Saturday, October 30, 2010

Things Good Poker Players Know That Many Poets Ought to Learn

I enjoy the game of poker. I enjoy the math, the interplay among the participants, the drama of watching a good game from the sidelines. It occurs to me that much of what attracts me to the game is similar - if not spot-on - to what attracts me to poetry. See if you agree with these principles and how they apply to both poetry and poker. You may need to interchange the word "hand" with the word "poem" once in a while....
  • With very, very rare exceptions, every hand/poem is improvable. You may be holding a great poem in your hands. You may consider it done and it may be excellent, publishable, and memorable. It may be "the nuts". But there may be something else you find, learn or discover later that would improve it. You may not ever find that something, and you may not need it to be successful, but be open to it if it comes along.
  • If you want people around you to take action based on what you hold, it's important what they think of you. It's of course possible to construct a great hand with limited input from other players/poets and limited history of poker/poetry. However, your decisions and your ability to influence people into action are drastically improved if you understand how things work and some of your shared history. At minimum, you need to understand the rules. Bluff all you want, but there are rules.
  • While people may make their decisions based on their opinions of you, there will be times when your only and best influence is to show your cards. Therefore, no matter how effective you are at the rest of the game ("being a poet"), you simply must have the ability to know when you've built a good hand (written a good poem).
  • It is possible - and probably necessary for most people - to combine competitiveness and social behavior. There are certainly Hellmuthian examples of poets being jerks and still being respected for their objectively and genuinely great poems, but you're more likely to get help on the way to Ledererian greatness - purposefully in the form of teaching and subtly in the form of noticing other people's habits - if your default mode is participating, learning, and listening. NOTE: Hellmuth doesn't seem to really be a jerk. Does that matter?
  • Playing with the cover of anonymity (online) can help you hone skills, develop a sense of what's important to you in the game, and learn some of the rules. However, a skilled player/poet with live experience of actual poker/poetry events will detect in seconds if that (individual effort) is your only experience. And if your goal in that meeting is to impress that skilled player/poet and impose your will in some way (win money, gain respect, acquire feedback), it will not end well for you. You must understand the universe to chart your way to the stars.
  • In any large gathering/tournament, there will be participants who will not pay much attention to anything but their own business, who will neither learn nor teach, and who are likely to leave early without having much impact on the rest of the people gathered, though they may have fun, contribute, and enjoy themselves. There is nothing harsh or disrespectful about saying this. It is helpful to recognize the ones who respect the game/art, for those are the ones from whom you can learn.
Think I'm way off? Go try the Poker Professor's "Poker and Zen" first; this little list may seem like the nuts (instead of being "just plain nuts") after that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Another Obseration from the Second String

In my last entry, I articulated something I hope is not heresy: we're not all great poets, and it's hard to agree what "great" is. Just last month, in a poetry forum I follow, a couple of the poets were wondering what people found so great about Robert Frost. Personally, I think that's a silly question (there are those who think Frost wasn't a great poet? Really?), but I'll entertain the argument. There are, however, poets who can claim to be competent, good even, without a compelling argument available to promote them as great.

Like me, for example.

Now be advised this is not a hook dropped into the community pool in search of praise. But there are a few things I think are necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) conditions for greatness; let me present them along with why I say, with comfort and self-respect, that I don't meet them.
Great artists expand the art. The great poets add new things to their form or bring their form to new applications. They integrate other fields and disciplines and create links among their art and other areas of knowledge not obviously connected. This can be in an individual poem or artwork, a particular body of work, or a career of artistic reaching. Frost added conversational language; Williams added minimalist jazz; etc.

Great poets push an envelope. There's great safety in operating where other artists operate and where opinion of one's work is fairly well assured. Most sitcoms come to the air because of this principle. However, the most interesting and memorable work is that which surprises us, which takes us away from the safe and the known and still entertains us. Of course, there is risk there, because sometimes you stray so far from the known that you lose the audience you are trying to bring. And to know where you start to lose people, to know where that limit is you have to accept that you will breach that line sometimes. My favorite examples here are Family Guy and Pearls Before Swine. Both show great awareness of their forms and history and challenge that form and history all the time. They both are occasionally offensive and frequently brilliant.

Great poets create audiences. I expect some challenge on this one, but I'm not necessarily talking about popularity here. Many artists believe that they create for creation's sake, and are not concerned with reaching an audience. I think that's bunk. While an artist may not be concerned about the quantity of fellow appreciators of that art, they surely believe that fellow appreciators exist and that their artistic wants are not met through conventional artistry. When Pound integrated Chinese characters into the cantos, it wasn't to convince people to study Chinese, or as some sort of barrier to force the casual reader away, it was with the expectation that some readers would want to and be able to "get it", either through prior knowledge or understanding from within the poem, and would appreciate the poems more for it. While this work may not satisfy the conventional fan, these artists make fans of people who weren't fans before - fans of work that may not have existed before. The avant (post-avant?) of any art form operates with the confidence that there is an avant audience waiting for their output.

