Friday, July 29, 2011

What we call a thing

One of the strange things which enters my brain is how people label music.  Bear with me because this is going somewhere.  I have Direct TV and one of the perks is a myriad of music channels one can put on and listen to while doing other things.  Yesterday I was preparing for an evening of grilling so I selected two channels of music I could shift back and forth to depending on whether I liked what I was hearing.  I selected "60's Revolution" and "Blues."  I like the 60's channel because they put a lot of thought into including music you wouldn't normally hear on a classic rock station.  Most classic rock stations break themselves down into two categories:  50's Oldies and British Invasion through 1975.  Not this channel.  This channel takes the time to include a lot of Motown and R&B into the mix.  As for the Blues channel, I simply love the Blues, so that choice is obvious enough.  Unfortunately this is where I ran into trouble.

When I think of the blues, I think of John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Robert Cray, Charlie Musselwhite, some efforts from blues influenced artists, their contemporaries, etc. Now, what the Blues Station was playing may have been labeled as "Blues" but as far as I could tell, it was not.  I could hear a thin broth version of some blues riffs and chords being played, maybe a traditional blues beat in the background, but it wasn't the blues I know and love.  It wasn't Delta Blues, it wasn't Chicago Blues, and it wasn't Country Blues.  It was something I cannot put my finger on, sort of like mercury.

Now how is that?  Have we come to a place where if I call it a thing it suddenly becomes that thing?  I am quite serious.  I tried listening and I had to change the channel.  I mean I hated what I was hearing so much I had to change the channel.  The programmers called that music Blues.  I don't deny the skill and talent it took to write and perform that music, but to say it was Blues still sticks in my throat.

Another example:  We were all sitting around this morning and my boys were watching Nickelodeon.  One of the commercials that came on was advertising an in-studio movie.  You know the kind, where they expand a series into a made for TV movie and call it a premier event.  They referred to the star of the film as a "superstar."  She was one of those types who has a series, puts out mindless pop albums which have been produced to death and auto-tuned until even my voice would sound appealing.  Adults know this is to squeeze every penny they can out of their viewers.  My theory is they will keep calling this kid a superstar until the hype surrounding her drums up enough of some sort of phantom fan base which will convince kids to buy in.  You know, nothing succeeds like success.  All of it artificially inflated.

Now does calling her a superstar make her a superstar the same way calling music that is clearly not Blues make people think it is Blues?  Are my parameters too narrow?  I mean I think I actually am pretty inclusive in my definition of Blues music, as I am with what can constitute Classic Rock, but does us calling this music Blues and this girl a superstar actually make it so?

No transfer this to poetry.  How much leeway do we give to people who write poetry.  Is it a poem because we say it is?  Is it a good poem because we say it is?  I may think poetry is what I write and what a few hundred other poets  write who happen to write similarly to me, and that is it.  But what of the people who do not write like I write?  At what point on the scale can I say I don't think that is poetry?  Do I ever have that right, or do I have to accept everything somebody else says is a poem as poetry? Where exactly does the rubber meet the road and where is that all so important threshold?

* * *


I really love the sestina.
Can you tell?  This poem is a sestina
and I had the audacity to call it, "Sestina"
as if I had come up with the word sestina
all by myself.  But I didn't.  The first sestina
I ever read I probably didn't know it was a sestina.

In fact, I know I didn't know it was a sestina
because I remember thinking, what's a sestina?
when I read the author notes.  I liked sestinas
so much I started to come up with sestina
similes in my head, secretly laughing: A sestina
is like a hissing snake.  Say it slow.  Sessssstina.

Don't be afraid or shy about saying sestina.
I know what you are thinking.  I'm saying sestina
enough for both of us, and I am sure to say "sestina"
before too long, since the whole idea of a sestina
is repetition.  But you really should try. Saying sestina
is therapeutic. Not as much as say,  writing a sestina,

but the built in alliteration of the word sestina
can't be a bad thing.  So far, I have said "sestina"
twenty times, and I'm only warming up.  The sestina
requires patience and perspective.  Truly great sestinas
must live beyond the clever. No respectable sestina
can be seen as cliché.  Take this sestina.

Notice how I shed the artifice of the sestina
in order to write one?  See how I come back to sestina
time and time again?  My adoration of sestinas
cannot be questioned.  When you write a sestina
it's important to look beyond the sestina
for a reason to write the poem.  The sestina

should be a natural thing.  Too many sestinas
look as if they have been beaten into submission.  Sestina.
See what I did there?  I did that to show you sestinas
have feelings, too, that every  sestina
conscious poet will know when not to write a sestina
choosing to honor the dignity of all other sestinas.

I offer you these final sestina thoughts: Remember a sestina
is not really a sestina because you say "sestina"
but because a sestina cannot help being a sestina.


  1. For me, as long as it's written in lines rather than paragraphs, it's poetry. But of course that leaves open the issue of the "prose poem." :-)

  2. Thanks, Andrew. It is a strange puzzle for me to figure out these days. I wonder if it's all a matter of what we like and what we do not like.

  3. I think I'm more expansive in what I consider poetry these days - I've read several novels/short fiction books that were, to me, poetry, even though they were classified as fiction.
    Also, I'm reading more "experimental" poets and trying to figure out what they're doing with their funky lists and colons and stuff like that.

  4. I am all for adding to my list of what is poetry. I just have a difficult time trying to figure out where, if any line should be drawn. I don't mean to sound exclusionary, but if there are no real boundaries, then will we still be able to call a thing, (anything) poetry, since we can no longer make the distinction?

  5. To me, the definition is a kind of musical language. If the language makes music, if it is expressed in a way that paraphrasing cannot touch, etc...