Guest Post, Michael Hudson: Mediocris Poeta: Some of My Favorite Dismal Quotes about Poems & Poetry


The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo Book CoverBack about 1992 a friend of mine was taking a creative writing class at the University of Akron and I happened across one of her assigned texts, a slim volume of essays called The Triggering Town by a poet I’d never heard of named Richard Hugo. The book is (or was) considered a classic and was assigned to creative writing classes across the country. I loved it. As a fumbling, clueless novelist, I found the advice in Hugo’s book to be bracing. Also I experienced a gratifying twinge of fellow feeling too, because Hugo worked a desk at a manufacturing company for fourteen years (he worked for aircraft giant Boeing), and I’d just started a similar job myself (I stayed over sixteen years in truck equipment manufacturing sales).

For many years I ransacked that book, they gradually forgot about it as I got older and my cynicism increased. Recently, I ran across my copy of The Triggering Town, frantically underlined and scribbled with my marginal notes. I dipped in and found still much to be admired – Hugo is an engaging writer and a true gentle soul. But the poetry – Hugo’s poetry, which is featured throughout the book – I found to be awful – a kind of “Deep Image Lite,” with long passages of just “Lite” – plain-voice aw shucks stuff with incontinent descriptions of wind and water and the sun and stuff. That was a dominant mode back in the ’70s and ’80s, the American equivalent of the Georgian Period (browse a back issue of Poetry from that era to see what I mean). Hugo, glad to be rid of Boeing and quite comfy at the University of Montana, was a booster of the burgeoning university poetry scene:

“Mark Strand remarked recently in Montana that American poetry could not help but get better and better, and I’m inclined to agree. I doubt that we’ll have the one big figure of the century the way other nations do, Yeats, Valéry. Giants are not the style of the society, though the wind knows there are enough people who want to create them, and not just a few who want to be them. I think we’ll end up with a lot of fine poets, each doing his thing. There are a lot of bright and substantial young people writing and a lot of good poetry-writing teachers available to help them, poets who earned the title the hard way and who are generous enough to pass on all that they learned for themselves…”

(From the essay “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” from The Triggering Town, 1977, p. 33).

Sign me up, please. So I would’ve said in 1992. Now I read this with dismay. For sure we have no “big figures” in American poetry – Elizabeth Bishop (died 1979) is perhaps the last “big” American poet. And we certainly do have lots and lots of poets “doing his thing.” But has American poetry – I mean the individual poems – gotten “better and better” since the 1970s? I don’t think so, and whenever somebody make such a claim I ask what poem they have in mind, what individual poem endures the way Bishop’s “One Art” or Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” or Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” have?

Throughout history people have tried to professionalize poetry (“Shakespeare can’t be a poet, for he didn’t go to university,” sniffed the University Poets). These are not the poets “who earned the title the hard way” so much as they are poets who have established their credentials and careers. But real poets don’t have credentials and careers; they only have poems. Which leads me to my next, and for me far more bracing and truthful quote, by the desolate poet, critic, and possible suicide Randall Jarrell:

“Writing good poetry is only occasionally difficult: usually it is impossible. But writing what seems to you good poetry is always easy, if only, somehow, your standards of what constitutes a good poem can be lowered (and specialized) to what you write; this unconscious and progressive lowering of taste, a sort of fatty degeneration of the critical faculties, is the most common of ends.”

Randall Jarrell, from his essay “Poets: Old, New and Aging” in Kipling, Auden & Co. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), page 44.

A very terrifying quote; it scared me to pieces when I first encountered it 15 years ago or so, around the time my infatuation with The Triggering Town had started to fade. That “usually it is impossible” got to me at first, but as the years went by I became even more uncomfortable with that “what seems to you good poetry is always easy.” What a blighted, limited, pessimistic, and unhelpful way to look at the art! What a grump. Isn’t poetry something to be shared and taught in schools and workshops and senior citizen living centers? Isn’t poetry something to be mastered, with an extensive M.F.A. and Ph.D. academic apparatus in place to instruct and nurture and matriculate the worthy (“a lot of good poetry-writing teachers”)? Isn’t poetry the embodiment of the truth that every person has a story, thereby every person has a voice?

