Poetry Footprint

Poetry High FiveAccording to the Global Footprint Network, the Ecological Footprint is “the metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet and come up with facts, such as: If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need 5 planets.” There are several footprints currently being measured, carbon and water, for example, and we are encouraged to measure our own personal footprint and to reduce the size of our footprint, “to tread more lightly on the earth.”

Maybe poetry does not have a footprint, but a handprint. A print that shows who was here, and this is what they saw, what they heard, what they tasted, what they touched and felt, what they smelled. But also, what they and those close to them thought about this sensorium of experience, how they responded, how they changed, what they promised and what they betrayed, how they might have wronged and how they might have been forgiven. To do all of that, poetry needs a wide spectrum of possibilities. Some of these possibilities might lead listeners, readers, away from well worn paths, into uncharted waters, rough seas, or lulls, or blank spaces with no echo. Other possibilities might lead readers back into cities with crowded sidewalks, or into libraries full of musty, dusty books. Or into parks, or taverns, or beaches, or mountains and lakes and rivers, or nurseries or old folks’ homes, or orphanages or prisons, or churches or corporations, or onto ships or bicycles or cars or helicopters or surfboards. The point here is that any of these possibilities, for any individual listener, might wind up a dead end, but it can’t be wrong if it widens the spectrum, for the wider the spectrum, the greater the possibility of poetry.

I sometimes wonder if human nature improves over time. In other words, are we better than our ancestors? We might like to think so. Technology and medicine, the comforts of modern housing and transportation, what we call advancements and improvements resulting in higher standards of living might lead us to think we are smarter, more accomplished, in a word, better than our ancestors. But what of our essential nature? Has that improved? Does it improve? Can it improve? I have doubts. I think we’re probably the same inside as we’ve always been. It’s the same old heart beating in the same old chest.

In any case, what inspires this post is another skirmish posted in the poetry war, an internecine, academic argument. I’ll just point to David Biespiel’s response over at the Rumpus, and interested readers can follow the trail-links from there. Like most wars, it’s sometimes hard for an outsider to get what it’s all about, but like most fights, this one’s about territory and who’s to have the final word. But it’s also about values, what we value in poetry, and whose values ought to prevail. It might be important to remember that what we value is not necessarily what’s good for us. What we value is simply what we want.

There is something about poetry to value, to want, that is relevant to the discussion. One of my favorite books of poems is “Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert.* Prevert lived in Paris during World War II, during the German occupation. Writing in 1964, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his translator’s note introduction, said, “I first came upon the poetry of Jacques Prevert written on a paper tablecloth in St. Brieuc in 1944…a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.” That “perfectly suited to” is important, for it values a poem for its success in achieving its purpose. Even if we might think the purpose is bad, it can still be a good poem. This is a sentiment many critics find difficult to stomach, but it’s vital to the health of a wide spectrum of poetic possibilities.

But there’s another reason I like Prevert, and that has to do with the idea of sitting out at a sidewalk cafe table writing a poem on a paper napkin, not even a paper tablecloth, a poem someone might read, or no one might read. Poetry was a way out of oppression for Prevert, and poetry remains a tool today for release from the natural malaise that comes from everyday life, even if that release is only temporary, and even if that malaise is from human pressure. The release comes in the act of writing the poem, not from the possibilities of someone else reading it or of having it published or some fantasy of poetic fame, but from the existential act that says, I am here, and this is what that means, for now. The act of poetry leaves a tiny Ecological Footprint. That sidewalk cafe napkin poem might be a good way to “tread more lightly on the earth,” even as it adds to the size of the poetry footprint.

*Jacques Prevert’s “Paroles” is Number 9 in “The Pocket Poets Series,” first published in the City Lights Books edition in July 1958, in San Francisco. I have the Sixth Printing, February 1968.

Related Post: Bukowski for President! David Biespiel and Poets for Democracy


  1. As I said on Twit – I love Jaques Prevert’s film Les Enfants du Paradis but don’t know his poetry. A short exploration shows poignant humour. Will spend more time with the sharp Beispiel article.
    If poetry all over the world had ONE voice it would say ‘Joe Linker is my fair friend.’
    In the way Cromwell said, “Paint me as I am, warts and all!”
    Now back to editing …

    1. Thanks, Ashen! I’ve not seen the film. Will check it out. I think I looked once before and Movie Madness has it. As for the warts – pizza face, maybe, but warts? But that’s actually also a good point regarding the criticism of poetry David was responding to, and which Cornell West talks about in a different context in the film “Examined Life”: the search for perfection leads always to disappointment. Slavoj Zizek says something similar in his section of “Examined Life”: what is love, he asks, and he answers, we love (if we love) imperfection. “This is where we should start feeling at home,” he says – and he’s walking around in a garbage dump! Check it out here.

