Thursday, July 30, 2009

Poetry is what ever gets you to the next page

There is a long history of poets and critics declaring poetry is something completely other than prose, a separate art approximating a form of meta-writing that penetrates the circumscribed certainties of words and makes them work harder, in service to imagination, to reveal the ambiguity that is at the center of a literate population's perception. An elitist art, in other words, that by the sort of linguistic magic the poet generates sharpens the reader's wits; it would be interesting if someone conducted a study of the spread of manifestos , from competing schools of writing, left and right, over the last couple hundred of years and see if there is connecting insistence at the heart of the respective arguments .

What they'd find among other things, I think, is a general wish to liberate the slumbering population from the doldrums of generic narrative formulation and bring them to a higher, sharper, more crystalline understanding of the elusive quality of Truth; part of what makes poetry interesting is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting ) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things. Each poet who is any good and each poet who is miserable as an artists remains, by nature, didactic ,chatty, and narcissistic to the degree that , as a species , they are convinced that their ability to turn a memorable ( or at least striking phrase) is a key with which others may unlock Blake's Doors of Perception.

The lecturing component is only as interesting as good as the individual writer can be--not all word slingers have equal access to solid ideas or an intriguing grasp on innovative language--but the majority of readers don't want to be edified. They prefer entertainment to enlightenment six and half days out of the week, devouring Oprah book club recommendations at an even clip; the impulse with book buyers is distraction, a diversion from the noise of he world. Poetry, even the clearest and most conventional of verse , is seen as only putting one deeper into the insoluble tangle of experience. Not that it's a bad thing, by default, to be distracted, as I love my super hero movies and shoot 'em ups rather than movies with subtitles, and I don't think it's an awful thing for poetry to have a small audience. In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if all the money spent on trying to expand the audience were spent on more modest presentations. The audience is small, so what has changed?


  1. I agree with all that you say--the fundamental idea that poetry can induce a "revolution in consciousness" arrives with Romanticism as a democratization of a long shamanic tradition (in which the "revolution in consciousness" belonged to the practitioner, not to the body politic, as the journey induced thereby was too dangerous for the average) and endures, just as you say, as a desire to alter the reader's consciousness. This appears to presuppose a superior consciousness on the part of the poet, or on the part of poetry or of crystallized or purified or properly distorted language of which the poet is the more or less unwitting conduit (Foucault).

    And you are also correct that most readers look askance at the poet's urge to transform him or her: properly, as the domain of my transformation has to be me, in the end.

    The reader who comes to the poem desiring to be transformed is the reader who needs the poem--just as the patient to takes an antibiotic comes to the drug in order to be changed. The reader's condition will dictate his or her receptivity to a given poem. The canon is a great pharmacy, wherein reside pysick for many different conditions.

    This is only a metaphor, of course, but I find it a useful one. A "healthy" person will take no benefit (or harm) from the same dose of antibiotic that cures an infected child. No one faults the pharmacist or the scientist for being elitist because antibiotics don't cure the healthy. The drug is not for them, not because they are excluded but because they have no need.

    Poetry is a matter of need or it is nothing, it seems to me.

  2. Anonymous3:48 AM PDT

    It does seem interesting to me how much time and money is spent on (life) supporting those arts that are not judged capable of supporting themselves; poetry, ballet, classical music.

    What would happen to these arts if we were to stop trying to enlarge their audiences? Would they die?

    What does that say about them as artforms?


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