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[Back to Essays]

Poetry and Freedom
or Dear Diary, No One Can Hear Us Here

A poet writes how she walked into a San Francisco bar, heard a wild poet richly ranting and knew that poetry was freedom - she could say what she wanted to say. She no longer had to muffle her yawps in complex ironies or silence her lusts, rages, and sillinesses. In the same 'zine (mostly articles on poetry slamming) another poet identifies poetry with freedom. Sounds good. Where can I get some?

The old rebuttal is to stress the importance to any art of discipline. But apart from that, I question whether the practice of poetry, in itself, necessarily increases the freedom of either its practitioners or its audience.

Anyone who hangs around ANY poetry milieu - slam, academic, cowboy, whatever - and tries to please its audience, encounters limitations. One crowd wants complexity, another demands simplicity. One favors subtle twists of logic, another disjointed explosive images. To take an extreme example, if a devout Christian at a poetry slam reads a poem about the sinfulness of homosexuality, the freedom-lovers in the audience may boo the poem off stage after the first few lines (as soon as they realize it's not a joke).

Not that poets are inevitably enslaved by their audiences. A free-spirited poet of genius transcends limitations - finds a way to use the accepted forms to communicate new viewpoints. But if we mis-identify poetry (or any type of poetry) with freedom, we are not likely to attain to that free-spiritedness.

Poetry can free or enslave. Which it does is not a matter of technique, but of wisdom and intention. Is the poet patting us on the back for our knee-jerk responses, shocking us into apathy, or getting us to see more and respond to more? We've all heard poets who would cheerlead us into oblivion.

Most would argue that great poetry, whatever its message, frees us. Perhaps, in the long run, some spark of sanity wins out, so that those poems passed down to us as "great" are, indeed, free-spirited. But we must hear the poetry of our own time without the benefit of centuries of filtration. When we look at poetry of centuries past, we find much, considered "great" at the time, that now is deadly dull. Right now, as we listen to our poets, are we being freed? Soothed? Put to sleep? Terrorized? As we write, are we liberating ourselves or justifying and decorating our fixed ideas?

What is freedom? One definition is, an absense of barriers. What I call "free-spirited" (and I think of Shakespeare as the prime example) is more complex than "free". In any game (tennis, Calvin-ball, poetry or life), freedoms and barriers are equally important. Too many barriers stifles the fun out of the game. It's impossible to move. Too much freedom paralyzes us: Where's the playing field? Who's on whose side? How does one win? In games where the rules change rapidly, the ability we cherish as "free-spiritedness" is really the ability to dispense with excessive barriers OR to welcome new ones as needed to keep the game alive and expanding.

Thus, art, which we associate with moments of conjoined surprise and recognition, requires barriers (conventions, agreements), so that expectations can be stirred. If no expectations are aroused, how can the artist meet and/or disappoint those expectations to produce surprise and recognition? And without freedom, surprise is forbidden; there is nothing to recognize - only the endless weary chanting.

Add to this concept of free-spiritedness (a high tolerance for both freedoms and barriers, a willingness to create or destroy either) the artist's ability to communicate and thus to win that broad agreement for an idea that we call "reality": The result is one who can posit new freedoms and barriers (new "forms"?) so that they become realities for us all. New games to play.

Wisdom is part of it. This artist must be able to sense when barriers or freedoms have become intolerable - not to himself, since his own tolerance is ideally boundless: He can sit down to the blank paper, knowing there is absolutely nothing he cannot say or is unwilling or afraid to say, and there is no person to whom he is unwilling to say anything at all, no hint of "I'm supposed to" or "what will Daddy or some reviewer think" - he can face this freedom, take responsibility for whatever he is about to say, decide to say it - and say it.

(The truism that increased freedom entails increased responsibility applies to poetry as to all else. How comforting - or stifling - it is to know exactly what sort of thing one is expected to say to win approval, shock, awards, etc.)

Conversely, he can decide to contribute to a poetry scene that requires strict form, a severely limited poetic vocabulary, selections from a short list of acceptably poetic subjects, etc. - and use these rules to say something deeply his own.

For such a poet, it is an act of generosity - or a reaching out for playmates - that he helps us by remedying whatever imbalance of freedoms and barriers stifles - not himself, but the rest of us.

