Reading: “A Poet’s Anti-Rule Book” by Steve Kowit

Last week, I really enjoyed reading Steve Kowit’s article, “A Poet’s Anti-Rule Book,” in the new issue of AWP’s magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle. Kowit, who is a poet and the author of the writing guidebook, In the Palm of Your Hand, chops down a mythical list a must-do’s in the current creative writing rulebook, including the ever-popular “show, don’t tell.” 

One of my favorite things about AWP and The Writer’s Chronicle is that, despite being one of the two main publications of creative writing industry professionals – Poets & Writers being the other – the editors don’t seem afraid of running articles that criticize mainstream trends in the industry. The same magazine that ran Reginald Shepherd’s 2008 article, “On Difficulty in Poetry,” about how modern poetry is not complex enough, also ran this article by Kowit about how to stop being rigid and obtuse. (And yes, I used the word “industry.” I do see creative writing today as both an art form and an industry, because of the heavy value put on standardization of norms and process, on institutional expansion and job creation as evidence of viability, on a corps of professionals who perform the role of quality assurance, and on productivity and market success even within the “gift economy” as one of the main hallmarks of success.)

I was particularly keen on reading Kowit’s discussions of how political subject matter is a big no-no in the modern creative writing world. Since I have written about political poet John Beecher, who had real popularity among a politically leftist general readership but who has also received almost no recognition from the literary establishment, I was glad to see an inclusion of the political-poetry taboo within an article about why some big no-no’s are kind of silly. (Kowit used one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance, to show how “Bill” would get blasted in a creative writing workshop.) In the section, “The Political Poem Phobia,” Kowit writes about how blatantly political poems suffer from a stigma that blatantly romantic and blatantly religious poems don’t and about how many of the best political poets today exist outside of the university system and within politically underrepresented communities. He also writes about the slippery avoidance by using “the assertion that ‘the personal is political’ from poets who wished to be politically engaged while avoiding dealing with political material.” Kowit also provides a beautifully credentialled laundry list of political poets that included Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka . . . but which unfortunately did not include Beecher.

The article places a good bit of the blame for the perpetuation of obtuse poetry on first T.S. Eliot and then on the New Critics. In the section, “The Modern-Poetry-Must-Be-Difficult Canard,” Kowits retorts, “But our age is also filled with superb poetry of great simplicity, clarity, and grace. Think of all of the utterly straightforward poetry many of our best poets have been writing.” And another laundry list that this time includes Robinson Jeffers, Ted Kooser, and Natasha Trethewey. While acknowledging that some brilliant poetry is hard to understand, Kowit also reminds us that many modern readers are not give a poem five readings to understand it . . . it might get one reading, maybe. So maybe keeping it a little simpler, while still insisting on quality, might be a good idea.

When I saw the article’s title on the cover, I knew immediately that I would read it. Steve Kowit’s smiling face also helped me along, since stern-looking author photos that look arrogant or mean make me not want to read their work. I agree with Steve Kowit that poetry isn’t about rules, no matter how badly any creative writing teacher might want it to be. His final summation, comes from two sources; the first from lines by a Chilean poet named Nicanor Parra is: “You have to improve on the blank page” – seems blunt enough – and the second from Somerset Maugham: “in order to write splendid poetry, there are just three rules that one must follow: unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

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