Fighting Words 3

Never Say No

by Linda Crespi

Can a "found poem" be poetry? Can a found apple be lunch?

In January, an essay in this space argued against free verse and found poetry. I do not want to enter the stale argument on these terms. I wish to argue against the mind-set which deduces from first principles that some sort of writing or other simply CANNOT be poetry.

We can assume:
There was some one around to tell tell Marlowe: "It's not proper poetry if the sentence runs over the ends of the lines."
There was some one around to tell Homer "It's not poetry if you write it down."
There was someone around to tell Petrarch: "Fourteen lines is just not a good length for a poem."

We know for certain:
There were plenty around to grumble at Whitman: "It's not poetry because it doesn't follow the accepted rules of scansion."

The problems with conservatism:
First: It is both easy and satisfying to prove that innovation is wrong. Define poetry in terms of what has gone before, and by definition any writing that doesn't follow the normative pattern is not poetry. Easy, and many people will believe you.
Second: Most of the time the conservatives are right. Most experimental work does not produce results that will last. But nor does most non-experimental work

To argue of a particular piece of work: "This is not poetry," is legitimate if the critic is responding to the actuality of that piece.

To declare about a form of writing: "This cannot be poetry," is deeply dubious, because it is condemning works that the critic has not seen. It is condemning works that have not yet been written.

A Dialogue:
"So can my apple be a poem?"
"Show me your apple, and I'll decide."

The response of a good critic or editor will be guided by the actuality of a particular text, not by prejudices about types of text. I know that Snakeskin's editor is allergic to prose poems. I was delighted to see an excellent one in
last month's Libraries issue. Let diversity reign.

A syllogism:
Poetry follows the rules I was taught at school.
This does not follow the rules.
Ergo, this is not a poem.

Was ever a syllogism more perfect or more false?

Free verse is not to be discarded because the vast majority of free verse poems are very poor; metric verse is not to be discarded because the vast majority of metric poems are very poor.

Never say no.

Is there progress in poetry?
No, but there is development, change. In each generation good poets read the work of their precursors, and they think:"This expresses exactly how my precursors thought. It does not express how I think. I must find a new form that will be my own voice."

In each generation, bad poets do what everybody thinks poets ought to do. they are probably awarded grants and prizes.

We live in an age defined by Turing and by Gates.
Much poetry has retreated into an opposition to our digital world, expressing nostalgia for the funkier values of countryside, family or slum. But it is where we live. Poets will have to develop new forms to cope with it (and adequately to celebrate it).

In this issue of Snakeskin, you will find my Flash piece - "
Erasure: A Found Poem", which uses erasure techniques to explore the hinterland of an extract from the prose of critic Marcus Bales. Please do not waste time on arguing about whether or not this is a poem. Please feel very free to argue about whether it is any good.

(The editor of Snakeskin tells me: "I have accepted it for my poetry magazine - therefore it is a poem." I suspect that his logic may be faulty here, though his intentions are kindly.)

Never say no.

Linda Crespi

This is the third in a series of monthly polemics about literary issues by different
writers. We hope that later essays will tackle a wide variety of themes,
from strongly differing points of view. Contributions to the series are invited.

If you've any comments on this polemic, Linda Crespi would probably like to hear from you.

Why not visit Linda's poem page, which includes some of her experiments.