Monday, August 15, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POETRY?
"Poetry. Dear old poetry. Your dusty relics groan on forgotten shelves of second-hand bookshops – Wordsworth and Shelley bearded with cobwebs, Spenser dispensed with, the pages of both Brownings gone brown. Look, there’s an abridged Longfellow leaning for support against a broken-backed Bracken"
The scene the Auckland poet Iain Sharp paints in his performance-poem The Poets (published in 2004) is one that gets to me. I, too, have this image of poetry as something forgotten by the mass of readers, rotting in old editions in second-hand bookshops. Iain Sharp is more sanguine about it than I am, mind. His poem goes on to affirm that, in some form of other, poetry will continue to be written, read and raved. I sort of agree with him. Poetry isn’t dead. But there is something very ailing with it at the moment.
What is that something?
As I broach this topic, I have to make it very clear where I stand, so forgive the following CV. I write poetry and have had some of it published in various magazines. My first collection, The Little Enemy, is currently in press. I have twice edited the journal Poetry New Zealand. In discreet pub meetings I’ve done the open mike thing, and on two occasions, much to my surprise, I’ve even been paid (modestly) to read something of my own in public.
I read much modern and current poetry. I am appalled at my ignorance of some poets and schools of poetry which I hear people praising (the more you read, the more you realize how little you know on any topic). I’ve been rapped on the knuckles by the esteemed and estimable poet Alistair Paterson for not knowing Robert Creeley and the Black Mountain School. Another poet goes red and has a sharp intake of breath when I admit that I’ve never read Paul Muldoon. I plead that it is not possible to read everything, admit my deficiency and say I’m working on it. But at least I can say I do know what poetry now is, how it is written, and who writes it or tries to write it.
All this is by way of establishing my cred in what follows.
You should now understand that I’m not a chalky schoolmaster clinging to the idea that real poetry rhymes, is written in neat stanzaic form, reached its peak in about 1850 and is found at its best in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.
I do know the contemporary and hip stuff, and even like some of it.
I also know that there are now more awards and grants for poetry in New Zealand than there have ever been before. I know that we now have a national, stipend-supported New Zealand Poet Laureate; that poetry is still a special category in our annual New Zealand Post Book Awards; that there are numerous on-line poetry journals and creative-writing courses catering to poetry in tertiary institutions; that performance poets in pubs and at special festivities (Sam Hunt et al.) are an established national phenomenon.
So how dare I say that poetry is somehow ailing?
Because, as I see it, poetry has been torn in two, between the high-end coterie and the low-end rant.
At one end of the scale are the small-circulation poetry journals (whether on-line or on paper) and the slim volumes. As print runs and hit rates will tell you, they have a dedicated, but very small, readership. Their contents are often excellent. There is much use of dense irony, much awareness of the power of literary allusion, much willingness to play with form. But the poetry is often opaque. It implies an in-group who know the rules of the game. Often it seems designed to repel even the very literate reader, let along the averagely-literate reader. This poetry is serious stuff, neither for the amateur nor for the sympathetic browser.
At the other end of the scale there are performance poetry, “poetry slams” and rap. God forbid that I should damn these genres. You’d have to be hard-hearted to miss their entertainment value. But, as one very good practitioner of the form has confessed to me, performance poetry is all about immediate impact. What grabs or amuses the crowd on first hearing is what counts. Don’t expect much rumination, subtlety or intellectual content. Rap and slams require great skill in the rhythm and rhyming, but again, they are crowd-pleasing immediate-impact things and the form drags the meaning by the nose.
Please, please don’t tell me that these forms are studied in university English Departments. I already know that. But I also know that academic scrutiny is no imprimatur for literary worth. In this postmodern age, English Departments spend a lot of time looking at many things (worthwhile or worthless) for what they reveal of the general state of culture. Graffiti is as good as a novel. Rap is as good as poetry. Value has little to do with it.
The high-end poetry (journals; most slim volumes) eschews traditional form. Only rarely does one expect recognizable and repeated rhythmic structures, let alone rhyme. Indeed, when these things appear they are subject for special and surprised comment by reviewers and critics. More than one commentator has remarked that the expected form of highbrow poetry now is that of a loose and ironical blog. Personal comments running loosely and somewhat formlessly onto the page, preferably with an overlay of literary allusion or pop culture allusion, often with a tone of sophisticated worldly wisdom or weariness – a wink at the reader saying we are both part of this literary game for initiates.
I am generalising outrageously here, of course. In New Zealand there are some young, capable and much-published poets, like Richard Reeve, who often do write in strict metrical and rhyming forms. But I think my generalisation stands as well as the exceptions allow.
The low-end poetry revels in traditional form and rhyme, but at the expense of subtlety, reflection or much thoughtful content. Slam is high-speed kidstuff. It is to poetry as improv is to drama. Rap is intellectual crap which lays a trap for brains that want to nap with rhythm in their lap.
And what happens to poetry in the middle? This is where I diagnose the ailment. When the browned Brownings, the leaning Longfellow and the wondering Wordsworth were first being published, they had a large reading audience. Their poetry was circulated and read as widely as the popular novels of their day. Middle-class browsers who read yarns and sensational stuff also read poetry. It was taken for granted that major public events would be celebrated (or lamented) in occasional verse, commissioned or otherwise, which crept down heavy-type newspaper columns. Of course this meant reams of awful, and now unreadable, occasional verse on this battle, that titled nobody’s marriage, this queen’s death, that philanthropist’s latest benevolence and so forth. But at least poetry was at the centre of the culture of a large reading public.
It isn’t now.
This is the middle that has collapsed.
Give me a few thousand pages and I would talk about how culture has changed, new mass media have appeared, and television has taken up the role of public proclaimer and lamenter. Let me draw a parallel between the decline of the mass poetry-reading public under the impact of these media, and the flight of painting from representationalism under the impact of photography. I might even be inclined to witter on about the post-literate society and the move to an oral (and aural) culture.
But none of this would quite explain why poetry has taken more of a beating that other written genres.
My suspicion is that it has something to do with the daunting opacity, and apparent formlessness, of much published poetry. Those middlebrow browsers whom you despise, mon semblable, mon frere, react as they do before a Jackson Pollock. “Any twerp could drip paint like that. Any twerp could put those random and meaningless words on the page like that . Where’s the skill? Where’s the rhythm and rhyme? Why should I bother reading that stuff?”
I’m trying to diagnose the problem here, not to provide a cure. Poor old poetry. It will not be saved by clearly-rhymed doggerel. It can never again be written as it was in the age of Longfellow, the Brownings et al. Their poetry belongs to an age and culture different from ours, and attempts to revive the forms they used are at best clever pastiche. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury is not the answer. Modernism and Postmodernism have been real ways forward. But form, rhyme and repeated rhythms are powerful aesthetic attractions, and the audience who don’t get them in published poetry will go off and get them in pop music and song lyrics, while passing the slim volumes by.
How to fuse this fact with a poetic aesthetic true to our own age? I confess I don’t know, but poetry remains wounded as I write.