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Katha Pollitt

Complain, Complain: Poems about writing poetry [by Katha Pollitt]

Stevie Smith    Complain, Complain: Poems about Writing Poetry
    by Katha Pollitt (pictured below left, reading at KGB Bar)

Have you ever noticed how many modern poems there are in which the poet complains about the difficulty of writing poetry?  I suspect this is a relatively recent addition to the long list of poets’ complaints, perhaps replacing the traditional lament that the poet’s girlfriend won’t sleep with him. Now chances are she’ll do that, at least for a while.  Back in the day poets  wrote scads of poems about about how cold and heartless or just mysteriously uninterested the desired woman was, but at least the poem itself was not the problem.  Poets  were always comparing themselves to shepherds tootling on flutes or panpipes, which sounds restful and pleasant and not very musically challenging, or to madmen raving, birds warbling, or other images of spontaneous and untutored communication.  Perhaps it was easier when you had the Muse to do the heavy lifting.

Katha Pollitt at KGB 2017  I thought about this because of a dinner party I recently attended, to which each guest was asked to bring a poem to read around the table. Most of the guests were writers, although I was the only poet.  I am embarrassed to say how long it took me to choose my poem -- so many of my favorites I had to disqualify as too long, too sad, too intimate, too familiar,  or inviting an inaccurate autobiographical reading.  I mean, nobody wants to have to hear the whole “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” before they get to eat dessert. 

     Aha, I thought, Stevie Smith (pictured above)! A poet I love. She’s funny, she’s poignant, she has lots of short poems.  Lots of short poems about Christianity (no), death (no), ridiculous people (no) and unhappy love(no!).  Just when I was about to have a fit -- because did I mention that I left all this to the last moment and had persuaded myself that I was about to make a great fool of myself in front of a whole roomful of people I admired and esteemed and even, in one or two cases, was a bit afraid of, and I was beginning to wonder if  possibly, my humiliation was the whole secret point of the exercise --  I found  this wonderful poem:

Mrs. Arbuthnot

Mrs. Arbuthnot was a poet
A poet of high degree,
But her talent left her;
Now she lives at home by the sea.

In the morning she washes up,
In the afternoon she sleeps,
Only in the evenings sometimes
for her lost talent she weeps,

Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.

Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.

Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
she runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to
Who is one with their desire.

   As it happens, another guest brought  a poem on the same theme, Brenda Shaughnessy’s "A Poet’s Poem":

If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.
I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won’t come out.
It’s stuck. I’m so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow
and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
a cigarette.
Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.
And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.
I can’t stand myself.

  If Mrs. Arbuthnot had written a poem about not writing that poem about the sea wave, it might have been this very poem.   

   So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire,  has the poem itself become the elusive, resistant love object, the modern  Phyllis or Clorinda?

Posted by Katha Pollitt on August 02, 2009 at 06:18 AM

Comments (from 2009)

(1) wonderful post, katha. i am a poet who tries very hard not to write about writing -- it's like talking to your analyst about being in therapy -- but like most poets i end up there from time to time anyway.

according to ellen bass, my poetic mentor, it is more difficult to write poetry now than it was in the past because we are writing in a "late-stage" language and it's much more difficult to conjure fresh imagery than it was back in the day when "my love is like a red red rose" had never been heard, back before shakespeare invented all those "cliches", as one gradeschooler characterized his work.

i look forward to reading more of your posts!

Posted by: jackie sheeler | August 02, 2009 at 06:38 AM

Hi Jackie, thanks for writing. Aren't you supposed to talk to yr analyst about being in therapy? In my experience that's what they most love to talk about! themselves, in other words.

Posted by: Katha Pollitt | August 02, 2009 at 08:27 AM

Tintern Abbey(2)  Thank you, Katha. If one measure of a post's success is the reader's pleasure as association follows association, this post would get five (shooting) stars, like Dorothy Wordsworth's wild eyes in "Tintern Abbey" [Tintern Abbey, the place that inspired the poem, is pictured left], and this serpentine sentence of mine would be a Byronic travesty of lit-crit talk except no crit of lit talks this way. I say -- First you put me in mind of Yeats, and "the fascination of what's difficult," and how close are complaints to the spirit of poetry (and love). Then I wondered what you make of Marianne Moore's "Poetry," and which version of the poem do you favor? Hurrah for Stevie Smith! and the reminder that she wrote other wonderful poems besides "Not Waving but Drowning." (I love her poem about the "Person from Porlock.") The poem as stand-in for the lover? I guess so. Better than the other way around, though. John Hollander says all poems are about poetry in addition to being about anything else. And so glad you include Brenda Shaughnessy: Mark Bibbins is conducting a poetry forum with her on Tuesday Sept 8 [2009] in the New School (room 510 of 66 W 12 St at 6:30) in which she will read for a half hour, then take questions from moderator and audience. And it's free!

