If you say you don’t like poetry

If you say you don’t like poetry

I ask you which sort. It’s like saying I don’t like music.

The experimental and creative nature of artistic process results in a wide diversity of poetic forms and practices,  which include:

Poets speak for poets

Poets are fond of manifestos, which have a close relation to how poems are made. Marinetti proclaimed: ’For the dying, for invalids and for prisoners it may be all right. It is, perhaps, some sort of balm for their wounds, the admirable past, at a moment when the future is denied them. But we will have none of it, we, the young, strong and living Futurists!’[1] Frank O’Hara’s manifesto has a different tone: ‘Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about.’[2]

Poets speak to Poets

Bruce Beaver: ‘You’re right, Adrian Henri, there should be involuntary euthanasia for everyone over thirty (including poets), but let me have your opinion now you’re over twenty-nine and a bit.’[3]

Poets speak to the people

Walt Whitman: ‘what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’[4] Then there’s rap, hop-hop, song lyrics.

Poets speak to particular people

Robert Pinsky translates part of Horace’s Epistle I,xvi (from his Sabine farm) as part of Explanation of America, but most of the poem is directly addressed to his oldest daughter.

Poets speak for themselves

A danger of poetry, like any art form, is self-indulgence, particularly since Petrarch, when poets were elevated in status as important people, and later, following Edward Young, considered geniuses.[5] Confessional poets elevate personal experiences as significant. John Holmes, who taught Anne Sexton poetry, wrote to her about her first manuscript, ‘It bothers me that you use poetry this way. It’s all a release for you, but what’s in it for anyone else except a spectacle of someone experiencing release?… this record will haunt and hurt you.’[6]

Poets speak for the practice of poetry

I feel so bad today
that I want to write a poem.
I don’t care: any poem, this
poem.                           Richard Brautigan  ‘April 7, 1969’ [7]


Poets speak for the ideology of poetry

pardon me for having helped you to understand
you are not made of words alone.
Roque Dalton, ‘Ars Poetica’ (1974) [8]

Poets speak as shamans

Apart from the real thing, there’s Dada. Hugo Ball’s sound poem ‘Verse Ohne Worte’, premiered June 23, 1915. Dressed in costume bright ‘as a bishop’s vestments and wearing a sorcerer’s hat he chanted heavy rhythmic pieces ending in a liturgical chant that alarmed the audience and overcame Ball who had to be carried off.’[9]

Poets speak as natural scientists

Lucretius wrote an epic without history, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) investigates cosmology, anthropology and history but is also a poem which philosophises – expounding the teachings of Epicurus.[10] In this sense, it is a didactic poem, instructing the reader (as were early georgic poems). I view poets as discursive ‘scientists’, exploring ways of describing the world, rather than Romantic associations of poet as white male genius.

Poets speak as encyclopediasts

Erasmus Darwin’s ‘The Botanic Garden’ (1789) was an extraordinary poem of four thousand lines of rhyming couplets, with copious footnotes and a section called ‘Additional Notes’, of encyclopaedic interest: from meteors to clouds, coal and steam-engines.[11] It was very successful.

Poets speak as linguists

Many poets are fascinated by language and many study language. Charles Olson studied the Mayan hieroglyphics and Hittite language roots – which it now appears is the source of Indo-European languages.[12] The past offers rich humus for poem to grow in.

Poets speak for their subject

AD Hope on ‘the view On this view [that poetry is primarily self-expression] the subject becomes a means by which the poet expresses himself, his views, his feelings, his lyric personality. I hold, on the contrary, that poetry is principally concerned to ‘express’ its subject and is doing so to create an emotion which is the feeling of the poem and not the feeling of the poet.’ [13]

Poets speak for anybody

The calling card of William McGonagall read, ‘Poetry executed on the shortest notice.’

