Monday, April 7, 2008

What I work against

"Those who think 'Casey at the Bat' is a better poem than 'The Waste Land', God bless them, can fuck right off as far as I'm concerned."

The above quote was written in response to an excerpt from this post on a different forum.

Apart from making me sad, the quote exemplifies the very bone of what is wrong with modern poetry:

Poets forget that non-poets exist.

It's more than that, though. I get a lot of flak for being an anti-intellectual and "dumbing down" poetry. This simply isn't true. I DO NOT WANT simplistic verse -- I want verse that is at the same time deep, complex, and understandable on the first read. The problem is that people see that phrase -- "understandable on the first read" and think I mean that I don't want the poem to stand up to multiple readings. Please let me clarify what I mean:

The Divine Comedy is understandable on the first read.
It has held up to 700 years of re-readings.

Dante, Homer, and Chaucer are my models, poets who write not for other poets but for all human beings. The real problem with the above quote is that for someone to be able to enjoy The Waste Land they must first be able to understand "Casey at the Bat." I learned Casey as a kid watching the Disney Channel. I came across The Waste Land in 10th grade. If it was the first poem I'd ever seen (or, indeed, the first Eliot poem I'd ever seen), I would have run screaming from the room. But I was ready for its lovely disjointedness because I already knew and loved poetry. People who think "Casey at the Bat" is a better poem than The Waste Land are the people we should write for while writing at the same time for the people who can say such hateful things as the offending quote.

The reason for this is simple -- people of both stripes love poetry. For the lover of The Waste Land there's a thousand new books all aping Eliot. But for the lover of Thayer, we have nothing new -- that is, there is almost no poetry being written for both casual and critical consumers of verse.

This is why poetry has such abyssmal sales figures.
This is why poetry has been written off as a public art.

You cannot make art solely for artists and critics because the artist's drive for "the new" and the critic's drive for "the unique" grow the art not outward but inward, where it twists and festers. Without the public's drive for "the good," there is no balance in art -- it becomes flash and show, devoid of substance.

Much like contemporary poetry.


Charlie Kondek said...

Damn, I am going to have to start reading you regularly. Preach on, brother. My thinking is always, "You don't like 'Casey' and I do. So what? Why do I have to 'fuck right off?' Can't we just co-exist?"

G. M. Palmer said...

Nice to meet you, Charlie!

Dave said...

I'm with you on this. I like to think of myself as a populist in the tradition of WC Williams and William Stafford; I want the surface level of my poems to be accessible most of the time to people with, let's say, a good high school education. Problems always arise, though, with allusions to things that not all readers can be expected to know, especially since educated English speakers no longer share a common body of references. Most of my nature or Biblical references will be lost on people who haven't studied the Bible or natural history, for example, while a great deal of popular culture references are lost on me, since I grew up without TV. So Adrienne Rich's "dream of a common language" seems more elusive than ever.

Dave said...

I should add that sometimes I do enjoy reading poems that take two or three readings to begin to figure out; it all depends on what the writer is trying to do (and what kind of mood I'm in). I don't understand the need to rank different kinds of literary expression on a single scale. "Casey at the Bat" is a thumping good narrative poem. "The Wasteland" is a harrowing montage borne of a nervous breakdown, depicting the modern condition. They appeal to completely different parts of my brain. Comparing them strikes me as a pointless and puerile exercise.