The “what if” question: a writer who loves poetry rants about poetry (and democracy gone astray)
The truth is that I have never really cared for most of the American poetry canon. Yes, there are exceptions. If you count TS Eliot as an American (and since he was born in St. Louis, you kind of have to), then he was my favorite (although, since he abandoned the US and went to Europe, I also wound up reading him in Brit Lit back in college). Elizabeth Bird was wonderful. Stevens and Williams, of course. There’s Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver and Charles Wright, whom I tend to view as the best poet alive. But other than that? Eh.
Which sets me rather apart from other writers of my generation, I realize. Nearly ever American poet I know seems to have grown up with the Modern US tradition. The founding father of American verse was Walt Whitman, and the most powerful recent influences all seem to have been Beats: most famously this list includes “anti-academic” poets like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder and Cassady, as well as Burroughs and Kerouac, who were better known for their fiction. (I can never quite figure out where Bukowski belongs in this equation; he wasn’t formally part of that circle, I don’t think, but his literary ethos certainly seems pretty Beat-ish.)
When you read contemporary poetry, these voices shine through, whether they’re being more or less directly ripped off by lesser lights or whether the influence takes the form of a more sophisticated background ambience in “street” poetry (or even less directly, filtered through hip-hop, in spoken word). It’s even there in what is now characterized, somewhat dismissively, as “academic poetry.”
I may be painting with broad strokes here, and I’m aware that, as Voltaire decreed, “tous les generalizations sont faux, y compris celui ci.” It’s also worth noting, as Dr. Johnson countered, that “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” With these edicts in mind, I’d suggest that I’m probably not far off the general truth of the matter.
For better or worse, American poetry has been informed from the beginning by the same pragmatic ideological underpinnings as everything else in our culture. The elite universities of Europe, working within more or less rigid class structures, established the foundations of Western intellectualism and asserted the value of knowledge for its own sake. Meanwhile, those who came to the New World insisted that the products of human intellectual endeavor be practical and of observable value to the community. We’re the ones who concocted the idea of the land grant university, for instance.
The ultimate institutional expression of utilitarianism in American education is found in the Morrill Land Grant Act. The original Act of 1862 initiated a movement which saw a second Act in 1890 and 1994 legislation aimed at developing educational resources on Native American lands, and has to date resulted in the chartering of over a hundred public universities in all 50 states and several territories.
In more complex terms, the land-grant movement is the expression and diffusion of certain political, social, economic, and educational ideals. The motives typically attributed to the movement involve the democratization of higher education; the development of an educational system deliberately planned to meet utilitarian ends, through research and public service as well as instruction; and a desire to emphasize the emerging applied sciences, particularly agricultural science and engineering.
Expressed cynically, the thinking here is that knowledge is only of use if you can do something with it, and that something is usually going to be assessed, at some point along the line, in terms of its revenue potential. If you, like I, have had your knowledge dismissed as mere “book learnin’,” you’ve experienced the idea in its most reactionary form.
Not that American poetry has more commercial potential that its European counterpart, of course. The way this ethic is expressed in our art is through a more aggressive alliance with the “common man.” Class doesn’t exist in the US, allegedly, and celebration of our democratizing principles is foundational to the history of our verse, beginning with the American Romantics (which is when things really kicked into high gear. (I mean, I guess we can talk about Colonial poets if you like, but do you really think the shadow of Edward Taylor looms especially large over the contemporary landscape?)
The patron saint of American verse is unarguably Walt Whitman, and just for fun, Google “Walt Whitman working class hero.” Turns out he founded the lineage that would later spawn everyone from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. He was the rarefied essence of Americana, “one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.”
The American Romantic experience stands somewhat in contrast to the English version. Wordsworth and Co. didn’t spend a lot of time exalting the importance of class divisions, but it’s also true that their Romanticism emerged from and was tinted by a more overtly class-driven and intellectual context. Wordsworth’s ideas of democracy seemed to prefer natural man living in harmony with the natural order, an organic and contemplative state that we might see as more intellectual and abstract than partisan and activist. (Although, it must be admitted that Byron, in his support for the Luddites, was a rather vocal rabble-rouser.)
Over time, the inherent obsession with applied democracy has led to a distinct “leveling” effect in the US. The rise of Whitman’s progeny, the Beats, occurring concurrently with the coming of Postmodernism, established a radical egalitarianism in our literature, to the point where it’s anathema to fault a writer for style or discipline or lack of quality. All voices are equally valid, and to insist on any measure of talent or ability is elitism.