Yes to all that, I say! I’m all for poetry and its spiritual and societal benefits. I am also for “bright and substantial young people writing.” Access to poetry – reading or writing – should be wide open. But again, too often the poems – individual, quotable poems – get lost in the rhetoric of poetry. Perhaps the most egregious symptom of this is the problem of overproduction. Since Richard Hugo came in from the cold and got a university job in the 1970s, the number of American poems published has gone critical. Even before the Internet the proliferation of journals and books was staggering. This is seen by some a sign of cultural robustness and rude good health. Which leads me to my next dismal quote:

As art sinks into paralysis, artists multiply. This anomaly ceases to be one if we realize that art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.

(E. M. Cioran, trans. Richard Howard, from The Trouble with Being Born).

Ah Cioran, the Franco-Romanian philosopher who wrote approvingly about suicide for sixty years or so then died an octogenarian of natural causes. Despite the discrepancies, he’s one of my favorite writers, and he’s even grouchier than Jarrell.

“The older I grow, the more I realize that I have counted too much on poetry. I have loved it at the expense of my health; I anticipated succumbing to my worship of it. Poetry! The word itself once led me to image a thousand universes and now no longer wakens in my mind anything but a vision of singsong and nullity, of fetid mysteries and affectations. It is only fair to add that I have made the mistake of frequenting a good number of poets. With very few exceptions, they were uselessly solemn, infatuated, or odious, monsters, specialists, tormentors, and martyrs of the adjective whose dilettantism, lucidity, and intellectual sensibility I had vastly overestimated.”

(E. M. Cioran, trans. Richard Howard, from The Temptation to Exist. From the essay “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter”)

Perhaps Cioran should have stuck to individual poems, not some Grand Ideal of Poetry or the “frequenting” of actual live poets. Here is the semi-forgotten poet and critic R. P. Blackmur being relentlessly clear about this:

“The greatness of Emily Dickinson is not – to review our select list of prejudices – going to be found in anybody’s idea of greatness, or of Goethe, or intensity, or mysticism, or historical fatality. It is going to be found in the words she used and in the way she put them together; which we will observe, if we bother to discriminate our observations, as a series of facts about words.”

(R. P. Blackmur, The Expense of Greatness (1940; 1955 reprint), from the essay “Emily Dickinson” p. 118)

Ah, to stick to “the words she used and in the way she put them together” and the robotic “series of facts about words.” There’s a real trick to that – to “bother to discriminate our observations.” Besides, discriminating is bad, isn’t it? It embodies a narrowing, a limiting, a judging process that violates poetry’s vast, boundless mission to…to do what exactly, I’m not sure, but certainly it needs to be doing something, doesn’t it? “For poetry makes nothing happen,” famously said W. H. Auden (in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” – one “big figure of the century” writing about another). But I think poetry is afflicted with mission creep, we start to fret about what poetry can do rather than just letting a poem just simply be. Jarrell again, on poets, criticism, and incontinent approval:

“When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls “fools’ approval”; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other.” Randall Jarrell, Letter to The Nation, 1948


Bad poets and bad critics loving each other (nowadays the poets usually serve as the critics, making things arguably even worse than in 1948). Mediocrity has few defenders, because who wants to be mediocre (or for that matter, a fool)? James Boswell, who had many faults, lack of candor (at least in his diaries) not being one of them, recorded this 1760s conversation with playwright Richard Sheridan:

“We disputed about poems. Sheridan said that a man should not be a poet except he was very excellent; for that to be a mediocris poeta (see note) was but a poor thing. I said I differed from him. For the greatest part of those who read poetry have a mediocre taste; consequently one may please a great many. Besides, to write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good; so that a man of a tolerable genius rather gains than loses.”

Note: Horace, Ars Poetica, l. 372. (“Middling poets were never tolerated by gods, by men, or by booksellers.”)

James Boswell, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, 18 January 1763; page 151.

“To write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good…” That’s more terrifying than anything even Randall Jarrell ever said.