I think one needs to meet at least two of these criteria to even be considered for greatness. As for my small contributions to the universe of poetry? Well, I dabble in expanding the art sometimes through incorporation of concepts and language from the world of science and engineering. Maybe one day one or two of my poems in that vein will be thought of as great. But I don't live in that space, nor do I seek to bring people into it with me. As for the other two? Not really. My internal editor is set in a very consciously limiting way; there are boundaries I do not care to flirt with except in my journal and writing exercises. More on the what and why of my self-limitation another time.

Again - you don't need to be great to be good, to have an audience, to contribute to the art. We on the B-list can actually better appreciate who we are and what we offer by understanding the A-list and what the members of that list do that we don't. This helps us stay centered on what we can do well without deluding ourselves about things we can't. It helps us focus on connecting with our audience without the false impression that we're blazing new trails for them. I think this is a good thing.

Are we all striving for greatness? Maybe. But being a serious student of the art requires one to know where greatness begins, and where you're standing at the moment.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Writing Lesson from Rusty Staub

"He was never a great player, but hit for a good average and good power, and had a strong arm from right field."

Rusty Staub has been my favorite baseball player for as long as I can remember. He played for my father's team and was a dynamic player for them at two formative moments in my life: When I was becoming old enough and aware enough of the team to root for real and not just because rooting earned me a cookie, and again when I began accumulating my own money to spend on tickets. The line above is from his official website, so it must be description of himself that approves of.

I've met Rusty twice, and you wouldn't think from the way people treat him that he "was never... great". He surely made the most of "very good"; he played for 23 years, and was good in every role he had, at first, in right, DHing, or coming off the bench late in the game. He hit .279 for his career (which you may remember was approaching its peak around the same time as the "Year of the Pitcher"), and belted 292 career home runs. I suppose those aren't great numbers. But they were number I could root for. Numbers suggesting accomplishments that were important to me individually, and over a career.

Put your seat belt on; here comes the turn toward poetry.

I'm missing Dodge this year (first time since 1998), in part because of a confluence of busyness at work and home, and in part because of a nasty cold that's just kicking my tuchus mercilessly, so all I've seen is the Thursday night simulcast, where the 24 "featured" poets (though they don't call them anything like that anymore) each read for 4-5 minutes (or in Rita Dove's case, 9). As they paraded by in these short stints, I was wondering which of them I'd call "great", if any. It's not terribly relevant which ones I think compete for the title; the point is simply that (no offense to anyone....), it's probably not all of them.

Forgive me, oh gods of parity and you literarical correctness wonks, but that's the truth. Not everyone who speaks a line of verse during the 2010 Dodge Festival is a great poet. And if I were to name one or two that I think are truly great, I could find 10 people outside the NJPAC right now to disagree. And that's OK.

We don't all need to be great to contribute something to the art. But to contribute, we need to be aware that we are not all great. That the last poem I wrote is probably not "The Man With The Blue Guitar" that the last book I read is probably not Paterson. But there may be some artistic merit in them if we permit them to fill their role - in our own portfolios first, then in our writing communities, then amid the clutter and cacophony that is contemporary poetry.

Heresy? I don't know. Cop-out? Hardly. I listen to Amiri Baraka and read the analyses of Ron Silliman and know immediately where my part-time hobbyism leaves me in the pantheon. But I don't stop writing. I have an audience in mind, an emergence of a style, and an approach I don't see many other poets using. There's something there to contribute. Someone to contribute it to.

My poems, maybe, are the literary equivalent of a good right-handed stick off the bench. Rusty batted lefty; there's room for me on the team.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Know me, know The Mets

I am a fan of the New York Mets. Even now, with respectability the only goal remaining for the year, I continue to root. I received the requisite training for this during my formative years of fandom. Playing in the street all those summers ago, I modeled my windup after Craig Swan, my right handed stance after Steve Henderson, from the left after Rusty Staub.

As it says somewhere on this page, I also root for the Yankees. You don't need to believe this, but it's the truth. It was much easier to hold this position before interleague play, but even nowadays, I support the pinstripes 156 games a year. When the chips are down, though, such as during the 2000 World Series, or back when I traded my Reggie for a Nino and a Mike and future considerations, the Metsies are my men.

That doesn't mean that I disrespect the Yankees even when I'm turning them off to watch the orange and blue. It would be ignorant of a baseball fan not to recognize the gifts the players on the Yankees have. I learned this attitude from my father.

Not the trading away of the Hall of Famer for two cards and a stick of stale gum. That he'd have though was ridiculous. And not just because of the legacy of the Seaver trade.

Anyway, here at the end of the season, I still want to know how the Metropolitans did, and I'm interested in seeing the young kids get their ABs because I'll be back next year to watch them again, because my father came back every year for them, too.

What does this have to do with poetry? Not a lot, I suppose, except for those poems where the Mets and baseball feature prominently. Or maybe in more places than that. Being a fan, coming back when you think there's more to see or to learn or to accomplish, the wanting others to succeed, these are attitudes that tend to pervade one's approach to life and writing.

I learned that from my father, too.

Back to poetry after the end of the season.