Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Cruellest Month

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less -
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

-Robert Frost, "Desert Places"

We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.'

W.B. Yeats, "Adam's Curse"

It's April 30, which means that National Poetry Month is - thank God - almost over. I'll bet you never knew it was National Poetry Month. Neither did I until I read a Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Epstein, "The Poetic Justice of April 1."(1)

Because I never moved in intellectual circles (shouldn't it be intellectual "squares"?), unless you count the years (1976-1981) I spent in university, poetry has been an exclusive, private pursuit, like the music of Bartok ad Stravinsky or the films of Antonioni and Bresson. I have corresponded with creative people from time to time, authors and literary editors, but they weren't my friends. My friends have been people living very far from the arts, in fact as far from the arts as one could get - people with whom I came in contact in the military or in various revolving-door jobs I've held since. If they discovered that I could recite certain poems by Robert Graves or Elizabeth Bishop from memory, it would induce little more than a somewhat embarrassed silence in them.

So when I read articles announcing the death of poetry, I am neither saddened nor particularly surprised. Joseph Epstein was once called "perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell."(2) Twenty-five years ago, Epstein wrote a lengthy essay for Commentary asking "Who Killed Poetry?" His point, then as now, is that no one really reads poetry any more, in the way that educated members of his own generation would "walk around with lines and entire passages from the poetry of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, e e cummings, and others rattling around pleasantly in [their heads]." There are still plenty of poets, of course, and plenty of them teaching creative writing courses in universities, but no one knows their work or buys their books. Poetry is kept alive artificially, like a comatose patient on life support, or like Japanese Noh drama - physically intact, but utterly isolated from the world around it.

Epstein has various theories about the absence of poetry as a vital part of our age, as it has been part of every age since prehistory: modernism, the ascendancy (since Flaubert) of beautifully written prose, rampant anti-intellectualism, capitalism, the dwindling of the average person's attention span. The fact that poetry teachers are propagating a mistaken example of poetry to their students, and a mistaken estimation of certain poet's worth, has contributed to the confusion, in the minds of the few readers of poetry, about what poetry is and, crucially, what it isn't. This explains why recent presidential inaugurations, like Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996 (oh, lost halcyon days!) and Barack Obama's last year, featured such pseudo-poets as Maya Angelou and Richard Blanco.

But I don't see what the fuss is about. I've always known poetry has always been a matter of a few, so why should I care if it's even fewer today? This trend, of the incomprehension or even hostility of the public toward poetry, has been underway for at least a century. It came about partly as a result of the deliberate effort by the leading poets of the first decades of the 20th century to render poetry as unintelligible to the uninitiated reader as possible. To understand Pound, for example, you needed to be a polyglot, or as full of bogus scholarship as Pound.

But even a generation before Vers Libre, Arnold Bennett expressed the view that, in English-speaking countries, the word "poetry" would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire hose. In 1945, George Orwell, one of the most sensitive and under-appreciated critics of poetry, wrote that "one must conclude that though the big public is hostile to poetry, it is not strongly hostile to verse. After all, if rhyme and metre were dislike for their own sakes, neither songs nor dirty limericks could be popular. [Nor, for that matter, would rap music, which uses what Glyn Maxwell calls "Rapid feminine rhyming - feminine in the prosodic sense, I hasten to add."] Lyrical and rhetorical poetry have almost ceased to be written, and a hostility towards poetry on the part of the common man has come to be taken for granted in any country where everyone can read. Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday." ("Poetry and the Microphone")

Robert Graves once told an interviewer that he only made enough from the publication of his poetry to "keep me in cigarettes." Auden, in Nones, famously lamented the loss of an audience: "The wind has dropped and we have lost our public." In his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," he honestly appraised the number of people in the world who were moved by Yeats' death: "A few thousand will think of this day/As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual." So, only a "few thousand" would remember the day on which a great poet died.

In "The Obscurity of the Poet," Randall Jarrell wrote what everyone who wrote and read poetry already knew, that the poet "lives in a world whose newspapers and magazines and books and motion pictures and radio stations and television stations have destroyed, in a great many people, even the capacity for understanding real poetry." If this was true in the 1950s, how much have the new media of video and computers and cellphones worsened the problem for the poet?

Delmore Schwartz, in "The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World," outlined what he saw as a natural process: "As soon as the student leaves school, all the seductions of mass-culture and middlebrow culture, and in addition the whole way of life of our society, combine to make the reading of poetry a dangerous and quickly rejected luxury."

Isn't it fashionable to regard one's age as an age of decline? "It is not sufficient," wrote Philip Larkin in 1957, "to say that poetry has lost its audience, and so need no longer consider it: lots of people still read and even buy poetry. More accurately, poetry has lost its old audience, and gained a new one . . . What can be done about this? . . . If the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on. And I use 'enjoy' in the commonest of senses, the sense in which we leave a radio on or off." ("The Pleasure Principle")

I am less worried about the death of poetry than by the troubling insistence of some people that it is already dead, is dying, or must die simply to fulfill their grim forecasts. But I refer you to the Washington Post article I reproduced above. When I first read it, in the Des Moines Register about a decade ago, I thought it must be a hoax, the ridiculous revenge some copy editor was having on poetry. Because it is regarded as an obligation to the past, instead of a source of continuing and eternal pleasure, poetry is hated by people who can never forget all the "required reading" they were subjected to in high school. I blame the manner in which poetry is taught for that. But there is always someone, probably bespectacled, sitting in the back of the English class, who is bullied and ridiculed for being brighter than everyone else, and quiet, and unable to conform to the norm of stupidity - a person for whom the "obscurity of the poet" comes as little surprise, and as a secret pleasure.(3)

(1) April has been National Poetry Month since 1996.
(2) William F. Buckley, "Who's He?", The New Criterion, September 2002.
(3) By the way, that bespectacled student wasn't me. I dropped out of high school (before entering university at 18) before my opinion of poetry could be pulverized by an English teacher whose first name was likely to be "Coach."

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