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Editorial: Melic Past and Present and the Future of Poetry

In biblical numerology eleven is the number of discord, situated between the order of ten and the harmony of twelve. Likewise, this issue of Melic has been a difficult one, as it represents a transition between webmasters. Without Jim Zola taking over as webmaster, this issue would be impossible; we are greatly indebted to him.

For some reason, poetry submissions fell this cycle, making it harder to fulfill our goal of near twenty but not more than thirty poems per issue, nor have we had a featured poet in the last three issues. Because of the decrease in submissions, we have changed our submission policy; submissions are now always open, but anything received after the tenth of the month preceding the next issue’s debut will only be considered for the following issue; thus anything received after November tenth for this issue will be considered for the March edition. Another sea change is that this issue has no theme. We have tried to put theme issues together in the past without disallowing thematically unrelated poems, but I fear this has discouraged some from submitting, so for the foreseeable future we plan no themes. Anything and all will be considered, quality being our only criterion, best represented by work in past issues.

I want to thank Laird Barron for assisting me in selecting poetry for Melic XI; in a double blind experiment of final choices our agreement was substantial. I did take the liberty of adding some poems I solicited from various workshops along the way, but discovered my file too late to run them by him. Our total from open submissions, curiously, amounted to just eleven poems.

For those who have contributed to our projected print edition, The Best of Melic, know that your names and contributions have been duly recorded and deposited. We ask your patience because we have not yet received even half of the projected five hundred dollars in seed money we thought necessary to begin the project. For anyone who wishes to contribute to this effort and receive a copy when it comes to fruition, send a donation of ten dollars or more to The Best of Melic, c/o C.E. Chaffin, 700 E. Ocean #2504, Long Beach, CA, 90802. One might think with fifteen thousand visitors a month we might have received more by now, but snail mail is an inconvenience in the cyberworld, thus we hope to make online donations by credit card possible in the near future.

Our visitor count remains at an average of about fifteen thousand per month, with nearly ninety percent of the log-ons for our workshops, mainly the Roundtable Poetry Board. This means that only fifteen hundred readers actually visit the magazine on a monthly basis, with a slight increase in the month of a new issue’s debut.

With over four hundred literary e-zines in English competing for a small readership, this is not bad, but I would prefer growth over stasis. Anyone with experience in website promotion, registering in search engines, etc., would be warmly welcomed to our staff, and though I have made this appeal before, we have yet to receive a single applicant for "business manager." Meanwhile, individual readers can help support Melic by clicking on our advertising banners as often as practicable, which would increase our advertising revenue, although by itself it doesn’t pay the bills.

Looking at our visitor numbers, we are more a workshop than a magazine-- a magazine attached to a workshop, as it were. This underscores the chief problem in poetry: the lack of an audience seeking poetry as entertainment. Almost everyone who reads poetry also writes it. If the same applied to cinema, the projection room would be filled with people hawking and discussing their films while the theater seats lay deserted. I can’t think of another genre where practitioners constitute nearly the entire audience. This leads to the criticism that the world of poetry is ingrown and narcissistic, but at the same time such audience participation in the art guarantees passionate opinions regarding the worth of what we publish (with accompanying jealous grinding of teeth).

There is no limit to the vanity of poets. One poet actually thought I was joking when I sent her a form rejection letter for this issue because she had been published in a reputable e-zine with Robert Creeley. I told her I would likely reject Creeley as well, given the overwhelming mediocrity of his verse.

As a net editor approaching three years on the job, I now believe the influence of the internet on literature and the poets it has brought into the cyberspotlight has been greatly overestimated; the fact is, most people like their poetry either spoken or on paper. Perhaps a laptop computer may allow some to read cyberpoets under their favorite oak tree, but most sit upright staring at a screen when they would prefer to be curled up in bed with a real magazine. More and more print magazines offer net editions and vice-versa, and this is heartening, but I think our human senses will likely always prefer paper over pixels.

Of what value is poetry, then, while admitting its narcissistically participatory nature, particularly on the net with its immense proliferation of workshops with instant feedback? If poets speak mainly to other poets is it so bad? Jesus said, "He that hath ears, let him hear." So it is not surprising that those interested in poetry also labor at it, having an ear for it. Yet most contemporary poetry does not come near the wisdom of God; it is comprised mainly of the babble of individual experiences cobbled into a pleasing form. I have categorized this preponderance of personal narrative about trivial substance as "PEMLODS," an acronym for "Personal Emotive Monologues with Lots of (concrete) Details." I think contemporary poetry too much glorifies the individual experience, ignoring the great themes of wisdom embodied by everything from Homer to T.S. Eliot. This is one reason Melic greeted the new millennium with issues on faith, hope, and love. Yet in my estimation most of the attempts we published on these themes more focused on the individual struggle for integration than any overarching wisdom, which I consider a symptom of individuality taken to an extreme resembling conformity, just as teenagers dress alike while thinking themselves so utterly different. I believe this tendency in poetry constitutes the continuing influence of the Beats and the Confessionalists under whose historical shadow we labor, not to mention ethnic Balkanization and the popularity of performance poetry and slams, wherein one must distinguish oneself not only by words but by drama.

