January 25, 2013

I would not, for your health, recommend attacking poetry.

Well, it was called a Dead Poets Society... (Image from Touchstone Pictures)
Well, it was called “Dead Poets Society”… (Image from Touchstone Pictures)

If you do not like having rude sestinas carved on your lawn, if you would prefer not to awaken and find that, as you slept, someone wrote an unflattering haiku on your forehead in permanent marker, if you do not like to pick up your office phone and hear 78 lines of spontaneous slam poetry, slamming you directly — well, leave it alone.

This is a slight exaggeration, but not much.

I would advise anyone who wants to ask if something is dead on the Internet to first ascertain that the people engaged in the doing of that thing are not wordsmiths by trade. If you ask if mime is dead, the worst that will happen is that someone will lean angrily on an imaginary wall in your general direction. (Now, the instant I type this, I assume letters will start pouring in on every side from mimes.) But if they are wordsmiths, they will send you a lot of messages, often peppered with beautiful quotations, and if you are as susceptible as I am to beautiful quotations you will crawl off into a hole somewhere and wonder if Wallace Stevens would really be as disappointed in you as they are making out. It hardly seems worth it. Especially since the “Is X dead?” genre of essay is — well, not exactly un-hack, itself.

I am adding “Is poetry dead?” to the list of remarks guaranteed to get you into a bruising fight, next to “Are you pregnant?” and any answer to the question, “Do I look fat?”

Poetry is like Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II. It is always dying, in theory. But if you want it to stop walking around, you have to send a guy to meet it at the airport.

I am not that guy.

Had I known there would be so much interest, I would have phrased it differently, with greater temperance and more statistics. But then you would not have read it.

We would have missed out on a lot of things. We would have missed out on this open letter, for instance, which includes a lot of good recommendations for contemporary poetry. Or this piece calling my opinion “derisive” and “wan.” (I prefer to think of my opinions as denigrating and pallid, so, thank you!)

You would not have been able to send me those irate tweets calling me “pretty [expletiving] stupid.” (Then again, as you might say, just because it was expressed in those terms does not make it wrong.)

You could not have assured me that although statistics on poetry are hard to come by, it is doing very well, within the generally accepted constraints that you cannot expect to make a living from it. But why would you want to? T. S. Eliot worked in a bank. Milton had to “pamphleteer twenty years against royalists” and I’m not sure even that was a day job. There are new journals springing up, new people turning up at poetry slams, more seekers of degrees in poetry, even a National Poetry Month, and on and on. It is more alive than ever, at least by the standard that there is more of it than ever.

You could not have made the alternative argument that poetry cannot be dead, because by most metrics I applied it was never alive, or has not been, since “Beowulf.”

In fact, Ezra Pound would tell me that the whole idea that poetry used to be entertainment for large audiences is a fallacy. “Has the writer of this sentence read ‘The Seafarer’ in Anglo-Saxon? Will the author tell us for whose benefit these lines, which alone in the works of our forebears are fit to compare with Homer — for whose entertainment were they made? They were made for no man’s entertainment, but because a man believing in silence found himself unable to withhold himself from speaking.”

And the idea that poetry can, or should, change anything? Fallacious, Auden says. “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.”

Of course he writes this in answer to the poet Percy Shelley’s own defense of poetry. Shelley was defending it against allegations from Thomas Love Peacock, who said much worse things than I have:

“A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. … The highest inspirations of poetry are resolvable into three ingredients: the rant of unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment: and can therefore serve only to ripen a splendid lunatic like Alexander, a puling driveller like Werter, or a morbid dreamer like Wordsworth. … Poetry is not one of those arts which, like painting, require repetition and multiplication, in order to be diffused among society. There are more good poems already existing than are sufficient to employ that portion of life which any mere reader and recipient of poetical impressions should devote to them, and these having been produced in poetical times, are far superior in all the characteristics of poetry to the artificial reconstructions of a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times. To read the promiscuous rubbish of the present time to the exclusion of the select treasures of the past, is to substitute the worse for the better variety of the same mode of enjoyment.”

 

And furthermore: “intellectual power and intellectual acquisition have turned themselves into other and better channels, and have abandoned the cultivation and the fate of poetry to the degenerate fry of modern rhymesters, and their olympic judges, the magazine critics, who continue to debate and promulgate oracles about poetry, as if it were still what it was in the Homeric age, the all-in-all of intellectual progression…”

And at least I did not say that.

Others said that you could not possibly write on the subject without telephoning today’s greatest poets to say, “Well, what is the state of poetry? Alive?” I have not done this, I admit. Even if you restrict yourself to the most noted practitioners of this art, the list is hefty. And what are they going to say, “No, you’re right, poetry is dead? It’s just something I do with my fingers to keep myself from smoking.”

