Jake Adam York

POETRY AFTERWORD: THE PLAIN LANGUAGE THESIS

As a participant in, and as a leader of, poetry workshops, over the last decade, I have struggled constantly with what might be called the “plain language thesis.” In its simplest form, this thesis states that the best poetry is made of the plainest language. It is ramified throughout the communities of discussion: students suggest that their peers “tone it down”; poets ask their fellows to reconsider a passage’s “artificiality”; editors (myself included) return poems, thinking them “overwrought”; and critics complain of stiffness in a certain book. Each seems to desire something more “natural.”

The writer who receives any of these comments may feel that her music, his argument or feeling – the art the writer has made – has been wholly misunderstood. After all, making a new poem means making new choices, working hard toward distinction from other poems. When the writer focuses on his or her effort to mix a new color, any comment that seems to ask for a plainer tone may seem to work against the drive toward the unique. Indeed, such complaint may seem like an attack on poetry itself.

One of the species of this perception is, I think, the discussion of “the workshop poem” – a type of poem lacking in imagination of concept and of language, produced in response to an assignment and finished in the workshop. A casual perusal of a recent Poet’s Market will uncover a number of directives against submission of “workshop poems.” An open ear at a writers conference will catch more than one suggestion that the traditional workshop is not the ideal format for encouraging poetic excellence. The idea is that the workshop, by asking students to identify aberrance, actually encourages them to work against any distinct feature of a poem, therefore combating its drive toward uniqueness.

If this were the case, we’d all be in a bad place, because the workshop is the dominant feature of creative writing pedagogy. But it seems that poetry in English is as rich today as ever. It is hard to imagine that any era of English literature since the early seventeenth century has known so many distinct styles of poetic achievement. And I believe that the plain language thesis has played an important part in this flowering.

Since the early years of the last century, when Ezra Pound railed against dead Victorian convention and William Carlos Williams adopted the spoken word of his fellows as the basis for his poetic language, the idea of plain language has been particularly important, influencing major developments and redevelopments in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, and so many others. Some poets, like Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser, have embraced plainness, working toward the sparest language possible, while others, like Reginald Shepherd or Maurice Manning, have reveled in abundances rarely heard in the university hallway. Most of our most well-known poets have struck a balance between artifice and plainness, but it seems that every poet has struggled with the issue at one time or other.

The poets included in this number of storySouth exemplify degrees of the struggle. To some Forrest Gander’s work may seem very artificial – until the spider’s egg sack breaks or the moon begins to look like a sphincter, at which points the poetry seems highly natural, the product of an extreme attention. Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon form of Scott Ward’s “Shine” may seem to some like an overly self-conscious grafting, but the speaker’s voice naturalizes the form to its scene as skillfully as Fred Chappell’s work in Midquest. John Crutchfield’s “songs” have a different accent from Peter Huggins’s poems, but each of the poems makes its accent clear.

The degree to which each of these poems addresses a question of Southern culture and consciousness while also achieving its distinction from the other poems is remarkable and, certainly, cause for celebration – for the richness of our time and place.

We hope you will feel the same.

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Jake Adam York is the poetry editor of storySouth.