David Taub: The Many Worlds of Poetry

In the summer issue of the British poetry-dedicated magazine, Poetry Now, for which I am `overseas columnist', I started my 2 page column with:

"Living in America, trying to get a `handle' on what is happening here poetically, and also trying to keep up to date with what is happening in England, is quite a daunting task!

Even when I casually agreed to bring `all things poetical' to England, via Poetry Now, it had not really dawned on me what size a task I had offered to undertake. Consider the fact that the USA has a population of about 5 times that of England and that each of the 50 states are, in some respects, like individual countries, you can hardly blame me for thinking - Where on earth do I begin!? "

For those who are not familiar with this publication, it happens to be (to the best of my knowledge) the largest circulating full-size magazine in Britain, and now in it's 7th year. By full-size, I mean the glossy-covered type of magazine which would blend in with any other `special interest' mag you find in the likes of WHSmiths, Menzies, English high-street store. Orbis wrote of this magazine:

"Unashamedly populist, this successful magazine likes work which is straightforward and communicates. Nice relationship with readers and there is a caring involved atmosphere".

Now I am not writing this article as a promo for the magazine. I don't get paid as a marketing / PR guy. I am simply a columnist. But one of the greatest pleasures I get, writing for this publication, is the total freedom to interact with what amounts to probably the broadest spectrum - the widest cross-section - of the British public. The only two common denominators is simply that they all love poetry and are a cross-section of the British public! It is not affiliated to any organisation, or `school of thought', and if each reader were asked to define what they considered poetry is, you would get several thousand different answers!

Perhaps that is what is both refreshing and also challenging for me to address. And my remit is both a blessing and a curse - A blessing because I am not `dictated to' by the editor to stick to one `school of thought', or to `avoid' any `clique' or style of poetry or topic, but a curse for often thinking "What on earth do I write about for the next issue?" If any of my readers were asked to pick out a `tone' or `theme' that I put across in my regular column, I would hope words such as `exploratory', `diversity', `tolerance', `non-partisan' would spring to mind. As an example, the thrust of the summer issue continued with:

"Now added to the two geographical `worlds' - England and America - within each there are what some see as two `poetic worlds'. Namely the `official academic' poetry world and then the world of `non-academic' poetry. It is easy to become entrenched in the world which each of us most strongly identify with, and then dismiss the other. Sadly, many of those in one often go beyond dismissal and develop strong scornful and disdainful attitudes toward the other.

The seemingly never-ending accusations and exchanges between the more bigoted of each world continue with "Unless you have been `properly' University educated, you can't be deemed a poet - worthy of the craft", and "Academic education does not make a poet - it simply produces sterile verbiage!" As if that were not sufficient, there are also the two `factions' of Free-verse poetry and Rhyming poetry. I never much liked politics and `factions' preferring, instead, to find common ground and respect for conflicting opinions. And in spite of me personally not originating from the `University educated poetry world', my love of all things poetical, combined with an insatiable curiosity, leads me to explore both `worlds' and all the `factions' within. I also hold to the saying `Don't throw out the baby with the bath-water', for there are babies in both tubs!"

Of course, some would argue that that is a simplistic view of all things globally poetic. But as I discuss and debate `poetical things' with friends and acquaintances in both academic and non-academic circles, this view is not that far from the truth! At least it is not my personally exclusive view. If that were not the case, why do some of those from the `academic' world ask me in often `carefully constructed sentences' amounting to "Why do you mix with those who clearly do not write poetically correct / GOOD `mainstream poetry'..." And I get the even more blunt question in reverse from my non-academic friends amounting to "Why do you mix with the `intellectual high-brows', whose poetry, for the most part is barely understandable!" - or put another way, in a letter to the Observer newspaper (March 22nd), written by a gentleman called John Fletcher :

"Surely it is not the public which has deserted good poetry, but poets who have deserted the public..... often state-subsidised poets have developed anarcane and theoretical style and subject matter relating to no one outside their own closed world."

So with these eternal conflicts, which have gone on since (and probably before) the days of Shakespeare versus the University wits (Marlowe et al), I do my level best to try and bridge a few differences of opinions. And just to re-iterate - " my love of all things poetical, combined with an insatiable curiosity, leads me to explore both `worlds' and all the `factions' within."

Of course, I have my own personal preferences when it comes to reading and writing poetry. I am always attracted to the work of any poet who experiments with a diverse range of styles - from free-verse to formal and all the `categories' therein! As to whether or not the poet has academic letters and / or status / recognition, quite frankly, I don't give a damn! Not surprisingly, my work, and that of my wife (also a professional writer), reflects our eclectic tastes, which is why our work turns up in some very unusual places, and is read / performed in some rather unusual places too. I admit that I've yet to top my wife's `Top-ten most unusual audiences' which includes the late Sir William Collins (Before Collins became Harper & Collins), a Former US President & First Lady, and the late Sir Vincent Price. But I digress slightly.

So what delicacies of `poetic information' do my readerships enjoy which, as well as Poetry Now (UK) includes Writers' Forum (UK), Emotions (California USA), Somniloquy (Florida USA) and others.

Well, as I've already cited extracts from my last article in the summer issue of Poetry Now, (which was subsequently Anglicised for the USA magazine, Emotions as a re-print), I thought it reasonable to conclude my contribution to Mr Clark's Lynx with the remaining body of that article. One reason being that it demonstrates I am happy to `collaborate' with other publications, as I did with John Cortland in New York to provide an overview of the USA's Poet Laureate system.

