Inky Articles: Is the Poet Obsolete? The Role of the Artist in Society by Gary Beck

This article briefly examines the poet’s role in history and sketches the growing lack of definition and purpose since World War II.

The role of the artist in society has changed dramatically at various times in recorded western history. One of the earliest notable exemplars of the reputable place that a poet occupied in society is Aeschylus, who did his public duty in 490 b.c., when he fought against the Persians at the battle of Marathon, participating in the struggle for survival of the democratic polis, Athens.

The options of the artist diminished rapidly with the growth of empires, since the role of the artist is not vital to the existence of the state. For almost two millennia, the normal pattern of life for the artist was dependency on patrons, sponsors, or commissions. The exceptions were the select few born to privilege, for example, Byron, who gave his life for Greek freedom, perishing in 1824 at Missolongi, during the Ottoman siege. During this span, the artists outside the system led difficult lives and were fortunate to practice their art, however difficult the conditions.

The industrial revolution diversified the control of wealth by the lords of power, bringing forth a new class of financial barons, who turned to the arts in imitation of their betters. Suddenly artists were able to create their work without it being pre-sold, consequently they were no longer mere craftpersons. Many became personages of some stature in the eyes of the new prosperous middle-class society.

From the 1870’s on, some artists had a world view that allowed them to look beyond their individual discipline, as they searched for a more significant role in the life around them. Poets patriotically enlisted in World War I, and the British poets in particular wrote about the horror they experienced. The poets who dutifully went to war in World War II returned quietly and never really developed a public identity. The crisis for American poets began in the early stages of the Cold War. American painters skyrocketed to world acclaim, fame, fortune, while the poets composed in relative obscurity. More and more poets sought a modicum of security, finding shelter in universities far from public recognition and reward.

In a dynamic American cultural revolution, every art form from the 1960’s on, offered the possibility of wealth and status to the artist, except poetry. Poetry had no opera houses, concert halls, museums, galleries, or mass-market publishers to attract large audiences. But the poets now were college-educated and with a few exceptions, such as the Beats, led obscure lives in colleges. The artificial atmosphere comforted the isolated wordsmiths with the illusion of accomplishment, reaching small groups of students, readers of poetry periodicals, and miniscule audiences attending poetry readings.

Poetry in America experienced an identity crisis. The anti-Vietnam war movement in the late 1960’s firmly closed the portals on the topic of war, mankind’s most consequential activity, as a suitable subject. Virtually all American poets were liberals and in all good conscience opposed war, so the government became the enemy. Since the poets mostly could not identify the capitalist owners of America, they scorned the system of flawed representative government and retreated further into safe niches. Internal revelations and lurid exposés of parental abuse became valid subject matter, transforming the nature of poetry into microcosmic excursions, rather then explorations of big issues.

In an era of uncertainties and dangerous conflicts, domestic and foreign, there is no designated role for the artist in American society. The very concept of training poets in college, an environment that discourages extremes and negates any natural inclination to action, leaves the poet adrift in a world that dismisses the practitioners of passivity.

The poet travels towards his or her destination, a journey of creation of what should be a meaningful body of work, through a haphazard combination of education, exposure and personal preferences. This occurs in an unstructured process that makes the accomplishments fortuitous. In medicine or engineering, students are taught and trained by measurable standards and the results are assessable. Even acting, the most superficial of the performing arts, which lacks the stringent requirements of music or dance, has more predictable goals than poetry. The poet’s path could be adventurous, since it explores an uncharted wilderness without landmarks or traveller’s aids, but it will be a dismal voyage for the timid.

Poetry, once the pre-eminent literary art, has been supplanted by mass market commercial fiction. The authors of novels have become far more prominent than any poet, whose limited possibilities of achievements are determined by effort, talent, and coincidence. Rarely is anything meaningful achieved without a mentor, the sponsorship of a like-minded network, or a supportive artistic community. The poet can be susceptible to a stifling tendency to huddle together in protective enclaves, rather than move in the sphere of the world at large.

