A New Literary Government?

A panel discussion with Stephen Burt, Adam Kirsch, Meghan O’Rourke, and David Orr. Moderated by Deborah Garrison.
Presented by the National Book Critics Circle and Housing Works Bookstore Café, April 10, 2006

As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau

Discussion among poetry critics is bound to be, ultimately, a discussion of taste, and as we all know, there’s no accounting for that. Therefore, a recent evening in New York with four youngish esteemed poet-critics was a revealing and rare opportunity to take the temperature, as it were, of what the prevailing taste is—at least among four poet-critics on a particular April evening. 

Generation of poets attempts to define itself against the norms and accepted wisdom of the preceding generation, and the collection of poet-critics assembled for the panel discussion could be viewed as a case study. For example, three of the four participants do not hold academic appointments (Mr. Burt is Chairman of the Department of English at Macalester College). Twenty-five years ago, the opposite likely would have been true—at least, for a certain kind of poet writing a certain kind of poetry, which conveniently suggests a second contrast between the current thirtysomethings (I’m using this term loosely) and the previous generation: a thoroughgoing distrust of doctrine. The four panelists typified, to varying degrees, a kind of Episcopalian attitude toward the battle-lines and debates of the preceding generation (although, as demonstrated in his body of work, Mr. Kirsch can be far less accommodating when he so desires). The panel displayed an obvious weariness with the endless debates concerning the application of form and meter, which is not surprising given that all the arguing over the years has not resulted in much. Also interesting was the equally cool hearing given to the so-called avant-garde. Ms. O’Rourke summed it up best, saying: “There are certain kinds of debates I’m a little tired of; there are certain kinds of aesthetic and formal stances I’m a little tired of, and some of those are those which pose themselves as being the most experimental or radical and which have started to seem familiar to me.”[private]

So if the poetic touchstone of this generation is neither meter (call it tradition, if you prefer) nor novelty, what is it? The evening’s discussion did little to shed light on the subject, other than to confirm that we are a generation whose aesthetic is still very much under construction. Such a state reminds me of the question Robert Graves asked in 1948 in The White Goddess as he gazed across the smoldering ruins of English-language poetry after High Modernism: “But where can they [poets] study meter, diction, and theme? Where can they find any poetic government to which they may yield a willing loyalty?” While the cultural context in which Graves asked the foregoing has changed considerably over the past six decades, the question itself remains and has become more needful of an answer given the drift and dislocation of this current bronze age in which poetry is a cultural afterthought, replaced by other artistic modes perceived to be more relevant to our lives.

* * *

One of the more interesting strands of discussion during the evening at Housing Works touched on this question of relevance. Adam Kirsch staked out a position familiar to those of us here at CPR, namely, that the audience for poetry has never been very large. Former CPR editor Garrick Davis has long said as much, notably in his explorations of early Modernism, but I’d like to examine this idea a little more, because I’m not sure that it is accurate or very helpful in answering the question Robert Graves asked decades ago. 

It seems clear to me that, despite the notion’s anecdotal simplicity, the further poetry moves away from its folk traditions—the more abstruse, recondite, and learned it becomes—the smaller its audience is. Randall Jarrell famously tackled just such complaints in Poetry and the Age. He was wary of making too tidy a connection between the difficulty of modern poetry and its obscurity, its irrelevance, and at turns Jarrell indicts the learned classes—rather than the folk—for its rejection of poetry, stating, “But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice: it was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pail, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who a few weeks ago, to the Public’s sympathetic delight, put together this list of the world’s dullest books.” The list to which Jarrell alluded, which included Paradise Lost and Moby-Dick, among other notable works of literature, might have been provocative in the 1950s, but of course, such an attitude today is commonplace among intellectuals, who take puckish delight in telling their students how negligible their literary forebears are. This trahison des clercs, of course, did not stop the poets of my grandfather’s and father’s generations from removing themselves to the universities (indeed, several joined the aforementioned chorus of nitwits), but if anything, Jarrell’s point has been driven home more forcefully in the intervening decades, as the typical, “educated” American’s cultural literacy has plummeted. For some, the lack of literacy arises from an immature petulance; for others, it is a cultural atavism or self-loathing, and for still others, it is the product of simple laziness, but no matter its origin, a poet would have to be deaf and dumb not to sense the derision aimed his way in many departments of English (as well as the reading public at large), and as the panel demonstrated, many younger poets of my generation have simply declared good-bye to all that and entered other vocations. The panelists agreed that identifying oneself as a poet in polite, educated conversation is rather like bringing to the party a bad case of body odor, and I, too, have found myself getting testy with unsuspecting friends who introduce me as a “poet.” 

