The Guest Critic

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So there’s this setup I keep walking into. I get invited to be a guest critic (and sometimes even a “celebrity” guest critic!) for workshops run by various poetry and arts organizations. At least half the time, I’m the youngest person in the room—sometimes by several decades. There’s always a wide variety of experience and skill in the craft, but the poems are heartfelt, and the poets generally have such incredible life experience and perspective that I’m left thinking about what I’ve seen for weeks afterward.

The problem is that inevitably a certain number of poets in the room choose to write in a voice that isn’t theirs, and that doesn’t belong in the same century they’re writing in. They believe that the only way a poem can sound like a poem is to heighten the diction to sometimes ridiculous extremes—“the verdant, sylvan glades effervesce their leaves in brilliant hues of viridian and bice…” Sometimes I’m left wondering whether the poet or his/her thesaurus actually wrote the line.

And here we come to the setup. Out of duty, I make some gentle reminder along the lines of “less is more” or “be careful not to fall into the trap of bogging down your readers in language more complicated than they really need,” and some grizzled and venerable veteran of the group stares me down, takes a deep breath, and lets me know that writers of a certain age appreciate a certain gravity to their diction. Apparently, at 37, I’m just too young to understand the beauty of language.

There’s a group like this near where I live. They’ve invited me back five times over the last 6 years, so we’ve come to know each other almost as family. I’ve seen their souls bared again and again in the poems they’ve submitted, and they’ve seen mine in the readings I give at the end of each session. We meet at a Methodist church, they serve the kind of coffee and pie that can only come from middle-aged church ladies, and we grow together more every year.

This year, I finally got comfortable enough that I could share my response.

The most senior members of this group came of age in the Modern era, where economy of language was a key tenet. They didn’t know any of the same poets from this era I do, but they did recognize this trend in prose writers like Hemingway and Faulkner. The next generation down, which includes most of the group’s officers, came of age in the explosive mid-20th century that included writers like the Beats, the Confessionals, the Black Mountain Poets, etc. After that, postmodernism took root, then postmodernism’s many offspring, and so on. In fact, not one member of the group could think of a single poet contemporary to their generation who writes like they do.

Then came the clincher—most of them couldn’t think of a single poet contemporary to their generation at all. So we started talking about where they do draw their inspiration from, and it turned out most of the group never really outgrew the 19th century and earlier poets they’d first encountered in eighth grade English class.

The discussion ended with my joking offer to give any poet in the room a free pass on diction if they could show ID documenting them as a true Victorian at least 114 years old, but what we talked about stayed with me for quite a while after that session was over.

I’ve always told my students at the university level that writers write in community, and encouraged them to seek out writing groups, writing partners, slams, workshops, etc to support them and keep them moving forward as writers. I’ve never put much effort, though, into encouraging these same students to seek out the same sort of support for their development as readers of poetry. I give them a syllabus of books and journals and online resources, and just expect that they’ll continue seeking out contemporary influences after they leave my classes. My real world experience with lifelong writers of poetry tells me that this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to.

So today, as the deadline for this blog entry approaches, I’ve decided to make a commitment myself, and consciously model it both for my students and for my workshop attendees. I’m going to stop browsing journals for my friends’ names, and start reading them instead as an act of discovery—of intentionally expanding my awareness of what’s out there in the contemporary poetry world. I’m also going to start reading one full-length poetry collection each month that has been released in the last year or two. My current favorite press—Write Bloody—has recently been putting out books faster than I can read them anyway, so I’ve got a good place to start.

And from now on, every time I do a reading, instead of my usual “cover poem” by beloved dead poets like Ginsberg and Cummings and Piñero, I’m going to start making a point of sharing something beautiful I just read—something I intend to draw the audience to a certain journal or website or book publisher, so that they can do some contemporary reading too.

Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on so well that someday I’ll have to start cautioning the octogenarians to be less hip-hop or less New Yorker or less anything-new instead…


Filed under: Jim Danger Coppoc, Poetics, Prose