Poets speak as archivists

Eric A. Havelock points out, ‘[P]oetry is central in the [Greek] educational theory… not on the grounds that we would offer, namely poetry’s inspirational and imaginative effects, but on the ground that it provided a massive repository of useful knowledge, a sort of encyclopaedia of ethics, politics, history, and technology which the effective citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment. Poetry represented not something we call by that name, but an indoctrination which today would be comprised in a shelf of text books and works of reference.’[14]

Poets speak as propagandists

James MacPherson created ‘Ossian’, the mythical Gaelic bard to root Scotch national identity in an authentic past after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden (1746). Poetry can be seen as solving social/political crises. In 1942 Mao urged, ‘China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses.’[15]

Poets speak as entertainers

Bards, scops, Hip-hop, poetry slams, poetry in the pub and bush poetry readings. ‘In the 1920s though, Australians were reciting poetry all over the place, so much so that the humorist ‘Kodak’ O’Ferrall lampooned them. ‘Way out in the suburbs howls the wild Reciter, / Storming like a general, bragging like a blighter; / He would shame hyenas slinking in their dens / As he roars at peaceful folk whose joy is keeping hens. / ‘How We Beat the Favourite’, ‘Lasca’, ‘Gunga Din’ . . ’[16]

Poets find poems in the world

William Carlos Williams famously found a poem in a note on his fridge.

Poets find poems in other poems

Ronald Johnson has transmuted Paradise Lost into ‘radi os’, triggered by hearing Lukas Foss’ ‘Baroque Variations’, which used Handel and erase parts ‘so that it had a modern, modish feel, but it was definitely Handel.’[17]

Poets overcome poems

Noam Chomsky invented the line, ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ to show that language was independent of reality, an example of a well-formed sentence which was semantically nonsense. John Hollander borrowed this sentence to close his poem ‘Coiled Alizarine’. [18]

Poets face up to poems

One makes a poem as little as one makes
the weather. One goes to the window and looks out
and sees it there, outside. Read!
We go out into it if we dare.
William Bronk[19]

Poets look for poems

In the tradition of flâneurs, (Baudelaire and Aragon) Jacques Reda adds a bricoleur dimension, writing, ‘What I wanted was to save the words of everyone.’[20]

Poets invent poems

Tristan Tzara pulled a poem out of a hat, word by word.[21] There is chance on the one hand, (a modern theology[22]) Jackson MacLow in the 1950s used ’systematic-chance’ methods (including throwing dice). He also used generative ‘procedural form’, often algorithmic that creates a structure constraining the poet but introducing unexpected possibilities (influenced by the ego-less creativity of Zen Buddhism). For example, he uses a number sequence derived from an algebraic sequence by the French mathematician Edouard Lucas devised to test for Mersenne prime numbers (c 1880).[23]

Poets play with code

‘Potentially codework is a term for literature which uses, addresses, and incorporates code: as underlying language-animating or language-generating programming, as a special type of language in itself, or as an intrinsic part of the new surface language or ‘interface text,’ as I call it, of writing in networked and programmable media.’
John Cayley [24]

Kids play with poems

‘Ring a ring o’ roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.’ Poetry is still transmitted in oral forms, even in literate cultures, because we first learn poems as nursery rhymes, gaining a sense of rhyme, rhythm, and words as having pitch. From these beginnings poets instinctively handle language.[25] (Charles Bernstein uses nursery rhymes for more pointed reasons.[26])

Poems speak for poets

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.
John Ashbery, ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’, 1981[27]

Poems ask about poetry

An anxious reader asked the Guardian’s Notes & Queries:
Can anyone tell
Me if this
Is a poem or
not? [28]

Poems speak for Peoples and Ancestors

aylintja   marlpa   arraya   atipampa   yinila

awartija   arntjarlakwiy   awapilpa apirriya

awartija   arntjarlakwiy   awuruawura yirrpiriya

grass   hollow stalks   falling   underneath

short mulga hanging branches sap moisture

short mulga hanging branches wind sighing

(from Anthipa songs for an Alyawarra song line, accompanying dancing.[29])

Poems speak to the People

‘The walls have ears. Your ears have walls.’
(graffiti, Paris, May 1968)[30]

Poems (and bodies) speak for Poets

Hugo Ball’s simultaneous poem was a ‘contrapuntal recitative’, for voices, whistles, sirens etc., ‘Noises (a drawn-out rrr sustained for minutes on end, sudden crashes, sirens wailing) are existentially more powerful than the human voice.’ Richter claims it looked ahead to automatic poetry, which ‘springs directly from the poet’s bowels or other organs which have stored up reserves of usable material.’ [31]

Poems speak in code

Computer code itself can become the subject, material and agent, often visual, formal and concrete, without intelligible words or even letters perceivable (e.g. Ted Warnell[32]).

