Monday, March 28, 2005

Poetry and Ambition

I just read Donald Hall's "Poetry and Ambition" (1983) ( for the first time, and I must say that I both love and hate the ideas at the same time! The fact that a piece can evoke such joy and revulsion is a sure sign that I should devote at least several posts worth of space to it here. I'll start off by saying that the love far outweighs the hate, perhaps partly due to my relief at finding someone who shares my obsession with numbering things but mostly due to his undertaking this bold project.

My first response will be to Hall's take on relationships between poets:

"11....Most poets need the conversation of other poets. They do not need mentors; they need friends, critics, people to argue with. It is no accident that Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were friends when they were young; if Pound, H.D., and William Carlos Williams had not known each other when young, would they have become William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Pound? There have been some lone wolves but not many. The history of poetry is a history of friendships and rivalries, not only with the dead great ones but with the living young. My four years at Harvard overlapped with the undergraduates Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Peter Davison, L. E. Sissman, and Kenneth Koch. (At the same time Galway Kinnell and W. S. Merwin attended Princeton.) I do not assert that we resembled a sewing circle, that we often helped each other overtly, or even that we liked each other. I do assert that we were lucky to have each other around for purposes of conversation. " (Later on, Hall identifies "the American problem of geographical isolation" and laments MFA workshops as the solution to this isolation.)

Of course, Hall was writing in 1983, way before the popularization of computers and the Internet. I happen to think that the Internet -- e-mail, blogs, discussion boards, etc. -- has changed everything and will continue to change everything. My guess is that nowadays the vast majority of poets use the Internet regularly, and many poets communicate about poetry via the Internet. (I know that it is not all, especially with older poets.) So Hall's concern about the need for a forum, or a "cafe," as he puts it, appears to have been answered.

But if questions over medium have apparently been addressed by technological advancement, questions over substance remain. Tim Yu's recent discussion -- one that I hope has not fallen by the wayside -- about establishing an Asian American Poetics Listserv reminds us that the need for connection remains. I concur with Hall's identification of the necessity for "friends, critics, people to argue with." But over what? I'm guessing O'Hara and Bly would never argue who was their favorite Backstreet Boy.

It must be over poetry, which narrows it down considerably but is still a little general. I'm just going to be narcissitic here and come out and say that Hall is probably referring to discussions over theories of poetry as opposed to simply workshopping individual poems. Throughout the essay, Hall is calling for people to think seriously and critically about "poetry" as opposed to specific, isolated "poems." He is looking for an intellectual community of poets who care about the big picture that is "poetry," which I find wonderful.

I have to add, though, that I find his emotional distancing a turnoff. I get a vibe of emotional distancing from his proclamation that the named poets didn't necessarily help each other overtly or even liked each other. That sounds a little catty to me, and I hope it's not an accurate description of the poets' relations with one another. There's a huge gap between "sewing circle" and not liking people.

I mean, I can disagree with someone and still get along and like the person. It's not like if someone tells me that they hate haiku, I'll go around hissing and booing at them whenever they walk by. There's a bit of conflating of the person of the poet with the actual discussion over poetry going around here in Hall's piece. Now that conflating does happen, and it certainly can happen with blogs, e-mails, discussion boards, etc., but hopefully, it is not an inevitability.

Hopefully, poets can make friends with other poets and still have regular, friendly discussions without going ga-ga over whether they like Billy Collins or Justin Timberlake more.


Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I read Hall's essay a long time ago. I guess what bugs me about it is that he rails against bad poetry but I think most of his poetry is dull, and if one thinks good poetry is not dull ... I've read enough Hall to say that there are Hall poems I like -- this finally came after reading his "Without", where I found his quiet melancholy to have found a subject, his plain language to make sense in the face of deep hurt. Up to that time whenever I read Hall poems they put me to sleep. That's ambition!

12:21 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Glenn, thanks a lot for posting! Yeah, I also think that he lays it on a little thick about MFA/workshop poetry being so bad. At the same time, however, it is an entertaining polemic.

I'm forgetting who now, but one of my ex-professors, the poet Joseph Donahue, once brought in a poet who said something to the effect that Hall was one of the dullest and most awful poets he knew, and that he didn't understood why his books sold so well (for poetry).

I'd disagree, even though I definitely see his point. For me, I think it would depend on the particular poem for Hall. Also, for me, one the main lessons of Hall's poetry is his profitability and marketability. If I wanted to generalize Hall's poetry, I would say that it is what I term "middle-America accessible," above all, which can be a good or a bad thing.

2:26 PM  
Blogger pam said...

I can see the validity of holding Hall up to the same valuation standard that he proposes. But at the same time, I utterly sympathize with his criticism of hasty publication, workshopping pieces too soon, not allowing enough time for a work to sit and mature. It resonates with my own reluctance to air my work before it feels "ready," and reinforces my own unprolific habits...

5:20 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam, thanks for the post. Yes, I don't really have an issue with that part of the article. I'm posting more to your most recent response...

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