#ArtLitPhx: “It’s Nature’s Way” Exhibition at Royse Contemporary

It's Nature's WayRoyse Contemporary is so excited to present “It’s Nature’s Way,” the solo exhibition of mixed-media artist Constance McBride, opening on Thursday, December 7. The exhibit will showcase McBride’s “impressive body of work highlighting the artist’s interest in the cycle of life, the human form and the natural world.”

McBride reveals that her work is “inspired by living really close to the desert; it’s an ever present influence on me. I’m intrigued by all the diverse vegetation – bits and pieces of debris are picked up and saved in my studio.” She comments that “the desert is continually expanding, contracting, and redefining itself; so are we, it’s a shared pursuit of survival.”

The opening reception will be from 5pm to 10pm on December 7, but the exhibit will be on display until December 30. It is at the Royse Contemporary Gallery, which you can find at 7077 E. Main Street, Suite 6, Scottsdale, AZ 85251.

The opening will be a part of the Scottsdale ArtWalk in Old Town Scottsdale. Nicole Royse, the owner and curator, will give a brief talk about the artist and work featured in the exhibition; guests will also have the chance to meet the artist. For more information about the exhibition, check out the official press release or visit Royse Contemporary’s website.

Contributor Update: Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Julia Kolchinsky DasbachToday we are pleased to announce that past contributor Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach has been recently featured in Four Way Review. Julia’s poem “They Think They Know Amelia Earhart” can be read on Four Way Review’s website.

Four poems by Julia can be read and listened to in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.


Authors Talk: Courtney Santo

Today we are pleased to feature author Courtney Miller Santo as our Authors Talk series contributor. Courtney talks about her story “Society of Jumpers” and the way that it came to be.

Frankly, the origin story is bleak. Courtney explains that the story is political in that it is borne from reflection on the recent “lone wolf attacks” and how we might respond to them. Further, she discusses what role fiction plays in her life and thinking, as well as in the human condition more broadly. Courtney closes by explaining the value of elders and the perspective they have.

You can read and listen to “Society of Jumpers” in Superstition Review Issue 19.

Contributor Update: Fernando Perez

A Song of Dismantling Book CoverToday we are excited to announce that past contributor Fernando Perez has an upcoming book. Fernando’s dynamic debut collection, A Song of Dismantling, is now available for pre-order from Amazon. The poetry collection explores how migration affects relationships between people of different generations and readers are invited by Fernando on the journey as his family story unfolds over time and distance.

Three poems by Fernando can be read in Issue 14 of Superstition Review.

Congratulation, Fernando!

#ArtLitPhx: Four Chambers presents Get Lit: The Market

Get Lit Graphic

Inspired by the literary and philosophical salons of 17th century France, Four Chambers presents Get Lit: The Market. Every month, Four Chambers hosts a night of conversation, community, and drinking with Phoenix Poet Laureate and ASU Lecturer of English Rosemarie Dombrowski, PhD.

This month’s event will take place Thursday, December 7th, from 7pm to 8pm. It will be held in the Reading Room inside the Rose Room at Valley Bar (Basement, 130 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004). Valley Bar is located on Monroe St down the alley between Central and 1st Ave. Space is limited, so arrive early to make sure you can get a seat!

This month’s discussion topic is the market. Four Chambers writes, “Are you tired of writing query letters and tracking submissions? What does the publishing industry look like? What kind of pressures or influences does it exert on the artistic process? What are the effects of labeling and packaging for a larger audience? What is the tension or relationship between the artistic and commodity form? What does it mean to market one’s work?”

For more information about the event and to RSVP, head over to the Facebook page. You can also click here to find out more about Four Chambers Press.

Guest Post, Christina Olson: Reconstruction Errors

In the 1820s-era illustrations, Megalosaurus is a lumpy, stumpy creature. It looks like it has recently gorged, like it might fall over any second. Even in the best depictions from the time, Megalosaurus has a ridge of bone for shoulders, and crouches on four squat legs that look like they’ve been borrowed from a Komodo dragon. Before Megalosaurus was labeled with the word “dinosaur,” its femur was thought to be the leftover bone of a Roman elephant, or maybe a giant’s fossilized scrotum. The early paleontologists—another new word—tried their best, but with only a handful of bones, their imaginations substituted for science.

