How is "Poetry must be at least as well-written as prose" a meaningful statement? Most prose is not well-written.The second started with this:
— Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) April 9, 2014
"This is well-written" is the most loathsome response to a piece of writing.Let me expound on these a little bit more (oh ha ha ha). The first is an Ezra Pound line that is always getting thrown around in MFA workshops and whatnot, up there with "Kill your darlings" and "Show don't tell." I just saw it somewhere again this week, and it's like when you delete 40 emails from some company before one day you remember you can just unsubscribe. Suddenly I had a deep urge to say WTF: This statement makes no sense! Why do we keep quoting it like it makes sense? The implication is that prose has to meet some bare minimum standard of "good writing," but that's not even true of published prose. "Poetry" and "prose" are just categories, they communicate nothing in themselves about the quality of the writing. People who have quoted this: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
— Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) April 9, 2014
FWIW, I think that version is a misquotation; this appears to be the correct quote in context (a letter written to Harriet Monroe):
Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant's best prose, and as hard as Stendhal's.I still don't agree with it, natch; poetry can do whatever the hell it wants to, go ahead and invert your book words.
As for the second rant, I was reacting to a comment I saw on a Roxane Gay essay about shame and self-denial. Obviously I think a lot about standards of beauty so I was interested, and the essay was striking and discomfiting in that it wrestles with how it feels when one's body "does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like":
My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine—most spaces inhabited by other people.This makes me feel awful, in part because I hate our sexist, racist, body-shaming culture, but also in part because so many of the things she denies herself are things I allow myself without thinking. Like painting my fingernails (actually something I almost never do, but I engage plenty in the equivalent) or eating on a plane: "My best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat on the plane, but I denied myself that. I said, 'People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,' and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said." Our own privilege is usually invisible to ourselves, and though I detest our beauty standards, I reap the benefits of meeting many of them every day.
I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve.
Anyway, complicated feelings. And the first comment under the article was "This is very well-written." And I just did this massive eye-roll. Like ... isn't that totally missing the point? I mean, duh, don't read the comments, but this is part of non-comment discourse too; I've seen praise this bland in book blurbs. This is how I feel:
- "This is well-written" suggests that the writing is a superficial layer on top of the content, or that the writer had the content and then did the work of translating it into good writing. Maybe so. But if that is the case, I'm much rather read really interesting ideas with so-so writing than "good writing" and boring ideas.
- In a great piece of writing, the content is the writing, you can't separate it into layers. This is why people say you can't translate poetry, but really you can't translate anything w/ 100% accuracy, you can only approximate the effect in another language. (Not that I'm against translation, we do what we can do.)
OK, whatever, end of rant. Now I have this song stuck in my head, and you will too!
P.S. Thank you to Ray McDaniel for this review of The Self Unstable. I have admired McDaniel's reviews at the Constant Critic for a long time so this is especially exciting to me. Example sentence: "Gabbert can pack a lot of weird into a very small picnic basket, and the familiarity of her approach – the sort of observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes, for instance – conceals, and usefully, some of her genuinely impressive and profitable ambition." Thanks also to Jacob Spears for the recent review in Pank! Example sentence: "In a world turning increasingly to the virtual, the brief prose poems in Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable read like postcards or dispatches from a new frontier in which the map is just as much a part of reality as the territory." Thank you, thank you, thank you.