Where the game (poetry) is mistaken for the free- spiritedness that can be APPLIED to poetry (but is not, in itself, poetry), we get all sorts of oddities: The poet who, because he is thereby "free", thinks it OK to drug himself, cheat on lovers, never repay debts, etc. But each of these actions reduce his free-spiritedness. For example, his willingness to say anything to anyone is destroyed by the lies and cheating, for he now has secrets and people he must avoid - whole classes of people who remind him of those he has cheated that he must avoid and mock (to justify what he does to them). Drugs put him out of synch with others, change willingness to communicate to compulsive, enforced communication. He will say a great deal, loudly and bluntly, but without the intention to communicate.

When a type of poetry is equated to freedom, we lose sight of the trade-offs. If, for example, the current fad is to "liberate" metaphors from logic, poets are free to make incongruous pairings. But, losing the expectations engendered by logic, poets can no longer say what once they said by meeting and/or disappointing those expectations.

The currently popular assumption by formalists that a return to traditional forms will revitalize poetry with needed barriers is accompanied by a lot of rhetoric equating form with poetry with true freedom - and is also accompanied by a lot of polished verses that, like most free verse, leave me reaching for a good mystery novel. Form, too, can stultify.

A given assumption will serve for a time. When there are no tennis nets, and all the players, bored, have gone home, erect a strong net. When the nets are 30 feet high, and all the players (except for a tiny elite establishment allowed to play on gold- plated stilts) are too apathetic to swing their rackets - get out the net-snipping shears.

In short, there are freedoms and barriers, and some players are freer than others. But the act of writing or reading or hearing poetry does not necessarily free us. What does? That's another essay. Surely one part of the answer is that leading an ethical life (so that one needn't have secrets - except for the fun of it) increases one's freedom to communicate. By "ethical", I don't mean moral (obeying the rules), but acting so as to enhance one's own survival and that of others - which often equates to morality, but not always.

My goal here is not to show the way to freedom, but rather to mark a false path. If we assume that the act of writing or performing poetry frees us, we won't seek out ways to be freer - and we are likely to rationalize all sorts of self-limiting fixations in the name of a pretended freedom.

Why is poetry so often muddled up with freedom? I think it begins with the notion that the physical universe consists of insuperable barriers: Human bodies can't fly, time won't go backwards, water flows downhill, etc. Vast expense of energy and time is required to climb a mountain, run for public office, become a zillionaire or bed the perfect lover. It is seen as a solid, finished world with little toleration for our creations.

The arts, on the other hand, we consider a world where we are free to create whatever we wish. Of course, many art forms drag in huge physical limitations. A sculptor must deal with boulders and furnaces. A pianist depends on the good behaviour of gleaming, many-toothed monsters. Movies cost tens of millions and are hostage to the whims of bean-counters, super-star egos, etc.

Even within the field of writing, where it seems so little is needed - pen, paper, perhaps access to a copier, stamps, envelopes, the whole collection of gear taking up but a desktop and weighing less than the writer (MUCH less if there's no computer) - yet even the writer is limited by strict formal demands. The novelist, for example, must tell a story.

But poetry in our time has become, for many, a formless thing, taking on the semblance of a diary page. Such freedom! A pen, a paper and you can say anything! You can say the bad 4-letter words and the good ones (which are even more embarrassing - "love", for example). You can say you love people you're not supposed to love (those of the same sex, of other races, other species...), hate people you aren't supposed to hate (Mommie, Jesus...); you can express any opinion, make sense or rant gibberish, scream or whisper - no limitations. You are the God of a little world, yours, whether or not made cunningly, and all for the price of pen and paper.

What's wrong with this picture? Ah - we've omitted communication - sending something across from writer to reader/hearer. Even the writer who "writes only for himself" ("Dear Diary...") writes to please imagined others, perhaps others no longer living or who never lived. Or he writes in fear (or in hope) that others may discover and read his confessions.

At first we think, it's just words, where nothing is forbidden. But we soon learn that our words are treated by others as if they were solidities: People react as if struck by sticks, stones or bullets. They hate or scold or ostracize or mock or even crucify you for what you say. Or they don't listen.

