The death of poetry is a very well known trope. When criticism of the internet, troll culture, television, and literature is being shared, a sign of this is said to be the slide of poetry into oblivion. We have lost a vital organ of humanity they lament. In the old days culture was held together with Homer and Virgil or whatever regional bard tells the story of a nation.
Vernon Shetley, professor of English at Wellesley, offers such a critique in his book ‘After the Death of Poetry.’ I’ll leave out the second clause of his title, as I hate dual clause titles, a sign of an age of confused personalities. He muses upon the cause of the descent of poetry into irrelevance by examining the nature in which audiences have become alienated or turned off by poets, a fairly simple task. The audience has become low, and the poet has become high. However, like many academics who themselves toil in obscurity, his prescription is more insightful as to the continued irrelevance of poetry rather then offering his hoped for ‘path forward’, as his goal is to ‘enable the art to regain it’s lost stature in our intellectual life.’
Shetley is concerned with difficulty, a common complaint, and defines it thus. ‘I begin from the premise that difficulty is not an inherent quality of texts but rather a particular kind of relation between author and reader.’ For his goal is to, ‘restore poetry's respectability among thinking people.’ One hears hints of feudalism in this assertion, for when the Pope decrees all meaning, the word becomes simple. And many academics, though quite radical in their thoughts, nonetheless long for a return to the age of the Holy Roman Empire when the word was golden and punishments deliverable to the unbelievers and wrong word users. The relationship between Shetley himself and his readers is an expanse of darkness, ( or a gulf of light, as his student learn ) for his book is subsidized by his institution, and the merits and honorifics bestowed on his book hinge upon a relatively small number of gatekeepers with discourse control rather then sales to public readership. And such is his ideal: governance by the best, an aristocracy of criticism. Mind you, a Catholic aristocracy, for there there after an initiation and legal bond they are treated as equals and their lineage matters not. I say this not to criticize him, but to highlight an aspect of poetries decay, as it is no longer living but ‘intellectual’ and ‘academic’ and ‘Catholic’, and seems to spiral in such a circle.
Shetley quotes Joseph Epstein, ‘contemporary poetry has not grown more but less difficult, and the audience still isn’t there’ and he laments that ‘the canon of great modern poetry’ has slipped in its stature and regard. But high stature for Epstein can be ‘the reverence in which these poets were held is found in the way they were worshipped by the generation of poets… who followed them’. I am imagining the swirl of a toilet.
John Ashbery, a poet of the highest stature, and recently deceased, is held up as an example of how an incisive mind can cut through the muck with trenchant verse. He has a poem entitled, ‘What is Poetry’, no question mark, as a declaration. As is quite normal, the words are so dense that a large amount of padded white space is required to not overwhelm the reader. I refer to Ashbery’s layout, not the manner in which my blog renders paragraph breaks.
The medieval town, with frieze, of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow? Beautiful images?
Trying to avoid Ideas, as in this poem? But we, Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they, Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school, All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field., Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
Now open them on a thin vertical path., It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?
What is Ashbery asserting? We wanted snow in a medieval town but got Japanese tourists? Poetry is like a failed marriage and the pursuit of gentle fantasies? Schools groom the mind like a field of wheat? He clearly hates that, yet he seems to go so far in the other direction that communication through language itself is burdensome. If we have a fantastic thought it’s like a little flower?
Is this the King of American poetry? Yearning for the medieval but hating the schools. Looking for love but always loving the memory of the best partner who left you? While he was a sweet gentle man in person, if a little grumpy, his poetry is nonetheless something you would never want to give to a young child, an old person with Parkinson’s, or anyone else struggling to grow or maintain a clarity about the world. Instead such a work is read like ritualistic sacrifice, and out of a yearning to grow closer to another person questing.
Nietzsche, who was something of a philosopher poet, asserts, in contradiction to the school of Shetley et all, that meaning in the past was of a fundamentally different nature then meaning today. Shetley would perhaps agree that a great and generous culture, with great art, unifies a people. A rapacious and greedy culture, with no soul, such as we live in, fails to support those intellectual giants who have much to teach us.
While discussing the origins of class in an aristocratic society, Nietzsche says, ‘It is in these cases, for instance, that "clean" and "unclean" confront each other for the first time as badges of class distinction…’ He goes on with more examples of a common activity being co-opted to function as a description of an abstract idea, but then the method of meaning making pivots, and ‘this is an example of the first juxtaposition of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ as signs of different estates; and later ‘good’ and ‘bad’ develop in a direction which no longer refers to social standing’. And so we can then use abstract words as the signified for other signifiers.