The poet must learn to expand his or her perception of existence and enlarge their scope of interest, or risk becoming inconsequential in this demanding life. There is an urgent need to reach out to diverse audiences, prisoners, seniors, the culturally underserved, and most important, to youth, not to make them poets, but to introduce them to a broader view of life. With proper instruction, poetry is the most accessible and cost-effective way to reach large numbers of youth. The constriction of the classroom rarely develops confidence in youth, the quality that allows them to choose who they will grow up to be. The poet can help launch venturesome journeys for youth that will promote their contribution to the future of our society.

It is implausible that America will produce warrior-poets who will fight on tomorrow’s battlefields of freedom. But those poets who wish to participate in the life of their times, participate in a grander arena of creativity, design a meaningful role for themselves in their society, must outreach to needy and deprived audiences. The poet’s efforts will enrich their audiences, who in turn will reward those poets who are receptive with the great satisfaction derived from serving humanity.

Essays by Gary Beck about foreign affairs, political issues, literary topics and homelessness have appeared in AIM Magazine, Elimae, Outcry, Purple Dream, CC & D Magazine, Bergen Street Review, Campbell  Corners Language Exchange, Let Up Magazine, The Oracular Tree, Bedford-St. Martins Press, Penniless Press, Fine Lines, 63 Channels, Writing Raw, Greensburg Magazine, Slurve Magazine, Poor  Mojo Almanack,  Wolf Moon Journal, Shelf Life, The Recusant, International Zeitschrift, Straitjacket  Magazine, Fear of Monkeys (Twin Enterprises), Poetic Matrix Press, Gently Read Literature, Geronimo Review, Lit Up Magazine, Lunar Poetry, Plum Ruby Review, Sorrowland Press, The Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Blue Lake Review, The Wolfian, Record Magazine, Consciousness: Literature and the Arts and other publications.

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theatre director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theatre. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 21 poetry collections, 7 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 collection of essays. Published poetry books include:  Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions, Fault Lines, Tremors, Perturbations, Rude Awakenings, The Remission of Order and Contusions (Winter Goose Publishing, forthcoming is Desperate Seeker); Blossoms of Decay, Expectations, Blunt Force and Transitions (Wordcatcher Publishing, forthcoming are Temporal Dreams and Mortal Coil); and Earth Links will be published by Cyberwit Publishing. His novels include a series ‘Stand to Arms, Marines’: Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions, forthcoming is the third in the series, Raise High the Walls); Acts of Defiance and Flare Up (Wordcatcher Publishing), forthcoming is its sequel, Still Defiant); and Extreme Change will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His short story collections include: Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing), Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing) and The Republic of Dreams and other essays (Gnome on Pig Productions). The Big Match and other one act plays will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. Gary lives in New York City.

Gary’s website

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Inky Articles: Lemn Sissay at the Storyhouse, Chester: with Claire Faulkner

Having lived and worked in Manchester, I’m familiar with the work of Lemn Sissay. His poem ‘Rain’ is one of my all-time favourites, and I was lucky enough to see him perform his play, Something Dark, at Chester last year. So, I was thrilled to hear that he would be Artist in Residence at the Storyhouse as part of The Chester Literature Festival this year.

I particularly love the way in which the Storyhouse embraces poetry and introduces it to people. The building turns itself into a giant poetry book, and anyone who walks in to use the library or goes to the cinema becomes part of the experience.

This year Lemn’s poetry adorns the walls. It’s everywhere. The text is big and brave, covering walls and windows. But most importantly of all, the words are inspiring, positive and beautiful. You don’t have to be a poetry fan to appreciate work displayed like this. The overall effect and experience are stunning.

The works on display are from Lemn’s series of ‘Morning Tweets’. Poems written at dawn, which explore the themes of relationships and belonging, light and dark, sadness and hope, love and anger. I found that each one left me with an over whelming sense of comfort and peace.

