Saturday, February 19, 2011

Discomfort=Success. Pluto=John Gould Fletcher

Wonderful post from Wil Wheaton yesterday. He recently shared a story which, if comments can be trusted, was replete with evil and short on happy endings. A reader sent in a note requesting that future stories not be so dark. The author loved the feedback, posting

HUNTER is just 2700 words, but it affected this reader so much, he/she/it wrote me this e-mail, and I've been walking on air all day because of it. HUNTER is set in a dark and desperate world, where good and evil is really a matter of perspective, and if readers left that world feeling really good, I either didn't hit the target I was aiming for, or I'm going to keep my distance from that reader if it's at all possible.

That's the perfect reaction. Clearly, Wheaton is not evil (The Big Bang Theory notwithstanding), but his piece was designed to contain and portray evil. Obviously, it was successful, and he revels in this evidence of his success. Wheaton maximizes his online presence and is quite innovative in distributing his work (Hunter is a pay-what-you-like downloadable story), which makes the feedback channel direct and immediate. Of course, Wheaton, being a Trek icon and Prime Minister of his corner of The Internet, has a constituency disposed to use the direct and immediate route, which helps, but how great to get a response and be able to see how it proves that your experiment worked. Congrats to him.

Wheaton is also an excellent source and model for us as poets because he deliberately and routinely challenges his limits as an artist, both as actor and writer. And he lets us tag along on the ride.


It was 81 years ago this week that Pluto was discovered and labelled a planet. Of course, after having a Disney dog named for him and providing the punctuating object in a classic grammar school mnemonic*, Pluto has since been repurposed as a big ice cube, but I don't know that ever knew the exact reason, which emanated from new rules that said planets must "clear the neighborhood around its orbit." Since Pluto's oblong orbit overlaps that of Neptune, it was disqualified. Despite having such an impact on science and culture for his period, it's likely that Pluto will have little or no such impact on future generations.

Which brings me to John Gould Fletcher. Now, I'm sure there are regular visitors to this space who are quite familiar with Fletcher's literary legacy, but here's what I knew about him before some very recent research: He's not in my (c)1976 New Oxford Book of American Verse. The Poetry Foundation website associates him with Amy Lowell, but includes no links to any of his poems. Lowell's page links to 29 of her poems and a number of other writings. Fletcher's page has no links.

I first encountered Fletcher when I found in a second-hand bookstore a 1960 anthology called American Poetry, edited by Karl Shapiro. There's one Fletcher poem in there: "Elegy on an Empty Skyscraper". I enjoyed the poem and it got me started wondering about Fletcher. This one poem was all of his legacy that Shapiro, an important opinion at the time (?), felt worthy of sharing. This despite his inclusion of three Oliver Wendell Holmes poems - all inferior (IMHO) to "Elegy..." - in the same edition.

Who will be the arbiters of poetry's future solar systems? Who decides if Williams and Pound remain planets or become asteroids in the belt? For that matter, who decides who decides? Shapiro was Library of Congress Consultant in Poetry (forerunner to the US Poet Laureate) and a fairly prolific writer and educator, but when the poets I follow today discuss their influences and loves, the name "Shapiro" doesn't encroach on the conversation.

And don't tell me that distance in time is the reason. Dickinson, Freneau, Whitman, and others from their eras I see and hear about with some regularity, and they all predate Shapiro. And Fletcher. Is this my ignorance talking? Perhaps. I'm pretty well-read in American poetry, but I'm not a scholar. And much of my reading comes at the recommendation of contemporary poets whose work I love, so my biases, in effect, define the sphere of my readings. Believe me, I'm aware of that.

I don't know that I really have an answer or even a meaningful question here. But with appreciation for Pluto's teaching us that more than just art is fleeting, maybe I'll make a little more time for reading the great words of the past that are no less great for having been eclipsed by later learnings.

Just 'cause he's not a planet anymore doesn't mean he's not still in the sky.

*My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas =
Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto

1 comment:

Supervillainess said...

I know Karl Shapiro. He did some interesting prose poems in the sixties, and was featured in my mother's old poetry textbook from 1969.