Anyway, I've always regarded his poetry as weird, fanciful, delightful. It starts off somewhere ordinary and tails off in the middle of an imaginary lake somewhere. It doesn't seem to give a s*** quite frankly. The real enemy as far as I'm concerned is poetry that thinks giving a s*** is what poetry is all about. Prizes that are awarded to those poems detailing 'meaningful' socio-cultural experiences. Who cares? Competitions should award poetry that's exceptional, and have no business judging what makes poets tick, what style or subject they prefer. I would question the efficacy of the agonising process Starnino describes because in my experience that particular frame of mind produces agonising results. I compare poetry to drawing and prose to painting. With poetry, integrity of line is everything. With painting, the process is much more one of trial and error. From what I can see, Starnino is a good essayist who works hard at his prose. I don't know his poetry, but his honest, colourful prose certainly does what prose is supposed to do. Some of the comments criticising certain expressions of his are simply churlish.

  13. March 9, 2010
     Zachary Roberts

    Since normal people probably won't read Carmen's Lazy Bastardism anyways, I thought I might give it a shot and write on behalf of the common people, who just don't care about us poets anymore.

    [On Carmen's article (Lazy Bastardism) and lamenting the fall of poetry or at least our audience.]

    Why are we praising the new forms of poetry (even if it is "faster, more sophisticated, and smarter") if audience is waning? There must be a smoking gun here somewhere, and I think Carmen poignantly shows that several times. If the younger generation is truly writing about the cartoons they watched when they grew up, then I would rather just watch the cartoon then read about it in some abstract poem. Why is the novel and the cinema so much more popular today then the poem? Is it perhaps because they are conveying a measure of life and primal longings of the human heart much better than the poet of the Post Modern Age? Pleasing an audience should never be our main goal, but it can be telling of where we are headed simply because the movements of the human heart are, in themselves, timeless; and often it is from these masses that the most original and brightest stars in any age and any art arise.

    The poet was never a poet first, neither was he made sitting before the silver screen on Saturday morning nor in the halls of academia. He was first human, and then he lived; and by this distinction had already been crowned above all else. He then went on walks in the woods, fell in love and lived with a certain amount of risk, trust and comprehension of something larger than himself. He remembered that long ago he had once dwelt in an Eden; he saw it in his dreams, you see. He hoped and believed that one day it would return; he was caught up in something larger than himself, not simply lambasting the wrongs of the day in his writings. So then, the poet was the one who kept some vague hold of this truth, captured it and invited another into this truth.

    What are we missing that the orators and poets of old had that awakened the heart of the common man? If we are missing this, then it is to be lamented. That is, the heart; eternity; love; love lost; God; life; death; love and life regained. Why do I feel a yearning arise in my heart at Keats' Bright Star or Frost's Nothing Gold Can Stay? Because it tells me that I was made for something greater than this; in feeling the longing, it is in itself evidence of this. But Modernism and Post-Modernism kind of threw this out the window…so what else is there to write about minus the Gold? Just the Cold, that's all. It is a bleak vision to be sure, and it is certainly not the measure of our hearts nor what we were made for; and people know it.

    Perhaps one should ponder this while staying up late writing odes to the cartoons watched many Saturdays ago or the hole in ozone layer and other crass material that is sometimes at best erotic while movies like Avatar and Titanic break box-office records; and then we shall wonder that so many lost their hearts long before they ever lost their audiences.

    Can we blame the poet or should we blame Modernism and it's progeny? Subjects? Popular Styles? Is this what invigorates my soul when I read poetry? How can I sit down in a corner and write about trees if the tree has not spoken to me? Or I haven't at least taken a walk in the woods? Why would I want to read about a tree that someone wrote about in perfect form if they haven't taken many walks in the woods? Worse, what good does it do for my soul to read poems filled with the cynicism, hopelessness and crassness of the Modern Age Machine? It is just easier to go watch cartoons. It's a much better escape for me.

    Many a poet of this age is something like an abstract work of art. I look at it, it's weird, but I don't really get it. Rarely does it tug at me, make me weep or love or leave a longing in me wanting more. It just feels like it's striking out at something (it doesn't know what, it's just pissed you see.) I just wonder what must be going on in that person's head and move on. I have an idea: a broken heart, a broken dream maybe…innocence lost. I am not left wanting more. But I have a confession to make: I did weep the first time I saw the Lion King. The first time I saw Titanic. I was filled with desire the first time I watched Braveheart. Longing rose within me like a flood the first time I read Tolkien. The movies were pretty good too. I know, I know…the elitists are gnashing their teeth already. But good news…I must still be human. (phew) Those things that stirred my heart, what are they anyways? Why would they capture my heart and the hearts of others while a poem filled with the cynicism of the Modern Ages wouldn't? And why did these poets give up something of their innocence and belief in something bigger and better then themselves so long ago in exchange for something so much colder? Can they ever get it back? I think so. A better question, what heart can ever forget the Gold? None. According to the masses at least.