The most inspirational was in the stair well…

If the phone won’t ring, make a call
If the mountain won’t move shift it
If the birds won’t sing, sing to them all
And if the sun won’t rise…lift it!

The poems are displayed in all corners of the building. Hidden away for you to find like buried treasure, and when you find one unexpectedly the messages have a deeper impact. Looking up from the first floor, I found this…

Let go of the pain
Let it be undefined
Let it rain let it rain
And then let it shine.

I was struck by the strength and hope in the line written across the balcony, “I am not defined by my scars, but my incredible ability to heal.” I stood for a while, looking up at it. Lots of people passed by, either collecting tickets or making their way to the theatre. Then one person, who I’d never met before stopped, glanced up and said to me. “It’s a good message. We should all remember that.”

Lemn Sissay MBE on Twitter

Inky Articles: A Spotlight on Miltos Sachtouris: by Sofia Kioroglou

A Greek surrealist poet whom admittedly most of my fellow poets might have stumbled on is Miltos Sachtouris who is renowned in his native country, Greece. Miltos Sachtouris was born in Athens in 1919. He was seventeen years old when General Metaxas imposed a fascist dictatorship that lasted until the general’s demise in 1941. By then the Greeks were living under Axis occupation and experiencing war-related famine that led to the death of 100.000 lives. Unfortunately, the end of the second war was rife with ongoing conflicts which flared into a civil war, the ripple effects of which were felt for years, right up to the dictatorship of 1967-74. Sachtouris’ poetry was bereft of a decorative use of poetic language. He describes things with incredible fidelity. He is not one to interpose psychological descriptions and eschews ideological labelling. His clarity of idea-generating images are endowed with a substantive value. They offer a material outline with mental representations that are properly received. His poetry engages the imagination and has all the hallmarks of oneiric alchemy operative in the poetry of other eminent Greek Nobel laureates such as George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. However, the Greeks’ younger compatriot, Miltos Sachtouris, is lesser known.

What Sachtouris sees in the Occupation, the Civil War, and the social and political amoralism during the first couple of decades following the war, is the lack of ability of people as a collective body to prioritise certain moral values and solutions as an antidote to the crisis of the times. This is successfully conveyed through his poetic diction and his poetry serves as an invitation to touch his traumas and wounds and to ponder on his future. At the same time, he forbids us to think of ways to cure him and this is evident throughout this poetry.

The use of images go beyond the dry recording of external reality. Instead, they acquire autonomous power as they become unfettered from the restricting nature of the mirror. The ample use of symbolic nuances creates an inner landscape that, although still reflecting experiences and feelings of everyday life, is a departure from the realism of social decadence or from the lyrical style of a personal confession. The odd and excessive elements that we can perceive in the expressionistic images stand for the fixed characteristics of a world suffering to its very core.

Sachtouris’ images develop into self-reliant, symbolic units that go beyond isolated episodes. They create a dissonant introspective universe, in which objects, animals, humans and machines degenerate into substitutes of reality, without however losing their commonly accepted qualities.

Sachtouris relies heavily on surrealist imagery and there are many recurring images such as birds, a broken/bloody/fractured moon, severed hands/fingers, nails, blood, but these are no gratuitous images–they reflect what Sachtouris saw all around him while writing these poems: the occupation of Greece by the Nazis, civil war and the eventual military dictatorship that took hold in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s.

Poems such as ‘Height of February’ and ‘The Garden’ also make use of surrealist imagery:

Bad mother
with your pinned-on eyes
your wide nailed-on mouth
and your seven fingers
you grab your baby and caress it
then stretch your white arms before you
and the sky burns them with its golden rain

THE GARDEN

It smelled of fever
that was no garden
some strange couples were walking inside
wearing shoes on their hands
their feet were large white and bare
heads like wild epileptic moons
and red roses suddenly
sprouted
for mouths
that were set upon and mauled
by the butterfly-dogs.

