High-Tech Poetry Bitch
They had big dictums, deep erudition and cunning linguistics. Marianne Moore translated La Fontaine’s easygoing French into an English of conspicuous difficulty. In Pound’s hands the rudimentary Italian of the troubadours and bare-bones Chinese of Confucius became abstruse Victorianese. TS Eliot gave us the musical equivalent of thought—or sonorous obscurity. William Carlos Williams gave us things, things with ideas in them—supposedly. And Wallace Stevens? Who to this day knows the motive of most of his metaphors?
But these were the Empire’s greatest modern poets. These were the erudite, pedantic colossi who cast their long, dense shadows across the dawning 20th century’s literary landscape. They spawned dumpsters full of masters and doctoral theses, gave birth to academic departments. They are responsible for “poetics,” that ersatz-Aristotelian science of poetry. These literary immortals of America’s Golden Age of Modern Poetry are even regarded by some, mostly American academics, as the greatest poets that have ever lived.
But I’m in no position to judge whether they warrant such preeminence. It would take decades of assiduous study and ancillary research. And it’s as difficult now as ever to figure out what they were on about. Besides, as they would have wished, their posterity is not in the hands of the vulgar public, to whom it has always has been easier to read something intelligible, entertaining, and free of allusions and references that require a scholar to discover what they allude and refer to; it’s under the jurisprudence of the academy.
Out of this same academy issues the “new” poetry, a poetry entrenched in ivory-tower conventions established almost a century ago. Its distinguishing feature is the “difficulty” that has come to characterize modern poetry to the extent of self-parody—to the extent that, to be modern, a poem need only be vague, equivocal, allusive, auto-referential, figuratively dense and/or impenetrably objective, and intoned in a monody so clichéd it would render a lunch menu “poetic.” The post-postmodern poets of this Bronze Age of American Poetry—the protégés of the protégés of the protégés—express themselves as the mentors of the mentors of their mentors did, though with less originality. If Ashbery looks like something begot of Stevens and Breton, the new stuff looks like something begot of Ashbery and Glück. A quick pass would suggest that it consists of mildly disturbing ideas couched in figurative terms and voiced in the breathy, nostalgic melancholia of the career student.
A typical new poem one finds in the /New Yorker/—one of the few popular magazines that still publish poetry—is the short lyric of about 10 to 20 lines, consisting of a series of figures within figures. Admittedly, I do not see how compounded significance translates into greater significance. After all, we usually only remember the simplest and most straightforward ideas, and usually have to further simplify them to remember them at all. We are inherently impressed by the difficult made simple. And compounded figuration generally neither impresses nor entertains. That is why, after reading thousands of these little lyrical truffles, you can only recall the most seemingly incidental observations or fragmented ideas, and usually those which were unusually lucid and vivid. A master like Chaucer, on the other hand, leaves you with stories, scenes and dialogues, as if you had experienced the situation yourself. But that is what a master does, and not what these figuratively constipated bagatelles do. Of course, their authors will say that they were never intended to be memorable or entertaining—only spectacular, musical, whimsical…what they call “moving”…what they call poetry…what I call another tricked-out Moleskine blurb.
The prototypes of the short modern lyric I’m referring to is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or Williams’ “Pastoral.” But Pound’s famous one-figure, one-impression imagist poem spoke to a modern urban condition through the figurative lens of the ancient Orient, and Williams’ walk through a suburban slum transformed down-home abjection into a revelation of spiritual/esthetic maturity. They were significant experiments—precedents in form and substance. As for these techy jags of compounded metaphor, allusion and euphemism, they keep time in MFA monody and that’s about it.
Over the last decade there have been a few well-circulated essays on the Fall of poetry. All have stressed the fact that poetry is, on the one hand, an established route to respectable academic tenure and, on the other, a vain hobby in the eyes of the reading public and publishing industry. They all state the obvious: on the one hand people can make a living as poets and publish their poetry and, on the other, no one reads them. A survey of the general reading public would likely render this frequent response: “Poetry? Got nothing against it. Just can’t understand it.”
The early moderns were differently situated. They were not immured in the academy: Eliot, bank clerk and Faber acquisitions editor; Pound, trust-fund hubby and patron hawk; Stevens, insurance executive; Williams, doctor; Moore, librarian… As there were no contemporary colossi to parrot, these pedant-hierophants of modern poetry took their ideas from over 3000 years of literature and song. Their successors’ successors, the post-postmoderns, however, have modeled the postmoderns, who modeled the moderns. Three generations, same century, same country, same language—no wonder their shit is so easy to parody; it’s already a parody.
