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Monday, 16 May 2016

A BRIEF ESSAY ABOUT POETRY BY TODD SWIFT


BEING EMPIRICAL ABOUT POETRY

 

As someone who has perhaps wrongly invested most of his life so far in the editing, publishing, teaching, promotion, and writing, of poems, I feel entitled to finally write this brief essay and get a few things off my chest.

 

It has become something of a joke (in some circles) to note the ongoing tendency to claim that Poetry Is Dead.  For instance, Don Share, the inspirational editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago, regularly posts such articles on Facebook with a virtual sigh.

 

Well, maybe it isn’t. But I am tired of the claims made for poetry by the poets I know.  And tired of the claims I myself have made for poetry, and perhaps continue to make, every time I write a poem.  This is because nothing in my own experience, in what I would like to grandly call the empirical realm – what is sometimes known as reality – confirms those claims.

 

I suppose the major claim is that most people really do love poems, find great joy in poems, and are better for having read poems, if only the right poems reach them, in the right way.  So sure are these people that the delivery system, not the drug (poetry) is the issue, they spend their whole lives trying to improve the ways poems are published, marketed, sold, judged, and yes, taught – and which poems.

 

It is as if to say, yes, I know you think elephants don’t fly, but that’s just because you haven’t met any flying ones yet.  I know a few flying elephants in New York and London and Dublin, just you wait….

 

My wife is a lawyer for a bank.  We have friends in many walks of life, and, at the age of 50, I know and have met thousands of people in the many cities I have lived in – including Montreal, Berlin, Paris, and London. And let me tell you, almost no one I know – lawyers, doctors, postmen, musicians, actors, architects – reads much poetry.  Hardly news. But these are not ill-informed or misinformed people. They are broadly familiar with the outlines of literary history.

 

They know whiskey exists, distilled in the highlands. They prefer gin.  Or water.  Or wine.

 

I know of no one who has been materially improved by poetry, except a small handful of poets who have won large cash prizes; and maybe those employed to teach it, though many eventually stop feeling rewarded by that.

 

It is possible that, ethically or spiritually, people have been bettered by reading poems, but would it not be closer to the truth to suggest that mindfulness, prayer, meditation, long walks in the woods, or conversation with loved ones, has done, and will do more, even there?

 

In terms of mental health, poems have only made things worse.  I suffer from depression.  After years of white-knuckling it, I began to take SSRIs in my late 40s.  There are some evident drawbacks, including weight gain, and a loss of libido, but the upside was I did not want to kill myself all the time.

 

For over 25 years of writing and publishing poetry, I did.

 

And notably, many poets kill themselves; drink too much, or abuse drugs, or sex, or in other ways live deeply troubled and troubling lives full of doubt and pain.  My father’s favourite word was exacerbated.  Well, he might have said poetry exacerbates mental anguish.  It may refine or distill it.  I am unclear on how it heals.

 

Well, catharsis.  But that was meant for the audience, not the poet or dramatist.

 

What does reading a poem do, for most people, most of the time?

 

It leaves them cold, it puzzles them, it scares them, it bores them.

 

Poets, who obviously enjoy poems, make big claims for poems – they claim poems take one’s head off, throw us into dragon-pits, raise us to the skies, and so on – and every blurb tells us how poems improve, cleanse, radiate, throb, and pulse, with vitality, inspiration, and reckless, dangerous, edgy, energy.  They show us new colours, wash the world anew, and so on.

 

Well, not really.  These are poetic claims made for poetry. Not empirical ones.

 

Poems are extended (but quite brief) adventures with words, and what words can do. That is the case.

 

But so are novels, and plays. And movies and games are adventures too, though not just with words.

 

Poems tend to preach to the converted.  And most of the world is happily apostate or agnostic or more.

 

I recently opened a book by Australian poet Les Murray (who I once met and had a few pints with) called The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray.  It is a quirky title because it implies he has many more best poems.  And it is quite specific. Now, Murray is often spoken of as the world’s most popular living poet in English, and he sells a few thousand copies or more of each of his collections.  He is a household name in Oz.

 

So, cracking open such a book was an eye opener.  I read it as one might if one was not a poetry expert.

 

Let me tell you, I was dumfounded.  Here was a life’s work, collected and collapsed into a terse 100 or so pages, tight as a fist, and for all its claims of sprawl and God, it was not the godsend one might expect.  There were funny moments, surprising lines, clever turns of phrasing, some remarkable insight – but basically, what there was was 100 poems.

 

Presented in such a naked way, under the glaring light of day, here were ten times ten poems, and I began to skip on to the next one, if the one before did not quite suit me.  Poems are like jokes with very subtle punchlines, or stories told by a very enigmatic narcissist.

 

Murray is generous in his work – the world gets into it. He is not even meant to be experimental. But his style, and his imagery, and his use of forms, is expert, and expertly deployed. And who but an expert reader or poet will truly enjoy that?

 

I have never walked into a stranger’s home and seen a Les Murray book on a shelf. Maybe a Heaney or Eliot, maybe. They will have Rowling, Brown, Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Banville, and Murikami.

 

And yet every year, I and a thousand other poetry publishers publish a handful of new poets. At least a thousand new poets are published in the Anglophone world every year – more than three a day.  It is probably more like ten a day, judging from Facebook.

 

Who reads them?

 

Their friends, colleagues, family, lovers, students, a few reviewers and rivals.  And if they are lucky, fifty strangers.

 

I am considered a middlingly well-known poet.  A middling success, but hardly an ignored and forgotten amateur.  Last week I received a recent statement of royalties from a small press that publishes my first four collections – I had sold zero copies in 2015.