Some of these poems can be a bit of a ‘heavy’ read given the subject matter they address while some can be very turgid, clothed in surrealist imagery and metaphor which perhaps may take more than one reading in order to decipher its meaning. However, all of them are very compelling works, reflecting three differing tumultuous times in the nation’s history. His work is definitely recommended, especially for those who are surrealist poetry buffs.

Inky Articles: Professor John J. Brugaletta: Two Hypothetical Poles Of Thinking While Writing Poetry

Editors of poetry have differing standards by which they judge poetry submissions, as do poetry critics. This variety is, in a way, helpful to poets of differing styles, but the wide variety of standards implies a varying degree of uncertainty. Perhaps what is needed is an optional standard that will be helpful to those whose position in society is to evaluate a given poem in a way that will be more convenient.

I am positing that there are two poles to human thought, with a continuum of mixtures between them: type A perceptions, which are near the unconscious and issue from it; and type Z thinking which is conscious, sorted, and verbal. It is seldom that we meet anyone whose day-to-day thinking consists solely of either of these extremes. Now let’s see how this continuum works as an analytical tool with a variety of published poems.

The first example of poetry that fails because written with a strong bias toward either A or Z type are first Ricardo Pau-Llosa’s “Daruma,” the opening lines of which are as follows:

The mind’s open cage awaits its tiger
and no other. Who sets the fire will not
own it. No cure or prayer can break desire.
Go, live by proverbs, then tell hot
about cold and find nothing to say….

This presents simultaneously an example of both type A and type Z thinking without a union of the two. In its epigraph the poet promises references to a variety of Buddhism together with “Hokusai’s sketch of a lost portrait.” But the poem contains no referent to “the fire,” little in the way of a context for “tiger,” and no context at all for “tell hot about cold.” It is presumably erudite (type Z) but also inchoate (type A) for the reader who is primarily interested in poetry.

It has the drawbacks of both extremes, containing both the impenetrable quality of type A and the sorted component of type Z. Without an education in Bodhidharma Buddhism, it is only a series of unrelated phrases and sentences. I agree that the poet has the freedom to write such cryptic verse, but I wonder what the purpose would be in publishing it. To tempt readers to investigate varieties of Buddhism? To dangle tantalizing language poetry before the reader? To fit in with one trend in contemporary poetry to be incomprehensible?

The second example is the first six lines of a poem by Wayne Lee, “In Praise of Formal Poetry”:

Whether it’s ridiculous or sublime,
we need the reassurance of meter,
the familiar recurrence of rhyme.

We yearn for verse that’s fixed in place or time,
lines that march to a regular beat, or
words, whether ridiculous or sublime….

I go no more into detail about self-contradictions in form in this poem, except to say the meter violates its much-vaunted “regular Beat,” and that it struggles for close rhymes. I will say, however, that this piece of verse suffers mostly from its salesman’s pitch in the selling of formal verse. It has neither the intuition of type A nor the type Z articulation required of what is arguably the most difficult kind of writing. It is merely an effort to imitate formal poetry in order to praise meter and rhyme.

It is almost entirely a case of conscious plotting. While there are plenty of examples of fine formal poetry in the Western canon, writing formal verse does not guarantee the successful unification of types A and Z thinking. Anyone who wishes to write successful poetry is more likely to imitate the driver who has been trained to direct the car in two ways, one with hands on the steering wheel, and the other with feet on the accelerator, brake or clutch. Admittedly the simultaneous actions are difficult for most beginners, but plenty of people have learned to do them. Besides, writing real poetry is never easy.

And now for some excellent poems. First, one By Richard Wilbur, “In the Elegy Season”:

Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls’:
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar holes.

Or brewed in gullies, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air….

