Schools of Poetry, Part Two
An excerpt from Pat Nolan’s online fiction
Ode To Sunset—A Year in the Life of American Genius
“Come on, Wendt, weren’t there schools of poetry in your day?”
Carl held the slug of beer in his mouth and raised an eyebrow. I’m continually being defined by my past, he mused.
“Oh, sure,” he said finally to ease the embarrassment that had set Andy’s ears aglow. “There was the Homunculus School of Poetry. Only cared about what went on in their heads, the body mattered not. Their poems had that hall of mirrors effect, you know, the repetition of an image ad infinitum. If they’d had any imagination they’d have called themselves The Infinite Regress School.”
Wendt turned his eyes upward and to the left as if he were scanning a script. “And there was the Heavy Metal School. Not to be mistaken for the Leaden School. They were mostly second gen New York School types though they were more into ‘rock mine off’ than Rachmaninoff. Working class kids who got the call. It was short lived. The working class has a built-in bullshit meter and it wasn’t long before they realized that the poetry scene was complete bullshit.”
Andy chortled and had the waitress bring another round of Tsing-taos. Wendt was going to tsing for his lunch.
“Then there were the Homo Poets. The name has nothing to do with sexual preference or orientation, and everything to do with sameness. Some of those people should have been working for the department of weights and measures! Their obsession with the anal perfection of the identical was maniacal.” Wendt stabbed at a pot sticker with a chopstick. “The Pointless School of Poets, they’re still around. The Iceberg School of Poetry, all below the surface, lying in wait for the Titanic of the unconscious. The Surrogate School of Poets and their exclusive magazine, Turret, Vince Clayborn, dreadnaught and editor. The Usurpers, anti-academic slammers who for all intents and purposes grabbed up all the academic posts and honors that they had once so vociferously trashed. OG’s, the Old Guard, and the Leaden School with their dense, turgid paperweight verse.
“Of course, my favorites of all time were the Anti-Gravity poets, floating above the fray, resisting the pull of gravity and it’s aura of authoritarian self-righteousness and inherent elitism. The California Pretenders, a band of wild and wooly poets, essentially neo-romantics, who are no more because romantics are well, lemmings, and so,” Wendt made a mime with his hand that depicted a leap off a cliff, “you know the rest. Defenestration. Did they jump or was they pushed?”
“I had a prof in a survey course as an undergrad who described the romantic poet as posed on a promontory, wind in hair, waves crashing below, an image that’s stuck with me.”
“Exactly! Poised to leap.” Wendt smiled with satisfaction that his point had been proven. “And then there’s the whole underground of secret poetry societies.”
“Really? Secret poetry societies? Who’s in them?”
“Nobody you’ll ever hear of. They’re mainly loose fits, not quite misfits, the lumpen poetariat collected under various acronyms like TANTRA, The Association of No Talent Rejected Artists, or POO, Poets of Outer Orbit, whose motto is Kerouac’s ‘Poetry is shit’.”
“Didn’t Genet say that, too?”
“Probably. It’s a French thing. Merde. Such a poetic word.” Wendt took a sip from his glass. “The AWWA, The Association of Waxed Wing Ascenders also known as The Icari. And of course the C Squared group, the Comic Cosmic poets.” He paused. “Maybe that’s the Cosmic Comic poets. Also known as The Holy Fools.
“Anyway, all this speaks to a factionalized regimented poetry world. There have always been poetry groups, exclusive societies of amateur writers who essentially snubbed anyone who wasn’t part of their crowd. And sometimes they affixed a name to their association, as a kind of shorthand for those in the know. It was Breton and his Surrealist who institutionalized the idea of a school of art or literature. Surrealist and Surrealism became brand names. And now everyone wants to brand themselves, literally and figuratively. I mean, look at the prevalence of tattoos. You can’t be a loner anymore. You can’t be unique. Or to be unique you have to be so extreme as to be the center of attraction that aligns everyone else like iron filings around a magnet. And then you’re just part of a group, a social network, a school. When anyone talks about outsider art, they’re just stating the obvious. All true artists want to be outsiders. But being an outsider, an eccentric is anti-social. Group poetry, by your designation, groupo, is in.”
“So like what are you, Carl? A ronin, a masterless poet?”
Wendt laughed. He liked Andy. Andy was a good poet on his way to becoming a university professor. He had a choice. Be a good poet or be a good professor. One invariably diluted the other. “That’s right, the I-Don’t-Belong-To-Any-School School of Poetry that excludes everyone and includes no one.” Wendt drained the bottle into his glass and then looked up meaningfully at Andy. “Being a poet is not a club or association you belong to. Poetry is the leprous affliction of the exiled and shunned. It is not some kind of cult. It is the reaffirmation of a singularity.”
Andy had been down this road, or one like it, with Wendt before. He had an idea of what was coming. But that’s why he paid for lunch. Lunch with Carl Wendt was bound to be informative if not enlightening.
“The independent or non-aligned poet is relegated to the status of hobbyist by the professional cant of the academics who promote their own in a self-perpetuating literary daisy chain that includes big payoffs like inside track on hiring and fellowships. It has nothing to do with literature and everything to do with who is fucking who and who knows who is fucking who and how they can use it as leverage to keep the whole inane squirrel cage spinning. A bunch of no-talent hamsters.”
“Hey Carl, ease up, I’m going to be one of those academics, you know.”
“Not you, kid, you’ve got a head on your shoulders. Besides, you’re a scholar, not a professional poet.”
“Gee, who would that be?” Andy begged with mock innocence.
“Warren Pace, and just about everyone else in the Monotonous School of Poetry, is a perfect example. Also known as the monotones or the monos. Today I suppose they’d be monopo. And the Flatliners, an off-shoot that has lost most of its adherents to attrition or career changes.
“The collective under the banner of ‘school’ is the Trojan horse used to infiltrate the citadel of academe. The Monos created a cachet and marketed it through the exclusivity of social networking. Someone always had to be out, so that its members could be in. Poets United, whose initials says it all, a subset of more rigid intellectuals and poseurs, used exactly the same ploy. No effort is made to understand the undercurrent or the essence of the art, only the desire to make it different which only makes it, by its sheer novelty, self-cancelling.
“And what do they have to offer? Their awful middle class boredom, passing it off as profound intellectual angst. It never worked for me. Their focus on the technical aspects of poetry masks a deep misunderstanding of what poetry is. It’s not about technique. It’s not about how tight your pants fit. It’s about talent. It’s about undermining, not commodifying. But I suppose when you want to appeal to bourgeois taste, you have to think product, the aesthetic object that can be bought or bought into.” Wendt paused. He had to laugh at himself. His aesthetic critiques often degenerated into faux vitriol, amusing bluster of a Falstaffian cast, especially before a bemused audience such as Andy. He wasn’t about to take himself seriously. Not over lunch. But a few more points needed to be made.
“Once they’ve achieved the metaphorical high ground, they set themselves up as guardians of the velvet rope, id checkers, sniffers of social status, quantifiers of the quibble, bureaucrats of subtle hierarchy, enforcers of the status quo, crabs in a barrel, judge and jury.
“I had a guy come up to me after a reading some years back to tell me that he really liked my poems and admired the fact that I still kept at it. ‘This poetry racket is a hell of a hard one to break into,’ he told me. He knew. He’d tried. Eventually he gave it up, too many obstacles, too many tiny exclusive circles you had to run around in. Then he said to me, and I’ll never forget this, ‘they only know what they think and think only what they know. Everything else is unknown to them. The imagination is a primitive construct to mask what we really think about what we know, you know?’”
Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, two novels, and an online serial fiction. His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017) So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018), and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.