What then might raise poetry above its current fragmentary state of omphaloskepsis, where Bukowski is adulated and Eliot has fallen out of favor (accused of anti-Semitism and elitism among other sins), while the terribly uneven and virulently anti-Semitic Pound has become the new academic darling, where Jewel has likely been read by a larger audience than Jane Kenyon? Should we comfort ourselves that those who read Kenyon and Szymborska and Heaney are a more valuable audience, more influential upon culture overall? What is the antidote for our insufferable self-preoccupation that Kierkegaard so well predicted over a century ago? As a beginning, I would like to cite a passage from one of his contemporaries, in Book VI of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, entitled "The Russian Monk," as a touchstone, in which Father Zossima recalls the influence of his sickly elder brother:

 

The windows of my brother’s room looked out into the garden. Our garden was a shady one, with old trees in it which were coming into bud. The first birds of spring were chirping and singing in the branches. And looking at them and admiring them, my brother began suddenly begging their forgiveness too. "Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have also sinned against you." None of us could understand these words at the time, but he shed tears of joy. "Yes," he said, "there was always such a glory of God about me: birds, tree, meadows, sky, only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and glory."

"You take too many sins on yourself," mother used to say, weeping.

"Mother, darling, it’s for joy, not for grief I am crying. Though I can’t explain it to you, I like to humble myself, for I don’t know how to love enough. If I have sinned against everyone, yet all forgive me, too, and that’s heaven. Am I not in heaven now?"

In his account Father Zossima also repeats the assertion, "You are responsible to everyone for everything," a concept first heard from his brother, who died of at the age of seventeen but first experienced the strange rapture of the consumptive (also perhaps an influence on the ailing Keats).

It has often been pointed out that oriental societies are predominantly societies of shame, or sin against the community, while western societies are societies of guilt, or sin against one’s individual standards. "You are responsible to everyone for everything" transcends both traditions into one standard: sacrificial love for others as typified by Christ. One does not have to be a Christian to aspire to such. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in his book, The Abolition of Man, moral standards are universal in the highest developments of religion. Though not an academic book per se, it appeals to the commonality of what is right and good and our innate knowledge thereof.

So what might a poetry of righteousness look like?

The dominant metaphor of the Bible is light and darkness, sight and blindness. In a society fairly satisfied with itself, as America seems today, I think poetry needs to assume the prophetic mantle of truth-telling in a more aggressive way. Alexander Solzhenitsyn visited these United States some years ago and lectured us on our excessive materialism. He was met with much criticism in the press, but I think he was on the right track. For poetry to be of enduring value today, and perhaps even purchase an audience beyond other poets, I believe poets need to move away from the personal narrative of trivial incidents magnified into poems, or PEMLODS, and instead speak to humankind of returning to the right path, the ancient path, the path we have lost in our mad rush for entertainment and self-fulfillment. Since there is no tragedy to unite our nation at present, and little to invite introspection of our bankrupt culture, perhaps poets should labor to point out the greater tragedy of our loss of core values. Tabloid poetry records the experiences of the day, much like the evening news; prophetic poetry should remind us of eternal truths and our failure to incarnate them, not whatever is new or tragic in its exceptionality, but what is enduring and foundational: The Ten Commandments, for instance, The Eightfold Path of Buddha, whatever transcends self for a greater good while admitting one’s necessary limitations as an imperfect mortal in need of forgiveness. No prophet can escape his own moral failures, but self-examination and repentance can grant one the courage to speak out about our trans-national selfishness, materialism, the cult of celebrity, ignorance of the institutions of freedom and their cost, the pain of anonymity, the emptiness of achievism and degreeism, the trap of deference to incompetent experts, competition with and envy of one’s neighbor (especially among poets!), and a blind faith in the mechanisms of prosperity and continuity, when in fact our lives may be required of us at any moment.

As a doctor I had opportunity to observe many on their deathbeds, and what most longed for was the love of their family; reconciliation with alienated children or siblings; some sense that their life was not a waste; and a wish for forgiveness. Prophetic poetry should incorporate the power of death or temporality in measuring life: "Nothing so concentrates the mind as the certain knowledge of being hanged the next day." We poets must strip away the illusion of safety embraced by so many in order to awaken them to what is of enduring value. We should endorse gratitude over acquisitiveness, generosity over materialism, truth over excuse, humility over self-promotion, sacrifice over self-preservation. These ideals are rarely presented in any direct way by poets nowadays, while the use of irony and sarcasm, prophetic tools, some thought already exhausted by time of Auden. At least Ginsberg howled for those that had been marginalized by the American mainstream, though he offered no healing balm; but the popularity of a Billy Collins, who offends no one and says little of lasting merit, or a John Ashbery, whose elusive but eloquent style elevates form over substance, are both symptomatic of a larger cultural, and dare I say, moral bankruptcy. If poetry is the highest expression of language, and language is the chief means of communication between men, it follows that poetry should take as its subject the most important themes, as demonstrated by Dostoyevsky’s vision of the glory of God, the shared and inescapable responsibility of love, or the vision of the eternal through the temporal in Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I cannot say how this is to be done, only that it should be done. The overall decline of culture, education, and a shared sense of historical context and values since the advent of television is simply alarming. Most college students today are ignorant of the foundation on which their learning depends; at forty-six I already feel like an overeducated dinosaur, though in comparison to many of the Moderns, the last great generation of poets, I might be considered ignorant.

Having grown up in the sixties, I learned there is no such thing as "free love." Love carries a price; everything of value does. Love must have feet and walk the planet; Love must have a voice that makes eternal verities fresh to each new generation, preserving what is best in man while making it vital through a relevant interpretation for our time and all time.

Can this voice be found in poetry? I hope it can, and if it is, I also hope the audience for poetry will someday increase beyond its present claustrophobic circle of fellow practitioners.

 

--  CE Chaffin

 


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