Poetic Canons: I - XV

I am thinking on poetry and what it is and isn't. These days it masquerades in many guises, some authentic, others not. Often the perfect line goes unnoticed while the vacuous draws accolades of praise—even wins a prize. And of course there is the politics of poetry: race, gender, sexual orientation, ideology .... and sometimes in the shuffle poetry itself is forgotten. Adding to the clamor: These days everyone wants to be a poet, claims to be, but unfortunately not all are. Therefore it does no harm, and may even do some small amount of good, to ask the questions: What is a poem? What isn't a poem?

I: First, a poem must have music or it is nothing at all. De la musique avant toute chose, says Paul Verlaine. Rhyme, once the king of poetic expression, has ceded ground to free verse, the prose poem, personal expression, bordering on madness, and no music at all. But without music, sans le son de la musique, poetry becomes an impoverished art form, art pauvre.

II: And a poem must also be an invention, or something new, but not that evil thing talked about so much these days, "innovation." Innovation is something sold to brainwashed people because everyone else has one, and it usually comes "implemented" in silicon and software and packaged in colorful plastic. Beyond actual use, it is also a fashion statement. Real poetry leaves the room the moment innovation walks in the door. Real poetry is neither "cool" nor "awesome." It avoids both the pink streak in the hair and the pierced nipple.

III: Poetry is also the heroic act of digging deeper. It does not show off "cool stuff" it finds on the ground; nor does it prance like a rock star or aging hipster on stage. It fails badly but gladly at flaunting the gaudy goods of this world. It is genuine, a word that is underused these days. Who cares for the real thing after virtual reality has finished its glitzy presentation? If poetry looks pained or strained at times, that is because it has done the hard work, the heavy lifting, to discover or uncover something usually not seen.

IV: And a poem must also have rhythm, but you may have trouble detecting it. It is not one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four; it is une-deux, une-deux-trois, une-deux-trois, une-deux ... It is the changing heartbeat, the accent moving to a new position in the line requiring you to listen, not just tap your foot to a known pattern. It is le marteau sans maître....

V: And it is more alliteration than rhyme, that old familiar trick, and positioned not in the expected places; and it is the internal syllable of the longer word heard like a chime in the word nearby: Never "Goodbye, sweet love, don't cry!" Rather, "Sly Shahrazad, let us never rob love its due, sobbing; lips sealed kissing, let us hold our breath till we are one." It is the gold scattered on the ground around the mind alert and open to making connections.

VI & VII: And it is the odd juxtaposition, not the expected, jarring you out of the same old pattern of perception. It is the word inquisition, blood in the plate, shit on the lace; it is the race to get nowhere sooner than now; it is living death, colorful rags, lovely old hags; it is the dried up waters of nonsense made comprehensible by complete idiots; and it is compassion most cruel and savage. It avoids the usual, the same ol' of the same ol' ad infinitum. Coming around the corner, it knocks you down, then picks you up. "Sorry, old boy, can I buy you a beer? The Beethoven Bar is right over there." It gives you your money's worth just for sticking around.

VIII: And it is the sensual line, the caressing word, the brush of the soft cheek, the touch of the hand, the curve of lovely lips, the moist tongue teasing, the eyes flashing among the inviting shadows, desire and temptation rising like a high tide in the romantic harbor of love, the smell of the fecundating lagoon, distant thunder and lightning flashes, bodies pressed, breasts caressed, heavy breathing, triumphant gasps, joy at last ...

IX: And it is the exquisite reference to something known yet unknown, creating reverberation from distant shores, in the valley, and from mountains moving over the plains; it is the rippling gold light of the moon on the ocean, a ship emerging on the horizon, then disappearing ... It is Homer's finger tips of rose, chance and Dostoyevsky's compulsion to gamble, Freud's Anna O. full blown, Joyce's lucid supple periodic prose, and the works and words of a legion of others who have come and gone before making lasting statements in their day. Without reference the poem is a dull flat thing, a hot parking lot in summer, a frozen lake in winter, duller than a junkyard, which at least reflects a history of mishaps.

X: It is also balance and grace. It knows how far to go before getting off the page in deference to other voices. It is never a ham, only occasionally a hamster.

XI: And poetry is the long beautiful line that comes out of nowhere, slithers across the page in shimmering colors, stops and looks at you with dark, moody eyes that tell a story of adventure and romance, throws you a look that makes you want to follow it into the dark woods to be lost in love and knowledge for an evening or a century, ignoring the shouts and warning calls of those who come looking for you, so content you are living in the lap of love; firm breasts, taut nipples, pressed, caressed, your hands, her hands touching, lips lapping at the pool of sticky love, milk and honey and wine, while surrounded by books of knowledge ... Is it possible? Love and knowledge? Wake up, dreamer. The sirens have lured you to the rocky cliffs where you and your boat will be destroyed, fool of fools with silly, old-man fantasies, le faune ridicule.

XII: And it is the avoidance of the usual topics of much praise: jazz, olive oil, Billie Holiday, who would probably not like you anyway; tomatoes, "Ella," whom you never really knew, a recipe for lasagna that made him stay for more than dinner; sharing toothbrushes with a lover; "the oily secretions of her vagina, smelling of musk and mackerel, his big dick, hard as a rock and ready to erupt"—girls and boys, save this for texting and sexting, because it's not literature; hair here, hair everywhere; synchronized heartbeats, harlequins harmonized in blank stares, solemn organic oregano oratorios ...

XIII: But it will include at least one old man or woman with cane and character, a missing tooth, nose hairs, sitting on a stone wall with clowning grandchildren.

XIV: And it will include at least one dog, one cat, and two Monarch butterflies, the butterflies dancing in the morning breeze by a garden with a fountain.

XV: Somewhere also in the poem there will be a parrot and tropical flowers, a rainforest and a waterfall; and in a forest of ferns golden coins will be piled high in a treasure chest with pirates trying to get away before bicorne-bedecked soldiers with muskets arrive. Suspense will hold the lines together till all the notes of its music have sounded and the beat stops and the pirates, back on board their ship in the bay, pull up anchor and a fresh offshore breeze, redolent of hyacinth, bellows out their sails. Only then, with the last line penned, will the poem's author release the source of inspiration, allowing the genie gently back into the bottle.
By Louis Martin