But someone had to ask. Every so often, someone has to ask.

Donald Hall, in his essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry” in Harpers in 1989, after pointing out the massive sales of Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind” and offering further encouraging, if now outdated, numbers, notes astutely that “the notion of poetry’s disfavor is important — to poetry’s detractors and to its supporters. Why does almost everyone connected with poetry claim that poetry’s audience has diminished? Doubtless the pursuit of failure and humiliation is part of it. There is also a source that is lovable if unobservant: Some of us love poetry so dearly that its absence from everybody’s life seems an outrage. Our parents don’t read James Merrill! Therefore, exaggerating out of foiled passion, we claim that “nobody reads poetry.”

He goes on to say: “But I need as well, and separately, to insist: I believe in the quality of the best contemporary poetry; I believe that the best American poetry of our day makes a considerable literature.American Poetry after Lowell – an anthology of four hundred pages limited, say, to women and men born from the 1920s through the 1940s — would collect a large body of diverse, intelligent, beautiful, moving work that should endure. Mind you, it would limit itself to one-hundredth of one percent of the poems published. If you write about Poetry Now, you must acknowledge that most poetry is terrible — that most poetry of any moment is terrible. When, at any historical moment, you write an article claiming that poetry is now in terrible shape, you are always right. Therefore, you are always fatuous.”

Well, ouch.

Every so often I realize that my vague desire not to be disliked by people I have not personally alienated by spilling soup on them is incompatible with a job writing opinions.

I think they suspect I beat up malnourished sonnets on my way to the office every morning, or maybe I’m only in this at all because a 72-line exercise in radical free verse once left me at the altar. Or worse, what Donald Hall alleges:

After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.”

Then again, he also noted, “Poets love to parade as victims; we love the romance of alienation and insult.” Which was a little consoling.

Poetry is too big and too variable to kill. It is like Proteus; whenever you think have it in a chokehold, it shifts form.

Poets love springing to the defense of poetry, and they are poets, so, naturally, they are good at it. If you cannot speak with a light aglow in your eyes about the essential nature of the art, you lose your poetic license. (“If you burned every poem on the planet and you wiped every poem from every human mind, you would have poetry again by tomorrow afternoon,” Picador editor and poet Don Paterson told the Guardian’s Stephen Moss, to take one example.) You can’t kill it with definitions. It’s like a cockroach.

Every question has an answer. Is it a victim of the karaoke principle? You listen to it as the price for being able to perform yourself? And sometimes it’s good, but only sometimes?

Well, what art isn’t?

There were more Civil War reenactors in the 1990s than actual soldiers, in some battles. That did not mean the battles were happening. Was poetry like this, a kind of reenactment?

No, you said.

Is poetry still disruptive? After World War I, poets struggled for new ways to frame what they had experienced in verse, seeking explosive words to match an experience as profound and unsettling. Now the same urgency seeps through a thousand channels besides poetry, and especially beyond the rarefied guild of university-anointed poets. Through what — not strainer, I don’t know what, but definitely not a strainer — do we process our most vital and unsettling experiences now?

Or are the words we use to process such experiences poetry, by definition?

It is hard to argue with you.

Poets have had centuries of practice. There have been Defenses of Poetry as long as there has been poetry.

So. There is more poetry than there has ever been. So. It is constantly spawning. Even among the people who did not identify as poetry users in a recent survey, 36 percent had written poems in the past 5 years. Soon it will cover the earth, and we will have to leave the planet to avoid it.

The only people who might conceivably agree with my first thesis are the people who do not read poetry, and I am beginning to suspect that no such person exists. You cannot avoid it. It comes crawling after you on the subway like a large rat, trailing centuries of vigorous tradition. (Every time I start to send an analogy into this fight, it turns to me with pleading eyes. “Please,” it says. “I am not ready to go out there. They will pick me to death. Look what happened to the last guys you sent.”)

Poetry revives if attacked. It grows stronger. It likes the fight.

Maybe a better question would be, “is Poetry too alive for its own good?” “In the Internet age, where every urge to expression can find an audience, is not poetry perhaps the best-positioned of all arts?” “Is there too much poetry?” “Are there too many poets?”  “Can someone remove these poets from my Internet lawn?”

I would never advocate that poets stop doing what they are doing and go run restaurants or write letters to the papers, for the simple reason that poets are already doing both of those things. That is the nature of poetry – it is a certain way of speech that will out, regardless of what anyone says about it. And defined as such, it is invincible.

Compared to poetry, I am barely alive myself. Especially once the poets get done with me. As soon as I post this, I am leaving and flying to the arctic and writing under a pseudonym. Please stop setting limericks on fire and leaving them outside my doorstep. I am sorry I asked.

All art is useless,” as Oscar Wilde said. You can always leave it there.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.