Spells & Blindness
I recently came upon an article in The Atlantic by Adam Kirsch called "Why (some) people hate poetry." Kirsch's short review is a thoughtful exposition on themes introduced in The Hatred of Poetry, a recent essay-length book by Ben Lerner. But I must admit: the titles of these essays alone make me feel terrible (esp. about poetry in public discourse, in this case "mass media"). I read through the comments on Kirsch's article searching for uplifting opinions and eventually realized I had fallen down a very dark, very lonely, rather uninspired rabbit hole. The resurfacing came as I looked beyond the screen (at books and trees and my own feet) and slowly realized that 1) I had to account for falling, and no other, and 2) the discussion of hate and hatefulness is a very difficult one to have.
I like Kirsch's final thought: "As long as we focus on what poetry isn't and can't be, how can we rediscover what it once was, and might be again?" And I like a trio of radical infectious poets called Young Fathers. Their songs do an incredible job of holding difficult realities (like hatred, violence, separation, and insanity) in the womb-like space of metrical affinities and embodied convictions. Here's a good example.
In the case of Young Fathers (and most poets prior to the turn of the 19th century), the poet is a singer/speaker of verse (PIE root *wer- "to turn, bend"). The poet, like one operating a plow or loom, turns from one line to another (see: etymonline). It's not a stretch to say that verse has everything to do with cultivation: composition: growth. In the postmodern world we've realized that lines are not the only way to scatter seeds, and we are constantly tasked with healing from the travesties perpetuated against entire nations in the name of production and trade. We return with Young Fathers and poets everywhere to the musical turning of the line, the archetypal procession from pain to recovery.
Kirsch uses the term "rediscover" instead of, say, "return," to inquire after the relevance of poetry, which is a deliberate appeal to our (current) affinity for what's new and promising as opposed to what's tried and true. But the mysteries of the past are as vast and dynamic as those of the future. Perhaps it is misleading to divide time this way to begin with. Which brings me to another potentially fruitful discrepancy.
I went camping with Alan Mudd this past weekend, and while performing the necessary acts of survival—fishing for trout, gathering firewood, boiling water, etc.—we talked about the difference between what makes poetry and what makes a poet. Mudd mentioned something Ana Avery once said: "I don't want to be a poet, I just want to write poems." This is like a seed saying "give me water and I will grow," as opposed to saying "give me water and I will become a tree." Is identity expansive or is it definitive? Surely it is both. It is good to write poems and it is good to be a poet.
While camping among the big trees, I was struck by the simple (and possibly misleading) fact that people come to poetry from all backgrounds. Somehow people find poetry. Of course our involvement is fraught with the same issues we confront in other domains: gender inequality, racial discrimination, wage gaps, sexual violence, suppression of religion, suppression of secularism, etc. People invariably bring these issues to poetry. How does poetry respond? Is poetry any better a channel for the preservation of humanity than sports or television or aviation or [insert practice here]? Perhaps. What may put one channel above another in terms of overall human relevance is its capacity to welcome. Another way to ask the question would be: Can poetry tolerate humanity in all its dynamism and disparity better than sports or television or aviation, etc.?
The bittersweet reality, I think, is that poetry's perceived weakness as a vocation—its failure as a commodity—is exactly that which "levels the playing field" (to use another pseudo-agrarian expression), subsequently rendering it a more powerful yet more disaffected cultural practice. Why more powerful? Because language is the root-cause of our connectedness as a species. (I could see an argument made on behalf of sex, but I'm not prepared to go there.) Why more disaffected? Because language, despite all its prosaic concretion, procedural logic and formative entities, belongs more to the body than we are currently capable of accepting. Speaking of acceptance:
Obscurity is a function of the American dream turned illusion: that we should all be rich and famous. I'd like to suggest that obscurity is exactly where the poet must be willing to dwell. The world is full of role models in this regard, for the majority of human beings simply wake up and go to work. How we go to work is very important, it seems. I am reminded of William Butler Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben."
To recover from the internet-bound conversation of hatred and poetry, I turned to google (semi-ironically) with a proposition: tell me about the best poets ever. Google came back (dare I say returned) with an article by Dean Rader for the SFGate titled "The 10 Greatest Poets: My List." It's not the list I care about, but the fact of taking a vast array of perspectives into account with attentiveness and respect. Here's the opening paragraph:
I adore this thought, not for the method which underlies its conclusion—"hundreds of passionate, articulate, persuasive responses"—but for the conviction with which it is stated—"Americans think and care deeply about poetry." Contrary to the politicization of all national entities, Rader's use of the term "Americans" communicates (re: communicare, "to make common") a notion of poetry that is integral and relatable. It's not a list but an acknowledgment of those who have changed our lives—with the word—for the better. Alan Mudd said something else that ties the individual to community, cultivation to culture:
Yours in the dark room of time,
P.S. Close your eyes.