United States author Timothy Steele has been quoted by literary critic Cynthia Haven as saying that “after a century of experiment, being traditional has become cutting edge.” A serious attempt to rescue modern poetry through a neo-formalist, neo-classicist movement may in fact be noticed emerging in the late ’80s and ’90s. After 100 years of throwing the traditional overboard, Steele’s books attempt to teach a “lost language” to a new generation. “Iambic pentameter,” he says, “now there’s an idea whose time has come!” One of his latest books is All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Ohio U. Press, 1999).
Established in ’85 and ’89 respectively, MBooks (my small press) and The Eclectic Muse (my poetry magazine) have ground to feel encouraged, to celebrate, to believe that our authentic rhyme-revival, real neo-classicist revival, and neo-formalism, enshrined within a fundamentally eclectic publishing philosophy, are not only on the cutting edge of things, but were actually prophetic over 15 years ago of what is happening at the dawn of the 21st Century. Unfortunately, after so many people threw traditional writing overboard, after so many experiments ended in disillusion and failure, discrimination was practiced against authors like myself regarding employment in salaried positions. For myself, this was despite the fact that my vision was prophetic as early as 1972. I feel that their loss was greater than mine.
But I say all this from bitter experience. Movements within the publishing of literature which do not have an eclectic publishing philosophy like ours are all positively, fundamentally, radically harmful. Why? Because once you commit yourself to publish one school of writing, and to employ authors, critics, and teachers within that school only, you are discriminating against flesh and blood, you are cutting into flesh and drawing blood, you are practicing Procrustean-Bed-Criticism and revenging yourself in blood. (Procrustes had a bed that fitted nobody. If his victims were too tall, he would chop off their feet until they fitted. If his victims were too short, he would rack their limbs until they grew longer and fitted.) This is exactly what was happening to me until I went the route of self-publishing… creating what many people, including leading poetry publishers in British Columbia, regard as my magnificent marketing spiel door-to-door.
Within a publishing effort where the philosophy is eclectic, on the other hand, there may be elements that are harmful, but the overriding spirit is benevolent. It does not chop off anyone’s legs, nor does it rack anyone’s limbs until they grow taller. It does not revenge itself on anyone. Readers can always find something to relate to and will easily find their depth among publications where they will find something suited to their tastes.
A Sketch of My Progress
Ever since I began writing verse, I dreamt of creating the textbook of tips for poets which would be the definitive one, the infallible source of wisdom for all aspiring poets. So far, I have only contributed notes scattered throughout my writings. It took me, of course, only a little to discover that there is no one way of writing poetry, and that I had a very long way to go.
I started writing in 1972. Before I landed in Canada (in the last two days of 1981), I had managed to sell very little writing. You may tell me that I was producing unprofitable art. No. I was being cheated… before you leap, read on, and if you are a poet and feel your poetry at all, beware that it does not happen to you.
When I started, I was possessed by an overpowering feeling that a good workman does not quarrel with his tools. In other words, that skill and craft ennoble and dignify work. While working well in free form, after some early disappointments, blunders, and inevitable failures, I was being a neo-classicist, a neo-formalist, and a real rhyme-revivalist as far back as 1972. At the same time, I was being told that no one could write poetry like that any longer, that people did not want this sort of thing.
Now in an earlier paragraph, I defined an axiom that you probably believe in… that there is no one way of writing poetry. Meanwhile you yourself may have been inclined to tell me, 20 years ago, that people do not want “this sort of thing” any longer. This is what I mean when I say that all my teachers were hopelessly contradicting themselves. While I did not fall for it entirely, and have been proved right 28 years later, I was being cheated. I fell for it to the extent that these criticisms reduced me to rubble, and that at the time, totally green and inexperienced as I was, I felt that my skills were entirely inadequate to the task I wished to complete—the creation of poetry. When I displayed my first few good sonnets to my friends, perhaps I should merely have been told that I was doing something which very few contemporary authors were doing successfully, that I was displaying promise as long as I could solve all the artistic problems. My courage would have soared had my counselors stuck conscientiously to practical criticism.
In Canada, after three years in Vancouver, I had over 200 pages of good poetry to my name, a published book (Intelligible Mystery) about the poetry of Rex Hudson—a Pulitzer and Nobel prize nominee from Minnesota—and many unpublished letters and writings. Still I continued to be discouraged with the same kind of claptrap as described above.
Much as the problem was one which, by now, I thoroughly understood, it was likewise something I could not work my way around. Nor, for the life of me, could I resolve it without taking the advice of no one less than the famous Dale Carnegie, from the pages of his How to Win Friends and Influence People. I took the advice also of Professor Warren Tallman, who in many ways piqued me to emulate Walt Whitman’s feat of selling his own work to the public. But it was unmistakably Dale Carnegie who influenced me with the words… “when all else fails, throw down the gauntlet, throw them a challenge and run, and don’t ever beat it, nor give up until many good friends are back on your side.” I had intelligently absorbed Dale Carnegie after being counseled to do so by my esteemed, departed associate, Rex Hudson.
After listening to only one, lop-sided, lop-eared side of the story for so many eventless years, I had composed what are now the 24 philosophical Shakespearean sonnets of which I sold, within British Columbia and elsewhere, single-handedly, 6,000 copies! I had not gone door-to-door entirely of my own choice—but owing to the force of circumstances and because I was invited—I had consulted the people and won! Thank you Warren Tallman and Walt Whitman. Thank you Rex Hudson and Dale Carnegie. I hope that none of you will ever forget that one, triumphant act of defiance.
