Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Prerequisites of Poetry

I read lots of modern poetry. I enjoy it. I also write poetry. However many, if not most, of the people around me do not read modern poetry and, in fact, will cringe if I suggest it. Why this fear and revulsion?

The situation raises a question: what are the prerequisites for reading and enjoying modern poetry? Do you need to write it to read it? I doubt it. (I hope not.) But there is clearly some sensibility, some "training" involved before people appreciate what modern poetry has to offer.

Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps people are trained to not appreciate it. 

The fact is that we, as a culture, (I am speaking of western, particularly North American, culture here) have a distinct bias against fine arts. Oh, we fund NEA and such. But making fun of the arts and artists as pretentious, self-important — even fraudulent — poseurs is a popular pastime.

This aversion to the arts is not restricted to poetry. The same applies to the other "fine" arts such as painting, sculpture, and dance. The only arts that seem to be immune are fiction, music, and video (TV and movies) — those arts with a significant populist market. And even those arts are immune only in a narrow band of marketable styles.

We are often told that this rejection of art is a specifically American phenomena. The story goes that early in the Russian revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky gave readings to stadiums and halls packed with fervent poetry fans. I am not sure how much I believe this. The same could be said of Alan Ginsberg who participated in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. However, I suspect that many in the crowd were not as avid for poetry as they were for the music and the overall event.

How did we become acculturated in this way?

I believe there are a combination of factors that make poetry (and other arts) outsiders to popular culture. Some historical, some societal, some the responsibility of poets themselves.

Historically, in western society, the arts have been reserved for the upper classes. In the past many arts and artists were dependent on benefactors for their survival. Michelangelo, Mozart, Rilke... Only the wealthy were able to afford the arts and so funded (and sometimes interfered with) their creation. Even today, many art initiatives, museums, and exhibits are funded through private, wealthy benefactors. And when wealthy individuals aren't available, there has been a recent influx of well-healed corporations — oil companies, banks, telecommunication giants — willing to pick up the tab in return for the residual advertising opportunity the association creates.

Even when there have been more populist versions of the arts they were kept separate, such as the distinction between concert halls and music halls, theaters and vaudeville, literary fiction and dime-store novels.

I suspect this heritage of the patron, begun out of necessity, has permanently marked the arts as an object of suspicion to the common populace. Anything out of the ordinary or obtuse is suspected of holding itself up as too intellectual, too well-crafted for common people to understand. Sort of like the emperor's new clothes come to life.

This suspicion is exacerbated by a native cultural proclivity to "normalcy". Outsiders are shunned not so much because their behavior in innately distasteful, but because it goes against the urge to maintain the fabric of societal norms. Norms are, inherently, fragile since they rely on a shared, often unspoken, agreement to what is expected. The only way to maintain that center is by identifying (and rejecting) behavior that falls outside of the norm. And artistic endeavors, almost by definition, fall outside the norm in their effort to refine, heighten, and highlight specific moments, emotions, or predicaments.

Finally, artists themselves have a corresponding proclivity for "acting out" in opposition to traditional mores. In dress, behavior, and opinions, artists often go out of their way — consciously or subconsciously — to set themselves apart. Nerval had his lobster, Dali his mustache, Warhol had his... well, Warhol made himself into the extravagant mask he used to protect his own sensibility.

There are many possible explanations for these excesses. At least in part they are a disguise devised to distract us (and the artist) from facing the inevitable question of whether their work is any "good" or not.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of art is the lack of objective criteria for judgment. Oh, art criticism creates frameworks for assessing value and worth and explanations for why we respond to certain works differently than others. But ultimately it is the individuals who decide for themselves whether something is worthy of the moniker "art".

Even when an artist is successful, doubt shadows their success. Recognition by the establishment can as easily acknowledge a shallow stylist toeing the prescribed avant garde line as it can identify actual depth and artistic skill.

Without recourse to external validation, the artist is driven forward purely on the bravado of believing they are doing something worthwhile. When they are unknown, it is a belief that their brilliance is unrecognized. When they are famous, it is a belief that their true talent extends far beyond simple "popularity".

