A Short Dissertation of the State of Poetry. By Taylor Gould.
As a writer who, above all, considers himself a poet, I am continually disappointed with the community of people I so closely associate with. The world of writing, in a general sense, is changing, and is becoming a much more difficult venture for those who are breaching the industry in the midst of its collapse. Even those who have garnered moderate to great success have been finding the internal workings of the poetry world to be slowing and, bit by bit, grinding to an imminent halt. No longer are the years of the poet-celebrity - the Charles Bukowski's reading in front of audiences of over 1,000; the Robert Frost's, whose words tickled fancies in generation after generation. Those days, as though by some prophecy, are over. But who is to blame for the steadily declining state of poetry? The disinterested readers? The invention of social media sites, which make poetics all but frivolity? No, the onus is all on us, ladies and gentlemen. The poets.
In a recent workshop, I heard a young writer exclaim, "I love poetry that confuses me!" I had to cringe. The decline of poetry is inversely proportionate to its inaccessibility. Now, this is not to say that e.e. cummings, by any means, was a conversationalist, whose tone could be appreciated by poets and non-poets alike, but he's a whole other world of writing. His work reflected a visual nature, and was accessible by the same means a piece of modern art might be. On the other hand, we see writers of old weaving in highfalutin metaphors and speaking purely in esotericism. While a lofty concept was acceptable - even more important: accessible - one hundred years ago, it no longer is.
As mentioned previously, the world is moving just a step more quickly than it used to. News media outlets are tweeting their reports, RSS newsfeeds give us our daily fix right to our phones, no one seems to have time to sit down and read a newspaper. The same can be said for poetry, though while the news industry is working its hardest to create a new medium that will be supported by the times, poetry is stuck living in an inaccessible state. The times, as they are, call for a poetry that is not unlike that of some decades-old conversationalists: Bukowski, Brautigan, Ginsberg, Kerouac. And my inclusion of names does not mean that they're my favorite authors - just authors who are appreciable the same way that hearing a story, or a funny joke, from a friend is appreciable. Our readers simply have no time to sit down and ponder what Walt Whitman means when he speaks of the "learn'd astronomer." Nor do they have the effort to mentally annotate every piece they write. To reiterate, let me say, there is no shortage of poeticism within the daily linguistic pursuit. What is spoken - or, better, written as though it were spoken - is much more profound that what is simply written, sometimes.
I found, for example, much more Poetry (with that capital P) in a homeless man's sign than I ever did on Frost's roads less or more traveled. The man's sign read "Home for the helpless." And I, since, have been trying to work it into a piece of mine, but it's too poetic. It's too strong. And it came from a sign held by a man who had urinated on himself. The point here being, we need to look more outward than inward during the writing process. There is a natural beauty in the world that is communicated on not an oral, written, or intimated level, but which is communicated purely through the human element. To clarify, here is a quote: "It takes a certain type of man to enjoy a fine champagne, but anyone can enjoy a beer."
It is using this concept that we must move forward as writers. No longer are the days where it is merely adequate to be read and understood by some upper-middle bourgeois who take walks in the woods some Sundays; no, the days of Emerson's privileged musings are behind us. Far behind us. Poetry - at the hands of poets - is phasing itself out. In order to counteract this, we need to embrace a higher level - and high numbers - of readership. We need to open our arms to a community that is not simply of our peers in the writing world. To be instantly appreciable is to, in turn, gift yourself the artistic recognition and longevity of more visual arts.
To close, one must consider the idiom "Everyone has a story." It is the job of the writer to convey to the reader this fact, but we have been holding our focus in the wrong places too long. It is no longer sufficient to say "everyone has a story," and move on from that but relaying to our audience a story they cannot identify with. The days of poets speaking of and to poets are - or should be - coming to a close. It is time, now, to consider a new mantra:
"Everyone has a story, I will write for those who can't tell theirs."
