Saturday, August 28, 2010

Modern Poetry: It Goes to Eleven, dammit!

Lorin Stein, the third intrepid soul to attempt filling George Plimpton's Gucci cleats at Paris Review, has written a few comments for Ta-Nehisi Coate's blog at Atlantic Monthly, which are interesting, and worth the time of anyone concerned with the state of literature these days. Especially instructive, I thought, was his take on what literature means—or can mean, when it is not unnecessarily exclusionary—to a pretty broad spectrum of people:

"...For what it's worth, I have also been one of the people who say they don't like stories or poems. It wasn't actually true when I said it. (I suspect it's not true in general.) What annoys me is the idea that I should like a story or a poem, just because somebody took the trouble to write it. We are indeed competing for limited airspace. With apologies to Ezra Pound, a story or poem needs to be at least as involving as an expose by David Grann, as tough-minded as a comment by Hendrik Hertzberg. Which is to say, it must if possible be even better written.

"Literary writing (or, if you prefer, imaginitive writing) has certain advantages of its own, none of them weakened one bit by technology. It can often be funnier than other kinds of prose. It can deal more humanly with sex. It can say shameful things about family life—not by treating them as scandals but, on the contrary, by showing that they're normal. More sins are confessed more deeply, through the screens of verse and make-believe, than you will ever find on a talk show or reality TV. Literature gives the best accounts of intimacy. Lena McFarland is right—you may not learn stuff you didn't know from a work of fiction. But there can be great comfort in seeing the troubles of daily life put into words of power and beauty.

"And as David Foster Wallace observed, literature has a way of making you feel less alone. TV doesn't do that. It entertains and entertains, but there is a part of you it gives the silent treatment. In my experience, even the Web can you leave you feeling lonelier, once you turn off the computer. Fiction and poetry connect you, or they can, to something bigger and quieter and more lasting than the day you had at work. The question of posterity is fascinating. Some writers hope to live on, through their words, after death. Some write for the present day. Either way, they take us out of the moment and out of our smallest selves

Over the past several years, I've participated in a number of discussions bemoaning the status of poetry and fiction among the sensibilities of the Great Unwashed; there is no doubt that many numbers of people, whose counterparts from other eras read (and purchased!) poetry and fiction as a matter of course, no longer do. One theory receiving lots of play is that people are becoming dumber, and, because of technology, there are too many interests competing for the attention of the narrowing few who can get it—"it" being, of course, the complexities of modern poetry. Another explanation, and something I think anyone writing today should ask themselves, is how much of this is self-imposed? Seems to me the literary community in some ways resembles Tony Hendra, explaining Spinal Tap's shrinking audience. No, the appeal of poetry isn't waning—God, no—the audience is simply becoming more selective.

Interesting question...


  1. Great piece by Lori Stein you've quoted, but I think you've gotten needlessly pessimistic here...mainly, the kind of work that Stein is talking about sounds to me like *serious* literature and poetry, not at all analogous to paeans to barnyard sex or enormous mud flaps--and I ask you what is the measure of success? Popularity? Number of books sold? The amount of money the poet makes on tour? The number of groupies fighting each other for the closest spot to the hotel room door? In my view, good poetry is it's own reward, and money has nothing directly to do with what I consider the writing of a successful poem. I can extend this metaphor, like you did, to Rock and Roll, though I would pick a non-fictional persona--someone who I consider one of the most successful musicians in Rock and Roll (and by analogy, I hope to succeed to some extent on the same level and measure of success): Robert Fripp.

  2. I agree with much of what you say re: the reward of creating good work. Still, in eras not so very removed from ours, writers (even poets!) managed to eke out a living from their trade, because a larger percentage of the reading public were buyers of literary writing. Gradually, over the latter half of the last century, large numbers of the reading public became, in my view, disaffected with the work being produced; regardless of the reason, there's no doubt that many ceased their consumption of it. I recall a discussion over dinner a few years ago where someone was commenting about a poem in a journal broken up into clusters of words, each bracketed within parentheses. The reason was not apparent to any of us, and the poem itself not affecting in any way, besides the eliting of bewilderment and boredom. This is what many contemporary journals look like, at least to me, layman that I am. I feel qualified to repeat what many others have said to me, and to vouch for the authenticity of their sentiment: Much of what is produced these days alienates the greater portion of the reading public, including many who ache to be engaged by the written word. It is easy to blame them for it. To me, though, it seems more realistic to question the point of the written words which are at the root of the estrangement.

  3. but at the same time, right now you have terms like Legacy Media being used, and what that implies, and I have old friends who have made a living their entire adult life in journalism who are struggling to make ends meet--part of what is happening right now has nothing to do with either the writer or reader--same kind of thing is happening elsewhere in the arts, btw--in many cases, the problem is with the writer, as has always been the case--there was something Travis posted many months back, talking about how all of these changes taking place and the writer (some contemporary sci-fi guy like William Gibson or someone like that) dismissed Poetry as irrelevant based on book sales--if anything, poetry is getting stronger and more diverse, though there's always going to be a lot of crap, especially when people promote the erroneous idea that anything anyone writes is vested with transcendent value...