Mouths speak for Poems

The Italian Futurists, Russian Futurists and Dadaists, while not strictly making ‘sound poetry’, prefigured the development of the contemporary phonetic poem.[33]

Eyes speak for Poems

‘Concrete Poetry’ – Experiments with ‘verbovocovisual’ (James Joyce) textual modalities which use ‘the advantages of non-verbal communication, without renouncing the virtuality of the word.’ Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos.[34]

Drugs speak for Poets

This time coming out from under
sodium pentathol my first words were,
‘I dreamt I was a polar bear
that couldn’t write poetry.’
Literally but to unhearing ears.
‘Polar Bear’, Ramon Guthrie[35]

The Muse(s) speaks to poets

Hesiod’s Muses were: Melpomene, singing & dancing; Kalliope, beautiful voice; Erato, desire; Euterpe, well pleasing; Terpsichore, delightful dancer; Thaleia, festivities; Polyhymnia, many hymns; Kleio, glory; and Ourania, heavenly one.

The World speaks to poems

According to Paul Hoover, a Ted Berrigan compositional method was to write on the typewriter over a week or so, encouraging chance events, and new references to become part of the poem, even encouraging friends to contribute to the on-going production.[36] There is atension in creative work between creation and discovery. How much does the poet create and how much is created through the poet? Heaney calls this ‘a double process of making and discovery.’[37]

All of the above variations tend to be judged, and placed, into two cultural boxes, ‘high’ and ‘low’, and other categories (e.g. genre, avant-garde, traditional)[38] – but poetry is present, in some sense, in them all.


[1] F. T. Marinetti, ‘The Futurist Manifesto’,(Paris) Le Figaro, February 20, 1909.

[2] It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.’ The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Ed. Donald Allen, U of California P, 1995, p498-499.

[3] Poem XXVIII, Letters to Live Poets, South Head Press, 1969, p54

[4] Whitman from ‘Song of Myself, 9th edition 1891,Leaves of Grass,

[5] The German interiorising leads to the idea of the genius relying on internal powers. Goethe in the early 1770s takes genius to be autopoietic, ‘In general we believe the genius does not imitate nature but rather itself creates like nature.’ Edward Young introduced this thought to Britain in his Conjectures on Original Composition. From this stance, Associationism is hollow, but if seen as working with scaffolding in ongoing dialectic with outside world, then active and creative process. The difference is seen in the dichotomies of natural/unnatural; rule-governed/spontaneous; abstract/concrete (and is linked to notion of genius vs common artisan). quoted David E. Wellbery The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism Stanford UP, 1996, p122.

[6] Quoted by Diane Wood Middlebrook, ‘I Tapped My Own Head’ in Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, Ed., D.W. Middlebrrok & M Yalom, U of Michigan P, 1985, p203. Rosenthal & Gall claim too confidently that , ‘The confusion in much confessional poetry, between anecdote and structure, and between private happenstance and true symbolic embodiment, is only a failure of artistic energy and realisation.’ M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry, OUP, 1986, p444.

[7] Richard Brautigan  Rommel Drives Deep into Egypt, Delacorte Press, 1970, p444.
O’Hara wrote many small poems titled Poem, that took that extra step, one ‘Poem’ begins, Last night I said ‘I’m / sick.’ Today is very windy.’ Collected Poems, ibid, p40. Medvedev and Bakhtin take an anti formalist stance, ‘Language acquires poetic characteristics only in the concrete poetic construction. These characteristics do not belong to language in its linguistic capacity, but to the construction, whatever its form may be. The most elementary everyday utterance or apt expression may be perceived artistically in certain circumstances. Even an individual word may be perceived as a poetic utterance.’ Medvedev & Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, p84.

