My friend Tam and I were discussing New Zealand poet Maria McMillan’s new book, Tree Space. Or rather, as is sometimes the case, we were talking around it. We fixed on an interview McMillan recently gave to NZ Poetry Shelf in which she identified three qualities that a poem must have: sound must be a central concern of a poem; a poem must have integrity; a poem must have a beginning and an end. This is fine, we agreed, in the way that advice that is vague and inadequate but well-meant is fine, like the apothegm “God is love.”
Tam suggested as a rigorous alternative a rather overlooked (in fact, obscure) set of fourteen rules called “Notes for the Perfect Poem,” by the late Alabama poet John Finlay. These were new to me. On a first reading, the triple-distilled clarity of these notes suggests that they come from a mind that has considered the subject totally. But while, for example, “It must have both the intensity of engagement and the detachment of judgement” is probably the perfect expression of a complicated principle, how useful is it to say that a poem “must be fully realized in language”? Is this not another way of saying, more or less, that a poem had better have the right number of words? And is “It must be plain” a profoundly laconic endorsement of laconicism, carefully arrived at, or just another stern warning from a literary Quaker dad? Am I picking apart the rules because they are not good rules, or because they are not my rules?
But back to McMillan. She says one thing in her interview that I think is very wise: “I think you could write a bad poem which meets these three criteria but it would still be a poem, and, I think any good poem would have to meet these criteria.” Now, McMillan’s list and Finlay’s notes could hardly be more dissimilar, but they have one crucial thing in common: they both exist to show a reader how good poetry might be written. In fact, all manifestos of poetics do.
But McMillan recognises—and admits!—that, despite her best intentions, a poet heeding her words might produce, tragically, heartbreakingly, against the odds, a piece of shit in verse. (Finlay implicitly grants something similar, because he surely didn’t believe in poetic perfection.) If only every manifesto writer would concede this! Because the fact is that the language really used by men is tired, because it hasn’t rested since 1798.
I began to wonder: what would a manifesto for bad poetry look like? Would it differ either superficially or deeply from the art’s graver manifestos? It really wouldn’t have to. It would merely have to persuade, and persuasion sounds very much the same whether it is honest or dishonest. If it was any good it would hold great attractiveness as a snappy piece of writing, but, if followed, it would be certain to produce bad poetry. Some harmless sophistry. In this it would be more effective than any positive manifesto, because, if guided well, no-one who sets out to write a bad poem is going to accidentally write an excellent one.
Most importantly of all, as with any manifesto, at least a part of this one will likely be wrong, and thus bad advice, which in this case would be good advice. I look forward to discovering what that is. It might look like this, and I would call it:
Precepts for Perfection in Poetry
1. Poetry is the art of the indefinite. A poem is not a recipe for a date slice or instructions for putting together a Billy bookcase. “Justice” and “love” are more important than “Solomon” or “Beatrice.” Keep it abstract.
2. Never forget poetry’s ancient origins in chant and song. Poetry must be immutable, for how else can we ensure that the past, like our DNA, can be transmitted down the generations without interruption or mutation? Thus, a poem must, like a song, be memorizable, or, even better, easy to remember. You can achieve this by using few—but the best—words, counting out an invariable rhythm, and drawing on the concentrated power of inherited stock phrases.
3. All poetry is political poetry, and every poem must belong to a party. That party is called a genre.
4. In nature, perhaps 30 in 1,000 births are twin births. But we aspire to master nature in order to have the peace and possibility to master ourselves. We want perfection and partnership. Every line should come into the world with a twin, not alone. Do not write a line that you are not going to rhyme with another.
5. The first simile was “I am somehow unlike other things.” This has not changed. Your exceptionalism and your difference from all other beings and objects in the world is the fittest subject for poetry.
6. What is the most important thing in the world to you? Do not lie and say that it is poetry. You should write about the most important thing in the world to you (otherwise, why bother? why preserve your thoughts?). Thus, do not write poetry about poetry.
7. “The squeezed middle” is a term from poetics. A successful poem is primarily beginning and ending.
8. A poet must be moral exactly insofar as he or she wants a readership of moralists.
9. An exception to the first precept, the Precept of Abstraction, is this: color words. Does any other animal see colors as vividly and truly and intimately as we do? Never forget your duty to music, but have a passing acquaintance with visual art. Some good examples: “the yellowish bruise of betrayal,” “blue-black Melancholy.”
10. Poetry is like the light that streaks across the grass after passing through a well-spaced picket fence. Your verses are the pickets, the obstruction. Make them workmanlike and regular and perhaps the poetry will pass through them in good order.
11. A word on originality and plagiarism. You write poems because all other poems are somehow inadequate. Only you can write great poems. So stealing from other poets is unlikely to produce what you believe is good poetry. The solution is to write something that you think is worth stealing, and to steal it from yourself without knowing it.
12. No-one but a drunk or a fool ever deliberately wrote a poem that was true.
If you don’t like it, write a worse one.