Tryst Interviews CE Chaffin (Page.3)

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Mia: CE, in your essay “Poetry is for Poets”, you wrote:

“It's taken me a long time to admit this, but with few exceptions, only poets read poetry.
“In my Logopoetry essays I espouse certain criteria for judging quality in a poem. I also advocate a poetry that is comprehensible, and go to some length to define what that means, partly in the hope that poetry would garner a larger audience if it were less intentionally arcane.

“Now I think my hope is moot. I don't think a more comprehensible poetry will have any effect upon its popularity.”

The message I get from that essay is that poetry is about as popular is lawn bowling, maybe less because lawn bowling is at least a novelty whereas poetry is a dying art according to some. Of course, I don’t know how to account for the 20,000 MFA students every year and the fact that I myself have literally indulged in poetry almost thirty years, reading it more than writing it. I stand accused as one of the poets whose love for poetry makes no sense. And yet, we have to teach something in school, so why not let it be poetry as opposed to Economics or Law, neither of which I have an interest in?

Then, the biggest obstacle is how to make something intrinsic as poetry a necessary product via efficacy. Why should the athletics department get more funding than a literature class? Simple math will tell us that money is the key factor. Why is it in a country where we can sell just about anything we can’t sell enough tickets to a poetry conference? It’s because we’ve been giving it away and there is no “value” assigned to something that is free. I personally think we should charge an arm and leg to attend a reading by a Poet Laureate.

CE: I have gone to extremes in my denigration of the role of poetry in culture nowadays, “Poetry is for Poets” being one of my more polemical pieces on the subject. But you strike me as an idealist. AA has a saying, “by attraction, not promotion.” I feel sorry for the people who miss out on poetry, but I don’t feel the need to evangelize. Sure it should be in our curriculae, but just because it feeds my spirit doesn’t mean it’s going to impress a football fan. The first thing is to get parents to read it to their children. Mother Goose is great, or Goodnight, Moon, or Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein. Parents don’t read to their children enough. Children love rhyme, it’s natural.

Now on the utility of poetry, here’s a quote from a famous Utilitarian, who, despite his relative opposition to poetry and religion, insisted that his skeleton be seated at board meetings after his death. Remember also this was written some 150 years ago:

Jeremy Bentham:

The Rationale of Reward

“The utility of all these arts and sciences,—I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity,—the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few. The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay has foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consist in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through coloured media, and strive to make every one else do the same. It is true, there have been noble spirits, to whom poetry and philosophy have been equally indebted; but these exceptions do not counteract the mischiefs which have resulted from this magic art. If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.”

My, my. He agrees with Plato, it seems. But a poet who wrote 350 years ago already had an answer:


by Robert Herrick

LOVE and myself, believe me, on a day
At childish push-pin, for our sport, did play ;
I put, he pushed, and, heedless of my skin,
Love pricked my finger with a golden pin ;
Since which it festers so that I can prove
'Twas but a trick to poison me with love :
Little the wound was, greater was the smart,
The finger bled, but burnt was all my heart.

*Push-pin, a game in which pins are pushed
with an endeavour to cross them.

(I got these excerpts from a poetry listserv I recently joined and would give credit if I had permission. Then that’s life imitating art, isn’t it? Elitism! (I don’t want to advertise this list.) “Privacy is the last luxury.” –P. D. James)

So push-pin can be turned into poetry, but I doubt poetry can be turned into push-pin.

As for your dreams of “selling poetry,” I would caution you to content yourself with its private (and sometimes public) enjoyment. Eliot remarked (and most young poets resent it still) that “Poetry was always for the elite.” It’s the caviar of literature. As literature requirements plummet at the universities even the number of people able to enjoy the best poetry of the past diminishes yearly. Let us rejoice that we can enjoy it. If anyone could succeed at promoting poetry it would be Pinsky. But how great an impact has he had? Now Garrison Keillor has an anthology out that may help. Still, it’s more “flavor of the month poetry” than any expanding fan base. Billy Collins sold many copies of his Angels when the craze about angels was peaking in the U.S. in the early 90s, a fortuitous happenstance. I’m sure many who bought his book, like Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, were surprised at its content. Good for Billy and the late Brautigan! (Poor guy killed himself.)

Mia: Sorry, I had to pause here and laugh at the above commentary re: Brautigan because I was one of those who bought into his Trout Fishing. I’d like to make mention of an interview with you in Suite 101 (no longer available online) that propelled me to seek out your essays, and poetry. What caught my interest was your refusal to belong to an Academic School of Poetry; and, I am going to paraphrase here, “I have never been published in Ploughshares or The New Yorker and am glad of this distinction.” This avowal has puzzled me because here you are a poet/editor/writer who, in my most earnest opinion, could teach writing at the highest graduate levels and yet you seem to avoid any association with Academia. Having come full circle, I have a better appreciation and understanding of your views, sort of; but, I would like to know if you have changed your mind? If given the opportunity to teach, would you?

CE: First, I would love to be published in The New Yorker or Ploughshares or The Paris Review or Poetry, but I don’t submit to them, indeed haven’t licked a stamp for a poem in over five years. The net’s made me lazy in some ways, and frankly, I have no hope of acceptance in those august periodicals. It’s not that I’m proud of it, I just included it in my bio to let other folks know where I stand in the pecking order. I am a mid-tier net poet, best I can tell, who occasionally gets published in print when an e-zine doubles as a print zine. And yes, I know The New Yorker now accepts only e-mail submissions, but then, I don’t think I have much of a chance there, so a submission would likely be a waste of electrons.

As for academia, when I graduated from UCLA in 1976 I was given the top award in the honors program (I wasn’t in the honors program, curiously.) The department counselor asked me afterwards, “So where would you like to go? Oxford? Harvard? They’re asking for our best.” I replied, “I’m going to medical school. I don’t want to live in an ivory tower.” I didn’t get into med school my first year, so I started a house painting business. The next year I was accepted and that was an end and a beginning. I wanted to work at something hard and human (not to say academia is easy), and I had always loved the sciences (maybe why I’m partial to Jeffers). He built a stone house and tower by hand. I do think there is something to be said for physical labor, or practicing physical skills (from cooking to neurosurgery) in order to balance the abstract notions one must negotiate in a Literature department.

I think teachers who grow up in the university are too often impaired in the University of Life, a degree eminently more desirable, especially for poets. I had professors who were editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and found them cynical and ill-prepared. My love for literature survived them. I also had many good professors.

To put things in perspective, I’ve made life and death decisions a number of times: how can poetry or criticism compare to that—or even to fixing a muffler, something really useful! Wordsworth is our ally in this. Shelley and Hart Crane, for instance, I think of as “silver spoon poets”—aesthetes without the necessary experience of real life: work, family, survival. It may be unfair for me to judge for others what real life is, but I guess I identify with Philip Levine a bit on this. It has something to do with work, family, love, grief, and if you’re lucky, a faith that survives it all, as in his poem, “Mercy,” which I had the pleasure of hearing the first time at one of his readings, in fact the very event at UCLA that inspired my essay, “Poetry is for Poets.”

As for teaching, I would love to be a lecturer at a university, but as for tenure and all that, likely not. I’d love to be invited to my alma mater, UCLA, as a Poet-in-Residence, or any small college—it doesn’t matter how small! I’ll buy my own tweed coat with green suede elbow patches, I’ll pay my fare.

Anyone hiring?


Copyright © 2004 Chaffin