A Civil Tongue

Posted on April 22, 2010


I was talking with a dean at the school where I teach and he was telling me about his desire to teach a course on civility. He contended, in our current environment where namecalling is de rigueur, that students need additional background in maintaining constructive, civil flow of ideas and viewpoints, as well as guidelines on what to do when debate decays into namecalling, bullying and violence.

From the comments I have seen on some poetry blogs, as well as on Facebook, poets are in great need of a refresher course on civility.  You’d think that people interested in poetry would be interested in the free exchange of ideas, but that does not seem to be the case. What is more apparent is an attitude of “I don’t really want to know your viewpoint. I don’t understand it and that lack of understanding threatens me, so therefore I’m going to insult you and put you down.” Another disturbing current that underlies these “comments” is the perception that there’s only one type of poetry that should exist. All other “poetries” are merely false idols — as if there’s an intrinisically good poem and all other “poetry” is bad or false, a sort of poetic fascism. And these comments run both ways if you want to break poetry down into quietist (read: mainstream) and experimental (read: Language) camps (although the preponderance of put-downs seem to emanate from the mainstream camp).

But the idea that there is one true poetry is particularly unsettling. The one true brilliant thing poetry can do, at least in my view, is to be many things, to encompass the breadth of human emotion and thought — which means it needs to be variegated in form, structure, style, tone and topic. After all, we humans are not monolithic. But it is deeply troubling that so many people want something so diverse as poetry, as humanity, as consciousness, as feeling, as thought, as expression, to be so singular.

A number of years ago I started a small literary journal called key satch(el) to try to capture the range of what I saw was going on with prose poetry. I caught some heat from some poet friends who thought I should not limit the mag to prose poetry (that poetry was poetry and I should not put blinders on — & I have got to admit that that argument has much weight). But what I wanted to create was a meeting ground where people who were doing “weird” things with prose poetry could meet up with people doing more accepted things. Needless to say, this experiment did not work out all that well and after three years I gave up.

Also a number of years ago I was alerted that one of my poems was put up as an example of “demented” writing on one blog. I wrote the blogger a lengthy and civil reply, taking issue with the idea that one needed to put down whatever one does not understand. That reply was posted but I am distressed that it has since been dropped from the blog. (This same poem came up just this week on Yahoo Answers, with someone asking what this poem means. My initial knee-jerk response is: exactly what it says. A more civil response: whatever you see in it [if nothing, then so be it]. I really hate the idea that poems need to be “decoded.”)

I’m not a fan of ads that try to sell me a product by putting down the competition (see those “witty” and “cute” cool Apple guy versus nerdy Windows guy ads). If you want to sell me a product, tell me how good your product is, not how bad the other guy’s is. Same with ideas: tell me what’s good about yours, not how shitty someone else’s is.

Let’s have a free flow of ideas. Let’s have interchange. Let’s have failures and mistakes — without which we cannot have successes. Let’s have a rich and variegated poetry that shows that our minds and hearts are truly alive, open and expansive.