Tuesday, 28 May 2013

David Beach on Found Poetry

Found poetry’s special edge is that it’s poetry without the poetical sensibility. The lack of violins may partly have been what the Australian poet Laurie Duggan had in mind in ‘Hearts (1983)’, from ‘Three Found Poems’, which features such instructions to abattoir workers as:

The hearts shall be trimmed of protruding veins and arteries making
sure the aorta valve is removed. Hearts are to be incised to enable them
to be packed flat.

But while found poetry can stage provocations, the main game has to be poems which are the poet’s own words and ideas. This though can include poems which resemble found poems. At least this was my approach in the sonnet sequence ‘Agriculture’, which includes passages in an encyclopaedia-entry style. And the heavens forbid that any farmer should mistake the poems for reliable information.
Poems, too, can be ‘found’ as they are written. And this can’t happen when the poet is right up in the front of the poem. Back in Sydney about 1990, beginning writing poems (something of a found poetry experience in itself actually as my first poem started life as the opening paragraph of a short story I was working on), found poetry wasn’t the plan at all. But by writing poems which generally were closely focused on a subject, probably already I was in the found poetry camp.
Found poetry’s key implication though is that all poetry is found. Here I’m definitely in the found poetry camp, can see in my own work how ideas are never ‘original’, but always have antecedents. For example, I returned to writing poems after a period as a film reviewer. Over a few months I tried out various approaches, eventually leading to the unrhymed sonnets I’ve been writing ever since. But after producing a couple of these I noticed their distinct similarity to the shorter of the film reviews I’d been penning and now regard my reviewing stint as a creative writing course where I learned to write poems which are like capsule film reviews.
Or, of several other possible examples, a few eons ago I made an attempt to be a cartoonist, this failing miserably partly due to a total inability to draw. But I’m sure that the cartoon strip structure – two or three panels followed by a panel with the punchline, so close to the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet – predisposed me towards sonnets, and influences my approach to writing them.
And then there are any number of poets I’ve founded my work on. The way this usually goes is that I read a poet’s work, forget about it, and only later realise I’ve been influenced by it. One important influence of this sort was W. H. Oliver’s ‘Counter-Revolution’, an uncompromising ‘sonnet as miniature essay’ – much more interesting to my mind than any of Robert Lowell’s sonnets, where the egocentric blah keeps getting in the way. Also important (and forgotten) was the Victorian poet W. E. Henley, blurring poetry and prose in the wry, black, ‘Waiting Room’, with its super-droll likening of the hospital waiting room to ‘a cellar on promotion’. Or indeed there’s Laurie Duggan’s abattoir poem, which only after thinking of using it for this post did it occur to me was very likely a factor in the idea to write a sequence including some found-like agriculture poems.
It’s this sense of being caught up in the world which for me is where the Muse lives. And why I’m sceptical of a lot of contemporary poetry, especially that in the first person, is that it comes with a poetical tone which suggests the poets feel that they are looking out over the world from some privileged perch. That’s not to say the first person pronoun’s days are finished – for example Albert Wendt’s ‘Garden’ poems look to me a classic, giving a ‘Samoan strum’ to the sonnet form, and the first person used without a trace of complacency.
To bring up notions of found poetry is to ensure you don’t have a quiet life. It’s to identify oneself as a postmodernist and the popular view of postmodernists is that when they aren’t drinking the blood of newborn infants they are lifting other writers’ work without attribution. I can only keep saying it’s a little more nuanced than that. For me the whole point of postmodernism is that writers start with a blank page, cudgel their brains to haul truth shining from the abyss, and this truth then turning out to be just one more wrinkle in the general culture. As to the other matter, population numbers have to be kept down somehow.

Agriculture 15

The cacao tree, from whence chocolate, is
an understorey rainforest species. It
can be (should be) shade-grown, in jungly
plantations. Depending upon continent,
jaguars or leopards prowl below while the
pods ripen. When the pods are ripe they are
hacked down with a machete (a long-
handled variant used where necessary) and
then hacked open with one and the pulp and
seeds removed and left to ferment, beneath
the trees all the vat that’s needed. The
pulp sweats itself to nothing. The seeds are
sun-dried on racks, bagged, away then to the
various devisings of confectioners.

David Beach

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