Taylor Gould is a writer from Corinna, ME, and studying Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College; as well as being a full-time student of life and life's reciprocity with writing. His work has been featured in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Leaf Garden Press, The Montreal Review, and many others. His play, The Lights, is available for purchase at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Response by John Armstrong.
I'd like to start with where we may agree and then pull out some threads that might need further consideration. There is no doubt that poetry is in a bad way and all of us who care about any kind of verse have a responsibility to do something about this. I also feel that a 'conversationalist' approach with greater reference to the everyday means of expression may be one of the more fruitful (and interesting) means of redress but I'll come back to this.
I do need to take issue with your assertion about the relationship between decline and inaccessibility. One glance at the web will show that the vast majority of stuff currently being written and published is very accessible indeed. By 'accessible' I mean poetry whose meaning can be grasped in one reading- what I would describe as 'drive-by verse'. The reason that I am not delighted by this glut of readily graspable poetry is that it isn't very good in that it tends to be technically weak, expressed in uninteresting ways and has nothing new to say. This is a tragedy because accessible poetry can also be great poetry (Elizabeth Bishop, R S Thomas etc etc) and the current level of dismal mediocrity only serves to drive readers away and further perpetuate the prejudices that most people hold about poetry.
I don't want to enter into a lengthy defence of the 'inaccessible' because I think we'd both need to define our terms but I do feel that I find most 'drive-by' verse uninteresting and get much greater satisfaction from repeated readings of work that is considered to be difficult. I also readily acknowledge that some 'difficult' work is as weak and banal as some of the most accessible.
So, poetry is dying but is not yet dead. I think part of the way it is killing itself is by becoming increasingly factionalised and that we really do need to find a way to get over that. In an ideal world this would consist of various critics and readers championing their own cause whilst refraining from denigrating other causes. The patient is far to ill for this kind of self-indulgence to be tolerated.
My personal hope for the future lies in part in 'conversational' poetry as practiced by Charles Olson and John Matthias both of whom have demonstrated an enormous gift in making the complex seem straightforward. I'm thinking in particular of Olson's 'Oceania' poem in the 'Maximus' sequence and Matthias' 'Laundry Lists and Manifestos', these reward multiple re-readings but the essential gist can be grasped in one reading without the reader fully appreciating the complexity of the points being made. This of course requires enormous technical skill but that I think that it has the potential to rescue at least part of poetry from itself.
A final thought, perhaps the biggest problem is that there is no longer a consensus as to what poetry is capable of. Perhaps we need to think more carefully about this with regard to changing forms of communication- not just social media.
John Armstrong is trying to make a living as a freelance writer whilst maintaining this site and the Bebrowed blog. He can be contacted via the address at the bottom of this page. Any further contributions to this debate would be most welcome.
A response by Vance Maverick
Taylor Gould's vision is attractive: poets should write to communicate. I'm a reader of poetry, not a poet at all, and I'd be happy to be able to enjoy more poetry, whether arcane or straightforward. But beyond that shared hope, I disagree with most of his concrete propositions.
1. I don't see that addressing a narrow audience ("upper-middle _ privileged") is less acceptable today than in the past. It seems to me that in Emerson's day, as now, poetry and its audiences were a complex ecosystem, inhabited by a broad mixture of niche and generalist poetic species. Today, social structures may be less hierarchical (maybe), but audiences seem at least as fragmented as they were. (Does Gould have some evidence on this?) It would be another matter, of course, if poets made it clear that only some particular narrow audience mattered -- but I don't see that.
2. Why does Gould object to "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"? It's quite short, and its message is that the pursuit of scientific understanding is barren compared to the intuitive apprehension of nature, accessible to all. So it's hardly esoteric, either in the demands it makes on us or what it has to say. Indeed it's a perfect embodiment of what Gould elsewhere asks poets to do: "There is a natural beauty in the world that is communicated on not an oral, written, or intimated level, but which is communicated purely through the human element."
(From my point of view, the message is tendentious and misguided, but that doesn't seem to be Gould's complaint.)
