Nothing to Say

  • Whether or not future poets decide to use traditional disciplines doesn’t matter to me. Poets who enjoy the traditional arts of meter, rhyme, and rhetoric will gravitate toward those techniques without prompting. I did. But I frequently hear other poets, who know little to nothing about these practices, complain that they limit an artist’s scope and creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brian Vicker’s elegant defense of rhetoric can be extended to any number of disciplines.  Most interesting is the contention that where “anything is possible and nothing unexpected”, appraising works of art becomes increasingly difficult. This is certainly true of modern poetry and its critics, who increasingly must invent  abstract or meta-critical standards by which to judge a poem. (There has been much complaint about the poor quality of criticism.) Perhaps the absence of any sort of objective organon, against which to measure an artist’s success, contributes to these perceived shortcomings.  Critics are left with nothing more to criticize than the poem’s subject matter or the poet his or herself. (This post is similar to a previous a previous, (G)reatness and Style: Jack Stillinger on Keats, where I featured an extract from a writer I particularly enjoyed).

Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry
[at Amazon.Com] Brian Vickers pp. 77-79

But this is perhaps the most suitable place to consider the relationship within rhetoric between convention and spontaneity. As we have seen in general terms so far, and shall see more specifically in the next chapter, rhetoric offered the writer a whole framework for the invention of material (‘experience’) and its expression. Some crude post-Romantic objections to rhetoric take up precisely this issue and accuse rhetoric of providing ‘rigid’. ‘mechanical’ or ‘sterile’ rules, or ‘systems which kill the imagination’. Most of such blanket animus can be ignored, but at least it raises the issue of originality inside or outside the conventions of art. In his penetrating study Art and Illusion E.H. Gombrich has revived the rapprochement between the visual arts and rhetoric which formerly existed (especially as concerns the discrimination of styles, for art criticism borrowed the concept of style ‘from the ancient critics of literature, especially from thee teachers of rhetoric’: see his Introduction and chapter 11, passim). Gombrich has urged that a knowledge of the artist’s ‘organon’ or range of available techniques is essential to the critic, for ‘we cannot judge expression without an awareness of the choice situation’ (376). Conventions in the arts are agreed limitations on the possibilities of expression, for ‘Where everything is possible and nothing unexpected, communication must break down. (Ibid.). Further,

the rhetorical tradition may help us to see not only the problem of expression but even that of self-expression form an unexpected angel. Romanticism has taught has to talk of art in terms of inspiration and creativity. It was only interested in what was new and original. The very existence of styles and traditions has made us doubtful of the value of this approach to the history of art. It is here that the tradition of rhetoric is such a useful corrective because it supplies a philosophy of language. In this tradition the hierarchy of modes, the language of art, exists  independent of the individual. It is the young artist who is born into this system and who has to make his choice. To do so he must study himself and follow his own bent, and in so far as he succeeds he will also express his personality. (381)

It is a paradox that (in the traditional scheme of things) it was only by subordinating himself to the conventions of art that a writer could ‘express his personality’ (notice the inescapable Romantic assumption  that this is his whole raison d’être), or rather express his personal vision in a coherent, objective form. But it is a paradox which did not disturb Shakespeare or George Herbert (even the ‘originality’ of Montaigne is expressed via wholly conventional literary process). It only disturbs those who regard ‘conventions’ as being by their  very existence inimical to creativity. For rhetoric in literature, as with formal schemes in the other arts, the framework is a help to the artist and not a deadening hindrance: within its flexible rules he is free to invent, to improvise. As Henri Marrou has argued, rhetoric had its own conventions,

but once these had been recognized and assimilated, the artist had complete freedom within the system, and when he had mastered the various processes he could use them to express his own feelings and ideas without any loss of sincerity. Far from hindering originality or talent, the restrictions enabled very subtle, polished effects to be produced. Rhetoric must be seen in comparison with other conventional systems that have applied to other arts in other periods — the laws of perspective, the laws of harmony in Bach and Rameau and right down to Wagner, the laws of verse: until Symbolism came along, the French poets were perfectly willing to submit to rules that were just as strict and arbitrary as the rules of rhetoric,  and they did not seem to suffer from them unduly. (204)

Conventions do not destroy spontaneity: in fact they even offer expressiveness through their own systems. Just as in classical music the ‘language of harmony’ has a distinct range of effects of tension and relaxation, of progressions, discords, resolutions, quite independent of any melody or thematic argument, so in rhetoric (as I argue below) the figures contain within themselves a whole series of emotional and psychological effects, almost prior to the presence of meaning or argument. As with harmony, they exist at certain basic levels almost independently of the skill of the user — but equally, only realized to the full by the great artists. Conventions of this kind actively promote the illusion of spontaneity. And only a very naïve Romantic believes in absolute spontaneity, free from thought as from systems. One has only to think of such great ‘Romantic’ creators as Beethoven or Yeats and the evidence from their notebooks of the laborious, painful processes of composition, and the remarkable evolving metamorphoses of their material to see how spontaneity has to be worked for. Of course there are bad examples of conventional rhetoric, as there are bad examples of orthodox sonata-form, indeed a study of the many Elizabethan minor poets who erect the deadest, most lifeless rhetorical structures would be valuable in demonstrating just how they failed to energize the potentialities of the convention. But in general it could be stated that rhetoric only hampered those writers who had nothing to say.

Let Poetry Die

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I love poetry; but as far as the public is concerned, poetry died with the modernists.

No poets ever filled their shoes. And though there remain a number of minor masters and one hit wonders, few passing pedestrians could name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the same poet, let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Even though I’ve never watched a single game of ice hockey from beginning to end, I know who Wayne Gretzky is. And even though I’ve never watched more than two holes of golf, I know  that Tiger Woods is not just a gifted philanderer, but a great golfer.