  4. Yes, changing technology is definitely wreaking havoc among many who make their living with words, journalists chief among them; however, as Stein (correctly, I think) pointed out, literary writers enjoy the same communicative advantages they always have. If William Gibson said that poetry is irrelevent because of its lack of book sales he was obviously being glib, and not particularly helpful--which is not the same thing as his assertion being wrong. Poetry doesn't sell all that many books, and the easiest way to clear a room remains to simply declare I'm going to recite a poem now. Whether this causes its contemporary state to be irrelevent is a value judgement, I suppose, but the argument can surely be made,especially when measured against previous eras. Transcendent Value is another term fraught with judgement; one man's rather self-satisfied jot about eating the plums left over in the fridge becomes another man's high-value lit...and that's A-OK with me (I certainly don't think of William Carlos Williams as being one who drives folks away from poetry--much the opposite, in fact).
    Again, I think one of the central things Stein was saying was that the burden of engaging rests with the writer--and too many writers today seem to believe that burden belongs on the other end. In the end, who is harmed most when the work becomes so convoluted and obscure that it becomes unintelligible except for the select, initiated few? Diversity is wonderful, but don't you think much of what's appeared in journals over the past number of years has ticked a ways past that, into smugness? And incestuousness? Seems to me that as long as there's an audience that is not being served, an opportunity exists--and somehow connecting with a larger number of people serves the interests of everyone.

    (and maybe all that's occurring is a sort of splintering, but I doubt it; been trending like this for a number of years, i think)

  5. " ...and the easiest way to clear a room remains to simply declare _I'm going to recite a poem now._ "

    Unless she's wearing leather pants and a bustier. Heh. (Baby, you realize I'll be rocking that outfit come October, right?) Sorry, I know that was glib... but I've been to enough... invigorating, exhilerating (yes, seriously)... poetry readings, to think... oh, but the performance of poetry is another discussion, innit?

    I don't have an argument with any of this, really. I agree with most of all being said—that poetry has less readers, but also that poetry is getting stronger and more diverse. What I have a some trouble with is with this 'burden' you talk about. The burden of engagement.

    See, the words 'convoluted', 'obscure' and 'unintelligible' are tricky words. They ghost a criteria that doesn't jibe well with me. Coherence, clarity and (yes, even) intelligibility aren't the first things I look for when I come to a poem. They aren't even the second, third or fourth... I'd say those qualifiers don't even crack my top fifty.

    Hm... maybe 40...

    Still, I know what you mean, what both of you mean.

    I wonder sometimes if some of this resistance to poetry owes a little to how poetry's been taught in school over the past... I dunno... fifty years or so. Been reading all these pedagogy essays and articles and they've opened my eyes to a few things. Because it came natural to me to see connections and symbols in poetry, I took that kind of seeing and reading for granted. It never occurred to me there are people out there who, being told and made to 'find' and 'discover' these connections would resent the practice, and consequently, poetry itself.

    I mean, I guess I'd resent it too. I mean, who likes being told what to do, or see? What sad sack appreciates that kind of... (ha!) guidance?

    I think when it comes to poetry, the surest way to make readers out of a disinterested public is to begin with pleasure.

    We can make meaning out of all the lovely noise of verse after we've had our fun with it.

  6. I like the idea of beautiful noise--and, as you know, that's all I require from a poem; I don't require a roadmap, just give me associations, images, even a collision will do--sometimes, a rap across the mouth. My imagination will do the rest. However, ideas of convolution, obscurity, and unintelligiblity assume greater importance when the poem in question is deprived of its descriptor and becomes simply noise. The result of this may suit the purposes of those who become poets with aims similar to certain monks (silence being relative), or who would like to be convinced of the superiority of their creative temperaments, but require truly meager book sales to close the deal; I suspect, though, that it is a condition which leaves many feeling a little empty, and incomplete, just as their potential readers--getting their fix from Coldplay lyrics--do. (The rules of rhetoric permit my assumption that frustrated poetry-buyers listen to Coldplay. The fact they are not particularly poetic, or melodic, or satisfying in any way sharpens my point, clarifying by use of exaggeration, and neatly explains some of Coldplay's popularity).
    I wholly agree with the idea that poetry, and all literature, should be an enterprise of pleasure. However, if the pleasure emanates only from the author of the work--well, I believe the effects of self-pleasuring can be witnessed across the rather meager landscape of Poetry today. Perhaps it harkens back to what Stein said about the burden of engagement--more problematic for a poet than a fiction writer, I recognize, but still a worthwhile consideration. Dunno, maybe it reduces to this: if we could all simply agree that pleasure--mutual pleasure, between author and reader--should be the result of the work, O what a happy, happy world it would be.