3. Gould takes it as given that visual art has more artistic "recognition and longevity" than poetry. This is only true, I think, if we accept unfairly narrow boundaries for what counts as literature. To take the most obvious example, there has been an outpouring of oral poetry in the last thirty-plus years, eagerly consumed by a large audience, in the form of hip-hop. Leave aside questions of quality (I'm certainly no judge) -- it's as vibrant as Gould could wish, and qualifies as poetry by many definitions. (As for longevity, "Rapper's Delight" is still popular on YouTube, 31 years after release.)
4. Somewhat tangentially, I can't agree with Gould that Cummings is an anomaly. His poems transmit attractive messages -- things it's fun to hear from a poet, such as that the bourgeois are insensitive, war is hell, love is sweet, "there is some shit I will not eat" -- playfully complicated by a bag of lively verbal and visual tricks. Nothing in Cummings is as "confusing" as, say, Jack Spicer (whose style is superficially more conversational, indeed recognizably kin to Bukowski). Gould is right to emphasize Cummings' "visual nature", but to leave it at that is to sell his verbal efforts short.
(The one thing everyone knows about Cummings, if this counts as evidence, is not the layout of his poems but their capitalization.)
5. Finally, is the message "Everyone has a story" really the only one that can succeed? It certainly can work (it's part of what Howl does, and Whitman), but there has been a lot of successful poetry that doesn't tell us that. To take one recent example, Christian Bok's Eunoia has been a huge success by poetry standards (record sales in Canada, where he lives, and 5000 reviews on Amazon, with a five-star average -- is Gould aiming higher?). And yet it's a densely clever and funny cycle of wordgames, from which it would be difficult to extract any message at all.
Gould advocates a poetry that narrows its scope to reach a wide audience. I would be happy if someone were to succeed in this mode (as long as they're more interesting than Billy Collins). But I'm not persuaded that this one kind of poetry is the only way to reach a wide audience -- or that a wide audience is the only kind worth writing for.
Vance is a software engineer living in San Francisco. He studied music and linguistics as well as computer science, and writes occasionally about poetry and the arts.
A Brief Rebuttal By Taylor Gould
In responding to Maverick's comments on my initial post, I must first acknowledge that, beyond any formatting debate one could get oneself into, the greatest service done to poetry is discourse. That there may be a lively debate on such an issue proves that there is, in fact, life pumping through Poetry's dusty veins after all. I will, then, respond in the same manner to which I was responded.
1. The point of what I was saying is being entirely missed here. I was not speaking to the acceptability of any form of poetry. It is just as acceptable to write in pure algorithmic riddle as it is to write in one's own speaking voice. It is whether one should do that that I call into question. To take my statement of Whitman's esoterics being "unacceptable" is to take the word too literally. No distaste is shown for this style of writing being this style of writing is simply not being read. Therein lies what I have deemed unacceptable. It was acceptable then under the terms that it was widely read, and reached a strong base of "consumers". I was merely suggesting that we might not want to do that in order to resuscitate the craft as it stands.
Second, you're taking my mention of class, once again, on what seems to be too literal a degree. While it is true that in the Emersonian times, both reading and writing poetry, and enjoying linguistic pursuits on any front, was a leisure only afforded the upper class, it is not so today. The only restriction we have on poetry's popularity today is that it's simply not able to be read and understood by those outside of academia - at least not typically. That's crippling, I believe, to a craft that is seeing a razor - sharp decline in its interest in the world.
In order to rebut most fully, I'll quote: "It would be another matter, of course, if poets made it clear that only some particular narrow audience mattered...." Therein lies the entire breadth of my argument. It would be dire straits for poetry as a collective if it (continued) to address a specific audience; which it does.
2. My using "Learn'd Astronomer" as a part of my argument was, to be frank, a flawed decision. It was the first thing that popped into my head as I conjured up Whitman as today's anti-poet. The fact of the matter is, while that specific poem is not reflective of the ideals to which I was speaking, his body of work and intended audience very much fit the bill.