In these few opening lines, the poet gives us a unison in complexity—the facts of fall evoked as if by the magic in their names to create a verbal and harmonious symphony on the season. The facts often surprise us with our own memories called back to us in this incantation of dormant truths. The “giant absence” moping on the trees is a phrase of type A wed to type Z thinking, as far from the accepted lexicon of the journalist as the poet dares to go without straining the literate reader’s patience.

This is a prime example of that dynamic balance between inspiration (type A thinking) and conscious composing (type Z)—inspiration for the stretched and offset vocabulary (“leaves cast in casual potpourris”) and conscious composing for the readable syntax. “Whisper their scents,” and “steeped in wells”; these tropes and others like them make for an animation of inanimate substances. This is not mere synesthesia. They instill with life what would have been dead phrases like “huge lack,” “careless mixture,” “emit their smells,” and “soaked in water.”

A second example of fine poetry is by William Stafford and is called “Found in a Storm”:

A storm that needed a mountain
met it where we were:
we woke up in a gale
that was reasoning with our tent,
and all the persuaded snow
streaked along, guessing the ground.

We turned from that curtain, down.
But sometime we will turn
back to the curtain and go
by plan through an unplanned storm,
disappearing into the cold,
meanings in search of a world.

This poem has received less notice than many of Stafford’s other poems, perhaps because, on a quick reading of it, the impression is, “Just one more poem about a spoiled camping trip.” But if that were so, the poem would be little better than a bit of journalism with a jagged right margin.

Yet that reading is itself broken into by a close reading of the second stanza, which calls the snowstorm a “curtain” twice, and speaks of “disappearing into the cold.” Curtains separate one from another space, so when we disappear into another space, especially a “cold” space, we might have died. Without speculating at this point on the meaning of the last line, it can readily be seen that the speaker of the poem is probably thinking of what lies beyond death (though without a wish for an immediate death).

This poem has the shape of those that were begun with lines the poet had written before he knew of a way to end it. The product of outlining a poem before beginning to write it is a victim of predominantly type Z thinking. “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering,” said Robert Frost. And this accords with the experience of the publishing poet I know best. It is, in fact, probably the procedure in writing poetry that invites the aid of type A thinking for its spontaneous imagery and other tropes, yet still as an addition to type Z thinking for its comprehensible order.

After all, the first stanza might have been followed by the camping party’s decision to outlast the gale, probably even losing some of the members in the cold. But the party packs up and retreats from that “curtain, down.” It is what the ancients would have called the muse hinting at a direction for closure, but I am calling type A thinking, here fused with type Z in its conscious adherence to the physical options left to the party in danger of freezing to death. They can die if they insist on staying, But if not they must retreat down the mountain and out of the gale, out from behind the “curtain,” out of the “cold,” putting off to the future their discovering a world where the meaning of human life fits the facts of that world.

Often excellent poets like Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Dana Gioia are being recognized by our system of editing and publishing, but equally often it seems there are fine poets like Weldon Kees and, more recently, William Stafford, who are for the most part cast aside unjustly. If I am right in saying so, perhaps this test for quality will save some of our excellent poems from inattention by the reading public.

The two extreme poles of thinking I posit comprise what is probably a simplification of the actual process a poet’s mind preforms while composing, but I present it as a basic part. Others more widely read in psychology and the brain’s functioning may wish to build on it.

I should warn the reader that little of this necessarily applies to light verse. Nor is what I have said a formula that will ensure success for any writer of verse. There is more to poetic excellence than this, but this strikes me as one important way to think about our thinking while composing.

Verve Poetry Festival 2018 review by Claire Faulkner

I can’t remember how I found out about the Verve Poetry Festival, but I’m glad that I did. I think I needed to find an event like this.

Now in its second year, Birmingham’s own festival of poetry and spoken word took place in February. Its four days full of readings, performances, workshops and children’s events and prides itself on celebrating local writers, performers and the creativity of the city.