Posted by: DL | August 02, 2009 at 11:21 AM

Hi David, thanks for writing! I hesitate to set this down, because I may have to eat my words someday, but I do not love Marianne Moore as much as I wish I did. Everybody loves the opening of "Poetry," "I too dislike it," because it is both so shocking and echoes what so many feel: that poetry is "all this fiddle." That is one of my favorite poems of hers also. I'm up in the country and my books are in NYC so I can't discuss the different versions in detail, except that I know she kept making it shorter and shorter until in the end only the opening was left. I guess that's one way to cut out the fiddling. But I think I like the longer version, the 1961 one in the Complete Poems:

Posted by: Katha Pollitt | August 02, 2009 at 11:47 AM

(3) I, too, prefer the full-length version [of Marianne Moore's 'Poetry']. What amazes me is how many students, when shown the two side-by-side, the original and the one pared down to three lines, vote for the latter.

Posted by: DL | August 02, 2009 at 12:04 PM

Yet isn't it part of our fun as teachers to act like real toads in imaginary classrooms and show not tell them how and why the original version might be more interesting?

Posted by: Moira | August 02, 2009 at 01:52 PM

(4) Dear Katha: I have a prejudice not only against poems "in which the poet complains about the difficulty of writing poetry," but against pretty much all poems that refer to themselves or to poetry in general. A great can of worms to open---thank you.

Posted by: terence winch | August 02, 2009 at 05:54 PM

(5) Off the subject, but I'm so glad to know someone else who appreciates Stevie Smith!
She is a favorite of mine from way back, and I sometimes feel like founding a Society of Stevie Smithites where people can sit around and quote the poems to each other.

Posted by: Gail White | August 03, 2009 at 12:22 PM

(6) I appreciate your revealing your anxiety over reading a suitable-to-the-hearers poem at the dinner party, Katha. Reading in front of one's close peers can undo the Greatest. It can feel something like submitting a photo of your mom to a wet t-shirt contest. [unfortunately I can't recall the New Poetry listmember's name who made that comparison]

Your last sentence, the last half, intrigues me: "So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire, has the poem itself become the elusive, resistant love object, the modern Phyllis or Clorinda?"

But I don't understand the meaning in the first half of your sentence: "So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire..."

If you'll help me out with it, I'd love to kick off some ideas about "the poem itself" vis a vis The Muse and other such notions we poets baggage ourselves with.



Posted by: Judy Prince | August 03, 2009 at 03:44 PM

Hi Judy, the first half of the sentence is the last two lines of the Stevie Smith poem, Mrs. Arbuthnot, which I quoted. Smith is saying that people write poetry and want to write it because they are in some way lacking, unhappy, incomplete. I was suggesting, in a playful way, that perhaps instead of writing poetry out of unrequited love or sexual frustration like, oh I dunno, Sir Philip Sidney ("with how sad steps O moon" etcetera) poets now wrote out of their frustrations with poetry itself. It was just a thought!

Posted by: Katha Pollitt | August 03, 2009 at 03:55 PM

Thanks, Katha, for explaining Stevie Smith's intention.

Your first post packs much, and it's taken me 2 days and several readings, to peel the onion--much to my delight!

You suggest that Pip and others had The Muse to inspire them, so they complained about their uncooperative lovers, whereas we moderns, Museless, are left with The Poem as our independent-minded lovers.

I agree with you, and I think, as well, that Stevie Smith and Brenda Shaughnessy express self-loathing.
Pip Sidney similarly expressed self-loathing: "Fool, said my Muse, look within thyself and write" [last line, first stanza, Astrophel & Stella].

The difference between him and Smith and Shaughnessy is that Pip had his Muse; the two modern females are utterly alone, whether they felt they had ever had a Muse or not.

It's not The Poem or Poetry that dogs or damns them; it's the women who damn themselves.

I welcome any comments.

All best, Katha, and thanks for the opportunities!

Posted by: Judy Prince | August 04, 2009 at 05:26 AM

(7) A lot of trouble is in the word about. There are philosophers who think art is always about, even if it's just about aboutness. But many I have loved from Meyer Schapiro back to John Dewey think poetry is an experience and no more about something than love is about one thing. My marriage of 40 years is not about one thing, for example. Even one night would not be about one thing. Since I almost never agree with her, I want to say I utterly agreed with Helen V once when she said poets when they write about poetry aren't doing something strange or self-reflexive, because for them poetry is their life. When Shakespeare is jealous, it's of another poet and he says it. When Stevens is dreaming of a certain aesthetic he calls it Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. When you look at Jasper Johns's diver you may think of dancing, charcoal, Hart Crane diving, drowning, brushstrokes, pen mareks, melancholy. All the axes of the aesthetic. I don;t want everything to be ground down to an "about" anymore than a good analyst teaches you only one thing about yourself: Mommy Daddy the They and you. The 30 years of analyses I’ve had with three wise men and women --never about one thing. Is Proust "about" jealousy, homosexuality, anti-semitism, snobbism, memory, Hindu wisdom--how to write a book--all those things at one time, like a wild honey.