But let’s return for a moment to the notion that today’s poets are difficult and unread. I would be curious to know, had he lived into a ripe old age, what Jarrell would make of certain cultural evolutions that began around the time of his death in 1965—changes that, in my judgment, put the linkage between obscurity and difficulty under a suspicious cloud. For example, just a few years after Jarrell’s death, three collections of popular music appeared that signaled a shift from the vacuity of early-sixties’ pop music toward a more substantial music that demanded more from its audience. These collections—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) by The Beatles, Pet Sounds (1966) by The Beach Boys, and Bookends (1967) by Simon and Garfunkel—are a far cry from the music that comprised the popular taste of the time. “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” they’re not. I allude to these collections not because they’re the best or most sophisticated of the 1960s (the folk-music revival of the day was surely more “literary”), but because they are the best examples of commercially successful ventures that raised the bar of what was expected from popular music. All of this is to say that, around the time of Jarrell’s death, a revolution in taste occurred in American pop music, a change so swift and successful, that it is almost impossible now to apprehend—especially for post-Boomers—how vapid it was after the Second World War, notwithstanding a few desert oases, such as Woody Herman’s “Early Autumn” (1948), an absolutely beautiful number that helped launch the career of saxophonist Stan Getz and whose lyrics were penned by the inimitable Johnny Mercer. 

The power of much of this new popular music did not reside in its novelty per se. In many respects, it was the ability and willingness of musicians to borrow from their inheritance of genres and gestures that made the music so much more powerful and appealing. One thinks of The Beatles’ affection for Tin Pan Alley and older English alehouse songs or of the sinuous dactyls of Paul Simon’s “America.” The novelty of such music was the daring notion that an old bag of tricks could be made relevant to the world of jetliners, particle physics, and fiat currency. Consider, too, that many of the accompanying lyrics were playfully obscure, sometimes difficult and not easily accessible, but for all that, John Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” has never seemed to deter a wide audience from Sgt. Pepper’s. That same audience would no doubt feel compelled to toss The Cantos into the dustbin somewhere around “Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?” 

Is such the power of the human voice’s lilt and the tinkling of strings? It is exceedingly simplistic to ascribe that power to music, but it seems confirmed by experience that The Public, as Jarrell would have it, finds a power (and relevance) in music—real music—that is found (or heard?) lacking in the imagined music of the lyric alone, especially the lyrics of The Cantos. There is an exquisite pleasure to be had in Ezra Pound’s poetry, but it’s not for everyone and never will be; therefore, if a poet wants a wider audience—or these days, simply to be relevant—he must come to The Public on its own terms, and that requires less intellectualization and less self-consciousness than is manifest in contemporary poetry, and as many popular musicians have duly demonstrated, such a movement needn’t result in the diminution of artistic challenge and scope. 

Such deference to The Public no doubt will make many a poet wince, particularly when they contemplate the numerous national cultures where poets are venerated (if not always read). The American poet’s stature vis-à-vis America is rather like that of a 16th century Scottish king. One recalls the words of a Scottish subject who remonstrated to his sovereign King James VI (later James I of England, a decidedly more hospitable place to be king, excepting perhaps James’s son) thusly: “Thair is Chryst Jesus the King, and his Kingdome the Kirk, whase subject King James the Saxt is, and of whase kingdome nocht a king nor a lord nor a hied, bot a member.” By this logic, American poets are not so much “unacknowledged legislators” as merely unacknowledged.