    To say that there is no "traditional link between poetry and the public" is insane. To say that there is "no once-popular style and subject that, if brought back, will stop poetry's sliding poll numbers," is insane. Why are movies and novels so popular these days? Is it because they are more convenient and cutting edge and the masses just more ignorant then ever? And (sigh) us intellectual and creative and smart people will just have to continue our downward slide into oblivion because (sigh) they just don't get us? No, the human heart remains true in any age. If only the poet carried the fire he could awaken it in others.

    Carmen's story about the dildo waving comedian is a fine example of the Post Modern conditioned thinker and writer expressing itself to the masses. Out with the old, in with new! Yes! Don't you like it? Why don't you care about us poets anyways? Doesn't this stir you? I'm a modern day Shakespeare! After all, I am expressing myself right? Go right ahead. No wonder your circle gets smaller and smaller and the lines at the theater grow longer and longer and people wait all night outside Barnes and Noble for the next Harry Potter book. As the art of the human heart was apparently lost somewhere along the way, there is a long and lonely road ahead to tread…with any luck though, maybe the tin man will get his heart back (with any luck, his body and long lost love too). I hope so. Or maybe he will grow to like his tin body better, staying true to the story. I believe in happy ending though, so I hope for the best. At the end of the journey that poet who finds his heart again will be writing some better verse too.

  14. April 17, 2010
     milf threesome

    Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.

  15. October 8, 2010
     Michael Pope

    Carmine Starnino reveals the true depth of his lazy bastardism when he carelessly dismisses Mary Oliver’s poetry as mere “sloganism” and “faux poetic: lofty, ego-pleasing, opportunistic, pretentious” in his response to my letter in the April issue of Poetry. If Starnino’s evaluation of Oliver’s poetry is not misguided enough, he goes on to prove his case with such faulty support that one assumes Starnino must have been utterly bored to achieve such a high “state of creativity.” Starnino, in essence, calls Oliver’s true confession of dependence (“Oh feed me this day, Holy Spirit”) mere pharisaical posturing, and he condemns her on the grounds of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Starnino, however, forgets the nature of the Pharisee’s prayer, which is one of pride and arrogance: “God I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” Awful, right? But none of that prayer even closely resembles Oliver’s poetry. In fact, the humble tone of Oliver’s poetry is quite the opposite: she epitomizes the dependent spirit of the publican when he says, “God be merciful to me.” Starnino would see this tone in Oliver’s poetry if he had bothered to read beyond the four lines quoted in my previous letter. But allow me to indulge myself by quoting a few more of Oliver’s lines so that she can speak for herself on this matter:

    Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour
    me a little. And tenderness too. My
    need is great. Beauty walks so freely
    and with such gentleness. Impatience puts
    a halter on my face and I run away over
    the green fields wanting your voice, your
    tenderness, but having to do with only
    the sweet grasses of the fields against
    my body.

    Prideful and “ego-pleasing”? I don’t think so. And I’m not sure why Starnino misses Oliver’s quiet “faith in God's mercy,” to use Starnino’s own words. Perhaps he also skipped over Mary Oliver’s admission of simplicity and dependency in the preceding section of the same poem quoted above:

    I know a lot of fancy words.
    I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
    Then I pray.

    Oliver’s simplicity is perfectly authentic; after all, aren’t the deepest prayers (and also the deepest poems) born out of an attempt to say the unsayble, to get those "flawed words" to fly up to heaven. Language seems incapable of containing deep feelings and thoughts, and yet we struggle towards expression. In this regard, as well as others I mentioned in my previous letter, prayer resembles poetry.

    One point—that is glaringly obvious to me—that Starnino seems to have overlooked in his haste to sever the conjoined twins of prayer and poetry is the use of prayer as poetry in the Bible. Clearly the poetry of David and others psalmists qualifies as both poetry and prayer—not catechistic prayer, but personal, private prayer still extant on the page. Just consider the following verses from Psalm 25, which bear striking similarities to Oliver's poetry:

    6) Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindness; for they have been ever of old.

    11) For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity: for it is great.

    15) Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord; for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.

    16) Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted.

    Mere "sloganism"? God forbid.

  16. November 13, 2011
     Joe DeLuca

    Pablo Neruda just awoke and proudly claimed the title of "laziest

    This essay is a joke.