[8] Roque Dalton a left wing Sandanista poet who writes didactic poetry, quoted by James Scully Line Break, p74. Poetry in the West is an increasingly marginalized genre. Mark Jeffreys, for instance, has described the ideological difficulties facing the lyric in recent criticism. Mark Jeffreys, “Ideologies of Lyric: A Problem of Genre in Contemporary Anglophone Poetics,” PMLA, 110, 1995, p196-205.

[9] John Elderfield, intro to Flight out of time: a dada diary by Hugo ball. 1996 U of California P, pxxv.

[10] Before he died in 1956, Bertholt Brecht was planning to write a contemporary version of the poem.

[11] The Romantic poets Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth borrowed from the poem which was engraved by Blake, Fuseli and others. Darwin was particularly interested in mechanics (a key member of the Lunar Society) as well as botany and prefiguring his grandson’s theory of evolution.

[12] Russell Gray traces the first Indo-European language to Anatolia, c7,5000 BC and the Hittite language. He treated language as DNA, comparing base words from 87 languages to build an evolutionary tree. Gray, R. D. & Atkinson, Q. D. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature, 426, p435 – 439, doi:10.1038/nature02029 (2003).

[13] A. D. Hope, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, second edition, Eds., Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988, p755.

[14] Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, Rpt. 1982, p27.

[15]‘. . .go to the only source, the broadest and richest source, in order to observe, experience, study and analyse all the different kinds of people, all the classes, all the masses, all the vivid patterns of life and struggle, all the raw materials of literature and art. Only then can they proceed to creative art.’ Mao Zedong, Talks at the Yenan Forum on literature and art, May, 1942. >

[16] Peter Kirkpatrick ‘Hunting the Wild Reciter’, Lingua Franca, ABC Radio National 20.9.2003.

[17] Ronald Johnson in interview, Nov, 1995, Kansas, [DL 5.3.2001]

[18] John Hollander, The Night Mirror, >

[19] William Bronk, ‘Weathers We Live In’ in Life Supports: New and Collected Poems, North Point Press, 1982, p218.

[20] Jacques Reda from ‘What I wanted was to save‘, Feldman, ibid, p22.

[21] John Elderfield describes the riot that followed Tristan Tzara creating an instant poem, a ‘word salads’ made of newspaper scraps, arbitrarily drawn from a hat. That led to the theatre being wrecked and, a few days later, to Breton expelling him from the surrealists. John Elderfield introduction to new edition of Hugo Ball, Flight out of time: a dada diary, U of California P, 1996, pxxv. Like Tzara, Hans Arp thought that scraps of text thrown to the ground produced patterns of meaning more interesting than from conscious design.

[22] Richter claims chance ‘restore[s] to the work of art its primeval magic power…the incantatory power that we seek, in this age of general unbelief, more than ever before. Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, 1964, p59. >

[23] ‘The reason why some poets delight in making poems in other ways– otherwise–than others do is that they feel a need for other pleasures than those they’ve experienced from poems hitherto. This doesn’t at all mean that they need reject the poems of others–past writers or those writing presently but not ‘otherwise’ — or the pleasures those poems may cause. It isn’t even that some people ‘just delight in novelty.’ Some often delight in being surprised.’ Jackson Mac Low, ‘Poetry and Pleasure’ from a paper given at the Poetry & Pedagogy conference, Bard College, June 1999. June 1999. Joseph Conte argues that ‘Poetic form must respond to the conditions of the modern world and to an understanding of how the world functions.’ Joseph M Conte, ‘Unending Design – the forms of postmodern poetry’, Cornell UP, 1991, p16.

[24] John Cayley, ‘The Code is not the Text (unless it is the Text)’, 9.4.2002, [DL 8.8.2002]

[25] ‘[T]he handling of rhythm and form is instinctive rather than codified. We think of a line that sounds well, and only later try it out against a template, to see if it actually fits into our schema. Or we start something, and then look at what we have so far, and then we try to repeat, with variations, what we have already done. We write a line, and then try to compose another to match it.’ James Fenton, ‘Blazing canon, The Guardian, 25.5.2002. This particular rhyme is thought to refer to the Great Plague.