Okay, okay. I’m pushing the envelope there, I know. Even the most committed street-level e-zines don’t accept everything without reading, I suppose. But understand: when you are rejected, no matter the publication or editor, the reasons are usually couched in terms of “not quite what we’re looking for.” It would be unacceptable to tell even a Vogon that his or work was drivel. This isn’t merely about good manners, either. There are many, many writers out there who need to stop it right now, but they are told at every turn how important it is that they keep it up. If they torture a roomful of people for five minutes every Tuesday at open mic night, they receive the same round of applause that the best poet in town gets.
This is America. This is the democracy of literature. Quality is an elitist concept and questioning someone’s validity as an artist verges dangerously on intellectual neo-fascism.
Damn. I did it again. Sorry.
To say that Americans don’t read a lot of poetry is to engage in understatement bordering on the absurd. While part of this is a function of an education system that doesn’t prioritize the arts (and truthfully, barely understands them at all), it also has to be said that much of what we “ought” to be reading is banal and mundane. All too often our poetry sets the bar on the lowest peg and still manages not to clear it. Mind-numbing public displays, such as Richard Blanco’s recent exercise in inaugural tedium don’t help. But in truth, Blanco’s poem, uninspired and pedestrian though it was, was par for the course. It was an archetypal exhibition of what’s wrong with our academic, workshop verse in a leveled culture: timid and too far removed from the grit of the real world, yet desperate in its impotent pawing after street cred – the moral equivalent of a Pat Boone record featuring a drop-in by Lil Wayne.
That’s the one extreme, and the other is the undisciplined “street” poet who knows what real life looks like up close and personal, yet who has onboarded the anti-intellectual ideology of the Beats. There’s something elitist about craftsmanship. Forget revision – that’s for the guys with elbow patches. If a poem takes more than a few minutes from concept to completion, it’s devoid of authenticity.
(A caveat: I hate to pound on this stereotype too hard. I actually know a writer who works in just this way and who manages to do it well. Very well. In fact, I have published this writer and am proud to say it’s one of the best things I have ever had the privilege of offering to S&R’s readers. So it’s possible. But just because one writer in a million can do it doesn’t mean that the other 999,999 are off the hook for their slothfulness. And be forewarned – if you accuse me of erecting a straw man here, I’m coming to your house and dragging you to the next open mic night I attend. And you’ll sit through every minute of it. Then you can come back and tell all of our readers if you still think I’m making it up.)
Here’s the “what if” question I allude to in the title: what if, instead of Whitman, William Blake had been born on Long Island on May 31, 1819? What if he, instead of the Godfather of Lowest Common Denominatoring, had been the founding father of American verse? How might our tradition have been different? What if, instead of a vaguely partisan obsession with the idea that all humans are staggeringly (and equally) talented artists who need to be heard, our tradition had instead been built on the apocalyptic potential of the soul? What if our legacy had been founded on the ambition of language instead of a deep, abiding suspicion of anything longer than two syllables?
What if poetry were something other than pedestrian, workaday prose with artificial linebreaks?
By now, I have probably made clear that I’m an insufferable elitist, an anti-democratic, peasant-bashng neo-Tory. Except that I am one of those common men so celebrated by Whitman. I grew up working class in the South, and the gods know how many young boys and girls throughout history, born into similar conditions in societies that believed in keeping the lower classes in their place, were denied the opportunity to pursue the artistic impulses that plagued their souls.
I am rather vehemently in favor of everyone getting a shot. On a level playing field. But our culture is ill-served by the Postmodern, hyper-democratic ideology I describe above and by how it is understood and implemented in our arts.
I’d argue instead that my point here goes to the essence of democracy properly understood. In a perfect democracy, everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, creed, etc., is equipped with the tools they need to succeed at the highest level and against the most demanding criteria. True democracy isn’t about grade inflation. It doesn’t accept ineptitude and laziness, shrugging, giving up and reclassifying it as “excellence.” (It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!)
That’s not democracy. That’s paternalism. It’s condescension and pandering, and it makes us all weaker, whether we like poetry or not. Why? Because our literature tells us a great deal about the rest of the society, which increasingly pays lip service to excellence while enabling (and assuring) underperformance. When our system sets us up for failure then stands and applauds, it’s giving us a gold star for showing up. When it treats the best and the worst as though they’re the same, it destroys external incentives to achieve.
Yep. Poetry tells us a lot about ourselves, whether we’re paying attention or not.