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Newsletter Dated: 5/23/2002 6:28:38 AM
Subject: Do Poets Matter?
The short answer is, Yes—but only to them. That's a fact, Jack. Poets are about as solipsistic a bunch as you can find. Poets with MFAs are the worst. Ask anybody who knows one—or who used to know one.
Most poets are exiled from their families as soon as the tendency is identified. Some great poets have been exiled from whole countries (Ovid), others have chosen exile (Eliot) or have been exiled within their countries (Akmatova, Havel). In the future, great poets will be exiled from the planet (Kubrick's Hal).
The scary poets are right at home here. They get noticed. Some just plop down on your favorite chair and start spewing faux-plain doggerel before they've introduced themselves. Some are over in the corner, on edge, snickering at your knick-knacks, pooh-poohing the drapes. And, in the kitchen, you can always find a few jamming their failed psychoanalysis down your throat while you're trying to make dinner.
Drunken poets pick fights—at their own readings. Breakneck monotonists hypnotize audiences—but forget to instruct them to buy poetry books. And poet-victims? They victimize.
Of course, not much of this Sturm und Drang penetrates the reading public. People see "poetry" in a headline and they move on to something with a little more meat on its bones. The public doesn't much buy poetry books, despite—or in spite of—the bells and whistles surrounding National Poetry Month. And, though the public still buys books written by, say, Poe, people are disinclined to take a poet out to dinner (poets never pick up the check) or invite one home to meet the parents ("Edgar's not inebriated, daddy—he's inspired!").
I don't know exactly why people these days flee poetry and poets, but I have a few theories. Maybe it's because poetry has become an acquired taste where once it was required. Kids are first attracted to its rhyme and meter—innate to humans—but in lieu of training (memorization), kids move on to the poetry they find in music. There, it's easier to find, easier to transport, via a good Walkman, and it can be hummed or sung in showers and, perhaps most important, it drowns out the world's atonalities (and conversations).
Poets run into problems in the public sphere. Even the most lyrical among them sound off-key when pontificating on public issues. Take Osama Bin Laden's poetry, please. Or take U.S. (!) Poet Laureate Billy Collins' now-infamous statement from his piece in USA Today (September 24, 2001): "A poem about mushrooms or about a walk with the dog is a more eloquent response to Sept. 11 than a poem that announces that wholesale murder is a bad thing."
Or try to keep your dander down making sense of Juliana Spahr, who actually took on Collins in an essay in the current readme, an online literary journal, when she says: "Somewhere around 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center while I watched from a street corner in Brooklyn. But that is nothing. Some 72,000 have died from AIDS in New York City since 1981."
She adds: "When that tower collapsed we all screamed or gasped and then we all just scattered back into our houses."
I don't know what street corner she was on, but from where I stood, on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, on 9/11 I saw a lot of tears, shed my own, and heard sobbing among the gasps and shouts—but nobody ran. If anything people expressed real frustration because they could no longer get into Lower Manhattan to help. A lot of them eventually did make it in, whether to work the Ground Zero cafeteria or give the laborers massages, whatever they could. I guess it was just poets who ran home, presumably to go to bed and "heal."
That's going to be hard to live down for a "community" that considers itself to be avant garde—how does one lead from the rear? But today's poets no longer have a choice: spiritually hamstrung by a combination of priggish decadence and primitive tribalism, they remain frozen in place while the world rushes by. As G.K. Chesterton notes, the first position—that nothing is worth fighting for—is immoral; the second—that only the tribe is worth fighting for—is inadequate. No wonder so much poetry boils down to whining over the inadequacy and immorality of the poet's little world. No wonder that poets, when they do move at all, head right for the handiest anodyne, whether it's cheap whisky or pop-Buddhism.
"Nothing matters" can lead to ennui or the pursuit of nothingness—if nothing is the only thing that matters, then, by Rimbaud, let us go for it! Fine, if you don't have to earn a living, but the effect on a poet's poems couldn't be more disastrous. If nothing matters, then neither does craft. If nothing matters, then reading the work of other poets is as meaningless as any other pursuit. If nothing matters, why write at all?
Difficult to cultivate an audience with that kind of attitude, and the poets who exhibit it deserve the attention they receive. But the effect on anybody who's had the misfortune to attend a reading by such poets can be catastrophic. They might, as many do, ask themselves why there’s so much fuss about poetry and decide never to buy a book of poetry, much less attend another reading.
After all, what do poets who cultivate contempt rather than audiences deserve but indifference?
Robert Bové The Texas Mercury's Homepage
By James Love