The hard truth is, we are only as free in our poetry as we can be free in our communication. This sounds like a trivial point, but is not: If there's one thing about yourself you don't want your parents or friends or enemies to know or one thing about your family that you fear your family wouldn't want others to know or one thing that you MUST say in order to persuade yourself you are alive - or any of the countless others musts and must-nots that limit our freedom to communicate - this shackles your poetry, limits you to silence or defiance or coyness or any of the innumerable ways we avoid saying what we have to say (each with its corresponding school of poetry that does nothing BUT).

Not that one MUST say everything to everyone, but that to the extent one is not ABLE to say anything to anyone, one lives and writes in the shadow of what must or must not be said.

Some claim poetry allows one to say what otherwise could not be said. That's true, but incomplete. Poetry, at best, allows one to say what otherwise could not be said, but more often it allows one to avoid saying what is not to be said while persuading oneself it has been said. For example, the academic who would be embarrassed to say, "I looked at the sky, slipped out of my head and felt myself an immortal being" is able to encode the experience in convolutions of irony and incrustations of allusive metaphor that allow readers to take it all as figurative, mythic, richly symbolic - if it makes sense to them at all.

Similarly, the anti-academic encodes it in violently vivid non-sequitors and radical attitudes, so that any feelings expressed are safely merged with all the rest as wild-assed hyperbole.

Have we been freed to say "I love you" by having permission to say

The swollen frenzy of your lips
butterflies my flayed core,
buffeting the crowd crammed
into my rib cage...

or whatever our poetry is supposed to sound like at the moment?

It can work, sure. But it works better if we realize that freedom means one can SAY "I love you" as well as evade saying it (however eloquently) and that one makes it new by saying it newly now, me to you. And in the absense of the ability to do that (to say "Hello" for the millionth time as if for the first time ever), no disguise called poetry will make anything new.

Many academic poets I've known or encountered are enslaved to the fear of being corny. Many slammers I've met or encountered are enslaved to the fear of failing to pop a loud fire-cracker in each line of poetry. "Intense" equals poetic.

Most of the apparent freedom of modern poets is identical to the freedom possessed by the writers of secret diaries: NO ONE IS LISTENING and NO ONE CARES. In some countries (Cuba, for example) poets may be arrested - even executed - for saying the wrong things. In such countries, poets are widely read and cherished. In the United States, no one is hanged for poetry. Poets are killed by indifference here - including the effective indifference of reviewers who find every tedious clone to be a "fresh new voice" or buddies and bards in a bar who give straight nines to your soaring vision and then award straight tens and louder applause to the next poet's incomprehensible rant or facile political correctness.

In short, every tool of every school of poetry is as useful for evading communication as for achieving it. The freedom to speak out in an academically complex poem often equates to the freedom to speak out from within a sealed sound-proofed closet. Poetry slams liberate one to say all that cannot be said in academic verse - so long as one doesn't try to say all that can't be said in slam poetry.

An oversimplification, of course. Both slam and academic venues vary. But any poet has a sense of some audience (maybe just a few friends, a few editors, a few reviewers) and what they demand.

"Dear Diary" - isolated creativity - has its joys. The act of creation is, itself, a joyous thing. But in the absence of the skills to remain in good communication with others, creativity burns out, becomes a hectic, forced thing, an obsession, a pretense. I can't recall when last I met a poet who, saying "I only write for myself", said it joyously. Creativity, after all, threatens the game: If you could create a world as real as this one, what would happen to this one? Would we ever return to it? Communication gives us an excuse to create. It provides a channel by which our creations enrich the shared world we call THE world.

Yes, poetry can be a liberating experience. And being a prisoner in a cell can be a liberating experience. Freedom is where we find it. But poetry is not innately liberating. We need to find what wisdom and strength we can and bring it to our poetry, not pour out poetry and assume that we are thereby doing all we can for ourselves and others. We MAY be, indeed, but only if we are doing so. There is no substitute (no magic words, no mystery of style) for BEING the person who has the right to say what needs to be said. If poetry is your way of not having a life, then your poetry will not give life.

(And, dare I say it - this applies even to you [to us] devotees of "the haiku experience". No, I dare not say it. Issa, I think, would dare to tell you. He could say anything to anyone. Basho, too, would dare to tell you that while you are slaying the thousand Buddhas, if you should happen to stomp on the sacred silent selflessness of haiku, that's OK. It may emit a fartlike sound. Do not be alarmed. Hold your nose. Keep writing.)


Last updated: December 13, 2004