      1. Pizza face then. I feel the habit of categorising, judging and moralising is a pain and keeps people asleep. Slavoj Zizek is an interesting guy. This is a good clip, because he normally talks so fast, the way this is presented gives him and the listener time to breathe. He makes good points. When he says we should become more artificial, he reminds me of Maya Deren’s manifesto. Thought provoking. Now to find poetry in trash … I think it depends what path each person is on. Some lives are for building up and finding wholeness, others lives are into dismantling. Like moon-phases.

  2. Mark Edmundson in his July Harper’s essay bemoans the lack of scope and authority in the voice of contemporary American poetry. While Edmundson makes a valid critique in denouncing the narrowing perspective of the poet’s vision, it seems what readers seek is not the voice of an oracle delivering privileged insight, fundamental truth and epiphany wherein one-insight-fits-all. Edmudson says the poet “must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all.” Is a grand Whitman-esque vision really a requirement for meaning? Rather the problem underlying the lack of passion and interest in contemporary poetry derives from a lack of (ambition?) in seeking meaning and value within the individual’s life as it is found? At the heart of Edmudson’s thesis is the observation that “poets now are music makers, not mythmakers.” If myth is the vessel of passion, this may be true. And so the question becomes…can we have / create myth without religion, surrealism or nihilism? Can meaning be found, grounded in the individual’s experience without the underpinning of a grand theme?

    1. Thanks for reading and comment, Bill. I’m not sure myths can be made at all – deliberately, intentionally, through some sort of fabrication. The myths arise, through some sort of emergence in culture, and, as you say, “within the individual’s life as it is found.” The poet might capture the myth, illustrate it, narrate the myth, but I don’t think the poet creates the myth. But, then again, I don’t know: Andy Warhol put a soup can in a frame and hung it on a wall, but he didn’t make the soup can. But there’s a myth of soup, or the myth of the soup can, and then Andy became a myth. How did this picture of the soup can arise? That’s the myth. And what about Marilyn. In any case, I’d rather make music than myth, and out of that music might come myth, somewhere down the road. Then there’s the myth of the critic. Maybe that’s what Edmundson is trying to make. But the poets are oblivious to it, or should be, for the poets are “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes,” and the “night was very dark and thick between them” (Leonard Cohen). While critics are the bureaucrats of poetry, always wanting to write a procedure for a process. But that process, as David said, is messy, and can’t be held in a procedure bulletin, a procedure article.

      1. It may very well be that the poet does not, and can not create myth. Does this mean that myth must come from a source outside ourselves ? That we are in fact “hollow men”? This too may well be the case. It seems that we may create myth from within our own psyche? It seems we can no longer work from meaning based on a “given” mythology?

        And, for music to have meaning is myth required?

        1. A couple of quick thoughts. Northrop Frye, “Anatomy of Criticism” (see quote below). We are myth, part of myth, but I still don’t think we create ourselves, our myth. I know there’s ways around this, folks that sell you on creating your own myth, but that’s advertising, but we are born into something – what is it? Again, Frye, “Fables of Identity.” I don’t believe anyone is hollow. I understand the Eliot reference, but I’ve worked around too many literal folks to think anyone is hollow. Full of it, we are, yes, but not hollow. Something else happens, the evil leader, but the average guy is not hollow. This is something that may irk the poetry elitist or the critic who wants to control, to seal off, to close the library doors. Is myth in the psyche, as a kind of DNA? Here’s a review of Mary Midgley’s “Myths We Live By,” “…a collection of symbols.”

          From Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism”: “…what we think of as typically the poetic creation, which is an associative rhetorical process, most of it below the threshold of consciousness, a chaos of [271] paronomasia, sound-links, ambiguous sense-links, and memory-links very like that of the dream. Out of this the distinctively lyrical union of sound and sense emerges.”

  3. I like the idea of poetry as an ecological foot/hand print, and there’s certainly an evolution in which successful forms have stamped huge prints in the literary strata, only to disappear almost completely. It’s up to the small, clever mammals hiding in the undergrowth to keep poetry diverse and evolving.

    1. Great comment! “…only to disappear almost completely.” Words washed away by the incoming tide, ashed away by some new critical firestorm. “…the small, clever mammals hiding in the undergrowth….” Yes, diverse and evolving, as language does evolve. Poetic biodiversity. Yet how many languages go extinct everyday? And what will happen to the bees? What’s a poetry without honey?

  4. Wish I had been part of this discussion when it happened but I was then not yet born to the blogosphere. Yet I have read my way through what the tide has since obscured. I now find writing bad poetry serves the purpose of being brief and staying honest even if that honesty is only for the day.

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