 

It is hard to imagine a footballer, a scientists, a priest, a doctor, an actor, a pianist, a teacher, an Uber-driver, with zero clients, or fans, or patients, or supporters, or students…

 

It is possible, and factual, to find many poets – in fact over 99% of them – who no one reads. My PhD was written on a few such poets from the 1940s.  One, once hailed as a bit of a genius by WH Auden, is out of print, and has been out of print for 50 years.

 

Apparently, the greatest living American poet, John Ashbery, is read by a few thousand people- and everyone knows he is a genius. The British poetic geniuses of our time, Geoffrey Hill and JH Prynne and Denise Riley, are read in the hundreds, maybe the thousands.

 

Is that enough to make an art form alive? Yes. Just about. Poetry thrives in slams, in rap, in performance, in spoken word, in a trillion pamphlets.

 

But it thrives variously, randomly, and incoherently, like scattered seed.

 

A lie about poetry is that the best poets and poems always find readers and fans and are not forgotten.

 

Really? Well, maybe eventually.  John Donne waited three centuries in oblivion. Maybe 500 people in the world admire FT Prince, and Ashbery thinks he is great. I know no one who reads Terence Tiller now, except for his family and about four critics; he has been out of print for fifty years.

 

The truth is that most good poems, and almost all even very good poems, get forgotten within minutes of their composition, and will never be fully read or enjoyed again, even if published; and nearly all the great ones, as well.

 

In 2016, I can name a few dozen famous poets – and I can name award-winning books – but I can name no poem of universal acclaim written this century – no poem with the recognition or respect given to ‘The Waste Land’ or any poem by Wallace Stevens, or Elizabeth Bishop, or even Seamus Heaney, in the 20th century.

 

Why is that?

 

It is because the bridge of eloquence is collapsing, or has collapsed.

 

Derek Mahon, whose New Selected Poems occasioned this brief essay, is a superb poet: witty, well-read, and formally elegant.  His work is lyrically savvy, and eloquent of mind and expression.

 

Reading it in a lawnchair in the London sun yesterday, I felt overcome by a sadness that here in this fine book was the twilight of a style, a kind of way of expressing one’s self.

 

This poet, whose work at times equals Auden’s and Fenton’s and Larkin’s and Dunn’s, is rarely quoted by pundits or politicians. He is not a household name.  Yet he was written a dozen of the best poems since Marvell. Why not?

 

Because our age no longer has the habit of thought, or time, or inclination, to savour, what he offers.

 

He is, in a word, refined.

 

The 21st century mind is distractable and distracted and it hedges its bets by seeking multiple platforms at once.

 

Our minds seek and get so many hits of adrenaline online, are so fast-paced, and oddly incurious in their skittering clickbaiting, we rarely if ever want to settle in to the flowing, witty, and ingenious poems of a Mahon.

 

Does this make us as a civilisation bad?

 

Maybe not. But it makes us less civilized.

 

I suppose I am being hypocritical.  I do think poetry does one thing exceptionally well, or can do it: and that is represent what a civil, imaginative, formal, smart, and funny mind can sound like.

 

In some ways poems are or can be a mirror of our best sounding selves.

 

This was once eloquence.  It still is, but we seem to look for that mirror less and less now.

 

Poetry can also blast and disquiet and shock and question, rattle and break down, and remake and meet-halfway – it can be a rude raspberry, a fart or a shin-kick.  Metaphors, maybe, but it is true.

 

Poems are ways a mind can express itself.  They are mental replicants.  A form of AI.

 

We should be much more interested in what poems can do.

 

So why are we not, as a whole society?

 

I think because poems replicate feeling and thought in a way that is troubling.  They ask way too much. They are beggars on a busy street when we want to get home from work.

 

They task us, and that bothers more than it intrigues.

 

They appear to be puzzles without a prize.

 

I think more people should read poetry, and it almost kills me they don’t.

 

But I also think more people should stop driving, buying guns, and polluting.

 

The world is basically made up of more people that should be doing things.

 

I cannot claim poetry is the preeminent priority of our time. It cannot even be the preeminent priority of my own life, if I wish to feed and clothe myself, and maintain a loving marriage.

 

So where does it fall on my list of priorities?

 

In the top ten, of course. Maybe in the top three.

 

I suspect poetry makes most people’s top 100. It is probably at 87. Or 98.

 

Well, actually, 998. Out of a thousand things people might like about existence and the world – but it would be below sun, and water, and sex, and yes, oranges. I bet more people love skateboards.

 

Somehow, I love reading poems. I love crossing that bridge of eloquence.

 

But on the other side is the rest of what living is for, also.


*Note - since initially posting this the other day, I have seen a few comments that annoy me, because they fall into that non-empirical, wishy-washy, and vaguely passive-aggressive form of falsely humble mumbo-jumbo some poets use, in order to somehow cope with the utterly horrifying truth that most of what they write, however beautiful or accomplished, will be ignored by almost everyone in their community.

The main nuisance is the idea that "I only write poems for myself and a few people anyway".

Well, quite.

The point of my essay was to partly highlight the strangeness of this.  What pianist, or priest, or surgeon, or dancer, or painter, or playwright, or teacher, only wants to play music for themselves, or operate on their self, or say Mass for themselves?

It is true that it can be satisfying to compose a poem - and that even one reader is better than none.

But poems can be so beautifully, carefully hard-won, after thousands of hours of reading and thinking and preparation (even a lifetime), that to genuinely claim they are ok just seen by one other person, is a very odd way of thinking about them as an art form.

Poetry was public, and meant for a public, and poems that fail to be memorably loved or cherished, have in some ways fallen on barren soil. Poems are intended to spark debate, and reaction, feeling, and reflection - they are eloquence - a speaking out, and to.

To pretend it is okay to just sing arias in a shower is to miss the point.
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