There was so much going on, it was almost impossible to decide what to attend, I was spoilt for choice. Imtiaz Dharker opened the festival on Thursday, but the list of poets involved across the four days was just staggering. These included; Karen McCarthy Woolf, Sasha Dugdale, Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, Liz Berry and Luke Wright.

The festival took place in Waterstones, and what a great venue. Easy to find, everything in one place, and more importantly, lots of poetry books on sale. The volunteers were helpful and approachable, and still smiling on the last day.

The first poetry event I attended was Mad and Glow with Jacqueline Saphra and Tania Hershaman. It was a clever mix of theatre and performance. Entertaining words and prose about family relationships, food and motherhood. I’m not sure if they were reading their own work, each other’s, or a combination of both, but the style and presentation worked well. It’s the first show I’ve seen where the performers have a cup of tea half way through and offer the audience marmite sandwiches.

The afternoon was destined for spoken word, and performances from Nymphs & Thugs. Four contemporary poets; Salena Godden, Matt Abbott, Maria Ferguson and Jamie Thrasivoulou. Each poet brought something completely different and unique to the stage, if you get the chance to see any of them perform I would highly recommend it. They were all brilliant.

I had such a good time at Verve. I left with more poetry books and plenty of inspiration for my own writing. The welcoming atmosphere, positivity and encouragement of this festival is infectious. It has a spirit of its own, and I’ll be back for more. I have found my poetry home, and it is at the Verve festival.

Pictures by Claire Faulkner courtesy of Tania HershamanJacqueline Saphra, Jamie Thrasivoulou and Matt Abbott.

Inky Articles: Berenice Smith on Page Design

B book

Berenice Smith is a print and digital designer with a Masters in Graphic Design and Typography. She runs her own design practice in Cambridge (http://www.berenicesmith.com/) and is a partner with Dialogue (http://www.dialoguecreative.co.uk).

We often judge books by their covers but many readers forget to pay attention to the page design. Unlike the shining cover, the page design carries the bags of words, gently helping the reader through the information inside. Dr. Watson to Sherlock’s start, if you like. Just like Watson, it should be reliable, quietly invisible but occasionally challenging. I have been reading The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. In this fascinating first person narrative, the changing format and typography is part of the plot. Many readers and writers are astonished to know that a designer even touched the inner pages. But yes, we do! Even e-books. A reference or educational book requires more navigation and perhaps a ‘how to use the book’ section. Clear titles, section headings and features. Designers will select typefaces according to the hierarchy of content. How the format works in print and the transition to an eBook is an important consideration too. What does the designer do and how can you apply it to your book?

Technical details. A designer will consider the trim of the page and the number of pages. Your printing method and budget may decree a certain number of pages and your designer will keep this mind when looking at typefaces (as different fonts are not equally sized) and overall page sizes. A good designer will know the differences between different printing techniques such as litho and print on demand and how this affects colours and photos.

White space. Margins and gutters (the gap where the book is bound) matter even though they do not contain any text. Does the text require two columns? What is a suitable line length? Does the text have any extracts and should these require indenting? How does this white space affect the balance?

The typeface. I believe that the typeface used in a book can decrease or increase the enjoyment of a book. A book may require more than one but getting the balance right is critical to the success of the page design. Incidentally a typeface is a set of typographical symbols and characters. It’s the letters, numbers, and other characters that let us put words on paper (or screen). A font, on the other hand, is traditionally defined as a complete character set within a typeface, often of a particular size and style. Fonts are also specific computer files that contain all the characters and glyphs within a typeface. • Way finding. Navigating a book can take the form of running heads, folios, page numbers, sets of features such as quotes, tips, mapping end notes or footnotes.

Prelims and endlims (also referred to as front and end matter). Fiction books are making use of what may have been a notes section in the past. Book group questions, extracts from future novels and interviews can be found in this section. How does the overarching page design relate to these important introductions and lasting impressions? Any good book be it written to help you learn or to entertain when you curl up in bed, you can be certain that page has been designed. And if you don’t notice it, then the designer has done a good job!