Saturday, February 21, 2009

Disappearing Poetry

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday entitled "The Great(ness) of Poetry" by David Orr. In it, Orr explores the modern definition of the word "great" when applied to poetry. He writes that "great" does not mean the same thing as "perfect," "superior," or even "sublime," and points out that, though the word "great" has a special significance in the world of poetry, it is difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, it means:

"What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though,
the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical."

He also argues that a poet must "look" great, meaning he or she must live a grand, exciting life that seems to make his or her poetry that much more important. Those who are exceptional poets but lack this je ne sais quoi are labeled "great with an asterisk," as though their lifestyle choices lessen the impact of their poetry to a certain degree.

Orr also points out the changing structure of the poetry world throughout the 20th century, its adoption by the middle class and subsequent lessening of "looking" great:
"Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom. Our assumptions about poetic greatness are therefore linked to the reputation-making structures of the poetry world — and changes in those structures can have peculiar effects on our thinking. For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling. It would be a mistake to call today’s poetry world a transparent democracy (that whirring you hear is the sound of logs still busily being rolled), but it’s more democratic than it used to be — and far more middle class. It’s more of a guild now than a country club."
While I can't say definitively if the G.I. Bill really did make poetry more readily accessible to the middle classes, I can say this: I do not read contemporary poetry. I did not read contemporary poetry while at university. I only know of one person who appreciates contemporary poetry, and his preferences tend toward performance arts that seem more like jam sessions than poetry readings.

Does this mean I'm a philistine and all those I associate with are peasants? Possibly. But it is also noteworthy, I believe, that many of those I associate with, though they don't read contemporary poetry, write poetry--in some cases books and books of it. In my world, poetry has become about self-expression, not "greatness," not even about culture. With that in mind, it is easy to see why the "Great(ness) of Poetry" is diminishing; it is exploring the little day-to-day hurts in Everyman's life, not the grand mysteries of the universe. Rather than lamenting this fact, perhaps we should accept the fact that the motivation behind poetry has changed, is different than it once was, and therefore no longer needs to be "great."


Homero said...

You're hitting a subject that I get rather sore about, but too tired to get too into it... more about this on Monday afternoon.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I'm hitting a subject I FEEL like I should get sore about, but there's no contemporary poet I'm passionate enough about to muster the enthusiasm...

Homero said...

That's the thing-- they suck. More often than not, contemporary poetry is absolutely terrible. Bad bad bad. I had high hopes Elizabeth Alexander (who, I admit, I have never read before)but her poem for the inauguration was dull and lifeless, something I'm certainly sure wasn't the point. It was a dud, boring, everything that the inauguration was not.

That said, I HAVE read contemporary poetry that IS good-- unfortunately, it will more than likely never really be read because of the politics of even getting things read in college classrooms, getting things in the cannon. Poetry is marked today to banal LiveJournal postings. Nizar Qabbani, Charles Buckowski (both of which are dead, so I'm not sure if they count) are some of my faorite poets that are... well, they are dead and one is white, but I like 'em anyway.

Oh, and I always thought this article was cool, and thought you might find it interesting:

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I really liked that article, even though I've never been a particular fan of Pope. But it's true that poetry just doesn't have the same relevance today as it did before, for several reasons:

(A) Poetry used to be written by interesting people with interesting ideas and interesting lives. Now it's written by academics. This is not to say that academics can't be interesting, but they're a different caliber of people.

(B) Poetry used to be the only form of reproducable entertainment because novels didn't become popular until the 19th century. Now, however, we have music, film, TV--a whole spectrum of media is available to us.

Poetry just isn't relevant anymore, and those of us who do like to read it will probably turn to a time when it WAS relevant--the time of Pope, of Byron, etc.

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