In Defense of Poetry

"On Style" by Beth Ann Fennelly,
Campbell Corner Poetry Judge

          The biggest revolution in cooking in the last several decades has been the creation of fusion cuisine, that is, the marriage of flavors and techniques from different cuisines. One of fusion's main innovators is Sottha Kuhn, recently profiled in The New Yorker. Kuhn was born and raised in Cambodia but received all his formal training in Paris. As a young chef he practiced French cuisine exclusively, but over the years he started introducing elements of Cambodian cooking to his French dishes. The profile begins with a background of the culinary arts: "It takes about ten years to become a chef-" Molly O'Neill writes, "to master the ways of a knife, the inner life of ingredients, and the vicissitudes of heat, and then to hone the knowledge until it lives in the hands." The article then traces the evolution of Kuhn's fusion cuisine; O'Neill writes, "By the time I met Sottha, in 1991, he was midway through his second decade, the time when a chef's personal style usually begins to emerge. In Sottha's case, I could taste the East in his Western cooking, but just barely; his effort to create a distinct signature was still tentative."
          As a judge for the 2001 Campbell Corner Awards, I've been invited to give some musings on an aspect of poetry, and the above paragraph might seem an unlikely way to begin. The truth is, I've often thought that food and poetry have a lot in common-but that's a topic for another, longer essay. What I want to think about here is a poet's style. How long does it take to develop? Six months? A year? Six years? What I believe is that the poet's path to style is like the chef's path. First comes the decade of learning the tools; then comes the decade where the "distinct signature" begins to emerge. Foolhardy are those who expect shortcuts, who think it takes less time to master similes than it does to master spices.
          Almost every fall I teach a Beginning Poetry Workshop, and I feel a little like the nurse who tells the amnesiac all about his accident to have him, the next day, ask again, "What happened?" What I mean is, the students change but the lessons, naturally, can not. Sooner or later we end up discussing style, usually after a student turns in her third or fourth poem written solely in lower case. It's likely I'll suggest the student might want to consider other strategies, and it's likely she'll reply that she can't, because lowercase is her "style."
          What's true, though unpleasant to say, is that the student is too young to have a style. What's also true, and equally unpleasant, is that I, her thirty-year-old teacher, am also too young. Dear Lord, let me be styleless. I can have tendencies, sure; inclinations, why not; but I've been writing seriously-daily, or as close to daily as I can manage-for just eight years, and to have a style now, I believe, would mean I failed to apprentice myself enough to the world. It would mean I mistook circumspection for efficiency, mistook winning a game of mumbly-peg for "mastering the ways of the knife," mistook a facility with the burners for understanding the "vicissitudes of heat."
          The student who writes in lowercase because it is her style is writing a poem and putting her style on it. As if style is added to content, the knifeful of mustard on the already-assembled sandwich. But that is not style. Style is not an accumulation of gestures. Style erupts. Style starts where there's zero at the bone. Style's a coring, and a letting go. Style accounts for us, style is the sum of us, style is as distinct as a fingerprint or a snowflake, as easy to fake as an orgasm-as hard to achieve, and as lonely, as a moral life. Or so I imagine.
          Style, once achieved, can still trip up accomplished poets. If the student poet's failing is to write a poem and put her style on it, the accomplished poet's failing is to take her style and fit her poems into it. Once a poet has found her style, she can imitate herself, forge her own "distinct signature." The style becomes self conscious, static; it holds still for the camera. John Berryman, in his journals, notes with pleasure that one day he wrote a poem "with no style whatsoever!" It's a curious boast. There is, I think, a profundity to it. Berryman had a style, and his style bedazzled. Toward the end of his life, however, his poetry faltered, The Dream Songs fall off. What accounts for it? I think he sometimes used his style to mask an empty poem, the way, in the Civil War, Southerners stretched their coffee by mixing in chicory or burnt corn, adding more and more as coffee grew more and more scarce. Then, when coffee became available again, they found it too strong; they'd begun to prefer the substitutes.
          Which brings us back to food. The poems that won the 2001 Joseph Campbell Awards have done so because they were created by working chefs. Like Sottha Kuhn in his second decade of cooking, these poets strive to know the "inner life of ingredients"; perhaps onions would do for all but the most discriminating of gourmands, but they dice the shallots or scallions or leeks, because they are what's called for. Like Kuhn, they understand that style is not just how we've been trained, but who we are, and who we were, and if, though it seems strange, the Cambodian flavors ask to be married to the French ones, these are poets who will attempt it. They understand the process to be mysterious, and dynamic, and accept that they need to "hone the knowledge until it lives in the hands." Having done so, now they'll let it live in yours. Take and eat, my friends. It is good. It is good.