Friday, January 8, 2010
Years ago, more years ago than I care to remember, an entire world of possibility opened up to me as I sat in the back row of my first university class on poetry. We were reading Philip Larkin that day, and at that time it seemed to be a jaded, world weary kind of writing that fit in well with the anti-heroic stance so familiar to us in books like Catch 22 and Miller's Tropic of Cancer and in the grim mechanistic landscapes of movies like Midnight Cowboy. In a word I was intrigued, intrigued by what Philip Larkin saw in the world around him, by his language and his rhythms.
Which is not the same thing as saying I understood everything Larkin was trying to convey. Quite the opposite; that first day in class I was raw to the experience of poetry and mostly confused. Poetry was unlike anything I had ever encountered before: the words on the page despite being blessedly few in number compared to the prose I read were mostly a jumble. The three components of the simple declarative sentence – subject, verb, object, which I had been taught to use as my guide in understanding others and being understood myself were suddenly and terribly mixed up: the “who” of who’s speaking mostly disguised, the “action” verb which we had been taught to cultivate in our own prose clouded over by indirection and mis-direction, adjectives and adverbs gone astray.
But what I really didn’t understand is why Larkin and to an even greater extent other poets seemed deliberately determined to make my ability to understand them so difficult. My dilemma would only deepen years later when poetry became less a reading activity than an exercise in cultural divination. But that part of the conversation must wait.
Because eventually I got it. Eventually I understood that it was not only possible to tie the poet’s apparently disparate thoughts and images together in a way that made sense, but made pleasing sense. At the simplest level, poetry operated very much the way riddles or very good jokes do, with irony, surprise, sometimes with illumination. At their most complex, poems unlocked moral truths about the world and how human beings are able – or unable – to operate there, truths about our ability to know and understand our universal condition, to know our capacity for doing both good and evil and for achieving redemption when so much of the rest of society seemed driven by hate and destruction. The war poets and Yeats. The metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert. The trenchant, modern despair of Eliot and Stevens. Eventually, what they had to say made sense to me, in the broadest understanding of that word.
Then, somewhere along the way, all that got away from me. I stopped reading poetry. I’ll say straight up this was less the fault of the poems I was reading than everything else that was happening in my life at the time. For one thing, the Viet Nam war was on. For another, I was angry, angry not just at the war, but at our entire society, an anger that was not captured or released by poetry, but by songs, popular songs that tapped into the energies of an entire generation, a generation that spent its time trying to unravel - not the intricacies of the Shakespearean Sonnet - but the wrongs of society, wrongs seemingly perpetrated against its weakest members and occurring at every level of human activity, in the relations between the races, between men and women, between classes of people, between the very rich and very poor. The egregiousness of society’s actions were reflected in the ways it had contrived for us to communicate with one another, through advertising, through mindless television programming, through the lies that were told during election time and yes, through the same recording industry that produced those songs I mention above. But where poetry might have been a courageous, revivifying antidote to all this, it became instead a quaint, distant pastime that had very little to do with the world around us and it. It was something that no longer spoke to me because it could no longer be heard above the din of a world which had quite simply gone mad.
All that seems like a long time ago. Since then, the world, to use a term that continues to have currency since it was coined in the 90s, has learned to “chill”. It is not so much that people are less angry as their anger has seemingly gone underground, leaving a cool exterior in its place where heat once lived. Anger, that strident, seemingly inexhaustible, morally outraged response to the way in which all aspects of society seemed to conspire against the world's downtrodden became repressed or sublimated into other things, like a need to compete and to pursue one’s self-interest above all else. It’s an anger that when it chooses to emerge (and at its worst it chooses us, we don’t choose it) does so in our relationships with spouses and children, instead, as it once did, with our parents and the “authority figures” with whom we took such umbrage those many decades ago. But it is a manageable, unexpressed or inexpressible kind of anger, and one that our children seem to have inherited. It is an anger that may threaten rupture with the ones we love, or don’t love as the case may be, but not the broader social structure that suffered such a merciless - and dare I say it - much needed shaking up back in the 60s and early 70s.
These are the worlds, the decades-long paradigms that poetry has had somehow to survive in. Notice that I say survive, not thrive. Understand, too, that I am speaking not just about the writing of poetry, because poets will write no matter what the nature of the world around them and more often than not despite the world around them. Reading poetry is a different matter altogether. Reading poetry requires – how best to characterize it? - a dogged determination to find the bones or jewels buried deep beneath its surface? an irrational, self inflicted and sustained form of masochism? The truth is we do not read poetry so much as sample it, glancing at a page of new poetry as one poet told me not so long ago and flinging it aside the moment it fails to meet our tastes or expectations. Sustained reading, even of a single poem, seems bordering on obsessive compulsive, overly earnest and worst of all cerebral.
What has happened to make this so? Conventional wisdom says competing, more easily digested diversions are to blame: radio and TV, the Internet, the Blackberry and iPhone, the video game and equally ubiquitous DVD industries. Some might suggest it is the ready availability of the English language itself. It is, after all, all around us, in diverse forms of spoken and written, TV and ad-campaigned English, compressed into hyper-abbreviated text messages. Much of it is delivered expertly with dash and texture, though less and less of it seems to be very edifying or enduring. Have we simply become complacent? Lazy? Prevented by our inexigent, desultory natures from truly appreciating the special nuance in language that is poetry?
Or are the poets to blame after all? Have they turned too much inward, abandoned their readers. Has the anger driven underground for the general population been met on the other side by an even deeper emotional implosion within poets, making them unknowable even to themselves, let alone to an external audience? Have they substituted something else for the thinking, feeling human beings we know them to be, want them to be, something cooler, more culturally or philosophically sophisticated, or as the English might say “too clever by half”?
The great irony around the debate over “accessibility” is that we fail to ask the important questions: what are we trying to achieve by reading poems? who or what are we trying to gain access to? Fellow citizens with simple truths to tell? Singers with sublime voices? For the longest time I’ve been telling friends I read poetry because I want to see the world in a fresh way, in a way that subverts my familiarity with how things normally appear or operate. And I still believe this is a good reason for reading poems.
But surely something more is wanted. In his 1995 Nobel Lecture Seamus Heaney cited Archibald MacLeish’s comment that a poem “should be equal to/not true”. And as accurate as this was, it seemed insufficient to Heaney. “As a defiant statement of poetry’s gift for telling truth, but telling it slant,” he wrote, “this is both cogent and corrective. Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want a poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself.”
In one way my generation was lucky. We lived in a world that announced its need of re-tuning. The world and the universe seemed interconnected. Where are those interconnections today? Much of the power underlying Heaney’s speech was driven by the pressure and pain that was Ireland. What is our Ireland? When we hear about the horrendous ravishment of Darfur or witness with astonishment acts of vanity and excess like the erection of the Dubai tower, where do we place ourselves? How large is our scope? Who are we really?
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