Sunday, November 06, 2005

It's Down to the Kitten

Thanks, Jack. My position as of this evening is that it's craft, tactics and workshop all the way down. I do not accept Kasey's "narrow" definition of craft as "a familiar set of mechanically 'workshoppable' skills such as meter, lineation, rhyme, etc.," mainly because I don't accept his constraints on the workshop.

(I think there is an ideal Platonic workshop that is just, well, ideal when compared to real, bounded, sited workshops, whether on or off line, and that that's the workshop we're talking about.)

Pirooz and Allyssa are discussing the idea that "voice" is the other of craft. One way to understand this is that just as poets might have strategic interests that go beyond their tactical problems with a particular poem, and just as their poetry may be subjected to criticism that goes beyond the sort of thing you deal with in a workshop, so too do poets work on their voice as something above and beyond their craft. I don't think this distinction is advisable.

Josh championed the strategic approach to poetry in his response to Jeffery Bahr's reading of Dan Chiasson's "To Helena Concerning Dan Chiasson", which, he says, "is entirely oriented toward what makes a poem an invulnerable object or monument." Such a reading is fixated on tactics, "ignoring or obscuring other possible attitudes and valences (poem as discourse, poem as social actor, poem as social tactic or meditation on same)."

This reminded me of T. S. Eliot's introduction to the Sacred Wood and his "repeated assertion that when we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing." It seems to me that as soon as we move our "critique" of a piece of work outside the workshop we debauch the art.

So I think those poets who have been workshopping (or pimping) Mary Oliver's poem have been showing her the greatest respect possible. Those who have been excusing "The Kitten"'s defects and trying to sell it on merits that do not belong to it, but, perhaps, to the sentiments of a likable poet or an amiable public, have been cheapening the art.

Yes, poems can be appreciated for features that cannot be improved in the shop. The inticement to do so, however, is not about poetry, but another thing. It is no doubt a strategic matter.

In The Rebel somewhere, Albert Camus said that true generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present, as a part of an argument for tactical cells, not strategic organizations. I think we can say something similar here. The art of poetry lies in giving everything to the poem.


Laura Carter said...

Thomas, I think some of the friendly responses (even pimpable responses) to the poem are from folks who've been in workshops and might even be able to use some of these tactics in the future, in a workshop. Having said that, as a workshop veteran myself (who really isn't quite sure about the poem and wouldn't know how to improve it without making it mine), I think the idea of a voice is often misunderstood. Maybe what Alyssa means by "voice" as an ill is that it signifies, in the poem in question, a manipulative device---"saying" etc, the rhetoric of the piece. And I pretty much disagree with "finding your voice" as it has been explained to me, as some sort of divining rod notion of sorts. Etc. But as difficult as I am about workshop dictums, this is one that seems to be motivated toward a (gulp) life-art connection, one that I think is healthy. My response to the poem is this: Did this really happen (probably---Mary Oliver lives out in the country, maybe she owns a shovel), and, if not, is it unconvincing because it didn't? This isn't the most logical approach, but I do wonder. Which is why my response so far has been, What would I do if this happened to me? I certainly wouldn't touch a dead cat, that's for sure. Nor would I want to bury it. OK. So why try to make up something weird like this? (Not that I don't often do this myself, maybe in more fantastical ways.) Why even try to convince us that it happened? If finding your voice means not being afraid to write about your life in a "poetic" style, (and who doesn't do that when they write poetry?), then I'm all for it. I'm thinking of Alice Notley's Coming After, her poems rank among my very very favorites. So finding a voice is in some ways a search for how you're gonna write. That's all. That's OK, I think. As for a mystical approach to voice, maybe not. Seamus Heaney's divining rod theory is kind of a quackery, I think. Having said this, I don't know what else to do but work on it.

Laura Carter said...

So my emotional response to talk of voice and its dismissal: "Don't, please, don't, take my voice away." Having said that, I'll change it by adding commas.

A said...


I'm not sure there was ever a discussion about craft vs. voice.


nobody really knows what they're saying when they use those words, i think. rarely is it literal, so it's just based on some fuzzy idea.

so what's 'not advisable'??? craft being above voice???voice being above craft???

kinda seems like nonsense, you know.