The first moderns were idiosyncratically distinct. They were also—whether obstructively pedantic, impenetrably objective, musically fractious, or heavy-handed with the OED—compromised by art. And they produced reams of criticism in which they did not abstain from leveling that charge at their predecessors. Pound lambasted Milton for “ramping and lionizing.” Eh, has any literary figure ramped and lionized like Pound? Have you read the ABC of Ramping? Why are the Guide and the Companion indispensable? Eliot noted that Donne was “not too nice about coherence.” Was Eliot? They also tended to abridge, cut the passing and connective tissue out of a poem until it did not recognize prose or the vernacular. This mot-juste mania might have resulted in the ellipses of the “Wasteland,” the reportage of Patterson, and the fragmentation of The Cantos, but it certainly established the disconnectedness that is now a typical feature of poetry.
As the moderns obscured their meaning in technique—dues of the experimentalism that has virtually defined modernity—they became less, not more, like their models of old. Homer, Catullus, Ovid, Martial, Chaucer, Dante, Villon, LaFontaine, et al were comparatively lucid and comprehensible in their respective idioms. If referential or allusive, their references and allusions were popular currency. The moderns, however, became less, not more, accessible and relevant to a general readership. They vaunted their difficulty, defended it as an expression of the complexity of modern existence. They offered historical justifications, such as the factoid that great poetry was never composed for the polloi, but for elite, highly educated patrons. They set poetry apart from prose, which, though not free of the most egregious experimentalism, has always been the vehicle of the pulp and tabloid. Prose has remained the most accessible vehicle of literary expression because it has been primarily utilized as a form of communication. While experiment nourished its range of expression, prose never abandoned its necessity to communicate to anyone who could read. Poetry, on the other hand, became poetry’s only genre—poetry for poetry’s sake—and poets became poetry’s only audience. But this, it seems, is just what the moderns wanted, or at least it’s the direction in which Stevens suggests that modern poetry ought to evolve:
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed…
—Wallace Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry”
Well, the stage was long ago completed, the actor is still up there speaking slowly and meditatively, and the audience is still invisible, repeating to itself exactly what it wants to hear. In other words, a century later poetry is still droning on in that meditative tone, once considered new, to an audience of one (the poet). On this modality depend the academic arm of the creative writing industry and its poetry professionals, career students and itinerant lecturers who promote, publish and penetrate each other without really knowing or caring whether an actual reading public exists. Their autistic doggerel is exclusively bartered in the halls of the academy, where careers advance via the favor of eminent unquotables who judge the contests, chair the departments, teach the poetics and select the successors.
There is an exception to these academy careerists—Bukowski, who is possibly the most commercially successful poet in modern history. Though he didn’t make it into Norton Anthology‘s class of 1920, his readers stand by him as steadfastly as detective-fiction readers stand by their Marlowe and Spade. Admittedly, he was a genre writer, a pulp writer of, call it, heroic confessions. But his readership now spans three generations, going back half a century. Much to the chagrin of the academics, he has endured in his own and a half a dozen other languages. Despite this, the pedant-hierophants of the high modern insist that poetry should not appropriate the Philistine traits that have met with scandal, popularity and success in, say, Martial, Villon, Byron or Bukowski. But the latter didn’t write for academic audiences, want what academics had, or live the way academics lived. They achieved their success (and immortality) in terms of a popular literature. To some this is inspiring. To others they seem to have existed solely to debunk the exclusivity and obscurantism on which, like the red wheelbarrow, so much depends.
When all is said and done, poetry is an art whose medium is language, which is a medium of communication. Where language fails to communicate, so does poetry. Poets can continue to justify their incomprehensibility on the grounds that poetry, whether it’s “spoken word” or “hendecahedric prosodics,” must be subjectively interpreted. However, if they fail to communicate with readers, they fail the function of language and produce a mellifluous nonsense that poses as intelligent, which is worse than producing nothing at all.
I know that theories of the function of language are incessantly bandied over the faux-wood finish of the seminar table. I know that there are Byzantine opera magna one should devour before arrogating to a credible opinion on the matter. I know that careers are made of reference sections bolstering or defeating such opinions. But how should I care? I am the reading public. I work a shitty job, after which I am exhausted and bogged down with slop. If I bother to read poetry at all, I read it because it moves with its cadence, humors with its wit and engages with its wisdom and sentience—that is, entertains and enlightens. At best I come away from it knowing and feeling something afresh about life. Rather than waste an hour decoding some MFA’s four lines of monodic equivocation, I prefer to chuckle through the Canterbury Tales, Martial’s epigrams, Byron’s or Pushkin’s epics, or Bukowski’s confessional pulp.
It’s convenient to blame society (hegemony of audiovisual media, invasion of the Goths, etc.) on the loss of contemporary poetry’s audience. But, blame as you like, there’s not much post-postmodern poetry out there that folks have the patience to crack. The profit-driven contests, prize trading, degree bartering, university-press networking and CV embellishing may have advanced poetics, but they’ve rogered poetry. In any event, if readers a millennium from now spend their evenings between the pages of a book, they’ll likely go for the stuff that’s intelligible and entertaining, no matter how vulgar our contemporary guardians of the high modern deem it.
© Copyright 2005, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.