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Poetry Is Tired (of hearing it talked about)

July 10, 2012

Today, the poet Mark Scott sits in. The Era of Casual Fridays thanks him.

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I’d start by talking about an attitude toward poetry, rather than about poetry itself (especially its former glories), because I think it’s chiefly an attitude toward poetry that prevents us from writing our own—if we want to. This attitude, like most attitudes, is more complicated than it seems. It wants to put poetry on the endangered species list, or on the subway car, or on the dump, or on the shelf for repair. This last strain in the attitude says that poetry’s broken, that it broke for good with the last poem of Robert Service or Ogden Nash. Nobody’s sure who broke it, but taking out the spring of rhyme was a bad idea, and after that the thing just never worked the same again. So poetry’s on the shelf, and good luck finding a repairman.

That leaves the protectionist, the marketing, and the futurist strains. Schools try to save poetry by teaching us to respect it and understand it—“to learn about it.” We can then be faithful stewards of it. So let’s keep it in the curriculum, bring poets to the schools, get the kids to write some poetry themselves. Perhaps no greater harm has been done to poetry lately than that. But school administrators and curricular reformers made the boys study poetry in Shakespeare’s day, and poetry survived.

The marketing campaign for poetry is undertaken in the name of community, of public-spiritedness, of uplift, and Robert Pinsky, the American poet laureate who decided to put poems in the New York City subways, was acting in that spirit. Poetry is a brand worth growing, so get it out there where people can see it—all kinds of people, and the more the merrier. Sell it, but don’t sell it. After all, poetry doesn’t only belong in the schools, and it’s not only for the middle and upper-middle classes. Give those who take the bus some of it. Throw some NEA money at community centers in the inner city. Let the old folks try rapping. Add music, film. Make it multimedia and multicultural.

Detail, back-cover of “Tactile Values.” Click on the image to enlarge it.

Poetry’s dead, says the loosest strain. Big deal. That’s history. We hated school, and we’re in the digital age now. You can put it up on the web if you want to. Who cares? I’m streaming video, making movies, inventing games. Poetry died with rock and roll. Couldn’t hold a candle to a concert tour. We’re way beyond that now. Get an iPhone, get a life.

I doubt poetry’s even an acquired taste. If you didn’t like it by ninth grade, you never will. I say this knowing that poetry got a ratings bump after 9/11. Like all ratings bumps, this one too has been corrected and corrected for. Market forces have once again captured the available information and put poetry, within an acceptable margin of error, in its place. It’s a nonstarter, as they say. Thousands and thousands of sellers, but no buyers. In this public offering, the public isn’t interested. Ever thus—even when Byron, and then Browning and Tennyson, were lionized. Who have been the equivalents of those three in our time, when quick sales of newly published volumes of poetry is the N being measured? Jimmy Stewart, Jewel, Jimmy Carter, Eugene McCarthy, and Leonard Nimoy (and “one-shot deals don’t matter,” as Van Morrison sings, “and everyone’s the same”). And maybe Rumi, too, as traduced by Coleman Barks, and Ted Kooser, Maya Angelou, and Billy Collins. Maybe Allen Ginsburg, Charles Bukowski. Before them? Rod McKuen, Susan Polis Schultz.

Then there’s a view of poetry so tenacious that it makes people say things about poetry they don’t mean. Put simply, this view says, “poetry is noble.” You’re not the first to take on the subject, in other words, and you won’t be the last. The former fact can orient you if you get lost, and the latter justify you if you miss the mark. What mark? It’s better to know there is a mark than to know where it is. Wisdom says, we aim above the mark, to hit the mark. In our rage to know the consequence before the act, we lose the good of the exercise. Plenty of people standing around watching will fill you in on the results, and then supply the rules you didn’t know and the techniques you flubbed. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that we—posterity—would “justify his context.” So will our contexts be justified. But we get feedback much faster now. And in any case, it is satisfying to recall that “nobility” began in ruthlessness and petered out in rent-seeking.

Detail, back-cover of “A Bedroom Occupation: Love Elegies,” by Mark Scott. Click on the image to enlarge it.

“You’ll eat with a coming appetite,” my grandmother used to say to us, when she was coaching herself. Most people’s coming appetite probably won’t be for writing, or for words, or for reading literature. It will come for what’s in us that we didn’t know was there—until we started writing, and that takes time. That’s the hardest thing, to pass the time with ourselves. We try not to “be creative” in creative ways. I watch three hours of TV. I spend five in a used bookstore. Others go to Horseshoe Casino, or drive around, or call someone, or shop—not “creative,” we’re all quick to say, not a “wise use” of our time. Where did we get that idea? Pinched people of all stripes carry it around in their heads, and proud persons too. The idea comes to this: “creative” is everything I’m not. And most writing on the blank page is not creative writing, and not each of us who writes is the agent of that creation, nor even giver and receiver of it.

When people say, “I’m tired of hearing about it,” they usually mean they’re tired of the “it,” the thing being talked about. They’re not tired of hearing about it. The ear is hungry, never “filled with hearing,” as the Preacher saith. “Listen to that,” we say, and break the silence. The blank page is like that: there’s something satisfying about it. But we break that too. Remember the paperless office, the end of publishing? Both were phantoms, mirages. And the worldwide web? Never have so many words been available to so many people at so little cost.

Now,  I should say that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just talking. That’s the main thing people do, the world over, and the main thing we have done, back to the beginning. People who get paid to think for a living, and to write and talk for a living, want thinking to be the main thing we do, but they don’t think it already is, because by thinking they mean reasoning. They want reason to be the big deal. But they themselves know best that reason isn’t the big deal. They know that business as usual is business as usual, and they want, in thinking, entrepreneurship. We can’t pick up a newspaper or a newsletter today without seeing entrepreneurship of one stamp or another being proposed as the remedy for the disease, in whatever stage it’s been diagnosed to be in—early, middle, late, critical, or catastrophic. The prison system, the environment, education, hunger, war, creativity: you name it, you can google an “entrepreneurial solution to” it in 0.11 seconds.

So, how about an entrepreneurial solution to yourself? The only market difference between self-help books and poetry books is that people buy the former; neither get read carefully. But I’m not selling or promising anything. I’m saying that our common idea about creativity—that it’s “out there,” or more likely up there, and that it has to do with “art”—isn’t useful, helpful, productive. The idea that creativity is what gets deposited in some thing—a painting, a poem, a sculpture, a building, a line of fashion—discriminates against roughly 90 percent of the population 90 percent of the time. I made those numbers up.

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N.B.: Mark Scott, author of Tactile Values and A Bedroom Occupation, has published poetry in The Paris Review, Raritan, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America’s Most Distinguished Verse Magazine. He has taught at Mills College, San Francisco State University, the College of Saint Mary, and Nara Women’s University. He now lives in Nara, Japan. You’ll find a group of six of his poems here, at the College Hill Review. Click here to see and hear Scott read his poem, “Cooking on Camera” (in the Wednesday Words: Braided River series, an event sponsored by The Backwaters Press and the Nebraska Arts Council).

From “Tactile Values,” Scott’s first book.

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