In the face of collapse
See it in the faces
Buried in the tangle
Inside the foundation
Of dread and repeat
“Why read, if what you read will not enhance mind or spirit or personality?” I take great issue with Donald Hall’s claim of a widespread increase in competently written poems. Why sanction competence? Then again, advanced readers—superlatively engaged—are required, desperately necessary, ones who can actually discriminate beyond a mere like or dislike. “A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.” The term “competence” saturates commentary, and to retain any distinction must be divorced from technical aspects of craft and tradition. There exists a terrible disconnect—between the study of forms and technique, and the application of such knowledge. It’s as though nothing rubs off on today’s students. The burden of proof lies on Hall et al. to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, incontrovertibly, that so much excellent writing is in fact being written. I see no overwhelming evidence of that. “Poems that demand—and reward—rereading are rare, almost extinct.”
“There is no greater fallacy going than that art is expression—an undertaking to tell all to the last scrapings of the brain pan.”
“If literary canons are the product only of class, racial, gender, and national interests, presumably the same should be true of all other aesthetic traditions, including music and the visual arts. Matisse and Stravinsky can then go down with Joyce and Proust as four more dead white European males. I gaze in wonder at the crowds of New Yorkers at the Matisse exhibition: are they truly there because of societal overconditioning? When the School of Resentment becomes as dominant among art historians and critics as it is now among literary academics, will Matisse go unattended while we all flock to view the daubings of the Guerrilla Girls? The lunacy of these questions is plain enough when it comes to the eminence of Matisse, while Stravinsky is clearly in no danger of being replaced by politically correct music for the ballet companies of the world. Why then is literature so vulnerable to the onrush of our contemporary social idealists? One answer seems to be the common illusion that less knowledge and less technical skill is required for either the production or the comprehension of imaginative literature (as we used to call it) than for the other arts.”
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
F. L. Lucas: “And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seem, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”
That “high and ancient art” doesn’t rub off so easily, with mere exposure. The practice of writing verse—decent, substantial verse—remains elusive, not quite available to just anyone (contrary to popular opinion).
Jean de La Bruyère: “There are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: poetry, music, painting, public eloquence.”
W. H. Auden: “A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry.”
I am of an age where I can’t afford to waste time on petty grievances, department store annoyances and bland epiphanies presented as poetry. Despite the ubiquitous I, most contemporary poetry stops short, remaining largely impersonal—insufficiently transformed and infused by the writer.
An overriding, unhealthy irreverence for tradition and craftsmanship rules the day.
I object, opposed to all this disproportionate fussing over the death of one beloved celebrity. How unlikely…rarer still that such a commodified ego, gracing presidential inaugurations, commanding thousands of dollars per appearance—would truly be in the service of Language, indebted to Poetry.
With many indifferent to significant departure…
Gone…Gabriel García Márquez.
No more the disconcerting elegance of Russell Edson.
While there’s plenty advantage in avoiding the classics—dangerously sobering.
It’s enough to champion masterful writing.
I open by alluding to the work of Herbert Morris, unfairly overlooked amid triumphant commercialism, disposable art…shameless, unabashed self-promotion. Taxing intelligence, quietly insisting: reader required, no idle spectator—
The body knows deceptions long and lucid.
The masters have gone, banished from healthy curriculum. The loss is bitterly quantifiable. Emerson: “In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret.”
The simple act of having written, of piecing together a few lines of verse—in no way necessitates publication. Though why listen to anybody else? Everyone a priest, everyone a poet. Why bother with Horace (echoed by Robert Frost and several others), advocating a lengthy period of total sequestration? Poems must settle on their own. And that takes time.
Like the relentless cicada, generously provided a protective bone, spared its own deafening crescendo…today’s poets (I cringe evoking that designation) dash onto the stage, impervious to criticism.
The work itself…subdued by the incredible demand for notice—desperate push for publicity. Next in line, poet laureate of the cul-de-sac…where longevity takes the prize, rewarding senescence over quality of thought and masterful composition.
I ask fair reading.
But it makes perfect sense, as the deluge continues to overwhelm, that advertisement steals the primary focus of today’s writer, with increasing effort devoted to marketing. “Vanity of vanities…”
Joseph Epstein, ca. 1995: “To provide only a single depressing statistic, I read somewhere that there are currently 26,000 registered poets in the United States. Where, it will be asked, do they register? With the Associated Writing Programs, I gather, which are chiefly made up of teachers of writing, who are even now busy producing still more poets, who will go on to teach yet more poets, who will…so that in twenty years’ time we will have 52,000 registered poets. Degas, more than a century ago, remarked: ‘We must discourage the arts.’ Sometimes that doesn’t seem a bad idea.”
Prediction fulfilled (and likely exceeded)—that’s an annual buffet of 1,000 poets per week. Revolting even to the most determined glutton.
There’s little I can admire in much contemporary poetry.
“The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.”
“In reality the duty of a writer – the revolutionary duty, if you like – is that of writing well.”
–Gabriel García Márquez
* * *
“A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start.”
Ours is a shameful time of no reply (to borrow from Nick Drake). Feel free to send along your compliments, a copy of your newly published book—and enjoy no response whatsoever. Little interest in dialogue and discussion. Minimum gratitude.
What’s the return?
I find both terms unpalatable: emerging/established. Emerging best applies to some newfound disease, established evokes a colonial undertaking.
For those who have—
The established ones, warm and dry in their makeshift office, salaried, sealed off, critically acclaimed, amicably awarded…perhaps they do recognize that fundamentally we no longer have a literary scene. Instead, a literary market: cutthroat, opportunistic—where one slip will undo all they’ve been clinging to. They can’t be bothered.
“There are great poets who rage in the margins, like William Blake, and poets unknown in their own lifetime, like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Alexander Pope’s was a public genius, like Ben Jonson’s or Lord Byron’s or Oscar Wilde’s. These figures were news, as no living writer of authentic eminence is today, though we have geniuses of publicity, which is not quite what I mean by a ‘public genius.'” (Bloom)
I’m done competing.