Sunday, November 7, 2010

an open rebuttal

I wish to thank Stacey Mangiaracina for steering me to this article:

The Problem with American Poetry

Instead of writing a protracted, boring summary of the article, I'll just paste some quotes from it here:

This vital drive for the destruction of the old and the creation of the new is absent.

...even our best poetic imaginations don't have what is needed to imagine and invent what's next.

...contribute nothing whatsoever to the general progress of the human endeavor.

...but that they inhibit the necessary radical imagination for poets to make the new world.

By teaching us how to spot surprising juxtapositions, how to discover sublimated implications in the juxtapositions, and how to separate the images, poetry provides skills we need to figure out which politicians actually support our beliefs and what products actually meet our needs and wants.

In general, poetry has the potential to change society. I refuse to ask any less of it.

Our poets are not tearing down the fetters of our imaginations so we can dream and then create the next American society. Nor are they inventing the lexicon that will define how the next generation of Americans will think, believe, and feel.

Well...this article is something I can sink my sharpened fangs into. It will be fun sucking the juice out of it. Of course, the author will never read my opinion, so no feelings will be hurt. I would not wish to hurt anyone's feelings. So, I'll just do it behind his back.

Did the Romantic poets improve the next generation of society? Did the Modernists? Should our contemporary poets be working toward a betterment of humankind for the future?

Human beings as a whole are now duller and more uncouth than at almost any time in the past. You'd probably have to go back to the Dark Ages to find an appropriate analog. Supposedly, the invention of the book reduced dullness and suppressed uncouthness. But all it did was permit the wholesale broadcast of obtuseness and lack of couth to a vast public arena. There have been rare exceptions -- Thomas Mann wrote The Magic Mountain. Yes, a lot of fancy-pants technical, science-y stuff continues to push back frontiers. Pain killers and air-conditioning are swell things. But are we any more refined or even more interesting than in previous times? I think our perpetual pushing into time is mostly coarse and preposterous. We can see more stars and old light out there in space, while we continue to lie, cheat, and murder with abandon.

People say that Neanderthals were dull and uncouth. And that is why they went extinct. But not us homo sapiens! We have poets. And if our poets will just shape up and do right, we'll keep on doing better than those old shambling failures at culture. But I've always suspected that Neanderthals survived. They are still living in secluded log cabins deep in the jungly woods around south Arkansas (how they got here is anyone's guess). No one knows for sure, but it's possible. They probably congregate in Neanderthal lodges on Friday nights. Serve beet-juice wine, debate the situation in a sophisticated manner, and have poetry readings. Poems that, owing to introspective refinement and collective moodiness, put our best efforts to shame. Not just a few of them. Every Neanderthal writes and reads poetry. My possible Neanderthals are beyond us homo sapiens, as far as having got our consciousnesses progressed. We only think we are an improving specie.

(I'm not sure the above is even relevant, but I just had to work in some Neanderthals.), I don't think the collective consciousness is getting notched-up as the zeitgeist skips into tomorrow. And neither is poetry going to un-warp our societal shape.

Here's the deal: poetry is an aesthetic art form, not an instrumental one. Maybe a few Soviet-era poets got the masses revved up and frothing for change. But really, how good were those poems as poems?

Now...earlier in the article, the author mentions some problems with American poetry that I agree with. But not his main theme -- juicing the social ethos with verse. There is no there there. His unbridled romping into original thinking is worse than some of my own attempts.

* * *

Who am I to say what a poem should or should not do? Well, I'm the guy who loves Wordsworth, Keats, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, and Ezra Pound, that's who. And on rare occasions when writing a poem of my own, I've slipped into a state of consciousness that is far from ordinary.

The only contribution to posterity that a poem might make is a bequeathing of beauty. Not just formal beauty, but also a kind of spiritual beauty. And that latter thing can, on the surface, seem not beautiful at all. It can even appear ugly. It can disconcert. Even some of my darkest, most tragic, and confusing dreams at night leave me with a sense of beautiful misery....or confrontation with a significant and moving psychological work of art. The atmosphere of dreams and some poems is a self-contained world, sufficient-to-itself in aesthetic power and ramification.

Beneath the surface, a good poem reveals or expresses human depths, either focused on self or as a response to nature. A good poem accomplishes that by talent, craft, and severe self-criticism. And the writing of such poems should never be a conscious effort to please posterity. The future is not ours. Right now is where it's at. Right now is when the aesthetic magic happens. Writing as a gesture to propel an avant-garde or to ennoble the next generation is a ridiculous notion. Writing a poem is, for me, an act of existential reconnaissance, not a strategy for some brave new world.

Yes, we want to share our poems. We want to make an impression of some kind. Or at least most of us do, I think. But that does not translate into a poets'-collective for molding society. It's more like "Look what I wrote. I felt something very deeply. I tried my best to put it in words and in rhythm that will communicate to you how I have experienced something." To me, that's it in a nutshell. Anyone who, to the contrary says "Okay, today I'm going to write a poem that will assist in destroying the old world and making a new one" might be someone who needs a long vacation.

I enjoyed the article. It was food for thought. I must confess that it inspired some flashes of condescension in me: the author Josh Cook seems to be (I might be wrong) a very young man, frothing over with idealistic gusto. But that's a good thing.

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