John edits The Cortland Review (TCR) and he has been published in about a dozen USA magazines. He established TCR as an `electronic magazine' in the form of an internet `website' in 1997. It has produced three issues (as of May 1998) featuring some of the most noted American and International Poets, including interviews with American poets Robert Creeley and current USA Laureate Robert Pinsky.

John kindly provided me with the following information:

The Library of Congress was established by an act of the United States Congress of April 24, 1800, and housed in the US Capitol. The collection, concentrating on law and legislative procedure, slowly grew to 3,000 volumes by 1814. When the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the Library of Congress was completely destroyed. Thomas Jefferson then offered his private library to Congress at cost as a replacement, changing it from a small legislative office to a larger and more comprehensive national institution, with Jefferson's 6,487 volumes forming the heart of the Library. The collection grew rapidly in the 19th century. A revised copyright law of 1870 required that two copies of each work copyrighted must be deposited in the Library in order to receive protection. The resulting flood of material forced the construction of a separate building which opened in 1897.

For the first time, special collections such as maps, prints, music, and manuscripts were separated from the book collections and served to readers at different locations. However, the domed Main Reading Room, inspired by the reading room of the British Museum Library, remained the central access point to the collections. Today, the Library of Congress is deemed the `Nation's Library'.

The Library of Congress also selects the overall USA Laureate but, unlike England, only for a two year period and paying a salary of $35,000 p.a. Their duties include one reading for the Library of Congress in Washington, a lecture, and the creation of a reading series. Robert Pinsky was selected in March 1997 succeeding: Robert Hass (95-97) and Rita Dove (93-95).

Now all of that may seem rather straight forward, but the `nightmare' begins when trying to understand how all the states individually choose their Laureates. There is no consistency with procedure, nor requirements. At one end of the spectrum there are those given life-time appointment, whilst at the other end of the spectrum no appointment at all! Outside of the `academic circles', few seem to know if they have a Laureate, and if so who it is.

It is curious, and somewhat of an Irony that probably the best known American poet to those outside of academic circles is Maya Angelou. The further irony being that, amongst her achievements and credentials, she now holds a lecturing position in a North Carolina University. But rather than round off this article specifically on an individual poet, It seemed more appropriate to tell you about a gem of an organisation in the famous Greenwich Village part of Manhattan Island, New York.

In a recent article that I wrote for a Californian poetry magazine, I stated that "... it is the small press publishers that have really kept poetry alive over the years." Small press publishers range from those who produce stapled or stitched `card-covered chap-books' to shop-quality bound books. They are also the ones who give the opportunity to ordinary, every-day poets with a hope of seeing their own work in print. Being part of the `academic system' is not a requirement!

Last summer I visited Poets House, which is primarily a `membership funded' organisation-library housing a 35,000 volume poetry collection including books, journals, audio tapes and videos. For anyone, who is serious about investigating which small press publishers and publications are in the US, their `Directory of American Poetry Books' is a must. They also hold an annual Poetry Publication Showcase, gathering and exhibiting the entire range of the current year's new poetry books. This display includes books from commercial, university and independent presses. This event is the only festival of its kind and, in addition, they offer over 30 events annually, many held on their own premises. If you ever have the opportunity to visit New York, you will be made most welcome at their 72 Spring Street (2nd Floor) premises. Membership, starting at $40 and which includes their Directory, is not confined to American residents. Members are kept up to date with informative literature and leaflets. Poets House can also be contacted by phone (international dialling code + 212 431 7920). For further information email me at Ukpoet@aol.com.

Mr Clark informed me that, having contributed an article to Lynx, I am doubly honoured to present one of my poems. I had to ponder somewhat, wondering what may compliment this article. One of my (rare) tongue-in-cheek pieces seemed appropriate simply because, in keeping with the theme of `diversity', I find so few `contemporary' poets daring to throw caution to the wind with some humorous satire. I leave you with:

`Rules' for `Proper' Artists!

Be seated, VanGogh...
We're the Artists' Committee.
You're aware we determine the rules!
It rather concerns us that canvas and paint
is acquired and then used by fools!

So let us remind you -
The stature we hold :
Acknowledged with fame and degrees.
We note you have chosen a flower to paint,
when in fact it's in vogue to paint trees!

But that put aside,
we are terribly shocked -
It's the colour you've chosen, young fellow.
We have checked in the book of `Colours approved'
Yet you chose unauthorised yellow!!

Oh we've met your `type'
more than once, you should know.
"An artist...." you claim - that's absurd!!
If you don't follow rules and craft with our tools
We assure you your voice won't be heard.

So please sign this form
to confirm you'll conform.
I trust we have made ourselves clear!
So Vincent took out not a pen but a knife
and smiling just cut off his ear.

Thus the moral is clear,
though you may not agree
it is dangerous to side with the `fools'.
But i'll take my chance and do my own dance,
whilst the wise ones stand still with their rules.

© Copyright 1996 / 1997 David Taub (Ukpoet@aol.com)

The Literary Journal - Lackey Publications (USA) March 1998
Slate & Style (National Federation of Blind writers' division -USA) January 98
Cherrybite Publications (Living in England - Loving in America)
April 97