The will power needed to support this unprovable theory over time is hard to maintain. As a defense, external extravagances help draw the discussion away from relative worth to questions of sanity or propriety, which can be easier for the artist to deal with.

Finally, there is the work itself. For the past hundred years or so, poetry — like many of the other arts — has been at war with itself. The rejection of historical models for new forms (what the art critic Robert Hughes refers to as the "shock of the new") has left many readers confused. The rejection of rhyme for free verse, the oral tradition for concrete poetry, the tactile oeuvre for performance art... Each step forward baffles, and disconcerts the uninitiated in the audience. To those not "up" with the latest styles, it all seems more like hijinks than high art.

So here we stand — artists and audience — on either side of the chasm. The artists sneering at the "popular" audience, as a preemptive attack against their likely response. And the audience poo-pooing the artists as haughty and incomprehensible, for making them feel uninformed.

The common factor in this Mexican standoff is that the disdain on both sides is based on a purely superficial interpretation of the other party. Yes, modern poetry can be incomprehensible, if you just look at the surface and don't take the words on their own terms. And, yes, plenty of people still refuse to accept anything as poetry that doesn't rhyme. But perhaps jumping straight from Robert Frost to Michael McClure is more than can be expected of any human.

The fact is, modern poetry and poets, like artists in other art forms, have over the past hundred years stripped away the traditional scaffolding (such as rhyme and standard meter) to try and understand the true nature of the art itself.  And in its barest form, there is opportunity for both amazing achievements and failure. Because without the support of a recognizable structure, the work either succeeds or it fails miserably. There are few just plain "good" poems nowadays.

There are poets that are "easier" or "harder" to interpret for first time readers. This is as true for experienced poetry fanatics and novices. But many non-readers won't give any of it a try, waving it off with a dismissive "I don't understand modern poetry."

No, they don't. And they won't unless they try. Even an avid poetry reader such as myself can have a hard time reading through modern poetry magazines. As soon as you hit a poem you don't like or find inferior, the other poems start to blur together as some sort of indistinguishable, unappealing fog.

The fact is, it takes a considerable effort to read poems by different authors in one sitting. Imagine if you squished War & Peace, Joyce's Ulysses, and a Danielle Steele novel into one book and had to read it in one sitting. Now intermix the pages. At some point, things that might have seemed evocative, illuminating, or simply enjoyably escapist become a painful, unrealistic slurry of words you must slog through.

That is often the experience when reading poetry magazines and anthologies.  The fact is we are taught to read for content: quickly skimming the page for key facts or phrases. But each poem is a world unto itself, with its own syntax, its own landscape, its own leaps and limitations. Trying to "read through" multiple poems guarantees you miss the poetry and only notice the peculiarity.

To have any chance of appreciating poetry, you not only need to pause between each poem, you have to literally reset your expectations, your compass, as if entering a new country with new laws and a new language. Make no mistake, this is not an easy thing to do. We, as members of society, aren't used to it. In fact, most writing (magazine, newspapers,  advertising) works hard to avoid your having to do any work or make any adjustments.

But each poem is a separate entity, designed to be viewed on it own separate stage.  And if we are to understand and appreciate it we need to give it room to breathe. This is what makes poetry poetry instead of prose with line breaks.

So the only true prerequisite for reading modern poetry is to stop, take a deep breath, and approach each poem as a new and completely unique experience. Does that mean, if the non-poetry readers of the world do that they will enjoy the poems they read? No. The fact is, there is a frightening amount of bad poetry out there, even among the "sanctioned" literature of modern anthologies and text books. Besides, we all have different tastes. Not everyone likes every popular novel or movie, not everyone likes the same poems.

But if you are ever going to like poetry, or even understand it, you need to read it on its own terms. It's what we do for movies. As the lights go down and the trailers begin, we clear our minds and get ready for a new experience . It is almost a Pavlovian response. This is the same response we need to learn to practice at the beginning of each poem we encounter.

1 comment:

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