Monday, August 15, 2011

Something Thoughtful

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. 

"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.


  1. I agree poetry is in a bad way (in this country, anyway); and I agree that the middle has collapsed. But I think it's temporary, People need words, especially for the big occasions (deaths, births, great griefs, even weddings). They grope for them, sometimes clumsily, sometimes blindly. They know that by using the right words something will be restored, marked, celebrated, gestured towards (if not understood). At such times the merely prosaic will not do.

    So I think it will, somehow, survive the present pickle in which we find it and ourselves. Or so I tell myself. Or so I tell myself.

  2. I think the photo vs representationalism painting is at the nub of the matter. Surely much popular poetry was written to be read aloud at social gatherings as an entertainment by those who couldn't play a musical instrument. When the entertainment started to come pre-recorded, that was the end of poetry (just as it was the end of every educated child learning a musical instrument).
    You say that the audience will go off and get form, rhyme and rhythm from pop music... I say that's where popular poetry is now. Pop music lyrics are what happened to poetry. Poetry isn't dead, it simply adapted. Here you are talking about trying to revive the dinosaur while the skies are full of birds.
    I can honestly say that the only people I know who read poetry are poets and lyricists. Surely the one difference between the two groups is that the lyricists have some concern for reaching a wide audience, while the poets are happy talking to each other and those dusty shelves.

  3. To the second anonymous above. I almost agree with you. There are many great song lyrics in pop music that I would not hesitate to call poetry. And yet - especially when you see them printed out as words without the music - most song lyrics are banal beyond belief. (Remember when rock albums used to routinely come with the lyrics printed on the sleeve? How disappointingly threadbare they always were without the music.)There's nothing wrong about this with a song - the music is supposed to be doing at least half the emotional, evocative work. Really good poetry is often quite awkward, and overloaded with meaning, when set to music. But it still leaves us with the problem of poetry itself, where the sound value is supposed to be in the words themselves; not in their accompaniment. I don't see stand-along poetry as a dinosaur.

  4. C.K.Stead forwarded the following comments to me and authorised me to post them:-

    "I read your poetry piece, not disagreeing, but wondering why there always had to be a reason for everything. Things change. Mostly we don’t like change (except those we have a hand in making) – but asking ‘Why?’ is the bane of the study of history. ‘What were the causes of the First World war?’ ‘Why did the peasants revolt?’ As a poet you should get on with writing poetry rather than asking why is poetry as it is. Make poetry as you feel it should be rather than as you find it to be. Of course I’ve done a lot of analysing Lit Hist in my time, but I don’t think I asked it ‘why?’ very often. These days I just write the stuff. One thing I think you omit however is that syllabic writing is quite as tightly disciplined as traditional metres, but less obviously so because it doesn’t plant a rhythm in your head. ‘To break the pentameter, that was the first heave’ said Ezra. However, I like the pentameter too, and feel one should be feel to write either according to mood / subject / occasion. That rap is crap, if it is so (and I believe it is) is a kind of self-solving problem. Crap is bio-degradable.

    If any of this is of use you’re welcome to put it in as my comment."

  5. Alistair Paterson forwarded the following comment o me and authorised me to post it:

    "Nicholas is so right! I agree with almost everything he said - including his comment that it's now impossible to re do Palgrave's Golden Treasury and its poetics in today's climate. One of the major causes of a lack of interest in NZ poetry (and poetry elsewhere for that matter) is the failure of the media to come to grips with it or to give it the public notice it deserves. When an art form is ignored by newspapers, 'pop' magazines, television and radio, it's inevitable that most people will see it as inconsequential and of no importance. At least Tom Cardy of the Dominion Post is taking action by printing a poem in the Dom every Thursday. Other papers such as the Herald and the Listener should show the same enthusiasm for poetry. It would make a difference. As for Paul Muldoon of course, he's a big name in the UK but sadly his general approach to poetry lags well behind what most of New Zealand's poets are doing and often very much better than most of those writing in England, Ireland etc. Being a poet and writing in the UK doesn't mean that what's printed and praised there is necessarily worthy of the adulation it so often gets.

    Best wishes


  6. The idea that the lyricist is reaching a wider audience through pop music doesn't say much for the future of poetry if the overall results are anything to go by (though Morrissey and Elbow are definite exceptions)
    While teaching in the late 70's I discovered the tantalizing obscurity of William Empson's work and wrote to him seeking some elucidation, enclosing some doggerel of my own that was so bad it barked. He suggested using rhyme and metre, and I still see this as part of the craft of poetry, with writers such as Ian Duhig, Ciaran Carson and Sophie Hannah maintaining its intelligence and vitality despite their lyrical link with some dire rhymes, mercifully inaudible through a wall of guitars.
    Poetry being read at the open mic has to be far less dense than at full power on the printed page because it can't be absorbed at the normal speaking rate, and Nicholas makes a good point about the divide between this place for poetry c.f. the high end of slim volume &/or dry Drydens fossilizing on shelves. Rejuvenating the middle ground position is up to newspapers and magazines.
    The high end will always keep its small and dedicated readership. Poetry is not easily accessible - it is compressed, 'difficult' language. But the payoff is that - and I may have slightly garbled Sylvia Plath here - a line of poetry can be as sacred as a church altar.