Poetics: Old and New

In order for a poet to be successful at his craft, let us first consider the contemporary poet. Other than the obvious existence of spoken word poets, who use musicality and rhyme, poets of our era cannot be defined, except for the occasional Flarf poet. Why is this?

Poets are exposed to a very broad past and history of poetics. True, a poet will try to write in specific meter and may not like it for the most part. But to completely dismiss it is a weakness poets will unfortunately fall to. The best contemporary poem is one that is diverse within its own being. A poem must not necessarily fall towards one genre or device; contemporary poets will diversify in their use of free verse, meter, anaphora or musicality. For example, one stanza of a poem may be ballad verse, but then the next stanza is suddenly an indefinable section of free verse, and so on. The best poem in the contemporary era cannot truly be paraphrased or set in its ways. It must use as much imagery as is does emotion, and be as much open as it is close-minded and stubborn.

Let us consider how eras of poetry have tended to work. Every era seems to contrast the era before in some dramatic way. Then the following may revert back to a previous, more classical style. But it was not until Transcendentalism that poets suddenly started to make a statement. They began to defy a puritanical culture, and an individualistic expression began to evolve. Commonalities, however, were their goal.

This philosophy really began to take affect with the Beat movement. A poet could have musicality, influenced by jazz, rather than strict practiced meter or an accepted conformist agenda. The rebellion against conformity, which arguably created its own conformity, was key in furthering experimentation.

But structure and the body of a poem could further itself by revealing what poets have never dared touched: personal confession. Confessional poets dived deeper into their own backgrounds and stories: their desires, fears and insanities. But Confessional poets, while innovative in form, would address older styles before their works evolved. Their imagery owes something to taking the practice of old and regenerating it with something new.

If a poet wishes to evolve, therefore, she must know the old and be willing to destroy it. She must be innovative but occasionally use iambic verse. She must be confessional but have no personal reflection. She must create and destroy and regenerate. In studying the old, the new can evolve further. Because by studying the old, she comes to understand what needs to be regenerated and what needs to crumble into her own poetic identity.

But what about the poet’s preferred meter or foot? How does she define it if she wishes not to be defined, to be a Transcendentalist among the organized religions of poetics? She must dive into the teachings of all these eras and Books of Books, take what she will, and not except one as her guru. A poem may never be complete. When you write a poem, you may realize it is leaning too far in the confessional direction, or the use of meter is too predictable. Or maybe it could use more musicality? The foot used by a poet must be as diverse as the poet. By all means, the foot of a poem may change or evolve throughout a poem. As long as this evolution is coherent to the poet’s audience, a poet is achieving her goal.

The best part of this experimentation is that poetics is a game. If a poem is up for edit, and something sticks out as plain, why not put an Oulipian rule on that stanza or line, and see what you come up with? Turn it into a lipogram? The mixture of poetic devices, and breaking these devices, is the strength and privilege of the contemporary poet over any other era.

The most important role a poet must take, in addition to the collection of ideas, is his solidarity. Only in loneliness can a poet discover his own introverted identity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson explains in his essay Society and Solitude a man with fine traits is not fit for society, so he protects himself with solitude. “Society exists by chemical affinity, and not otherwise,” he says.

In order to finalize our process as a poet, we must take any knowledge and interpret it in our own solitude from the society, which tries to make us conform. This rule applies to our poetics in that we must make our escape from the conformed opinion to develop our individual poetic theory. So in order to take something old and make it new, it must be absorbed and reflected upon. If a poet cannot unplug, listen to the environment around him and ignore the bias of the conformed opinion, how is she supposed to find an identity in that environment when it rejects her for her societal grievances?

She must first, in her solitude, define a life’s mission statement. It must be something that in all her youth and adulthood has been an unwavering symbol or certainty. If her mission is musicality, she defines herself by a musical beat that breaks and reforms at the sounding of her joys and miseries. If she is confessional with her history, she must speak of her deepest image and then push us away to remind us that we are just a visitor in the milieu of her soul. If she is rebellious, she must conform to none but nature as she dwells in it. In nature we find our deepest image, which reflects back to us our suffering, and furthermore provides us with a cure.

No one can define us, but the works of those long past have no owner any longer, and can bend to our needs as a poetic entity. Old and new merge in the acceptance that we are the same, and a reflection of our poetic foot, structure or form. Poetry, whether new or old, is an ongoing debate. As Emerson said, “it is not meters, but a meter-making argument, that makes a poem.” Therefore a poem is a debate of language and identity. A poem is a reflection of what was learned, what was kept, and what was evolved.

A poet’s art is his path in evolution and solidarity through solitude, remembering what makes him a unique individual. However, for example, a spiritual identity is also mated with a pragmatic one, and so the conflict of the two must be debated in poetry. We must remember we have many identities and stay true to their deliberation. This debate will define the contemporary poet, I am sure, when future generation look back at us.