I was drawn to poetry in my mid-teens, a time of personal and social upheaval. Ginsburg, Kerouac, Frost, Eliot and Pound all shaped my thoughts, ideas and understandings of the craft. I was, for the first six or seven years of my poetic career, strictly a “high-Modernist” in both attitude and performance. In fact, it was through tracking and researching the many odd references and quotations contained within these poets’ works that my poetic education began in earnest. The lines and ties between printed words and their immense body of knowledge and understanding acted as a catalyst toward further and deeper understanding of my own craft. Dunne, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Ford Maddox Ford were discovered between lines and in footnotes or companion volumes. Joyce remains a minefield of missed connections and great possibility.
So why has this approach been eschewed? The advent of postmodern thought spread like a plague through the arts. Suddenly everything was possible; everything also became, in essence, a commodity. I have seen galleries in which the focus of an opening is placed upon wine and having the “correct” guest-list. I have seen slam poets pandering to panels of judges to gain that coveted “perfect score”. I have been denigrated for assuming education and curiosity from my readers, and I have been shunned for refusing to accept that my work should be intended for the very people who simply do not care.
In a world of Twitter and Facebook, where email has overtaken carefully plodded correspondence, the craft of verse has become an extension of the very ignorance and short-sightedness that the Modernists, themselves, feared.
The true crux of the issue, within my own work, is the question of “audience” or that of “the reader”. Now this topic brings together, at a warped crossroads, many questions of intent, ability and poetic model.
There is no doubt that the poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries engaged in their craft out of a larger, cultural exercise. By definition, this work was undertaken for the benefit of those who would be able to benefit− the educated, aristocratic and academic class. As the cultural revolutions and permeations of postmodernism exhibited and formulated within the later half of the century, poetry, itself, found a grandly diminished appeal to a larger, more proletariat “audience”. No longer was Pound’s “History of the Tribes” relevant. No longer were the immense concerns with “truth” and “beauty” made possible in a world in which everything is possible and nothing is objectively “incorrect”. While the “moral argument against postmodernism” is, in confession, a red-herring, the essence of the argument can be applied to the art of poetry and the reactionary backlash against poetic intellectualism.
In theory, the “bottom-line” has replaced measures of demarcation as seen previously within artistic craft. The number of times instructors lead students toward “accessibility” has become, in a way, simply sickening. That is to say that the goal of accessibility is, essentially, counter-productive to the advancement of higher understanding and to the concept of art. “Accessibility” is the excuse of our postmodern age, a new scapegoat for our acceptance of commodity as experience. In many ways we experience a large amount of contemporary poets who “talk out of both sides of their mouths”. For example, Simic states that “Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.” As usual, Simic provides a window into the process of the poet. Yet the preoccupation with that which isn’t “good enough” or “accurate” overwhelms poets into an attitude of nihilism. We receive playful poems concerning a child’s birthday or ruminations on the color blue. There exists no larger strand of truth or any sense of absolute.
I have always been one who, in the words of an instructor, “needed solid ground to stand on”. And here we are presented with the great contradiction within postmodern, poetic thought: that all objects of poetry exist within a limited and causal framework. Yet, at the same time the exercise of poetry, itself, has always been a transcendent experience. Be it Hilda Doolittle’s “unknown center”, Oppen’s search for “clarity” or Pound’s imperative that one must “MAKE IT NEW!”, the experience of verse within the past century has large surrounded philosophical and theological questions of meaning. Even the postmodern retains this ambition, yet it remains hamstringed by the insistence that poetry be concerned with the “here and now” and the “concrete”.
We have become a legion of instant-gratification artists. Meaning must be existent within the page, and external factors simply have ceased to exist. Of course, the references to popular culture (which have always been prevalent) have replaced our ability to exist within the fabric of a larger tradition or artistic path. Yet the march of postmodernism has answers and methods. Yet this methodology is not controlled, in the least, by any sort of poetic institution or artistic yearning. They exist at the whim of the market. Publishers need best-sellers, poets need jobs in academia, HBO needs ratings for their poetry slams. I ask poets, why do you write for avarice?
It is the highly philosophical, the “unmarketable” in which the beauty of poetry becomes apparent and freed from market forces. We, as a whole, have been co-opted into a system for which we are unprepared and unable to produce our visions. It has long been a joke that poets are only read by fellow poets, and I am un-persuaded that this is a problem. As the art of words slowly fades from our world of Youtube and streaming video, it becomes time to retain our history and light a candle against the darkness. Poetry is un-economical, un-sellable and, at the core, a mere exercise in our ability to produce the unseen and unrecorded in the only means we know possible: the intricate interplay between language, object and “reader”.
To a large extent, I find it disturbing that discussions of the “reader” within the poetic community have lost any backbone that the genera once mustered. We expect nothing, and are rewarded with nothing. We poets pat ourselves on the back for successful publications and appointments to tenured positions. We create for those who have little interest in our work. We please those who hold purse-strings and provide stability. We have ceased the art of exploration, eschewing our history for the comfortable space between delusion and divinity.
Simic’s assertion of language as the problem is absolutely correct, and reliance and focus on this assertion has caused immense damage. Instead of maintaining our attempts to employ an imperfect yet painstaking language to describe and unfurl the mysteries of our world, we have been driven off by assertions that, in essence, amount to turning our backs on the very foundations of our human existence.