Cocteau And Spoilt Prose Masquerading As Poetry


As returning readers may know, the most difficult area of study in my Self-Doctorate is not the math, nor the science, but trudging through the rank ranks of modern so-called “poetry.”  Please understand me:  I am a lover of poetry… just not of bad prose propped up as poetry with frequent line breaks and teaching positions.

Part of the difficulty is one of definitions.  To combat this, I have taken to calling the modern stuff “Proesy,” and have attempted to judge it by different standards.  This, indeed, has helped, and opened me up to new works I might previously have been tempted to toss in the kindling box, putting the paper to better use.

What publishers, editors, writers, and teachers are calling “poetry” today is not the same beast that they were calling poetry a hundred years ago.  And, just to be fair, what people were calling poetry a hundred years ago was not what they were calling poetry a thousand years ago, and the poetry of a thousand years ago was different from that of two thousand years ago.  So I “get” that aspect of the situation (fashions come and go, the only constant is change, blah blah blah).

And I do not here want to begin a treatise on “What Maketh Poetry.”  I have dropped a few brief remarks upon the subject in previous posts.  Like here for instance.  Today, I just want to throw out a few quotations about good writing from my new best friend, Jean Cocteau, whose essays I’ve been reading.

Cocteau, like myself, does not demand that Poetry be rhymed or come in perfect meter.  Cocteau is, in fact, quite accepting of what he calls the “invisible architecture” of a poem; he does not seem to consider it a flaw that a poem, to anyone besides the person who wrote it, appears to have no rhythm whatsoever.  Myself, I consider some sort of posited undetectable architecture of rhythm in a poem about as useful to its purpose as a fireplace built twenty paces from the house.

Cocteau apparently suffered some jibes from acquaintances concerning the modern style of poetry:  “Friends often imagine our poems to be just notes, jotted down haphazard, which we have been prevented by laziness from carrying any farther.”  But he defends the new style, insisting that the new formless forms take just as much “effort of concentration” and “sacrifices” as the old way.

What Cocteau sees occurring around him in poetry is something akin to a necessary and periodic Spring cleaning of an artform that has become too confined by conventions.

Says Cocteau in Order Considered As AnarchyEach time that art is on the way towards that profound form of elegance known as classicism, emotions disappear.  It is the ungrateful stage.”  People begin rejecting the old styles.  Simply put:  the artworks become boring.  Boring not only because they have become too predominate (familiarity breeds contempt, of course) but because many of the artists (producing works after the peak of the creative curve has been reached) find it difficult to become anything more than mere copyists.  Sometimes this copycat style is due to mere pandering, but I think that often the artists begin to suffer as much from tradition-bound thinking as the public does; it is difficult to break down a pattern of thought once the mind has snatched hold of it.

I agree with Cocteau that every now and again an artform becomes a victim of its own success– too confined by the accretion of rules and tropes, by tradition and respect.  As Thomas Jefferson said, “a little revolution now and then is a good thing” (or to that effect).

I think of Punk music coming to the aid of the world by exploding the tedious music scene of the late Seventies, or of Grunge kicking the electro-pop ass of the Eighties to the curb.  [Actually, music, like all artforms, just keeps rolling forward, absorbing into it all that has come before, but that’s a whole different blogpost].  Similarly, there’s the cycle of independent filmmakers coming to the rescue of cinema every generation or so.  There are plenty of examples in every field of art, I’m sure.  Binge and purge is intrinsic to the evolution of Art.

Rebellions away from the over-refinement the artform and toward a new simplicity of style are painful, says Cocteau– painful for all parties really.  There is a shock to the system for the public, and there is rejection and incomprehension in store for the rebelling Artists. 

“But after a good deal of discomfort and solitude,” says Cocteau (also from Order Considered As Anarchy), “Art, now stark naked, recovers its equilibrium and replaces the richness of its garments by a wealth of soul.”  Cocteau believes that the new simplicity (and artistic rebellions are almost always toward simpler form) does not mean that the rebel will toss out all that has come before, but that he simply “detaches and condenses” the long history of invention and improvements that have come in the field before his arrival upon the scene. 

The minimalism thusly introduced clears the table for something new and exciting to be built up… and starts anew the process of refinement (so inalienably human) that will inevitably start up again, lasting until the next revolution at the end of the cycle.

All that said (and this is turning into a longer post than I intended), Cocteau does not approve of the artist who walks away from his work as soon as the moment of inspiration has evaporated, not deigning to attempt to improve upon the hallowed creation that has emerged pure and unadulterated from his soul– or his subconscious, or what-have-you.  Cocteau acknowledges the attraction to this view, but he has this to say about it in his essay, The Cock And The Harlequin:

“There is a moment when every work in the process of being created benefits from the glamour attaching to uncompleted sketches.  ‘Don’t touch it any more!’ cries the amateur.  It is then that the true artist takes his chance.”

In his essay Beauty Secrets, Cocteau also joins me in frowning upon prose masquerading as poetry:  “All too often,” he says, “a kind of rhythmic prose, arranged in the shape of a poem, is called poetry” – and he was writing this before things got really bad by the end of the twentieth century.  He even complains of the work of the exalted Baudelaire: “certain passages of Fleurs Du Mal give an uncomfortable impression of being spoilt prose.”

Cocteau asserts in Professional Secrets that Poetry should be “more concise, and possessing more structure and line than prose” and that this seeming restriction is actually part of what allows Poetry to ascend heights greater than typical prose, for “the very restrictions of rhyme and rhythm” are turned into an “unlimited source of surprises which are just as fresh and mysterious to the Poet as they are to the reader.”  He calls some of the stuff going under the name of “poetry” in his day, “prose in evening dress.”

I sometimes wonder if poetry has become too idiosyncratic, too fractured, too narcissistic.  As you know, much of modern poetry smacks of reading unimproved excerpts from confessional-style personal journals.  Cocteau makes the case that a good Poem should grow broader than its origin, like (using my metaphor) the limbs of tree outstretched from its trunk.  Sure there is just as much tree beneath the ground as above, but must we display the gnarled roots with every bough of blossoms?  Says Cocteau in Professional Secrets:

“A poem should be made to cast off, one by one, all the ropes attaching it to whatever was the source, or motive, of its creation.  Each time the poet cuts a rope his heart beats.  When he has cut the last one, the poem detaches itself, and rise, unaided, like a balloon, carrying its own beauty with it, having severed all connection with the earth.”


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