Ask anyone to name a novelist of the last half century and names will come tumbling.

How about JK Rowling?

Ask anyone to name a contemporary poet and you will be lucky to scrape by with John Ashbery, notwithstanding his much ballyhooed publication in  Library of America.  I know because I’ve asked friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Try it yourself. Harold Bloom made the comment that “since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.” And when you think about it, that’s about as back-handed a compliment as he could possibly make. If Ashbery is a virtual unknown among the larger public, what does that say about the generation scurrying around his ankles?

John Barr, President of the National Poetry Association, described much the same in his article, American Poetry in the New Century:

The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry’s striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections…

Or consider About.Com. The web site offers a TopPicks index that includes the  top ten contemporary novelists, but not a word about the top ten poets. Type <Top Ten> into Google and see how long you have to scroll before you find anything about contemporary poets or poems. (I finally quit scrolling.) Why? Because few people could name so much as one poet, let alone ten. And if ten were listed, who would recognize them?

The Need for Darwin

The recent death of Ruth Lilly got me started.

The event made me think of two things, Frank Deford’s Sports “Curmudgeon” and Darwin. Here’s how the Poetry Foundation expressed their gratitude to Lilly:

Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence, the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them. From the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honoring a contemporary poet’s lifetime accomplishment, to five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships that go to aspiring poets, to ensuring Poetry magazine continues publishing in perpetuity, to a host of new programs and prizes established by the Poetry Foundation since receiving the bequest, Ruth Lilly’s legacy will allow millions of readers to discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come. ¶ “Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” said Poetry Foundation John Barr.

Lilly’s generosity is praiseworthy but… but… what if she had generously donated such wealth to the NFL, Pixar, or Random House? Why bother, many would ask, they’re already successful. The Poetry Foundation, on the other hand, was headed toward irrelevance, at best, and oblivion at worst. Lilly’s contribution (and contributions) to the Poetry Foundation are the only reason it is what it is today. In other words, it’s not through any intrinsic or hard-earned merit that the Poetry Foundation is surviving and flourishing today, but because of a drug baron’s fantastic wealth.

The Poetry Foundation indirectly admitted as much. Without her, they tell us, 19 million Americans would not otherwise read or hear them. Without her, there would be no annual Poetry prize honoring contemporary poets. Without her, there would be no Poetry fellowships. Without her, millions wouldn’t be able to “discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come.”

Of course, the last assertion begs the question, if the magic of poetry is so great, why in God’s name did it need $200,000,000 dollars to rouse it from its death rattle? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions of readers , but the magic of 200,000,000 dollars. Will the organization be made any better for the money? – remains to be seen. Would they have survived without it? – who knows… Did they deserve to survive? – maybe not.

The survival of the fittest has been thwarted.

On the other hand, this is precisely what the Poetry Foundation’s founder would have wanted. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Dana Goodyear, in an article in The New Yorker reporting and commenting on Poetry magazine and The Poetry Foundation, wrote that Barr’s essay was directly counter to the ideas of the magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, eight decades before. In a 1922 editorial, Monroe wrote about newspaper verse: “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.” Monroe wanted to protect poets from the demands of popular taste, Goodyear wrote, while Barr wants to induce poets to appeal to the public. Goodyear acknowledged that popular interest in poetry has collapsed since the time of Monroe’s editorial.

In other words, Monroe wanted poets to write without consequence. And when any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.

It’s my own opinion that Monroe’s attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.

Monroe’s stance excluded the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art from, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s own innate greatness. And that is precisely what has happened. The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.

So who’s to tell the poet if they’re poetry is good or bad? Poets themselves?

The fact that the Poetry Foundation continues to exist, not because of its intrinsic merit but because of a generous benefactor means that its aesthetic genetics (the attitudes, values and artistic principles) that were probably ripe for expiration, will now continue to exert an undeserved and unearned influence on poetry. John Bar’s own unwitting statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a sad self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than  the other.

It might have been better had the organization died a natural death.

Mob Rule

And it would be better if all poets were thrown to the dogs of public opinion.

Tremendous wisdom can be found in the myths and legends of our past. One of the most profound, in my opinion, is that of the Phoenix – both mortal and immortal. What the ancients knew (or some of  them), and which many moderns seem to have forgotten, is that without destruction, there can be no rebirth.

The reason the Phoenix appeals to us is not because it is immortal (mythology is rife with immortal beings) but because it can recreate itself. The Phoenix’s song of death and rebirth  transfixes us. Immortality can never hold the same gift and promise of rebirth and renewal.

And it’s precisely this cycle of death and rebirth that poetry has lost.

When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered, poets starved and some had to quit writing altogether. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives.

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that  resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.

As John Barr wrote:

[Contemporary poets] operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.

There has always been criticism directed at the National Endowment for the Arts, for it’s use of our tax money to support artists who would probably (and otherwise) be in the unemployment line. And maybe I’m beginning to have some sympathy with that point of view. If poets and artists can’t make a living by writing poetry or producing art, then maybe they shouldn’t be writing poetry.

Let the fittest survive.

And, yes, I hold myself to that standard. I live it everyday.

Let Poetry Die

So that it can be reborn, make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. As it is, the state of poetry is dispiriting. The public is right to ignore it.

Some quotes from the web:

  • I asked the newsroom to name a living American poet. A room full of people who write for a living could only come up with Maya Angelou. The Book Club ~ The News Herald
  • …the reason why you cannot recite poems from the last fifty years with ease is not because there haven’t been any good ones but because of the system of education: it has both ceased to renew the curricular literary canon and at the same time devalued the teaching of english… a comment at Melville House Publishing