We live in an unfortunate age artistically. There is more freedom than ever, more tools for creation, more outlets to publish and display, but we have largely used this freedom to fetishize banality. The great leveling, as it were – everybody is an artist, everything is poetry.
When I entered my Master’s program at Iowa State the prof who would eventually become my advisor, the estimable Dr. Neal Bowers, told my first poetry workshop that there was no subject unfit for poetry. Steeped in the traditions of the old masters, I guess I recoiled from that idea a bit. To me, it seemed that poetry was about great subjects, profound mysteries, the legendary and epic. Maybe I overstate it a bit, because I didn’t think all poems had to be about gods, true love or slaying dragons, but I also wasn’t so sure about the idea that poetry could be about the mundane. If it was about something that appeared mundane, that was fine, so long as the poem revealed the hidden profundity lurking beneath the surface.
As a writer, Neal is thoroughly modern, but he has the advantage of being really good. His poems are narrowly focused and often address the everyday, but they also present us with tightly wound metaphors that leave you with a lot more to ponder than you might have expected. He proved to me that you could be a very good poet operating in the contemporary mode. Unfortunately, not everyone has his level of talent, and in the hands of a lesser creative force poetry about the everyday and the normal and apparently mundane often winds up as, well, actually mundane.
I gave it the old college try, but in the end accepted that I wasn’t that kind of writer. Instead of poems that focused on a single concept or idea, tied up neatly at the end, I was prone to broad, messy pieces that solved nothing. At the end of one of my poems you were left not with a manageable, cleanly resolved thought, but instead standing at the edge of a chaotic universe swirling out of control. A vast and wonderful cosmos, but barely comprehensible. Not one answer, but a million questions.
As for the issue of language, I certainly don’t lobby for the artificial and archaic. When I rail against mundane language I’m not saying I want a lot of “’tis” and “prithees.” No, good poetry needs to sound like it was written by somebody who lives in the age he or she is writing in and about. But this doesn’t mean words can’t be dramatic. When you hold a poem in your hands, it’s okay if it feels like it might explode at any second.
Again, that’s not the fashion of the moment. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.
We weren’t worthy or sure enough of ourselves to catch hold of subjects beyond our reach. He must have known it if he encouraged simplicity and warned against aiming too high, even mocked it. But he warned in vain because the very practice of art implies conceit. None of his young detractors outdid him in the bad things he said about himself. He spoke courageously about faith, felt he was a Manichean but stayed faithful to orthodoxy though doubts never left him. It was trueâ€”he admittedâ€”he had a perverse mind;
he was endowed more richly than others and he knew it.
How’s this hitting you? It’s a nice, clean, articulate bit of prose, right. Except it isn’t. Let’s look at it as the writer, Julia Hartwig, wrote it:
We weren’t worthy or sure enough of ourselves
to catch hold of subjects beyond our reach
He must have known it if he encouraged simplicity
and warned against aiming too high even mocked it
But he warned in vain
because the very practice of art implies conceitNone of his young detractors outdid him
in the bad things he said about himself
He spoke courageously about faith
felt he was a Manichean but stayed faithful to orthodoxy
though doubts never left him
It was trueâ€”he admittedâ€”he had a perverse mind
he was endowed more richly than others and he knew it
Sometimes he was hated for this
sometimes looked at grudgingly and rebuked
The half-educated would lecture him
there were those who tried with or without conviction
to move him to the bottom of the list
Like others he didn’t avoid misdeeds
To be adored or rejectedâ€”
he chose the path himself
never in the middle
He compared himself to Job
but some who observed from the side
saw only favors of fate
as if he entered an alliance with the devil
for his fame embraced two continents
and he had a high place on the tower of poetry
He was only too aware
he didn’t know and couldn’t know
about what is the most important
he wanted to show the real and succeeded
but an impenetrable space
always hovered above this reality
as if a land of happiness were built over sheol
Before his destined time arrived
he experienced the revelation of old age and slow extinction
Reluctantly and with delay the city
gave up its strongholds and ships
I hate to pick on Hartwig, but I found her by going to Poetry Daily and clicking on their daily feature – in other words, the first poem I came to. Besides, she’s well enough regarded that she’s being featured at Poetry Daily and I’m over here plinking away on my blog, so I doubt I’m destroying a career.
But to my eyes this is a great example of what too much poetry has become – mundane prose with line breaks.
I’ll spare you the rant about postmodernism’s corrosive leveling effect. I’ll just cut to the conclusion: if everything is art, then nothing is. If everybody’s poetry is equally valid, then there’s no longer such a thing as greatness. If all language is poetry, then poetry has ceased to exist.
It’s easy enough to see how we have arrived here. If you’ve ever endured a poetry workshop you know how the committee effect works. You write something you like, you put it out there, and everybody starts hacking away at the things they don’t like. What you too often wind up with is the bland remainder – the stuff that isn’t objectionable to anyone (because you have to respect everyone’s opinion, right?) If you’ve worked in the business world and been on committees, it’s the same thing. “Consensus” is reached by getting rid of all the inspirational ideas that scare people (or that the lesser lights can’t quite grasp).
I’ve accepted that my particular muse is way too grandiose, apocalyptic, and occasionally emo to make it in an age of safe little poetry. I’m never going to be famous in life (well, as famous as anybody can be writing something as irrelevant as poetry), and the best I can hope for is the fate of Gerard Manly Hopkins – to be discovered once I’m dead.
But that irrelevance thing – poetry has sort of courted that, hasn’t it. Instead of reveling in its difference from prose it has insisted on being the same. Prose with line breaks. About mundane topics, with nothing especially dramatic in its payoff. So, remind me again exactly why a reader should care?
Well, forgive my straw men, gross over-generalizations and intolerable self-absorption. It’s a frustrating thing being an unfashionable poet. Let me see if I can reward your patience by offering up a piece from my just completed new book, which is probably doomed to self-publication as an e-book. If you’re as unfashionable as I am, perhaps you might enjoy it.
Few are welcome in the
Tower of the Sky.
await the ivy gates of dawn,
waving credentials and
begging for crumbs.
Mia anima sta sanguinando… *
When Jupiter pauses in the
House of Cassiopeia, the
Lords convoke the lottery,
bid one join their fellowship.
The unelect slump toward town.
Every window mocks them.
Every alleyway invites them in.
Long Liz sang the loudest. Right, then.
I seen â€˜em, I did.
Cult of woolves, smart in their jemmy
tweeds, late off a plunge with Lady
Laycock, Iâ€™d wager,
their â€˜eads shimply
shocking with velocity, guvâ€™,
slank from street
slashing for dollymops.
Dio mio! Dio mio!
PerchÃ© mi hai abbandonato? **
Be not there, Citizen, he said.
And he give me a look…
* Professor, Professor – my soul is bleeding…
** My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?