A said...


that is exactly what i meant. i just think these are workshop words that are used as alibis to a lot of writing i don't like.

alice notley is one of my favorite writers, and, if you twisted my arm or i was feeling lazy i would say she had a singular 'voice'...but it's not really a voice, it's a way of writing, and that way is not necessairly crafted according to some workshop alibi such as 'craft'(most worshoppers would find her craft atrocious)--it is her own way, it is a music, but she has many. many 'voices'.

Did you see the poem of ron silliman called youra he posted recently? a poem written when he was a youth. it is a way of writing he tried, completely different from what he went on to do. he has no distinctive voice that he needed to find. he could have found any number of voices. it's a choice, not something latent that must be brought out. usually i think it's a philosophical choice, or based simply on who one wishes to imitate, whose way of writing a poet wants to continue and extend. no one owns those voices. that's all.


Thomas said...

I think the critical operation I object to is the one where "voice" is isolated from "craft" in a way that places it (voice) beyond the reach of the workshop.

That's the only function of the (yes, fuzzy) concept of voice I've been able to register. On the other hand, I have a very clear idea of what craft is even beyond Kasey's narrow definition.

It is the distinction of voice and craft and the isolation (insulation) of the former from critique, establishing an ultimately inconsquential and, I suppose, decadent (debauched) form of "criticism", that I object to.

I'm not sure if this is what you mean, Alyssa, but what I think is nonsense is an injunction like "Leave my voice alone; go after my craft, if you must." (The first half in particular.)

I'll have think about what I think about "don't take my voice away" or even "take my voice away".

I definitely think the thesis of the unimpeachability of Mary Oliver's craft depends on the unimpeachability of her voice. Once the distinction between voice and craft is dropped, we can look at the full variety of ways that poem might be improved.

(I'm posting this comment as another from A appears in by mailbox. Be back shortly.)

Thomas said...

OK, I agree with most of that. When you say:

"that way is not necessairly crafted according to some workshop alibi such as 'craft'(most worshoppers would find her craft atrocious)--"

I think its the first sense of "craft(ed)" that corresponds to my usage. The version of craft in scare quotes is probably the one Kasey is using as an alibi for Oliver?

Laura Carter said...

You're right, Alyssa. What draws me to Notley is her repudiation of workshop poetry ("Poetics of Disobedience") but her insistence on pursuing a poetic in which she talks about herself, her life, her loves, etc. In this way, she does it even better than anecdotalists (Oliver?) writing about stuff that never happened. I dislike being told to find a voice that isn't mine, but I still do tend to hold onto the notion of it, as something that will mark me as a writer. But I like that you bring up the fact that these words mean very little to us now. They do get thrown around, yes. But also I think of voice as a permission, much as the open field poetic I crave is a permission---you can do this, you can throw yourself into it. I'm still somewhat of a '60s throwback in this way.

Whimsy said...

This reminds me of the famous incident when Huxley was accosted by a lady poet who argued that poetry is layer of craft that sits upon a stratum of voice, which resides upon a kitten. Henceforth, it's pretty much kittens all the way down.

Thomas said...

Except that there can be only one kitten.

Thomas said...

Accept that there can be only one kitten.

We must accept that the kitten is one.

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jay said...

Coming in from left field, a bit. Re: Kasey's narrow definition of craft . . .

What puzzles me about the discussion here and elsewhere is that I've never participated in a workshop in which it is forbidden to tell the writer (nicely, constructively) that you think certain lines or the poem itself fall into in inauthentic sentimentality or could have been stated in a less familiar/cliched way.

In my experience, we toss around comments like that all the time. E.g., "This line works great, but the 'ominous dark clouds' phrase seems pretty familiar me to me. Nice image, but maybe you could say it another way." Or: "There's an interesting tension in the first part of the poem between the casualness of the language and the heightened emotional tenor of the scene; here, however, I find that the poem loses that tension and thus comes across as melodramatic or sentimental."

Neither of those of those comments would fit Kasey's definition -- but I hear them all the time in workshops. Sometimes we even argue about those very points. What's merely melodramtic to one of us is sometimes authentically dramatic to another. How the poem strikes the reader emotionally, ethically, etc -- this is something I very much want to know. Indeed, it's vastly more important to me than, say, whether or not someone thinks my line breaks are working well.

Not to presume that I speak for all poets -- just that I'd personally find little of interest in a workshop limited to discussion of "meter, lineation, rhyme, etc."