January 14, 2004

The End of Poetry

SHEILA O'MALLEY has posted an interesting passage from the poet Brad N. Haas about the import of poetry in this day and age. She lets the argument, the beginning of an article which Mr Haas wrote here, stand for itself.

The quote in question reads as follows. Mr Haas writes:

"The poet in our current time is complacent, maintaining an air of respectability or is the creator of outrageous manifestos -- in either case is benign. In times past poets were leaders and creators of reality; they were respected and entrusted with the keeping of cultural inheritance. Somehow this has changed, and poets now are non-entities for the most part; sure, they are politely applauded by small audiences, they sell a few volumes; they put their private lives on display to make others feel human. But this is all 'culture', a word which now seems to mean, not the whole of society, but entertainment for the few -- dividends received for living in a 'civilized' society. Furthermore, poets generally believe that they are effective, believe they make an impact on society; and who is responsible for this misconception is a great mystery -- some influence outside the poetic community, or worse yet, the poets themselves -- an important question that will not be answered here. This, for us, is the important fact: the poet has somehow been marginalized, and there is no sense that our society would die without the presence of poetry or poets. Perhaps this is the gravest sign of cultural coma."

Interestingly, Mr Haas goes on to examine how another poet dealt with these very same issues; but to our very untrained eye, the poet in question seemed a middling talent, and as such we abandoned reading the essay. Mr Haas' opening statement, though, suffices for our needs. And after mulling his arguments, we would say we agree with him entirely -- except for his last point. For it is not our culture which has become lifeless, but rather poetry itself.

For the majesty of the old epics will never die; the power, the craftmanship inherent in them has ensured their immortality. From the earliest epics (Gilgamesh) through the classical era (Homer, Vergil, Ovid) to medieval times (Dante), the meter and rhythm of poetry has produced some of the loveliest written works of man. Later generations (Milton, Burns, to name a few) kept up the craft, and their work will stir a man's passions today just as much as it did in the years when they walked this earth.

Prose, on the other hand, long held a different position in life: as the language of history and business and tax documents, honorable but also practical. Despite some successes (Petronius Arbiter, The Satyricon) it is only in the past few centuries that prose has truly taken its place as the supreme medium for a writer to do his work. One does not remember the Quixote for Cervantes' ballads within; and perhaps one could say that it was with Cervantes where prose first truly got the attention it deserved from the world.

Now, God knows that reams of bad prose have poured forth from the minds of men since that time. Indeed, we recall perhaps the best criticism of one such effort, from H.L. Mencken. He began his short review with the opening paragraph of a novel, a piece of writing so abysmal it made one gag. After reprinting the paragraph in question, Mr Mencken stopped -- and wrote, "Thus the book begins -- God knows how it ends!"

Still, though, the bad prose has not been overwhelmed by the good; indeed, well-written prose has poured forth from writers since Cervantes, and in such quantities that if one wanted, one could read all one's life without touching upon anything considered sub-par. This is not something one could say about poetry -- and especially poetry today.

Indeed, when the fabulous English writer Anthony Burgess wrote his series of books featuring the irascible poet Julius Enderby, one writer -- we forget who -- noted that a major popular question about the books was that no one could tell if Enderby's poetry was good or bad. And while we readily admit we do not have a natural ear for poetry, we don't think any of today's poets have the skills of Dante, Whitman, Hughes, Owen or Sandberg.

Now, this assumption of ours may be due to a lack of knowledge about modern poetry; as we have said, we don't very much care for it, and don't go out of our way to read it. But what we have read -- from the famous or notorious among today's poets -- is middling at best and miserable at worst. Actually, miserable isn't accurate -- worthless, stinking, useless, smarmy, wretched hideous drivel is a more accurate turn of phrase for the worst of the work churned out by some poets. For it is almost as if those old concepts of beauty and tradition to which the old poets adhered have been lost. One is no longer left speechless in pondering a line as beautiful as music; one is more likely to curse and ponder what in hell does he mean anyway.

As for why this has come about ... well, we can say we think technology has played a part in it. For with the rise of commercial music over the past century, the musicians have intruded upon the poets' natural turf, and thrown them off it most roughly. The musicians can never compete against prose writers, of course; the media are too different, the concepts too dissimilar. But can anyone truly listen to an amazing record or a catchy song these days and say the lyrics therein are not poetry?

Indeed, we would argue the musicians have fought the poets, and won. The former bask in the glory and adulation of the people, making millions as they work; the latter are lucky if they get some critical attention and make a few thousand dollars per annum. Perhaps it would not be a stretch to say that those, who in a different era would have been poets, have opted instead for a six-string guitar. And perhaps poetry is the way it is now because its practitioners are those who couldn't make the switch, or who loved poetry so much they couldn't see the rot which had set in.

As for Mr Haas' secondary argument -- that poets today are complacent and labor under amazing delusions of grandeur -- who knows why that is?

Perhaps this is merely a matter of the soul; something that has simply affected poets more than most. For any creative type -- an actor, a musician, a writer, a poet, a painter, a sculptor or a singer -- can easily fall into such a trap, especially if he gets a bit of success under his belt. It is amusing to see how some of the more famous creative types have become so oblivious to the world's workings that they truly believe they're all that important; and that they matter in the grand scheme.