And What about You?… The Poet
If you are just starting out in poetry, you do not need to wade through 20 years of discouragement before something like this happens to you. Here are some good tips for poetry starters who wish to put their work to the test. Do not try to self-publish a book that carries an ISBN, Cataloging in Publication Data, and all the earmarks of a book destined for consumption by a wide public and libraries across the nation. And as a friend, I feel obliged to tell you, do not try to go door-to-door either. Far too many people might make fun of you even if they do not have a right.
Start small, but do not make the mistakes that I made. You need one good word-processor with quality typesetting capabilities. Produce modest broadsheets of your work (or else publications in newsletter format) and produce them in extremely limited quantities. It was never truer of any other business than it is of the poetry biz that to come out on top you must economize fractions of cents. If you cannot sell more than five copies of your poems, in other words, produce only seven, so that you are left with two for your archives. If you can sell 25, produce 28, and so on. After you have worked out your arithmetic, do your damnedest to sell copies of your best work to whoever is willing to give you a little money for it, or even a donation at his or her discretion.
The worst that can happen to you if you attempt this tough experiment is that you will find out for certain that nobody at all wants to read your work. You will then be alerted that something is awfully wrong with what you are doing, that you should examine everything you know, have learnt, or still have to learn, and that you need to thoroughly review all of your own writing credentials. Yet I doubt that so many people will be so darned callous with you.
A far more likely scenario, if you have the least little poetic flair at all, is that you will sell a few broadsheets, or well-produced newsletters, from the word go. These may sell perhaps for not less than $5 each, perhaps for $1 each only, which is why you must economize. But the likelihood is that you will sell copies and attract suggestions/ criticisms. These recommendations will give your own spirits a creative buoyancy and joie-de-vivre.
Do not worry if you sell only five copies of your first few efforts. On the contrary, you should let your audience hear only one thing: “I am honored! Your suggestions are very valuable to me! Could I please have them?” Next time around, with your subsequent, slightly expanded broadsheet, strive with all your might to increase the size of your own readership, but do not ever try to improve upon the attitude towards your audience which I am recommending. Remember. A well-judged act of rebellion and radical defiance must for no reason whatsoever become an excuse for pig-headed, satanic haughtiness towards people who care about you. You also need to care about them.
If you are an aspiring poet, if you have encountered problems similar to these, I think that your imagination will hatch and breed dozens of eggs after reading what I have been saying. I shall leave it at that and pass on to some well-timed, nicely-judged theory of criticism, building on what I wrote above, as well as in the preceding section.
Turning to Craft
First, strive always for achievement with style, form, and skill. To write memorable verse, you need to have an extremely clear idea of what you are doing with words. You also need to strive for content that is valuable in itself, a worthwhile subject, a worthwhile theme, which does not waste the time of intelligent readers with aimless chit-chat. Avoid work wherein no one knows what on earth you are talking about. Always strive to heighten diction. An artistic use of pedestrian diction is not a good excuse at all for entirely pedestrian publications with entirely pedestrian content, where what is being said is of no interest whatsoever, and does not merit to be purchased with money.
Read widely in the world-famous classics. Imbue yourself in their spirit. Steep yourself in their diction, in their way of saying and seeing things. Ask yourself, “Why is this so beautiful?” “Why does it work and still work with audiences?” “Why does it still sell?” Always choose a few pen-friends who write poetry themselves and are successful at it, and correspond with them for enrichment, just as I did with so many pen-pals when I started writing. They will always give you valuable, honest feedback, and you never know, they may be the cause of a first, major, priceless publication.
If you are in doubt about how good your writing is, ask yourself the questions which I asked myself when I went selling books door-to-door: “Is my poetry good enough to be sold to the public?” “Will a complete stranger who likes contemporary writing condescend to buy something like this from me even though he has never met me before?” These are the questions of all questions for an author to ask himself. It will keep you thinking sanely, reasonably, and sensibly.
So why is eclecticism, which is the backbone of our philosophy (in spite of our rhyme-revival, neo-classicism, and neo-formalism), the most important literary movement of our times? Why are non-eclectic movements harmful? This may sound boastful but I think you can see that my faith in myself and in my publishing is based on sound metaphysical principles. When a school of writing settles into a dogma, in the hands of a few responsible for employing people within that one school of writing only, then it happens that the Procrustean ethic revenges itself in blood upon everyone else who does not subscribe to it. This happened to me with my rhyming poetry between 1972 right through 1985. I literally felt as if my limbs were being shorn off my living flesh.
No, at MBOOKS, we do not want one single, Procrustean, doctrinaire school of writing to intentionally revenge itself in anyone’s blood. I am second to none to say that I admire what Timothy Steele is saying, and what he is doing means a lot to me, but I thought as much 30 years ago. And I am not going to allow him to take credit from me so easily. However, if we now subscribe to something Procrustean again, we will become doctrinaires all over again. All movements which, after a little while, settle into a sterile dogma of one school of writing only, becoming Procrustean and doctrinaire, are all essentially vindictive, merely seeking to revenge themselves upon the excesses or shortcomings of their predecessors, whereas the eclectic movement is not revengeful. This is why I have said that it is superior policy. It is mellower. It is wiser, a lot more sensitive and experienced. I maintain that it is positively the most important literary movement of our day.
Joe M. Ruggier is Publisher of the small press, Multicultural Books (Mbooks), and the Managing Editor and owner of the poetry magazine, “The Eclectic Muse.” Mbooks publishes poetry, prose and poetry leaflets, sound recordings, fiction, and literary fiction. Ruggier’s own works include the poetry collections “This Eternal Hubbub” and “The Voice of the Millions.” Ruggier resides in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Visit his Web site at http://home.istar.ca/~jrmbooks/.