one asks for bread and is given a plethora of sounds

With only a few exceptions - Lawrence, Rimbaud - the modern poet has been an empty windbag and a chatterer. No wonder anguished people turn from him in amusement, boredom, or pity. He has nothing to say worth listening to. One asks for bread and is given a plethora of sounds. The major poets are children lost in a painted forest, making as much noise as they can to attract attention; the lesser ones absent-mindedly continue bringing their posies into the swept courtyards of Auschwitz and Belsen; all of them intent on proving to the world how sensitive they are, how perceptive, how erudite and archetype-crammed. The truth is this: instead of remembering they are prophets and the descendants of prophets, the poets have swapped roles with entertainers and culture-peddlers.

- Irving Layton, from the foreword to Balls for a One-Armed Juggler, 1963


daniela elza said...

How about bringing the prophet and the entertainer together. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, I like bread and will eat it any how if I am hungry. But what if it is also aesthetically presented and pleasing.
Doubles my satiation.

But you got to have the bread first, for sure. The heartier the better.

PS No angel cake, please.

voxpopulism said...

Yeah. It's a big ol sonorous arguement, for sure. But, the probably with the metaphor is that if all poetry can offer us is either bread or music, there's a thousand real-world experiences it's going to lose out to based on their ability to provide both sustenance and wonder at the same time. They let you eat popcorn in the movie theatre, y'know. They sometimes play music when you go out to dinner.

Rob Taylor said...

Yes, I agree with you both. Who wouldn't?

But to me that's the problem, and if you dial down Layton's rhetoric (never an easy task), I think it's what he was trying to address as well.

Both quality "bread" and quality "sound" are vital, and a poem lacking in either will be all the lesser for it. Also, in a good poem the sound should inherently be part of the “content” of the poem, and vice-versa. But to summarize that situation by simply saying that "both are vital" or “it’s all one thing” is to ignore the fact that poets can't always make every word do every thing. To stubbornly write to both purposes at all times is to ignore that you are often successfully writing to neither.

So you have to make a choice (often, in my case at least, between clarity and sound). I don’t have a clear prescription for what to do in every situation I encounter, and ideally I find a “perfect” word or line, but when I fail, I believe in failing/falling towards clarity and content.

Or, to rephrase it in keeping with our metaphor (the poor thing!): if I run a restaurant and must choose between enhancing the food or the ambiance, I’m going with the food (whether or not that proves to be a good marketing strategy).

daniela elza said...

Rob, this is a topic of quite some interest to me and I have been watching my process to glean some insight into it. I find that content for me is really important and primary because the reason for the poem is: i have something i am trying to figure out, something to say.

The sound aspect comes in the work, and it is not so much work on the sound, but work on how best to hammer out a vessel for the content. I know I am getting close when I hear the music.

I do not know if I think of it as making a choices I Perhaps the choices are being made at all times, but perhaps some are more rational than others.

Rob Taylor said...

I think you have it right, Daniela: the decisions are being made all the time while writing, but are mostly unconscious - which makes it all the more important to think about these things outside of the moments of creation.

Pearl said...

yes, a look at what one unconsciously does and does or doesn't achieve with a cool head can only help (or I suppose, to the pessimist, frustrate). When one is being a windbag of sound, it keeps the axel grease on for when one does have more content to say and when one has the momentum of a lot to say, that keeps the grease from gumming up until you have time for something other than a breakneck pace.

Rob Taylor said...

Well put, Pearl. Now, time to go write a poem called "Windbag of Sound"... :)