Now, that's not to say such people aren't important, or that they don't matter in some way. We would not be so foolish as to deny that -- especially in this age!

But what we would submit is that they've made the fatal mistake of believing their own public relations. And when that happens, it's very hard to undo the damage. They no longer have that drive and that passion that forces them to work like the devil; they no longer have the all-consuming thought that what they've accomplished is never, ever good enough. And so they slide -- slowly at first but more rapidly as the years progress -- down into that stinking morass we call mediocrity.

We would submit that many a creative type today has found himself caught in that swamp. Unlike the followers of other disciplines, though, today's poets have largely remained oblivious to that dangerous bog -- the bog which has sucked in so many of their recent predecessors. And so, things continue on -- and the vast majority of poets shall find themselves sucked down to a fate which every creative type fears most.

Namely, obscurity.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at January 14, 2004 12:16 AM | TrackBack
Comments

It's late, so forgive if this is a ramble. I'll try to keep it short.

I don't like much modern poetry, but since I do seek it out - and I have friends who are poets - I am aware of some great great stuff that is still being produced. Carl Dennis, Suzanne Wise ... I LOVE these people. Mary Oliver.

But ... it seems that the audience has changed. Specifically - there is no more audience for poetry. It is not studied, at least not in any serious way. There is no longer any attention paid to them at all - so even if we think some of Allan Ginsberg's later work was stupid and self-serving - at least SOMEbody was paying attention to him!! If a poet behaved like Ginsberg today, I am not sure anybody would even notice, or care - because there is not even an awareness of poets, on any cultural level.

People have a hard time even hearing poetry now. I mean that quite literally. My parents knew poems by heart, my grandmother, my great-aunts all learned poetry, were made to recite poems. It was part of going to school. I grew up having poems read to me - Yeats, Longfellow, etc. You need to have your ear trained, you need to have your mind and your patience trained, in order to comprehend poetry, in order to learn how to "hear" it. It's a different skill than listening to other things. I also grew up with television and movies, but that did not lessen my enjoyment of reading or the printed/spoken word.

There is good poetry going on now - although not at the level of a Milton, or a Yeats. But perhaps Milton and Yeats(and others) could flourish, or flourished so well, because there was a ready audience there, people waiting to hear what they would have to say? Mary Oliver's poems strike me as very important, very essential to any understanding of a collective unconscious - some of Carl Dennis' poems, too - strike me in that visceral gut-level way.

But ... who besides poetry-lovers care?

It makes me sad.

When I have kids, I will DEFINITELY read them the poems I had read to me when I was little.

Posted by: red at January 14, 2004 02:08 AM

So much for trying to keep it short.

Forgive.

Posted by: red at January 14, 2004 02:09 AM

Hi Sheila,

I very much agree with your thoughts -- the serious audience for poetry in this day and age must be incredibly small; and like classical music, those who enjoy it are generally older than most. It is not an agreeable thought; although perhaps a good marketing campaign might help poets out!

I don't know when this change in society came about; but I do think it is noteworthy that in my English classes at college, the idea of poetry was never really integrated into the general curriculum. The poetry I did read was part of my history and Latin coursework, and I discovered other poets (e.g. Burns) on my own. It is very troubling now that I think of it.

True, I could have taken a straight poetry course if I had wished; but I was busy working on improving my prose, and concentrated instead on prose courses. I am not sorry that I did that, but I do wonder what I have missed in doing so.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at January 14, 2004 08:07 PM

Interesting to read your reflections on the decline of modern poetry the same day I read Charles Austin's thoughts (http://sinequanon.spleenville.com/archives/005740.php) on the decline of the visual arts. The common thread seems to be a lack of intellectual discipline that leads to the celebration of mediocrity in the absence of genuine creativity. It's all about artist self-esteem. I blame the beatniks, personally.

Posted by: Kerry at January 20, 2004 03:12 PM

Interesting to read your reflections on the decline of modern poetry the same day I read Charles Austin's thoughts (http://sinequanon.spleenville.com/archives/005740.php) on the decline of the visual arts. The common thread seems to be a lack of intellectual discipline that leads to the celebration of mediocrity in the absence of genuine creativity. It's all about artist self-esteem. I blame the beatniks, personally.

Posted by: Kerry at January 20, 2004 03:12 PM

Interesting to read your reflections on the decline of modern poetry the same day I read Charles Austin's thoughts (http://sinequanon.spleenville.com/archives/005740.php) on the decline of the visual arts. The common thread seems to be a lack of intellectual discipline that leads to the celebration of mediocrity in the absence of genuine creativity. It's all about artist self-esteem. I blame the beatniks, personally.

Posted by: Kerry at January 20, 2004 03:12 PM

Interesting to read your reflections on the decline of modern poetry the same day I read Charles Austin's thoughts (http://sinequanon.spleenville.com/archives/005740.php) on the decline of the visual arts. The common thread seems to be a lack of intellectual discipline that leads to the celebration of mediocrity in the absence of genuine creativity. It's all about artist self-esteem. I blame the beatniks, personally.

Posted by: Kerry at January 20, 2004 03:13 PM

I apologize for the multiple posts.

Posted by: Kerry at January 20, 2004 03:15 PM

I apologize for the multiple posts.

Posted by: Kerry at January 20, 2004 03:15 PM