Whitman, and his transcendental brethren, had the leisure of writing to what you call a "particular narrow audience," while today the craft still attempts to be associated with a certain demographic. Its perceived link to not only the bourgeois, but to those engaged in academia, is an overwhelming hindrance; while a great benefit would be had from a widening of readership.
3. I was mistaken to equate visual art's instantly - appreciable nature with its longevity. It is more effectively communicated as cause and effect. Visual art's longevity, and popularity among many different walks of life, come from its ability to be appreciated on many different levels: that of the art critic (a fully developed understanding of the craft's intricacies) and that of the casual viewer. We do not see this duality of appreciation in the poetry community. It is most frequently those well - versed on the subject that are partaking in its consumption; all the while those casual readers are being pushed further and further away as writers' focus holds more tightly to trenchant form.
Next, the equation of hip-hop and "oral presentation of literature" is misguided. Not for any reason but, when paired with another artistic value (in this case, music), each one compromises the other. The focus is not, under any circumstance, 100% on one or the other - nor from the consumer, or, most of than not, the artist. No one is arguing music's accessibility.
4. Again, I would like to stick more closely, in our talk, to the central issue: that poetry's accessibility, or lack thereof, is a hindrance on the community of readers and writers alike. We could, for days, discuss Cummings' writing - I've a particular interest in Cummings - and its reasons for success on both an academic level and a mainstream consumerist level. He is easily marketed as both esotericism and not.
5. Finally, of course it is not the only message in poetry that would make it more accessible - not by any means. The phrase, instead, was meant to be a concrete, idealistic embodiment of the concept I'm bringing forth. While there are thousands of others things the general public would enjoy reading about, a sterling example of that is exactly what I mentioned at the end of my piece. It is in accepting these base - level concepts, and not catering to a purely academic audience, we are opening up the craft to a more Cummings - like, visual art - like level.
A name you mentioned, Bukowski, did this beautifully. His work was appreciable to poetry - readers, fiction-readers, non-readers alike - he applied a layman's perspective to an otherwise esoteric craft, and the two melded beautifully. He provided longtime readers of poetry and first timers with writing that withstood the scrutinizing eye of the consumer. It transcended both mainstream media and the esoteric by combining the two.
Finally, I will insist that you completely misconstrued my piece - I am merely trying to open poetry up to a wider audience by making its messages, while perhaps fewer in number, accessible on more planes.
A Further Response by John Armstrong
The above exchange illustrates one fundamental aspect of the problem. People who read poetry, who care about poetry, who can see the point of poetry, tend to have very personal and idiosynchratic views about what poetry is and what a poem should be doing.
This leads to polarisation, mutual misunderstanding and factionalism. We all have an opinion and are ever ready to put those opinions forward. I'm not of the view that 'difficulty' or 'inaccessibility' are a part of the problem although I am happy to accept that the way the academy has malappropriated this particular corner only reinforces the negative image that difficult verse has.
I'll go further, I'm not at all interested in what passes for contemporary 'accessible' verse which seems to me to combine mediocrity with platitude in equal measure. I do however respect the right of those who write it and those who read it.
I think any cure has to go back to basics, those of us on the difficult side of the fence need to work out (again) what poetry is and what it can do and whether we need to drop the 200 year fallacy about privileged access to the truth whilst those who advocate 'accessibility' above all need to work out why most poems of this sort come across as trite. I'm also with Geoffrey Hill in the view that the teaching of creative writing should be banned and that poets should learn (as they always have) by reading and by living. The other thing that needs to happen is that publishers need to consider poetry as a product and to market it as a product with a clearly defined value to the reader. Finally, poets should move away from the reading circuit and into public spaces, preferably without either advance notice or permission.
These views are entirely my own and I hold them regardless but I do continue to respect the views of others and try very hard not to spend too much time on the blog slagging off those poets that I despise. This isn't an attempt at the moral high ground but a pragmatic view that we are simply too few in number to fall out amongst ourselves.