[26] Paul Quinn notes, ‘Nursery rhymes have a special significance in Bernstein’s verse: they offer both a reminder that ideology coos at us over the crib and a potential liberation from conventional sense, a dawning awareness that the world is still to be made.’ Paul Quinn, ‘Rattling the chains of free verse’, Times Literary Supplement, 30. 4. 1999.

[27] in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, second edition, edited by Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, p 1269-70.  His poems always keep you guessing, whether you have hit or missed.

[28] Doyle Cross of Dagenham, Essex, The  Guardian, 25.5. 2000. Reminding one of Harold Rosenberg’s ‘anxious object,’ Thepoet Michael Rosen is non-committal but notes on distinguishing poetry from prose, ‘Interesting problems arise with the 1611 Authorised Version translations of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Nowadays, many readers would regard these as poetry. They can be contrasted with John Donne’s sermons, including the famous ‘bell tolls’ piece, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’, both of which have the rhythms one might associate with free verse poetry and yet few would call these poems. ‘

[29] These women’s songs are associated with a journey from Itnungirrpa to Tjunmarra in the Central Desert. Richard Moyle, Alyawarra Music, Aus Inst. of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1986, p88 –91.

[30] Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman, When Poetry Ruled The Streets: The French May Events of 1968, SUNY, 2001.

[31] Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, (pub Cologne, 1964), Trans. David Britt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985, p 29-30.

[32] Ted Warnell’s work is at – ADVEXP Connections

He says, ‘Old world thinking about how it works and how best to work it still is prevalent on the Net (but the day, too, is young). Progress will be realized when ‘new media’ thinking comes to the fore…. [when] we see a shift away from ‘how do we do this on the Web’ and towards ‘what can we do here in the Web’. james hörner interview with Ted Warnell, [DL. 8.3.2003] (See Chapter 16)

[33] Sound poetry developed in Europe using electronic technology from the 1968 International Festival of Text-Sound Composition. (central participants included Bengt Emil Johnson,  Lars-Gunnar Bodin, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck and Bob Cobbing. In the mid 70s, it changed to the International Festival of Sound Poetry to include ‘acoustic’ poetry and the term sound poetry became  widely known. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead establish the importance of sound in avant-garde poetry from 1880 to 1960. Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

[34] Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos, ‘Plano-piloto para poesia concreta’ originally published in Noigandres (1958) quoted Victoria Pineda, ‘‘Speaking about Genre: The Case of Concrete Poetry’,New Literary History, 26:2, 1995, p380. Mary Lewis Shaw cites Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Des’ as the first concrete poem, ‘Concrete and Abstract Poetry: The World as Text and the Text as World’, Visible Language, 43, 1988–89, p31.

[35] Ramon Guthrie, Maximum Security Ward, 1964-1970, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1971, p23

[36] Paul Hoover, Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, New York, Norton, 1994. He would characterise this as post-modern and avant-garde, ‘Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time.’ pxxv. Which is straightforwardly in ‘an ongoing process of resistance to mainstream ideology.’ pxxvi.

[37] ‘A poet at work is involved in a double process of making and discovery, a process that at the best times is unique, unselfconscious and unpredictable, Every real poem that he makes represents a new encounter with what he knows in himself, and it survives as something at once shed and attained.’ Seamus Heaney, Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 2, 1971 p101.

[38] Charles Bernstein looks at two famous styles of 20th C poet, and seen Ginsberg as ‘a reverse or polarised image: for Eliot became the poet as symbol of the closed, the repressed, the xenophobic, the authoritative; in short, of high culture in the worst sense; while Ginsberg became the symbol of the open, the uncloseted, the anti-authoritarian; indeed, of low culture in the best sense.’ Charles Bernstein ‘Unrepresentative Verse’, ‘Poetry and the Public Sphere’ Conference at Rutgers 1997, He adds, ‘Ginsberg’s moves from ethnically particularised Jewishness (Al from Jersey) to small b buddhism (bubba to Baba) is correlative to Eliot’s move from Christian-American to High Church Anglican.’

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