Adam Kirsch has an interesting article on The Anthology of Rap in the most recent issue of Poetry and I haven't read it yet. Still, just the idea that Kirsch is writing about rap in a magazine that has the simple and neat title of poetry is a beautiful thing. The most interesting, productive, and evolutionary thought that is going into rhyming verse is in the rap genre. It's not some poets writing sonnets in their ivory tower and it's not Justin Bieber--it's rap music.
So that's a golden star for Adam Kirsch. This is what makes the rest of this piece hard to write: Adam Kirsch also makes mistakes. Reading up on Anne Carson on her Poetry Foundation page, I came across the following excerpt:
Echoing debates that continue to swirl around the Carson’s prose-like poetics, Kirsch wondered if Carson had indeed produced the verse promised in the book’s subtitle. “The writing is clearly prose,” he maintained, “laid out in alternating long and short lines, with no strictness of measure or rhythm; the division between a long line and a short one is typographical only, or at best syntactic.”Now, I'm not exactly sure what to make about Carson, myself, but that's just because she's too smart for my own good. She's telling jokes I'm not getting at times. Or I think she is. It's Rumsfeld's unknown unknown again. But the book Kirsch is describing is clearly my favorite of hers so far, The Autobiography of Red, which is also probably her most popular. Now I'm no Carson expert, but I've read three of her books and am reading two more at the moment, and the one thing I can really attest to is the fact that, with all apologies to Mr. Kirsch, she is always working very much from within the frame of poetry.
Today I just finished Li-Young Lee's wonderful "remembrance," as he terms it, of both his father and his past, The Winged Seed. The Amazon page for this book has the following interesting review:
the winged seed is probably the most poetic book i have ever read. li-young lee's quiet, condensed writing style is almost sedating. he is one of the most interesting people i've met and one of the best poets i've ever read. he is what many poets strive to be.It's from "mahoney" and it's a five of five review. Now I'm obviously bringing this all up for a reason, so as tempting a deconstruction of the review itself is, I'm getting back on track. The Winged Seed is, in fact, a poetic book. It might not be the most poetic book I've ever read, but it is really great poetry that goes on in prose with paragraphs for about 200 pages. Certainly, if I was a literary medical examiner, I could examine this book and cut it into two parts and say that there is prose here and poetry there, but what would be the use of that? And anyway, the prose would be the thin layer fat on the body that is the poetry.
What I'm trying to say here is that you can't describe poetry. You can't say "oh, that's not poetry, it doesn't rhyme!" or "it's line breaks are at best syntatical." Some poems aren't going to have line breaks. In fact, I'm currently very interested in the paragraph and how I can use that as a form. And by currently, I mean daily, as in today I became interested in this form. And by "interested" I mean I'm experimenting--writing paragraph poems, but that's not right either, because you could look back and say I've been doing that since I wrote "men among man," just as people stated that they knew Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman had been dating since the two worked together on her first solo album, and Gaiman had to say, wait, this has only begun quite recently. Now, I'm still writing poetry, just as Carson or Lee, but I'm not following the supposed "rules" which don't exist.
Or rather, I'm still writing poetry, just as I believe Carson or Lee would claim to be doing. Kirsch can say all he wants about line breaks, but there are people out there who claim that "rap is crap" and has no artistic value as well. The only useful labels we can create are self-labels and understanding these is an important feature in any critical work. So I must point out that Carson might say she's not a poet. Lee wouldn't, but then again, I'm reading an interview book with Lee, so I might as well say "Lee doesn't. He does the opposite. He refers to himself as an American poet (rather than an Asian American poet, which is a term he doesn't particularly care for." But once again, there are no rules.
I could say some stupid things that I've found myself thinking, like "It actually seems like the less dependent you get on line breaks, the better your poem is...the less gimmicky," but really that is something I only think spur of the moment. Soon thereafter I've changed my mind. I've realized how dumb that is. And anyway, it's just another nonexistent rule that someone has made up. (But at least I'm taking it back.)
Perhaps what we can ask Kirsch is to pick up another issue of Poetry and debate his thoughts on line breaks there. Ron Silliman's last poems in the magazine, which were featured in the June issue of last year, but which you, dear reader, can read right here if you wish, are divided into lines of five words each. So what does that mean? That's an arbitrary move (but then again all language is arbitrary, is metaphor...) so does it make it prose? If the lines had the same syllable count, Kirsch might have an argument, but really we're just debating rules here and I'm not going to waste any more time on this fictive talk.