Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Attitude Poetry

There’s a fellow poet with whom I was discussing the basics of poetry not long ago; on some things we agree but on others we don’t. That, I suppose, is to be expected.

We both agree that language is basic but each has a different emphasis on the way it should be used. I prefer to keep my words and expressions working the way they usually do. Nouns name things, verbs are action; adjectives describe nouns, adverbs explain action. They fit together in phrases and clauses. My friend will often turn a noun into a movement or a verb into a thing. That’s not new; we “squirrel” things away; a wave is an action or a thing. He just likes to do the same with words we don’t think of using in such a way.

He claims it helps establish “attitude.” Attitude, he says, is the second most important principle of poetry. Here we disagree. Rather than something as tenuous as attitude, I prefer to emphasize the tools used to make poetry —similes, metaphors, images, sound, rhythm, and shape — something he puts much lower on the list. So I began to consider attitude as an integral part of poetry.

Several instances that seemed important crossed my mind.
One occurred when someone read one of my poems before a group; he read it as words on the page, without the expression I would have given the delivery, without my “attitude,” if I could consider it like that. The second, strangely enough, was Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali with his ‘poems’ not only predicting the outcome of his fights but also the descriptive “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” phrasings that were new to the prizefighting game. Ali had attitude, physical and verbal. His words, his poetry, caught the ear and demanded attention.

I’m quite sure that this was what my friend meant by claiming poetry must have attitude. If a poem doesn’t grab and shake its hearers, it might pass away as if it had never been. And in a way this is also a valid point, this emphasis on attitude.

Jamaican-born Dub poetry grew out of this sensibility. Dub doesn’t live by the written word; its vitality lies in its performance. I grant that the tools of poetic language (rhyme, rhythm, etc.) are a vital part, but its attitude is most recognizable. Similarly today’s slam poetry with its aggressive and competitive aspects depends on attitude more than on well-formulated thought progression.

The question of attitude remains for me a matter of balance. Certainly a poem needs something special to make it stand apart from the common flow of words in our lives. However this expressiveness, this attitude, can become a cover hiding flaws, a thick coat of paint over the incipient rot in the wood.

After consideration this emphasis on “attitude” my friend espoused has moved up somewhat in my view of poetry and poetics. But care must be taken. It is too easy to push too hard, to blow too loud, and defeat the whole purpose of the attitude.

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