* * *

In terms of sheer quantity, pop culture is as vapid now as it ever was, but since the 1960s, there is a significant slice—and I’m thinking here of music more than other pursuits—that is quite accomplished. We all will have our favorites, no doubt, but I suspect most of us (under duress, perhaps) would admit that certain lyrical passages found in popular music are more moving, poignant, and sublime than the vast wasteland of American poetry of the same period. With all due apologies to the Robert Pinskys and Jorie Grahams of the world, when honesty overtakes me, I must admit I would take Paul Simon’s “One and one-half wandering Jews” (“Hearts and Bones”) or his “bomb in the baby carriage / was wired to the radio” (“The Boy in the Bubble”) over any poem of the same period, and I’m not much concerned whether such an admission makes me seem silly or what have you. Would Jarrell, were he alive today, admit the same? Probably not—for was he not, like most of us, an aspirant court poet without a king? And there is nothing kingless poets love so well as to live in hope by keeping the throne warm. 

Which brings us back to Graves’ question concerning poetic government and my claim that poetry will continue to wither as it becomes more distanced from its folk traditions. Last year, Parnassus published a fine essay by David Barber (“What Ever Became of the Ballad?”) exploring a major component of that folk tradition, the long-dead (or is it long-dying?) ballad. Its extinction has been mourned for centuries now, yet rather like the ivory-billed woodpecker, sightings of similar species have been reported throughout modern poetry, from poets as different as W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop. Mr. Barber’s essay is an excellent survey of the ballad and its impact on 20th century poetry, as well as its potential to remediate our worst impulses, impulses which I believe keep poetry from a wider audience and greater cultural relevance. One such impulse concerns the overly intellectual self-consciousness that is a staple of contemporary poetry, or as Barber puts it, “There is something about the ballad that doesn’t tolerate overheated self-involvement: If modern navel-gazing altered the ballad, so too can the ballad draw the poet out of solipsism.” 

Another such tonic, and perhaps more important, comes from the ballad’s implied or actual music, and music itself implies a certain metrical discipline. The “silent song” that pulls the audience along in, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon,” is altogether missing in most of today’s prose poems, the construction of which very often originates not in music at all, but rather in rhetoric, or as a kind of prosodic gamesmanship (think of the latest sestina you’ve read in a literary magazine). Barber minimizes what is otherwise a very obvious connection: there are no prose ballads. Obviously, he, too, would rather not participate in the wearying prose/verse debates and allow such a quarrel to hijack his beautiful essay. He does throw a bone to those with metrical concerns, calling the ballad stanza “a small miracle of efficient design” while maintaining that, traditionally, the ballad is a highly elastic creature with variable accentual-syllabic properties, which is good enough for me, for my aim in drawing attention to balladic prosody is not to have today’s poets bang out iambs, which is already performed to dulling effect by so-called New Formalists, but to set their minds on figuring out ways to incorporate such concerns into their own poetry in their own manner. I do not, in short, have the answer—go figure it out for yourselves! But I am convinced that the missing allure of poetry is that which I so much enjoy in popular music—the discipline forced upon the artist by songcraft. 

In terms of poetic government, these two notions—the avoidance of intellectual self-consciousness and an appreciation for poetry’s necessary music—would serve admirably as king and queen, although as Barber warns us (via the words of C. Day-Lewis), the ever-present danger of the tradition lies “in straining too hard to avoid pastiche and anachronism, [producing] a too obviously self-conscious poem which will affect us like an artificial flower masquerading as a real rose.” In humbly submitting that poets would do well to explore traditional song structures, I am not here advocating for the revival of anything in particular. I certainly would not smile upon seeing a gaggle of modern ballads in the quarterlies next year, complete with lovers’ vows and incantations to the goddess of spring. But on the whole, it seems clear to me that popular songwriters, from Bob Dylan to Neko Case (to whom Mr. Burt nodded approvingly), have been far more inventive than so-called literary poets, and part of their invention is to take full possession of their own cultural inheritance, not so much in peppering a poem or song with allusions to other songs and writers, but in taking the traditional blueprint, as it were, for what constitutes a song or poem and noodling around with it, both musically and lyrically. And such noodling requires a good ear and, yes, a certain training. 