Posted by: david shapiro | August 05, 2009 at 01:14 PM

Mark Van Doren says that Shakespeare is the poet who least idolizes poetry. This sounds humanist and fateful except that Prospero and Hamlet are creative geniuses (and I won't evenmention Ariel, Puck and The Fools). I have nothing against the making of Achilles shield or talking horses in The Iliad. Or the poet who cries, Save me and I'll sing about you. Etc. Milton wrote about God and Satan, Wordsworth about himself, is there anything but awe in the way Mallarme writes about the swans of writing. Rather than even asking the question, Should poetry be about itself, the answer is that in the whole 20th century, hundreds of dancers, artists, sculptors, and poets have brooded about their art within their art. And this is not a radical break, since Dante too was brooding on the structure and form of his voyage with Virgil etc.

Posted by: david shapiro | August 05, 2009 at 01:40 PM

To sum up: we won't sum up, will we? Art of criticism is also an art that must be self-aware emotional, historical, filled with the sense of public/private, etc. But if one wants to have a Procrustean bed and call it poetry, it's possible. Think of reading ther Bible as our fundamentalists do--for reasons of dogma, hate, and hysteria. The assassin critics of my day said that Koch was only funny, and Ashbery only discontinuous and obscure, Frank O:Hara was called bitchy by many, Schuyler called himself Jim the Jerk. Each judgment was reductive and false.

Picasso loved to draw himself drawing a woman. Elaine deKooning shuttled between portraits and abstractions. Poetry about poetry: Sappho about her school and her beauties. Farewell, music, Mozart, "about" everything. Kandinsky thought Monet was Nothing, but he liked the idea and went on..As a violinist, I was always dazed at the changes of mood in the same Mozart page or bar. And some poetry will function also as a (musical) critique of poetry, as in Bolano's fiction/non in poets in his DETECTIVES> If you find one thing in Pr0ust, call me up. Alter recently sd Proust wasn't very Jewish as book. I have always wanted to write Proust The Jew. Both might be reductive. Our President referred to himself as a hybrid. So is Rimbaud's prose.

Posted by: david shapiro | August 05, 2009 at 01:50 PM

(8) OK, David. Has Helen Vendler said anything else that you liked? I've quite forgotten anything I'd read that she said, and you seem far the best reader/writer--possibly because you're the nearest aetherly--to reacquaint me. Just be sure to stay on topic. [Yes, David, I'm kidding!]



Posted by: Judy Prince | August 06, 2009 at 05:34 AM

I could take the Fifth. And I'm too tilted--she reviewed Ron P and my New York Poets and announced that we were cheerful Chaucerians. Pas mal.
She somewhere wrote, and I heard in a lecture, that Howard Nemerov, old friend and poor poet, was more philosophical than Frank O:Hara, who was a child when he thought ("like Byron," one of the great wits of his century.) Anyway, she thought my book To an Idea" about my mother's early death was just words connected to other words and forthrightly remarked that she had a hard time with comedy, satire, surrealism.
Koch said to me: What's left? Rational Tragedy? Cato by Addison?
I don't believe that Shakespeare's sonnets have the key words that she finds.
Paranomasia, yes, but no secret rules.
Yes, I do like a sentence in her long poems of Stevens where she says something like: the blackbirds are forms of language. And she's good on subjunctives.
Her contemporary taste is that of an amateur.
She has begun to talk of painters -- but like Harold B, whom I lured to the world of Greg Botts and other painters -- art music architecture and dance politics have not been interesting before, for her. I told my class once that if they simply turned every negative to a positive in her and vice versa they would come up with some interesting assertions.
Almost every poet she likes today is mediocre.She is best on Herbert and Keats.
"A Wall" is a poem of mine about her or around. She deposed Delmore S in a crank's way. And said his best poems were only one page long. She should stick to the one page Odes of Keats. She is a decent "reader" when the material is not so fresh as to be difficult or new (she doesn't seem to have the French tradition at her fingertips, unfortunately) or even revolutionary. She told me she was always liking Ashbery's poetry, but he himself used to say to me how wonderful it was that she changed her mind. She also has no sense of Joyce, Lawrence, Hardy and the prose tradition.No sense of the Chinese, Russian, German or other traditions. Not a professional musician, she can't discriminate the "science of sound." She has discovered no one and she is not a great "scholar" in the line of Jakobson. I also believe there is no sense of the theater and the poetics of Shakespeare or
Chekhov or the Greeks. She IS enthusiastic about well-known poets and Jorie G and Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner, and honored poets. She may have a vivid politics, but I have heard nothing publicly about that. She is not a "public intellectual." Like the crank Logan, she is too proud of her style and opinions. She is, I would add, nothing but opinions and a smooth stylist of the old
school. No sense of social thickness, except in some early essays on A. Rich. Still hasn't written on Koch or any of the more radical poets. She does smooth out Ashbery and sees his topoi, but she probably doesn't read Roussel fluently or Rimbaud, great influences on John A. Imagine her thoughts on Merce Cunningham, or on John Cage!

Posted by: david shapiro | August 07, 2009 at 01:17 PM

David, this is a remarkable little essay, the more so as you seem to have dashed it off at a sitting. "She's good on subjunctives" is certainly a very precise compliment. And, "If [you] simply turned every negative to a positive . . . and vice versa, [you] would come up with some interesting assertions": that's a wonderfully funny sentence, but the extra irony is that the method thus described is beautifully applicable to many, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: DL | August 07, 2009 at 10:49 PM

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