Still,How Megalosaurus has been reconstructed over the years early Megalosaurus looks downright normal compared to Peale’s mastodon—a reconstruction of Mammut in which the tusks are mounted upside-down, carving back to the body. Imagine the tusks as sabre teeth, larger than any Smilodon. And since at the time it was still thought that these enormous, possibly carnivorous, mammals might roam the American frontier, Mammut was downright terrifying.

I’m fascinated by these early reconstructions. By the process of the men—almost always men, of course—who pried open crates of bone. This was a time when the acquisition of fossils emphasized not meticulous collection but speed and quantity. I think often of prying open a wooden box and gazing at the jumble within, trying to make sense of what the dark holds.

I imagine that it felt, a little bit, like writing a poem.

This past August, I was invited by my friend and Georgia Southern University colleague Dr. Katy Smith to the Western Science Center in California. The Center has mastodons and ground sloths: its prize specimen is Max the Mastodon. I wandered in the collections—which, because I am more accustomed to libraries, I kept accidentally referring to as the stacks—opening drawers and gazing at fragments of bones and teeth. The idea of assembling the splinters into something meaningful seemed both monumental and magical, impossible yet necessary.

Fragments, construction, collections: even the language of paleontology mirrors poetry at times. The labor of the paleontologist and the poet can be lonely, even tedious. The first draft of any poem is a construction, and like an early depiction of an Mammut or a Stegosaurus (who debuted in the 1880s with a second brain in its ass), it’s really just a collection of best guesses.

Paleontologists call these reconstruction errors. Museums have to update displays, paint over old murals. If you are Edward Drinker Cope, you build the Elasmosaurus with its head on its tail, not its neck. If you are Charles Willson Peale, you don’t get around to correcting the mastodon’s tusks until decades later. Whoops. We writers might call it revision. If you are a poet, you write the first draft and let it sit a bit. Then you come back later, and you see all the things you got wrong the first time. You sit back down and you break the poem apart and you try again. This time, maybe, you get a little bit closer.Peale's Mastodon

Recently, my writing group challenged each other to create a new poetic form. I call mine the Mastodon, in honor of Max and the Western Science Center: it’s an update, a do-over. But you don’t hide or erase your first construction; instead, you use it as the material for your second version, and that first meaning informs the second. I set the limit at just 11-13 sentences to start. That feels fair, since most fossil discoveries are equally limited: rarely are complete skeletons found. Rather, it’s a jaw here, a tooth over that ridge.

When you have your lines, you write the first poem, the Construction. This establishes the first narrative or the first meaning. Then you assemble the Reconstruction—basically, you make a found poem from your first poem. The lines are the same, but the Reconstruction should update or change the meaning in some way. Channel the Elasmosaurus here: make the first and last lines of the Construction the last and first lines of the Reconstruction. Swap the neck and the tail.

You can make small edits to language or line breaks or sentence structure as you see fit; after all, the fossil record is always being updated. But when you have your two poems, don’t hide the first Construction in the back room of the museum; the power of the form comes in the side-by-side comparison of the two versions. This lets the reader see what you changed or edited, and how the narrative or meaning might have shifted.

Comparing the 19th century images of Megalosaurus to our current version is a little like looking at a AMC Gremlin parked next to a Lamborghini. One looks like a sleek machine and one looks like, well, a boulder. Yet I still have a soft spot for that first Megalosaurus. (Not Peale’s mastodon, however. It’s terrifying, even just on Google Images.) I think it’s the same affection I hold for early drafts, even the clumsy ones.

First drafts of anything, whether they are mastodons or poems, are a tentative stab, a leap. Even if they are later revised—even entirely disproved—they are what get us rolling in the first place. Those early reconstructions of extinct beasts were clumsy, to be sure. But they represent someone’s best guess at finding a shape, a form. Of making sense of shards lifted from crate and straw, and brought into the light.