In plain English, In the past people had a smaller vocabulary, and each word meant more things. We still have vestiges of this, but are encouraged to avoid such word usage. We are told now, there is no connection between cleanliness of the body and cleanliness of the soul. We should not say a country cleansed themselves of filth, nor that the filth of a nation defiled all that was good, but that an illegal military action was implemented. We are told to be aware that what is filthy to the sight can indeed be clean and sterile thanks to modern hygiene. All this may well be true, but in the past, and the further one goes into the past, the more meanings each word can be used for. Poetry was easy, and akin to talking. Ah yes, if I only had a bottle of Jack Daniels then I could speak as the ancients did. And perhaps there were unique generational traumas begot by our fathers and grandfathers, in which they either were in the role of censor or censored, to the highest degree and furthest extent, and it has cursed all their words, the specific words and the general words, and the associations are too strong to overcome, and that the nimble word meddlers see this as an opportunity to insert new meanings.
The task of the poet in the present is therefore either to return us to this ancient, simple, expansive state of inspired reverence for the human spirit or heart or combination of heart and mind, with words that are both simple and profound. Or elegantly express a feeling of helpless torture, or mental degradation, as the case may be. The old words still exist and still maintain many of their residual meanings, yet modern people are not accustomed to think in such a manner, as they desire precise technical words and are afraid to speak generally. And yet… they trip over themselves. For the old words with many associations are fixed with certain associations. And the so called poets, who are in reality successful academics who can earn their own wage, are filled with the revolutionary fervor and love of their own spirit. By extension, they may love other people. But nonetheless the old world is to them a horrendous confusion, and their spirit is thus tortured. On the one hand the ancients ( by which I mean, your father or your grandfather or the founder of your nation or your favorite writer of words ) had brutality and starvation. On the other, beauty and truth. The modern world is clean and sterile, yet lacking in truth, and the so called poets self appointed job is to bring truth to our sterile world.
To begin to approach my conclusion I will state very plainly my complete indifferent and mocking attitude to so called contemporary poetry. It’s desires for intellectual recognition. It’s contempt for ordinary life by way of a transported soul, as if these atheist scribes were Augustine saints. Their seeming desire for the powers of a monopolistic Catholic like institution of meaning making. And they tell us, ‘poetry is dead’, as if they are telling us, ‘Christ is risen!’ And yet, I see poetry everywhere. Are not our bards the musicians who we all listen to day after day, at all times? To wake up to, to work alongside, then to party towards euphoria? But their words are so simple, can this really be a connection to the ancients and therefore to all the other people of the earth? Most certainly, they are not studied, nor are they said to be intellectually rigorous. They speak in plain English. They sing of common struggles of struggling people.
Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. The very summoning of such a name will send a shiver down the spine of any poet who reads this. Is John Dovydenas uneducated? How can he put those crass people, lustful of money and drugs, on top of King Ashbery? And indeed, the written lyrics sound so utterly simple, and are so easy to understand. But to an academic, such songs reek of Capitalism, greed, money, and all that is evil. One poem causes the mind to flex and grow they say, the other poem is a hypnotic bromide. Is not an academic an enlightened person, someone who should maintain cleanliness of the mind to the highest degree? Who should crank their thoughts up into a tornado of criticism? Who should digest endless stacks of obscure and scientific examinations of Marx, Foucault, power, class and privilege? Is not meaning a thing that exists behind the word, within the culture? Surely only a colonially minded person would say that there is no unconscious thought and that the word is itself the idea? Has this person not read the arguments of Plato?
But I think the Ivory Tower is truly the proper metaphor. For those poets, many of whom wished to tear down the world of their fathers and mothers, learned from their leaders. And they were told, ‘use the tools of the master against him!’ Take the word that crushes the soul and bend it to your meaning. Take the constricting language of your fathers and tear it apart! Then from the bits and pieces of words write your own meaning upon the world. And yet…. they have torn down meaning and from where will they get more but from their own animal souls? If the word is the idea, and there are no ideas that are not words, what do these words mean to you? What will your torn apart and reassembled poetry say to someone who is not you?
Hello, is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone home?
I hear you're feeling down.
Well I can ease your pain, get you on your feet again.
Relax, I need some information first.
Just the basic facts.
Ok, just a little pinprick.
There will be no more… screaming.
But you may feel a little sick.
Can you stand up?
I do believe it’s working. Good.
That will keep you going for the show.
Come on, it’s time to go.
There is no pain, you are receding.
A distant ships smoke upon the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you're saying.
When I was a child, I had a fever.
My hands felt just like two balloons.
Now I’ve got that fever once again.
I cannot explain, you would not understand, this is not who I am.
I have become comfortably numb.