Having said that, the training one receives in MFA programs is not quite what I have in mind, either. After all, many graduates of MFA programs can’t so much as scan a line of verse. No big deal—Dave Brubeck graduated from conservatory without being able to read sheet music, and he is one of many, yet as Brubeck readily admits, though he could not read, he still could write music. His ear was that good. The mistake many poets make, especially younger ones, is in thinking that their mentors’ unwillingness (or inability) to teach meter means the whole sonic level of poetry can be dispensed with, but as I would argue, without that, you simply don’t have a poem, or at least, not one that many folks will want to hear. Without the discipline of songcraft, you’ll likely end up with a bit of prose chopped up to approximate verse and expect folks to ooh and aah over this breath pause or that line break. In short, rhythm matters and meter matters, but you really won’t learn how or why from contemporary poetry. For that, a deep draught of the tradition is needed, not so you can then replicate it, but so you can use it as a jumping-off point in crafting something relevant to folks beyond the small world of workshop instructors and literary critics.

* * *

Our Housing Works panelists all seemed to understand this instinctively, but cutting our teeth—as we all have—on the preceding generation’s debates and intrigues have made many of us reticent. Instead, today’s thirtysomethings are affable and desire least to confront or give offense. I greatly enjoyed hearing the panel’s perspectives on the wide range of topics considered, from the recent publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s notebook sketches to the awkward, hyphenated existence of the poet-critic, although I sensed some of the panelists were holding back. After all, no one wants to be a crank, and we are still young babes and will have to live in the fishbowl, heaven willing, for many more years to come. 

But for practitioners who also serve as critics, I can’t imagine that such nut-and-bolt considerations are ever far from conscious thought, and simply because we wish to ignore the previous generation’s squabbles does not mean they will go away (have they not, after all, bequeathed to us a severely reduced estate?). What most of us have signed on to is the notion that there needn’t be one answer concerning the role of traditional forms and meters. Not only do I believe this to be the most practical answer, but the right one as well, but since many of us are so very tired of the conversation, I also feel that many poets, like that aforementioned workshop instructor, will give off the unintended impression that the sonic level of poetry is nugatory versus other concerns, and in my judgment, the results of this can only reinforce the perception among the potential audience that it didn’t so much abandon poetry as much as poetry abandoned it. At one point during the panel discussion, David Orr summarized his position regarding the potential size of poetry’s audience, stating, “Yeah, there could be a bigger audience for poetry, and why shouldn’t there be?” I tend to agree wholeheartedly with him, but that bigger audience will not be reached by pushing along in the ruts of the last half-century, and clearly, one area that could stand increased rigor is our manipulation of sound—perhaps even a privileging of sound over sense (which, of course, carries its own risks). 

Earlier, I mentioned clarinetist and band leader Woody Herman and his beautiful song “Early Autumn.” Herman had some sage advice for those—like myself—who seek to broaden the audience for poetry; he once remarked in later life, “I would never play down to an audience. Let them come and find us. People would like jazz to reach a lot bigger audience, but really I think it might lose something if everybody embraced it.” There is a certain truth in Herman’s caveat, but would he have been so assured of this had he not experienced great popularity before the advent of rock n’ roll, in the days when pop music and jazz were the same thing? Maybe, maybe not. There are certain forms of pandering—or “playing down to an audience”—that are reproachable, so much so that no matter of music can save it—excessive sentimentality, tiresome ideological drivel, and so on; however, between The Public’s basest tastes and The Poet’s most recondite “music,” there is a vast, largely untrampled, ground awaiting us.[/private] 

About JSRenau

J. S. Renau has published poems in the Paris Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, and The Formalist. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, he currently resides in New York City.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *